Sunday, March 29, 2015

Baseball is in the air

Sniff. Sniff.

What's that I smell? Glove oil? Horsehide? Newly mown grass? Popcorn? Spilled beer?

Smells like … baseball!

The major league baseball season opens next Monday, and my first instinct is to say that I can't wait.

But according to my newly arrived Sports Illustrated, packed to the brim with its MLB Preview '15, I can already start waiting for next year before this year even begins.

That's because my favorite team, the Philadelphia Phillies, appear to be abysmal. Abysmal, by the way, is worse than bad. It's worse than awful. It's worse than hopeless (meaning I'm a baseball fan without any hope at all, which is a condition worse than abysmal). Abysmal might just as well be the definition of dreadful.

A year ago, my SI predicted that the Phillies would finish 29 games out of first place, the 13th worst team out of the 15 teams in the National League, only ahead of the Chicago Cubs and the Miami Marlins. Well, the good news was that the Phillies (who won the World Series as recently as 2008) finished just 23 games out of first place in the NL East Division. The bad news is that with a 73-89 record, they were worse than the Marlins and tied with the Cubs as the league's worst team.

I don't know why I'm a Phillies fan, but I have been one ever since 1964. That was the year they had a six-and-a-half game lead in the standings, only to lose 10 of the last 12 games of the season to finish second in one of the most remarkable chokes in professional sports history. I was 13 years old back then and probably didn't know any better. I think I just liked the uniforms.

Anyway, this year's Sports Illustrated predicts the Phillies will finish last with a 63-99 record, a full 36 games out of first place. I believe it. The Phillies lost one of their early spring training games this year to the University of Tampa, a college team, for crying out loud, by a 6-2 score. Yikes. That's never a good sign.

Here is SI's line on the Phillies, as written by a rival scout: "People stopped going to the ballpark in Philly last year, but if they thought last year was ugly, they're in for something this year. It's an absolute mess. The front office is in denial. There are no quick fixes here, because they've traded away a lot of their prospects — and they actually had some good prospects."

Sigh. Even waiting for next year looks bleak.

In times like this, it's usually best to have an alternate team. As a native-born Pennsylvanian, that means I'll be keeping an eye on the Pittsburgh Pirates. That's good, because the Bucs are a rising franchise that could win the NL Central Division.

And, of course, there's always the American League, where traditionally I've followed the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers over the years. Fortunately, SI has both of those teams doing well, too.

Sports Illustrated, by the way, is picking the Cleveland Indians to beat the Washington Nationals in the World Series.

But the Nationals appear to be loaded with one of the best pitching staffs in recent history. My pick is the Nationals over the Red Sox in six games.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Notre Dame? Really?

OK, ACC basketball fans. How's it feel to have a traditional football power win your storied conference basketball tournament?

Notre Dame (i.e. Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz, Knute Rocke, George Gipp - Ronald Reagan), perhaps the most famous of all American football colleges, came back in the second half of Saturday night's ACC Tournament championship to defeat North Carolina 90-82 with a flurry of 3-point baskets.

Several local TV commentators claimed it was an upset victory, but that just isn't so. The Irish are ranked No. 11 in the country and the Tar Heels were No. 19. Even in the ACC Tournament bracket seedings, Notre Dame (29-5) was the third seed, while UNC (24-11) was the fifth seed.

Based on that logic, Notre Dame was supposed to win.

Anyway, what gets me, is that Notre Dame is also supposed to be, above all else, a football school, and because of conference expansion, the Irish are playing in — and winning — the most highly regarded basketball conference tournament in the country. Even when it was a member of the Big East, Notre Dame had never won a basketball conference tournament title.

UNC hasn't won one since 2008.

I'm not sure what this means. Is the ACC, now bloated with 15 teams (minus one, Syracuse, which is undergoing an NCAA suspension for rules violations, which must have North Carolina shuddering in the shadow of its own serious academic improprieties with sanctions likely to come) watered down? It makes you wonder when Notre Dame beats both Duke and North Carolina on consecutive days to win the tournament.

Maybe it's well to remember that Notre Dame coach Mike Brey was once a Duke assistant to Mike Krzyzewski. (So maybe UNC lost to Duke again after all. Or not. I don't know).

I have to say, this game — this tournament — had an unnatural feel to it.

Back in my heyday as a sport writer for The Dispatch, I got to cover all the ACC Tournament games played in Greensboro from 1977 until 2000. When Georgia Tech entered the league in 1979, it gave the league eight teams, a very workable number that made sense. Rivalries were tight and personal; travel distances were reasonable. The tournament still had appeal to the common man who didn't need an entire paycheck to buy a book of tickets. Or concessions.

Even the addition of Florida State (a football school, for Pete's sake — think about that) in 1991 didn't seem to hurt.

But the addition of seven more teams (almost matching the number of the original ACC teams back in 1953) from 2004 to 2013 — in a conscious effort to make the ACC a super conference competitive with other super conferences (like the Big 10) in the country — has clearly changed the essence of what we once felt when the league had a more manageable eight teams.

I'm usually not one to complain about progress — the human condition, it seems, should always be about moving forward — but in this case expansion really seems to be addition by subtraction. What have we really gained? What have we lost? A once three-day tournament that now takes five days to resolve. Sheesh. Teams now arrive from all over the eastern seaboard. How does that kind of travel work for their fans?

(All you had to do was look at Wednesday's 9:30 p.m. who-cares game between Miami and Virginia Tech to see virtually no fans in the stands).

Expansion, of course, is all about money. Maybe the league really does have to get bigger to survive. But the pursuit of all that money is a dangerous thing. Expectations change. Focus changes. Corruption occurs.

Just ask Syracuse. And maybe even North Carolina.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Loose ends

I'm a little late getting this blog out today.

I think it has something to do with changing back to daylight savings time. You know, moving the clock up an hour to give us more daylight in our circadian rhythms, or something like that. Don't ask me, I'm just a sports writer.

Anyway, where does that lost hour go? I think the actual time shift is supposed to take place at 2 a.m., when we're all asleep (clearly a conspiratorial act by the perpetrators involved in DST), so we never actually see the time change. Apparently, we adjust our clocks — and thus our rhythms — on the faith that this actually works.

But when 2 a.m. gets here, does my digital clock automatically jump to 3 a.m.? If so, where does that lost hour go? I think I understand the metaphysics (logic) of it all, just not the physics (execution).

                                                                       •  •  •

Last March we had that horrendous ice storm that broke two substantial branches off one of the two maple trees in my front yard.

This is the damage we suffered in last year's ice storm.
We'd never had a tree issue like that before, and it was nearly impossible to get an arborist to trim the tree immediately after the storm because, well, they were so busy with other emergencies.

So it took us a while to finally get in touch with a tree professional.

Actually, we talked with somebody in the fall, who happened to be working in our neighborhood. I got him to come over to our house to take a look at the tree that had given up two of its boughs. I was concerned the tree might become infected at the point of its fracture and perhaps die. I didn't want that to happen.

We finally get our trees trimmed and treated a year later.
Because it was autumn, and the sap was still running, he suggested it would be better to wait a few months before bringing out the chainsaws.

That made sense to me.

So about a week ago, we contacted the tree service and made arrangements to prune and saw.

I was pleased with the work. The tree was thinned and the jagged breaks were squared off. I'm hoping in earnest that the tree survives and I feel confident that it will.

I just can't believe that it took a year for the process to fulfill itself.

                                                                        •  •  •

It was also a year ago (to the day) that we learned that Malaysian Flight 370 was lost without a trace, along with 239 passengers and crew.

I made the supposition then, with tongue somewhat in cheek, that space aliens caused the disappearance of the aircraft. Indeed, space aliens was actually one of the wild theories that was poking its way in and out of the news by some of the crackpots out there.

However... lost without a trace. Literally falling off the radar. And so, a year later, space aliens seems as viable an explanation as anything else we've heard.

Excuse me. I have to go take my medicine now.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A car goes cargo

"Hi, this is Ellen from Streetside Classics in Charlotte. I'm looking for Bruce. We sold a 1966 Mustang and we need the title..."

That was the voicemail message in my cell phone Saturday morning. I'd been waiting for a call like that since last June, when Kim and I made the momentous decision to give up our classic 1966 Wimbledon White Mustang convertible after 20 years of restoration and fun (see here to read why we decided to put it up for sale).

It had been an agonizing wait. Our original asking price, while admittedly optimistic, was probably too high for the economy to bear. But you never know. So, over the previous eight months, we reluctantly came down on our asking price by several thousand dollars, finally aligning ourselves with other 1966 Mustang convertibles on the market.

Then we finally got the call. So we headed down to Charlotte Saturday afternoon with title in hand to complete the transaction.

Signing the title and receiving our check probably took all of three minutes. But Streetside Classics — a wide open warehouse containing probably 100 cars — is also like a car museum, so Kim and I wandered around a bit looking at some amazing vehicles.

After about 10 minutes of ooohing and ahhhing over Camaros, Cadillacs, Thunderbirds and VWs, I saw her. Our Mustang was still on the floor.

"Kim, come here," I said to my wife, who was headed in a different direction.

Kim and I say farewell to a faithful friend.
 We walked over to the car and gave her a complete — and final — inspection. The good memories flashed by, all the top-down fun we had on the road, the admiring looks we'd get from passers-by. Oddly, I didn't feel very sentimental about it at all. That hit me harder the day we had the car transported to Charlotte. Mostly what I felt was relief that the car had finally been sold.

To be truthful, I was a little surprised to see that the car was still in the building. Ellen told us that Streetside had been wired the money from the buyer Friday night.

That's when my curiosity got the better of me.

"I don't need to know who bought the car, but can you tell me where it's going?" I asked, figuring it might be somewhere in the southeast.

"Yes," said Ellen, rifling through some papers. "It's going to Maidstone, Kent, England." (See here).

"Wow," I thought to myself. Then, "Where's that?"

 "It's near London," said Ellen. "It's a pretty nice area, kind of like the Hamptons."

I was almost right. The car was going to the southeast. Southeast England. And, appropriately enough, the car is Wimbledon White. Maybe, ultimately, that was a selling point? Karma, maybe? Or perhaps, car-ma?

Well, all of that made me feel even better about our sale. Apparently, someone of means (read: someone who could afford to take care of the car), was going to get it.

I do wonder why somebody living off the northern climes of the English Channel in a latitude similar to that of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, would want a convertible, but, hey, more power to them.

So, thanks. And have fun. I hope you draw a lot of admiring glances.