Sunday, April 29, 2012
Take me out to the Old School Ball Game!
Take me out to the Old School Ball Game!
I am not about to begin this column by berating the game today. As is the case with all professional sports today, I remain steadfast in proclaiming that the games today are far superior to those of yesteryear.
The players are superior. They are in top shape all year long. They eat well, they work out all the time. They really care about themselves, because they know that there are hundreds of other hopefuls who would steal their jobs in a second, given the opportunity. The equipment is superior. Please refer to the shoulder pads that Bobby Hull wore his entire career: they would not be acceptable to a Pee Wee player today.
They skate better, they run faster, they are better fielders, they hit harder…whatever. They are just plain better.
Along with the modern day professional athlete comes a certain amount of baggage. Much of it falls into the general category of “attitude”. For the sake of argument, and for the sake of space, I will restrict my words to baseball.
1. Pants and socks.
For more than fifty years, players were required to wear pants just below the knee, with socks (stirrups) that covered the calf. That is no longer the case. There are a few players who are “old school” in this regard, but most players have pants that cover their shoes.
Many players today have enough objects around their necks to qualify for some foreign tribe. There are good luck necklaces; there are neck pieces to improve one’s performance, and one’s health.
I have no problem with tattoos. What bothers me is the size, location, and the description of the tattoos adorning major league baseball players today. Last time I looked, I did not see any tattoos on “Doc” Halladay. Maybe he has them, but they are not there for public display. Neck tattoos in particular drive me crazy.
4. The fans
The season is just now underway. The Blue Jays are expected to do well, and are not going to surprise any experts. They predicted good things for the Jays. But in the first few games, the bullpen squandered save opportunities, and let the opposition come from behind to steal a couple of wins. Segio Santos was the victim on two of these occasions. It is going to happen, girls and boys. The Toronto fan base booed mercilessly as Santos walked off the field on those occasions. That is a bush attitude.
I am sure that Santos did not appreciate this welcome to Toronto.
My soap box is beginning to teeter precariously. And yes, it is an old soap box.
For The Times, May 2, 2012
Monday, April 23, 2012
Amidst the excitement of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, a spectacular gem took place last week in Seattle, Washington. Phillip Gregory Humber, a journeyman pitcher from Nacogdoches, Texas, pitched a perfect game.
It was the twenty-first perfect game in major league baseball history, and the first since Roy Halladay blanked the Florida Marlins in 2010. At that time, “Doc” was with the Phillies. No Toronto Blue Jay pitcher has ever thrown a perfect game, as a Jay; however, David Cone and David Wells, both former Jays, did accomplish the feat, but as New York Yankees.
There has been only one perfect game in World Series play. On October 8, 1956, the Yankees’ Don Larsen set down the Brooklyn Dodgers in order to place his name in the record books. After the final out, Yogi Berra, the Yankees catcher, raced to the mound and surrounded his pitcher with a massive bear hug.
Such was not the case for Humber. Bottom of the ninth inning. Two men out. And there was a full count on the batter, Brendan Ryan. Virtually everyone in the ball park expected Humber to throw a fastball, lest he should walk Ryan and lose the perfect game.
Ryan dug in at the plate, anticipating the heater. His thoughts after the game: “There’s no way he’s going to want to take a chance and walk me on the last pitch. No chance. I cannot believe he threw the slider there.”
But that’s just what Humber threw. A nasty slider that was in the dirt by the time that it reached home plate. Ryan offered at the pitch, and watched the White Sox catcher, A. J. Pierzynski, scamper to his right to pick up the ball and throw Ryan out at first base. Game, Set, and Match.
Yet another case of the stars lining up in order on a particular occasion. Humber is now 29 years old, but has only 12 wins to his credit in the Major Leagues. He was originally drafted by the Yankees in 2001, but did not sign. In 2004, he was the third overall pick of the New York Mets, and signed with them. He had “Tommy John” surgery in 2005, made his Major League debut in 2006, and was traded to the Twins in 2008.
He became a Kansas City Royal in 2009, an Oakland Athletic in 2010, and joined the White Sox in 2011.
He is certainly in select company, as a hurler with a perfect game on his record sheet. Len Barker, who toured the country with a group of retired ball players following his career, threw a prefect game as a Cleveland Indian against the Toronto Blue Jays. It was the first perfect game against a team with a designated hitter in the lineup. Barker threw a couple of innings at the Rotary Park in Belleville, while touring with the Major League players. He told me after the game that he didn’t realize he was approaching baseball history until the late innings of his perfect game. “All of a sudden, it’s the seventh inning, and nobody would talk to me. I sat alone in the dugout while my team was up to bat. At that moment, I knew it was special.”
That is another baseball tradition not to be “tinkered with”. When the Expos Dennis Martinez threw his perfect game against the Dodgers in 1991, he was crowned “El Perfecto” by the media. Cy Young is also a notable hurler who has accomplished the feat.
Phil Humber will cherish his accomplishment forever. He still may have some fine years ahead, as Randy Johnson also threw a perfect game when he was forty!
Yet another fine moment from the great game of baseball.
April 23, 2012
Saturday, April 21, 2012
It's only the First Round!
We are only in the first round of the hockey playoffs. There has been more sizzle, more controversy, and more physical play in the past week than we have seen in many a playoff year.
The intensity was always there. Year after year, fans began to tune in to hockey once the playoffs began. Players always “took it up a notch” when there was a little more on the line. Certain teams were said to have been built for the playoffs, perhaps with a mean edge to get them through the rounds.
But this year, the floodgates have opened, the tongues are wagging, and hot stove lounges around the country have plenty of fodder to digest. Several favourites are on the verge of collapse, and there is pain and suffering. Did I mention the Canucks?
As expected, several stars have come to the forefront for their teams, and have led them to victory. The New York Rangers have Henrik Lunqvist in goal, and he has been hard to beat by the Senators. One of the lesser lights on the Blueshirt team is a third year player named Brian Boyle. The hulking forward has put the puck in the net at the most opportune times, giving the New York squad a leg up on the Sens.
The Florida Panthers won their first playoff game in fifteen years! That is some kind of drought! At the time of writing, the series is tied at a game each, with the teams heading to New Jersey for games three and four this week. Stephen Weiss scored his first goal after only 23 seconds had lapsed in the first period. As expected, the Panthers put up a defensive wall in the third, protecting their lead; however, it took Tomas Fleischmann’s empty net goal with only one second left to seal the deal.
Certainly, the series between the Flyers and the Penguins has stirred the most controversy thus far. Sidney Crosby has returned to the Pens lineup, and was expected to lead them over the Broad Street Bullies. Wrong again, Bessie! The Flyers have really taken it to the Penguins, and have won the first three games. The game on Wednesday night starts at 7:30pm. That is a “can’t miss” game.
The Washington Capitals and the Boston Bruins are also involved in a nasty fight. There is no love lost between the two rivals, and the hitting has been tenacious. It has not escalated into the war that Penguins and Flyers are waging, but it has been a battle.
The Red Wings have also stumbled out of the blocks this year. They are trailing the Nashville Predators in their series, and have not looked impressive. The Predators are backstopped by Pekka Rinne. He alone has the potential to turn a series, and that would not be unexpected.
The Chicago Black Hawks have discovered that the Phoenix Coyotes are for real. They are deadlocked at the present time, and it will likely be a long series. That depends on the health of goalie Mike Smith, who was steamrolled behind the nest by Andrew Shaw.
The St. Louis Blues took a lead after Monday’s game with a 4-3 win over the Sharks. This is also a nasty conflict, and could result in fisticuffs at any time. The Blues learned a lesson on Monday night. They led 4-1 well into the third period, and played a little “kitty bar the door” defensive hockey. That does not work any more in this fast-paced, wicked slapshot kind of game.
The Canucks? Oh yes, they trail the upstart Los Angeles Kings three games to none. There has not been this much excitement in the L.A. hockey world since # 99 played there. Belleville’s Brad Richardson was ready for the playoffs when he ran up against appendicitis. Hopefully, he will be ready in the potential later rounds. The Kings can be thankful to Jonathan Quick for his fine play.
Brendan Shanahan is the NHL’s Czar of discipline. There is a lineup of bad boys at his office door, as we speak. There will be suspensions, and rightfully so. Players still have not grasped the concept that head checks are dangerous. There are some fine players not able to help their teams at this time, due to careless hits. The culprits will be nailed today.
Keep your head up, and your stick on the ice!
April 17, 2012
The Road to the Stanley Cup 2012
Sixteen hockey teams are about to hit the road, searching for the magic that will lead them to the Stanley Cup. It is the most difficult prize to attain, in all of the major sports. We are in early April, and the struggle often lasts into late May, even early June.
My early morning chuckle today came as a result of a perusal of a magazine printed last September. The fearless editor, having consulted with several other experts, boldly predicted the projected National Hockey League standings for this past year.
The Northeast Division was supposed to have Buffalo Sabres finishing first, with the Senators in the basement, trailing the Sabres by almost thirty points. The Senators will open against the Rangers on Thursday night in New York. The Sabres are golfing.
The Bruins are` seeded second in the playoff format, and will face the Washington Capitals. The Caps are led by Alexander Ovechkin, perhaps the most exciting player in the NHL. He can inspire the troops, but will have to deal with the Boston Giant, Zdeno Chara, throughout the series. The Bruins did hoist The Cup last year, but do not expect the same this year.
I do not think the era of the dynasty will ever return to hockey. The days of a string of several titles are gone. The Oilers, the Islanders, the Habs, and the Leafs all had great runs. There are too many extenuating circumstances affecting the game today to put together a string of titles. It begins, and probably ends, with money. General mangers build teams with good draft picks, great trades, and fortunate free agency signings. Great teams crumble when player agents see dollar signs in other cities. Loyalty goes out the window.
At the conclusion of the season last year, the Florida Panthers presented a pink slip to coach Peter DeBoer. He landed on his feet behind the bench in New Jersey. The Panthers have ended their ten year hiatus from playoff hockey, and are ready to face their opponents-the New Jersey Devils. Would there be a chance that DeBoer would like to win that series?
The Penguins are now at full strength, and are predicted to go deep into the playoffs. They must first deal with the Philadelphia Flyers, and great goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. There is plenty of fire-power on the Penguins bench, along with sufficient toughness. A special note of recognition to the efforts of Matt Cooke, former Wellington Duke, this year. He made significant adjustments to his game, and spent the entire season without being suspended. He still competes fiercely, but intelligently.
Over on the other coast, the battle of the Pacific will start on Wednesday night in Vancouver. The Canucks face the Kings, and are heavily favoured. The Kings have Jonathan Quick between the pipes, and he is one of the best in the league. Los Angeles superstar Anze Kopitar will try to ignite the Kings’ anaemic offence, ranked 29th out of thirty teams this year. The Canucks are still stinging after last year’s loss to the Bruins in the final. They have an agenda to win it all this year, but cannot ignore the pesky nature of the Kings.
The Phoenix Coyotes` were predicted to be the worst team in hockey this year. So much for that! They will face the Black Hawks who would love to taste the champagne again as they did only two years ago. Mike Smith has had an incredible season with the Coyotes, truly the main reason they are in the playoffs. Watch for Belleville’s Andrew`Shaw to mix things up for the Hawks.
The Red Wings will have their hands full with the Nashville Predators, especially with Pekka Rinne between the pipes. The Wings are a little long in the tooth, and they are hungry. The Predators were also spurned by the experts at the beginning of the season, and now find themselves in the hunt.
Finally, the Blues from St. Louis have come of age this season. Ken Hitchcock was hired as coach at the beginning of the season, and the team responded to his style. The Blues face the San Jose Sharks, led by Joe Thornton. Don’t expect the Sharks to lie down in defeat. They always seem to surprise, when it is least expected.
This round of playoffs will finish in late April, just in time for the Tulip Festival in Ottawa. The Senators hope the Ottawa citizenry will be parking at ScotiaBank Place, rather than touring the parks in the Capital Region.
April 9, 2012
Sunday, April 01, 2012
Nicole Jeray-Professional Golfer
To my good fortune, I often meet the most interesting people. Not long ago, my wife and I attended a golf tournament, in the Champions Series at the Twin Eagles Golf Course in Naples, Florida. We followed a group of golfers for eighteen holes, including Canadian Rod Spittle. Also in the group was a golfer named Jim Carter. Caddying for Carter was Jody Keepers, and that is where this story begins.
We noticed, early in the round, that there was a woman following the round with us. She was paying more attention to the caddy than she was to the golf game. As we discovered, that was easy to explain, as the caddy was her boy friend. Her name is Nicole Jeray. We also learned that Nicole knew a little something about the game of golf, having turned professional in 1994, following a distinguished college career.
Nicole paid very close attention to the game. She knew the course well. She whispered to us that certain holes played more easily than others, and could be exploited for birdies. She sometimes lagged behind the group, stretching, flexing, practising shots, without a club. It was easy to see that she had an entirely different focus to the game than we did.
We discussed her role in the game today, as a professional golfer. She certainly has been through the grind, over the years. The game can be taxing, mentally and physically. In Nicole’s case, she had an extra burden to carry, that being narcolepsy.
She has become the leading advocate on the LPGA tour to help in the fight against narcolepsy. On a personal basis, she has organized “Swinging For Sleep”. For every birdie she registers in a tournament, money is donated to research. Last year she recorded 90 birdies, and the fund was $ 4 500 richer. This year, Jazz Pharmaceuticals is donating $ 250 for every bird she makes, as well as $ 1 000 for every eagle. She has been a beacon to spread awareness about narcolepsy, and to lead the struggle to conquer it.
Nicole’s struggles with narcolepsy are well documented in her blog pages, well worth a look. She discusses the fact that she needs plenty of rest and recovery time to play her best, not always possible on the tour. “Some rounds finish in the dark. Then the next tee time is early the next day,” she told me. She also strongly recommends the consumption of plenty of water.
One of her goals this year is to play in the United States Open which is being held in Kohler, Wisconsin. It is near her home in Chicago. She knows that she will have to qualify for the event, and that means playing 36 holes in one day. “I look forward to the challenge,” she said.
Nicole attended Northern Illinois University, and was the team’s most valuable player from 1988-1992. She graduated with a degree in finance. In the notes from her web site she added, “Although I don’t know why!”
She recently played in the Florida Natural Charity Classic, and then is off to Mexico for another tour event. She is looking forward to an event on August 23rd, the Wake Up Narcolepsy’s Golf Outing. She told me she does plan to play an event or two in Canada this year, although she was not certain of the times and venues.
In spite of her narcolepsy, she says, “I have never been late for a tee time! Close a few times, but never late!”
We look forward to following her year on her web site: www.NicoleJeray.com.
James Hurst April, 2012.