Thursday, April 16, 2009

R.I.P. Harry Kalas


Back in the mid-1990s, El Hombre was dispatched by His Editors to file reports and assay the situation at the annual ACC football coaches’ media gathering. The three-day event was taking place in southwestern Virginia, at one of those remote luxe properties where it’s impossible to get a worthy newspaper or find a restaurant off the grounds.

The flights to cosmopolitan Roanoke were uneventful, but the final two hours of the journey were where the fun began. As night collapsed upon the country roads leading to the hotel, the driving became more harrowing, and the slithering terrain offered less and less mercy. There were no lights. No signs. As these were the days before sweet-talking electronic navigators, EH relied entirely on a set of hand-written directions, culled from a hasty phone conversation with a resort employee. Hey, was that the Headless Horseman in that clearing?

When executing such drives, it is best to maintain a brisk speed, rely heavily on providence and work diligently to excise unhappy thoughts about Aintree. And it always helps to have something that tethers you to the comfortable world from which you have come. That talisman can take many forms, whether an object, a memory, or in this case the car radio. Despite being hundreds of miles from his home base, El Hombre was able to retrieve the crackly audio account of that evening’s Phillies game. It mattered little who the opponent was and which team was winning. But hearing Harry Kalas’ gentle baritone relating the successes and travails of the home team brought a measure of comfort to the uncertain drive. (The trip back, executed in daylight, revealed just how treacherous the mountain terrain had been and that one false move would have brought disaster.)

Kalas’ unexpected death Monday afternoon silenced the Phillies’ voice and assured that baseball in Philadelphia will never be the same. While the team will continue its defense of the 2008 world championship and forge on for decades after that, fans won’t have the proper soundtrack accompanying their heroes’ pursuits. Throughout the past 38 years, hundreds of players, 13 managers and dozens of coaches and front office personnel have passed through the franchise, making marks big and small. Throughout the nearly four decades, there has been one constant, and now that Kalas has gone, the Phillies franchise is forever changed.

Kalas was more than just an announcer. In some ways, he was the most important part of the team, even though he never threw, caught or hit a ball. His ability to relate the game in all of its mundane detail and emotional splendor allowed fans to identify with the Phillies on a level beyond the bond they formed with the players, who came and went. Hearing Kalas describe the action was like having a trusted family member or friend relate the team’s rise and fall (mostly fall) in a way that made it seem more personal and accessible. Fans who never made it to the ballpark still knew the Phillies, thanks to Kalas’ ability to bring them home.

His death is a reminder that for those of a certain vintage, the part of sports with which we closely identify is more and more fragile. The players of our youth have long since retired. The moments that meant so much are merely memories. Instead of having favorite players, we enjoy the experience. Wins and losses are important, but the ability to have a ballgame to watch or hear at the end of the day is an oasis. And there, amidst the lush foliage and cool streams, was Kalas, once again letting us know everything was right.

Since nothing lasts forever, Kalas’ ultimate demise was inevitable. And his recent health problems had given us all some hints that his voice would not be lingering for too many more seasons. With his death, baseball the game continues, but baseball the experience has been diminished greatly. That’s the saddest part of all this. Just as the atmosphere at a restaurant can determine whether a meal is savored fully, so did Kalas’ voice allow us to inhale Phillies baseball deeply and in the most satisfying manner possible. It isn’t melodramatic or overwrought to say that the Phillies will never be as enjoyable. Kalas provided the audio accompaniment to warm summer nights and great on-field moments. He entertained. He inspired. He made the game better and the fans’ experience of it more full.

And he was great on long drives, too.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: It’s playoff time in the NHL, and that means playoff beards. It’s a great concept, except when female fans decide to grow them…Notre Dame football coach Charlie Weis admits he had a discussion with his family about whether he would quit the post and head back to the NFL as an offensive coordinator. You can bet there are a few thousand Fighting Irish fans who wish Heavy C had adopted them, so that they could have voted on the decision…The NFL schedule was announced on Tuesday night, giving hungry fans something to do until the Draft next Saturday. In Detroit, kids used the schedule to work on their 16 times tables: 0-16, 0-32, 0-48…Anybody who has had the “privilege” of watching the Nationals play this year can’t help but wonder whether they have a chance to surpass the 1962 Mets’ record for baseball futility – 120 losses. Even if they can’t sink that low, at least they’re doing wonders for the self-esteem of fans in Pittsburgh and Kansas City…Lost in the furor over Isiah Thomas’ decision to take the head-coaching job at Florida International is the fact that the guy can’t coach. He can’t handle a GM job, either. And does anybody else remember how he trashed the CBA during his disastrous tenure there? Give him a couple years and FIU will regret hiring him. And given his track record, Thomas may succeed in torpedoing the whole school. By 2015, it could be called Florida Township University…El Hombre hopes he isn’t alone when he states that it doesn’t matter a bit whether espn transmits its late SportsCenter program from Los Angeles or one of the spaceships at Los Alamos. Stop trying to get people excited that two people are sitting in a studio on the West Coast and start eliminating the infuriating cross-promotion, self-aggrandizement and posterior polishing of the leagues and sports you pay to televise.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Thursday morning brought news that Celtics forward Kevin Garnett might not be able to play at all in the post-season, thanks to his cranky knee. If El Hombre were a cynic, he would say that this is all part of Uncle David Stern’s master plan to get the Cavs and Lakers together for a Finals ratings bonanza. Since he isn’t like that, he’ll just wish KG a speedy recovery. While Garnett tries to get back onto the court, members of the Rowboats, Archdukes, Drizzle and Sorcerer’s Apprentices will tune in to watch the playoffs, beginning this weekend. Storylines worth following include whether Houston will actually win a playoff series, now that Me-Mac is not there to mess things up; how well Denver plays with Chauncey Billups at the helm, rather than Mr. Casino; if the Spurs are cooked with Manu Ginobili done for the year; if Dwyane Wade plans to channel Bernard King and lead the Heat deep into the playoffs; and whether Mark Cuban will try to trade for LeBron James midway through Dallas’ first-round playoff series or if he’ll just fall back on his usual strategy of blaming the refs for everything. In the end, Uncle David gets his wish, and LBJ and Kobe square off for the all marbles. Who wins? You’ll have to wait until June for that one.


Thursday, April 9, 2009

Working The System


While 72,000 people were sitting miles away from the action at the Final Four in Detroit, praying that a local team’s good fortune would serve as a catalyst for their state’s economic recovery – but ultimately realizing that its ignominious defeat was a cruel metaphor for crushingly elusive prosperity – there were some big doings in the coaching world.

The big story, of course, was Johnny Cal’s arrival in Lexington to take over the program Rick Pitino once described as “The Holy Roman Empire of college basketball.” Anyone fortunate enough to watch Calipari’s introductory press conference saw a man at the peak of his powers. This wasn’t so much a debut as a coronation befitting the importance Wildcat fans assign to their roundball team. Had Calipari donned a crown and a velvet robe, it’s entirely possible his subjects would have bowed to him. They’ll continue the supplication, too, at least until Calipari loses to Gardner-Webb.

Despite his claims of being a “regular guy,” Calipari is anything but, at least in the world of basketball coaching. He’s one of the few people in the business with the ability not only to win the press conference but also to pile up the victories on the court. And make no mistake, he won the press conference. Kentucky is paying him about $32 over the next eight years, and he earned a good chunk of that with his performance in front of the fawning media and rabid UK supporters. Calipari said he’s not the “grand poobah.” Nor is he the “emperor.” Given his frenetic personality, it is kind of hard to imagine him hanging with the royals. At Kentucky, where champions are treated like monarchs, he certainly has the potential to achieve some sort of imperial status.

There are those who consider describing Calipari in regal terms na├»ve and practically scandalous. This is a guy who rehabbed his reputation at Memphis by hiring the parents of former players, in order to lure them to his program, and consorted regularly with William Wesley, aka “World Wide Wes,” a dodgy basketball impresario who was capable of delivering – at who knows what cost – Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans to the Tigers. Calipari has never been brought up on charges by NC2A gumshoes, but he does walk close to the edge. For that reason, some believed Kentucky’s decision to hire him was a mistake, especially given the school’s history of recruiting shenanigans. Why bring in someone who blurs the lines when your history is littered with trouble?

Because that’s what college sports have become, and don’t try to deny it. As much as there are those out there holding on to the quaint notion that big-time football and hoops are still the province of amateurs and a forum for competition in its purest form, one look at the Final Four proved otherwise. There was nothing about the event that accommodated fans, athletes or even coaches. This was a show staged by the NC2A for its own aggrandizement and profit. The players didn’t like the raised court or the Ford Field configuration, which had locker rooms well removed from the arena floor. The coaches didn’t appreciate standing three feet above the bench. And anybody in attendance (El Hombre was there) felt so removed from the action that true engagement in the proceedings was practically impossible, even if microphones captured every sneaker’s squeak and missed shot’s clank. By putting the court in the middle of the cavernous dome, the NC2A sold the maximum amount of tickets, sight lines be damned. The cash registers sang, and college sports took another step away from their intended purpose.

The corporate sponsorship part of the program was most impressive, as anything that even threatened to mention a rival company was eradicated from the area. It would have been interesting to see how the NC2A would have reacted had someone walked into the stadium wearing a Pepsi T-shirt, considering that Coke is an advertising partner. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario involving a SWAT team’s pouncing on the offender and tearing off the sacrilegious article. The stadium was completely locked down, and the city, the Lions and the hosting institution (Detroit Mercy) were perfectly content to let the big dog do whatever it wanted.

But that’s okay, because the Final Four brand is so well established that fans and media choose to look away from the corporate culture, so long as they get a seat at the table. Given the state of sports in this country, we shouldn’t be surprised by the event and its operation. Similarly, we should not be gnashing our teeth at the idea of Calipari’s arrival at Kentucky. The Wildcats just fired a man after giving him a mere two years to produce a winning program. That’s what it’s about today in college sports. Win fast or die. Billy Gillispie didn’t get to the tournament, so he’s out of work. Forget that garbage about his not fitting into the culture of the program. He could have driven around town in an ice-cream truck and spoken Esperanto in his press conferences, so long as he won 25 games a year and made a significant excursion into the round of 65. But he didn’t, so he’s gone.

And what’s wrong with Cal, anyway? He’s a pretty straightforward guy who never tried to hide the things he did to get players. He called World Wide Wes a “goodwill ambassador” for his Memphis program. He was up front about hiring Dajuan Wagner’s father, Milt, as an assistant coach. He finds great players. He recruits great players. He signs great players. And he often says good-bye to great players after just one year in his program. He plays the game as the current rules are set, and that upsets some people. Well, they had better get over it. If the NC2A wants to conduct its business with a cold, corporate touch, it had better make room for Calipari, who wins big, lives big and operates within the framework that has been established. You don’t like it? Change the rules. Don’t worry, Cal will adapt. He’s a survivor. And now, he’s Kentucky’s coach. Get ready for the Wildcats to be great again. Just don’t blame Calipari for working within a system that has become anything but pristine.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Former NBA center Marvin Webster’s tragic death Wednesday from complications of coronary artery disease was a blow to anyone who enjoyed watching the shot-blocking pivot dominate and deter around the hoop. At a time when “D-Wade” passes for nickname creativity, Webster’s handle, “The Human Eraser,” is a reminder that there was a time when such monikers were earned, not merely tossed out with no thought…Let’s hear it for Majoke League Baseball’s continued insistence on staging season-opening series north of the Arctic Circle. Snow in Chicago torpedoed the Sox’ debut. Near-freezing temperatures in Philadelphia made the Phillies’ second game an endurance test. Let’s see now: L.A. (twice), San Diego, Houston, Texas, Florida, Tampa Bay, Oakland, San Francisco, Atlanta, Milwaukee (dome), Toronto (dome), Seattle (dome), Arizona and Minnesota (dome). That’s how you open the season, in places where snow is not a possibility, or at least it is kept from the public by ceilings. Everywhere else gets a home game when the frost warnings go away…Wide receiver Plaxico the Kid may have won his grievance hearing against the Giants and might have recouped nearly a million bucks, but give the team credit for cutting his misfiring backside. That shows some real fortitude, because New York’s passing game is a joke without him. Someone will sign him, but The Kid will get less money than his former contract would have paid and could be looking at some time in stir. The guy’s trouble, and any team that signs him deserves all the heartache it gets…Speaking of NFL miscreants, Michael Vick is having trouble convincing a judge that his bankruptcy plan, which is heavy on speculation about future earnings regarding a book and movie deal (“Dog Fight Club?”) and light on swallowing hard and doing sensible things like selling one of his two houses. Looks like Vick is still having trouble making good decisions, which should definitely endear him to NFL teams looking for reliable a QB…The trustee for disgraced Ponzi cheat Bernie Madoff is trying to convince the Mets to let him sell Madoff’s season tickets, the better to bring a maximum return and more money to help offset victims’ crippling losses. He had better move quickly, because once the Mets start their annual tank job, September tickets won’t be worth much at all.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Let’s see now, Brett Myers gets roughed up in the Phils’ home opener. Pop-Pop Moyer lasts five whole innings and digs a first-inning hole two nights later. Wednesday afternoon, Joe Blanton celebrates the arrival of his World Series ring by giving up seven earned in four innings. Meanwhile, the condition of Cole Hamels’ elbow remains a mystery, after he couldn’t get his fastball out of the mid-80s in an exhibition tune-up last weekend. The season is only three games old, and the Phils are notorious for starting slowly, but if you’re not concerned about this club’s rotation, you must be still hanging out on Broad Street, waiting for the rest of the parade to come by. The Phils’ strong bullpen and potent offense give their rotation plenty of wiggle room, but not even the ’27 Yankees could withstand a full season of early-innings conflagrations, not to mention a prolonged arm problem for Joe Cool. Let’s hope this isn’t an indication of what lies ahead, or all that world championship merchandise is going to look like throwback stuff pretty quickly.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: Okay, golf fans, listen up, because here comes your exclusive Masters preview: Figure Jim Nantz for 27 uses of the word “cathedral” to describe Augusta National. Expect 56 breathless descriptions of Tiger’s latest miraculous shot. And don’t forget to dress for the occasion, since both espn and The Eye will treat this golf tournament as if it were high Mass. Please, people, it’s a game. And if you want to call these guys great athletes, refer back to the photos of the guy who stripped down to his compression shorts to rescue his ball from the mire a few weeks ago. He wasn’t quite the Pillsbury Doughboy, but he didn’t look like Chuck Norris, either. As for Phil Mickelson’s training bra, well, let’s just not go there. The Masters is a fine event, but the way its propaganda partners behave, one would think it’s live coverage of the cure for brain cancer. And if one more person declares a victory in the tournament a “win for the ages,” there will be blood.