Friday, February 12, 2010

Winter Wonderland


For a lot of people, the Winter Olympics consist primarily of hundreds of anonymous people with too many consonants in their names hurtling down frozen patches of earth in a collective attempt to avoid serious injury. Maddening cowbells and silly horns provide a cacophonous soundtrack to the outdoor insanity, and when the action moves inside, fans can count on gushing skating commentators and curling analysts talking about a sport that few understand. To many, the saving grace is ice hockey that actually means something, substituting for that mid-season clash between the Predators and Blue Jackets.

Welcome to Vancouver, 2010.

That, of course, is an oversimplified view of the Games, which debut Friday and will for two weeks provide NBC and its sister networks with some programming people will actually want to watch. There will be some compelling theater, as there is whenever elite athletes gather. The problem is that U.S. competitors can be eliminated right now from medal contention in dozens of events, including mostly anything with a sled, ski or gun. Oh, Lindsay Vonn ought to have strong showings in the downhill and something called the super giant slalom, provided the painkillers work, and there’s a chance the two-woman bobsled team of Shauna Rohbock and Michelle Rzepka could find its way onto the medal stand. But if you want to wave the Stars and Stripes proudly and tear up as a countryman (or woman) accepts a medal, better pay attention to the skating and X Games events, which seem to have been added just to pump up the U.S. win total.

With all of that in mind, here are a few storylines to consider before the flame is lit.

White Out: Looks like they should have held the Olympics in Washington D.C., since the nation’s capital has endured something like 300 inches of snow in the last five days, while Vancouver has to truck the stuff in from Saskatoon. They’ll be able to freeze up the downhill with no problems, but the freestyle crowd might have some sloppy conditions. Like, bummer, dude.

Stone Groove: Nobody really understands curling, but after the Turin Games in ’06, everybody was talking about it. Usually, the only time we hear about big stones moving is during an avalanche, so it’s refreshing to see them being controlled, albeit by frenzied sweepers, as thousands of Europeans cheer the come-arounds and double-takeouts and hope the Schnapps doesn’t run out if there are extra ends.

Skeleton Crew: Bobsled is crazy, and luge is nuts. But for true lunacy, check out skeleton, in which adrenalin junkies endure 5Gs of force while careering down an icy tunnel at up to 60 mph on a piece of steel and plastic that has no steering mechanism or brakes. What’s next, being shot out of a cannon down the bobsled run?

National Pride: There is no truth to the rumor that if the Canadian men’s hockey team doesn’t win the gold medal, its members will be summarily executed by a group of deranged Mounties. But should the home team fail, there will no doubt be pitchforks and torches outside the team hotel. And should the Russians apply the final indignity, expect the country to slip into a depression that no amount of Molson and back bacon can cure.

Vonn-derful World: Lindsey Vonn had everything in place for the perfect 21st century Olympic bonanza. She had the suggestive SI cover, the appearance in the same magazine’s swimsuit extravaganza, more endorsements than Air Jordan had in his prime and a strong resume. All she needed were some gold medals around her neck, and she was headed for Phelpstown – without the bong. But along came a minor distract-shin. Vonn’s pre-Olympic shin injury has threatened it all and could send her back to the anonymity of the European ski circuit and its Tyrolean cowbell ringers. Vonn had better find a magical elixir for the injury, before Americans find some cute, young figure skater upon whom they can shower their affection and dollars.

Dopes: The first blade hasn’t even been put to ice in earnest, and already up to 30 athletes have been disqualified from the Games for positive tests for performance-enhancing drugs. Unbelievable. Vancouver tries to stage the Olympics, and a late-‘90s baseball game breaks out. It would be tempting to see whether one of the cheats is Balco Bonds, but he is likely in the clear, since it would impossible to find equipment that would fit him. Imagine how big his bobsled helmet would have to be. And no company makes skis long enough for his unnaturally huge feet. The names of the offenders have not been released, so rumors that every one is a member of a former Eastern Bloc country can’t be substantiated.

Blades of Glory: The featured events of the Olympics, at least for those who pay little attention to sports the other three-
plus years of the Games’ cycle, are the figure skating competitions. While other competitions are sponsored by sports drinks, cars and beer, skating’s commercial roster includes Dove Moisturizing System II, Monistat 21st Century and Massengill Fruit Sensations. There’s nothing better than a bunch of guys in tuxedos gushing over Svetlana’s triple salchow and then waiting anxiously to find out whether the miserable French judge is still furious over having her Olympic hopes dashed back in Innsbruck. Skating is shown in prime time, is treated like a debutante ball and pulls in huge ratings. Expect the Russians and Asians to dominate and pray that this is the year one of the men’s pairs competitors actually launches his partner over the boards during the freestyle competition.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: St. Louis Cardinals officials announced earlier this week that new hitting coach Muscles McGwire will answer no questions about the PEDs he pumped into his system while shattering records and ruining baseball’s reputation. Fine. Here’s a request for no media member to speak to him, write about him or mention his name on TV or radio. If he’s trying to sanitize his name for future Hall of Fame consideration (Ha!), let him do it by himself…Speaking of atrocities against America’s pastime, the Milwaukee Brewers are going to erect a statue of Bud Sellout outside their stadium, next to sculptures of Hank Aaron and Robin Yount. What’s next, a mural of the Black Sox outside new Comiskey? Or perhaps a monument to the 1962 New York Mets? If the Brewers insist on commemorating Sellout, make sure the statue depicts him doing what he did best: lying about his role in the steroid era…Danica Patrick makes her official NASCAR debut this Sunday in the Daytona 500, which ought to create questions among the Billy Bob set. For instance, do her fans have to get bikini waxes, instead of shaving her car’s number into their back hair? And what happens if she wins a race before Dale, Jr. – like everybody else has? Tough questions, but that’s what makes stock car racing such a great “sport.”…The NBA All-Star Layup Lines take place Sunday, but the real news in the sport is next Thursday’s trade deadline. Deals are already percolating, with the most popular a rumored three-way swap involving Problem Child, Ugly Contract and Unfulfilled Potential.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? Phillies pitchers and catchers report to Clearwater next Wednesday, and that’s good news for those who are sick of digging out from under more snow than Tony Montana used to sling back in the day. But the level of excitement that should accompany the start of a season that could feature a third consecutive World Series appearance has been diluted by the fact that the organization refused to make the power move that would have given the Phils the best rotation in baseball. No matter how good Roy Halladay promises to be, the thought of pairing him and Cliff Lee atop the team’s starters is too tough to eliminate from fans’ minds, especially since none of the three minor-leaguers acquired for Lee is considered to be a future star. So what if Lee pitched one year and left in free agency? At least the Phils would have had him and Halladay together for 162 games – with Cole Hamels in the no-pressure number three spot. Instead of giving fans that, the team tried to jam a story down their throats that the farm stocks had to be replenished for future success. Horse manure! It was a money decision, and that’s it. The team didn’t want to pay Lee $9 million this year, didn’t want to lose him for nothing after the season and was afraid of being painted as cheapskates by not making a strong move for him in free agency next winter. There is still a lot to be excited about for the team, but Lee’s absence tempers the enthusiasm, and that’s a damn shame.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: The tears of joy were barely dry in New Orleans this week when the NFL’s perpetual news cycle sprang to life with rumors about possible trades, speculation about the free agent pool, worries about a potential work stoppage in 2011 and an avalanche of mock drafts. Behold the magic of the world’s most potent sports juggernaut. Even though March Madness looms, exhibition baseball games begin in fewer than three weeks, and the NBA is working overtime to promote itself, nothing can top the NFL, which has perfected the art of attracting off-season attention. Since fans are forced to wait six-plus long months until the next regular-season concussion, the league needs to prime the pump. And prime it the NFL does. Next up is free agency. Then the Draft. Mini-camps and OTAs are always good for drama. And the one month before training camp that used to be quiet time is now consumed with rumors about Cowboy Quarterback’s angst-filled decision-making process. When labor negotiations commence in earnest, the league will try to chop the players’ share of revenues from 59% to about 41%, crying poor the whole time. Don’t believe a word of it. The NFL is flush with cash, and its bottom line only getting bigger. Over the next few months, you’ll see why.


Friday, February 5, 2010

The Ankle Bowl


Since Super Bowl XLIV will turn completely on the condition of Dwight Freeney’s ankle, it’s practically pointless to spend any time analyzing whether New Orleans’ defense can slow down the Colts’ passing attack, or if Reggie Bush is really going to propose to Kim Kardashian, now that the Saints have reached the Big Game.

Nope, it’s all ankle, all the time.

Tuesday, during Super Bowl media day, Freeney answered questions from reporters about the ankle, how he’s rehabbing the ankle, how the ankle feels in the morning and what he hopes will happen with the ankle. The last time people talked about a joint this much was during The Pineapple Express. Folks tried to make it about something other than Freeney’s ankle, to no avail. Chad OchoCrazy showed up with his own news network, which is kind of like the episode when the Three Stooges were doctors. Peyton Manning tried to make a joke, but his timing was off, and when the thing bombed, he blamed it on his little brother. The requisite collection of crazies, including a woman wearing a halo and a former American Midol contestant, was on hand, but nothing could top the biggest story: Will he or won’t he? Can he or can’t he? Is he or isn’t he?

The worst thing about the entire Freeney situation is that we won’t know a damn thing until he steps onto the field Sunday against the Saints. Until then, we will be subjected to an excruciating torrent of conjecture regarding how much Freeney will be able to play and what the Colts/Saints will do if he can’t go. Believe me; by the time kickoff comes around, the insanity surrounding the OchoCrazy News Network will seem like mother’s milk compared to the Freeney frenzy.

The big reason for the hysteria regarding one player’s cranky ankle is that the rest of the storylines surrounding the Super Bowl have created the same level of interest as Joe Biden’s daily schedule. Okay, okay, we get that this is a big deal for New Orleans. And that the healing from Hurricane Katrina’s devastation can continue only if every Big Easy resident is face down in a puddle of beer come Monday morning. We know that Peyton Manning is trying to cement his legacy, the better to continue his quest for domination of the advertising world. We’re cheering for Pierre Garcon and his Haitian friends and relatives to overcome the horrors of the earthquake, as if some poor guy who has lost everything in Port-au-Prince gives a rat’s backside about whether Garcon’s team wins the game.

But this is all well trod ground. About the only good stuff coming out of the run-up to the game are the comments by New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams about how his team wants to lay some “remember me” shots on Manning to make him less comfortable in the pocket. Not bad, but not enough. Where is the outrageous behavior? Where is Deion Sanders telling people that his new Lamborghini was a present from “myself to myself?” Where is Shannon Sharpe vs. Ray Buchanan, 2010 style? Why hasn’t President Obama sent one of the teams’ coaches a play he designed, as Nixon was rumored to have done before Super Bowl VII.

If the boredom generated by the pre-game run-up is any indication, we’re headed for an old-fashioned, yawner on Sunday. We’re talking Colts-Cowboys, 1971, Redskins-Dolphins, 1973 or Bucs-Raiders, 2003. Then again, perhaps the two explosive offenses are saving their pyrotechnics for the field, rather than filling up notebooks and tape recorders with inane pre-game comments. Let’s hope that’s the case, because the way this week is going is enough to make people want to watch HGTV. The only people who have it worse than the general public are the reporters who have to find something to talk or write about every day.

Fortunately, they have the old standby: Freeney’s ankle. When in doubt, talk about electronic stimulation or hyperbaric chambers, and you’ll be just fine.

Is it Sunday yet?

* * *

THE PICK: During the regular season and even the first couple rounds of the playoffs, the only wagers people care about involve the pointspread, the over/under and the money line. That’s it. The beauty of the Super Bowl is that everything is in play, from the game’s outcome to whether one of the kickers will mistake Snooki for a football and try to boot her through the uprights.
Here are this week’s picks:
Coin Flip: Heads
Times Referee Calls For a Measurement: Two
Number of Pete Townsend windmills at halftime: Seven
Oh, El Hombre almost forgot. Give the points in this one. We can talk about sympathy and heartstrings and Who Dat? but this is about the Colts’ ability to carve up a shaky Saints secondary (26th in the NFL vs. the pass). Yes, DWIGHT FREENEY’S ANKLE will be a factor, but the Indy defense will still create some trouble for the Saints’ attack. Peyton Manning gets his second Super Bowl, but please stop with the “greatest ever” talk. He still has some work to do in that department. Indianapolis 30, New Orleans 20.

* * *

EL HOMBRE SEZ: Last week, the New Jersey Nets’ management enlisted a sports psychologist to help the woebegone team snap out of its historic funk. During his presentation, the hoops shrink jammed a needle into his cheek to demonstrate mental toughness. That runs counter to the actions of Nets fans, who have been sticking needles in their eyes all season…The onset of the Winter Olympics means the arrival in Vancouver of husky Russian biathlon competitors – and those are just the women – not to mention the anticipated pairs figure skating performance by fellow Russians Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin, whose aboriginal routine sets new lows for international relations. (What’s next, a pair spoofing minstrel shows?) The big question facing the Games is whether anybody notices that the NHL will be shut down for two weeks.. Didn’t think so…College football signing day has come and gone, with the requisite “winners” and “losers,” not to mention the premature deification of a bunch of high schoolers. The big story, however, is that Lane Kiffin is still at USC and further that he has yet to say anything stupid, at least publicly…Break up the Twins! Buoyed by anticipated revenues from its new ballpark, Minnesota added Orlando Hudson to its lineup and is working on a megadeal for star catcher Joe Mauer. It’s amazing what a new ballpark will do for you, unless you’re Pittsburgh, of course…Kevin Durant’s recent scoring binge has been great to watch, but the best thing about the 6-9 Thunder star is that his name doesn’t lend itself to one of the lazy nicknames people confer on athletes. “K-Dur” just doesn’t cut it. Thankfully, “Durantula” does.

* * *

YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? The fears that the Eagles hired Dick Jauron as a possible replacement for defensive coordinator Sean McDermott warrant some discussion, since McDermott wasn’t ready for the job when he took over (not his fault), and the Birds’ D did take a step back in 2009, although injuries and poor personnel decisions had more to do with the decay than McDermott’s inability to channel Jim Johnson. What is most worrisome about the move is that Andy Reid may have decided that the team’s secondary problems do not need to be fixed by talent upgrades, rather than having someone else “coach ‘em up.” Jauron certainly knows his stuff, having been a head coach, a defensive boss and a secondary tutor. But going into 2010 without another top-shelf safety and without doing something about Asante Samuel’s predilection for playing flag football would be a huge mistake, one that Jauron can’t fix by himself. McDermott should worry a little about the new arrival, but if Reid thinks the mere presence of an experience hand on the back line will overcome the ’09 problems, then Eagles fans will be the ones doing the real worrying.

* * *

AND ANOTHER THING: The pending announcement that the NC2A is planning to opt out of the final three years of its 11-season, $6 billion contract with CBS (don’t even think it won’t happen) is scary for fans of the only part of the college basketball season that really matters – the tournament. With the call for new bids will come a tacit understanding that the NC2A is wide open to an enlarging of the tourney, a move that would ruin what may be the most perfect thing in sports and the only thing the organization does well – besides screwing its student-athletes. Greed, of course, will win out, since an expanded tourney (up to as many as 96 teams) would bring a bigger annual payday, even in this shaky climate. There are reports that CBS will partner with Turner to counter espn’s multi-platform bid and put more games on the air. Or, it could mean more weight behind a pay-per-view scenario. No one will get an argument on expansion from coaches, who want more teams in so that more coaches can protect their jobs. The real losers are the fans and the tournament itself, which has grown organically over the years and has done just well in its current form for 25 years. (Okay, so they added an extra game in ’01.) Bringing in 31 more at-large teams will dilute the tourney beyond recognition. Last year, there were maybe three or four other teams that had legitimate beefs about being excluded. And by adding another 15 games in an “opening round” format, the tourney will lose many of the mid-major and small conference teams that have made the first two rounds of the tourney so compelling over the years. Ask yourself what’s more exciting, the thought of Robert Morris’ upsetting Clemson or Seton Hall’s doing it. It’s a pretty easy question to answer. And if the expansion comes, it’s likely that plenty of the Robert Morrises of the NC2A world will be eliminated before they can take on the giants. In the end, greed will win, and the NC2A will learn eventually that it ruined a perfect thing.