Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Opening Day 2009

Editor's Note: Major League Baseball opened its season April 6, so this week we asked a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals and a fan of the Chicago Cubs, arch rivals in the National League Central division, to offer their reflections on Opening Day.

Out of the Cold, a Need for Closure

By Matthew Melick

I woke up on Opening Day dreading the thirty degree temperatures and snow that had pushed into St. Louis the night before. But I knew that these temperatures were short-lived—it was baseball season. Each spring in the Midwest, Opening Day—as all the great baseball writers have written—signals an end to the cold and darkness. As a Cardinal fan, Opening Day usually means two things—the natural beauty of spring and its longer, warmer days will be arriving shortly, and Cub fans can be excited about their team’s prospects for a couple weeks.

But this year, it is our turn to be excited, hopefully for more than a couple weeks. This is the year the Cardinals take back the Central, the year they come up with an answer in the bullpen. In 2008, the Cardinals blew a Major League-leading 31 saves and somehow still managed to finish just four games out of the wild-card. But that was last year. This year, the Cardinals have a great new closer and all of the problems of last year (and the year before) were just that, problems in the past. Right? For some reason (probably like most Cardinal fans), on Opening Day 2009 I had an uneasy feeling about the prospects of a bullpen anchored by a former catcher with only eleven prior Major League appearances.

Unfortunately, my feelings were validated—so much for change. So much for the chance to be hopeful about your favorite team’s prospects. Opening Day 2009 will forever be imprinted in my memory as the day I learned that one team can have two blown saves in one game.

Yet at the end of the day, somehow, hope had returned. It is spring, things change and grow, it is just a slow process. That is perhaps the best part about Opening Day. If your team wins—“awesome, this is the year”; if your team loses—“oh well, it is early.”

October Doesn't Care

By Bryan Timm

As a Cubs fan, I have come to a realization that is going to make this season a little different from those past. October just does not care.

October doesn't care about Opening Day. October doesn't care about players being tired from the World Baseball Classic. She doesn't care about signing a fiery right fielder or about the struggles from an imported center fielder. She doesn't care about the Houston Astros looking for some semblance of revenge for what Carlos Zambrano did to them after Hurricane Ike devastated Texas.

I encourage Chicago Cubs fans to ignore all the columnists, talking heads and any other random idiot trying to make a case for caring this early. It doesn't matter to me anymore, and it shouldn't matter to you. The only thing that matters is what the Cubs do once the season changes from summer to fall and the playoffs arrive.

I understand the excitement surrounding Opening Day because I feel it too. The prospect of sitting outside with a cold beer in my hand listening to Pat and Ron call a game is just as attractive to me this year as it has been in years past. But this year has to be different. It has to be.

The Boys in Blue may get off to a fast start and run away with the division. They may struggle early and have to hold off the Cardinals down the stretch to get in. But barring some sort of insane string of injuries, the Cubs are going to win the division, probably quite easily. So while I may be yelling at the television in May because Kosuke Fukudome misplayed a fly ball, resulting in a Cubs loss, it will be a reserved yell. Because quite simply, October just does not care.

Matthew Melick is an associate attorney at Carmody MacDonald P.C. in St. Louis, Missouri.

Bryan Timm is a cross country and track coach at Rosary High School in Aurora, Illinois.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Are You There God? It’s Me, March Madness

By Brandon Christol

It’s March, and you know what that means: It’s Fire Prevention Month!

Oh, and it’s time for March Madness! Ah, March Madness—an annual tradition of buzzer-beaters, upsets, watching basketball at work while trying not to get caught, and—most exciting of all—lots of numbers accompanied by alliterative adjectives (e.g. Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight and Final Four). It’s an extended sports spectacle that grabs the attention of Americans young and old and fills the coffers of bookies everywhere. Sixty-four teams enter with one common goal: to apply the concept of Murphy’s Law to my bracket by losing if I pick them to win and winning if I pick them to lose.

March Madness is one of my favorite times of year, mainly because it features 126 hours of sweet hoops action spread out over 10 different days. But there are many other reasons to feel much gladness about March Madness:
  • You get to hear Gus Johnson call last-second shots. “Rises and FIRRRRRRES … GOT IT!!!!” Sometimes I spice up my day by pretending Gus Johnson is announcing my actions. As in: “He drives down the road, looks right as he goes to parallel park, squeezes in there, straightens it OUUUUUUUUUTTTTT … GOT IT!!!” If you don’t know what I’m talking about, or even if you do, click here, sit back and enjoy the beautiful rhetorical stylings of the third greatest announcer in the world.
  • The Chippens NCAA Tournament Challenge!
  • It means baseball’s Opening Day is just around the corner. In fact, the championship game often coincides with the Cubs’ first game (like it does this year), which is like having your birthday on Christmas or buying a house and discovering that it comes with a BMW.
  • It’s college basketball with no Dick Vitale. Why won’t he stop yelling at me? I don’t care what BMOC stands for. What did he say? The ACC is strong this year? I can’t understand him when he screams like that. He sounds like Kermit the Frog if he were afflicted by voice imodulation disorder and injected with some sort of serum limiting his speech to strange and ridiculous exaggerations.
  • Winning the Chippens NCAA Tournament Challenge!
  • One word: Drama. It’s Win or Go Home. There’s something natural and Darwinian about it. Teams play 25+ games, fighting and clawing to claim a spot in the tourney, and then all of a sudden—BAM!—a last-second heave from half court (hopefully called by Gus Johnson) can send them packing ‘til next year. There’s no best of five, no byes, no Bowl. It’s drama to the 64th power.
If you want to reminisce, or perhaps whet the palate in preparation for this year’s Big Dance, check out some of these clips:

Western Kentucky over Drake, 2008
Illinois vs. Arizona, 2005
Top ten March Madness buzzer beaters from ESPN

Enough already, just tell me what to do with my bracket!

OK, now that we’re all ready for the games, I’m going to share with you my unrivaled expertise and guaranteed predictions. That’s right—advice straight from the person who finished in a respectable 8th place last year, and quite presciently predicted that all four #1 seeds would make the Final Four. (Pay no attention to my 43rd place finish in 2007, in which I guessed only one of the Final Four teams correctly.)

While there’s no one team with a stranglehold on the title this year, I still think the sport is top heavy. I have two #1 seeds making the Final Four this year (Louisville and Pitt) along with a couple of #2 seeds. I think Pitt, with the talent and athleticism of DeJuan Blair, Sam Young & Co., will come out of the East and ultimately defeat Louisville for the title. I love the Cardinals out of the Midwest—they didn’t just survive the insane gauntlet that is the Big East, they won the regular season and conference tournament titles, and I don’t see them losing to a young Wake Forest team, a strong but rebuilt Kansas squad, or the solid but not-quite-at-that-level Michigan State. In the South, I think UNC will stumble in a shootout with Gonzaga, opening the door for Oklahoma. And out West, I have Memphis taking down UConn in what should be a great game.

Teams that could advance further than expected include West Virginia, Purdue, Clemson and Utah State, who travels to the neighboring state of Idaho to face a Marquette team that has dropped five of six after losing Dominic James. And though I’m a big Illini fan, I’ve got them bowing out as the victim of the classic 12/5 upset. While Bruce Weber is one of the best X’s and O’s coaches in the tournament and has had them overachieving all year, U of I lacks a go-to guard in the clutch. Plus, Chester Frazier, their best defender, is most likely out. Either way, I don’t think they’re getting through Gonzaga, though I’d love to be wrong.

But enough talking about basketball—bring on the games! Enjoy!

Brandon Christol is an assistant director of admissions at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill. To read more of his sports writing, visit his blog Wait ‘Til This Year.

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Tuesday, January 20, 2009

American Renaissance

Politics, the arts, and sports may not seem to have much in common, but in the last 16 months I have discovered that they have at least one common thread: they are all concerned with testing the limits of what is possible and with re-imagining an apparently fixed reality.

From September 2007 to August 2008, I was a sports writer covering high school sports for four small, weekly newspapers in rural Northern Michigan, and since August, I have taught humanities and English at Heartland Community College in Normal, Illinois.

As a sports writer, I watched as high school kids dared to have dreams that outsized their God-given circumstances. Many times, those dreams were realized, and those teams and athletes that achieved unexpected or unprecedented success did so not only because of their talent and preparation, but because they allowed themselves to think bigger than their current sphere of possibility, to have the same type of ambition as Captain James Cook, who once said that he wanted to “not only go farther than anyone else, but as far as it was possible to go.”

Looking on from the sidelines, I could always tell when a team succeeded in breaking limits that had been set and hardened by a grim history: the athletes always had the same look of joy that I saw on the faces of those in Chicago’s Grant Park on election night last November and on those filling the National Mall during the inauguration. It’s a look of faith rewarded.

I’ve seen that same look in the eyes of some of my students when they’ve been transported into a new world by a work of art and have not come back the same. The world has changed. What once seemed immutable, judicious, and even natural now seems transient and arbitrary.

These students, just like the young athletes I admire, also have faith in an ability to reach beyond the seeming boundaries of possibility and to trust what is found there.

The election of Barack Obama has made me realize that politics, despite what the cynics say, is no different. Art, sports, and politics, at their fundamental level, are all concerned with first dreaming and then achieving a new possibility. What we call tragedy is when those possibilities are put before us and then denied by malign fate. Romeo and Juliet. Steve Prefontaine. Bobby Kennedy.

But, so far, the story of our new president has not been tragic. Our sphere of possibility as a people and as a nation has been irrevocably expanded. And this time it was not just one man with a dream, but an entire nation that rejected its historical limits of possibility for one of its own citizens and thus for us all.

President Obama opened his inaugural remarks by addressing us as citizens, not just as Americans. On election day, each citizen had at least as much faith as the candidate, for each one was required to imagine something that has never been and trust in it. Each one was required to go beyond his or her previous limits and be willing to not come back the same. The candidate, now the president, led us there, but not by force.

By doing so, Barack Obama sustained the American Dream in a way much more profound than by giving Joe the Plumber a tax break. He led us to renew that dream ourselves through our own act of faith; he did it by leading us to trust in our own hopes for rebirth and change. He led us to believe once again in the main tenet of American idealism, that present circumstance is never to be confused with inevitable destiny.

Barack Obama led us to have the same faith in politics that we do in sports and in the arts — a faith that doesn’t seek to overcome the impossible, but rather a faith that validates our American belief that some things only seem that way.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2007

To Marathon

Editor's Note: This essay orginally appeared as a column on page A1 of the November 7, 2007 edition of the Antrim County News following the death of Ryan Shay.

In 490 BC, a Greek soldier named Pheidippides ran the nearly 26 miles from the battlefield outside the town of Marathon, where the Greeks had just vanquished the Persians, all the way to Athens. “We are victorious!” he shouted, just before collapsing to the ground, dead.

When you consider the story of Pheidippides and his mythical run, it seems like he was just fulfilling his own destiny.

When you consider the extraordinary life of another marathoner, Ryan Shay, the same appears true.

Ryan’s life seemed to be plotted toward one ultimate design: qualifying for the Olympics.

At the Olympic Trials on Saturday, Ryan died trying valiantly, as he had done his entire life, to fulfill that destiny.

On Sunday evening, I had the chance to sit down with Joe Shay, Ryan’s father, and he tried to summarize Ryan’s commitment to running by telling me a story.

“Sometimes I would get people calling me,” he recalled, “and they would ask ‘Do you know your son is out running in a snow storm? Why does he do that?’”

Here Joe paused and turned his head to look me in the eyes — “It’s who he is,” he said.

“For Ryan, the moment he woke up, running came first.

“It was a singular passion.”

If you talk to the people who knew Ryan best, they describe a person with the ambition to set lofty goals and the work ethic, determination, and willingness to make the sacrifices needed to achieve them.

“If he had a goal, he was going to get it,” Eric Shooks, Ryan’s friend and former teammate, said. “The commitment he had to running was unbelievable.”

Current Central Lake Athletic Director Quinn Barry was a teacher and the varsity basketball coach during Ryan’s high school days.

“Ryan was one of those kids who from early on you could tell always had an intense desire,” Barry said. “You can’t compare his work ethic (to anyone else’s).

“I convinced him to play basketball because I told him it would improve his fast motor movements for track.

“I remember, we’d have what I thought were grueling two-hour basketball practices, and after they were over, Ryan would put on his sweatpants and hat and go for a 12-mile run.”

Making the Olympics in distance running, especially the marathon, is probably the hardest thing to accomplish in all of sports.

There are 360 very well-paid professional basketball players in the NBA, many of whom never even play in a game.

There are even more professional football and baseball players in the NFL and MLB, respectively.

But only three — three — marathoners make the Olympic team every four years, and you only get one chance on one day to do it.

It was a challenge that Ryan had devoted his life to overcome.

“He was second to none in his drive to compete,” Notre Dame head cross country and track coach Joe Piane said. “He wasn’t as gifted (as other runners), but he made up for it with his work ethic.”

Ryan may not have achieved his goal of qualifying for the Olympics, but in dying on the course on Saturday, he fulfilled a different plan he had for himself.

“Ryan used to say that he’d ‘rather wear out than rust out,’” Joe Shay said.

“If he could script the end of his life, I don’t think he could have wanted it any better.

“Not many people get to end their life doing the things they love, and he did.”

The story of Pheidippides was resurrected in the late 19th century by the English poet Robert Browning, who writes, “Run, Pheidippides, one race more! … He flung down his shield / Ran like fire once more … Joy in his blood bursting his heart, — the bliss!”

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