Thursday, May 28, 2009

Lights, Camera, Action...But Where's Chauncey??

It remains one of the most puzzling box score lines in NBA history.

It was 2005, and the Pistons were entering a Game 7 showdown with the San Antonio Spurs. This was for everything.

The Pistons win, and they secure their second straight championship, placing them among the immortals in NBA lore.

Lose, and it's another could-be title slipping through their fingers in a pseudo-dynasty that has come to be defined by them.

Handling the ball at the point that night was the same guy that did it for so many years. Chauncey Billups. He'd been named Finals MVP just one year ago when he spearheaded the Pistons' effort in completely dismantling the Lakers.

In this series against the Spurs, Chauncey was running hot and cold, but there was one thing you could count on. He'd want the ball when it mattered most. If he went down, he was going down swinging.

In the Game 5 heartbreaker at the Palace, Big Shot hoisted 26 times.

In the must-win affair in Game 6, he remained aggressive, putting up 16 shots, and drilling 5 of 9 from downtown.

The Pistons couldn't win without him having a great night, and he knew it.

There was a reason they called him Mr. Big Shot. While other players tensed up as the stakes got larger, Chauncey was always one to embrace that moment.

Which is what makes that Game 7 box score so hard to understand.

In a night that would boggle the minds of Pistons fans for years to come, Chauncey logged 40 minutes of court time and shot a lifeless 3 of 8 from the floor. He attempted just three of his signature attempts from long range, making none. Defensive specialist Lindsey Hunter took just as many shots as Billups in half the minutes. It was Un-Chauncey like in every sense of the word.

The lights were brightest, the stage was set, and the man that supposedly lived for moments just like this simply retreated to the background and let the other players decide his team's fate.

He was supposed to devour that kind of situation. Instead, he was paralyzed by it.

I didn't recognize the man wearing the "Pistons 1" that night. And on Wednesday in Los Angeles, with the Western Conference championship hanging in the balance, that shadowy figure emerged again.

And exited without so much as a peep.


In a best of seven series, there is no more pivotal point than Game 5 of a deadlocked affair.

The road team, in this case the Nuggets, knew in their hearts that they had to steal this one and finish things off at home. You aren't going into Kobe's house, with Kobe's referees, and winning Game 7.

Will not happen.

Which is why everyone knew that this game meant everything.

Early on, it looked like Chauncey Billups was well aware of these circumstances. He came out firing.

On Denver's first possession, he found himself being blanketed by Derek Fisher. Didn't matter.

This is his time. Elevate and release. Nothing but net from 26 feet.

Just one minute later, Chauncey was attacking again. All the way to the rim for a layup in traffic.

He was feeling good. You got the sense it might be one of those special Chauncey nights.

Like the time the Pistons ventured to Orlando, trailing 3-2, praying they would avoid the ignominy that comes with being knocked out in the first round as the conference's top seed. Wasn't gonna happen; not on Chauncey's watch, anyway. He exploded for 40 that night. The Pistons cruised.

And while he had nights during that regular season where he knocked down game-winners in the closing seconds, it was that unforgettable playoff performance that truly cemented him as Mr. Big Shot.

As the first quarter carried on in LA, Chauncey continued his assault. Another bomb from the arc and a technical free throw to cap things off. Nine points in the opening frame.

He seemed to be on his way to a huge night. Maybe another 40-spot like that memorable assault on the Magic.

Or so we thought...

The game ambled along, with neither team able to jump out too far ahead. It was a choppy affair, as if both teams knew the importance of the situation, but were unsure of how to take control of it.

It was just the kind of night that Chauncey had come to be known for.

He'd think, "Let all these other punks short-arm their jumpers and commit careless turnovers...I aint' phased by it."

Only on this night, he was.

The game continued on, close throughout, and you kept waiting for him to turn it on.

Never happened.

In the 3rd, he forced the issue and made consecutive turnovers. When did Chauncey do that?

He'd try to play off the ball, letting Anthony Carter or J.R. Smith bring it up. But he'd just spend the 24 seconds camped out in a corner, more spectator than participant.

There were even occasions when the ball would be rotated to him for a wide open three-ball, and he would make an extra pass.

He is the extra pass.

You swing the ball madly around the arc so he can shoot. Not so he can catch the ball, look around, and dish to an unsuspecting Linas Kleiza.

And most concerning of all, the majority of Chauncey's offensive sets down the stretch went something like this: bring the ball up the floor, pick up dribble 35 feet from the rim, give it up to Carmelo Anthony, and then watch.

During the game, I found myself admonishing Carmelo for his ill-advised drives to the hoop and suspect shot selection. But then I realized: at least he's doing something.

Chauncey was there...but not really there. Which takes us back to that puzzling night from four years ago.

The Pistons and Spurs headed into that final quarter all tied up at 57. (Nobody said it was the prettiest series in league history.)

Even though Chauncey had been quiet to that point, you couldn't imagine him staying that way with the Larry O'Brien trophy now close enough to touch.

But he did

Nine minutes flew by in the quarter. The Spurs carefully built a six point advantage. Chauncey finally took a shot, a layup that dropped in. But it was too late. Tim Duncan and Co. had another banner to raise.

It's a funny feeling in sports.

You're watching something occur, a live event completely unique to itself. But you can't fight the feeling that you've seen the exact same scene play out before.

That was Game 5 last night.

The Lakers and Nuggets headed to the 4th quarter all knotted up, a Finals appearance likely going to the winner, and just as he did on June 23rd, 2005, Chauncey went dark.

Two shot attempts, one at the beginning, one at the end, neither successful. He was taking a pass on this one.

Shannon Brown hounded him and drew high praise from the ESPN crew. And sure, he did a nice job, but still...this was supposed to be Mr. Big Shot.

This was the guy that labored through the rigorous 82-game schedule just so he could wind up at the center of this kind of series-altering 4th quarter. But this time it came and went, and Chauncey was nowhere to be found. His final line is something that would make Einstein do a double take and say, "Wait, I can't figure this one out."

39 Minutes, 4-7 shooting (3-6 on 3s), for 12 points.

Seven shots?? From Chauncey Billups? In the season's most important game?

Carmelo heaved 23. Even Kenyon Martin jacked up 15. J.R. Smith put up 10 from three point land alone. But defying explanation, after a 3 of 3 start in the game's opening frame, Chauncey would take just four shots in the final 36 minutes.

When Chauncey's first few shot attempts nestled softly through the net, you could tell that his stroke was there. But somehow, his intensity was absent.

Where was the guy that put this team on his back all year after the Iverson trade and changed the whole culture of the Nuggets' franchise?

Where was the guy that sliced and diced the NBA's best point guard, Chris Paul, in round one?

Where was the Chauncey from 2003, when his Piston team traveled to Orlando for a must-have game, and he let the ultimate fate rest in his hands?

Chauncey wouldn't have had it any other way that night.

Either he was gonna lead them to victory, or they were going home. He was not okay with riding shotgun and letting his season come to an end on someone else's account.

In Game 5 against the Lakers, that Chauncey was merely a memory. He simply stood off to the side and watched as his team dropped the game that they so desperately needed.

The Nuggets needed Mr. Big Shot Wednesday night.

Unfortunately, he never arrived.

And now they will most likely spend a long summer trying to figure out where he went...

Drop a comment below, or send me your thoughts at

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Yet Unnamed Memorial Day Weekend Sports Re-Kap

After a ho-hum first month and a half of the season, the Tigers came home for a 9-game home stand and promptly caught fire. And it's due in no small part to the excellent starting pitching that has been rounding into form over the last few weeks. Justin Verlander has reverted back to his 2006-07 form and is practically a lock to give you seven or eight tremendous innings every time out. Edwin Jackson has been nearly as good, making the off-season deal for Matt Joyce look like one of Dave Dombrowski's best moves in some time. Rick Porcello has made an immediate impact, perhaps sooner than anyone expected. Sure, Armando Galarraga looks like a lock for the Toledo Mud Hens rotation in 2010, but no staff is perfect. During the Tigers' recent streak of seven straight wins, only once did they allow more than three runs. You would be hard pressed to find another team in all of baseball that boasts a trio of power arms in the rotation like those of Verlander, Jackson, and Porcello.

And with the rest of the division scuffling mightily, now might be the time for the Tigers to ratchet up the intensity and try to pull away from the pack at this early juncture. Put up another 7 and 3 stretch over the next ten, and you might be looking at a double digit lead over the next closest squad in the Central. Who are you supposed to be scared of? The Royals? It's only a matter of time before people realize that their staff consists of Zach Greinke and a whole bunch of rice pilaf. If they think the baseball gods are going to allow them to pitch Sidney Ponson every fifth day and go to the playoffs, they are in for a rude awakening.

The Twins are always a factor in this division, but they're just too reliant on their gimmicky home stadium to be considered a real threat right now. Not to mention the fact that Francisco Liriano is probably no longer a legitimate big-league pitcher and the franchise seemingly won't admit it until the man is walking the streets of Minneapolis toting an ERA in the low teens.

The South Siders still have the rock solid Mark Buehrle, but what's with their attempt to revive the corpse of "The Hispanic Ponson," Bartolo Colon? When you're an aging pitcher with marginal stuff and you used to rely on being overpowering, and your waistline is increasing with every post-game chili dog, it's probably a good idea to hang up the spikes. Or put down the fork. One or the other.

As for the Tribe, when your best hurler is Carl Pavano, that pretty much puts you out of consideration for the division crown. Cliff Lee is looking mortal again after an inexplicable Cy Young campaign last season, while Fausto Carmona's 19-8 ledger in '07 seems like a similar statistical aberration for an otherwise erratic pitcher.

All in all, the postseason prospects for the boys sporting the Olde English D are looking mighty fine, albeit at this still early juncture. Bats may run hot and cold from time to time, but when a team is able to secure consistent performances from their starting pitchers 5-6 times a week, that usually leads to baseball in October.

The Designated Hitter rule in the American League states that a team is allowed to place one player in the batting order only to hit, not to play the field, but that this player can only be used in place of the pitcher. The reason I bring this up is that the Tigers have a serious issue on their hands whenever Gerald Laird needs a day off. Dane Sardinha is the backup catcher for the Tigers, and league rules state that if he sets up shop behind the dish, he must also occupy a slot in the batting order. This is a problem for one main reason: Sardinha cannot hit. And I'm not just talking the "Oh, he'll hit ya 12 homers and bat .235" kind of range. This guy is capable of doing things that position players have only had nightmares about before. The Big Sardine is hitting a robust .095, and that's only after a stunning RBI single over the weekend allowed him to vacate the sickly .053 he'd been lugging around prior. Not to say that a backup catcher is an all-important ingredient in becoming a pennant winner, but can you really continue to employ any major league position player that not only fails to hit his weight, but also that of post hunger-strike Gandhi? When Sardinha is in the lineup, Jim Leyland is forced to treat him like a National League pitcher. With a man on 1st and nobody out, he's bunting. No questions asked. But oddly, in the same spot but with one down, Leyland will allow Dane to swing away. Most NL skippers still have their pitcher lay one down in this spot. Shouldn't Leyland be doing the same? After all, this guy has not shown the ability to out-hit most pitchers and thus should be treated accordingly.

The backup catcher spot has been one quietly gnawing at the Tigers for the last few years, but this is a new low. Vance Wilson was superb in the World Series run a few years back, but that was followed by Tommy John surgery and several dozen "setbacks" in his recovery that made you wonder if his body was actually being possessed by Dean Palmer. Mike Rabelo was next on the job, and it's just a shame we never got to see what he could actually do if given a full season of at-bats. I really think he could have racked up 300 strikeouts. Now we'll never know. So it's Sardinha's post for the time being. He'll strap on the shin guards once a week and do all he can to call a solid game for his starting pitcher. Then he'll stride to the plate 3-4 times and pray to God that he will be able to make contact on just one of his swings. If not, maybe we can write to Bud Selig and see if he can amend the DH rule. After all, why does it always have to be the pitcher you replace in the order? Sometimes a catcher can be just as bad. And we've got the sub-.100 average to prove it.

Talk all you want about Andrew Bynum and his "being the key to the Lakers winning the title." Talk about Pau Gasol and his "soft play." Talk about Kobe and his unending selfishness on the offensive end. I got news for you. The guy holding the key to the Lakers championship run is the consistently inconsistent Lamar Odom. What has happened to this guy? Forever immensely talented, he finally seemed to be coming into his own during last season's run to the NBA Finals. While Gasol was a huge boost to the Lakers' frontline, it was Odom's ability to finally tap into his unlimited potential that pushed the team to a new level. But for most of this playoffs, Odom has been nowhere to be found. His offensive game that was once as smooth as a baby's backside is now more awkward than a Charles Barkley golf swing. When Odom is at his best, he's taking his guy off the dribble, knocking down mid-range jumpers, scoring around the rim, and getting to the line. Of late, all he seems to be able to manage are forced half-hooks in traffic and rushed shots from the perimeter. The Nuggets employ a host of solid interior defenders led by Kenyon Martin and Birdman Andersen, but Odom is certainly more capable than his '1 for 8, 3 turnovers, in 30 minutes' stat line would suggest. The guy has fought the rap of being lazy throughout his career. When he was a Clipper, it was probably true. He dealt with drug problems, and was more concerned with conceiving intricate on-court handshakes with Darius Miles and Quentin Richardson than actually playing basketball. But then Odom went to Miami for a year and started to dominate like everyone knew he always could. Perhaps he had seen the light. Odom is now in his 5th season alongside Kobe Bryant, and it is finally time for him to stop looking for others to bail him out. Lefthanded six foot ten forwards with an ability to handle the ball, dish off for easy buckets, and knock down the occasional trey do not come along very often. Odom has an unusual skill set to be sure. But whether that skill set actually makes an appearance in this now deadlocked series could be the difference between a second consecutive Lakers trip to the Finals or another long winter wondering, "How did such immense talents find their way into such an unmotivated soul?"

(While Odom's shortcomings on the court have been notable, he boasts one other feature that is impossible to ignore. And yes, I'm talking about the unsightly vein that adorns his right shoulder. I understand that it's not by choice and that it's probably out of his control, but can't he put a bandage over it or something? Can't he borrow that giant upper arm brace that J.J. Barea sports for the Mavs? Anytime I catch a glimpse of the Odom mega-vein, the same thought runs through my mind. "What's gonna happen if he gets scratched or catches a sharp elbow right to the vein?" I feel like all hell would just immediately break loose. The entire right limb would likely fall off, blood would spurt from everywhere, and what was once his distinct physical characteristic would now be the exact reason he was slowly dying on the court. Some might be shocked at his stunning in-game death, but there would be plenty of others insisting the man never even had a pulse to begin with. Definitely something to watch for in Game 5.)

-You have to admire the Nuggets bounce-back effort in Game 4 against the Lake Show. Chauncey was leading, J.R. Smith was draining long bombs, and Birdman was being Birdman. Follow-up dunks, ferocious shot blocks, and of course, through it all, looking like the scariest guy on the court. The man has tattoos on every inch of his arms and chest, and I'd be lying if I said that me and my brother Sam didn't spend a good part of the first half discussing whether or not Andersen had his "Personal Three Second Area" inked up as well. I'll leave the details of that conversation for another time...

Call me me a me whatever you want. But I'm never, ever, going to be one hundred percent comfortable saying the word "pianist." You always end up trying to enunciate each syllable perfectly so it is abundantly clear what word is coming out of your mouth. But somehow, it always sounds just a little bit off. I mean, is that really the best word they could come up with for someone that plays the piano? Why not take a page out of Billy Joel's book and just call this kind of person a "Piano Man?" Wouldn't it make all of our lives a little bit easier, and a little less awkward? I know that Adrien Brody won a Best Actor Oscar for his highly regarded performance in "The Pianist," but I refused to see it. There's no way I was going up to the ticket counter and actually speaking the name of that title out loud in a public forum. You might think I'm crazy, but I bet the next time you ask someone if they are a "pianist," you will misspeak just a tad and wind up getting slugged right in the jaw. Believe me, I know from experience...

Any thoughts on the eventful Memorial Day Weekend? Drop a comment here or float me an e-mail at

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Expect the Unexpected

Tim Kurkjian, a longtime baseball writer and ESPN contributor, has always been able to sum up the game's never-ending charm with one simple statement. "The great thing about baseball is, on any given night, you may see something you've never seen before." There have been more profound baseball quotes uttered over the years, but none more true. So many possibilities exist within one single game that you truly never know when you will witness such a play or sequence that will have you saying, "I can't recall ever seeing that before." I once saw a game at Tiger Stadium decided by a wild pitch...on an intentional walk. I was there when a 100-loss Tiger team began a game with back-to-back home runs off of future Hall-of-Famer Pedro Martinez, the first of which came off the bat of Ramon Santiago, who had never before homered in a major league game. Just the other day, the Tampa Bay Rays were forced to bat their starting pitcher, Andy Sonnanstine, 3rd in the order due to a faulty lineup card that listed two different players as the starting third baseman. So when I started drifting to sleep late Monday night with the Mets and Dodgers flickering on the tube, I fought back the yawns, perched up the pillow, and hoped I would see something I'd never seen before.

Things were moving along in a relatively normal fashion as the game entered the 11th inning, all tied at 2. With two outs in the top half, Mets right fielder Ryan Church poked a two-out single to left, keeping the inning alive. Church has pretty good speed, and with two outs, anything hit in the gap would most likely see him score and give the Mets the lead for the first time all night. Sure enough, Angel Pagan stepped up next and laced a shot towards the wall in right-center. The Dodger outfielders had no chance of making a play, and hurried over to try and play the ricochet. Only the ball managed to land right at the foot of the fence, and instead of careening back toward the fielders, it sort of wedged itself right in there, forcing Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp to go retrieve the ball and fire it back in. Meanwhile, Ryan Church was off at the crack of the bat, and with the high trajectory and long flight of the ball coupled with the subsequent pinning under the wall, he was cruising easily around the bases. Pagan took advantage as well, motoring all the way to third with an effortless stand-up triple. The Mets had grabbed a 3-2 lead, and still had a potential insurance run just 90 feet away.

But the Dodgers were crying foul, claiming that Church failed to touch 3rd on his trek around the bases. It reeked of desperation. I mean, you see that kind of appeal work in Little League sometimes, but not in The Show. Only tonight was unlike any other night. The Dodger pitcher threw the ball over to Mark Loretta, he stepped on the bag, and up went the umpire's fist. Out?? Out!!??? You would think that Church and the rest of the New Yorkers would have been after the men in blue lickety split to scream in protest, but there was no such argument. Church and the Mets did not object one iota. Sure enough, on the replay, you see Church take one giant step before the base and then another long skip to get over the base. He was like a horse trying to avoid hitting that top bar in the equestrian. As a matter of fact, Church didn't even try selling the gaffe to maybe fool the umps. Once he slid across home plate (though no throw was coming), he got up and sort of peeked over his shoulder towards third, hoping and begging that his mistake would go unnoticed. Not exactly the look of an innocent man. So on this majestic drive to the deepest part of the park that would have seen Franklin Roosevelt score standing up, Church had somehow been unable to place any part of his cleat on the third base bag as he strode past. You almost have to go out of your way to miss the thing entirely. It's not like aiming for a small pine cone in a heavily wooded forest. The base is a large white square sitting alone on a big brown patch of dirt set perfectly in line with the path that you're running on. But Church had committed this cardinal sin, and the Mets trudged back onto the field to play defense in the bottom of the 11th. You'd think the shenanigans would have ended there, but this game always keeps you guessing.

(Quick sidenote. To possibly stump your friends, ask them what Pagan would be credited with on this play. Answer: even though he ended up on third base, Pagan was given just a single in the box score. Since the runner ahead of him, Church, only legally achieved second base, Pagan could only be given a single. It took the Mets announcers a solid 15 minutes to figure this out.)

Loretta led off the home half with a walk. Ironically, on a night of comedic mishaps by the Metropolitans, this leadoff walk might have been the most costly. The Dodgers rookie outfielder, Xavier Paul, was up next with plans on sacrificing Loretta over to second. But Paul could do no such thing, and was eventually forced to swing away. He lofted a deep fly ball towards the warning track in left center. It hung up long enough, however, for the Mets outfielders to make an easy play on it. Pagan loped over from left, waving his mitt in the air indicating the ball was his. At the same time, Carlos Beltran was on the move from center, screaming his call for the ball. As the little white Rawlings began its final descent through the perfect LA night sky, it became clear that while both players were adamant about calling the ball, neither was as passionate about actually catching the ball. Pagan ended up veering off at the last second, Beltran made a clumsy, last-ditch emergency lunge, and the ball fell harmlessly to the ground directly between the puzzled duo. I guess strange plays happen in bunches. The Dodgers were now in business, with men on 2nd and 3rd, nobody out, and needing only one run to send everybody home happy.

Proving that this night was straight out of the twilight zone, the Mets were forced to intentionally walk the notoriously powerless Juan Pierre to load the bases. With an almost impossible situation on his hands, Jerry Manuel took a trip out to the mound to set up his defense. He motioned for Beltran to come in from center, positioning him as a 5th infielder behind the mound, just to the right of second base. It's always a unique sight to see on the field, but not once in my life can I recall this extra infielder actually seeing any action in the subsequent plays. Adding to the moment, Mets color analyst Ron Darling temporarily lost his mind, repeatedly lamenting the fact that Beltran was summoned to the infield instead of Pagan, and then criticizing the placement of him behind the mound. Apparently Darling had forgotten that the game at this point was basically a formality and that the odds of Beltran making any kind of play on the infield were remote.

Back to the game, Rafael Furcal had the first chance against righty Brian Stokes with the bags full and nobody down. With huge patches in the outfield now uncovered, Furcal could pretty much hit the ball anywhere and end this circus. Instead, Stokes got him to hit a baby pop-up towards left and Pagan put it away with no advancement. Could the Mets possibly escape the frame without any damage? Orlando Hudson was up next, sporting a robust .341 average. Surely he would crack this gimmick defense and find a hole to push the final run across. But Stokes was not going down without a fight. He battled Hudson with tough sliders, and finally got him to hit his pitch. Hudson bounded a harmless one-hopper to Mets 1st sacker Jeremy Reed. The only problem is that Reed had spent a total of one inning at this spot in the first five years of his career. He was only here on this night because earlier in the day, the Mets learned that Carlos Delgado would need serious hip surgery. But despite his inexperience at the position, this was still a play that 99% of Little Leaguers could make. Glove the Sunday hop, step toward the target, and make a solid throw to the plate. The Mets would be just one out away from seeing the 12th inning, when it had looked like a sheer impossibility just minutes before. However, on a night with a player missing third base in a most crucial situation, a botched fly ball, and a 3-time Gold Glove award-winning outfielder playing on the infield, it was not to be. Reed fielded the Hudson bouncer, and just as he was ready to release the ball, Stokes was seen moving in his direction while trying to duck simultaneously to avoid bothering the toss. The nervous first baseman unleashed a wild throw to the backstop that only Chuck Knoblauch or Rick Ankiel would have been proud of. It was three feet too high, six feet too wide, and the perfect end to an imperfect night.

Baseball is not without its flaws. Some complain that the pace is too slow and the games are too long. There are new steroid accusations on an almost daily basis. But on a night like this, you realize that Tim Kurkjian had it right all along. No matter if it's a World Series game or just a ho-hum late night affair in mid-May, there is always that chance you will see something that you've never seen before. This was one of those times. I'm just glad I decided to stay up.

The High Socks Legend is always eager to hear your thoughts...share them here or drop me an e-mail at

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Longest Hour of Your Life

It is arguably the most dreaded social interaction in our society. The guy spots you checking out a couple pairs of kicks, and just by the way he walks over, you know he means business. "Can I help you with anything, sir?," the seemingly innocent gentleman asks. The only way this guy can help me is by staying out of my life...permanently. But he never does. They find out which shoe you're interested in. But they aren't going to retrieve a pair just yet. First they have to take a measure of your foot with that kamikaze-style device. The guy lays the metal thing down by your feet, and then proceeds to plop himself on the floor. It's always uncomfortable at this point, since you are now towering over this mook as he prepares the tool for his intricate procedure. With your commanding position of posture, you can't help but feel like some kind of King with your servants far below you tending to your every need.

You put your heel against the back of this thing, at which point the guy slides a few dials back and forth with the careful precision of a neurosurgeon, all to tell you that you are a size 12, just as you have been for the last zillion years. The guy is always such a punk when he's doing it too, saying things like, "Make sure your foot is all the way back...are you sure it's ALL the way back?" and "Stand up straight now, son." The problem is that sometimes it becomes a tough task to keep your balance with one hoof on solid ground and the other firmly entrenched in foot-measuring prison. This leads to the inevitable lean forward, come close to falling, but ultimately stay upright by holding onto the sales guy's shoulders. This is by far the most uncomfortable possible scenario in the whole shoe selection process. The shoulder grab can be construed by shoe-man as something that it's not. It could lead to a lawsuit, a potential discount, or a date for Saturday night. Bottom line...when that metal foot measure makes an appearance, nothing good is about to happen.

So now he's off to the mythical "back area" of the store to get the appropriate size of the shoe you requested. Only he aint just comin' back with that shoe. He's also got a couple of other boxes with shoes that "I thought you might like." Easy, big fella. If I wanted your opinion, I would beat it out of you. You'd think that at this point, you would be left alone with the shoes to see what works. No, sir. Shoe guy is back kneeling on the floor again, opening the box for you and offering to lace 'em up. I've never been sure why the shoes can't just be laced up already in the box. Once he's made this offer, you feel like you should accept. But then again, you feel extremely lazy sitting there with two fully functioning hands while this guy swoops the laces through the holes. In our defense as customers though, lacing up a sneaker is no small potatoes. The criss-cross action that is required certainly complicates things, and the holes that the laces have to fit through are the size of a grain of sand. Finally, the kicks are laced up all the way and homeboy hands you the shoe to try it on. But more problems await.

These are all supposed to be your size, but somehow the first one you try on does not fit at all. It's so tight around your foot that you are forced to scrunch up all your toes and endure extreme pain just to get it all the way in. You take it off to check the size on that little tag under the tongue. After searching through the various bizarre countries listed (just once I want a shoe that doesn't list UK on the inside) and their accompanying sizes and managing to decipher the tiny font, you see that it is indeed the right one (US 12) and should fit like a glove. You confusingly hand the shoe back to the salesman and tell him it's a no-go. He doesn't seem fazed, though. He proceeds to stuff his hand inside the shoe and reach in as if searching for some prize at the bottom of a box of Corn Pops. His well-traveled mitt emerges from the Nike grasping a large, balled-up portion of that day's newspaper. "Oh, how silly, you must have forgotten to take out the paper, sir!," he says with a huge laugh. Yeah, silly me. I was under the far-fetched impression that I would simply be able to try on a gym shoe without first searching for crumpled reading material in each and every crevice of the leather. Fit me for a friggin' straitjacket.

Now the shoe is back on your foot, sans paper, and feeling very cozy. You take a few steps with the shoe on to see how it feels. Everything seems good. You might even be ready to purchase. Not so fast. The guy wants to see you put the left one on too, and "run around a little bit." It's not enough for the shoes to fit perfectly and feel great all the way around. This power-hungry maniac has to always demand that you display your sprinting prowess in the minimal space provided. What is this guy looking for, here? It never even seems like he's actually paying attention to the shoe and whether it's staying on your foot. Instead, he's morphed into some type of amateur Olympic scout looking for the next phenom. "Pump those arms...get those knees up!!," the psychotic salesman yelps. At this point, you realize the shoe doesn't really feel that great, but you're willing to do whatever it takes to get out the door and breathe fresh air again. You tell the guy it's all good, and you are ready to pay.

So close to the finish line. Except there's always that one mind-bender of a question left in the guy's holster. He holds up the new shoes and asks, "You gonna wear these out?" You take a look outside and see that it's pouring, and you'd rather just wear the old ones until you got home to keep the new guys fresh and clean. Only you know that this isn't the answer Shoe Monster is looking for. If you tell him now to box up the new ones instead of wearing them out of the store, there is no telling what he would do to himself or the next customer that entered his reign of terror. This is similar to asking a waitress, "Which is better, the pancakes or the french toast?," then having her strongly recommend the pancakes, and you going the other way.

Even though you tell Shoe Guy that you're only wearing the old ones temporarily to keep from damaging the newbies, you know that he's worried sick that the change might never come. And it kills him.

But your heart glows.

He might have dominated the game and taken advantage of you on numerous occasions. But when all is said and done, you're walking out of there as a free man wearing the same pair of old beat-up Reeboks that you high-stepped in with 45 minutes ago. And you got a balloon.

Game, set, and match.

Gettin' shoes is never really a pleasant experience. Agree? Drop a comment here or kick me an e-mail at

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Un-Friendly Confines

The Tigers entered the state of Minnesota feeling pretty darn good. They had just completed a brilliantly pitched three-game sweep over the Indians. The starters were dominant, the relievers were solid, and all seemed to be right in Tiger Town. But there's one thing that Minnesota has that Cleveland does not: the Metrodome. Or more aptly titled, the Detroit Tigers Very Own Personal House of Horrors. More than any other park in the American League, you just never feel like a lead is 100% safe in that giant bubble. The grass is fake, the fans are noisy, and the opposing hitters are downright frisky. And when the dust finally settled on this 3-game set, the Tigers found themselves trudging home empty handed. And dreading the next trip back to Minneapolis.

The opener on Tuesday night was just a flat performance that will happen more than a few times during a 162-game season. Armando Galarraga was shaky and the Tiger bats were quiet. No reason to panic. Still two opportunities to grab a game in this godforsaken building.

The second contest had it all. Dontrelle Willis made his 2009 debut and proceeded to get hit harder than a Lawrence Phillips ex-girlfriend. The sooner he realizes that he is the present-day Rick Ankiel and that his only future lies in being a position player, the better off all of us will be. Somehow, the Tigers battled back with long bombs courtesy of Miguel Cabrera, Brandon Inge, and Glenallen Hill-impersonator, Jeff Larish. But like all games in the Metrodome, you can't be sure of anything until the final out is recorded. Sure enough, a 2-run lead in the 8th went up in smoke when Jason Kubel took a Joel Zumaya fireball and promptly blasted it somewhere in the general direction of Mars. It seems that Kubel was raised on the Matt Stairs' school of hitting where you try to hit every single pitch as far as humanly possible. Give that guy 7-8 years, and he'll be checking in at the same 300 bills that Stairs has been for the last decade.

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 12:30 AM, Curtis Granderson laced a signature triple with just one out. Perfect. But after a short pop fly by Potato Head Polanco failed to get him in, Granderson took matters into his own hands. Or more appropriately, his feet. Grandy stutter-stepped a bluff towards the dish. Twinkie reliever Jesse Crain panicked and went through with a halted delivery so awkward that a balk was called even though nobody seemed to really know where the infraction occurred. Normally, when you score a run in such bizarre fashion in the 13th inning of a marathon game, the home team is so demoralized that they are content to take their three quick outs in the bottom half and get to sleep. But not in the Metrodome.

Kubel (or Ruth, whichever you prefer) led off with a single. Trouble. A sacrifice moved him over. Then a Bermuda Triangle single by Twins 2nd sacker Matt Tolbert tied things up again. The Twins have mastered the "we might not hit it hard, but you can be sure we're hitting it in the exact perfect place" technique. Tolbert is another example of the perennial Twins' annoyance. They always have that same no-stick, good gloved, 2nd baseman that hangs around for a few years before a new scrub comes along. Luis Rivas held the title for a while, Alexi Casilla carried the torch after that, and now Matt Tolbert is continuing the tradition proudly. Somewhere, Steve Lombardozzi is smiling. So with the game now tied and Tolbert aboard, it was simply a matter of how the Twins would pull it out. The bases were ultimately loaded with two outs, and longtime Tigers assassin Joe Crede was stepping into the box. On the mound, Brandon Lyon was in his third inning of work and looking malnourished. The matchup was so uneven that Crede could have been forced to use one of those plastic light-sabres you used to get at the circus and he still would have hit the ball 450 feet. Sure enough, Lyon tried to coax one more breaking ball out of his dying arm, and Crede deposited it for a walk-off slam.
Metrodome 2, Tigers 0.

But they had one more shot. Justin Verlander was on the hill. There's been no hotter pitcher over the last month. Jim Leyland even pegged Magglio back into the 3-slot in the order to try and get his bat going. The Tigers were determined to come home with at least one W in their back pocket. Through six innings, Verlander was masterful. Practically untouchable. Of the 19 outs he recorded, 13 were marked with a 'K' in the scorebook. And finally, the Tigers busted out with an inning of their own and hung a crooked 5-spot in the 6th. So now they had a five run lead in the 7th inning with their ace pitcher cruising along, and the players dead tired after an excruciatingly long game the night before. Even this was not something the Twins and the Metrodome could overcome. Think again. Verlander was pulled after two men reached with one out. Bobby Seay entered to face the Twins' parade of lefties, where he excels. Unfortunately, there's good Bobby Seay, there's bad Bobby Seay, and then on a day like this one, there is "I'm literally going to throw a beach ball towards the plate" Bobby Seay. Finally, Zach Miner was summoned from what is now looking like a pretty shaky scene down in the Tigers' pen. As if the series couldn't end any other way, Joe Crede broke his bat on another perfectly placed Metrodome single and the home team had the final lead, 6-5.

Having difficulty in a certain stadium or venue is not unique to just the Tigers and their Metrodome struggles. In the NBA, the Pistons have gone to Utah for the last 25 years and all they have to show for it are some gut-wrenching losses and one very painful Mailman-to-Isiah elbow. The Lions have trekked up to frigid Lambeau every year since '92 and have come up short every single time. Kevin Bacon's Winabi tribe emerged victorious in The Air Up There, but I don't think anybody believes in their heart of hearts that they win that game if it is played in Mingori territory. Sometimes a home field just means that much. And this week was one of those times. There's just something unfriendly to the visiting team about the Metrodome. Maybe it's the vastly under reported story that their workers were manipulating the air conditioning system during the '87 and '91 title runs to aid the Twins' cause. Or it could be the "Am I a football field or a baseball diamond" dilemma that makes for odd dimensions and poor sight lines. Or maybe it's the fact that every single ball hit in the gap by a Tiger over the last five years has wound up one-hopping over the fence for a ground-rule double, always with a man on first that would have easily scored otherwise. In the past, unknown baseball vagabonds like Jason Tyner and Lew Ford immediately turn into the second coming of Mantle and Maris when dropped into the ultra-friendly home confines of the Metrodome. The Tigers return to Comerica Park tonight, and you can imagine that coming home never felt so good.

There's a small silver lining in this frustrating series sweep. Target Field, the new home to the Twins, is scheduled to be ready for play Opening Day next season. It will be outdoors with real grass. Which means that the Big Bubble in Minnesota will no longer be able to torment the Tigers with its high bounces, garbage bag homers, and unorthodox rallies. But like any big change in life, you wonder if the Tigers might wind up missing the old guy once he's gone and replaced with a newer, shinier, version. After the last 72 hours of misery...I think they'll handle it just fine.

The High Socks Legend can be reached at

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

An NBA Dinner Party for the Ages

With the NBA taking a night off from playoff games, the league decided to throw a private dinner for its members. The get together took place at a Chili's in downtown LA. It was a night reserved for good conversation, a few laughs, and a couple dozen fajitas. Thankfully, the restaurant's audio/video security equipment was able to capture the epic evening, giving us a glimpse into the personal lives of real NBA stars and how they interact during a fine meal.

Hostess: Welcome to Chili's, guys! Right this way.

(The NBA guys take their seats around a large circular table. The commissioner kicks off the festivities with a greeting and mini-toast.)

David Stern: Hello, everyone. I'd like to say thank you to all the guys that showed up here tonight.

Big Baby Davis: Hey man, it's our pleasure. You say free food...I come callin'!

Stern: Actually Glen, each man will be responsible for his own check tonight. I apologize for that misunderstanding.

Davis: Aww, you gotta be kiddin' me! I was planning on doing some major damage here tonight. Guess I'll have to tone it down, now.

Anthony Johnson: Dang, me too! I'd already set my mind on downing at least a dozen corn dogs up in here! Guess it's a good thing since I got a game tomorrow night, and the guy playing in front of me, Rafer Alston, has suddenly turned into Damon Jones.

Tyronn Lue: I know, man! Coach Van Gundy even told me to be ready!

Johnson: Alright, now you're goin' too far! Coach never said that.

Lue: Haha, I know. But a man can dream, right?!?

Shane Battier: Pipe down, the both of you! It's time to order. (Talking to waitress) Yes, I'm going to have an appetizer of the Southwest Egg Rolls.

Waitress: Anything to drink with that, sir?

Battier: Yes. Just go ahead and bring me all the Rogaine you can find in this square mile radius, and I'll take it from there. (Rubs scalp and forehead simultaneously while the rest of the table looks on in horror)

Waitress: And for you, Mr. Oberto?

Luis Scola: Scola! My name Luis Scola!! Why does everyone think I Fabricio Oberto? Just because we both from Argentina and have hair style of 15-year old girl??!

Chauncey Billups: Yo, chill out big fella. I actually thought you were Sasha Vujacic when I walked in, so we all make mistakes.

Scola: Meester Big Shot!! I did not even know you here.

Billups: Actually, I was sittin' in the other room, but the table I was at said my meal was too expensive to cover. Get this. I'd been with them for over three hours...I'd been nothing but good to all the other people...we were doing a ton of fantastic things during the meal...and they sent me away just because I was a tad on the pricey side. You guys believe that? They will miss me when they realize I'm gone from their table and I aint ever comin' back.

Commissioner Stern: Well, Chauncey, you do seem very motivated. That's very nice to see.

Billups: Yeah, man. It's a whole new me now. I'm even gonna start takin' it to the hole and drawing contact again.

(While saying this, Chauncey shows an example by pretending to bump into the man walking by. No contact was made, but the customer goes flying backwards with his arms flailing, and winds up knocking over several tables and dishes along the way.)

(Violet Palmer jumps out of her chair with one hand behind her head and the other arm extended forward)

Palmer: I got a charge on the offensive player...we're going the other way!

Billups: Are you f#*$ng serious?!? I didn't even touch the man!

The fallen customer slowly rises, with a devilish grin draped across his face. It is revealed to be Cavaliers' forward Anderson Varejao.

(The Chili's staff comes over to help Varejao out of the restaurant. He is able to make it out to his car, but only after a wheelchair was retrieved for his short transport to the door. The man knows how to sell a call.)

Chris 'Birdman' Andersen: What a disgrace that Varejao is! Sure, I've done more drugs in the last 10 years than Whitney Houston and Josh Hamilton combined, but at least I can sleep at night knowing I play D like a real man!

Maitre D': Excuse me, Mr. Birdman. Hate to interrupt your meal, but we do require that each of our restaurant patrons wear sleeves at all times. Those tattoos you have are frowned upon here, as are pets, so may we ask that you also get rid of your snake.

Andersen: Snake? What snake?? I didn't bring any sna...

George Karl: Alright Chris, we're outta here. Pull up your pants and get up from the table.

(Chauncey has finally stopped arguing with Violet Palmer over the Varejao call from earlier. She sits back down and starts conversing with her fellow refs.)

Violet Palmer: You guys will never believe what happened when I got home last night! My husband was already fast asleep in bed, and when I reached over to wake him, I realized that he'd positioned masking tape all over the sheets to create a "restricted area," and he'd placed himself perfectly in the semi-circle. I couldn't even touch him! I mean, I knew all the NBA players hated me, but my own husband?!??

Steve Javie: C'mon Violet, you coulda woke him up. You've never understood that circle anyway, have you? I can't remember the last time you got a block/charge call right!

Palmer: You're right, Steve. That thing is impossible!

(A little kid approaches Palmer holding a yellow pad of paper and a big Sharpie marker)

Kid: Oh my god, I can't believe it's you! You're my favorite!! Wow!! Hey Mom, come over here, Larry Fitzgerald is about to sign an autograph for me!! Thanks, Mr. Fitzgerald, you're the best!!

(She signs the autograph quickly and begins to stand up from the table)

Palmer: Alright fellas, that's enough for me. I'm turning in. How much do I owe?

Javie: Ahh, don't worry about it. Your atrocious officiating makes us all look so good in comparison...that is payment enough! Just go have a good night.

(A waiter approaches a side table where Laker sidekicks Shannon Brown, Jordan Farmar, Luke Walton, and Sasha Vujacic are all eagerly anticipating the arrival of their food...)

Waiter: Here you are gentlemen, four giant helpings of our special Rice Pilaf.

Farmar: No, no, no!! You got it all wrong. We didn't want Rice Pilaf...we are Rice Pilaf!!

Waiter: Oh, I do apologize, sir. We will correct the error right away, Mr. Pilaf.

(Over at the Hawks' table, Zaza Pachulia is quietly sipping on a Corona while Josh Smith clumsily picks at his Grilled Chicken Salad)

Mike Woodson: Dang it, Josh! Keep that food on the table. I don't want to see one more drop fall into your lap!

Josh Smith: Back off, coach! I'm on the phone with Bibby's family...they're trying to set up a funeral service for Mike. Not easy holding my cell and my fork at the same time.

Woodson: Listen to me, boy. Put the cell phone in your left hand, and place the fork in your right. That way you can do both.

(He awkwardly tries to clutch his fork with the right hand...after a dozen unsuccessful attempts, Smith angrily fires it to the floor and begins tearing through the salad with his bare hands)

Smith: It's impossible!! I can't do it! How do you expect me to hold my fork using only my right hand?? I'm lefty, ya know!

(The rest of the table erupts in laughter.)

Woodson: Yeah, Josh. We've all noticed. Maybe you should think about using both of your mitts out there on the court. I mean, for Christ sake, I haven't seen a guy this dependant on his left hand since Pachulia was a sophomore in high school!!

(Smith and Woodson begin to tussle and have to be separated by several Hawks players. To nobody's surprise, Flip Murray remains expressionless throughout the entire altercation.)

Commissioner Stern: Attention, everybody. I would like to thank all of you for coming. It's been another tremendous night for the National Basketball Association. Remember...same time, same place, next year. Just don't tell the Birdman.

Which NBA players would you like to grab a bite with?? Drop a comment below or shoot me an e-mail at

Friday, May 8, 2009

Time to Put my Thinking Cap On...

Man, how irritating are those employees at Best Buy, just staring you down waiting to make eye contact?? Once they lock on, you're done; they're already making a bee-line right at you to throw out the obligatory, "Is there anything I can help you with?" Yea, I'm really lost here trying to find a movie when they are all in ALPHABETICAL ORDER. I think there is only one solution to this problem. Every time I know I'm going to Best Buy, I'll grab a sword or an axe or something from the attic, then head on in. Think I'll have my fair share of privacy shopping with this method.

Why is the salmon so special that it gets its own color named after it? I mean, why can’t trout have a color named after it too? People say it wouldn’t work because trout doesn’t have a distinct color. I say, “Yea, it’s TROUT!”

Some people are starting to take way too much credit for these store bought birthday cards? They buy this card with all these beautiful, poetic, statements…"you’re the wind beneath my wings," "your love makes my heart melt like butter." All of these sweet words were clearly penned by Hallmark, but then at the bottom, they add the finishing touch with the all-important, "Love, Bruce." “Yep, I wrote allll that…it was ALL me. The poem might be typed out perfectly, and my handwriting is nowhere to be found, and there's a price tag still on the back of the card, but trust me, I came up with it!” Is the girl supposed to be like, “OH MY GOD…I can’t believe you feel that way! What a beautiful card…oh, you are so amazing! How did I get so lucky?!?” Stop takin' credit for all these heartfelt poems that you probably couldn't read...let alone write.

You ever realize the way that the pizza delivery guy says goodbye is directly related to the tip you gave him? You give him 2 or 3 bucks, and he'll toss out an uber-friendly, “Now you have a nice night and take it easy. Hey, enjoy that Za!” On the other hand, you throw 70-80 cents his way, he counts the money, realizes what you gave him, and turns and walks away with tears welling up in his eyes. You try to make it better by yelling out, “Drive Safe!,” but by then he’s already started the car and is halfway to pizza suicide.

Alright, is anyone else absolutely perplexed any time you get out of the shower and cannot figure out which side of the towel is the one to dry off with?? You've got these solid blue or red or whatever color towels, and somehow the tag on the inside has been removed over the years. You start searching on every corner of the towel for some kind of identifier, but it’s the same material everywhere. I spend so much time trying to figure out which is the right side that I’ve air dried completely by the time I make a decision. And no, I have zero idea what I just wrote.

I love the movie King Kong. Only one thing I can’t seem to figure out. The girl loves King Kong and she’s so sad when he gets killed on the Empire State Building. I get that. I always end up feeling pretty sad because they seemed like perfect soul mates. But then I think, "what exactly was the 'endgame' there?" I mean, were they gonna get married and start a family?? I always feel bad for them that they can’t be together, but what in the world does “be together” mean?? Dude is like a 50,000 pound ape with very little means in the way of communcations. What was the best case scenario for the "couple"? Was Big Fella supposed to get a little desk job on the Upper West Side while she took care of their "half man-half giant gorilla kids" at home? And I could never really figure out how the "sleeping situation" would work out. I would venture to say the King would need his own personal quarters, but that's got to affect the overall intimacy level in their relationship. Maybe it's best off for everyone that he got shot down off that building. But I'd be lying if I said I haven't spent 30-40 hours in the last couple years trying to think of a better solution...

Shaving…you just can’t get away from it. I often wish I could just shave for like 72 straight hours on a day in early January and then not have to do it again for the rest of the year. But noooo, you gotta do it every damn day! If I wanna build a deck, I can cut out a weekend, work my tail off, and BAM…I got a new deck! I’m done working on that deck. For good. But shaving is a never-ending process. It's not really fair, though. A girl might go a few weeks without shaving her legs. But who's to know?? She throws on a pair of jeans every day and her secret is safe. Us guys don't have this same option. The face is exposed to society at least 80% of the time. We can't just be like, “Screw this. I’m not gonna shave for the next three months. And nobody will know because I will just wear this ski-mask every day!!”

You ever wake up before your alarm goes off, but forget to turn it off? Man, when that thing starts blasting and you’re already ACTUALLY awake and up, it scares the living bejeezus out of you. I know from experience, dude...

Had this one friend when I was younger...I'd go over to his house, we'd play video games, action figures, stuff like that. Just one problem with this kid…he was not very smart. Noticed one day when we were playin' that he had one of the Berenstain Bears books laying around. I think it was 'Too Much Junk Food.' Fine, no crime there. It's an excellent series of books. Maybe the best of all-time. One problem…homeboy had a frickin bookmark stickin' out of one of the pages. Who in their right mind doesn't finish a Berenstain Bears book in one sitting? Not only are the books extremely short, but how do you just put the story down with so much left in the balance? Are they gonna stop eating the junk food, or will this problem finally be the one that takes down the whole Bear family? I will never know how this kid got through the day not knowing how these books finished. And what is with these 'Bears' anyway? It always seemed like they couldn't figure out if they were bears or humans. I mean, even though they were wearing the same darn clothes day after day after day, at least they're wearing something. That tends to say human. But then they never put on any shoes. That's kind of bear-like behavior. And yeah, they lived in a house, but it was a tree-house. I'm no genius here, but wouldn't you probably want to be wearing some kinda shoe walkin' through a tree-house all day? And how about the book when they had "Trouble with Pets?" Ummm…I don't know if you got the memo, but YOU ARE BEARS!! How can you have "pets"??? You're the pets! And what about your boy Papa Bear? Man was about 11 donuts short of a dozen, if you catch what I'm sayin'. Mama Bear would tell the whole family on one page that they were absolutely forbidden from eating any more sweets…you flip the page, and BAM! Papa Bear is halfway through a bag of "Choco Yums!!" What a moron! And weren't he and Mama Bear taking a huge chance naming that 1st kid "Brother Bear." What woulda happened if that 2nd kid was another boy? They'd have been screwed!! And at least some of the Bear family members tried wearing normal clothes. Brother Bear wore a regular shirt, Papa Bear had the overalls…but Mama Bear was always in that same old blue and white polka-dot nightgown. Hellooo, you are out in public…wearing a nightgown is not appropriate!! I thought I went through all those books, but I must have missed that title, "Mama's Nightgown is Surgically Attached to her Arse." Seems like it would have been a good one...

Share your favorite Berenstain Bears memory here...or drop me an e-mail about the Bear crew at

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Secretariat Who?

"It's always more fun to root for the underdog."

The day was May 5th, 1973, and Secretariat was preparing to begin his assault on horse racing's famed Triple Crown. A record crowd of 134,476 stuffed their way into the Churchill Downs infield to get a glimpse of the mammoth chestnut colt.

One horse racing aficionado described Secretariat at the time as "A Rolls-Royce in a field of Volkswagens."

Everybody knew it was Secretariat's day. Well, almost everybody.

My mom was also in attendance at the Derby that afternoon. She has two distinct memories from that trip.

One is that she claims to have never seen a horse. It's surely an odd sentiment coming from a person that was actually at the Kentucky Derby, but an understandable one considering the circumstances. She and her friends were amidst the throng of people; elbow-to-elbow on the infield, which was not exactly "prime viewing" in terms of actually observing the action. It would be like watching a Cubs game from the rooftop of an apartment building a half mile from Wrigley. You're there, but you're not really there. Secretariat could have been a blue horse with a bushy orange tail, and my mom would have had no idea. She never saw a horse.

The second recollection from that day involves her wagering strategy and the results that followed. As post time approached, Secretariat was still holding steady as a significant favorite (3-2 in most spots). Everybody was plunking down money on Big Red. It was a sure thing. But my mom had her own ideas.

She liked Warbucks. As she told me this past Saturday when we watched the Derby together, "I like the long shots." And old Warbucks definitely was that. It is near impossible to find exactly what odds Warbucks was getting that day (trust me, I've looked), but it is also just as impossible to find any account of anyone heading into the race that thought Warbucks had a chance. Didn't matter to my mom.

The race started and a couple rabbit horses bolted, leaving Secretariat and a host of others biding their time in the back. But as most of the horses began tiring and slowing their pace as the distance increased, Secretariat only got better. He ran each quarter mile of the race just a little bit faster than the one before it. He blazed the final leg in a blistering 23 seconds, on his way to a record-setting Derby time (a record that still stands today). It was a breathtaking performance by a horse that would eventually come to be regarded as the best in the sport's history.

But what about Warbucks?? What happened to that cute, little longshot that was supposed to pay my mom bundles of dollars?? Turns out, Warbucks was a longshot for a reason.

There were 13 horses entered in the Kentucky Derby that day. And Warbucks finished 13th. Dead last.

I recently came across a fairly long-winded recap of that race. Several sentences are devoted to each participant and interesting anecdotes are sprinkled throughout.

Our guy got three measly words. The final sentence read, "Warbucks was dull." That's it. No in-depth analysis or explanation for his performance. He was just dull.

But truth be told, how Warbucks actually performed that day really meant nothing.

My mom drove from Ann Arbor to Louisville, pushed and pulled her way through over one-hundred thousand sweaty fans, and spent an entire day at Churchill Downs without ever seeing a horse. After all that, there was no way in the world she was simply going to fall in line with all of the other sheep. She liked Warbucks.

Anybody could have sidled up to the betting counter that day and threw a fiver on Secretariat. It was the safe play. He was going to win. But, as Tom Hanks so eloquently stated in Big, "What's fun about that?"

Go up to any random sports fan at the bar and ask 'em who won the '73 Derby and you're likely to get an immediate response. Everybody knows that was Secretariat's year.

But nobody knows who came in last. Except my mom.

And she's got the losing ticket to prove it.

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Monday, May 4, 2009

"The Steve Buechele Experience"

It's a phenomenon that goes on for years before it is fully recognized. It requires the perfect combination of uninterrupted incompetence, bad fortune, and overall futility. When all these things are melded together, and the Earth is rotating at just the right speed, you end up with the unstoppable force known as "The Steve Buechele Experience." The Experience comes to be when any team undergoes an extended lack of production at a particular position for a long period of time. As a professional sports franchise, it is a disease you do not want to be afflicted with. Sadly, the Detroit Tigers have been dealing with their own personal Steve Buechele Experience for a while now. The evidence is found in the gaping hole found in leftfield at Comerica Park. This vast space has been screaming for a new tenant for years, to no avail. First, a little background on the man that has come to personify this unfortunate reality.

Steve Buechele was a longtime Texas Rangers third sacker in the 1980's. He was basically the face of mediocrity, and his career was about as memorable as the overdone grilled cheese you put away late last Wednesday night. But when he came to the Chicago Cubs, he did more than just man the hot corner. He epitomized the franchise's immense struggle to find a respectable replacement for the long retired Cub legend, Ron Santo. Third base for the Chicago Cubs had grown to be the weakest position in baseball over the last 20 years. Since Santo hung up the spikes, the North Siders had trotted out a sad collection of castoffs, often trying out a new player every spring, with similar results. The name changed...the game didn't. The likes of Len Randle, Vance Law, and Luis Salazar all made their way through the revolving door. And then in 1992, our boy Steve Buechele arrived on the scene. He was the quintessential struggling Cubs 3rd sacker. He would show a little power, hit about .250, and boot a couple ground balls a week. Buechele would occupy the spot for a few seasons before passing off the infamous torch to the "great" Todd Zeile. Several more journeymen would try to end the curse with limited success. Finally, in 2003, after close to 30 years of third base failure at the Friendly Confines, a slugging hero in the form of Aramis Ramirez came to the rescue. Ramirez became an All-Star, providing a menacing presence in the middle of the order and helping the Cubs to become fixtures in the baseball postseason. The hex on the Wrigley hot corner was gone. Which brings us back to the Tigers...and the fruitless search for their next leftfielder.

The Tigers have played just 24 games in this young season, and they have already had four different players start a game in leftfield. Carlos Guillen was shifted there in the off-season. However, many people forget that while Guillen was born in 1975, his Achilles was born in 1931, making it very difficult for him to roam the outfield in Comerica Park for more than a couple games in a row. Josh Anderson was acquired right before the season to provide insurance at the position. His speed and defense would be welcomed, but there were doubts about his bat. Thus far, it's been just the opposite. He has swung the bat consistently, but his fielding has been shaky. Anderson badly misplayed a looping liner against the Yankees, leading to a disastrous 10-run frame when it could very well have been zero had the play been made. Marcus Thames made his annual appearance in left before he landed on the DL with a pesky rib injury that could keep him out for up to a month. Finally, the Tigers summoned Ryan Raburn from Toledo, hoping maybe he could grab hold of leftfield. Unfortunately, he has never really been a classic outfielder. To his credit, Raburn has managed to continue to live his life in peace with no legal repercussions, despite it being widely known that he stole the identity of Shane Halter in 2004, taking the man's family, possessions, and below average skills in the process. Guillen's old feet...Anderson's bum glove...Thames' same old story...and Raburn's quiet past in serious criminal activity. Leftfield is a scary place right now for the Tigers...and it has been for a long time.

Throughout most of the 1960's on through the 1980's, leftfield was actually a position of strength in Detroit. Willie Horton occupied the position for close to a decade, and was the picture of consistency while doing so. "Willie the Wonder" belted 325 long balls in his career and made arguably the most important play of the 1968 World Series by gunning down Lou Brock with a picture-perfect throw to rip the momentum away from the Cardinals. As a homegrown product that played high school ball at Northwestern High, Willie garnered great admiration from the fans, even prompting the High Socks Legend's Mom to pluck grass from Horton's front yard and wear #23 in her softball league in his honor. Following Willie in leftfield was Steve Kemp, the former first overall pick. Kemp would have a very successful five-year run in left, despite playing on less than stellar Tiger squads. He became an All-Star and even managed to pick up a few points on the MVP ballots in a couple years. Larry Herndon arrived on the scene in 1982 and picked up right where Kemp left off. Herndon became a fixture in the Tigers outfield for the next few seasons, culminating in his game winning 2-run homer at Jack Murphy Stadium in the opener of the '84 Fall Classic. There might have been certain things to worry about during those years, but leftfield was not one of them. Then it all changed...and the "Steve Buechele Experience" came to life.

While Herndon was still the Tigers regular in leftfield in 1986, it was clear that his best days were behind him. It's been a long, downhill trip ever since. Kirk Gibson was shifted to left for one season before he jumped ship to the Dodgers, where he would win the league MVP the very next season. After Gibson, a collection of journeymen and former greats would all try their hand in leftfield . An older Fred Lynn was brought on board. Pat Sheridan stopped in for a cup of coffee. The team tried grabbing players (Dan Gladden, Tony Phillips) from the past World Series champions, hoping to catch a little bit of that winning flavor. Didn't work. In the 8 seasons that spanned 1986-93, the Tigers employed 8 different regulars in leftfield. Looking back, you could make a strong argument that the best guy during that whole time period was Billy Young, the aging Tigers legend played by Roy Scheider in the underrated made-for-TV movie Tiger Town. Sure, he looked like he was about 75 years old in the movie, but Scheider could still mash. Leftfield was still a problem spot in Detroit, and things weren't changing anytime soon.

Milt Cuyler could have stolen 100 bags with his blinding speed if the rules didn't unfairly require him to reach base before attempting a theft. Melvin Nieves came to town with supreme power and the innate ability to strike out four times in a game when he only came to the plate three. Watching him play, I couldn't help but think "I wish we had somebody else." Then Geronimo Berroa arrived, and I realized, "I really miss Melvin Nieves." The inspirational story of deaf outfielder Curtis Pride made you really feel for the guy. Unfortunately, the opposing pitchers in the American League offered no such sympathy. Bobby Higginson was a prime candidate to end the Tigers' Buechele Experience, but he kept moving back and forth from left to rightfield. Eventually, he signed a monster deal that paid him close to $10 million a year, though by this time Higgy's production was dwindling, and he was mostly concerned with creeping out flight attendants on the team plane with inappropriate remarks and various "images" displayed on his computer screen. In the late 90's, the Tigers caught a break and picked up baseball vagabond Luis Gonzalez to handle leftfield duties. Gonzo was just starting to show signs of becoming a legitimate major league power threat when Randy Smith curiously shipped him off to Arizona for Karim Garcia and a generous side portion of rice pilaf. When you are deep in the throes of a Buechele Experience, pretty much anything that can go wrong will go wrong. It was no surprise when Gonzalez flourished in the desert, walloping a mind-boggling 57 homers in 2001 on the way to leading his Diamondbacks to the championship.

(Sidenote: that 57 home run year by Gonzalez has somehow flown under the radar despite all the rampant speculation over the last decade about steroid-fueled power surges. You hear about Brady Anderson's 50, Barry Bonds' 73, and Sosa and McGwire's crazy 1998. But Gonzo jumps from 31 to 57, then never again reaches 30, and not a peep from the conspiracy theorists. Something aint addin' up here...)

There were also players with the "can't miss prospect" label along this leftfield journey. Juan Encarnacion was hyped up to be the next great five-tool player in the Willie Mays-Roberto Clemente mold. Unfortunately, one of those five tools happened to be "the propensity to swing at any pitch that was within 12 feet of the strike zone." It seemed like pitchers even took a certain sense of pride in issuing a base on balls to Encarnacion since it was such a unique accomplishment. Fellow hot prospect/Tiger flameout Andres Torres only played one game in left. We can safely assume that Andres failed to hit the ball out of the infield that day.

The list goes on and on. Rondell White could have been the answer, but he was always one awkward check swing away from a trip to the 60-day disabled list. Then there was the apocalyptic year that saw legends like Craig Paquette, Wendell Magee, Jr., and Hiram Bocachica all spend time in leftfield . I still wake up in a cold sweat some nights just thinking about that summer. It really was a bone-chilling time period. But finally, in 2006, it appeared as if Craig Monroe was going to bring us back to the days of Horton, Kemp, and Herndon. He smacked a career-best 28 dingers, 5 more in the playoffs, and you could only imagine the numbers he would post in the years to come. Except one thing happened. The various scouts around the league noticed that Monroe's swing was loopier than a Robin Williams' stand-up special. Pitchers stopped grooving him fastballs and started working him over in a serious fashion. His habit of stepping up in the clutch was now a distant memory. With only about a month left in the '07 campaign, the Tigers cut ties with the punchless Monroe, and showing just how far his value had fallen league wide, dealt him to the Cubs straight up for Kerosene Clay Rapada. After his playoff dramatics just 10 months prior, everyone expected him to hold down the fort in left for the next decade. Now Monroe was silently exiting Motown with his anemic .222 batting average in tow. The Steve Buechele Experience is a most powerful force.

Not much has changed in the last couple of years. Jacque Jones was signed to bring some veteran stability back to the position. Turns out the only thing stable was Jones' pulse...and even that fact was hotly debated. Young Clete Thomas made some noise for a quick minute until you got a better look at him and realized he should probably be doing some kind of calf-roping activity on the Vs. network where the first prize is $5,000 and a brand new first name. Brent Clevlen is another kid that has all the necessary skills to be a big-league outfielder, but you can't help but worry a little bit when the guy has been in Erie and Toledo for what seems like an eternity. Clevlen is destined to be the next Mike Hessman, a fellow Tiger "prospect" that has hit approximately 800 home runs during his highly decorated minor league career. Gary Sheffield ventured out to left for a handful of games where it was tragically revealed that his once cannon-like throwing arm had now been surgically replaced with a foam swimming pool noodle.

Leftfield is a tricky position when you look back at past World Series champions. The Red Sox won a pair with one of the best of all-time in Manny Ramirez. The Cardinals knocked off the Tigers with the ghastly Preston Wilson-So Taguchi duo. It is proven that a title can be had without a superstar leftfielder in the lineup. But that is not the point of this piece. I am here to educate about the all-powerful Steve Buechele and the Experience that he has created. Once you are firmly entrenched in a Buechele Experience, the only way to get out is to first admit that you are powerless in doing so. The Tigers need to spend as much money as it takes to track down Lord Buechele and express their utmost respect for his empire. Only then might this dark cloud over leftfield at Comerica Park finally be lifted.

In today's game, Carlos Guillen started in left, went 0-4, and saw his average drop below the Mendoza line. If there was ever a time to reverse the curse, it is now. The Cubs eventually overcame their own version of the Buechele Experience by acquiring Aramis Ramirez, proving that the phenomenon while strong, can be defeated. Maybe one day the Tigers can do the same. But until then, it's a little Guillen, a touch of Anderson, a hint of Thames, and a shot of Raburn. It makes you wish the Steve Buechele Experience was merely a creation. A wild theory "out of left field." But this time, it is all too real, and it sits directly in leftfield. The only saving grace is that nowhere in the major league rulebook does it state that a team must station three players in the outfield. I think we may be on to something here...

Who was your personal favorite of the past 25 years of Tigers leftfielders? Drop a comment below or reach me at

Friday, May 1, 2009

Around the World with the HSL

No "Strings" Attached

Fruit by the Foot...a few Girl Scout cookies...or even the sticky, slightly overrated, but always there for you Fruit Roll-Up: all highly acceptable elementary school lunchtime treats. What you brought as an entree or main course, whether it be a sandwich or a cold piece of chicken, was secondary to the all-important snack. Most people understood this process. You wolfed down the PB & J or turkey sangwich so you could finally get to something sweet. The cafeteria by-laws were in perfect order. Until one "snack" came along and started wreaking havoc. Our sacred lunch room would never be the same. Meet "String Cheese."

The product itself was very mysterious to me. At the age of 9, you're used to seeing cheese in its melted form only. I could identify with grilled cheese. Macaroni and cheese I connected with. Pizza was a dear friend. Even mozzarella sticks, while still in their infancy before bursting onto the national stage in '96, were something I could wrap my arms around. But seeing someone pull out an unclothed, unmelted log of cheese from their brown bag for snack-time was inconceivable. As Tom Hanks perfectly stated in Big, "What's fun about that?" You got me. But somehow, it started catching on. You couldn't get through one peaceful afternoon at Forest Elementary without encountering String Cheese.

A couple things have always confused me about Sir Strings. Exactly what kind of cheese was this guy? Back in the day, I just assumed he was "String." But maybe 10-12 years later, I discovered that this was indeed not a real faction of the cheese family and that it belonged to a different group. But which one? Even now, the answer is unclear. Some speculated that it was Swiss, but that's never been documented, and the lack of holes in Strings makes that theory highly unlikely.

And why were people so obsessed with eating it in stringed segments? Yeah, I understand that it might be more fun this way, but just do us all a favor and take a normal bite out of the thing like a civilized human being. I probably saw somewhere between 500-1,000 string cheese consumptions in my school years, and not once can I remember someone just pickin' the bad boy up and attacking it. With its appearance much resembling a stick of butter, I guess some kids were hesitant to take a big ole chomp for fear of looking like a complete savage. While that might have been the case, at least they would have preserved some level of personal pride.

If there is one thing you can take away from this hard-hitting piece of journalism, it is this. The next time a friend offers you a slice of their String Cheese, just follow these three simple steps. First, let that person know his or her friendship will no longer be welcomed. Second, just say NO. You will be sparing yourself a lifetime of regret, while contributing in some small way to the eventual elimination of String Cheese and the cruel game it has been playing with us for the last 15 years. And lastly, go grab yourself a celebratory snack consisting of a sugar cookie and a mini-carton of chocolate milk...because you just made the best decision of your life.

NBA Playoff Thoughts

-When Latrell Sprewell put the choke hold on P.J. Carleismo back in the day, he did more than just leave a nasty scar on the coach's neck. He also did some major damage to the man's voice box. If you've heard P.J. do any color commentary on TNT for this year's playoffs, you can't help but feel like you're listening to Super Dave Osborne. But once you get past that, he has actually been very enjoyable behind the mic. I always enjoy color guys that were recently coaching in the league, and Carlesimo fits the bill having just spent a couple years with the Sonics/Thunder organization. He does a nice job of focusing his attention on all of the players on the floor, not just the superstars as some color guys are prone to do. As proof of this, Carlesimo spent a good 8-10 minutes on Tuesday night gushing about Spurs veteran forward Kurt Thomas and the effectiveness of his cross-screens to get Tim Duncan open. By the time he had finished with the verbal massage, you half expected P.J. to ditch the headset and go hop onto Thomas for a little cross-screening action of his own.

-I'm fairly confident that if Steve Blake went without shaving for the next four or five years in hopes of growing a real man's beard, he would still just end up with a few cat-like whiskers on his chin and along the side of his face. It always looks like Blake is trying to get some legitimate facial hair workin', but he just does not have the capability. Perhaps he could learn a thing or two from longtime professional beard grower P.J. Carlesimo.

A Good Bit Never Gets Old

Me and my Dad have had a running joke for years about the NHL. When we see a team leading in the 3rd period, we always try and figure out what that lead would translate to in a basketball game. For instance, if the Red Wings were up 3-2 with ten minutes to go, that would be about a 15-point margin. If they were able to tack on a goal to make it 4-2, the lead is now somewhere in the 30-40 point territory. If we ever flip on a game and see a team ahead by three goals, that would mean a comeback would be akin to a basketball team storming back from down about 80 points. It's just a fun, little dig at hockey by intimating that scoring goals is near impossible and that even 1-2 goal leads are basically insurmountable. Turns out this "bit" carries much more truth than originally thought. The Carolina Hurricanes scored two late goals in last night's Game 7 to steal the series from the New Jersey Devils. But get this. Prior to that comeback, teams that had a lead going into the 3rd period in this year's playoffs were an astounding 29-0. You might think our routine is silly, but next time you see a team carrying any kind of advantage into the final 20 minutes, just go ahead and turn the channel. That team is down by 50 points...and they're not coming back.

An Unsolved Mystery on the Diamond

The Tigers signed Adam Everett in the off-season to stabilize the shortstop position with his reliable glove and semi-occasionally frisky bat. However, the early returns are in, and the comparison that keeps coming to mind is that of Jeff Blauser for the 1998 Cubs. The Cubbies were set to make a big run that year (they wound up winning the wild card) and they felt that Blauser, despite his advanced age, was the perfect fit. At least it sounded like a good idea at the time. Blauser wound up hovering around the .200 mark for most of the year while his range in the field started resembling that of Roger Dorn in Major League. By the time the playoffs came around, the Cubs were scrambling for production at short, shuffling between strikeout machine Jose Hernandez and known steroid abuser Manny Alexander. Blauser had just turned 32 that year in Chicago, the exact same age of his current version in Detroit, Mr. Everett. If the Tigers end up making a run late in the season, look for the younger Ramon Santiago to see more and more time up the middle. The more I think about it, with Blauser and Everett's facial features eerily similar, I'm not totally convinced that they are even two separate people. Is it so inconceivable that Blauser hung it up in 1999, took a year off, decided he still had an itch, and started back up again in 2001 under the name "Adam Everett"?? I think not. In one final, almost chilling twist to this bizarre saga, we come to find out that "Adam" isn't even Everett's real first name. It's Jeff. This just got very interesting...

If you've seen Jeff Blauser or have heard anything of his whereabouts, call your local law enforcement agency or e-mail me at