March Madness

March 16, 2009

It’s March 15th, Selection Sunday. The snow is gone, the sun is out, the birds are chirping. At the St. Patrick’s Day Parade yesterday, it almost felt like I was getting a light tan down on State Street. AK and I threw the baseball around this afternoon. Although the spring equinox is still a few days away, Selection Sunday symbolizes the arrival of the most exciting time of the year, March Madness. Every year around this time, the term “March Madness” is justifiably used to describe the countless exciting and meaningful college basketball contests occurring daily across the land. It’s not difficult to understand the incredible appeal that college basketball has, no matter which team(s) you root for. March Madness never fails to deliver unforgettable moments involving young student-athletes fighting for one common goal. Just this past week, for instance, I watched three games that helped define the term March Madness, and the funny thing is, the NCAA Tournament hasn’t even started yet.

The first of these incredible games involved my alma mater, the University at Albany. The Great Danes endured an up-and-down 2008-09 season marred by injuries and inconsistent offensive play. As Hank Williams Sr. would say in his 1952 hit Half as Much, “You only build me up to let me down”. The Danes finished the non-conference season with an impressive 8-5 record (3 of the 5 losses were to the hands of NCAA Tournament teams), and raced to a remarkable 3-1 start in America East Conference play, registering wins over the league’s top three teams. Subsequently, the Danes would go on to win only three more conference games, slipping all the way down to 7th place in the conference. It was an interesting season for the Danes, to say the least, one that was best summarized by Albany Times-Union sports columnist Mark McGuire: “Perhaps the one consistent thing about this 15-15 Great Danes team is they are consistently, invariably and unalterably unpredictable. Praise this team, and they’ll go into a tailspin. Bury them, and they come out fighting. (…) Nothing this team does should surprise anyone at this point. It can be ugly, but that doesn’t mean it’s not pretty fun to watch.” (McGuire, 2009). OK, one more thing was consistent this year: the approximate shelflife of Head Coach Will Brown’s sport coat. I don’t think it made it to the first media timeout all season long…

Hank Williams Sr. is considered the father of country music.
Hank Williams Sr. is considered the father of country music.

Throw the records out the window. The seventh-seeded Great Danes, who would host the 2009 America East Tournament, can be as dangerous as anyone on their home floor. When the SEFCU Arena is filled to capacity, it becomes a pretty intimidating environment for visiting teams. One only needs to pull out the tape of the 2006 Conference finals vs. Vermont to see what I mean. That was the one thing that UAlbany supporters could cling to all season long. Let’s win two in our building in March to reach the conference finals, and anything can happen. In the end, that darned near happened. The short-handed Great Danes welcomed the second-seeded Vermont Catamounts, led by the redoubtable two-time Player of the Year Marqus Blakely and 2,000 point scorer Mike Trimboli. That did not seem to bother the adrenaline-pumped Great Danes, who made life miserable for Blakely in the paint and seemed to be able to score at will (no pun intended) in the first half. However, the second half, much to our chagrin, was a microcosm of the Danes’ season: four field goals in 20 minutes, foul trouble for their star players (i.e., Tim Ambrose) and a flurry of inopportune turnovers (including a dribble off the foot of Will Harris with four seconds left in regulation). But credit the Danes’ suffocating defense, relentless rebounding and toughness, as they pulled off the upset in an overtime thriller before an electrifying crowd at the SEFCU Arena. Though sloppy at times, this game was one for the ages, the type that will be talked about for years to come, as it often is when these two teams tangle. It would be difficult to imagine a more intense and spirited battle between two rivals who desperately want to hear their names called on Selection Sunday. That was Game 1.

 
Will Browns jacket did not often make it to the first media timeout.
Will Brown’s jacket did not often make it to the first media timeout.
 
The second game featured two very talented teams in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament semi-finals. The Niagara Purple Eagles faced the Rider Broncs for the right to challenge our cross-town rivals, the top-seeded Siena Saints in the finals. The Purple Eagles needed double-overtime to take care of the Broncs in a classic duel that ended after midnight local time. To make it to OT, Niagara needed a near half-court heave off the glass (!) with 1.7 left in regulation! Then, Rider dug itself a six-point hole with less than a minute remaining in OT, only to force a 2nd overtime!

And finally, Game #3 will probably live on as one the most incredible college basketball games ever played, especially when you consider the setting and the circumstances. To both the Connecticut Huskies and the Syracuse Orange, last Thursday’s quarterfinal game in the Big East tournament at Madison Square Garden was insignificant. Well, OK, let me rephrase, because I don’t ever want to say that a game is insignificant. But let’s be honest, Jim “Not a Dime Back” Calhoun’s Huskies were going to be a #1 or #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament no matter how they fared in the conference tournament. And the good guys, er the 20th ranked Syracuse Orange, were assured a berth in the Big Dance, with at worst a #5 seed. 70 minutes of rough-and-tumble Big East basketball later, the Orange had themselves a 127-117 victory in six overtime periods. The statistics from this game are astounding, as you can see from the box score. There were too many memorable moments to recap here, but what stands out is the unbelievable amount of heart and courage that these players exhibited in this epic game. Especially when you consider the fact that the Orange had played 40 minutes the previous night, and had just gotten through an 18-game schedule in the toughest conference in NCAA history. That, folks, is why I love college basketball. In spite of all the negative things that can be written and discussed about sports and athletes these days, this particular game really made me feel good about being a sports fan (and also a Syracuse fan!). What an incredible effort!

As a side note, what made the 6-OT thriller that much more enjoyable was the broadcasting crew consisting of Sean McDonough, Jay Bilas and Bill Raftery on ESPN. I have always maintained that this is the best crew in college basketball because they offer an excellent mix of knowledge, humour and enthusiasm. They complement each other as well as any broadcasting crew in any sport. New Jersey native Bill Raftery, in my opinion, is a treat to listen to. He loves the game of basketball and enhances telecasts with catchy sayings that never become annoying (ex.: a little Nylon!, Onions!, Send it in!). For my money, though, Sean McDonough is the best in the business. And I’m not just saying that because he’s a Syracuse graduate and a former Red Sox broadcaster. Perhaps part of the reason behind my admiration for him is the fact that I have fond memories of listening to him on CBS during baseball post-seasons in the early 90’s, which is about as far back as my baseball memory stretches. Besides Expos and Jays games back then, I didn’t get the opportunity to watch many American broadcasts, and when I did, they were usually postseason games. Therefore, his voice is one of the few that I will always associate with my childhood. He also called one of the most memorable moments in baseball history, Joe Carter’s walk-off homerun in the 1993 World Series, which I will never forget. McDonough has the innate ability to use the right intonation for each moment, has the flair for the dramatic and has a great voice. You can also hear the passion for his work in his voice. We saw this during the 2006 Big East Tournament (when Gerry McNamara single-handedly won the conference title for the Orange and rescued its NCAA Tournament lif)e. And we saw it again last week. There are a lot of good broadcasters out there, but to me, he is the best. Here is a sample of his work:

Speaking of the ‘Cuse, it is the opinion of this scribe that they have the tools necessary to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. As we saw last week, they can beat the best teams in the country. They have a fantastic point guard in Jonny Flynn, a fearless scorer in Eric Devendorf, a sharpshooter in Andy Rautins who, when he’s on, is absolutely lethal, a resilient Belgian forward who can fill up a stat sheet, two tough big men and a Hall of Fame Head Coach.

So even though the Great Danes will not be in the field of 65 this year, the tournament will provide many more memorable games such as the ones I described above. It’s inevitable. And if it doesn’t, well Opening Day is in three weeks!

Tim Ambrose and the Great Danes will make another run next season.
Tim Ambrose and the Great Danes will make another run next season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Put It On The Board

November 6, 2008

Anyone who’s ever watched sports knows that there are certain hometown broadcasters who are, for lack of a better term, “homers”. These guys, a la John Sterling (and anyone who doubts me should listen to this), openly and unequivocally root for their employers on the air while often throwing objectivity out the broadcast booth window. Perhaps no current broadcaster is guiltier of this than former Red Sox legend Ken “Hawk” Harrelson. Harrelson, of course, is the longtime lead television broadcaster of the Chicago White Sox. And while I must admit to being entertained by his style and catchphrases, listening to a game called by Harrelson can be quite an experience, to say the least. He will routinely ask balls hit by the “Good Guys” to “Stay Fair!” or “Get Up!” or “Get Outta Here!” if he feels they have a chance to leave the yard. This is followed by the obligatory, “You can put it on booooooooooooooooooard… YES!”. For a great sample of his work, click here. On the flip side, Harrelson routinely remains silent when an opposing player hits a homerun… and if he opens his mouth, it is usually to will the ball foul.

During the historic election last night, it was nearly impossible not to think of Hawk. And I’ll tell you why. As we have learned through several radio interviews and this New York Times article, President-Elect Barack Obama, or shall we say, the “Good Guy”, is quite the White Sox fan. Now I cannot claim that I know for certain where Hawk’s political allegiances lie. But let’s assume that he supports the Democrat based on his White Sox fandom. When it was announced that Sen. Obama would carry Pennsylvania’s 21 electoral votes, a state potentially critical in determining the next President of the United States, can you picture his call? “You…can………PUT IT ON THE BBBBBBBBOAAAAAAAAARD……YES! 21 electoral votes for the Good Guy!”. Or how about when Sen. Obama secured Ohio’s 27 monumental votes that essentially allowed him to cruise to a relatively comfortable victory? I mean, don’t be mistaken… MSNBC did a fantastic job with its election coverage and its projections… But may I suggest that they hire Hawk’s services in 2012, so that when Keith Olbermann, big baseball fan that he is, appears ready to project a blue victory in a certain state, he can simply toss it up to Hawk for the call? Many people argue, right or wrong, that sports and politics shouldn’t mix… But this is too good to pass up.

Anyway… Now that the baseball season and the election are over, it will soon be time to turn our attention to College Basketball. Of particular interest to this blog are the UAlbany Great Danes and the Syracuse Orange. Throughout the coming months, I will post my thoughts on these programs and will fill in the gaps with a myriad of baseball stories. For instance, did you know that yours truly once coaxed a current major leaguer into tapping a routine ground ball to shortstop? Stay tuned to learn the details!

“Oh, you spoiled, spoiled man. Do you now how much mental energy I expend just trying to picture women naked?” -George Costanza, Livingston HS (NJ)

October 23, 2008

Greetings, live from Parsippany, New Jersey!

Pardon the hiatus… I’ve been busy navigating frantically around the American Megalopolis for the last 6 weeks. As some of you may know, I travel around to over 100 High Schools, primarily in the Garden State, in an attempt to recruit students to attend my alma mater. Today’s excursion, for instance, took me to Teaneck High School in Teaneck, NJ. Located about 6 miles West of New York City, Teaneck High School boasts an impressive list of alumni, including current NBA Commissioner David Stern, New Jersey Nets Head Coach Lawrence Frank (who, interestingly enough, was cut from the team), and former Minnesota Timberwolves great, Tony Campbell. Campbell, incidentally, served as Head Basketball Coach at Paramus Catholic High School, another one of my stops, for a few years. But in keeping with the general theme of this blog, perhaps the most legendary Teaneck HS alumnus is none other than former Ivy Leaguer and author of a .277 lifetime batting average, Doug Glanville. Glanville, a video game enthusiast, was a fixture in center field for the Fightin’ Phils for years. He became known around the league for his intellect, but with 1100 career hits and 168 stolen bases, he earns my starting CF spot on the unofficial All New Jersey High School All-Star Roster.

In right field, I would insert Jeffrey Hammonds, a graduate of Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School in Scotch Plains, NJ and Stanford University. A career .272 hitter, Hammonds twice collected 20 homeruns in a season and finished with 110 in his career. Like Glanville (1991, 12th overall), Hammonds was a 1st Round Draft Pick in the 1992 Amateur Draft (4th overall). What you may not have known, however, is that Hammonds was selected three slots ahead of future Hall of Fame shoo-in Derek Jeter; and Glanville was picked one spot ahead of one the best right handed hitters ever to walk the Earth… of course, I’m talking about Manny Ramirez! Now I know that hindsight is 20/20 (wow, what an overrated cliché), but isn’t it interesting to see how things play out?

The aforementioned 1st Round of the 1992 Draft featured another Northern New Jersey resident, journeyman lefty Ron Villone from Bergenfield High School in Bergenfield, NJ. Although I’m sure he’s a good guy, I cannot fully endorse him because he will always be remembered in my book for intentionally walking the best player in Expos history, Vladimir Guerrero, on August 27th, 1999 in a 4-1 Reds win in Montreal. Why does that matter? Well, that was the night that Guerrero’s 31-game hitting streak was unceremoniously halted. In Villone’s defense, his club was in the thick of a pennant race and the Expos were mounting a rally at the time… And I suppose I will need some situational lefties on my All NJ team, so I’ll forgive him. If the matchup is right, I could also summon CJ Nitkowski to the mound. Nitkowski is a graduate of Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, NJ, a fixture in the high school football national top 25 polls (currently #7). While Nitkowski’s career statistics are fairly mediocre, it is interesting to note that he was also chosen in the 1st Round (9th overall, 1994), ahead of Nomar Garciaparra, Paul Konerko and Jason Varitek. Incidentally, Nitkowski pitched at St. John’s University in Jamaica (Queens), NY. Some other notable MLB players from St. John’s include John Franco, Frank Viola, Rich Aurilia and another 1st rounder by the name of Craig Hansen. As a Junior in 2005, Hansen recorded 14 saves, was a 1st Team All-American and appeared in the Red Sox bullpen at the tail end of the season. But on April 15th, 2004, the fireballer gave up a homerun in the ninth inning of a 5-1 loss to hands of the UAlbany Great Danes. In that game, yours truly toed the rubber and retired the side in the bottom of the eighth inning. If you don’t believe me, type in his name and mine in google and read the game story. Acutally, here is the link. If you still don’t believe me, here is the box score. Hard to believe that four and a half years have passed since then.

Don’t worry. There will many more baseball stories in future blog posts. But, for your viewing pleasure, I did want to show you this video, courtesy of Frank Caliendo: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_u580CoYRls 

If you enjoy that one, you’ll probably like this one even more: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E2Li6SgokJM 

Makes me laugh every time. Not as hysterically as the news lady, though. Haha. That was ter-ble.
 

“You know, if you take everything I’ve ever done in my entire life and condense it down into one day, it looks decent!” – George Costanza, Livingston High School, Livingston (NJ).

September 13, 2008

Greetings!

Welcome to my inaugural blog post! At this juncture, you may be wondering about the content of this blog… And if you are familiar with my personality, you undoubtedly know all about my indecisiveness (except when it comes to pizza toppings). But you can be sure that I will use this space to convey my thoughts and feelings on a number of different topics. For fear of narrowing my audience (because, as Michael Jordan once said, “Republicans buy shoes too”), this blog will remain versatile like F.P. Santangelo. Which brings me to my first obsession.

Growing up in Montreal, I attended more Major League Baseball games than some of my college teammates attended classes. Over the course of the years, how can one not embrace the little-known, obscure reserve infielders, outfielders and even pitchers, such as Luke Prokopec? They are the proverbial “glue”. They make the world go ’round. I often have this conversation with my Dad… anyone can proudly wear one of those replica David Ortiz jerseys and feel good about themselves. But true fans walk the streets endossing David McCarty jerseys, if you want to stick with the David theme. You may be thinking to yourself, “Who is David McCarty? And most importantly, why should I care?” Well, friends, David McCarty was a Stanford Cardinal, a 1st round pick in 1991 by the Minnesota Twins and an 11-year veteran who made an appearance with 8 different MLB teams. In 630 games, he hit at a .242 clip, amassed 36 home runs and collected 175 RBI. A third of his career offensive production came at age 30, with the 2000 Kansas CIty Royals, when he hit .278 with 12 HR and 53 RBI in 270 AB, which is roughly the equivalent of half a season. One cannot help but wonder what he could have achieved had he been alloted more playing time… During his career, McCarty appeared at six different positions, including a successful 3 2/3 inning stint on the mound with the 2004 World Series Champion Boston Red Sox. Pretty nice way to cap off a career, would’t you say?

This discussion, of course, begs the question: “Would that championship season have been possible without guys like McCarty?” Of course not. Because they are the glue. The ones that last as long as McCarty did usually have the intangibles. They do the little things on and off the field that create a winning environment. In baseball circles, they are the true heroes. Unfortunately, they are far too often forgotten as the years pass by. Everyone remembers Curt Schilling’s performance that post-season… but who recalls the pressure-cooker performances by guys like Curtis Leskanic in those endless extra innings in the ALCS? Ah Yes. Leskanic. Now here’s a guy who earned the win in his final career appearance in that fateful Game 4 vs. NYY. Does it get any better than that?

We must salute these guys. We must blog about them. We must wear their jerseys with pride. Every sport has them. History tells us that every championship team has them. They are usually the reasons why championships are won. And yes, you can argue that since every team has little-known reserves, they must be interchangeable. Right? But they are not! General managers must pick the right ones!

OK. As you can clearly see, this blog is a blend of nothing and everything. Just like the consensus #1 all-time situation comedy, Seinfeld. Which brings me to the next component of this blog: I will end many blog posts with a random quote from a show or movie.

“Elaine! Elaine! Get off the speaker!”

RD