Saturday, May 28, 2011

Live from Wrigley Field, it's... The One and Only Chicago Flubs

Cubs fans are a funny bunch. Down 10-0 in the bottom of the ninth, 2 outs, and up comes Darwin Barney (winner of April's NL Rookie of the Month and a personal favorite) to the plate. At this crucial juncture the game, the Cubs have mustered 2 hits against perennial Cy Young candidate completely mediocre pitcher Paul Malholm. 2 hits. On the flipside, Randy Wells, fresh off a DL stint, gave up 5 runs in only a couple innings of work, including a three run home run to Ronny Cedeno. RONNY CEDENO! Yes, the same Ronny Cedeno who I theorized could hit into a double play with no one on base, the same one who could move runners backwards on the bases. The relief pitcher, James Russell (I think, since there's no jumbotron at Wrigley to tell me the pitcher at all times. One of the simple pleasures of Wrigley.) proceeded to give up 5 more runs, really holding down the fort real well. And, oh yeah, Marlon Byrd and Fukudome are being rested, leaving two no names (and I mean no names) playing right and center field. They both looked like they were in high school. Hallelujah for the farm system! Sorry, make sure you wipe off the sarcasm that was just dripping off that paragraph before you proceed.

So, there were the Cubs, down 10-0 on a rainy afternoon in Chicago. I might've left the game a couple of innings ago, but I was lucky enough to be in a box (dessert cart!!!), thanks to my friend Andrew. Since the game has been out of hand for a couple innings, my friend Nick and I have turned to an old past time to create interest- 25 cent bets. After some disastrous bets on my part- I trusted a little too much in Neil Walker- I was down 75 cents. So here's Darwin Barney, stepping up, and I turn to Nick and say, "Double or Nothing- Darwin Barney gets a hit." Nick thoughtfully chews on his S'More cake and finally shakes my hand, solidifying the bet. I start cheering, the last thing I can do to influence Darwin. Nick and I had this conversation earlier- the only possible thing we can do to influence the game is cheer, and that's exactly what I'm doing.

Barney goes down 0-2 quickly. In my head, I'm already thinking about how I'm going to pay Nick his $1.50, what I'll do to make it up to him. I sarcastically say that Darwin hits better when he's down 0-2, anyway, and prepare for the inevitable strikeout or groundout that comes next. And then, remarkably, Barney hits an infield bloop that falls perfectly between the pitcher running out and the shortstop charging in. The throw to first is too late, and Darwin Barney has singled and saved me $1.50.

Of course, at this point, I'm screaming with joy, celebrating the timely hit, number 3 for the Cubs all game. But oddly enough, the rest of the stadium is cheering with me. All 10,000, give or take, fans that have remained at the game, the hopeless souls who still believed, are wildly cheering, half with sarcasm, half with hope. A chant of "Let's Go Cubs!" is heard throughout the stadium. Up next is Starlin Castro, the lone bright spot for the Cubs in this game, and, for the most part, this season. The remaining fans are as energetic as they can be, trying to will Starlin to start the most improbable comeback, the one that every person remaining has secretly been harboring in their head, the one they might've sarcastically talked about before but now that notion is playing around in the back of their head, and they'll be one of the glorious few who stayed at the game and saw the Cubs come back from 10 runs. The story of a lifetime. We've been beaten down for years, for more than a century, but we'll be there at the very end waiting for the small chance of joy, these 10,000.

Starlin takes a couple pitches, and then hits a fly ball almost straight to the right fielder. The fans initially see it and hope for a home run, and make the excited sound for a half second before it is cut off by the realization that this game is over. And, like that, the game is over. No comeback, no Go Cubs Go today, no W flag hanging over Wrigley.

Yet that moment of excitement after Darwin's hit is still there, that residual feeling. While some of my friends just say that the Cubs suck, my friend Andrew has a different feeling, half joking, but at heart, we want it to be true. "I think that Darwin Barney hit was the turning point for the season, no, the franchise," he says, "I want to look back and tell my kids that I was there when Darwin Barney hit a bloop single in the bottom of the ninth. Sure, Starlin Castro popped out the next play, but it changed things."

I stopped, turned in my All Star Ballot (Starlin at shortstop!) and say, "If the wind was blowing out, that would be a home run."

We talk about more things as we zombie shuffle out of Wrigley, like how every shirt or jersey we buy for a player ends up with him sucking or leaving (That's why I didn't buy a Starlin T-Shirt, and perhaps Andrew saying he got a D-Rose jersey explains some things from the Bulls series..), about the Champions League, what have you, but the exchange about the wind sticks in my mind.

We're Cubs fans. Even in the face of a three hit shutout at the hands of Paul Malholm, an absolute drubbing by the Pirates, we're standing and cheering after a 2 out single, waiting for the wind, for once, to be blowing our way, for the impossible release of joy to occur. It's pathetic, but we're locked in. At this point, it's been too long for us to give up, can't admit that we've wasted any time supporting the Cubs. We've subscribed to the fact that one day we'll get it. Till then, I'll be right there with ya till the ninth inning, looking to the flags to see if they're finally flapping out.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Chicago Bulls: Welcome to Must Win Territory

Yikes. After a dominating Game One performance, the Bulls have dropped the last two games to fall behind 2-1 in the series. The Game Two loss was slightly acceptable- the Heat were going to be fired up, it was tied with three minutes left and the Bulls let it slip away (but still, they were in it), and the Bulls just had an off shooting night.

Game Three, though, was infuriating. The Bulls defense, statistically the best in the league, got ripped up by CHRIS BOSH. Yes, Bosh Spice of all people. One of the softest big men in the league was able to drop 34 on the Bulls. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade didn't even have spectacular games- they just about matched Bosh's production points wise, TOGETHER. On offense, Derrick Rose had 20 points, but was barely the dominant force he needs to be for the Bulls to have a chance. Carlos Boozer finally stepped up, but Joakim Noah stepped into the background with a point and five rebounds, while Taj Gibson continued his solid, consistent effort. Omer Asik...we'll, he's not what we'd call "offensively competent," so Miami is happy to leave him in scoring position, which he does not take advantage of. Luol Deng had a decent game, but continued to force the issue on the offensive end. Too often he drives into the paint and tries to force a shot that just ins't there instead of passing the ball off. The lack of scoring from the Shooting Guard position has been exposed this series- Bogans isn't hitting open shots, Brewer, for some reason, isn't getting quality minutes, and the Heat attack Korver defensively every time he subs in.

Simply put, the Heat defense has figured out how to stop the Bulls attack-with some help from the officials, who aren't giving that many fouls on Derrick Rose's drives. The Heat don't respect Joakim Noah as a shooter, so are free to leave him open on the high pick-and-roll with Derrick Rose and clog the lane (which is why I think Gibson should get more playing time in that role). Also, the Heat have put LeBron on Derrick Rose, along with a helper (who comes off one of the big men, Noah usually) to prevent his drives. They're keeping the ball out of his hands. And when that happens, the Bulls aren't scoring consistently.

On the defensive side, the Bulls fell apart on their rotations and help defense, leaving Bosh open to try and stop Wade or James. Here's the problem- Bosh can hit open shots when he's motivated. He continued to punish the Bulls for playing off him when all they needed to do was play him hard and take him out of the game early. As for stopping Wade and James, I think the Bulls should go with Brewer on Wade (he's better than Bogans on defense and has been hitting more shots recently) and keep Deng on James with help off Joel Anthony (when he's in) or off of Bibby/ Chalmers (because Haslem has been killing us).

But that's just one fan's opinion. What really matters for Game 4 is how much effort the Bulls put into the game. This is simply put a must win. The Bulls will not come back from down 3-1 in the series. Miami is too talented to lose three straight. The Bulls need to take this one and prove that they can win on the road, even the series and regain home court advantage. If the Bulls can play defense like they did in Game 1, where they shut down James and Wade and let Bosh do some damage (but not enough to really kill them, as their offense was actually working), they can win this game. They need to pair that defensive energy with some offensive fire- some good low post play along with a dominating Derrick Rose performance. This is a time when an MVP shows what he's made of- in the clutch, when the team needs him most. He's been hemmed in this series, and he needs to bust out in a big way- the rest of the team will follow.

So I'll be watching Game 4 intently, hanging on every basket. Because it is life or death. As much as fans like to delude themselves, 3-1 is almost impossible to get out of. It's the death knell for the season, the shot before the total knockout. That dazed state is almost impossible to deal with. Hopefully the Bulls keep me out of there.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Bummer Time

Every sports fan has felt it at some point- the dejection after a playoff loss, when the finality of a season is fully realized, nothing to look forward to, every dream deferred. Yet, there's the promise of next year that sucks you right back in. And so it continues. You get over it, eventually, once the team starts up again. There's that promise of a better day, a triumph that will lift you off the mat.

It's different for the athletes, who have to deal with the fact that they had control, that they had the opportunity to change the outcome. Fans like to pretend they have some sway in the performance- with cheering, booing, or following all the right superstitions. When it comes down to it, though, cheering and maybe giving a boost to the home team is all you can do. It's that separation that lets a fan move on. They were let down by the team, and not by themselves. The pros have to consider what they contributed, what more they could've done. It lingers, pops up in your head when you don't expect it. And eventually, they motivate themselves and move on, ready to do more when they have the next opportunity.

The problem is, I don't have another opportunity.

Yesterday I played my last game of high school water polo, and we lost in the sectional finals for the third straight year to the same team (and no, it's not lost on me that I've done a small-scale Early 90s Buffalo Bills in my own athletic career.) We lost 12-9 this year, 8-7 the year before, and 12-10 the year before- all close games. And that makes it even worse, because every decision I made, every action I took during the game more important. I didn't play particularly well, and neither did my team. We were better than this. We got down 4-1, early, got back to within a goal, and then they broke it open. We just didn't have it. Worst of all, though, for me and my two fellow seniors, we don't get another chance at it. It's done. No redemption. I'm jealous of my younger teammates who have the opportunity to make things right. For me, I just have to move on with my life, ignoring pangs of regrets and telling myself that there's more to life than high school water polo, there's more to life than sports. Eventually, eventually...

Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Bandwagon

The playoffs are supposed to bring out the best in sports fans. Having endured a season of highs and lows, of hot streaks and injury troubles, there is the final certainty that their team will continue playing, and the dizzying hope that they will put it all together and win the championship (well, maybe not for Pacers fans this year, but still). Every game has an intensity to it that makes a fan's heart beat 100x times faster, and each day between games seems interminable, the hours stretching by as you continually check for more news about the team. It's a state of concentrated focus, and a state of possibility. And it's a reward for all the time, money and devotion sunk into a team over the course of a season.

Unfortunately, there's a segment of the population that tries to latch onto that feeling, to reap all the rewards with none of the work put in. The bandwagon fans. I can't think of one thing that boils my blood more than to see someone who clearly has no interest in sports, the team, or the very sport itself (for instance, someone not liking hockey) suddenly joining the ranks of true fans.

This sudden rush of new fans when a team is suddenly doing well was probably best exemplified by the Blackhawks playoff run last year and their subsequent season. The Blackhawks were a dead franchise about five years ago, but they changed owners, put the games on TV, welcomed back some famous ex-players, and got Patrick Kane and Jonathon Toews through smart drafting. That brought back some fans, but the city hadn't latched onto the team until they made it to the conference semis in 2009. As the next season started, the city was truly behind the team; and I, as an outside observer and not a die hard Blackhawks fan, saw a group of fans that could finally believe in their team again, and threw themselves into the team. It was acceptable after the Dark Ages of Blackhawks hockey. But when the playoffs rolled around that goodwill died for me and plenty of other fans as the next wave of bandwagon fans joined in. People who couldn't tell you what offsides was or name any player on an opposing team were starting to post facebook statuses, wear t-shirts, get lower bowl seats to home games, and then eventually party with the rest of Chicago when they won it all. How is that fair?

My level of disgust reached a new high this year being surrounded by the Blackhawks bandwagon fans. The Blackhawks struggled for a playoff spot all year, leaving all those bandwagon fans not paying attention and writing them off, writing themselves off as fans- "I never liked hockey anyway." Once they clinched the 8 seed, they came back. They went down 3-0 in the series, and it seemed like they were gone for good. School was bereft of Hawks jerseys except for diehards, facebook and twitter were noticeably absent of any Hawks updates in between my personal storm of Sabres updates. The Blackhawks won two straight games and some started crawling back, building up to a tipping point when Game 6 hit. When the Blackhawks eventually pulled it out in overtime, suddenly, all the Blackhawks "fans" were back! Presto! They'd reappeared!

Ugh. I made my disgust known to every bandwagon fan I could find. Finally, someone asked me, "What's the problem, Evan? Why can't I just support the city? Is there such a problem with that?"

Yes, yes there is a problem. A lot of people talk about how some teams "deserve" a championship, or a playoff win, or whatever. Well that's crap. No team deserves anything more than anyone else, no matter what the history of the team is (I've learned that fact the hard way). But there are fans who deserve to have the joy of championship, and they deserve to enjoy it with other real fans. The people who have actually paid attention, those who know the ins and outs of their team and all the players, all those little funny stories that a team acquires over a season. Those are the fans who should be reveling in the glory of a championship. Sports is an all or nothing investment of time. You're in, or you're out. There can't be an in between, you can't just be in when it's good to be in it. And that's what infuriates me so much.

Maybe its jealousy- maybe I know that I can't remove myself from a sinking ship, that I can't just wait for things to get better before I care again. There are people who don't like sports, and I'm willing to accept that. There are people who don't follow sports as deeply as I and many other people do, but sill make a concerted effort to at least pay attention to their teams, and I respect that, especially if its not their favorite sport, or they don't have the time to keep up obsessively. But to try and leech off on the special feeling real fans get in the playoffs, when they're firing on all cylinders and the fanbase is too much for me. I can only hope that when the time comes that they celebrate their championship, they know that it's empty compared to the feeling every real fan has.

Also, I'm going to try and write more frequently. Sorry, it's been a while, plenty of other time commitments. At least I was able to unload this screed.