Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Dance if you want to Dance

This past Sunday I experienced an awesome sporting moment. It wasn’t historic or even noteworthy. As a matter of fact it has been happening at least 8 times a year during the last 8 or 9 years. It didn’t even happen during the game. It happened at a time when most people are still settling into their seats. In Tampa most of the crowd wouldn’t even be in the building yet. Sunday afternoon at about 4.00pm I saw a city lose it’s collective mind for one of their athletes - I saw Ray Lewis introduced to the home crowd.

A lot has been said or written about Ray Lewis, the 13 year veteran for the Ravens. Depending on who you are or where you’re from he’s a hero, or a murderer, a hall of famer or an average linebacker, overrated or underrated, hard nosed or over exposed., passionate or a fool. What you can’t deny is that he is the Ravens and by extension he is Baltimore.

There is a holy trinity of sports heroes in Baltimore. At the head is Johnny Unitas, at his right hand is Brooks Robinson and at his left Cal Ripken, Jr. The others (Jim Palmer, Artie Donavon, Eddie Murray, Michael Phelps, etc) are in a tier well below them. Soon, however, Lewis will join the Big Three. That’s why it’s tough to read stories about him possibly being a free agent after this year. He is nearing the end of his career that can’t be disputed and to have that happen in a Patriots uniform or a Cowboys uniform would be a disappointment. God forbid he return to Baltimore in Bengals’ colors.

It’s common for athletes, notably football players, to overextend their stay in the league. After all, the legendary Unitas donned San Diego colors and who wants to remember Emmitt Smith as a Cardinal or Tim Brown as a Buccaneer? If Lewis were to leave next season it seems that it would be worse. Those other players played for franchises that had a history before them and after them. Lewis is the history of the Ravens. He was the second ever draft pick (Jonathon Ogden was their first) and has suited up for the team since he was 21 years old. He gave Baltimore a reason to be proud again, and to be cocky. Every fan wants that. Some take it to far - that’s you Red Sox fan.

That type of player doesn’t happen along very often and in Baltimore it seems even harder. For as long as I’ve been around I’ve been aware of the fact the Baltimore as a city has an inferiority complex. It’s an east coast city between the political capital (Washington, DC) and the cultural capital (New York) of the country, if not the world. Everyone talks about the Yankees dynasties, but no one seems to remember that from the late 60’s to the early 80’s the team to beat was the O’s. This is the 50th anniversary of the “Greatest Game Ever Played” - won by the Colts. A team that doesn’t even have it’s own section in the Hall of Fame. Got to the Hall of Fame website and search for Hall of Fame Baltimore Colts. I’ll wait for you….

….. And you’re back. That’s right they’re not listed under the Baltimore Colts, they’re listed under the Indianapolis Colts. You tell what the hell Indianapolis has to do with Johnny U or Raymond Berry? Do you think Indiana Joe Fan gives two figs about history of the franchise and the “World’s Loudest Outdoor Insane Asylum”? No all they care about is Peyton Manning.

Lewis gives the fans a connection to those proud days. He has suffered for his indiscretions, he has lost millions in endorsement opportunities for his mistakes. I won’t claim that he’s a saint or that he does no wrong, but I do know that since those days in jail he hasn’t come close to running afoul of the law. Unlike others he has learned his lesson. He keeps his nose out of trouble and the only off field stories you hear about are his goodwill charities.

His critics call him arrogant or flamboyent. His antics aren't neccesary. I tend to disagree. He doesn't dance on the field every time he makes a sack or a tackle - he only does it during his introduction. To me it's a show of joy not showmanship. It's for the fans.
After this season the Ravens are going to have to make a lot of decisions. All three of their high profile linebackers (Lewis, Terrell Suggs, and Bart Scott) are free agents. Suggs and Scott are in their mid-twenties - the prime age for defensive players. Suggs has already been franchised once so he will be looking for a big pay day. Losing him would be a tremendous set back for the franchise. Scott has been a better than average linebacker in Rex Ryan’s aggressive scheme and could be looking at a substantial raise.

Both of those players are younger than Lewis and have a brighter future. Ray-Ray, as fans and players call him, is only 33, but in football that is old. With his frantic, hyperagressive style of play Lewis is an “old” 33. He is still effective. He still flies to the ball to force fumbles or recover them. The addition of the big boys up front - Haloi Ngata, Justin Bannan and a healthy Kelley Gregg - have allowed him room to roam the middle of the field without having to worry about fending off a big ol’ 350lb offensive lineman.

He isn’t just valuable on the field. Every player on the team knows that they are accountable to him in the huddle and in the locker room. While that respect can be used for good (keeping the team together during the offensive struggles during the Super Bowl season) or bad (the ouster of Brian Billick last season) it is important. So far rookie coach John Harbaugh has been able to harness the good. Making the playoffs helps as well.

Had the Ravens suffered through another losing season I could be writing a different story. Heck, I have written a different story (take a look at March 2007). If Lewis asks for absurd money this off-season (I.E. anything over $10 Million a year) I’ll write a “thanks but no thanks” article. However, the team team needs to do what it can to ensure he keeps wearing the purple so that for 8 days next season a town can go nuts over it’s adopted hero.

On Sunday it seemed impossible that he would leave. As he danced his way onto the field my dad summed it up best. It was like a king entering his castle.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Upon the Ice Frustration Lay

It’s not right to write when one’s emotions are at a heightened state. So I’ve given myself about an hour to calm down and think about what I’ve seen. I drove home from the Ice Palace, kissed the sleeping girlfriend on the head and scratched the fat cat behind his left ear - his favorite ear scratching spot. I flipped on SportsCenter naively thinking they would have a highlight from the game. I sent an email to Dave over at Fielders Choice and surfed a couple of sites. That being said I’m still pissed.

I loathe blaming officials for losses. I think it was my dad who said, “If you leave the game in the hands of the officials you don’t deserve to win”. Actually, I don’t think he said it but it sounds like something he would say so I’m giving him credit. That being said - man did the ref’s blow the Lightning game tonight.

If you haven’t read about it or seen it, which based on hockey’s current popularity you probably haven’t, the Lightning lost 2-1 in a shootout to the Colorado Avalanche. The only goal that counted in the shootout never crossed the goal line. In fact, it wasn’t even close. Only the Lightning could lose a game where the winning goal never crossed the line.

Here is how it happened. Both the Lightning and the Avalanche missed in their first attempts. The Lightning then missed their second. For the Avalanche's second attempt goalie Mike Smith faced Colorado forward Milan Hejduk. Hejduk brought the puck down the ice and as he approached the goal Smith leaned forward to poke check the puck away. The Colorado shooter avoided the goalie’s stick and tried to beat him with a backhand shot. Smith made the save with the blocker and as the buck bounced harmlessly away the stick fell out of his hand.

Nice save, the crowd ohhs and ahhs. Then the refs got involved. After initially ruling it a save the refs and the linesmen huddled together for a few minutes. The crowd grew restless. The Lightning’s final shooter - little Marty St Louis - skated in circles. The refs continued to convene. Mike Smith chirped at them from a distance. The crowd grew irritated, boo’s grew louder. Then the ref turned his wireless mike on and announced that due the Av’s would be awarded a goal. Rule 26.4 states that if a stick is thrown by the goalie a goal can be awarded to the shooting team.

Needless to say this was not received well by the hometown crowd. The boos increased in quantity and volume. In our seats we were bewildered - even from hundreds of feet away it was apparent that the stick came out of Smith’s hands well after the save was made. The replays on the jumbotron confirmed our view. Yet the refs would not be swayed. Nor could they once the decision was made. After all, it was not a reviewable play.

Then the normally docile and amiable hockey crowd lost it. The boos reached maximum volume - 9,000 fans sounded like 30,000. A brown bag was launched from the crowd onto the ice. The PA reminded fans that throwing stuff on the ice wasn’t cool. That sparked more debris tossing. Bottles, thunders, paper, lids, anything not locked down found it’s way on the ice.
Smith was beside himself with rage. He had to be restrained from the refs. After the ice was cleared St Louis skated in on Colorado goalie Andrew Raycroft and wasn’t able to beat him on his glove side. Game Over.

The Lightning had failed to win their 8th game. In the grand scheme of things it will be just another loss in a series of them. Yet somehow it seems worse. While they didn't play a perfect game they played well enough to win. Smith in particular was outstanding, several times he flashed out his right pad at the last second to make sparkling saves. I don’t believe that there is a grand conspiracy against the Lightning, the refs didn’t blow this game on purpose, but damn get the call right!

I’m sure there will be an apology from the league once they review it, but that doesn’t get the Lightning an extra point in the standings. Why can’t there be a fine or a suspension for referees Brian Pochmara or Tim Peel? Officials in sports take a lot of unwarranted abuse and I tend to take their side more than a lot of fans, but when a blatant game deciding mistake is made there has to be repercussions.

I’m sure there will be writers and opionists (yeah that’s not a word, but I like it) will rail on about how low class the crowd’s reaction was. They will point out how dangerous it is to throw things on the ice and how it makes them look like a bunch o’ country bumpkins. Normally, I would agree with anyone calling fans in the TBA uneducated rubes. However, I think tonight’s display was more about the fans releasing 30 games of frustration. Frustration at the call, frustration at being last in the league again, frustration at the lack of production from the stars and the free agents, frustration at the mismanagement from the front office - all of that came out tonight.

According to analyst Bobby Taylor Smith spoke with the officials after the game and not one of them would cop to making the call - they told him it was a collective decision. Usually that means that they weren’t sure of the call and were covering for each other. The NHL, via Mike Murphy (VP of Hockey Operations ) stated the refs would not have to talk to anyone because of the “hot environment” and he was afraid that they might be “trapped” down here.

Now if this had happened in Toronto or Montreal I could see the refs having to face a blood thirsty lynching mob, but in Tampa? C’mon now be real. No one cares that much. It’s December 18th and it’s 80 degrees outside. It’s hard to stay mad when the weather is this nice. The league knows the refs screwed the proverbial pooch and they don’t want the refs digging themselves any deeper. Once they see it on television they will know they got it wrong and will feel shame.

So cut the fans a break - out of the sports down here the ones that go to hockey games seem to be the most knowledgeable. So give them a free pass on tonight, but feel free to take it out on the NHL if they let the refs off for this one.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A Quest Begins

Is it possible to complete a set in this day in age by spending less than what the set of base cards is valued at? Some might ask if it’s even possible to complete a set these days what with the short prints, “mistakes” and gimmicks that manufacturers seem to be throwing out there these days. To me the answer is yes to both questions.

First I must test my hypothesis. So at random today I picked as a test set the 2008-09 Upper Deck MVP Hockey set. It’s not a super high end product or a product filled short prints a la Masterpieces. So in theory it shouldn’t be a problem to complete. There appear to be 392 cards (including the rookies which are seeded in every other pack) according to Upper Deck’s checklist online.

It was released on 12-2-08 so as of this writing I haven’t been able to find a value to the set. Therefore, I don’t have a spending limit as of yet. I am thinking it will be in the $50-$80 value once it makes it into Beckett. I know Beckett isn’t the end all to pricing that it used to be, but for this non life altering experiment it will do.

So how exactly will I go about acquiring cards for this quest? Well I assume most of my purchases will be made at the local Target or card ship. I picked up a blaster earlier today to start the ball rolling. At $19.99 a pop I don’t think I’ll be able to get too many more of those. I will also be open to trading for what I need once I get a significant portion completed. All non-Lightning inserts will be open for trade as will any doubles I pick up along the way.

I will have a quick breakdown of the blaster some time later this week. Upon initial review the collations didn’t look too bad so I should have a good start.