Basketball handicapping 101

Over the past two years I’ve run a college basketball pool for some of the poker/fantasy football group. We each post an entry fee and then pick five college basketball games each week against the spread. The winner and runner-up split the pot.

In a desperate effort to avoid repeating my futile and embarrassing performance, I started developing my strategy early this year. Like, a week ago. After re-reading a book on sports betting, I calculated my own power rating for each of the 351 NCAA teams in order to cipher point spreads for each game.

Photos taken at Las Vegas.

There was an interesting blog entry on Kenpom.com recently about the differences in home court advantage between teams. At the end of the day, Pomeroy said you can’t calculate this with much certainty, then he proceeded to list his HCA for each team. Which feels like a tease. But, like any degen gambler, I’m going to ignore his warnings and use it as an adjustment anyway. At least for a few weeks to see how it goes.

I also decided to concentrate on four conferences. Big Ten, since I watch a lot of those games anyway. And then three mid-major leagues in the Missouri Valley, Mid-American, and Ohio Valley. I’m hoping that the point spreads won’t be as accurate for the smaller schools. I don’t plan on betting any games where the sportsbooks’ spread is close to mine; I’m looking for games where there’s a disparity.

So I plan to post some of my spreads for games in these pages. If I start winning, maybe I’ll finally get my dream job: hanging around Churchill Downs and giving my selections to other people to bet on.

For Friday, November 10, here are the spreads I’ve calculated:

Indiana minus 16 vs. Indiana State

Southern Illinois plus 5.5 at Winthrop

Ball State even at Dayton

Miami (Ohio) plus 4 at Fordham

Bowling Green plus 9 at Drexel

Missouri State minus 2 at Western Kentucky 

                                                                                        *****

With the opening of basketball season, it’s time for me to start showing up at book fairs and basketball tournaments to try to sell some books while avoiding eye contact with strangers. First up is the Christmas Hobby and Gift Show November 8-12 at the Indiana Fairgrounds.

Other writers have told me that this is a great venue for local authors, and especially books about sports. The attendance skews heavily female, and one guy told me that they frequently want to buy books for husbands/fathers/sons so they’ll read more. Because men are dumb and have short attention spans. So I’m hoping I can get rid of the last copies I have to sell. I’ve been thinking more lately about another book, and selling out* would get me to the break-even point financially.

I think I’ve learned a lot about the publishing process, but I’m still not willing to write on topics just because a book might be a money-maker. Writing fiction would be convenient, because I could do it all from home. But even though I don’t need book sales to make a living, I would like for at least a few people besides my family to buy copies. I’ve also been reading a lot of Richard Russo lately (“Nobody’s Fool”, “Everybody’s Fool”, “Bridge of Sighs”, etc.) who sets the bar impossibly high for fiction. That guy is just so good, I feel like anything I could write would be embarrassingly bad by comparison.

My sports-themed book idea would require a lot of travel. Fun, but expensive. My other non-fiction idea is completely removed from sports, so maybe I’ll go that way.    

 

*Selling out of books, yo. I’ll never sell out on certain strongly-held positions. Like opposition to the designated hitter rule, or the superiority of rye bread over white.

  Rye_bread,_Poznan,_Poland

 

Baseball season fades into basketball

So it comes down to this. Final week of the baseball season, and we have the Houston Astros against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the World Serious. (For some reason I always think of the Astros as the Rastros. Evidence of my early and ongoing obsession with the Jetsons.)

Orbit_Houston_Astros_mascot_preseason_2014

I’m contractually obligated to root for the Dodgers since they’re a National League team, though the Astros are a great story. From 2011 to 2013, they lost 100 games in each season, but then built their team patiently and slowly. They have only the 18th largest payroll in MLB and many of their key players rose through the Houston farm system (including Correa and Altuve). They made key free agent deals this season only when it was obvious they could contend for the championship.

In contrast, Los Angeles has the highest payroll in baseball. The Dodgers are generally around middle of the pack in free agents. They’re not as much fun to watch since Vin Scully retired, and they enjoy a huge media market. All of which makes them a less compelling rooting interest.

But the pitchers bat. It says here, Dodgers in six.  

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                                                                                                                                         *****

I’ve been interviewing the head basketball coaches at Butler and Ball State in the run-up to the start of hoops season for magazine articles. Frankly, I’ve never been a big fan of Butler. I’ve never had any real connection with the school, other than living in the same city.  

But over the past twenty years or so, Butler coaches have consistently won there without any hint of scandal, and then moved on to bigger jobs. Thad Matta to Xavier and Ohio State. Todd Lickliter to Iowa. Brad Stevens to the NBA. Chris Holtmann to Ohio State.  

After Holtmann left, Butler hired LaVall Jordan as head coach. Jordan played at Butler, then assisted at Butler, Iowa and Michigan before becoming head coach at Milwaukee. After a single season there, the Butler position came open and he won the job at his alma mater.

When I met with him in his office at Hinkle Fieldhouse, he acted like he had all day to talk. As usual, I’d asked his staff for 15-30 minutes, but Jordan didn’t seem to be watching the clock. He asked about my family, talked easily about the transition, and spent about 45 minutes with me.

The only time he seemed uneasy was when I asked him whether Butler’s playing style would change. Over the last fifteen seasons, kenpom has rated the Butler offensive tempo higher than 200th in the NCAA only once.

He shifted in his seat. “Well, what do you mean by style?”

“In terms of offensive tempo,” I said.

“Well, we’ve always been opportunistic here,” he said. “But valuing the basketball has been a staple. We’ve always been rated pretty highly in fewest turnovers, and that won’t change. If it does, we’ll have to have some conversations.

“And playing unselfishly has always been a staple, I don’t see the way we play changing that much.”

Which sounds like a “no” to me.

He was much more comfortable talking about the variety of experiences he’s had as an assistant, and giving credit for his development to other people.

“I’ve been fortunate with the type of people I’ve been around,” he said. “They’re all great human beings. With Barry Collier, it was instilling values and holding people accountable. Thad was an unbelievable motivator, who just had a gift for getting guys ready. Todd was terrific at team building…..he got lot of respect from the locker room because players knew he cared about them. Brad’s (Stephens) organizational skills are off the charts. Coach Beilein is a great tactician. I really learned how to run a program from him.

“I still lean on them all now. The nice thing is, they’re just a phone call away.”

Bulldogs_Basketball_tipoff_UW-GB

By the end of the interview, I was starting to warm up to Butler a bit. They play in a great venue (Hinkle Fieldhouse), and they’re a lot closer to my home than Bloomington. While it’s clear that Jordan has no intention of becoming Horace Broadnax (who still hasn’t returned my call), I still think I’ll try to catch a couple of games.

We have met the enemy, and it is us

We’re not the team. You’re the team. We’re only the equipment – like the jockstraps and the helmets.”

Phil Elliott in “North Dallas Forty

 

It’s easy to demonize Rick Pitino for what he’s done to the University of Louisville. Especially for me. I never liked the man, and haven’t been a fan of UL basketball since he arrived in my hometown. But I can’t say I saw this coming. I just hated that 1) he was a University of Kentucky guy, 2) he had prior NCAA problems, and 3) in replacing Denny Crum, the school chose to go with a quick fix “star” instead of growing the program with an up-and-coming coach or Crum assistant. To be perfectly candid, it probably also had something to do with the natural animus a Kentucky boy holds for a slick-haired, fast-talking New Yorker.

Particularly galling in his case is all the “shock” he voices at every scandal. He was shocked when the woman he had a ten-minute affair with on a bar table wanted more money after he paid for her “health insurance” (which was just enough to pay for an abortion). He was shocked that strippers and prostitutes were provided to recruits in the athletic dorm. He was shocked that shoe company money was being passed to a recruit.

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But the source of tawdry behavior in organized sports goes much deeper than a few desperate, greedy coaches. It’s also easy to blame summer basketball. It’s relatively unsupervised. Sure, there are coaches and tournament/team coordinators. But most of those people have a profit motive in getting the best teams, the best players on their team or to their event. I’ve heard more than a few calls for abolition of “AAU” basketball.

But even this is somewhat misplaced. AAU is a different animal than the elite shoe company sponsored events. While I was writing the book, several coaches told me that AAU is now considered more of a second-tier summer basketball program. Some highly ranked teams may appear in a few AAU-sponsored events. But If a kid is truly a Division 1 prospect, he typically plays on the Adidas/Nike/Under Armour circuit because there’s more exposure.

So how about the shoe companies? Ah. There it is. Filthy lucre. According to ESPN, Louisville has a ten-year, 160 million dollar contract with Adidas. That’s a lot of money, and it’s not even in the top five. Pitino has the richest college basketball coaching contract in the country, good for 7.76 million per year. Over $2 million of that comes directly from Adidas. So why wouldn’t he think of them as his employer?

Fact is, the shoe companies are doing what businesses do. Spending money (on grassroots and college basketball) to make money (selling shoes and apparel). I’m no lawyer, but apparently the ones at the Department of Justice believe passing laundered money to a recruit is a crime. Nobody seems to object to shoe companies paying colleges and coaches to advertise their product, though. And, on the surface, it seems like an open, honest exchange between the shoe company and the school would be a win-win. The product gets exposure, and the college gets money that it could – theoretically, at least – pass on to students in benefits or lower costs.  

What about the players and/or their families who are trying to get an advance on their anticipated pro career? To be sure, there are a lot of grown-ups with their hands out. One coach told me that many elite players have “handlers” as they travel the summer basketball circuit. The handlers – sometimes family, sometimes not – control access to the kid and influence financial decisions. There is no structure for monitoring or supervision of those people.

Reporters contacted the mother of the recruit apparently involved in the Louisville scandal, and she said “I don’t know anything about that.” Wouldn’t you expect an innocent person to deny that it happened? Something like, “Hell no, we didn’t get any money”?

But if I was a top-tier athlete seeing everybody around me making money from my talent, I think it’d be easy to justify taking a piece of the action. Coaches, shoe company employees, tournament organizers. Even the school recruiting me – especially the school recruiting me – is making money hand over fist. And I can’t have an I-phone out of it?

So who does that leave to blame, and what do we do about it? This commercial exchange of talented kids ends up debasing the player, the institution, and all of the adults scrambling to grab a scrap that falls from the table.

This week I refereed a youth soccer game with a guy from Holland. Before the game we started talking about youth sports and the differences between the US and Europe.

“You guys take it so seriously over here,” he said. We were putting on our thirty-dollar referee shirts, adding our badges to the pocket (annual renewal fees of $60 and $80 for high school and US Soccer, respectively). We watched as kids in uniform warmed up for their game ($300-$500 annual league fee). We each had envelopes in our bags with $50 cash for officiating sixty minutes of youth soccer.

Youth-soccer-indiana

“You know what you get for refereeing in the Netherlands?” he asked. “You get a coupon for a free beer. Half the time the referee doesn’t show up, and a parent officiates with a couple of volunteer linesman. Everybody has played the game over there, so it’s not a problem to find somebody.

“Most people play for ten or fifteen years, then referee for five years after they stop playing. I mean, the really good players are identified and go to academies. But not most kids.”

Maybe the enemy is us. I say this fully acknowledging that I am a part of the problem. I write about and referee sports, and get paid for both. I don’t know that I’d do either one for a beer, though I have on occasion done them for free. But maybe we shouldn’t be making youth sports so formal. Maybe kids don’t need $150 basketball shoes. Maybe they shouldn’t be traveling to other cities to play soccer when they’re eight years old. They see parents yelling at coaches, coaches yelling at players, and everybody yelling at the officials. What are they supposed to think? That it’s play time?

 

 

 

Fighting nature in the suburban prairie

I’m no stranger to wildlife infestations.

Several years ago we were hearing a lot of nocturnal movement in the attic and found out we had raccoons up there. There are some household issues I’ll address personally, but rousting wild animals out of enclosed spaces didn’t make the shortlist. We called a professional, who set up traps that extended outside the roof. On Thanksgiving morning we walked out to the driveway with all of the kids ready for church and were greeted with the festive sight of a raccoon carcass hanging from the eaves. The contractor retrieved it before we got home, but, being from Kentucky, we were sure our neighbors chalked it up to some bizarre backwoods holiday tradition.

Several years later I was talking to my friend Gan in his driveway and noticed a large cage in his garage.

“What’s that for?”

“Ahh, I have raccoons getting into the trash cans, so I’m trapping them.”   

“What do you plan to do with them when you catch them?”

“I’ll just set them loose. Probably in your neighborhood.”

Gan went on to describe his trapping method and how the raccoons had frustrated him so far. He was using apples for bait, and one night he heard a raccoon rattling the cage around for an hour. It finally stopped, and Gan went back to sleep thinking his wildlife problems were over. But when he got up the next morning, he found the empty cage bent up with bits of fur on the door.

Adirondack_Trapper_holding_fox_pelts_(cut)

Determined to prove himself intellectually superior to woodland scavengers, Gan bought a stronger steel cage and again baited it to await the inevitable result. When he got up in the pre-dawn darkness and looked out the front door, he was startled by the sight of a raccoon sitting on his porch, gnawing on an apple and waiting for some moldy bread to cleanse his palate.

“So I went to Tractor Supply and got this professional cage,” he said, banging it on the driveway to demonstrate its sturdiness.

“It’ll never get out of this.”

On my way home, I stopped by a toy store and picked up a stuffed raccoon toy. With Theresa’s help, I found a small white bib on which I stencilled “I ♡ apples”. After dark I returned to Gan’s house and put the toy on top of the empty cage. The next day I called Gan and asked, “Catch anything last night?”

He said he hadn’t caught a raccoon yet, but I should be careful where I step next time I go into my back yard.

So the other night I was again leaving Gan’s house, and he mentioned that he was now trying to trap chipmunks.

“Are they getting in the house?”

“No.”

“They’re just, like, running around the yard?”

“Yeah.”

“Then why are you trying to trap them?”

“Well…they burrow.”

I looked at him. “What’s that got to do with you?”

“They burrow,” Gan said. “I mean….they just burrow around. It can damage your foundation.”

I expressed doubt that a chipmunk could cause such damage.

“No, they can,” he insisted. “You can look it up.”  

Gan mentioned that he had been told the usual way to dispose of trapped chipmunks was to submerge the trap with its cargo into a large bucket of water until the bubbles stop. Gan said he couldn’t bring himself to do that, so he’d just set them loose in a local park. Or my neighborhood.

“Their natural habitat,” he said.

When I got home, I consulted the internets. I found dozens of references to sidewalk and foundation damage caused by steroid-abusing chipmunks. Some of the allegations came from home-improvement companies or wildlife control businesses. The Humane Society site reflects the following:

Chipmunks don’t usually damage property, but they may injure ornamental plants when they harvest fruits and nuts. Occasionally chipmunks dig up and eat spring flowering bulbs and burrow in flower beds or under sidewalks and porches. But there are no documented cases of a chipmunk burrow causing structural damage.

I told Gan about my extensive research, but he dismissed it as left-wing propaganda. So, obviously, I started looking for stuffed chipmunk toys. Sometime in the next few days, he will look out his front door and see a chipmunk with a sign and a life preserver from the SS Adorable.

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A tale of two coaches

A couple weeks ago I had occasion to interview the new head coaches of both the Indiana and Purdue football programs. I can’t claim any keen insight into either man. Both interviews were by phone and neither lasted more than fifteen minutes. My talk with Purdue’s Jeff Brohm took place while he was driving, and I spoke to Coach Allen of IU as I sat in my car during a driving rainstorm.

I think I’ve improved at interviewing people over the last twenty years, but I have very little experience at telephone interviews. I’m uncomfortable with it, and I’m pretty sure my discomfort registers with the subjects. Which makes them more uncomfortable. Which makes me even more uncomfortable.

Anyway, as often happens with athletes and other people who interact with media-types on a regular basis, what I mostly got from Allen and Brohm was coach speak. It’s stuff that reads OK in an article because somebody semi-famous said it. But if you have to listen to it live or type it, it’s…..uh…..boring.   

But there were points in each discussion when the wall got a little chipped and a bit of light broke through.

Coach Allen’s son is a freshman on the team, signing with the Hoosiers after his Dad got the job. I don’t think it was nepotism. The kid had received offers from several Division I schools including Rutgers and South Florida. Neither of which are Ohio State or Alabama; but neither is IU. He was also ranked as one of the top 100 high school linebackers in the country by ESPN.  

I asked Allen about coaching his son, and he sounded like he got a little emotional. He talked about how hard it is to be both Dad and coach to a kid.

“It can be hard to separate,” he said. “I mean, he’s still your son, and you find your eyes going to him all the time. So that’s something you just have to focus on.”

Hep's_Rock

I came away from our talk liking Coach Allen. He sounded like a man determined to make Indiana’s program better, but I don’t get the impression he’s the kind of guy who’d endanger kids’ health to win (as his predecessor allegedly did).

I remember watching Jeff Brohm play for the University of Louisville. He was the ultimate Louisville guy. He grew up there and his Dad played for the Cardinals, as did two of his brothers. Brohm sounded to me like a very focused, ambitious man.

He gave me a lot of “We want to field a team that’s competitive and fights to win every game”.

“Purdue is a place with great academics, and West Lafayette is a great college town.” (Wait, what was that last part?)

1910_Purdue_football_team

The most recent Purdue team that was fun to watch.

“People are starving for success, and they want to see the football program step up and do well. We need to deliver.”

All of which are perfectly acceptable, standard-type quotes for somebody coming into a job where the prior coach won like two games per year. Then I asked him whether it was hard to recruit at Purdue, considering their recent futility.

“We have a lot to offer at Purdue,” he says. “The academic reputation, the Big Ten conference and the opportunity to play against the best teams in the country. And, to be honest, playing time. We don’t have the depth we’d like, so a guy can come in and be a difference-maker.”

I thought the last part was a pretty candid statement. He’s all but admitting that it’s lean times in the Purdue football cupboard, and that he can get good athletes because last year’s starters may not be as good as incoming freshman or transfers.

After we wrapped up the interview, I told him that I was a Louisville alum and enjoyed watching him play. He sounded like he was happy to hear that. (Which is kind of a Louisville thing. If you meet somebody out of town and find you’re both from Indianapolis, it’s like, “so what?”  But if you’re both from Louisville, you immediately talk about 1) what neighborhood did you grow up in, 2) what Catholic parish did you attend, and 3) do you have access to Derby tickets.)

Then he said “Oh, yeah? When did you graduate?”

“1980. So, like, a long time ago.”

“Oh…….okay….”. After a bit of awkward silence, we ended the call.

I guess I sound younger than I am.  

       

 

Par-three? I consider it par-six.

I haven’t played golf (or, as my Dad used to say, “shot golfs”) in about two years. I didn’t even start playing until my mid-thirties, and I rarely played more than a few times a year.

Old_Tom_Morris

This is no recipe for proficiency (or even adequacy), of course. I probably spent more time playing basketball in one month during high school than on golf for my lifetime. But basketball is no longer an option due to creaky knees, and exercise for its own sake is drudgery. I try to work out at least a few times a week (including referee duty), but I need some kind of distraction while I’m on an elliptical machine. Whether it’s podcasts, magazines, or listening to Jack speculate about the weight of other seniors, I have to have something else to think about. Something other than finding an excuse to get off the machine.

Anyway, I’ve been meaning to get back into golf, but it seems there’s always a conflict whenever friends invite me to play. Last week I hit a bucket of balls to see how far my skills had atrophied. I wasn’t too disappointed with the results. I hit the ball square about half the time, and most of my drives were fairly straight. (At least, range straight. I’m easily deluded into thinking a ball would have been right down the middle of the fairway, as long as my shot doesn’t endanger golfers on my right.)

On Friday, I went alone to a par-3 course to see if I can avoid abject humiliation on the links. I was encouraged, though I have to say conditions were perfect. Empty course, cool, sunny weather, and low expectations. There were no holes-in-one, no 250-yard drives, and no thirty-foot putts. But I did chip one in with a pitching wedge, drive a couple of greens on short holes, and sink a couple of long-ish, bend-y putts.

I know I’ve said this before, but I may have figured out a couple of things about my swing. I think I’m ready to expose my game to the snarky comments of friends. It can’t be any worse than my poker game, right?

 

                                                                                *****

The first harbingers of fall arrived last week. First was the Fear and Loathing Athletic Club (FALAC) Fantasy Football League pre-draft meeting at Victory Field. Then on Friday we completed our 23rd fantasy football draft. (There’s been some loose talk about moving the 25th edition to Vegas. The usual crowd of degenerates is in favor of that plan. Including Gan, who isn’t even in the league.) I once again entered the evening determined to get running backs early and ended up with really good receivers. I didn’t even draft a quarterback until the ninth round, so we’ll see how that works out.

We also went to the last two Indianapolis Indians home games of the season. (We usually catch the last series of the year in Louisville, but for some reason the Indians finish up in Toledo for 2017.) We had our grandsons Sebastian and Liam with us for both games, and they had fun. (Meaning they liked playing in the grass berm and eating popcorn and ice cream.)

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Every year I get more wistful at the end of summer. There are a lot of great things about autumn in the Midwest. Fall festivals, lower humidity, apples. And the approaching winter isn’t even as big of an issue for me anymore, since I don’t have to drive to work. But I guess pulling up zucchini vines and tomato plants reminds me of rapidly advancing old age.   

 

Back in the saddle

Inveterate (and maybe even veterate) readers may recall that I was having back trouble in late winter/early spring. After a failed attempt at relief through a chiropractor, I wound up going back to my doctor and getting a referral to a different orthopedist. One who would not immediately jump to surgery as the only option. The new doctors tried a cortisone shot followed by physical therapy, and within a few weeks I was almost completely pain-free and able to resume normal exercise.

The back pain had become so troublesome by March that I had to cancel all of my soccer referee matches for the spring season. I tried my first game, but the pain was so bad that I had trouble even getting into position as an assistant referee. (Note: for non-soccer fans, the AR only has to move one half the length of the field. But it’s critical to stay even with the second-to-last defender or the ball to help with offsides calls. Meaning you often have to go from standing still to a sprint.) Luckily, the game was suspended after about five minutes due to lightning. When I got home, I notified all of the assignors that I was out for the foreseeable future.

When the fall season began a couple of weeks ago, I felt pretty good but knew the lack of exercise had affected my stamina. I signed up to referee, but only scheduled one game per day. I planned to wait and see how I did with a U-15 rec-plus contest to make sure I could still keep up.  

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In the weeks leading up to the match, I did some running on a nearby empty soccer field to simulate a game. I alternated between jogging, sprints, and walking for about 40 minutes. Games are 70-80 minutes, but I knew adrenaline would help quite a bit. Plus, running in the hot sun on an empty field is boring. (Insert your own “soccer is also boring” joke here.)

The game was on a warm Thursday afternoon at 5 PM, just a short drive from my house. It was listed as a dual whistle game (two referees, no AR) which means each official is responsible for an entire sideline plus one half of the field for all calls. (Technically the soccer field is known as a “pitch”. But I can’t say that, because I think it makes me sound like Robin Leach.)

I got to the field about a half-hour early. The home team coach was one of those overly-friendly types that you just know is going to blast you from the sideline every time he disagrees with a call. We shook hands and he asked me a couple of questions about how the match would be called. Normally I give very ambiguous answers in this context. Otherwise, you’re just setting yourself up for controversy. If you say “Yeah, I’m not going to call it close on throw-ins this early in the season” and you call a violation on a kid who fires the ball in overhand, you can bet the coach will be screaming bloody murder. But the questions were pretty safe and I was able to answer just by giving him the substitutions rule.

Then he complained briefly about referee positioning in his last match (“they both officiated from the center circle”), paid me, and went back to his bench. (Unlike basketball, it’s customary for the coach to pay the referee in cash prior to kickoff. Which feels awkward, but, you know….when in Rome.) As we got closer to kickoff, I inspected equipment on both teams, checked the goals, and completed the coin toss. Still no second ref present. Now, I’ve officiated matches alone before. It’s more running, for sure, but the real problem is that you can’t really judge the sidelines or offsides effectively. And no matter how much coaches claim they’ll “take it easy” on complaining, in the heat of the game that commitment is forgotten.

I asked the home coach to recruit two parents to watch the lines for me, but a woman came up and said that her 17-year-old daughter Kylie* was waiting for a later game, was a certified referee and would be willing to help out. I gratefully accepted, and after I handed Kylie my spare whistle we started the match.

Riccardo_Lattanzi_04

The visiting coach had mentioned that it was his first season, and apologized in advance for his lack of experience. (I must confess I was glad to hear this. First match back, and at least one coach probably won’t be in my ear.) There were a couple of screw-ups on substitutions, but nothing too bad. Anytime I was close to his bench, I’d gently tell him the proper process, and he’d thank me profusely.

The home coach was in game mode. He constantly yelled at his players, but didn’t say much to me. In the first half I was moving sideways on the field along his bench area, but the ball was booted long and I had to swivel and run suddenly. As I spun around I felt my elbow strike a soft middle-aged paunch and heard “Ooof”. I turned my head and saw the coach doubled over holding his gut. I couldn’t help but chuckle, but managed an “Ouch, sorry coach” as I kept running. I heard him wheeze out “No, no, that’s OK, my fault.”

I have hoped for this kind of thing in other circumstances. Mostly in basketball. But this time it was entirely accidental, and he was right. It was his fault. I’m supposed to be within two feet of the sideline; he’s not. Anyway, at the next stoppage I asked if he was OK, and he laughed and said yeah, repeating that it was on him.

Later a ball was kicked to a visiting player deep in the home side and the coach started yelling “Offside!”. The player’s shot hit the crossbar, bounced on the ground and the goalkeeper caught the ball deep in the goal mouth. As I signaled goal scored, the coach said “Matt, they were offside!”. I just shook my head no, and signaled for kickoff.

I don’t mind talking to coaches, but there was no basis for discussion. There’s no instant replay, I didn’t think the kid was offside and the coach did. What would we talk about other than yes he was/no he wasn’t?

The second half was pretty uneventful, and the home team won 6-3. Both coaches thanked Kylie and me in the handshake line. I gave Kylie half of the money, admonished her to report the income on her tax return and sat on the ground to change shoes.

I was hot, sweaty, and a little tired, but my hip wasn’t hurting at all. I knew my knees would require ice and Tylenol, but that’s standard. I really felt like I could do another game if I had to. But I didn’t have to. Because I’m retired. And I “don’t do business that don’t make me smile”.**    

*Not her real name. She’s a minor, yo.

**“Treetop Flyer”, Stephen Stills. He was referring to drug smugglers, and I’m a middle school soccer referee. But, still.       

But that’s not to say that all baseball players are difficult…

Last week I wrote about awkward encounters with sports figures. But I met one of my all-time favorite players once, and it didn’t end in an avoiding-eye-contact contest.

Sean Casey is retired from baseball now, but he was a very good first baseman for several seasons with the Reds, making three All-Star teams. His career ended with brief stints at Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Boston. During his playing days he was known as “The Mayor” because he was so friendly and talkative when opponents reached first base.  

He was also very accommodating to the media. And not just to TV reporters, like some. Some players and managers are terse and uncooperative with print reporters, but as soon as the TV lights come on they’re elbowing guys out of the way to try to win Mr. Congeniality. I’ve seen managers angry, defensive and cursing print reporters, only to walk out of their office with a jaw-spraining smile, embracing a TV reporter gearing up for insipid, softball questions.  

As Casey came up through the minor league system, he spent parts of a few seasons with the Indianapolis Indians. I never interviewed him because I covered the opposing teams, but the Indians beat reporters loved him. He was always available and willing to talk, even after losses.

Baseball_first_baseman_2004

At one point, Casey had been optioned down to Indy from the Reds, and Indians beat writer Kim Rogers saw him walking through the parking lot to the club house. Kim told me that he approached him, acknowledging that it was a tough time, and asked if he could talk for a minute.

Casey said it was OK, and he wasn’t upset about the demotion. Then, before Kim could get a question in, Casey said he’d heard Kim’s Dad was sick and asked how he was doing.

It’s hard to overstate how surprising this is. First, how would a major league player even know about a reporter’s family in a minor league town? And, second, most players would be completely – and understandably – absorbed in their own problems.

In the spring of 2012, I was working in Pittsburgh during a Pirates home stand, so I naturally bought tickets to several games that week. My hotel was right across the street from the Consol Center (now the PPG Paints Arena), and one night Bruce Springsteen played a show there. The hotel was pretty full due to the location, and as I walked out the front door wearing my Clemente jersey and Pirates cap, I saw a familiar face sitting at the outdoor bar.

Casey was sitting there with another guy, guffawing at a joke and sipping a glass of wine. (Which threw me off. I figured him for a beer guy.)  I stopped and looked, debating whether to go over and introduce myself. I know famous people often don’t want to engage with strangers, but considering Casey’s reputation and the fact that he was out in the open, I decided to take a chance.

“Hey, it’s the Mayor!”, I said. Casey jumped up, stuck out his hand and practically shouted “Hey man, how ya doin’?”

As we shook hands, I said “I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed watching you play.”

“Aw, thanks a lot, man. I really appreciate it. Hey – are you going to the Springsteen show?”

I said “Oh, no, I’m uh, headed to the Pirates game.”

His face fell. “Oh, that’s too bad, man. But hey, have a good time at the game, all right?” He was back to smiling and pumping my hand enthusiastically. As I walked away, I felt like he was disappointed we weren’t going to be hanging out backstage.

Sean_Casey-12

Casey is now an analyst on MLB Central, a baseball highlights show. Recently the host was sitting next to Casey on a couch and said “There’s something that’s been bothering me all week” as he pointed at the floor.

Casey said “Oh, I got it” and reached down. He came up with something in his fingers and said “It’s a toenail.”

Now, I’m sure that was set up, but it rings true for Sean Casey. And it’s really refreshing for a professional athlete to be approachable, funny, and human.    

 

 

Awkward sports celebrity encounters

Last week I mentioned my visit to Cincinnati to see the Arizona Diamondbacks play the Reds. I collect autographed baseballs, and I’m too cheap to pay $100 or so at a card show to get a signature on a twenty-dollar ball. So when I go to a major league game (especially if I’m by myself), I enter the ballpark as soon as the gates open and stand close to the dugout to try to get signatures. (I’m starting to re-think this. I’m often the only adult, and I feel a little silly standing there with a bunch of twelve to fifteen year old kids asking for autographs.)

At the D-backs game I got a ball signed by Archie Bradley. He’s a relief pitcher, but has good stuff and will probably be back in a rotation soon. He was friendly and gregarious, signing for everybody that asked, taking pictures with kids, and chatting amiably. He seemed to enjoy all the interaction, and jogged back to the clubhouse after signing dozens of balls, hats, cards, and random scraps of paper.

Shortly before game time, Zack Greinke came out of the dugout and slowly walked over to the crowd, eyes down. Greinke is one of the best pitchers in the game, but he has a reputation as something of an iconoclast. He rarely signs for fans and allegedly suffers from a personality disorder that includes fear of crowds. Somebody in the crowd behind me said they’d read that his current contract includes a requirement to sign autographs.

Zack Greinke looks on during batting practice.

He came to the line and moved toward me, slowly signing whatever was held out to him. He didn’t make eye contact with anybody, and ignored questions from kids. I didn’t see him look up at me, but as I held out a baseball and sharpie he skipped around me. After signing a total of less than ten autographs, he slowly walked back to the dugout.

I have no problem with a player signing only for kids. It’s reasonable to assume that an adult is getting a ball signed as an investment, and I can understand resenting somebody making a profit off your signature. And I can’t say I think players “owe it to the fans” to sign autographs. They’re paid to play baseball, and some of the same fans they sign for today will be booing them tomorrow if they go hitless.

But I started thinking about how hard it is for some people to interact with strangers. Hell, it’s hard for me, and I don’t have a bunch of people crowding around me whenever I’m in public.

One night when I was an usher at Victory Field in Indianapolis, Indiana University basketball coach Tom Crean was seated in my section. I always liked Tom Crean. There are a lot of stories (several from my own kids) of him accommodating fans, helping regular students and generally being a good person. But there was always an awkward side to him. After IU clinched the Big Ten championship in a game at Michigan, he started yelling at a UM assistant coach in the post-game handshake line. The object of Crean’s ire had been at IU under Kelvin Sampson and was involved in recruiting violations that led to sanctions against the Hoosiers. But, ultimately, the misbehavior had resulted in IU hiring Crean. So why bring it up then? Who does that?  

As an IU fan, I recognized Crean at the ballpark immediately. I greeted him and he nodded at the ground, handing me the tickets for him and his son. After I wiped down the seat I said, “Good luck, Coach!” He silently handed me a nice tip and sat down. During the game, kids constantly came up to him and asked for signatures. He always obliged them, smiling, chatting, and taking selfies. He was clearly more comfortable with kids than adults. Or, at least, more comfortable with kids than with me.

Coach_Tom_Crean

Again, like I said, I get this. Sports fans – especially basketball fans in Indiana – are not an understanding bunch. The same hand patting your back tonight could well be typing a venomous diatribe about your 1-3-1 defense tomorrow. And I think Crean had it especially tough. He has some odd facial expressions, and he often wore pants pulled up to his sternum. Indiana fans probably set their expectations too high after Crean convinced Cody Zeller to come to Indiana in his second year. Last season after he was fired, it was hard to find many fans sorry to see him go. People would say “Sure, he’s a great guy, but…”.

A lot of people want to be famous. But I think some people are famous because they’ve focused on a particular talent with such intensity for such a long time that their social skills were neglected. Some of them started three lengths back in that respect anyway, which probably led to them focusing so intently on a particular task. It must be a special kind of hell to be really good at something you love that results in daily encounters with something you dread.

From now on, I’m just going to bite the bullet and pay for player signatures. If a guy is getting money to sit at a table and sign, I’m willing to encroach on his agoraphobia.    

 

Hating on the Cincinnati Reds

I have several perfectly good reasons for rooting against the Cincinnati Reds.

The continuing adulation of Pete Rose, for one. I’ve written before (quite artfully, I’d say, right here (https://wordsbymattroberts.com/2016/09/19/judging-pete-rose/) about all the reasons why he shouldn’t be allowed back in baseball. But you still see fans at Reds games sporting Rose jerseys and mounting passionate, ill-informed defenses of why it’s a travesty that he’s not in the Hall of Fame. It’s like some Indiana fans are about Bob Knight; let it go, for cryin’ out loud.

Then there’s the fact that I’m from Louisville. When I lived there, local TV broadcasters frequently referred to the Reds as “your Cincinnati Reds”. They weren’t my Reds. I didn’t live in Cincinnati. Most of the people in my family were Cardinals fans, and I liked the Cubs. (This is a circumstance best left unexplained. Suffice to say that my career choices have amply demonstrated that popularity is unimportant to me.)IMG_20170718_180336135

It felt like they were saying I had to be a Reds fan just because they were geographically closer.  And if some smarmy, slick-haired yokel is telling me to be a Reds fan, well, there’s only one approach that makes sense to me. Be anything but a Reds fan.

Then there’s Marge Schott. She owned the Reds from 1984-1999, having inherited her husband’s auto dealerships after he died of a heart attack. She was under constant pressure from MLB due to a unique talent for expressing racist, homophobic, and otherwise crazy thoughts. Facing a second suspension in 1999, she finally agreed to relinquish control of the team.

So all these things combined, I never understood how anybody could be a Reds fan unless they lived in Cincinnati. Within walking distance of the ballpark. I do, however, go to at least a couple of Reds games every year. Now, I’m usually there because a team I like is playing, or it’s a weekday afternoon game, or there are really cheap tickets available. Luckily, since the Reds have been mediocre to awful for a while, there are almost always cheap tickets available.

In my first few games at Great American Ballpark, I didn’t really care that much for the facility. Sure, it was an improvement over the multi-use, anti-septic, artificially-turfed Riverfront Stadium. But rich guys hadn’t yet ruined Wrigley Field, and it felt to me like GABP was trying to present itself as old school without really getting there. Plus, the beer selection was terrible.

But over the past few years, the ballpark has grown on me. I like that you can take soft-sided coolers and food in. Around the fifth inning, I like to walk around the concourse, stand by the south wall and sniff the Ohio River. The paddlewheelers moving slowly upstream remind me of my old home town, and the beer selection has improved quite a bit.

BelleOfLouisville

I went to a Diamondbacks game there earlier this week. I kind of like going to baseball games by myself. I can sit there and keep score and listen to the conversations going on around me. I wore my D-Backs jersey (see “popularity unimportant” above), and Arizona ended up with an 11-2 win. I got a seat in the 10th row behind the visitors dugout for $30 off StubHub, and actually had empty seats on both sides. After I got back from stretching my legs, there were no fans within twenty feet of me. It was like being at an Indianapolis Indians game in April on a weeknight.

I usually wear opposing team jerseys at Reds’ games, and I’ve never heard a rude or drunken negative comment. Cincinnati’s a lot more like Louisville than Indianapolis; more Catholics, more gambling, a little more relaxed.

They’re still not my Reds. But I’m willing to let bygones be bygones, and I like Great American Ballpark now. They can’t match the pizza at Miller Park, the beer selection in San Francisco, or the gameday atmosphere in Pittsburgh. But at least I don’t feel like I’m being scammed (looking at you, Wrigley Field).

And, like I said. Tickets are cheap.