Roaming the Midwest looking for baseball

Sometime around 2005, I discovered that there was a Frontier League team in Richmond, Indiana. The Frontier League is an independent professional baseball league. (That is, the teams are not affiliated with any Major League Baseball franchises). The League started in 1992 and originally contained teams from Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio. Over 20 Frontier alumni have appeared in major league games, with Brendan Donnelly (Angels), Jason Simontacchi (Cardinals), and Brian Tollberg (Padres) among the more familiar names. Over the years, a number of teams have folded, been sold, and started.


None of the original eight teams still exist. (At least not in the same city. Figuring out whether the same ownership group moved one of the teams elsewhere would require research. Which will happen at some point this season, but not yet.) I remember that the Richmond team was purchased a couple years after I noticed them and moved to Traverse City, Michigan, where they still play. I took Conor and Eamon to a couple of Richmond Roosters games, though I don’t remember much about the ballpark. What has stayed with me is the sight of their hideous green and orange uniforms.

But, sartorial objections aside, I started thinking about independent pro baseball again a few weeks ago. The Frontier League now numbers twelve teams with three in the Chicago area, two more close to St. Louis, and the farthest one from Indianapolis being just outside Cleveland. It’d be much easier to visit all of these teams over the course of one season than to try to make an MLB circuit. So, in order to write (definitely) and sell (pinkies crossed) several magazine articles, I’m planning to visit each ballpark between May and August.

The Frontier League office graciously sent me a “VIP” ballpark pass that will get me in to the games. I’m now in the process of coordinating visits with each team, hoping to interview players, coaches, fans and host families. I don’t see a book coming out of this, but you never know. Even if I don’t sell many articles, how many people can say they’ve seen every ballpark in the Frontier League?……Huh?…….Anybody?….OK, I’ll admit maybe there’s no widespread desire to want to say that, but, still…..   

My first trip will be to St. Louis because I want to interview the league officials early in the process. That’ll also allow me to see home games for the River City Rascals (O’Fallon, MO) and Gateway Grizzlies (Sauget, IL).   


I fully expect to see the same types of players I saw when I was covering AAA baseball. A number of hopeful, younger guys still chasing a dream of playing in the majors and older players giving this thing one last shot, rounded out with in-betweens who can’t say why they’re here; they’ve just played baseball every summer for their whole lives and don’t know how to quit.

But I hope I’ll find some interesting personal stories. One thing the last year has taught me is that in any group of 10-15 people, at least three have a history or a motivation that you can’t read on their faces or guess by their situations. So for the next few months of this blog will reflect those travels and games, with the occasional break from sports forced by whatever is occupying my thoughts at the time. Other than Hamilton lyrics. Because everybody I know is tired of hearing me talk about that.  


Louisville basketball and betting the Final Four

The University of Louisville has hired Chris Mack as head men’s basketball coach. News reports describe the contract as seven years at four million per. I haven’t seen any numbers on how much he’s getting from Adidas.

Some people would say the Rick Pitino era ended when he was fired last fall after a succession of scandals. I don’t think it ended until the University announced that interim coach David Padgett would not be retained a few weeks ago.

As I’ve written before, I’m a 1980 alum of U of L and I was a serious fan of the program before the University hired Pitino. I won’t belabor all of the cogent, tightly-wound, and correctly-spelled arguments for that. If you’re interested, you can see them here:

So what about Chris Mack? Is this really a house-cleaning, high-integrity hire?

Mack came from Xavier, which consistently posts excellent Academic Progress Rate (APR) numbers. He’s almost a Louisville guy, having married a Louisville native and residing in Northern Kentucky while he coached at Xavier. It appears he has no ties at all to Ricky (The Prince of Darkness) Pitino, and he apparently ran a clean program in Cincinnati.


One minor concern is a reference to one of Mack’s players in the burgeoning shoe money scandal that forced U of L to finally cut ties with Pitino. The player reportedly received $7,000 from an agent while playing at Xavier. But that’s a far cry from systematic corruption or the repeated scandals that Louisville is trying to escape. And it’s at least plausible that Mack had no knowledge of the payment.

He can certainly recruit Indiana players. Over the past few years, two of the best in the state (Trevon Bluiett and Paul Scruggs) have played for him at Xavier. Scruggs concerns me a little. While writing Thirty-Two Minutes in March I learned that Scruggs was in the Crispus Attucks program in Indianapolis before suddenly appearing at Southport High School for his freshman year. With Indiana’s open enrollment law, there’s nothing improper about that. But then for his senior season he left Southport and enrolled at Pro Prep in California, which isn’t even a school. It’s a basketball program that arranges for classes elsewhere.

Again, nothing improper about this. Necessarily. But it smells like everything that’s wrong with college basketball.

Then again, I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not 1954. The high school and college athletics landscape isn’t what it used to be. What is?

I don’t know if I’ll ever be as much a fan of UL basketball as I once was. I’ve sent three of my kids to Indiana University and spent more on their education in one semester than I did in four years at Louisville. But I won’t actively root against the Cardinals at this point. If Mack proves to be the stand-up guy he appears to be, and the University shows that they’re committed to running a clean program, I can support them.


We made our annual March Madness trip to Vegas for the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. The basketball betting was up and down, but we went 3-2 on our sweet sixteen wagers we made before heading to the airport. We cashed on Villanova -5.5 vs. West Virginia, the Loyola moneyline at plus-120 against Nevada and Syracuse plus 11.5 versus Puke. Our losses were a moneyline bet on Clemson against Kansas and Purdue minus 1.5 versus Texas Tech.    

Photos taken at Las Vegas.

In the Final Four this weekend, Loyola is getting five and a half against Michigan, and Villanova is a five-point favorite over Kansas. I could present a detailed statistical analysis for picks here, but that kind of thinking put me into a -1200 unit hole during our NCAA pool. I only started to recover when I picked games based on gut instinct. So that’s what I’m doing here.

Loyola’s a great story, but I think Michigan is the kind of team that would give them trouble, so I’d lay the points before I’d take them. Nova looks unstoppable to me, but I don’t think they’re five points better than Kansas. Which sets up a Michigan-Villanova final. I’d like to pick a Big Ten team here, but I think Nova is just too good. A final of 80-72 sounds about right.   


Pass the clipboard

I may have mentioned that I grew up in Kentucky. Consequently, when our family gathers for the holidays, we don’t usually argue about politics; we argue about basketball. Which recently led to another argument about the University of Louisville and its recent troubles.

After finally firing Rick Pitino, UL hired assistant coach David Padgett to run the program as interim coach. For $800,00 per year. I’ve said that my preference as an alum is that the University shut down basketball completely for 3-5 years and then start over. I understand that’s probably unrealistic. But I do think the university should at least wipe away all traces of the Jurich/Pitino regime until a new, squeaky clean coach can be found. Not that there’s any evidence that Padgett was involved in all the skullduggery; but the program needs a completely clean sweep.   News reports indicated that the University president said (paraphrasing here) that they wanted to appoint somebody who was already familiar with the players because UL expected to be good this year.

The points presented to me were that UL went as far as it should go in house-cleaning, and bringing in an interim coach from outside the program would penalize the current players who – so far –  have not been accused of any wrongdoing. And that a coach unfamiliar with the players and their program would have little chance to effectively lead the team.

Regarding the last observation, I countered that it’s just basketball. Nobody has invented new plays or defenses in a long time. Most teams run pretty much the same stuff. Danville coach Brian Barber told me that his team runs one out-of-bounds play called “America”.

“We call it that ‘cause everybody in America runs it,” he said.

All of which started me thinking about the relative importance of coaching in basketball. I’ve been playing, watching, coaching, and refereeing basketball my whole life (though, obviously, well below the major college level).   Robert_Timmons_(basketball_coach)

What are the major recent innovations in the game? The Pack Line Defense? Land sakes, it’s so complex. You have to play off your man to within 16 feet of the basket unless he has the ball. That’s it.

The VCU “Havoc” defense? Um, it’s a press. You play defense for 90 feet instead of 45. Thirty years ago Arkansas ran the same thing, but they called it “Forty Minutes of Hell”. Quick, somebody run some computer simulations!

The Triangle and Motion offenses are like fifty years old. They’ve been running the pick and roll for about a hundred years, and, when executed properly, it still works.

One time I asked veteran Indiana high school coach Ron Hecklinski how you tell the difference between a good basketball coach and a bad one. He said it basically comes down to who can get his team to play harder. Whether it’s through fear of running sprints after practice or adoration of the coach doesn’t matter. If two teams are equal in talent, the team that plays harder usually wins. If they’re not equal in talent, then the lesser team has to play a LOT harder to win.  

I’ll concede that some coaches make better in-game adjustments than others, but I also think it’s really hard for an outsider to make that assessment. Just judging the effectiveness of a strategy move based on results is dicey. It’s awfully tough to isolate the variable. Did the coach change defenses? If so, was the other team ready for it? How did they adjust? If it was such a stroke of genius, why didn’t the team start out in that defense?  

I think coaching has a much greater impact on football and baseball. In the latter, the manager is potentially making decisions prior to every single pitch. Moving fielders, calling pitches, considering pinch hitters on both his or her own team as well as the opposition. In football, the playbooks run to hundreds of pages, with blocking schemes changing every play.

None of which necessarily makes these games more compelling to watch than basketball. It’s not that much fun to watch somebody think. I do believe that basketball coaches in particular get too much credit and too much blame for team performance. The game just moves too quickly for coaches to make the micro-changes during each play that might accumulate over the course of the game.   



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 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.



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.)


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.  














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.”


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.


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.


“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.


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?”


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


“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.


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.”


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?)


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.


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.)


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.  


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.


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.