The story behind a story

Did you ever notice those free community magazines at the entrance to the grocery store? They’re usually in a rack along with auto sale listings, real estate brochures, and other free publications. In Indianapolis, there’s a different one (and sometimes two) for almost every neighborhood. Center Grove, Greenwood, Zionsville, Avon, Carmel, Broad Ripple, etc. The company that publishes all of these in Indianapolis is Townepost Communications. I noticed that they’re expanding into Kentucky, starting with Jeffersontown. (As a native of Louisville, this strikes me as an odd choice. I know I’ve been gone awhile, but J-Town? Isn’t it just a beer stop en route to Taylorsville Lake?)

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I never paid much attention to these until I started marketing Thirty-Two Minutes in March. Last fall, I saw the Center Grove version of the magazine and decided to offer a pre-season preview of Center Grove High School basketball. I was willing to do the piece for free in return for a book plug. Since Center Grove is one of the teams I featured, I thought it’d be a good marketing tool to get the book in front of people who were already reading an article about the Trojans.

Townepost ended up assigning the article to me and paid the going rate for the piece. I thought that’d be the end of it, at least until next fall when I can try it again. But since then, they’ve asked me to write one or two articles every month. I’m happy to do it. They’re always short human interest stories (500-700 words) and an easy way to pick up a little extra money. But I never thought I’d be doing this kind of writing.

One story was about a plumber who maintains a vast garden at his home and delivers bouquets to neighbors and customers. During the interview, I found out he started the project (which includes planting 50,000 annuals) after his wife and son were killed in a car crash. After the accident, he threw himself into both gardening and fishing, and we spent over an hour on a rainy spring morning talking. Most of that discussion never made it into the article, but it was time well spent. I got to listen to this older gentleman (he swore me to secrecy regarding his exact age) talk about his passions and how they helped him deal with a horrific loss.

Another article was about a high school girl who is the only person ever to win two Indiana state high school bowling championships. It was once again a long interview for a short story, but I gained insight into the effort and commitment it takes to win consistently, even when the sport doesn’t generate revenue or headlines. And the kid’s humility and good nature reminded me of what I learned while I was writing the book. That kids are kids; goofy, nervous, funny, wise, and annoying within any fifteen minute period, even if they’re accomplished athletes.

Yet another piece was about an adult swim program. During the interview, I found out the coach was from Louisville. We talked about University of Louisville basketball, and how hard it is to get a decent fish sandwich in Indianapolis. Then we compared our hip problems. He’s having a hip replacement at age forty, and we talked about trying to stay active as you age.

When I was covering sports or writing the book, my interviews generally had a very specific purpose, and I was anxious to get the quotes and get out of there. But in this iteration of my writing life, I’m finally starting to appreciate the stories behind stories. Maybe it’s because I have more time available now. Maybe I’ve grown/calmed down as a person. But as much as I appreciate the insights and anecdotes now, I really regret not taking the time to listen a little longer during all those interviews in the past.   

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Random thoughts while watching minor league baseball

When I was taking my kids to baseball games, they often brought friends along. We (well, okay, mostly I) insisted that they name their walk-up song before the third inning. (In most parks, batters on the home team get to specify what song is played over the PA when they come to bat.) My family had, of course, settled on their own songs long ago. Otherwise, I’d have exerted the most powerful leverage available. Withholding snacks.

Since then, I always ask people for their walk-up song when I watch a game with them for the first time. I’d like to pretend that it gives me some insight into their soul, or their values, or even their musical tastes; but mostly it’s just something to talk about during pitching changes. I am, however, always surprised when other people haven’t already given this decision that much thought. But I guess that’s to be expected. I’m also taken aback when people don’t like gambling, fried bologna, hoppy craft beers, or The Godfather movies. (At least I and II.)

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My walk-up song is “No More Mr. Nice Guy” by Alice Cooper. Jacquito’s is “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, and Gan insists he’d pick “Feelings” by Barry Manilow. I choose to believe that Gan doesn’t really understand the question.

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Over the rest of the season, I’m conducting a non-scientific, non-random survey (those being all the rage these days) of the beer preferences of Indianapolis Indians fans. I’ll log the type of beer being consumed by each fan I see wearing major league apparel. (I have to figure out how to handle people wearing a cap from one team and a jersey from another. Although my nephew posits that I am the only person who does this.) At tonight’s game I found the following:

Pirates fan….craft beer

Reds fan……BuLiCo (either Bud, Miller Lite or Coors. I don’t think it matters which)

Phillies………Yuengling (should consider merging category with BuLiCo)

Red Sox……all appeared to be under legal drinking age  

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I think the crowds at minor league parks are very different from those at major league games. For one thing, they’re not as interested in the result, unless it’s a playoff game or a critical late-season contest. Minor league fans are a lot more interested in socializing, taking selfies (more on that later), and getting snacks.

I also think minor league fans are more critical of players and eager to appear knowledgeable to other fans.

Player drops a fly ball or kicks a grounder….”THAT”S WHY YOU’RE IN TRIPLE-A!”

Umpire calls a ball against opposing hitter when it appears (from a 45 degree angle and 300 feet away) to be a strike…………………”COME ON UMP! YOU BELONG IN A- BALL!”

Manager leaves a pitcher in despite walking two batters in the third inning….”YOU GOTTA GET HIM OUTTA THERE!”

All these despite a) the fielder is playing out of position to back up an injured teammate, b) the ump obviously…ah, never mind, and c) in the minors the pitcher’s staying in for his designated number of pitches, no matter how many guys he walks.

I almost never hear ill-informed stuff at major league games (other than the carping about balls and strikes). But I do hear a lot more complaining about managerial moves and player effort.

I also think fans are a lot more sensitive to blocking other people’s views at MLB games. When I was an usher in Indianapolis, I spent a lot of time walking down the aisle asking people to take their seat while the ball was in play. Fans would routinely decide that the very best time to gather the family for a photo with the field in the background was the middle of an at-bat. This is a problem for a couple of reasons. First, it blocks the view of other people trying to watch the game. But it’s also really dangerous. In my short time as an usher, I saw several inattentive fans get clocked by foul balls, including a kid who lost several teeth.

Fans at Victory Field also routinely get up in the middle of an at bat to go to the concession stand. In major league parks, I’ve seen a lot of people get upset about this, and I don’t blame them. You really should wait until the inning ends, but at least until after the at-bat.

Maybe this is all part of the general coarsening of society. Maybe it’s just the general coarsening of me. But, either way. Just stop it.

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In my last post I mentioned that interviewing players was one of my least favorite parts of covering baseball. One of the best parts was sitting at the open window of the press box after the story was in and the fans had gone home. I loved sitting there sipping a cold beer with a breeze blowing in my face, the ballpark empty except for the grounds crew and the cleaning people.

As the sanitation workers moved through the stands, occasionally talking among themselves in Spanish, the grounds crew would tamp down the dirt around home plate, rake the infield and scoop up the baseline chalk. Then they’d cover home plate and the pitcher’s mound, and roll out the big tarps if rain was expected overnight.

By then, the cleaning people would be gone and you could hear the groundskeepers’ conversations.

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There are few things that look more perfect, more in the right place, than an empty baseball field after a game. I sometimes toyed with the idea of turning out the press box lights, waiting for the grounds crew to leave and just staying in the ballpark all night. Even if there was overnight security (and I don’t think there was), I knew the stairways and corridors well enough that I could have stayed hidden. I always wondered what it’d be like to pass the night on an empty field and watch the sun come up over the skyline.

It’d be a dumb thing to do and, if caught, I’d have lost my press pass (and maybe gotten myself arrested). But sometimes I still think about that when we’re leaving after a game.    

  

     

A story from the press box

I used to cover minor league baseball as a stringer for several different newspapers. That market is almost gone now, mostly due to consolidation of media companies, the internet, and the declining interest of Gannett Corporation in publishing anything besides advertising.

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It was a fun gig while it lasted. At its peak, I covered 30-40 games each season. I’d show up at the press box in time for the pre-game buffet and settle into one of the best seats in the house. For a couple hours I’d watch baseball and joke with the other sportswriters, then file a 10-12 inch game story. After I hit “send”, I’d grab a beer from the refrigerator and watch the grounds crew work on the field in the empty ballpark. Then I’d drive home and bill the newspaper I was working for $75-$100.

One of my least favorite parts of the process was interviewing players. Game stories are pretty dry and boring without quotes, so even if the game ended at deadline, the editor usually gave me a 10-15 minute extension to get comments from the participants. Which was the worst of both worlds. Not only did I have to run down to the clubhouse and back, I’d have to desperately try to find somebody with something interesting to say in only a couple of minutes.   

With few exceptions, baseball players are notoriously bad interviews. Every sportswriter I ever asked rated them at the bottom of the four major U.S. sports. (The consensus is that football players are next worst, then basketball and hockey. I’ve never interviewed a hockey player, but I’m told they are universally humble and friendly to the press.)

Maybe it’s because baseball requires so many games and failure is so much a regular part of the sport. Or maybe it’s because in any given play, more than half of your teammates are uninvolved, making players self-absorbed. All I know is that it was a struggle to get guys to say anything other than the stock phrases from the “boring quotes” scene in Bull Durham.

But in one game I got such great comments that I’ve saved the tape. (What? Yeah, tape. It was a long time ago, okay?)   

I was covering the first game of a series between the Richmond Braves and the Indianapolis Indians for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I’d never met the new Braves manager, a man named Jeff Cox. Midway through the game, Indians beat writer Kim Rogers turned to me and said, “Hey, are you talking to Cox after the game?”. I said I probably would.

“Man, that guy’s crazy. You better hope they win.”

“What do you mean?”

Kim told me a story from when Cox managed the Omaha Royals and the Indians were in their old ballpark on 16th street. He said that one of the Royals hit a groundball to short that tipped off the fielder’s glove and went into the outfield grass. The official scorer ruled it a base hit, but, as sometimes happens, people in the press box argued that the fielder should have made the play. After some discussion, the scorer agreed and changed the call to an error. Immediately after the scoring change was announced, a heavy rain started to fall and the umpire called a halt to play.

Moments later, the writers and scorer heard somebody running up the ramp to the press box, yelling and cursing. Cox burst in and started screaming at Rogers in the belief that he was the official scorer. After yelling for a few minutes, he walked back down to the dugout.

Now, it’s not unheard of for a manager or coach to call up to the press box to argue about a scoring call after the game. Players’ livelihoods are often at stake, and a base hit for a batter or removal of an earned run for a pitcher can sometimes – at least temporarily – tilt a decision on release. But you don’t charge into the press box, and you don’t verbally attack a game official.

Rogers told me that at the park the next day, Cox found him and apologized. He said the kid had been hitting the ball hard, finally got one to fall in, and he felt like the scorer was endangering a career. Kim told him he harbored no hard feelings. But somebody from the Indians had complained to the Royals, and Cox was later suspended and then let go before the following season. Rogers said during the next summer, he heard Cox was in a traffic accident in California and got in a fight with a much younger and larger person, and ended up in a hospital for a few months.

Late in this game, Richmond was ahead by a couple of runs so I thought maybe Cox would be in a decent mood for post-game comments. But Indianapolis put a couple of runners on, and the next batter grounded a ball up the first base line that got past first baseman Randall Simon. The umpire started to call the ball foul, then suddenly pivoted and pointed to fair territory, scoring two runs to put Indianapolis ahead. That ended up closing the scoring, and the Braves lost by a single run.

After the last out, I waited the full league-mandated ten minutes before entering the clubhouse. If I was going to get screamed at, I wanted to make sure I’d scrupulously observed the “cooling off period” before press are allowed to enter. I tentatively opened the door and the first person I saw was Cox.  I asked him if he had any comments, and  he said “Sure, let’s go out to the dugout. It’ll be a little quieter.”

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I fed him a few softball questions, and he was friendly, calm and amiable. Not at all what I expected. I started thinking maybe Rogers was just messing with me. As usual, I’d saved the most sensitive question for the end.

“In the eighth inning on that grounder up the first base line, it looked like the umpire started to call it foul, then called it fair. Did you have a good look at the play?”

He sighed. “No, I didn’t,” he said. “I’m sure he got it right….you know, we’re all in this together, just trying to get better and trying to develop these kids for the major leagues…”

He went on like that for several minutes, and gradually veered into a lucid, insightful, fascinating monologue about the beauty and meanness of baseball, how it seems like a simple game but tiny adjustments – or failures to adjust –  can have such a huge impact on the results.

But then he got around to the specific play. He wasn’t mad at the umpire, but the more he talked the angrier he got at the first baseman. Simon had failed to guard the line like he’d been told, apparently not for the first time. Cox’s voice kept getting louder, and he started pacing the dugout, shaking his head, the words coming in staccato bursts. The bat boys started watching him warily as they gathered up the equipment.

Finally he said, “We’ve been over it and over it, and OVER IT with this guy AND I DON’T KNOW WHAT you have to say to him, so I DON’T KNOW, you just do the BEST YOU CAN and HOPE he gets better…..SONOFABITCH!!”

With that, Cox wheeled around and headed up the tunnel to the clubhouse. SOMEBODY was getting an ass-chewing. And I had some quotes for the story.

Every time I saw Cox after that, he was the same friendly, upbeat, mild mannered guy he was when he first started talking. (‘Course, by then Randall Simon was on to bigger things. Like being the object of racial taunts by Atlanta’s John Rocker and, eventually, tripping one of the Milwaukee Brewers’ racing sausages with a bat.) Cox quickly became my favorite manager in the International League. One time he even took me with him into the training room so I could watch as he told a player he was going up to the major leagues.

I guess that’s baseball, huh? If it can make a sweetheart like Jeff Cox go off the rails, it’s enough to make anybody crazy.

Adventures in Chiropractic

Alert readers may have noticed that I haven’t posted much lately. It’s not that I “had too much fun in Vegas”, or “had to go back to work to support a gambling habit”, or “spend all day watching baseball”. Well. At least not entirely.

Fact is, I’ve had a back/hip issue that’s progressively gotten worse over the past several months. During March Madness in Vegas, I slept fitfully, and usually woke my roommate Jacquito early in the morning as I stretched, trying to get loose enough to wander around Vegas and sit in poker rooms.

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Not me. Some other guy who apparently swallowed a broken ladder.

After getting home, the pain in my hip continued to worsen to the point that I couldn’t even do the stretches. Last fall (when the pain was relatively mild) an orthopedist told me that I’d have to have a hip replacement at some point, but if the pain wasn’t interfering with my daily life there was no immediate need for surgery. Not even being sixty yet, this was hard news to accept. So I decided to try chiropractic.

Now, I know some people swear by this approach to medicine, and it’s apparently helped a lot of people. But I can still hear my parents telling me as a child that Chiropractors were quacks who only went into the field because they weren’t accepted into medical school. I imagined the “doctor” would be some older, hairy-armed guy with halitosis who made bad jokes and sold lifetime memberships in a nudist colony on the side.

But I resolved to keep an open mind. My insurance would pay most of the cost, and I could always quit if it didn’t help. I found a young-ish woman Chiropractor on the south side who accepted my insurance plan and made an appointment.

During the initial exam, she assured me that my problem was a pinched nerve in my back that would benefit from spinal adjustment. I told her what the orthopedist said last fall. She smirked and said, “He didn’t do you any favors by telling you to wait”. She also said that my hip was “tilted” and that my right leg was one and a half inches longer than the left. She recommended a schedule of three adjustments per week for four weeks, then a re-evaluation.

I scheduled the first appointment for the next day. She had me lay on my back, then grabbed my feet – actually, my shoes – and moved my legs around. I then rolled over on my stomach and she asked me to lift each leg as high as possible. I managed only a few inches due to the pain in my hip. She then shifted my back around, popped my neck and spine a couple of times with some kind of clicker, and then shoved my back a few times.

When I got off the table, I actually did feel a little better. I felt like I was looser and walking a bit more freely. Maybe this wasn’t a scam after all.

I continued to come for the adjustments, but couldn’t help but ponder some red flags.

Subsequent appointments were in a larger examination room with four tables. Patients went in four at a time, and the doctor moved around to each one in turn. When you lie onto your stomach, there’s tissue paper on a roll to keep your face from resting directly on the table. In my second appointment after we were done, she asked me to rotate the face paper and throw it away to “Keep my hands clean”. I wondered where the hell she got this paper I was planting my face in that made it even less sanitary than other people’s shoes.

I got to the next appointment early and filled out my daily report about how much pain I’d had since the last adjustment. After I was done I watched a video board that showed commercials for chiropractic treatment, tips on the best positions for sleeping and what a big problem kids’ overloaded backpacks are. As the messages scrolled through, I started noticing spelling and grammar errors on about a third of the slides.

(“You can replace you’re hip, but not your back!”, “You’re never to young for Chiropractic!”)

I also noticed a consistent animus toward traditional medicine. Every time a patient mentioned their family doctor, the chiropractor made a snide comment (“Well, you already knew that”). It struck me as really unprofessional, and probably not in the patient’s best interest.

I felt like I was being scammed. And after the subsequent appointments, the relief was less noticeable. So I cancelled the rest of my adjustments and made an appointment with my family doctor.

I don’t know if my experience is typical. Maybe I just happened on a sub-optimal practitioner. I’d be interested to hear from anybody who’s had different experiences with chiropractors. And I may not be done with alternative medicine. Before any surgery, I might try acupuncture. I just hope I can find one with better hygiene practices. And spell check.

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Vegas Update

For the twelfth year in a row, the Fear and Loathing A.C. Fantasy Football League traveled to Vegas on the first weekend of March Madness for spring practice.

Most of the itinerary is repeated from year to year, but since Vegas is always changing –  casinos close and new ones open –  it’s never exactly the same. And we always wander off the beaten path a time or two, especially when Purdue, Notre Dame, or Indiana games require our attention.  

As usual, we made time for breakfast at Hash House A-Go-Go at the Linq casino. The Linq has been there for a long time but suffered two name changes since we’ve been going there. First it was Imperial Palace (Chinese theme), then for a year or two “The Quad” (frat house chic?), and finally “The Linq”. It’s Gan’s favorite casino, and he gets us a good rate there for at least a few weeknights.

Hash House is a chain based in California, but apparently the owners are Hoosiers. There are a lot of Indiana farm references in the menu, and they serve huge portions for breakfast. Waffles the size of platters, Bloody Marys in 24 oz, glasses. But it’s all high quality and very tasty.

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This year (well, maybe every year) we were making a lot of noise at our table, insulting each other, arguing about basketball bets and generally enjoying our first morning in Vegas. A middle-aged woman sitting at the next table over asked if she could take our picture because she’d never seen a bunch of grown men having so much fun. (She’s apparently never seen Dads escorting an eighth grade class to laser tag.) It was a little awkward, but we agreed and she texted us a copy.

She then pointed out her son who was cringing at their table. She explained that she brought him to Vegas for his 21st birthday. We all told him happy birthday while pondering what a mixed blessing this would be. BEING IN VEGAS FOR YOUR 21ST BIRTHDAY…..uh…….with your Mom. Gan wondered if she would at some point send him out with a hundred dollar bill to “become a man” while she played nickel slots.

There have been a couple of big changes since we last visited. Binion’s poker room has closed, though they still have two tables open at the end of the table games pit. Binions is where the World Series of Poker started, and until a few years ago the room was always busy.

In one of our earliest trips, the casino had a huge room devoted to a sports book on the first floor. After the casino was sold by the Binion family, the new owner converted the book to a bar/entertainment area with a mechanical bull. Shortly after that, they renovated and created a beautiful enclosed poker room in the space, with portraits of Poker Hall of Fame members on the wall.

But every time I walked past it, the room was either completely empty or had only a single table open. Tournaments were still held off the casino floor, but cash games have been dead at Binion’s since the renovation. Keeping just a couple of tables shoved into a corner of the pit does not bode well for poker at the old casino. After they close that, the only downtown poker room will be at the Golden Nugget.

Meanwhile, The Lucky Dragon casino opened a block off the strip in early March. On a Sunday afternoon we walked in to check the place out and use some introductory free play.

The casino is geared toward Chinese visitors, with all of the signage in Chinese over English subtitles. They have a lot of baccarat tables with no craps, sports book, or poker and only a couple of blackjack stations. It’s an elegant, quiet casino, and I saw one player being served a pot of tea while playing mini-baccarat. In other words, we won’t be spending a lot of time there.

Gan is part Chinese and pretended to be able to read all of the signs. He lost some credibility when he ordered Jameson and 7 in his “impeccable” Mandarin, and the waiter brought him a dozen egg rolls.    

A lot of the strip casinos have imposed a new system for complimentary drinks at the bar for video poker players. As I’ve written before, when the sports books are crowded we often sit at the bar, slowly playing video poker and soaking up free cocktails while we watch the games on TV. The bigger strip conglomerates now meter video poker play at the bar and only comp your drink if you’ve played enough money through. We didn’t play much at strip casino bars, but there was no noticeable delay in getting cocktails wherever we were. In a couple of instances at the Cromwell, the server was offering drinks before we were done with the prior one.

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Sometimes we get hungry between buffets

As usual, at the end of the trip I tallied up my gambling wins and losses. I surprisingly  found a small profit, mostly on the strength of video poker and three card poker at the Cromwell. We played a lot more limit poker than usual, and that helped as well. Having been home for a few weeks now, we’re starting to look for ways to justify an autumn trip. I’m still working on a plausible argument to convince Theresa that I can make it as a professional sports bettor. Unfortunately, she’s good at math.     

Catching up with Coach Wash

The last time I watched Phillip Washington run a practice, it was in the Crispus Attucks Medical Magnet High School gym during the 2015 Indiana high school basketball tournament. He was getting his team ready to face Cloverdale and Park Tudor in the 2A Regional Finals.

Now, on a cold snowy night in March of 2017, I watch as he puts grown men through many of the same drills with much of the same passion that he displayed during Attucks workouts. Washington is now coaching the semi-pro Indianapolis Blaze of the Central Basketball Association.  He claps his hands, yells out instructions, and urges the players on as they scrimmage five-on-ten.

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The drill works like this. Team A inbounds the ball against a press by Team B. If Team B steals and scores, they inbound against a pressing Team A. But if Team A gets the ball to midcourt, Team C starts guarding in the front court, trying to steal and score at the other end. Any team that makes a basket gets the ball back, and has to start all over against backcourt pressure.

Washington’s whistle is little more than a fashion accessory in this drill. Players wrestle for the ball out of bounds, crash into each other on drives to the basket, and bear-hug in the post. Finally, one team scores its sixth point and the coach orders the other ten players to the end line for “towel drills”, where they sprint to each line on the court and back. Not just endlines, free throw lines, midcourt; every line on the court, including those marked for volleyball.

Several players protest, claiming mistakes in scorekeeping. Washington answers them, but as they keep arguing he tells them “Enough. That’s it. Just stop.” He blows the whistle and the players, still grumbling, start running the lines.

“Everything we do is competitive and we play for a consequence,” Washington says. “Yesterday the new guys beat the guys from last year, and they were mad.”

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Washington chuckles. “They were really mad. No conversation after practice, they just put on their clothes and left. Grown men, very angry.”

“But they respect the process. They know it helps keep them accountable.”

After the 2015 season, Washington was a candidate for the Anderson High School job, which would have been a jump to 4A as well as a triumphant return to his hometown. Another coach was selected, and Washington returned to Attucks. But early in the season, the IHSAA determined that Attucks had used ineligible players in summer league games and Washington was eventually removed as head coach. The following spring, Anderson High School re-opened the head coaching position and hired Washington, but before the season began he was charged with DUI only blocks from his home. The Anderson school board removed him as coach, though he still works there as a teacher.

When we spoke over the summer, Washington told me he thought he was finished with high school coaching. But now he’s not so sure.

“It’s a possibility,” he says. “I miss it. But I didn’t realize how much time I was taking away from my family….I miss the interaction with the kids and growing a team.”

CBA players pay a league fee to participate in the 8-game season, and they get a chance at exposure to scouts from the NBA D-League and International teams. According to the league, over sixty CBA players have signed professional contracts to play overseas or in the NBA since 2013. The league features teams from Baltimore, Bowling Green (KY), Ft. Wayne, Illinois, Nashville (TN) and Mississippi. The players aren’t paid, but get training dates with International pro teams, video highlight packages, and exposure to high level competition.

And the coaches get exposure as well. Due to the brevity and scheduling of the season, a CBA coach can work around college and high school coaching jobs.

“If this can open doors to a college coaching job, that’s my ultimate goal,” Washington says. “If it does, that’s the direction I’ll go.”

Whatever the outcome of the season, the team looks to be vintage Coach Washington. Active, loud, swarming defense. Quick shots. Constant communication on defense.

The Blaze roster includes the 2016 CBA scoring leader in Anthony White and former Butler University standout Chrishawn Hopkins. Washington also seems excited about the new additions to the team.

“Ja’Rob McCallum from Marion (HS) played for University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee,” he says. “He’s going to play a major role.

All of the drills and running during practice aren’t for show. At Attucks High School, Washington’s teams always played with a frantic desperation that was fun to watch and easy to root for.

“I want to play fast and be all over the floor,” he says.

The Blaze open the 2017 season at 6:00 PM on Friday, March 25 at the Broad Ripple High School gymnasium against the Mississippi Eagles.    

MLB is over-thinking again

So Major League Baseball and the Players Association have agreed to a few rules changes for the 2017 season. The impetus for many of the changes is (allegedly) a desire to speed up the game. Some of the other changes that MLB wants were blocked by the players’ union, but after this season the owners can implement them unilaterally, so I’m sure we’ll see the more dramatic aberrations…..uh, changes ….next year.

In 2017, the most noticeable difference will be on intentional walks. For the last hundred years or so, if a pitcher wanted to walk a hitter he had to throw four pitches out of the strike zone. Now the pitcher’s manager just has to “signal” the umpire, and the batter will be waved to first base. WP_20160804_010

Two other changes have to do with pitchers re-setting their pivot foot (which is really directed at one particular player with a quirky delivery) and positioning by base coaches. The last change prescribes time limits on managers and replay officials.  

I’m something of a traditionalist when it comes to baseball. (Some people who call themselves my friends would use other terms. “Anal retentive”, “Dinosaur”, and “Mirthless Hater of Fun” being some of the more charitable ones.) But none of these wrinkles give me much heartburn. Yeah, there’s the occasional ESPN highlight where somebody wildly swings at a pitch meant to be a walk and gets a base hit, but it really doesn’t happen very often.    

I do think it’d be more fun if they made the manager’s “signal” unique for each team. Like the Diamondbacks manager should have to come out and walk toward home, clap twice, then make a snake head with his thumb and fingers while saying “ssssssss”. The Giants could signal by having a ball boy walk around the on-deck circle on stilts. The Twins could have two interns with shirts attached at the back. You get the idea.   

And speeding up the replays is OK if you accept that replays are a good thing to start with. I think officials should make a call and move on. Mistakes will be made; but there will also be missed signals, errors, imperfect groundskeeping, and drunken ushers. (Ooops. May have given away a trade secret with that last one.) The point is, if you’re looking for perfect competition with no randomness or human error involved, don’t count on a nap. You’re gonna be busy.

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But the really egregious stuff will have to wait until 2018. For instance, in order to speed up extra inning games, MLB wants to start each half inning with a baserunner on second. Because nobody ever enjoys or talks about 18- or 19- inning games? Ask any fan to describe his or her most memorable game experience, and 75% of the time it will be a long, extra-inning contest. Baseball’s most distinguishing feature is the lack of a time limit. It takes as long as it takes. You can’t get a lead and run out the clock. Now I know how long-time soccer fans feel about penalty kick shootouts.   

If MLB really wants to speed up games, here are are a couple of suggestions, humbly and faithfully submitted by your obedient servant:

  1. Stay in the Batter’s Box

It’s gotten to the point that a batter spends more time out of the box than in it during the at-bat. Pitcher delivers and batter takes. Batter immediately calls for time, steps out of the box, takes off helmet, smooths his hair back, replaces helmet. Loosens left batting glove strap and re-fastens it. Repeats with right hand. Taps left shoe with bat. Taps right shoe. Takes a deep breath and puts one foot into box. Stretches arms above head, then blinks rapidly. Steps back out to remove speck of dust from eye……STAY IN THE @#$%^& BOX, SON

Batters should have to stay in the box anytime they take a pitch unless there is a potential play at a base (attempted steal, wild pitch, etc.). Take a swing? OK, sure, step out and gather yourself. But on a pitch that’s just watched, there’s absolutely no justification for stepping out and wasting time.  

      2.   Shorten commercial breaks

  Haha. Kidding.

       3.  Disallow a mound visit when replacing pitchers

How often are games intentionally delayed by managers going to the mound when they’ve already decided to replace the pitcher? Everybody knows they’re just out there killing time to get a few more warm-up pitches for the reliever. If a manager visits the mound, the pitcher should have to face one more hitter or finish the at-bat in progress. Then if the manager wants to replace him, he can just wave a guy in from the bullpen. Maybe by doing that snake thing.

I understand why MLB is worried about demographics. According to ESPN, the average age of baseball fans is 53. NFL and NBA are 47 and 37, respectively. Kids used to handheld video games, instant communication on social media, and the BOOM-POW-BANG culture of ESPN Sportscenter have a hard time focusing on the gradual tension that slowly builds to the final denouement of a great baseball game. But instead of robbing the game of its charms, maybe they should try enforcing the rules they already have. Keep hitters in the box, don’t allow time-wasting on the mound, and call a rulebook strike zone. Maybe we can keep the old guys AND the kids happy.   

 

 

 

Getting almost as much for a lot less in Vegas

Just a couple weeks from today, the NCAA tournament selection show will air, and two days later I’ll board a plane with a few friends headed west to Las Vegas.

Thirteen years ago, the Fear and Loathing Athletic Club Fantasy Football League began a tradition of spring practice in Vegas for March Madness. We were all working men with kids in high school and college back then, so frugality was a major concern. We never slept more than two to a room, but we refused to pay retail for anything. We’d typically arrive on Wednesday morning and then leave on Saturday to avoid the most expensive hotel night.

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One year we all got free airfare through a promotion by Wendy’s. All you had to do was collect 75 stickers from Wendy’s soft drink cups and mail them in for free roundtrip airfare from the now-defunct Independence Air. Most of us weren’t willing to rummage around in trash cans for cups (looking at you, Charlie), but at about $1 per drink we still got the tickets for less than $100 (not including the cost to our bladders).

Kids graduating college and moving out of the house have eased some of the financial pressure, but we still use coupons and exploit special deals that we find online. We don’t gamble enough to score free rooms, but we still get discounts and book early to minimize the cost. Now, obviously, we don’t stay in the trendy, night-clubby hotels on the strip. (Though last year I did get 1.5 free nights at the Mirage through a Facebook promotion.) But when you spend 80% of your time outside the room, it’s a waste to pay more for an upgraded hotel.

Like everything else, the cost of going to Vegas has risen over the years. A lot of the casinos have even tightened up on free cocktails, which disrupts one of our favorite approaches to watching basketball. In days past, when the sports books were packed we’d make our bets and then adjourn to the casino bar to play video poker –  very slowly – as we watched TV and soaked up free drinks.

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Photo by Joe Gauder

But there are still ways to save money on a trip. We always buy the two main coupon books (Las Vegas Advisor and American Casino Guide), which quickly pay for themselves with half-price meals, gambling match plays, slot free-play, and free drinks. We still share rooms, and book our flights as early as possible. There’s a page for March Madness in Las Vegas on Facebook that gives details on free watch parties that include match play coupons, T-shirts, etc.

To maximize efficiency in using coupons, I draft an itinerary for each day. Though we always go off script a few times to watch our favorite teams, it’s a good tool to avoid having six guys standing around deferring to each other on where to go next. For example, here’s the plan for Wednesday on this year’s trip. (No basketball games on that day.)

Wednesday, March 15

9:00 AM……………………..Breakfast at Hash House A-Go-Go (CET comps)

10:00 AM…………………….Poker tournament at Harrah’s OR Flamingo

1:00 PM……………………..Gold Coast/Palms/Rio (GC Senior Wednesday drawing at 4:30)

6:00 PM……………………..Dinner at Hard Rock ($7.77 Gamblers Special)

7:00 PM……………………..Double Down Saloon

8:00 PM.…………………….Ellis Island match plays

Since breakfast and dinner are often buffets, we only plan two meals a day. Hash House A-Go-Go is not a buffet, but serves huge portions (think platter-sized waffles and 36-oz. Bloody Marys). Though there are no coupons available, we use the minimal comp dollars we generate gambling to cut the cost. We usually hit the Gold Coast at some point anyway, so we might as well go when there’s a cash drawing for seniors. The gambler’s special at the Hard Rock is a decent steak and shrimp dinner for less than $8. Then we wind up at Ellis island to exploit a number of match play coupons from our books ($10 free slot play, $10 table game match play, and $25 free bet).  

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If you know where to look (and we do), there are free shuttle buses to get between the strip and off-strip casinos. If you don’t want to wait around for the shuttle, Lyft is a cheap alternative to taxis.

So if you put in a little effort and it doesn’t embarrass you to use coupons, you can still have a fun, reasonably-priced trip to Vegas. As long as you don’t drink alcohol while playing No-Limit Texas Hold’ Em. Trust me on this.   

 

 

    

Festering through midwinter

Pitchers and catchers report to major league camps next week. I love baseball and I’m looking forward to its return, though it feels like the Cubs just won the World Serious a week ago.       baseball_in_the_snow-2

I’m always conflicted this time of year. We’re deep in the college basketball conference season, with March Madness (and my annual Vegas trip) in just a few weeks. This is the time of year when I’ve mostly lost interest in the NBA and I’m tired of Midwestern winter. So I start catching up with MLB news, assessing the value of trades and free agent signings, checking the calendar for potential road trips to baseball parks, and working on my strategy for betting season win totals. But it’s also still college and high school basketball season, so I have to watch those games. (Well. Not have to, exactly. But what’s the alternative? Cleaning the garage? Ho ho. I think not.)

The big news in Pirateland is that the club is moving its outfielders around. After trying all winter to trade face-of-the-franchise Andrew McCutchen, the Bucs have resigned themselves to keeping him (at least until the trade deadline at the end of July). McCutchen had the worst DRS (defensive runs saved) in MLB last year, and also produced the worst batting average and OPS (on-base plus slugging) of his career. The Pirates announced they were moving Cutch to right field and putting Starling Marte in center.

I expect a bounceback year offensively, and McCutchen accepted the change like the class act that he is. Shortly after Pittsburgh announced the move, Cutch tweeted a photo of Roberto Clemente playing right field. As I’ve said before, it’s always more fun to root for good guys. And Andrew McCutchen is one of the best.

                                                                                  *****

Last fall the Indianapolis Indians announced their plan to extend the protective netting behind the plate all the way past first and third bases. Gan, Jack, and I share Indians season tickets, and the new net will be between our seats and the field.

Now, we’re not as nimble as we used to be. So the net is probably a good thing. We’re often distracted during games, drinking beer and making stupid wagers (“I bet the catcher’s throw to second after the warmup pitches will be in the dirt”), and none of us baseball_diamond_in_snow_-_panoramiowant to take a foul ball in the noggin. (We’ll still be able to make a play on pop-up foul balls over the net. Jack actually caught one like that with his belly last year.)

But before renewing our tickets, we went down to the ballpark to check out the view from our seats and see how distracting the net would be. As usual, nobody wanted to make a decision, so we decided to discuss it over a beer. Or beers.

“We can just fester through this season,” Gan said. “Then if it’s too distracting we can change next year.”

“Fester?” I said. “Whadda ya mean, fester?”

“You know, fester. Just get through the year.”

I’ve always said that I don’t read enough books, but most of my friends read even fewer. After an argument about the etymology of the word fester (and another beer), we decided to keep the same seats. I don’t like looking through the net, but I’ll probably get used to it. And when I take one of the grandkids to the game, I won’t have to worry about making an error and having them get hit by a foul ball.

                                                                                  *****

Over the last two weeks of January, the Savannah State Tigers rolled to a six game winning streak, beating MEAC foes both at home and away. They’ve since lost two straight, but they lead the nation in tempo with 81 possessions for every 40 minutes. They also boast the shortest average possession length in NCAA Division 1 (12.1 seconds). The Tigers’ record currently stands at 10-14, but, with five games to play they still have chance to break .500 on the season. And I’m pretty sure most coaches don’t want to face them (though their players probably do).  

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One coach enters, another leaves

I went to Jeffersonville High School over the holidays to sell books at the First Annual Ted Throckmorton tournament. The event featured a pretty good lineup with Northeastern entering play at 7-1, Indianapolis Scecina (6-1), under-performing-but-always dangerous Indianapolis Cathedral, and undefeated Danville. Regular readers will note that Danville was one of the four teams featured in Thirty-Two Minutes in March. Coach Brian Barber had told me last spring that they were scheduled to play in a tournament in Jeffersonville over the holidays, and that I should drive down and sell some books.

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On the first day, most of the Indiana teams played schools from Kentucky. In the earliest game, Northeastern swamped Fox Creek Christian (KY) 85-45. Fox Creek had only six players, and one of them fouled out….in the first quarter. I didn’t get to see much of the game since my table was in the hallway just outside the gym, but when I peered around the corner I saw a lot of gassed, dejected players. When the team left, I saw their frustrated coach lead them out to the parking lot and slump into the driver’s seat of the school van. I tried to look the team up online, but since Kentucky doesn’t seem to have their own John Harrell, I didn’t learn much. According to MaxPreps (which varies wildly in accuracy since it’s updated by fans), Fox Creek has won only once this season.

Later that morning, the Danville Warriors bested 7-1 Henryville in double overtime. I’d spoken via text to Coach Barber before the season after seeing a number of references to his hospitalization on Twitter. He’d told me he had a serious medical issue, and that the Throckmorton would be his first game back. I looked in on the Danville game as much as possible, and, as the score indicates, it was a tight, hard-fought contest. When Danville was leaving for their hotel, I caught up with Coach Barber at the door to see how he was doing. He looked drained and had obviously lost some weight.

But, as usual, Barber was friendly and jovial. I said “Ho-hum, another easy Danville win.” He laughed and shook his head, talked about how exhausting it was as his first game back. I didn’t stay for the rest of the tournament, but the Warriors apparently responded to their coach’s return. They ran the table over the next two days, beating Scecina by twenty and Northeastern by four, then winning the championship 56-55 over Cathedral.

Danville is now 11-4, and Barber is headed to yet another winning season there, his seventeenth in 18 years. In their other two games in Jeffersonville, Fox Creek lost to Henryville by 55 and to 4-5 Forest Park by 36. Lawrenceburg, KY is only 53 miles from Jeffersonville, but I can only imagine how long the ride seemed.

                                                                                    *****

Over the past weekend I ejected a coach from a basketball game for the first time. It was a Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) game. For fourth graders. I won’t identify the school, but here’s what happened:

From the tip-off, the coach was shouting “FOUL!”, “TRAVELING!”, “DOUBLE DRIBBLE!”, etc., every time he saw (or imagined) a foul or violation. Late in the second quarter during a dead ball I said, “Coach, I’ve heard enough. We will make the calls.” He said, “I’m just coaching my team.” (I don’t understand how calling out your opinions on calls qualifies as coaching your team, but, OK.) I said “That’s fine, but you need to stop officiating from the sideline.” He said “OK, OK”, and, for the most part, complied.

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Late in the third quarter, there was scramble on the floor for a loose ball, and my partner and I both immediately stopped play and signaled for a jump ball. One of the players was lying on the floor crying, and the coach stormed out across the floor, screaming at me, “MY PLAYER GETS HIT IN THE FACE AND YOU DON’T CALL A FOUL?” I immediately whistled a technical foul, and then walked over to the player and coach. The coach then looked up at me and yelled, “YOU GIVE ME A TECH FOR CHECKING ON AN INJURED PLAYER?” I said “No, I gave you a technical for your behavior. Do you want another one?”

(In hindsight, I should have phrased the last part differently. I realize it may have sounded like I was baiting him. I should have said something like “You need to calm down if you don’t want another one”. Having warned him in the first half and seeing him come onto the floor without being summoned, he probably deserved ejection anyway. But, I digress.)

He answered, “I don’t care”, so I called the second technical and ejected him. After the game, he came back into the gym (in violation of CYO rules), saying he wanted to “congratulate the other team”. The gym manager warned him to restrict his comments to congratulations, and we moved on to the second game of the day.

I’d be interested to hear any other perspectives on this, especially if you don’t think the ejection was warranted.