Archive for June, 2008

To be Gay, We Need a Clean Gay

June 30, 2008

by John Furgele

Yes, there was a small blizzard behind him (4.1 MPH), but Tyson Gay’s 9.68 100 meter victory in the United States Olympic Trials was awfully impressive. Even more impressive might have been his semifinal win, where he ran 9.77 seconds and “shut it down” with about seven meters left.

Sprinters have a relatively short life span. You can see them knocking on the door for a year or two, then for two to three years, they dominate, then they fade away as another sprinter rises and takes over the perch. The pattern is there. In 1984 and 1988 Carl Lewis (Ben Johnson, too, but there were drugs)reigned, but by 1992-1993, Linford Christie took over. By 1995, it was clear that it was Donovan Bailey’s turn, but by 1998, Maurice Greene became the premier sprinter.

Most of these three year reigns include an Olympics. Christie, Bailey and Greene won Olympic Golds in 1992, 1996 and 2000. Justin Gatlin appeared poised to take the mantle in 2004 and perhaps beyond, but a failed drug test appears to have done him in.

Now, it appears to be Tyson Gay’s turn. But, we have to be honest here as well. Where did Gay come from? How was he able to drop his times so quickly? Unfortunately, this is a sport where fast times are often followed with raised eyebrows.

Gay appears to be the real deal, but the same was said of Gatlin, Greene, Christie and Lewis and all four either failed a drug test or was accused of taking dugs (Maurice Greene, in this case). And, of course, Marion Jones, the Queen of American Sprinting never failed a drug test, but is currently in prison for lying to federal prosecutors, admitting that she did indeed take performance enhancing drugs.

No sport, except for perhaps the Tour de France, needs a clean Olympics more than track and field. Of all the sports in the world, there is nothing more pure than seeing who can run the fastest, and throw the farthest. The events are pure, but we need the athletes to be pure as well.

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End of the Road for Roddick?

June 27, 2008

by John Furgele

Is Andy Roddick past his peak?  The 25 year old American (turns 26 in August) bowed out of Wimbledon in the second round, a shocking result for a player who reached back-to-back Wimbledon finals in 2004 and 2005, losing to King Roger Federer both times. 

Tennis is a sport of diminishing returns and for every player there comes a point where the progress stops and the regression begins.  Since making the final at the All-England Club in 2005, Roddick’s regression seems to be in full force.  After making the U.S. Open final in 2006 (and losing to Federer), Roddick has fallen off dramatically at the Grand Slams, the only four events that really matter to sports fans.  In 2007, he was bludgeoned by Federer in the Australian Open semis, and for the rest of the year never made it past a Grand Slam quarterfinal.

After going through several coaches, his 2008 results have further showed his decline.  He was knocked out in the third round in Australia; missed the French Open—on a surface he struggles on—with an injury; and now is out after winning only one round in the London suburb.  And, at age 25, odds are that his best days may be behind him.

This happens to all fomer champions.  Roddick has always been a one-and-a-half trick pony.  He has the devastating serve, but he has never been a good net player and because of it, appears to be afraid to serve-and-volley, particularly at Wimbledon, a surface made for serve and volley players.  His half-skill is his forehand, but his backhand is so weak that players just pound that side waiting to take advantage of his short returns.  Roddick doesn’t make a ton of errors with his backhand, he just doesn’t hit many winners from it.  His backhand is a “get it over the net,” type, and players like Federer eat those up.

Roddick reminds me of Michael Chang, the 1989 French Open champion and three time Grand Slam runner-up.  When he was young, Chang chased down every ball, making his opponent hit two to three extra shots per rally.  Eventually, Chang could wear one down, outlast him.  In 1996, at the age of 24, Chang was ranked number one in the world, but after turning 25, he lost a step, and now, he wasn’t tracking down every ball.  As a result, his opponents didn’t have to hit the two to three extra shots and Chang  began losing with much more regularity.  In fact, Chang’s best Grand Slam result after 1996 was making the semifinals at the 1997 Australian and U.S. Opens.  From 1998 through his retirement in 2003, he never made it past the third round in any Grand Slam.

Roddick is on the verge of being passed by the younger and more talented players.  Of course, Roddick has had the misfortune of being in the same era as Federer, who dominates tennis much like Tiger Woods dominates golf.  But, that happens in most sports.  Since winning the United States Open in 2003, Roddick just hasn’t improved.  His serve is still a weapon, but his groundies, especially that backhand, haven’t improved.  Simply put, Roddick just might not be a threat to win Grand Slam titles any longer.

Becker, Edberg, Lendl, Connors, McEnroe, Borg.  All of these players had that moment when they knew that their career, or better yet, their chances to win slams was over.  Connors made a valiant run at the 1991 U.S. Open at the age of 38/39, but he played unranked opponents through the quarterfinals, and when he played the young Jim Courier in the semis, he was routed.  That was a reprieve for the game’s gutsiest player.  As good as the memories were, Connors last Grand Slam win was the 1983 United States Open.

Borg felt that after 1981, when he lost both the Wimbledon and the U.S. Open finals to McEnroe, that his chances to win future Grand Slams was over, and thus, he called it quits.  Even though he won the French Open for the fourth straight time in 1981, those final two results did him in.

McEnroe played through 1992, but his last Grand Slam title came in 1984.  Becker won the Aussie Open in 1996 at the ripe old age of 28 while Edberg won his last Grand Slam title at age 26.  And, there is also the remarkable run that Pete Sampras had, when he won the United States Open in 2002 at the age of 31, but Sampras, right now, is the greatest tennis player of all-time.  There are always exceptions.

After losing today, Roddick conducted his press conference and then headed to the showers.  It is my guess that today’s shower was a long one, a one of contemplation and thought.  As the water poured over his head, he must have been asking himself this one question:  is my career as a top five player, a threat to win at Wimbledon, the United States and Australian Opens over?  I’m sure the water turned cold before he answered that question, even though he probably knew the answer before he undressed.

Roddick may have another important question to ask and answer.  Does he keep playing, ala Chang, knowing that his chances of making a deep run at the Grand Slams is unlikely; or does he set a date in his mind to bow out gracefully?  Chang decided to keep playing and though he never made it to the second week of a Grand Slam, his pride and professionalism earned him respect from all involved in tennis.  Roddick may choose not to do that.  He may choose to pick that date, leave the game, marry fiancee Brooklyn Decker and start a family. 

One thing is for sure.  That shower he took at the All-England Club today was an extraordinary one.

 

 

Changing of the Guard?

June 22, 2008

by John Furgele

Wimbledon begins tomorrow and this year there is tremendous intruigue.  Roger Federer has won the last five Wimbledon titles and has dominated the lawn at the All-England Club in the 2000s.  But, this year he has looked vulnerable at the ripe old age of 26.  He was beaten by Novak Djokovic in the semifinals at the Australian Open, then routed by Rafael Nadal in the French Open final.  Last year, he beat Nadal for the second straight year in five tough sets.  At this point, Nadal looks like he is closer to winning Wimbledon than Federer is to winning in Paris.  After watching Federer wilt in Paris, and more importantly, lack the fight that has been his trademark, it may be safe to say that his window to win the French Open has closed.

But, Wimbledon has been all his.  If Federer wins again this year, he will remain the king of the tennis world.  If Nadal or even Djokovic win, then it may be safe to say that a changing of the guard in tennis will have begun.  Federer is 26, and in tennis that’s old.  Bjorn Borg retired in 1981 at the age of 25, while John McEnroe won the last of his seven Grand Slam titles at the “advanced” age of 25.  Suddenly, the three majors he needs to pass Pete Sampras’ mark of fourteen does not seem a sure thing anymore.  A win in England will restore his confidence, his belief, and will set up a delicious scenario at the United States Open come last August. 

It’s way too soon to write Federer off, but other players are emerging.  Djokovic is 21, Nadal just turned 22.  And, unlike Andy Roddick, they are not afraid of the Swiss star.  Nadal reminds many of Borg; he is patient and powerful on clay and quick enough to play well on grass.  Many think this will be the year that Nadal takes the Wimbledon title. 

Njokovic could meet Federer in the semifinals, and after battling him at the U.S. Open final in 2007, then beating him in straight sets in Australia, he will not lack in confidence should they meet at Centre Court in a touch less than two weeks.

Is Federer ready to re-take the reigns, or is time for him to passed by Nadal, Njokovic or perhaps another up-and-comer?  It will happen.  It always does.  Borg dominated the grass from 1976-1980, beating Nastase, Connors (twice), and Roscoe Tanner.  After warding off McEnroe in the epic final in 1980, he was pushed aside by the kid from Queens the following year.  Sampras dominated Wimbledon for most of the 1990s, winning seven titles.  Who would have thought that when he lost a 4th round match to Federer in 2001, that his reign was over.  Even though Federer did not win it all in 2001, it was out with the old, in with the new.

For the past five years, there was little suspense at the All-England Club.  You knew that Federer was going to be there at the end, and even though Nadal scared you a bit, much like Agassi scared Sampras here, you knew that in the end, Federer would hoist the champions’ trophy. 

This year, it feels different.  It feels exciting, and because of that, it should be a very interesting fortnight.

Where is Kevin Garnett?

June 16, 2008

by John Furgele

The NBA got what it wanted:  another game in the NBA Finals as the Lakers and Celtics head back to the new Boston Garden for Game 6 and possibly/hopefully Game 7.  Through the first five games, two things have become clear.  One, the Boston Celtics are the better team, and two, Kevin Garnett has been a disappointment.

Even though the Celtics are better, the Lakers could still win this series.  Granted, they would have to become the first team to win Games 6 and 7 on the road to do so, but these games have been relatively close that this could happen, improbable as it may be.  Should Los Angeles lose, they will kick themselves for losing Game 4 in the fashion that they did.  No, that doesn’t mean that they would be up 3-2, but playing Game 5 at 2-2 as opposed to down 3-1 is a monumental difference.

Now, to Kevin Garnett.  I don’t think there is a person in the league, or a person who is an NBA fan that doesn’t like Kevin Garnett.  He plays hards, plays tremendous defense and has always been a good ambassador for the league, but his offensive play in the finals has been atrocious.  Yes, that may seem a bit rough because Garnett has never been a go-to-no-matter-what offensive guy ala Shaqullie O’Neal, Tim Duncan or even Patrick Ewing, but Garnett seems scared to make moves when he gets the ball in the low post.

Too often, the Celts get the ball to Garnett and he gives it right back to Pierce, Allen, or any person nearby wearing a green or white Boston jersey.  Watching this is frustrating.  I see him get the ball, and I say to myself “take him, take him,” then watch as KG kicks the ball out.  With a 3-2 series lead heading back to Boston, coach Doc Riivers and the Boston faithful are likely to overlook or let Garnett’s disappointing offensive play go, but should they lose, KG will feel some heat.

The other frustrating part of the Garnett enigma is the person that is guarding him.  Pau Gasol has never been known as a stellar defensive player, making Garnett’s hesitancy all the more bewildering.  Of course, everybody calls Gasol soft, and that may not be fair either, but once a player gets a reputation in the NBA, it is very hard to overcome or change it.  But, the facts are the facts.  Garnett is the same height as Gasol, he’s quicker than Gasol and he has a much bigger wingspan than Gasol.  Why he isn’t taking advantage of those strenghts is more than puzzling.

Garnett had a chance to tie the game, but missed two free throws, one badly, and made only 1 of 4 in the fourth quarter’s final moments.  Champions are going to make those shots and champions want the ball late in the game.  Paul Pierce has no fears, nor does Ray Allen, but for some reason, Garnett is taking himself out of the game on the offensive end. 

In Minnesota, Garnett was accused of the same thing, of not being aggressive enough, of not getting the Timberwolves out of the first round.  While there, he did get to the Wolves to one Western Conference Final, but they were dispatched by the Lakers.  Some even stated that the playoff losses didn’t bother him that much. 

Perhaps heading back to the new Garden will be the tonic for him.  Maybe he comes out, gets 25 and the Celtics celebrate their 17th NBA title.  But, if some reason that the Lakers pull out two wins, Garnett will once again will have to face the fire.

 

Three Big Losses

June 14, 2008

by John Furgele

We lost three giants this past week in the world of broadcasting.  First, was former ABC Wide World of Sports host Jim McKay.  McKay was the voice of ABC for nearly 30 years, covering Wide World, and anchoring ABC’s Olympic coverage through the 1988 Calgary Winter Games.   His anchoring of the 1972 Munich Massacre will be his signature moment, and his three words, “they’re all gone,” his signature line.

My favorite memory of McKay came at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Games and it came on February 22, 1980, the day the United States hockey team beat the Soviet Union 4-3.  As most of you know, that game was played at 5 PM, but ABC decided to tape it and show it in prime time at 8 PM.  At 8 PM McKay came on live, but he had this grin on his face, well, because he had already seen the game.  And, in the background (there was glass behind McKay), there were “pumped up fans “getting ready to watch the game.”  Of course, those fans were pumped up for another reason:  the United States had already won the game.  Even with that grin, McKay was able to pull it off and keep most (unless you could get Canadian television) in suspense.

Second, was the devastating loss of NBCs Tim Russert, the host of the Sunday political show, “Meet the Press.”  This loss was a tough one for me, because like Russert, I am from Buffalo, NY.  People from Buffalo are very proud of their hometown, critics be damned, and Russert was a guy who never left Buffalo even though he had moved to Washignton, DC.  I have watched many sporting events, but the most dramatic non-sporting event I ever watched was Election Night, 2000.  As we know, most of the networks, including NBC had given Florida to Gore, and Russert had said that Florida would be the key to deciding who would succeed Bill Clinton.  An hour later, Florida was taken away from Gore and Russert and his dry erase board kept viewers in touch throughout the night with scoreboard updates.  That “game” didn’t end until 4:00 AM, when George W. Bush became the president-elect.  What a night for the nation and for Russert.

He usually ended his fall shows by saying, “Go Bills,” in reference to the Buffalo Bills, the four time AFC Champions who then went 0-4 in Super Bowls.  In 2004, the Triple A Buffalo Bisons won the International League championship and on the Today Show, Russert found a way to give the Bisons a plug.  In 2005, the Bisons had Tim Russert Bobblehead Day and yesterday, Buffalo mayor Bryon Brown ordered the flags at city properties to fly at half-staff.  If that doesn’t indicate the respect of a man, I don’t know what else does?

Third, and relaitvely unnoticed was the passing of former NBC sportscaster Charlie Jones.  Jones had golden pipes and called many games for NBC.  When the AFL was formed in 1960, Jones was one of the pioneer broadcasters.  He went on to call NFL games for 38 seasons and worked with analysts such as George Ratterman, John Brodie, Paul McGuire, Len Dawson and Bob Griese.  He won the Pete Rozelle Award in 1997 for outstanding broadcasting.

In addition to football, Jones called the 1986 World Cup Soccer Final as Argentina, led by Diego Maradona beat West Germany, and also called Ben Johnson’s famous 9.79 100 meters at the Seoul Olympic Games.  Of course, two days later, Johnson was stripped of the gold after testing positive for steroids. 

Jones was never the number one announcer at NBC or ABC, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t one of the best, because he certainly was. 

McKay, Jones, Russert.  All broadcasters, different genres, but each great at what they did.  Hopefully, St. Peter is sitting back and listening to the great stories.

 

College Baseball Worth Checking Out

June 13, 2008

by John Furgele

The College World Series begins tonight at Rosenblatt Stadium in Omaha, Nebraska.  College baseball certainly doesn’t get the exposure that college football and college basketball get, but the CWS is worth a look.  And, the NCAA and the city of Omaha have just reached an agreement to keep the CWS in Omaha for 25 more years through 2035.  Of course, the historic Rosenblatt Stadium will be torn down and replaced by a new 24,000 seat downtown stadium.

I like the fact that the current stadium is called Rosenblatt Stadium, not Rosenblatt Field or Rosenblatt Park.  Nothing against calling your playpen a park, or field, but what’s wrong with calling it a stadium?  There was concerns that the CWS was going to leave Omaha, but thankfully, the NCAA and the city of Omaha did the right thing by keeping “The Road to Omaha,” intact. 

The biggest problem with college baseball is the use of the ping sounding aluminum bats.  These bats should be taken out of both college baseball and high school baseball, but we know that there are economic and legal issues to deal with, so it’s not worth a protracted fight. 

I love the double elimination format that college baseball uses.  There are four first round games, and the four losers of the those games have to play a win-or-you’re-out format.  There is a sense of urgency right away, but if you lose your first game, you can still come back and win the title. 

The eight teams are Georgia, Miami, Fla, Florida State, Stanford, Rice, Fresno State, North Carolina, and Louisiana State.  Georgia, Miami, Stanford, LSU and Rice have won championships; North Carolina was the runner up in 2006 and 2007, and Fresno State is making its first CWS appearance. 

After six of the eight teams are eliminated, the remaining two play a best-of-3 championship series.  Good stuff.  Take a look. 

Big Brown Becomes Big Clown

June 9, 2008

by John Furgele

Simply, Big Brown is not a Superhorse. He was good, but not great, and yesterday’s performance was embarrassing for him, the jockey, and the trainer.  Trainer Rick Dutrow dissed Smarty Jones, calling into question the horse, the jockey and the trainer. At least Smarty Jones tried in the Belmont, running to the end behind the surging Birdstone. Big Brown, you’re no Smarty Jones.

Most didn’t think Funny Cide was going to get the 1 1/2 miles in 2003 and with a fresh Empire Maker bred to go long and a sloppy track, few expected Funny Cide to win. But, he had the lead and was a game third. Big Brown, you’re no Funny Cide either.

I don’t want to hear about the distance and the three races in five weeks grind that is the Triple Crown.  Plenty of horses have won two of the three races. Everybody focuses on those horses who win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, then lose the Belmont,  but there have been several horses who ran the Derby and lost, then swept the Preakness and the Belmont. Afleet Alex did it in 2005 and Point Given dominated the Preakness and the Belmont after losing at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May in 2001.  He also won the Travers that summer just to cap it off.

I am also selling that a Triple Crown will be great for horse racing and will revitalize interest in the “Sport of Kings.”  I love horse racing, but a Triple Crown is not going revitalize anything.  For a few days there would certainly be a buzz, but it would fade like everything fades.  Horse Racing is actually pretty lucky to have what it has.  They draw 140,000 plus to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, another 110,000 plus to the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore and anywhere from 40,000 to 120,000 to Elmont, New York for the Belmont.  Throw in another 50,000 to 100,000 for the Breeder’s Cup races in late October and that’s four monster days for a sport that is in a so-called decline.  The summer meet at Saratoga averages about 23,000 per day for 36 days which is far from shabby. 

A Triple Crown winner of course would be nice for the sport, but it has to be a great horse, a superhorse, a horse for the ages, and to be frank, we haven’t had one since 1978.  We were spoiled rotten in the 1970s as we saw three horses—Secretariat (1973); Seattle Slew (1977); Affirmed, (1978)—win all three races, but the drought that has followed is not as perplexing as it is made out to be.  Once again, there is not much subjectivity in horse racing; whoever gets to the finish line first wins the race. 

Yesterday, the class of the field was Da’ Tara, a little black colt who led the race from wire to wire.  He wasn’t pressed and he set sensible and reasonable fractions; 23.85 for the 1/4; 48.60 for the 1/2; 1:12.90 for 3/4.  Like the rest of the horses, he tired, covering the mile in 1:37 plus, the 1 1/4 in 2:03.91 and then hanging on with a 25 second final 400 yards.  He tired, but the others tired more and he won by a healthy four plus lengths.  Of course, no horse tired more than Big Brown, who despite having a chance for the Triple Crown will fall like a stone on the list of all-time three year old colts.  Certainly Point Given has to be ranked higher.  Ditto for Afleet Alex.  These horses mastered the grind just fine, they just stumbled in the first race, not the last.  Just because these horses came to the Belmont with no chance of winning that elusive Triple Crown doesn’t mean that there were not better horses than the stumbling Big Brown.

Perhaps I am being too harsh on Big Brown.  Coming into the Belmont he was undefeated and had won his races in convincing fashion, but his meltdown was so bad, if he were a human, they’d say that he choked.  His trainer, the outspoken Rick Dutrow did not do him any favors either.  He talked the smack for all five weeks.  He guaranteed a Triple Crown and he ripped other horses and trainers along the way.  If his horse would have been nipped, or a solid third or even out of the money but trying and running hard, he might have received a pass.  But, the horse was so bad, so downright awful, it can’t be dismissed so easily.  To say that I’m down on Big Brown might be the understatement of the year.

In the end, Big Brown turned out to be a Big Clown

Hockey and Horses

June 3, 2008

by John Furgele

The Pittsburgh Penguins have earned their playoff stripes.  With the Detroit Red Wings up three games to one and poised to skate Lord Stanley’s Cup around the Joe Louis Arena, the Penguins did two things last night that they hadn’t done since the series commenced:  score in Detroit and win a game in Detroit. 

The Wings are still the better the team, and had it not been for Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, the series would be over.  Detroit is too good of team to lose three straight games, but for the young Penguins, getting an opportunity to play Game 6 (and perhaps Game 7) is a very important step in the maturing process.  Losing is still losing, but there has to be some type of psychological boost when you play deep into a series.  Losing a series in five games indicates that you were dominated and sometimes that can carry over to the next season—just ask the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres, who lost the Eastern Final in five games and didn’t even make the playoffs this season.  Ottawa was routed in five by Anaheim in last year’s Cup final and this year were swept out of the first round by Pittsburgh.

Like most playoff series, good defense is beating good offense.  The Penguins talented duo of Evegeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby are having trouble finding open ice, which is a testament to the Detroit defense.  But, the more games the Pens play in this final, the better off they will be in the future.

Dutrow the Villian?:  Rick Dutrow is the trainer of the three year old colt Big Brown, who with a win in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes will became the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to capture horse racing’s Triple Crown.  In the past, Americans rooted hard for the horse to win it.  In 2003, when Empire Maker beat Funny Cide, the Belmont crowd of over 100,000 booed the horse and the jockey, Jerry Bailey.  In 2004, when Smarty Jones had the lead the crowd of 120,000 was roaring.  Then, Birdstone made his move and when he passed Smarty, there was a collective groan from the crowd.  Even track announcer Tom Durkin sounded disappointed and crestfallen when Birdstone, trained by Nick Zito spoiled the party.

This year feels differently.  Big Brown is not the touchy, feel good story that the Funny Cide and Smarty Jones were.  Most of that is because Big Brown is owned by a billionaire financier with a shady past and a trainer, who not only has a shady past, but is too arrogant, too smug and perhaps even too appalling and disrespectful to the other owners and trainers.  He says that Casino Drive, who is considered Brown’s biggest threat, has no chance to win and he criticized the handlers of Smarty Jones for losing the 2004 race to the above mentioned Birdstone.

Most Americans want to see a Triple Crown winner because they feel the game of horse racing needs it and it will help prop up a once proud industry.  We all know this won’t happen.  Americans will be excited, but will quickly forget about horse racing until the first Saturday of May, 2009, when another Kentucky Derby is run.  Dutrow, however changes everything.  I’m sure that there are some Americans who will root against Big Brown so Dutrow will have to eat crow before 15 million Americans this Saturday.  When you open your mouth, you open yourself up to the skeptics and bring out the haters.