Football Calculus

Yesterday, pro football began in earnest. Unfortunately, I’m writing this more than two hours before the kickoff between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Baltimore Ravens so I can’t tell you how my season started yet. That’s what happens when you do your blog posts on Sunday morning.

Anyway, last year was an aberration for me. I actually rooted for the Baltimore Ravens when they weren’t playing the Bengals. Why?

They weren’t the Steelers, and a Cleveland boy living in Cincinnati is honor-bound to hate the Steelers. It more than makes up for the four years during the Bengals’ lost decade when Cleveland did not have a team. Because the Bengals did not meet my standards, I was forced to join Steeler Nation until 1999. Thank you, Al Lerner. Thank you.

But two things happened. Despite all the trappings and records, the Cleveland Browns playing on the lakefront today are not the Browns I rooted for until 1994. No, those Browns were kidnapped and spirited away to Baltimore. While I sympathize with the people of Baltimore, who themselves were treated shabbily, let’s be honest. They took my team away from me.

So how did I not become a Bengals fan until the mid-2000’s? Simple. Let’s say I move to your city: Chicago, Phoenix, San Francisco. I don’t automatically adopt the home team. Why should I? Why should anyone? But I have a rule. New city? Give me three consecutive seasons of 8-8 football. It’s not a winning season, but it at least shows me that ownership is serious and does not have its head up its corporate ass. When I announced to my then girlfriend this rule as we moved in together, the Bengals still had Boomer Esiason and Anthony Munoz. The last Super Bowl was still fresh in people’s memories, and they’d just come off a playoff year. Even if the current roster dispersed, one could reasonably assume that the Bengals would rebuilt within five years. So I would have five years of sweet, sweet Browns football to enjoy. Right?

No. See, Paul Brown, the man who created both the Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals, died just before I arrived here in 1991. Little did I know that his son Mike Brown would be a horrible owner.

Eventually, Brown’s daughter, Katie Blackburn, would begin taking over. She pushed Brown to hire Marvin Lewis. Lewis brought the team back from the grave after years of cellar-dwelling football. And it takes a special talent to deal with the likes of Chad Ochocinco or to get Chris Henry to settle down and play football.

So now I have calculus as to who I root for, all based on that history.

  • I stick with the Bengals. I’ve been here 23 years, and anyway, I’m paying for the stadium. And now that they have Andy Dalton at quarterback, football is interesting again.
  • I do not root for the Steelers. Ever. Except when they play the Ravens. It is the duty of every AFC North football fan outside of the Greater Baltimore area to root against the Ravens, but, now that Cleveland and Cincinnati have pro football once more, living in Ohio and rooting for the Steelers is similar to treason.
  • Last year, I gave them special dispensation mainly because Ben Rothlisberger was having such an awful year, but I never ever EVER root for the Ravens. They stole my hometown team, and their former owner betrayed the late owner of my adopted team. Twice. Once in the 1960’s and once in 1994. That is unforgivable. (That said, the Baltimore Orioles were once the St. Louis Browns. If Baltimore would like the NBA to return to the city, I suggest renaming the LA Clippers to the LA Browns. Get crackin’, Mr. Ballmer.)
  • There is one team I will pick the Ravens over: The Indianapolis Colts. Don’t get me wrong. I got nothing but mad love for Peyton Manning and was sorry to see him leave the city 90 minutes from my house. But Bob Irsay, the late owner of the Colts, didn’t just steal another city’s team, he sneaked them out in the middle of the night. So Bob Irsay is responsible for so much pain and suffering in both Cleveland and Baltimore. When Baltimore plays the Indianapolis Colts, I’m in a Joe Flacco kind of mood.

So there you have it. How my football calculus works. Which made watching Draft Day the other night fun.

Advertisements

And The Cleveland Browns Have Their First Win Of The Season

Art Modell in 1980

Jerry Sherk, used under Creative Commons

I’ll admit. I was an ass about Art Modell’s death last week. After all, this was a man who forced me, a man from Cleveland living in Cincinnati, to root for the Steelers for four years. (OK, Bengals owner Mike Brown deserves a share of the blame.) I said that Modell died because Satan had finished gnawing on the bones of late Colts owner Bob Irsay. Why pick on Irsay?

Because he did to Baltimore what Modell did to Cleveland: steal their football team.

I won’t get into the long story about how Art postponed giving up the crumbling slum he owned known as Municipal Stadium. I never resent Baltimore for taking the team. If any city deserved a new team, it was Baltimore. The Browns gave Cleveland a few months heads-up before moving out. The Colts left in the middle of the night. And Modell had to leave the teams records, name, and colors with Cleveland.

I do have to give Art Modell props, though. For decades, he was one of the NFL’s most admired owners. Modell was a driving force behind the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 and the NFL’s television empire. Ever wonder why some of those other leagues never caught on? You had the NFC on CBS, AFC on NBC, Monday Night Football on ABC, and no Fox, no ESPN, no TNT to show anything else. College football got whatever was left, and the NFL and NCAA were in cahoots to monopolize your eyeballs when it came to that flavor of football known as gridiron. You had to go north of the border to see any pro football worth mentioning outside the NFL. Art Modell was one of the owners who made that happen.

Before he pulled up stakes, the worst thing Modell did was fire Paul Brown, the team’s founding coach and the man for whom they were named. Cleveland’s loss was Cincinnati’s gain as Brown helped create the Cincinnati Bengals a few years later, still owned by the Brown family. Although Modell’s Browns never went to the Super Bowl, they came awfully close, like one Drive or one Fumble away from the big dance. Modell cultivated rivalries with the Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers (‘cuz Clevelanders deserve to dine on Parmanti Brothers big ass sandwiches while making fun of a team on its home turf. Pittsburgh and Cleveland are only two hours apart.) When the Ravens landed in Baltimore, Modell wisely kept them in the AFC Central, the the North with the new Browns and the former Central Division teams. Why? “They hate us. It’s a rivalry.” It was a brilliant bit of marketing.

So yes, I give the late Art Modell credit where credit is due.

But he still screwed the City of Cleveland.

A Good Walk Spoiled

Once upon a time, before I moved to Cincinnati, I had a neighbor whose wife made him give up golf. He frequently worked two shifts, and they had just had a baby. His wife gave him a choice: golf or the marriage. He had to think about it.

Bill Murray in Caddyshack

Source: Orion Pictures/Warner Brothers

Finally, he sold me his golf clubs for $20. They weren’t a premium set, but they would do for the man who thought “golf” was spelled “Gulf” and was a chain of gas stations that was disappearing in Ohio. Since that described me to a tee (No pun intended), I bought them. Never played a round until I moved to Cincinnati. I worked too much for too little, so I neither had the time or the money for golf.

In Cincinnati, while my struggle to find gainful employment did not immediately improve, I did have a few bucks to spend on a bucket of balls. I lived in Oakley in my early days in the city. Lunken Airport was not too far away, and they had a par 3 course. I didn’t play there. I did, however, take my clubs to their driving range where, by gum, I developed a one hundred yard drive. For someone not fanatical about the sport to begin with, that’s actually not bad. And the driving range is an excellent way to blow off some steam.

During that time, however, I never worked on my short game. Like the old saying goes, drive for show, putt for money. Fortunately, I’d yet to play my first game, so I wasn’t losing too much money on golf as it was.

Happy Gilmore screaming at golf ball

Universal Pictures

And then my now ex-father-in-law, Fred, moved to Hilton Head Island. It is a state law that, if you visit Hilton Head, you must play a round of golf. It was how the Confederacy bought time during Sherman’s march. I play my first round of golf in December of 1997 at Spanish Wells.

How bad was my short game? Fred visibly aged by the eighteenth hole. He informed me that 1.) I needed to practice putting, and 2.) I needed to buy a wedge.

Never did get that wedge. I did, however, try to practice my short game down at Lunken. I emphasize that I tried. I did not succeed. What I needed were lessons. At $40 a pop, at a time when I was heavily in debt, lessons were not happening. So my short game would suffer.

Eventually, as I moved into IT work, I found people to play golf with. On a contract job in 1998, my manager and I sneaked out to nearby Avon Golf Course for a long lunch and nine holes. It was 90 degrees, and I came back soaked with sweat. Now that’s dedication. I got some really good drives, but my short game probably prolonged the round. I shot 150. The game for me?

Well... We're WAITING!!!

Orion Pictures/Warner Brothers

No, not really. I played my last game at Indigo Run on a Christmas Day in the early 2000’s. I and my fellow players weren’t members, but the course was closed. A resident didn’t cotton to that. He was also out on the course illegally. He demanded to know where we lived. He demanded to play through. He pointed out we all wore jeans, to which I told him to go get the club manager. He backed down as I lined up a drive, only to give me the Judge Smails treatment. I swear to God, he really said, “Well? We’re waiting!” just like in Caddyshack. I took a few extra moments to line up my drive.

One day in 2005, someone broke into the locker in the apartment complex where I lived and cleaned me out. They took tools I’d had, some for more than twenty years, and my gold clubs. It was a neighbor we could never quite catch in the act, but we knew he was stealing from everyone in the complex. One day, after the police came by to ask residents if we’d anything unusual, this idiot had the nerve to come downstairs and ask, “Hey, I heard you got robbed.” It reminded me of a Chris Rock bit about not seeing anything because the idiot was busy robbing him.

But that ended my career as a bad golfer. I had no desire to spend money on a new set of clubs. Eventually, I moved. I got divorced. I took up standup comedy. I got married and took on a stepchild. I went back to school. Now I know there are a lot of golfers out there who will tell me I’m making excuses. If I love something so much, I make the time it. They’re right.

Since I gave up golf, I have time for all sorts of things.

Crosstown Shootout: Are We Overreacting?

Every year in Cincinnati, the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University meet in a game called The Crosstown Shootout. Sometimes, things get our of hand. Not long after I arrived in town, X coach Pete Gillen refused to shake UC coach Bob Huggins’ hand. Coaches at both schools have told tales of getting flipped the bird by rival fans as they drove around town.

This past weekend, the two teams got into a brawl. It was all from trash talk in the final minutes as Xavier trounced UC 76-53. Eight players on both teams were suspended for up to six games, more than the single game suspensions handed down from the NCAA.

In our era of manufactured outrage, fake crises, and a need to do something, dammit, when dammit might actually be counterproductive, there’s a criminal investigation along with calls to cancel the annual game.

Cincinnati, chill out.

First off, both teams are voluntarily taking a major hit by benching their best players only a couple of weeks before conference play begins in earnest. Yes, colleges, never the most rational institutions about handling student athletes, are actually teaching these kids that there are consequences to their actions. And they hurt when you do something stupid. But a criminal investigation?

One gent phoned into WXIX and suggested that, had this been on the streets, all those participating would be arrested, so why not the players? Fair point. Only, it doesn’t always happen that way.  Actually, as often as not, police will break up a fight and send the brawlers on the merry way, most likely to arrest them later for DUI. A brawl at a game is in a controlled environment. Occasionally, fans are involved (at which point, so are police), but when it’s between players, the various sports leagues handle it.

Or don’t.

I have to applaud the University of Cincinnati and Xavier University for hitting their players where it hurts. Basketball is why these kids are at these schools, and the suspensions could jeopardize their scholarships. Instead of whining about how athletes are coddled, let’s ask why pro athletes are so pampered. Were I a team owner, I would tell the likes of Chad Ochocinco, “I pay you how much? For that money, you forfeit your ego. Now get your lazy ass into voluntary camp before your next team is the night shift at Taco Bell!” If a pro athlete breaks the rules, he should not have the option of negotiation nor should he be allowed to work when most people would go to jail. Members of Congress aren’t this pampered, and look what they get away with.

As for those who want to cancel the Crosstown Shootout because it’s too violent, may I ask if you’d like a nipple with your coffee? Really? One brawl ruins the whole thing? Seriously? To call that stupid is an insult to morons’ intelligence. Bad things happen. What are the chances of another brawl next year?

Slim, meet none. None, slim.

But why cancel it? Chances are the same people crying that it should not be allowed to happen again go to Cincinnati Cyclones games waiting for a fight to break out. Sorry, pro sports is not a legitimate excuse.

Stop whining. A very bad thing happened, but last time I checked, no one died. No buildings fell. America is not going to war over it.

And as for that annoying little chestnut “What do I tell my kids?”, try telling them the truth and quit expecting everyone else to walk on eggshells for you. Here’s a way to start.

“Junior, some people are assholes. And some of them get sports scholarships. Life’s not always fair. But then 8 players got benched, so sometimes it is. Sorry life isn’t all that simple.”

My Town Monday:Cincinnati – The Big Red Machine

Growing up in Cleveland meant baseball season was a season of heartbreak between 1960 and 1992. In fact, I’d left town before the long, painful drought ended. The Indians had their brushes with greatness since their last serious run on the pennant in 1959, but it would be 1994 before the Tribe would cease to be a perennial joke, as big of losers as the Cubs or the Mets without the lovable underdog glow of either team. Sam McDowell? Gaylord Perry? Phil Neikro? All bright spots in a lackluster era that included ten years where the team was owned by a dead man.

So what did a poor kid do in the mid-1970’s when all you had to root for was Buddy Bell standing among a team of nobodies?

Well, the mid-1970’s were the era of the Big Red Machine. Now some will point out that Cleveland and Cincinnati are rivals. That’s true, but as a baseball rivalry, Reds vs. Indians is one of the biggest yawners. Really, Browns fans used to barely notice Cincinnati until football season in an era when interleague play did not exist. And when your local team is snoozing, you look to the nearest team in the other league to carry your banner. Some would argue that the nearest National League team to Cleveland is Pittsburgh, but Clevelanders rooting for any Pittsburgh team besides the Penguins is just crazy talk. No, Clevelanders kept it in-state. And except for every Sunday during football season, Clevelanders pledged allegiance to The Big Red Machine.

John VanderHaagen, used under Creative Commons

John VanderHaagen, used under Creative Commons

When I moved to Cincinnati twenty years ago, one of the things that helped me assimilate into the city was the almost religious reverence people here hold for the Reds between 1970 and 1979. It helps that the Reds’ biggest World Series win came against the New York Yankees. And as you all know, you either love the Yankees or you hate them. Otherwise, you’re not a baseball fan. Sorry. Turn off Baseball Tonight. Go watch rugby on the Fox Soccer Channel. Maybe the hooligans will let you live.

You all know the names. Pete Rose. Johnny Bench. Joe Morgan. Tony Perez. And there are the lesser lights who still loom large in the city. Cesar Geronimo. Don Gullet. Davey Concepcion. Concepcion, in fact, started a mini-era of his own. For 34 years, from 1970 to 2004, only two men regularly played shortstop for the Reds – Concepcion until 1988, then Barry Larkin, his protege, until 2004.

Joe Morgan is probably the most visible of the former Big Red Machine players. A long-time baseball announcer, Morgan probably had his eye on the job long before he came to the Reds. In his book, Ball Four, Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros pitcher Jim Bouton relates several episodes with the ‘Stros where an up-and-coming Morgan would relieve the boredom in the dugout by imitating the television announcers calling the game. Reading those passages makes me wonder if Joe already had a sense of the man who took over the announcer’s job in his future home, Hall of Famer Marty Brennamen. Brennamen and Morgan would arrive in Cincinnati at rougly the same time. Marty, along with former Reds pitcher Joe Nuxhall, would become the voice of the Big Red Machine during their entire run and beyond.

The biggest icon, for both good and ill, of the Big Red Machine is Pete Rose. Rose, a native West-Sider, was known as Charlie Hustle. Rose played hard and didn’t respect anyone who slacked off during the game. His attitude paid off. He made the last, to date, serious run at Joe DiMaggio’s hitting streak. Joe made it to 56 games. Pete managed to post a respectable 44 games in 1978. He would later return to Cincinnati in the 1980’s to smash Ty Cobb’s record of 4191 hits. Love him, hate him, he’s as much a part of Cincinnati and the Reds as the team’s three best-known ball parks (Crosley Field, Riverfront Stadium, and Great American Ball Park), the Skyline Chili in the concession stands, and Joe Nuxhall’s voice.

 

Walter Ioos, Jr./SI, labeled for reuse

Walter Ioos, Jr./SI, labeled for reuse

The other face of the Reds during the Big Red Machine Era was Johnny Bench, the catcher and a power hitter. Johnny, an Oklahoma boy, came up through the Reds system and played his entire career in Cincinnati. And he stayed here after his career ended. One of the most noticeable things about Johnny Bench was his sizeable hands. The man could hold seven baseballs in one hands. I once delivered pizza to Johnny Bench. When he handed me his check, I caught sight of those hands up close and personal. Had we shaken hands, my own hand would have disappeared. And my hands are not exactly childlike to begin with.

 

Johnny_Bench_circa_1980_CROPNow, of course, when you have a group of athletes with this much talent packed into one clubhouse, things can go wildly off the rails. Hence, people who have never been to Cleveland are rooting for LeBron James to be humiliated in this year’s NBA Finals. (I, on the other hand, would like to see him lose to the Oklahoma City Thunder because that would be funny as hell.) But the Red Machine players endeared themselves to their native and adopted city. And in the dugout, one man ruled. A small, unassuming man named Sparky Anderson.

Roger Blevins, used under Creative Commons

Roger Blevins, used under Creative Commons

Sparky did more to guide the Reds to three pennants and two World Series wins than any other Reds manager in history. It would be almost 30 years before the Reds found another manager of his calibre, current skipper Dusty Baker. Back than, Baker was a scrappy outfielder for the Braves and the Dodgers. When Sparky ran the team, his players listened. His players did what he asked. And they won for it.

Sparky was so well-loved that Pete Rose made a special trip to see his ailing former boss days before he died last year. When Sparky passed away, there was a palpable sense of grief in Cincinnati not felt since announcer Joe Nuxhall died in 2007.

We likely won’t ever see the likes of the Big Red Machine in Cincinnati again. Current owner Bob Castellini is making a run at it. Marge Schott tried with the wire-to-wire Reds of 1990, but injuries and a revolving door of managers before Dusty’s arrival plagued the team since 1991. The current team needs work, but Cincinnati is the closest it’s ever been to a dynasty since the party ended in 1979.

But like Murderers Row, the Miracle Mets, and the Comeback Braves of the early 1990’s, it’s unlikely we’ll see a team like the Big Red Machine again.

More at the My Town Monday blog.

My Town Monday: Opening Day, 2011

It’s Opening Day once again, in Cincinnati, a High Holy Day slightly above Ash Wednesday. Which says a lot about this heavily Catholic town.

Like last year, the Reds are going back to the Big Red Machine for their Grand Marshal. Last year, it was Johnny Bench. This year, it’s going to be Joe Morgan, who played second base during the Reds’ famous run in the 1970’s.  Rather appropriate, since Joe has returned to the area with a car dealership and a position in the Reds’ front office.

As with every year, the parade begins at Findlay Market, the public market in Over-the-Rhine, makes it way southward to Fountain Square, over Ft. Washington Way (That’s I-71 through downtown for those of you just passing through), and into Great American Ball Park.

Opening Day has a strange effect on the town. While Marge Schott was embarrassing herself in the national press near the end of her tenure as Reds owner, she was a familiar and much-expected figure in the parade. Think of her as Peter Griffin’s dad. When Carl Lindner owned the team, the first President Bush made two appearances to throw out the first pitch, including the first game at Great American Ball Park (which I attended.)

The most disappointing Opening Day for me was Ken Griffey, Jr’s debut as a Red in the old Riverfront Stadium. Yes, it was great to see Junior come home to Cincinnati, but it also rained. And I got sick the next day, so I could neither go to work nor take the afternoon off to watch the rescheduled game.

For me, one of the most memorable Opening Days was a game I did not attend. In 1994, when the Reds still had most of the talent they had from the 1991 World Series win, my original hometown club, the Cleveland Indians, opened Jacobs Field. I was off work with a foot injury, and oh, damn! I had to stay home and watch baseball. This was back in the days when local TV stations still carried Major League Baseball.  (Yes, I know. WOR and WGN carry the Mets and the Cubs still. Those are exceptions.) In those days, WLWT, featuring an up-and-coming anchorman named Jerry Springer, carried the Reds. ESPN carried the Indians debut against the Arizona Diamondbacks.  I sat with my swollen foot up and iced, a six pack of Killians at my side, flipping back and forth between my American League team and my National League team.

Last year’s Opening Day came with an ominous note. Manager Dusty Baker told the team that, if they didn’t win this year, owner Bob Castellini would clean house.  The Reds took the NL Central before falling to an unstoppable Philadelphia Phillies.  This year, there’s a feeling Cincinnati sports fans haven’t felt for a while, not since Brian Kelly coached the UC Bearcats.

Hope.

Opening Day this year comes early, March 31.  It’ll be chilly, but then that’s not unheard of for Opening Day.

Nor does it stop the fans from coming.

More at the My Town Monday blog.

Superbowl

And so today, after the collapse of the Cincinnati Bengals (A hint to Chad and TO: Less VH1, more running your frakking routes when you two finally land somewhere. Amazing how brilliant Carson Palmer looks when your benched!), all of the Queen City becomes Packerland. Well, not everybody. A few brave souls are rooting for the Steelers. Now, I know what you’re thinking, especially if you live in Cleveland. (“Seriously? Do these people stick their tongues in light sockets for fun, too?”)

But I am a Packer fan today. And for more reasons than that team that has plagued me for 40 years – not counting the four years Mike Brown forced me to be a Steeler fan during the Browns’ absence* -in two cities rooting for two different teams. That comes into play, but it’s not the whole story.

We also have Bret Favre, who really would have done the NFL a great service by signing on with Fox, CBS, or ESPN as an analyst or doing play-by-play. I suspect if they based him out of Chicago, the folks in Green Bay would have welcomed him to the broadcast booth with open arms. But no, Bret had to play, like Michael Jordan with the Wizards, one season too many, then cap it off by being a pale imitation of Ben Rothlesberger. No, he didn’t rape anyone, but he does share Big Ben’s inability to keep it in the huddle when he’s out partying.

Favre decided to retire, then go play for the Jets, then come back to the Vikings mainly to spite the Packers. Boomer Esiason once did that in Cincinnati, but Boomer had an excuse not afforded to Bret. Boomer left town after playing for Mike Brown, possibly the worst owner in the NFL. (Yes, I may return to the Dawg Pound next year. How can you miss with Mike Holmgren running the show?)

So now we have Aaron Rodgers, whom many thought would never eclipse Favre. And believe me, my heart went out to the Packers that fateful night in 2008 when Eli Manning and the Giants summoned supernatural forces beyond anyone’s control to snatch the NFC Championship from Green Bay. (And then I sat in a Chicago hotel room watching Eli do the same to the Patriots, whom I picked to have an undefeated season. Man, being wrong was never so much fun to watch!)

The Packers are due. The Packers invented the Superbowl back when it was two words and not even the official name of the game. No, the first two “Super Bowls” were the NFL-AFL Championship, watched less than the Pro Bowl or any attempt by Fox News to imitate The Daily Show. But even with no one watching, Green Bay managed to create football legends. Why do you think they call it the “Vince Lombardi Trophy”? It’s not the Paul Brown Trophy (though it might have been had Super Bowl I been held a year earlier) or the George Hallas Trophy or the Don Shula Trophy. It’s Vince Lombardi, the man who not only coached some of the greatest teams in history, but spawned some of the greatest coaches since then.

The Packers are the NFL, both the old, pre-merger NFL and the new NFC-AFC version.  (Of course, how new can it be after 40 years?)

And are there anymore devoted fans in the NFL? You might make a case for those of the Cleveland Browns, who, after having their team kidnapped by a similarly abused Baltimore, grabbed NFL Commissioner Paul Taglibue by the elastic band of his tightie whities, shoved his head into an RTA station toilet, and kept flushing until he agreed to refield the team as soon as a new stadium could be built.

But Browns fans only have to endure a few Sundays of cold weather. Yes, I know all about the Ice Bowl against the Raiders under Brian Sipe and Bob Golic. I watched it. Packer fans, however, show up for weeks at a time shirtless at Lambeau Field, a place so cold even Ice Road Truckers won’t film there. Cheeseheads are dedicated in a way fans in the 31 other cities in the NFL cannot comprehend. -20 below at the game? Hmm…  Put on a sweater, maybe one extra cup of hot chocolate before switching to beer at half-time.

Packer fans are due. And Aaron Rodgers deserves to win a ring. He’s earned it.

That and anytime you can piss off Ben Rothlesberger and rub Bret Favre’s nose in it, it’s a good thing.

So, for today, just for today, ich bein ein Cheesehead.

*Between the death of Paul Brown and the dawn of the Marvin Lewis era, Bengals wins were spoken of much like some people talk of John F. Kennedy, Prohibition, and the Peliponesian War: In the long, long ago, in the Before Time