Sunday, March 30, 2008

Bandwagon Time

I know hockey is the 4th of the "Big 4" pro sports. But listen to me: if you're a Bay Area sports fan, you need to get on the Sharks bandwagon right now.

This team has now scored points in 19 consecutive games. In fact, defenseman Brian Campbell has never played a game with the Sharks in which they didn't score at least one point (either by winning outright or losing in overtime). Coincidence? I think not.

Campbell, acquired at the trade deadline, is the final piece of the puzzle for a team that already has arguably the league's best player (Joe Thornton) and its best goalie (Evgeni Nabokov), as well as a remarkable supporting cast. Guys like Jeremy Roenick, who I mocked months ago as a player I thought merely wanted to hang around long enough to score his 500th career goal, have contributed in key ways.

It may seem trivial to you, but the Sharks' 3-1 win over Phoenix in their first game after locking up the Pacific Division title says volumes about this team. They could have just gone through the motions, but they came out and played hard. They scored 14 seconds into the match, aided by an assist from Ryane Clowe, who'd missed more than 50 games following major knee surgery. Who scored that first goal? Thornton, of course.

"Jumbo Joe" should be named the NHL's Most Valuable Player. He's not the league's leading scorer, and he doesn't make many highlight reels. But night in and night out, this man plays the game at both ends of the ice at a higher level than anyone else in the sport. Want ESPN thrills? Watch Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals (whose team will miss the playoffs). Want to watch the best player in hockey? Number 19 of the Sharks.

The Stanley Cup playoffs are not for the meek. The Sharks will probably have to beat teams like Calgary, Anaheim, and Detroit to reach the finals. Nothing is guaranteed.

But this is a damned good team, and it's on a roll. Hop on the bandwagon now.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

God-Awful Look

Greetings from Scottsdale. I'm in Spring Training bliss.

But I saw something the other day I'd rather not see again.

Eric Gagne. In maybe the worst-fitting uniform ever. I mean, pants so baggy, we worried a strong wind could catch him and send him airborne. But probably not, because it looks like he's hiding two or three other people in there with him.

Gagne, once the scourge of the National League West as the Dodgers' record-setting closer, is now trying to recapture that old magic with the Milwaukee Brewers. When he jogged in to face the Giants, he was also wearing a jersey that, at first, I thought was untucked. But my sharp-eyed son pointed out it was merely a couple of sizes too large, making for massive saggage around the waistband.

Gagne was booed, of course, by Giants fans who remember his Dodger days. But for me, the booing was about his fashion statement.

Bring back Garry Maddox, Willie Davis, Willie Mays. Guys who knew how to wear a baseball uniform. Praise the Giants pitchers, who are actually wearing old-school stirrup socks with sanitary hose beneath.

And pray that Gagne's fashion mistake is punished with the one thing that relief pitchers notice: lots of baserunners.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Enough, Already

Is the NHL waiting for an actual fatality?

It's beyond my understanding how the league continues to employ the "touch" icing rule, which requires a defensive player to race toward the end boards to touch the puck before an offensive player gets to it first. This guarantees high-speed action, and it also guarantees horrible scenes like the one in San Jose, where Minnesota Wild defenseman Kurtis Foster shattered his femur in a wreck with the Sharks' Torrey Mitchell (photo from Associated Press).

Don't blame Mitchell, who is a hustling young player and was obviously concerned about Foster as soon as the play ended. Blame the idiots who run the NHL.

In international hockey and most European pro leagues, icing is called the moment the puck crosses the goal line. No drag race to the puck. No broken legs.

Any of the morons in the NHL hierarchy who resist changing the icing rule should be forced to watch video of Foster on the ice after that collision. The man was in terrible pain. It'll turn your stomach.

For Sharks fans, the Foster injury was disturbingly familiar. Back in 2004, San Jose's own Marco Sturm broke his leg when Colorado's Adam Foote grabbed him from behind during an icing race. It wasn't pretty then, it isn't pretty now, and it needs to stop.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Call In Sick

Look. Be honest to yourself (and your boss). You're not going to get any real work done once the NCAA Tournament starts.

So do the right thing. Call in sick.

This time, CBS plans to offer every single game of the tournament live via streaming video. This means even the key first-rounder between Drake and Western Kentucky will show up on your screen. Now, given the choice between that game and the sales forecast for Q3 (the one that was due two weeks ago), what will you do?

I think we both know the answer.

Sales forecasts can wait. March Madness waits for no one.

By the way, I think UCLA wins this thing. How 'bout you?

Monday, March 10, 2008

Parents: Get Real

I once watched a man sit in the stands at a high school softball game and receive a steady stream of congratulations from other adults. The man's "accomplishment" was the fact that his daughter had been granted a college athletic scholarship.

It seemed a bit odd to me at the time; after all, he hadn't won the scholarship, his daughter had. I didn't know the family (they were not from my town) and don't know where the young woman furthered her athletic career. It's a safe bet, however, that the scholarship wasn't as glossy as all those well-wishers thought.

There's a piece in the New York Times that ought to be required reading for any parent who thinks all those hours and dollars committed to a kid's youth sports career will pay off in a free ride to college. Sure, we all know families who won this weird form of lottery. But not unlike the folks you see on TV winning the Lotto, the full story is often missed.

The Times uses NCAA numbers to show that not only are the odds against getting any sort of scholarship (only 1 in 50 high school athletes will get any college athletic aid), but those who do get scholarships often get way less than the proverbial "full ride".

In fact, the average NCAA scholarship--including football and basketball--adds up to only about $10, 400 a year. Take the two big-money sports out and the figure drops to under $9,000. Sure, that's real money. But start doing the math on all the travel team fees, equipment, specialized coaching, injury rehab and the like, and you begin to wonder if it's worth it. And what's the value of a childhood sacrificed to this chase for cash?

The Times story ends with this quote from a young man who failed to make his college soccer team, after a childhood spent doing little but run after a soccer ball: "If if I had it to do over, I would have skipped a practice every now and then to go to a concert or a movie with my friends. I missed out on a lot of things for soccer. I wish I could have some of that time back.”

One wonders how things would have turned out if he and his family had focused on something other than the scholarship chase. Perhaps he'd have ended up like a young man I know, who attended a pricey Division III school (no scholarships) where he played 4 years of baseball and ended up with both a college degree and a pure love of his sport.

For those who insist on fixating on the money, consider this. A family that spends $7500 a year on Junior's youth sports career (on the low side, according to many) could instead invest that cash. If they started at age 8, Junior would have over $100,000 in college money at graduation time. In other words, more than twice the average NCAA scholarship.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The Stupid Schedule

Take a good look at that guy with the puck. If you're a Sharks fan, this is as close as you'll get this year.

The NHL's absurd unbalanced schedule continues to insult fans by depriving them of even a single chance to see all of the league's stars each year. By the way, the fellow in the photo is Alexander Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, who leads the league in goals, points, and highlight-film plays. He won't play in San Jose this year. In fact, the Sharks won't even play his team on the road.

I'm hot on this topic right now because the Sharks and Montreal just played a terrific game in San Jose (the Sharks won 6-4, proving they can play fast-paced, high-skill hockey with any team in the league). It was a true treat for the home fans.

But reality bites. It'll be a long time before the Canadiens play in San Jose again. And of the Sharks' remaining 16 games this season, a wearying 9 will be against the other 4 teams in the Sharks' Pacific Dvision (in fact, those 9 games will occur in the last 10 games of the season).

I understand the logic of loading the schedule so that teams play more games against those they're battling for a playoff slot. I understand the realities of travel expenses. But will someone please explain to me how the NHL benefits from keeping Ovechkin out of San Jose (or, for that matter, Joe Thornton out of Washington)? Even the NHL's plan to revise the schedule for next year will not ensure visits by all of the opposite-conference teams.

Stupid. Just plain stupid.