Wednesday, December 29, 2010

We Leave Tomorrow

Excited? Oh, no. I'm way, way beyond excited. In a few days, I'll take in the Rose Parade and the Rose Bowl. I feel like one of those girls on the old newsreels who screamed at the Beatles as they arrived in America. It's just pure, unadulterated excitement. It's bliss. Win or lose, I'm going to love this.

TCU is going to the Rose Bowl. I'm off to sprinkle rock salt where hell froze over. 


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Pony Excess

For the most part, I liked Pony Excess, the ESPN 30 for 30 film about the SMU football program in the early '80s. There's just one gripe I'd like to get out of the way right off the bat.

A couple of times, when one of the figures in the documentary (it might have been Dallas radio host Norm Hitzges) mentioned that TCU also got hit with probation in the '80s, the video cut to clips of former TCU coach Jim Wacker. That upset me, and here's why.

It's true that the NCAA handed TCU an extremely harsh penalty in 1985 while Wacker was coach. But it wasn't the late Coach Wacker who did the cheating. In fact, Wacker, an honest and upstanding man, turned TCU in voluntarily--something that had never happened before--as soon as he found out about payments from boosters. He had not been part of the cheating, although his predecessor, who was a huge loser, very well might have been. Wacker also dismissed 11 players from the team in 1985, including star running back Kenneth Davis, before the NCAA ever made it to Fort Worth.

Wacker hoped that his honesty and transparency would lead to leniency from the NCAA, but it didn't. TCU got the "walking" (or "living") death penalty two years before the NCAA shut SMU down. The sanctions effectively paralyzed our program for a decade. I'm sure it was an innocent piece of b-roll, but I found it borderline offensive that Wacker's image was associated with TCU cheating. I'm probably the only person who noticed that, though.

One of the very prescient points the documentary--which was directed by an SMU grad whose dad is a professor at SMU--made was that everybody in the old Southwest Conference was cheating in the 1980s. (I was surprised to hear a few ex-SMU players say that Rice had approached them with "incentives"--I was always under the impression that Rice was the only clean program in the SWC during that era. Apparently everybody was trying to buy talent, even little Rice.)

In a documentary about SMU, it might not have been appropriate to take this tangent, but it upset me a little bit that nobody mentioned the fact that SMU got hit with the death penalty while Texas A&M, eligible for the death penalty for multiple violations stretching over a decade, got a series of slaps on the wrist and mainly continued to run a successful program. A nice naming and shaming of A&M would have been appropriate, but that's not what the film was about.

For a documentary made by an SMU alumnus and confessed SMU football fan, the film did plenty of naming and shaming of former SMU coaches, players and administrators. Craig James, who works for ESPN, almost assuredly took payments but acts like an innocent in the film--which makes him come off as either a liar or a total rube for not getting in on the cash. His backfield partner, Eric Dickerson, revealed a lot about what other schools (notably A&M) gave him but stopped short of talking about SMU's largess. He didn't say that SMU didn't give him anything (who would even begin to believe that?); he just said that he didn't want to talk about it. Fair enough, I guess.

Former Texas governor Bill Clements comes off looking like the two-faced idiot he was, but the coaches and administrators who were at SMU in the late '70s and early '80s--including former SMU coach Ron Meyer, who did an interview for the film--actually manage to come off looking worse. The boosters, the real money behind the illegal payments to players that were so rampant for years, are who they are--a bunch of rich, old Texans who wanted their team to win. They don't try to be anything else in the movie, and several of them did sit for interviews.

It's Meyer and SMU's braintrust of the era--most of whom did not sit for interviews--who really look sleazy. Meyer, who never had a lot of scruples, anyway, doesn't seem too ashamed about anything. The other SMU admin honchos, mainly shown in extremely embarrassing and revealing TV interviews from the '80s, have all the sideways glances and slack-jawed looks of the very most busted victims of 60 Minutes. And, as the movie points out, they were just so stupid. One official in the athletic department sent money to a recruit in an envelope embossed with the SMU seal and his own handwriting on the letter inside. Really?

One of the reasons I watched this movie was because I wanted to relive some of the good days of the SWC, back before all the cheating came to light and the conference imploded. I remember the whole SMU saga very well. As a small kid--prior to 1983, when Wacker arrived at TCU--I was an SMU fan. Who wouldn't have been? The Ponies were awesome to watch; they were the underdogs who were finally having their day against the giants of the SWC, and they were located right in Dallas, just 30 miles or so from my hometown. They even had cool nicknames--Dickerson and James (sometimes known as Dickerjames) were the Pony Express, and the whole SMU fervor was called Mustang Mania. Mustang Mania? That's great!

What I realized as the movie went on was just how depressing college football got in the 1980s in Texas. I didn't lose my football innocence with SMU. I lost it before that, as a newby TCU fan, when the Frogs got smacked with probation when I was 11 years old. I was bitter for years--still am, really--about how the NCAA treated TCU compared to what it did (or didn't do) to UT and especially A&M. I still watched college football religiously, but TCU's plight soured me on the sport in a way I'm not completely sure I've totally recovered from.

From there, SMU went down, A&M's dirty program rose and I entered my junior high years, which would have been miserable enough but were made all that much worse by the fact that my hometown was saturated with arrogant, obnoxious A&M fans. As I watched the film tonight, I remembered how miserable the years from 1986-1990 or so were for me (which is not a comment on my family, just on my stage of life) and how college football, my passion, actually made them worse. It's a wonder, honestly, that I'm a fan to this day. Many TCU alumni didn't bother to stay on the mostly empty bandwagon. Many SMU alumni didn't, either--and who can blame them? In 1987 and '88, they had no football team. It gets no worse than that.

SMU did deserve the death penalty. It did. SMU was arrogant and blatant in its repeated cheating, and its administrators knew to the highest level (and beyond) what was going on and still lied repeatedly about what they were doing. All of SMU's success from 1980-1984 came from cheating. The legacy of those teams, so successful and so much fun to watch, remains tarnished forever. SMU is still the most penalized program ever, although the one that comes behind it is Texas A&M.

And that's what's not fair and why I've had a soft spot for SMU since 1989. (I'm glad to see the program getting back on its feet now--really.) Lots of programs have deserved the death penalty--A&M, Alabama, Miami for heaven's sake--but only little SMU, a private school with a small fan base, got it. I remember watching SMU win the Miracle on Mockingbird Lane, a comeback win over Connecticut in just the program's second game back after the death penalty. A little quarterback named Mike Romo led the Ponies to a stunning fourth-quarter comeback. Around him was a rag-tag bunch of guys, not recruited by anybody, undersized, slow and unable to really compete with anybody...except UConn. I was glad SMU won that game, and I still think of it as a pleasant sports memory. I'm no SMU fan, though. The Mustangs are still TCU's rivals, and I relish the chance to beat them year after year.

Of course, SMU's downfall was a big domino in the ultimate demise of the SWC, the very definition of college football for me in my childhood. I've never gotten over the breakup of the SWC. Sure, TCU has a much, much better program now than we did in the last couple of decades of the SWC, but there was nothing better than the rivalries that went with that historic old conference. Of course, there was nothing worse than losing those games, which we usually did. Still, as we've improved over the years and bounced around the country from conference to conference, I've wished that we could have had the success we're having now back in the '80s, when it would have meant so much to me as a kid obsessed with college football and filled with rage at programs like Texas and A&M.

But all's well that ends well, I suppose. Maybe that'll be the case for SMU fans someday (and maybe it is already, with a second straight bowl berth)--Lord knows they've suffered, and those who have remained supporters of the program deserve some success. For TCU fans, with a No. 3 ranking and a first-ever trip to the Rose Bowl on the way, this is probably the best things have ever been. Oh, sure, we were arguably better in the '30s and maybe even in the '50s, but that's quite literally ancient history in college football terms. From wondering 12 years ago whether I'd ever see TCU win a bowl game to planning a trip to Pasadena last week (I'll see you there...), this ride has been incredible. OK, so it didn't happen against Arkansas and Texas and A&M, but it is happening. And for that, I'm thankful. Go Frogs.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Party's Over

There will never be another Dandy Don Meredith. That much we know. Never the greatest quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, he was nevertheless a very good one and an extremely tough one.

Long-time Cowboy fans like my dad probably remember the mid-'60s Cotton Bowl years as the best time to watch the team. Sure, Tom Landry's early teams couldn't get past the Packers. They lost heart-breakers in the playoffs. Meredith screwed up at the ends of big ballgames. Fans booed; sportswriters bristled. Roger Staubach would come along within a few years and make everything OK.

But real fans always have an affinity for those early teams that struggled, for the predecessors to the greats. Native New Englanders still talk with some nostalgia about Steve Grogan and the '70s Pats, about how Sugar Bear Hamilton was innocent and how the best New England team to come along prior to 2001 got robbed. Pat Patriot and the old red uniforms are still favorites around here.

As a TCU football fan, I'll forever be a Wacker Backer. I remember with fondness our rare victories in the '80s and early '90s and even some of our close losses. Stephen Shipley's last-second touchdown catch to beat Houston in 1991, in Coach Jim Wacker's last home game, remains one of my favorite sports moments. Names like Falanda Newton, Tony Jeffery and Matt Vogler are still special to me.

The championships help, of course. It's easy to remember Dandy Don now that Staubach and Troy Aikman have come and gone. Tom Brady makes the memories of Grogan seem a bit sweeter. Andy Dalton adds to Matt Vogler's nostalgic legacy. Do Cleveland fans look back with misty eyes on, say, Brian Sipe? Probably not. Success makes almost everything that preceded it seem sweeter. 

Back to Dandy Don. He's one of those athletes who just predated my time, having retired a few years before I was born. And yet I feel as though I knew him, and not just because I did know him from his Monday Night Football years. He was a Dallas guy, a real one, an SMU All-American and Cowboy quarterback. He was quite literally the first Dallas Cowboy. In terms of his near misses in Dallas and lack of championship success, he was sort of my dad's Danny White, except that nobody came before Meredith in Dallas and that Dandy Don was a heck of a lot more fun than Dull Danny.

When I was a kid, Monday Night Football was still a huge event. It was still a cultural touchstone. Monday night games meant a lot--they were enormous for the cities and franchises involved, and they produced memories as lasting as many, if not most, of those that came from playoff games and Super Bowls. Howard Cosell--a television great in his own right, but one famously different from Meredith--Frank Gifford and Dandy Don made NFL football. They really did make it. No longer was the NFL a staid Sunday-afternoon fall pastime. It was cool. It was edgy. It was fun.

All of that's gone, of course. The 24-hour news cycle and the Web have swallowed the old notion of an "event," particularly one that happened every week from September through December. TV sports announcers try way too hard. Some try to be clever; others try to be controversial or bombastic, and still others try to be smarter than everybody else. Almost all of them fail. And with the NFL on five nights a week now, there are too many games and not enough good commentators.

The era of Monday Night Football ended almost 30 years ago. Don Meredith rode off into the sunset not long afterward. But with his passing, we should celebrate what he meant to Dallas sports and to American culture. No matter how badly he was hurt, no matter how much fans resented him, no matter how much flack he took from the press, he kept his cool. He didn't always win, but he never let his detractors get his goat. There's something very admirable about that. And very rare these days.

Beyond that, as an all-around fun guy, as a '70s icon, it was hard to beat Dandy Don. His decade on Monday Night Football was a high point for American entertainment and perhaps the absolute peak of the NFL as theater. But it's all over now. Meredith's days in the spotlight are long gone, and so is he. I'll miss him, not as a former fan but as someone who appreciates what he represented to a generation of football fans and to a young kid from Texas who used to beg his dad to let him stay up and watch the games on Monday nights.

The party has been over for a while, but now it's time to turn out the lights on the life of the great Don Meredith. Unfortunately, tomorrow will not start the same old thing again.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Baby TCU Prince

Thrilled by TCU's 12-0 season, Isaac eagerly awaits news of our bowl destination. We'll know on Sunday evening...

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Bruins Are Back in My Life

They never left, really, but after they blew a three-game lead to Philadelphia in the playoffs last year, I swore off the Boston Professional Hockey Franchise, as I called it all summer.

But I can't quit the Bruins. I never could. Maybe it's the sting of unmet expectations or the faint stench of failure that has hovered over this team since 1972, but something about the Bruins just keeps pulling me back in. (It's certainly not hope, not after last season.) I need them. Jack Edwards, the exuberant voice of the Bruins on NESN, is like an old friend who shows up and drinks beers on my couch every winter. I miss him when he's not around.

Now, I'm training Isaac to be a fan. The first things I bought him, even before he was born, were a Bruins onesie and the Bruins throw rug you see in the picture. Hey, if I'm going to have to wait another 40 years for a Stanley Cup, I at least want somebody else to wait with me. And if the Bruins do manage to bring the Cup home, it'll be for the first time in Isaac's life--and for the first time in his dad's, as well.

The Bruins beat New Jersey 3-0 tonight. It's just one win in a long regular season, but Isaac looked pretty happy about it.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Banner Night at BC

For the first time, I got to see live and in person a championship banner rise to the rafters. Friday night, BC celebrated its 2009-2010 NCAA hockey championship with a banner-raising ceremony that involved members of the 2010, 2008, 2001 and 1949 (yes, 1949) championship-winning teams.

Also in attendance was the scrappy team from Merrimack, which nearly ruined the party. Merrimack was physical, borderline dirty, and early in the game got into the heads of BC's players, who looked uncharacteristically slow and sluggish throughout the game. Merrimack's goaltender was nothing short of heroic, stopping 39 pucks and fending off penalty kill after penalty kill.

It was almost sad, then, when the goalie's error led to BC's winning goal. The Eagles sealed Merrimack's fate with a power-play goal by Pat Mullane about five minutes into the third period and skated away with a hard-fought, come-from-behind 3-2 victory. The Eagles were 2 for 11 (eleven!) on the power play, got outplayed all night and still managed to come away with a victory. Great teams are the ones that win even when they don't play well, and BC was one of those teams tonight.

I probably won't be back to a BC game until January, but I do plan to get to Conte Forum fairly often this winter. BC hockey is still the best sports deal in town. As always, my unfiltered, unedited photo set from Friday night's game is online. Go Eagles!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Isaac Meets the New England Patriots (and Peter King)

Well, this was exciting. I read Tuesday morning in the Herald that a few Patriots, including Tom Brady and Vince Wilfork, would be in Waltham on Tuesday afternoon to help build a playground at the Boys and Girls Club. I live about a 10-minute walk from the club, so I figured I'd take the lad down to see what we could see.

My lovely wife and I trooped down with Isaac to Exchange Street around 2pm to find a few people waiting outside the Boys and Girls Club building. What we quickly came to find out was that this was not an event for the general public--it was intended for supporters, volunteers and members of the Boys and Girls Club. We don't currently fit into any of those categories. That's actually pretty important to this story.

The playground is outdoors but not visible from the street, so we decided to wait for the players outside the entrance to the building. That made us celebrity stalkers, something we had never been before. A few folks waited with us: a radio DJ from a station in Providence with her two kids, a retired school teacher with two kids in a huge stroller, a mom whose kid didn't appear to be there and a young man holding an autographed football.

Brady had been the last to arrive, and we figured that he would be one of the first to leave. As the players trickled out, though, he wasn't among them. They were friendly as they left the building, but they were clearly headed home. Most of them smiled and waved but didn't really stop as they headed to their cars--remember, this was not an appearance for the general public that they were making.

Nevertheless, Ike and I made our way among them. A mother had arrived with a two-week-old (even smaller than Isaac!) baby, and she approached Jerod Mayo for an autograph, which he signed for her.
The lady with him (I don't know who she was) was very friendly and started asking whether Isaac and the other little baby were twins. I said no, and she cooed over how cute both of them were. Players were headed to their cars by now, so Isaac and I started scouting out interesting faces while chatting politely with Jerod Mayo's friend.
About that time, I noticed that the lady with the two kids in the stroller was headed to the parking lot across the street. She had managed to corner Vince Wilfork, the huge nose tackle, and he was signing an autograph for the kids. I decided to follow her. I approached Vince Wilfork as he was getting ready to get into his car. I asked him whether he would take a picture with and sign an autograph for my baby.

I was extremely impressed with Vince Wilfork. He was genuinely friendly and without hesitation took Isaac in his massive arms while my wife photographed us. (Only one month old, and my baby has already been held by a Super Bowl champion and a Pro Bowler. That's pretty cool. If I had a photo of myself being held by, say, Bob Lilly at the age of one month, I'd have it framed and hanging on my wall to this day.)

Vince Wilfork signed an autograph for my boy and could not possibly have been more cordial, especially given the fact that I had pretty much chased him down at his car. He's not especially tall for a football player, but his width is astonishing--and his forearms speak for themselves. Count me as a huge Vince Wilfork fan. I'll always be appreciative of the kindness he showed Isaac and me. Even though Ike obviously won't remember this experience, I hope that he'll treasure these photos for a lifetime.
After Vince Wilfork left, the Brady watch was on. We were standing near the car he had gotten out of when he arrived, but a driver hopped into that car and pulled up right next to another exit from the building. Brady--after having participated quite animatedly with the kids in the Boys and Girls Club--was clearly not in the mood to be mobbed (again), and I can't say that I blame him.

The DJ from Providence and the lady with the kids in the stroller made something of a beeline for Brady, and he politely signed an autograph for the stroller lady, who rather nudged her way in front of the disgruntled DJ (who had, at least, introduced her kids to some of the other players as they entered the building earlier that day). With that, Brady was done, and he hopped in the passenger seat of his car as his driver slowly pulled away.

Again, and this is very important, Brady wasn't being a jerk. He had been there to entertain the kids at the club, which he very much did. I don't blame him for wanting to make a quiet exit; his presence on the street in Waltham had suddenly changed a small grouping of people into something of a bustling crowd. The waiting horde cheered for Brady has his car pulled away, which I thought was nice somehow. I did manage to snap a quick picture of him signing the autograph for the stroller lady.
After Brady departed, the gathering on the sidewalk thinned considerably. Not long after Brady left, a man wearing a Boys and Girls Clubs volunteer shirt and walking a dog approached me. He asked how long Brady had stayed and I answered not long--but I did tell him that Vince Wilfork held my baby. He made a comment about how much larger Vince Wilfork was than a month-old baby, and we chuckled. He then talked about how cute Isaac was and moved on. Nice man, I thought...and he looked for all the world like Peter King.

In case you don't know, Peter King is the preeminent pro football writer in America today. He does live in the Boston area, but I hadn't heard that he would be at this event. Besides, this guy looked much younger and thinner than the Peter King I watch on TV. (Much younger and thinner--he's actually in very good shape and looks 10 years younger in person.) As you might imagine, I came to find out later on that the gentleman who spoke with me was indeed Peter King. Unfortunately, I didn't get a photo with him, but I did enjoy our brief chat. Seriously, if you ever want to meet celebrities outside and event, bring a baby. It works exceptionally well.

There weren't more than two or three people still waiting outside the building when a man exited to mild fanfare. I had no idea who he was, but I thought that he looked at bit like Mark Walhberg. There was a reason for that--it was Donnie Wahlberg, but I didn't know that until the guy with the football told me. I snapped a picture of him. A lady who was with him made goo-goo eyes over Isaac--seriously, bring a baby. Just find one and bring one.
By that time, nobody was really outside the building except for a few volunteers who were still hanging around. I spoke for about 15 minutes to a volunteer named Paul, who was exceptionally friendly and very loyal to the cause of the Boys and Girls Clubs. He told me some funny stories about what had gone on inside during the playground construction--particularly about how Vince Wilfork had given Brady a hard time for being the last to arrive and one of the first to leave.

In all seriousness, though, the Boys and Girls Clubs is a great cause. I saw kids going in and out while I was there, interacting with each other and the staff. They all seemed very comfortable and happy. Paul told me about how he'd grown up going to the Clubs and wanted to give something back. It would be a great cause for donation if you're so inclined. I'll probably give a little something; Paul said that if everyone in Waltham gave just $1, that would add up to $60,000 for the Clubs and would be a nice little chunk of change for improvements to the facilities. That seems more than reasonable.

Just as my family and I were about to amble home, Paul let me know that there was one other famous person left in the building--Patriots owner Bob Kraft. Now, I have always liked Bob Kraft. Before he came into money, Kraft was an average Pats fan, a season-ticket holder at the old Foxborough Stadium who sat on the cold metal benches in the cheap seats with the other regular guys.

As Pats (and New England Revolution) owner, Kraft saved the NFL franchise from being moved to St. Louis by its previous owner and then turned down a huge public-financing offer to move to Hartford, instead spending his own money and building a whole new stadium in Foxboro.

Unlike Jerry Jones, the Arkansas scoundrel who owns the Cowboys, Kraft didn't use eminent domain to kick people out of their homes in order to build his private playground--nor did he use public money on the stadium the way Jones did down in Arlington. It's icing on the cake, really, that Kraft turned one of the worst franchises in NFL history into a winner and has thus far brought home five AFC championships and three Super Bowl titles to New England. 

Accompanied by no entourage at all, only a driver, Kraft exited the building and waved. I approached him about taking a picture with Isaac, which he was more than happy to do. He stood for several photos, actually, and in his best politician moment, he leaned over at one point and kissed my baby on the head. He was an exceptionally nice man and even put his arm around me at one point while we were taking photos. Needless to say, I was very impressed with Bob Kraft. I'm a fan.
That, then, was how Isaac met Vince Wilfork and Bob Kraft and got to spend an hour or so stalking the Patriots. All three of us had a wonderful time and came away very impressed with the Boys and Girls Clubs (maybe Ike will play there when he's a little older) and with the Pats organization. Isaac's first brushes with greatness were a huge success.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Yanks Yammer for Mercy from Rangers

I am not a Texas Rangers fan. I grew up outside of Dallas and went to a fair number of Ranger games as a kid, but I never developed an emotional connection to the team. If anything, I resented the Rangers for being so lousy. More on that in a bit.

When I was in the third grade, circa 1983 (actually, it was 1983), my teacher handed out in class one day some sort of little newspaper. In it, there were tips about how to write headlines for news stories. (Why we had this, I have no idea, but we did.) The hypothetical story this little newspaper offered headlines for involved the Texas Rangers beating the New York Yankees 10-0. (It was, I assure you, purely hypothetical.)

The main thrust of these headline tips was that alliteration was a cracking idea for headline writers. The first title the little paper offered for its fake story was "Rangers Rip Yankees 10-0." Not bad. But the second one is the one I've never forgotten for whatever bizarre reason. It said "Yanks Yammer for Mercy from Rangers." And that brings us right around to current events.

The apocalypse is surely upon us. Winged donkeys are flying. The sky is raining fire. I'm about to sprinkle rock salt where hell froze over. The Texas Rangers are going to the World Series. And they're going because they beat, in six games, the mighty New York Yankees, until Friday night the defending world champions. Presumably, by the ninth inning, with the Rangers in command of Game Six, the Yanks were indeed yammering for mercy from the Rangers.

When I was a kid, the Rangers tried to play up some sort of rivalry with the Yankees, which, of course, never existed. But then the Rangers would do just about anything to sell tickets--which they did, in enough numbers to stay afloat and stash a little money into the pockets of their various owners. What they almost never did, though, was compete.

For most of the 1970s and 1980s, the Texas Rangers did not play baseball; they inflicted it on the innocent sporting public of Dallas-Fort Worth. In blast-furnace heat, in a minor-league stadium that was still dumpy by minor-league standards, the former second coming of the Washington Senators stumbled to losing record after losing record, trading off good young players and bringing in washed-up old veterans who were out for one last payday.

Many moments stand out in Texas Rangers infamy--too many to name here. My personal favorite occurred when Bert Blyleven (born in the Netherlands, incidentally) famously endeared himself to Ranger fans one day by responding to their booing with a middle finger that he administered evenly to every fan in the park by slowly turning 360 degrees on the pitcher's mound. Even when the Rangers weren't bad, they were mired in constant chaos. And when they were bad, they were absolutely horrible.

So bad were they that the franchise kept a constant stream of promotions going to keep fans coming to the park. I went to Arlington Stadium on cap night, bucket hat night, bat night (yes, full-size bats, not those little novelty jobs), plastic batting helmet night, Arlington Stadium commemorative pin night... I could go on. There were, to my memory, 81 promotions for 81 home games a year, some of them more intriguing than others.

For years, I had a Louisville Slugger Buddy Bell bat from bat night. I had gone to the game with my friend, Todd, and his father, who was rather a crusty fellow from Chicago. On the way back to Midlothian, we stopped at Braum's for milkshakes. At some point during the ride home, while Todd and I were rolling around in the back of a station wagon that had the seats down (wow, have times changed on that front--we were probably eight years old), I accidentally spilled my shake on his bat. Todd was furious; he insisted that we trade bats, and despite being scared to death of his dad (who did not intervene), I refused. He swore after that that his bat didn't work properly because the shake had softened it or something. It didn't matter much; he was a pretty darn good ballplayer, and I was awful. But I did have, perhaps, the superior bat. 

Of course, I do have some nostalgic thoughts about the old Arlington Stadium and the old Rangers. The games were cheap and easy to attend--sellouts were extremely rare, and it was very possible on a given summer night to walk up to the stadium entrance and pay maybe $10 to get into the game and sit just about anywhere. Traffic was never bad. The nachos were decent. Arlington was much easier to get to and around than Dallas or Irving. Drunken fights in the broiling outfield seats provided entertainment when the Rangers didn't.

I used to be able to drive by the old stadium on Collins Street in Arlington and look at the scoreboard in a gap between the stands to see how badly the Rangers were losing. When I worked at Six Flags Over Texas in the summer of 1990, I could hear, from the depths of the Six Flags parking lot, the very occasional roar of the Arlington Stadium crowd, as the stadium and the amusement park were next to each other. The Ranger TV broadcasts used to be entertaining only because Steve Busby, the play-by-play announcer, called the games in the same way a singer at the Airport Hilton lounge belts out The Impossible Dream. I'm not really sure how else to explain that. He should have worn a half-unbuttoned disco shirt and a medallion in the booth.

Nostalgia, though, always gives way to a bit of resentment when it comes to the Rangers. With their lousy field and terrible teams, they deprived me of a real baseball experience in my childhood. Texas was a baseball outpost, a searing stop where real teams picked up a few wins, got dehydrated and moved on without fanfare. I took as a kid to cheering for the New York Mets, in part because the National League--then largely inaccessible on local television--fascinated me and in part because New York seemed like a real baseball city. (Don't ask me why I didn't cheer for the Yankees, but I'm glad I didn't.)

When the Rangers finally built the Ballpark in Arlington (or whatever it's called now), they ceased to be completely irrelevant and became only somewhat irrelevant. But it was too late for me by then--I was in college, and my interest in baseball had waned considerably, never to return in any serious way. So, it was with mixed, even confused, emotions that I watched the Rangers win the American League Championship Series and vanquish the hated Yankees. I'm happy for my cousin Roy and for my childhood best friend, John, both great guys and lifelong Ranger lovers. I'm happy that the Yankees lost. I do hope that the Rangers will go on to win the World Series.

But other than Nolan Ryan--whose son, Reese, was a classmate of mine at TCU and a very nice guy--I don't know who these Rangers are. Their uniforms are different. I've only been to the "new" Ballpark once, the year it opened. The fans are young, suburban and seemingly pretty middle-class, not like the crusty drunken fighters of years past. Men like former owner Brad Corbett, a pill of a man to whom I once sold socks at Neiman-Marcus in Fort Worth, are long gone. Eddie Chiles is no longer mad. The Rangers are good, very good, and completely unfamiliar. A generation of Texas baseball fans is growing up with real team that plays real baseball in a real ballpark. I can't help but think that that generation doesn't know what it's missing--and probably doesn't want to know.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Little Superfrog

Ike and Daddy watched TCU beat Wyoming 45-0 today. Little Man is signaling first down in that second picture...

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Little Man Loves Football

Isaac and I watched the Pats beat the Dolphins tonight. He was very excited, as you might imagine. He's getting a steady diet of all three types of football--American football, soccer and rugby. Hockey season starts soon...Mom is obviously thrilled.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Gold Pride Wins WPS Title

It might have seemed like a disappointment--and it really was--that the Breakers lost their WPS "super semi-final" at home to a Philadelphia team that they had handled fairly well for much of the season. But it really didn't matter because nobody, and certainly not Philadelphia in the WPS final, could contain FC Gold Pride, which finished off a season of dominance with a well-earned WPS title.

This blog kind of faded at the end of the season, right when things should have been getting good. That was primarily due to the birth of my son, who came into the world on Sept. 22. However, I have not lost interest in the Breakers at all. In fact, I hope to be at the home matches again next season.

Boston showed a lot of grit and determination this year in finishing second in the regular season and making the later rounds of the playoffs after a rough start. Perhaps the layoff between the end of the regular season and the semi-final was a negative and not a positive; this team fed off of momentum as the season went on, and it's hard to keep momentum going during a bye week.

Nevertheless, the Breakers were entertaining all season, and I'd like to thank the players, coaches and club officials who granted Steven and me access to games and interviews. You've got an excellent organization that is set for success on the pitch and at the turnstiles in the future. We'll see you in 2011.

For more on the Boston Breakers, go to Boston Breakers Report

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Isaac Dale Hevelone Pender

Born Sept. 22, 2010, at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, Mass.; 8 pounds 1 ounce, 20 inches long.

Many more pictures (along with other random photos) here

To My Son, Who Is about to Be Born

Well, lad (you still don't have a name  yet), God willing, today is your big day. The free ride is over. In a matter of hours, you'll come into the world in Cambridge, Mass., which automatically makes you a communist--sorry about that. At least you won't be a vegetarian--not if your Texan father has anything to say about it. Your mother and I can see the Boston skyline from our birthing room at Mount Auburn Hospital. It's lovely. You're going to like living here. We do.

Anyway, this is the kind of thing that is supposed to be full of philosophical ramblings and fatherly advice, but I don't have any of that. I'm not a dad quite yet, and I really don't know anything about being one. I'm going to have to figure that out as I go along, and unfortunately for you, kid, you're going to be my guinea pig. For life. But we'll have some good times together, at least as soon as you start doing more than sleeping and soiling your diapers.

Your birthday should be Sept. 22, 2010. It had better be, actually, because your mother has been through a wringer in the last 24 hours (and in the last nine months, really), and she is beyond ready to pop you out. You got lucky on that front, though, son. Dad is a bit of a loose cannon sometimes, but you couldn't possibly have a better mother. You'll see.

I had planned to pen you a beautiful little essay that you could treasure forever, but the truth is that I'm pretty wiped out. It's past 1 am, and you could be here in a few hours. So, I'll leave you with the thought that you're going to be born on Bulgarian Independence Day as as well as on the anniversary of the independence of Switzerland. Just let that wash over you for a while... That stuff is actually not trivial, but we'll get into that later.

Stuff from 2010 will look really antiquated to you by the time you're my age (36). It might look antiquated by the time you're 10. And to tell you the truth, 2010 is not so great in a lot of ways. The economy is a mess. The job market is terrible, although I'm fortunate enough to have a good, secure gig that I actually like. The Cowboys are 0-2. The Patriots just lost to the Jets. West Ham are sitting at the bottom of the Premiership table. (This will all make sense eventually--very soon, actually.)

On the other hand, though, TCU has a great football team, and West Ham won a Carling Cup match in Sunderland the day before you were born. So there are plenty of good things happening as you wait to enter the world in a quasi-quaint hospital room in what some people call the Athens of America. You, though, will be the best thing of all. I couldn't tell you with any accuracy where I was on Sept. 22 from 1974-2009, but I'll never forget where I was on Sept. 22, 2010.

Come on out, kid. We'll get you cleaned up, come up with a name for you and take you home to Waltham. You'll be sharing a nursery with your mother's desk, but it's still a pretty nice spread. And you'll love our balcony, as long as you promise not to fall off of it. Son, I'm (probably) about to go to sleep for the last time as just a regular dude. At some point later today--God willing and knock wood--I'll be a dad. And you'll be a son, and we can try to figure stuff out together.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Breakers One Win Away from WPS Final

OK, so, to be perfectly honest, I've neglected this blog a bit lately. I'm sorry for that; I've got a lot going on in my personal life and at work. There is good news to report, though: The Breakers are in the playoffs.

Actually, thanks to WPS's bizarre playoff system, they're in the (only) semi-final, awaiting the winner of Philadelphia and Washington. The semi-final berth is the result of a hard-fought second-place finish for Boston. At least in WPS, unlike in MLS, the regular season really does matter.

The semi-final match will take place on Sept. 23 at 8 pm at what the Breakers' Web site is calling Soldiers Field Soccer Stadium at Harvard University, which, I can only assume, is the little stadium that's been going up behind the Harvard baseball field all season. If that's the case, then capacity for this game is likely to be maybe 2500 or so--about half of what the Breakers have averaged for home crowds this season.

So, the noisy echo of old Harvard Stadium might not be present, but hopefully a house full of Breakers fans will be. There's really only one piece of bad news for Boston right now. Should they win the semi-final at home, they'll have to take on the pre-determined finalist: regular-season champion FC Gold Pride (and they'll have to do it in California). The Breakers have lost every match they've played against Gold Pride this season and haven't really come close to competing with Marta and company.

But first things first: There will be a rest, and then either the Independence or the Freedom will bring a patriotic nickname to America's most historic city for a semi-final clash. There's one more Breakers home game, and it's the biggest one yet.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Twenty Years Ago Today

I remember hearing the news on the radio. I believe it was the day after Stevie died, in the morning as I was pulling into the parking lot at Midlothian High School. I was listening to the long-lost Q102. A helicopter crash somewhere in the Midwest, and suddenly he was gone. Another great Texan musician, another Buddy Holly tragedy, 30 years on.

Stevie Ray Vaughan was a true Texas hero. More than that, he was a Dallas boy, an Oak Cliff boy just like my dad. Stevie and I were born just about 19 years apart in the same hospital, Methodist Hospital in Oak Cliff, Dallas, Texas. He grew up on the streets I knew so well as a kid. Although I grew up in little Midlothian, Oak Cliff was my second home. (It was actually my first home during my first two years of life.) My dad's dad (and my granny, who died when I was 7) lived on Catherine Street. My mom's mom lived on Marvin Avenue, not far from the Jeff Davis shopping center. Grandma was Stevie Ray's homeroom teacher at Kimball High School in the '60s. My mother's uncle ran the old Lamar & Smith funeral home and was a prominent member of the community, along with his wife, my Aunt Pokey.

Thanksgivings, Easters, family birthdays, Christmases--I spent most of them in Oak Cliff as a kid, just as I spent countless summer days there with my grandmother. I remember the huge pecan trees in my grandma's front yard; my granddad's back porch with the old metal chairs, where my granny would show me how she could take her teeth out; my cousins' yard, where we used to play football on Christmas day; some place called Soul Man's Barbecue, or something like that, which my granddad loved; my dad signing the Sunset High School theme song every time we passed his (and my mother's) alma mater. A lot of that is still here, but grandma and granddad aren't anymore, and neither are Uncle John and Aunt Pokey. And I now live about 1500 miles away. 

I would have loved Stevie Ray Vaughan if he had been from Idaho, California or Bangladesh. His music was that soulful, that skillful, that engrossing--he was a magical guitar player who also had the unusual advantage of having a blues-soaked voice straight out of the 1930s. But since Stevie was a Dallas boy, a bearer of my own and my family's heritage, I had begun to practically worship him by the time he died. As soon as we could drive--and that wasn't long before Stevie's tragic death--a friend and I used to go to Austin's Barbecue in Dallas (also long lost), at Hampton and Illinois, hoping that Stevie would drop by. My buddy's girlfriend's dad owned the place by then, and Stevie was known to drop in now and then. He never did while we were there, but we did have some great ribs.

Stevie Ray, not long before that fateful night 20 years ago, had kicked addiction, had turned his life around and had moved back to the old neighborhood, where he'd mow his mother's lawn and shop for groceries with the locals. He might have found his fame in Austin and conquered the world from there, but at heart Stevie was one of us, a Dallas boy who probably ate at Polar Bear Ice Cream on Hampton and maybe even played with the toys at ME Moses Dime store over in the Jeff Davis center as a kid before eating a horrid meal at the shocking J's cafeteria next door. Or maybe his family was sensible and went over to Sonny Bryan's on Inwood for some famous barbecue.

At the age of 16, hearing of Stevie Ray's death, sitting in that school parking lot, I was devastated. I had really just gotten into his music a few years before, and I had just come to understand who he was and why he meant so much to me. For all his brilliance, his mainstream career had only just seriously taken off when his life was cut short. Everywhere I go, people have heard of Stevie Ray Vaughan. People love him, revere him. But not many of us truly understand him, who he was and where he came from. I do, probably as much as anybody who didn't know him can. Today, 20 years after his death, I still miss him.  

Breakers to Become Road Warriors

An understrength Breakers side--missing Kelly Smith, Alex Scott and Ifeoma Dieke through international duty and Leslie Osborne through injury--just missed a miraculous comeback last weekend in Atlanta, dropping a decision to the Beat 3-2 after being down 3-0 in the 87th minute.

But the "home" loss--played in Connecticut--didn't really hurt Boston much in the WPS table because Philadelphia and Chicago also lost last weekend. So, the Breakers remain in third place, five points behind Philadelphia and four points ahead of Washington with a game in hand on both of them. Sky Blue sits even on points with Washington and also has a game in hand on Philly and DC.

Boston's playoff prospects look good--but it's a good thing that the Breakers seem to be peaking now because the toughest part of the season might be yet to come. Sunday evening begins a four-game road stretch to finish the regular season, with games at Philadelphia and Atlanta followed by a clash with regular-season champion Gold Pride and then a potential playoff decider against Sky Blue.

Aside from Gold Pride's dominance, nothing is decided. But with the returns of Smith, Scott and Dieke (and hopefully Osborne, although I'm not sure of her status) imminent, the Breakers should have every opportunity to consolidate the third spot in the standings and make a run for the second. Harvard Stadium is going to be quiet for the next few weeks, but a home playoff game in mid-September would liven it up nicely.

The Philadelphia match will be on Fox Soccer Channel live at 6 pm Sunday night.

For more on the Breakers, check out Boston Breakers Report

Monday, August 16, 2010

Breakers Thrash Sky Blue 4-0; Story up on Bleacher Report

What a night, what a team, what a town. Seriously, Sunday night's 4-0 beat-down of Sky Blue FC was as comprehensive a game as the Breakers have played all season. They were simply rampant. Jordan Angeli was probably player of the match, but all Breakers involved were fantastic. Get well soon, Leslie Osborne--she separated her shoulder on Sunday night and will likely be out for Saturday's match against Atlanta.

The full match report is up on Bleacher Report.

For more on the Breakers, check out Boston Breakers Report.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Breakers Improve Playoff Chances, Miss Chance for Second Place

The Boston Breakers, aside from Kelly Smith, are slightly less torrid than they were going into last Sunday's game in Philadelphia. But they're still on course for the playoffs.

The Breakers went into Philly with a chance to steal second place in the WPS table and came out with a hard-fought 2-2 draw--and a solid lock on the third spot in the standings. (The top four teams earn playoff berths.) Lauren Cheney found her way back onto the score sheet with an opening goal for Boston, only for Philadelphia's excellent midfielder, Holmfridur Magnusdottir, to cancel out Cheney's strike and then put the Independence ahead 2-1 in a busy first half.

But Smith, who scored for the fourth consecutive game and now has 10 goals on the season, equalized early in the second half, and the Breakers came away with a valuable point. They now sit five points ahead of fourth-place Chicago and have a game in hand. Perhaps the greatest threat to Boston in the standings at this point is Sky Blue FC, which trails Boston by five points but has a game in hand on the Breakers.

As luck (and the WPS schedule) would have it, the Breakers will take on Sky Blue on Sunday at 6 pm in their last regular-season home game at Harvard Stadium for 2010. As always, playoff implications will be strong.

Whoa, Canada! Canadians Win ONE Lowell World Cup

After a genuinely thrilling final, Canada earned the title of ONE Lowell World Cup champion in its first-ever OLWC tournament. I'll have more details on the tournament's final stages after I've slept a bit, but the order of finish was Canada, Brazil (the beaten finalist) and Colombia, which earned third place by beating Togo in a penalty shootout.

The final was an epic contest played in a tremendous atmosphere. Canada led 3-2 at halftime and hung on for the entire second half to take the victory by the same score. Colombia had the fans of the tournament, and the Colombia-Brazil semifinal had the feel of a real international knockout game, with fans stomping, singing, chanting and, yes, tooting on vuvuzelas.

There's a lot to talk about from this tournament, including the lady in the photo above...who was Canada's coach! But I'll save the details (and many more photos) for later. For now, it's time to congratulate the ONE Lowell staff on a job well done and get some rest.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

One More Day of the ONE Lowell World Cup

In not quite eight hours from the time when I'm typing this, the last day of the ONE Lowell World Cup soccer tournament will kick off. Here's the schedule for the round of 16, which begins at 8 am on Sunday at Cawley Stadium:

Stadium Field
8:00 am: Canada vs. Mexico
9:00 am: Guatemala vs. Jamaica
10:00 am: Brazil vs. Northern Ireland & Scotland
11:00 am: Ghana vs. Colombia

Varsity Field
8:00 am: Honduras vs. USA
9:00 am: Togo vs. Romania
10:00 am: Somalia & Djibouti vs. Vietnam
11:00 am: Ireland vs. Uganda

Togo, Canada and (as always) Brazil look like the strongest sides so far, but anything can happen on day that will see the round of 16, quarterfinals, semifinals and final all played in the span of about 12 hours. The final should start around 6 pm tomorrow night; don't miss it.

As usual, I've taken a ridiculous number of pictures of the tournament so far. You can check out last Sunday's or today's (Saturday's) set on Flickr. Check back tomorrow night for a recap of the action--or, better yet, head to Cawley Stadium for the culmination of the tournament.

Friday, August 6, 2010

ONE Lowell World Cup Continues This Weekend

If you've been reading this blog at all lately, you realize that the ONE Lowell World Cup soccer tournament started last Sunday and will continue this weekend. Needless to say, the images you see above come from Sunday's action, which was fantastic. I could write more about the OLWC, but since I've already written a press release that I think is not too bad, I'm just going to post the release here and take the quick (and easy) way out. Do try to make it to Lowell this weekend, though. This is a fantastic event. Here's the PR:

On Sunday, August 1, more than 1200 people attended the ONE Lowell World Cup, a number almost as large as the attendance for the entire two-day event in 2007. Saturday also brought in almost as much money for the non-profit organization as last year’s two-day tournament did.

“We’re very pleased with the way the people of Lowell and the surrounding areas responded to the first day of the tournament,” said Victoria Fahlberg, director of ONE Lowell. “We saw on Saturday people’s desire to connect with each other and build a strong community here. The money raised will go to worthwhile causes, such as help for children who are having trouble in school. And the soccer on display was incredible—the best we’ve ever seen in the tournament.”

Teams participating in the tournament are made up of immigrants and recent descendants of immigrants from countries on five continents. The goal of the tournament is to bring together immigrants from diverse communities, along with native-born Americans, in order to foster better relations among people from different backgrounds. The tournament raises money for good causes, such as citizenship classes, school programs and assisting newcomers as they integrate into American life.

With some nations yet to play, a few standout teams emerged from Saturday’s first-round games. Canada impressed with wins over Jamaica and Ireland, and Guatemala also won two games, scoring 10 goals in the process. Brazil and Somalia, who finished first and third last season, respectively, played a thrilling match that finished in a draw. The US team impressed in its only performance of the day but lost to Colombia, 2-1.

Aside from captivating soccer, this weekend’s activities will include a penalty-kick shootout on Sunday at 3:00pm that is open to all kids ages 8 to 14, and a youth exhibition game featuring Brazil vs. the US on Sunday at 5:30pm.

The event is very affordable. Tickets for the ONE Lowell World Cup are $5 per day. Matches start at 9:00am on Saturday and at 8:00am on Sunday; the final will take place around 7:00pm on Sunday. Limited parking will be available for $2 per vehicle. For more information, go to

About ONE Lowell
ONE Lowell is a non-profit organization dedicated to increasing the integration and self sufficiency of Lowell's many immigrant newcomers. Proceeds from the ONE Lowell World Cup will go to help promote academic success among immigrant and refugee youth, provide citizenship services and leadership development, and promote self-sufficiency, justice and equality among all residents in the region.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Torrid Breakers Look to Move into Second Place

Who would have thought back in early June that the Boston Breakers would be making a serious run for second place this weekend? Yet, on Sunday, Boston will travel to Philadelphia with the opportunity to take sole possession of second place behind the untouchable FC Gold Pride.

It's Philly that sits in second now, just two points ahead of the Breakers. It's hard to imagine, though, that the Independence are looking forward to facing a Boston team that is absolutely on fire. In the past week, Boston has racked up two more wins, a 3-1 home victory over Washington and a 2-0 decision at Harvard Stadium over the lowly Atlanta Beat.

Kelly Smith and Jordan Angeli are on fire, and Boston's once-leaky defense is holding steady in the stretch run. It seems as though whispers in the Harvard Stadium press box about the future of Tony DiCicco as Boston coach must have trickled down to the pitch and inspired the team. The Breakers are 6-1 since the beginning of July after winning just one match from April through June. That one loss in July came at home to Gold Pride, the club that has torn through the entire league this season.

Seven regular-season games remain for the Breakers--just one at Harvard Stadium, on August 15 against Sky Blue FC. The team's final "home" game will take place in New Britain, Conn., against Atlanta on August 21. Five away matches plus one displaced match might cause Boston some difficulty, but two of those games are against Atlanta, and only one of the final seven matches involves Gold Pride.

With Philadelphia and Sky Blue FC rounding out the rest of the slate, the Breakers have an excellent opportunity to solidify second place or, at the very least, a playoff spot. At this point, with the club playing its best soccer of the season by far, who would bet against Boston making a playoff run? Anything can happen, but August thus far looks a lot brighter than June did.

For more on the Boston Breakers, check out Boston Breakers Report

Monday, July 26, 2010

Breakers Move into Playoff Position with Win in Chicago

The torrid Boston Breakers finally seem to be shedding the mediocrity and uncertainty that they showed in the early part of the WPS season. Boston won 3-1 on Sunday in Chicago by scoring three goals in the first 15 minutes of the match.

Kelly Smith had a brace before the Red Stars knew what hit them, and Ifeoma Dieke effectively ended Chicago's hopes with her first goal as a Breaker. The Red Stars saved some blushes with a strike in the 80th minute, but Boston took an important step toward a playoff spot with the victory.

The Breakers now sit alone in third place in the WPS table, having climbed from sixth in the span of just a few games. They still need to fend off at least two of Sky Blue FC, Philadelphia and Washington to solidify a post-season spot, so Saturday night's game at Harvard Stadium against the Freedom will be another massive contest.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Breakers v Gold Pride Match Report is up on Bleacher Report

Wednesday night's match was a game of missed chances for Boston and a venue for a wonder goal from the magnificent Marta. The Breakers played pretty well but did themselves no favors in the playoff race with a loss tonight. I'll break that down some other time. For now, the match report from the game is up at Bleacher Report. Enjoy.

As always, there's more on the Breakers at Boston Breakers Report

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Party's Over, But the Fun Is Just Beginning

The hospitable Garcia Brogan's in Lowell was home to the ONE Lowell World Cup draw party Sunday night. Twenty teams from five continents will compete for the coveted World Cup trophy on August 1, 7 and 8 at Cawley Stadium. Proceeds go to ONE Lowell, which does a lot of good work helping children of immigrants and refugees (among other folks) in Lowell.

As for the draw itself, it produced a fair amount of excitement and some pretty good match-ups. Check out the board:
That Group A is going to be a killer, given that the Brazilians won last year and the Somalis finished third. Mexico didn't field a team last year but will no doubt be strong, and England...well, the English will look dapper in their all-white kits. The most animated group by far at the party hailed from Togo, which also did not have a team last year. How good the Togolese will be, I don't know--but they should be fun to watch, in any case.

Thanks, by the way, to Lisa from the Examiner Web site for posting a great article about the tournament. Also, we managed to crack the Boston Globe and the Herald via the AP. Hooray! Roll on, August 1.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Breakers on Brink of Playoff Spot

Don't look now, but the once-forlorn Boston Breakers have won three matches in a row and are just one point away from a would-be playoff spot. Plus, they have a game in hand on the teams they're chasing for fourth place. Sounds pretty positive, right?

There's only one small problem. The Breakers play their next match against FC Gold Pride, the runaway leader in the WPS table and far and away the best side in the league thus far this season. That clash will happen Wednesday at 7 pm at Harvard Stadium and will be one of just three more games to take place at Harvard Stadium in the regular season. The Breakers will also play a "home" match in Connecticut in August.

In the meantime, though, the Breakers are on a roll. Boston snagged yet another come-from-behind win today over Washington, a key rival for the final WPS playoff spot. After conceding just two minutes into the match, the Breakers fought back to equalize through the suddenly potent Liz Bogus in the 23rd minute. In the 74th minute, Jordan Angeli, also in form for Boston, settled the matter with a headed goal past Washington goalkeeper Erin McLeod. Both Bogus and Angeli scored for the second consecutive match; Bogus has two goals this season and Angeli three.

It's that kind of balanced scoring that has taken the pressure off of Kelly Smith, Lauren Cheney and Fabiana and has made Boston a team with multiple threats to find the back of the net. After racking up just one goal in May and two in June, the Breakers have exploded for seven tallies in three matches--all wins--in July. Prior to Independence Day, the Breakers had scored just seven goals all season.

Boston's recent run of success has the club one win away from potentially leaping all the way into third place in the WPS table. The Breakers still sit in sixth, one point behind Washington and Chicago and two points behind Sky Blue FC, but they have a game in hand over all of the clubs that currently reside above them in the table. Chicago will travel to last-place Atlanta on Wednesday night, while Gold Pride will come to Boston.

Beating Gold Pride has been a tall order for the rest of WPS this season, due in large part to the amazing Marta's 10 goals in 14 games. With the Breakers on both a scoring streak and a winning streak, Wednesday night's game could turn into a real shootout. For Boston, a win would be critical--and would keep the momentum rolling as the summer stretches on and the playoffs approach.

As always, for more on the Breakers, check out Boston Breakers Report

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The ONE Lowell World Cup Is Back

The best "world cup" soccer tournament this side of South Africa returns to Lowell in just a few weeks. The ONE Lowell World Cup will take place over two weekends, on August 1, 7 and 8 at Cawley Stadium in Lowell.

If you're in the Boston area and you missed this event last year, do not miss it this year. There is some serious talent on display, and the whole weekend (or two weekends, in this case) just has a festive flavor to it. It's a great way to see superb soccer for very little money, and, of course, proceeds go to a great cause.

You can get a jump on the action by attending this Sunday evening's party for the ONE Lowell World Cup draw. It'll take place at 6pm at Garcia Brogan's Cantina, Pub & Restaurant in Lowell. The party is open to all, and Garcia Brogan's is apparently a Mexican-Irish, really, how could you go wrong? Just don't mix your tequila with your Guinness...

I hope to see you on Sunday and then again in August in Lowell.

Breakers Showing Signs of Life

Well, this is a nice change. With last Sunday's three-goal outburst in a win over Atlanta, the Breakers not only distanced themselves from last place, they actually pulled themselves up to within striking distance of the playoffs.

After a home loss to Chicago in late June, there were whispers--only whispers--among Breakers observers about changes in the organization. There was even talk, although never from anyone within the Breakers organization, that Tony DiCicco's future as coach might be in doubt.

Not anymore. DiCicco, arguably the most accomplished soccer coach in American history, has found a winning formula for a team that underachieved all season until the calendar turned to July. On Independence Day, the Breakers nabbed a crucial away win against a Philadelphia club that shares a name with the holiday.

Home success still eluded them, though, and after the first half against Atlanta at Harvard Stadium last Sunday, it looked as though it would again. The Beat led 1-0 at the break, and the more than 4000 Breakers fans who showed up right after the finish of the World Cup final had to wonder whether they would see their team win at home at all this season.

Then, everything changed. Boston exploded for three goals in five minutes in what might end up being its most important sequence of play all season. Jordan Angeli, Kelly Smith and Liz Bogus all netted between minutes 49 and 54 and effectively buried the Beat in a 3-1 Breakers win. For the marvelous Smith, the goal was her fourth of the season. Angeli scored her second. But Bogus, who opened her account with Sunday's goal, had struggled in recent games to even make the Breakers roster.

"It’s definitely been a hard month for me, but I believed in myself the whole time," Bogus said in a quote on the Breakers Web site. "I had friends and family that believed in me and I just fight. I fight every day to get back on the field in this position. Thankfully Tony [DiCicco] saw that hard work and gave me that second chance."

The whole team seems to have a second chance now. Once arguably the biggest underachievers in WPS, the Breakers have left worries of finishing in last place behind for the time being and are gunning for a top-four finish, which would earn them a playoff berth. The currently sit four points below the Washington Freedom in the WPS table, but they have a game in hand on Washington and two on fifth-place Chicago.

Suddenly, after two consecutive wins, a season that seemed to be slipping away now means something for the Breakers. The complex WPS playoff format strongly rewards the winner of the regular-season championship, and that honor is essentially out of reach for the Breakers. But a playoff berth would give new life to a team that has struggled for much of this season for reasons that nobody could quite understand.

There's work to be done, though, and it starts with a massive match on Sunday afternoon at Harvard Stadium against Washington. The game kicks off at 5pm and will be televised on Fox Soccer Channel. With a victory, the Breakers could put a serious scare into their opponents in the playoff chase. It's almost as if the season is beginning again and anything can happen. Finally, the Breakers are riding a wave of success. 

Note: Due to prior commitments, Steven and I both missed the July 11 game and will also miss the July 18 game, so we won't be providing a full match report on Sunday. We'll do our best to get to the home matches that take place after that. --Lee

For more on the Breakers, check out Boston Breakers Report

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Breakers Enjoy Independence Day, Beat Philly 2-1

Finally, the Breakers got their first win since opening day on Sunday, beating the Independence 2-1 in Philadelphia in a comeback victory. The scorer of the winning goal was none other than legend Kristine Lilly, who tallied in the 84th minute. Lauren Cheney got Boston's equalizer just after half time after former Breaker Amy Rodriguez had scored for Philly in the 19th minute.

The Breakers, if nothing else, guaranteed that they'll stay out of last place in the WPS table, at least for the time being. Atlanta has a game in hand but trails Boston by four points. With a big win on Sunday against the Beat, the Breakers could conceivably catch the Chicago Red Stars, who sit fifth in the table and lead Boston by three points. The Red Stars are two goals to the better in goal differential, though.

Boston will try to secure its first home win of the season on Sunday, July 11, at 6 pm at Harvard Stadium vs. Atlanta. Yes, that's right after the finish of the World Cup final. We do have to wonder who scheduled that one...

For more on the Breakers, check out Boston Breakers Report

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Comfort Music

I'm just beginning the recovery process after the end of the US World Cup run. At this stage, I'm comforting myself by watching "100 Greatest Hard Rock Songs" on VH1 Classic. Yes, it's that bad. (Actually, who am I kidding? This TV show is spectacular.)

Today was a tough sports day to say the very, very least. The Horned Frogs, fighters that they were to the end, bowed out of the College World Series today. A billion times worse than that, though, was the American loss to Ghana in South Africa. Fair play to Ghana--they were better today. But I had allowed myself to dream just a little bit, just a tad, that we might make a round with the word "final" on the end of it this time--or maybe more than one. Not this year.

But it wasn't a bad World Cup for the US. If nothing else, it was massively entertaining. I've rambled on about the US World Cup postmortem, but if you want to read that entry you'll just have to engage in some blatant cross-marketing and head over to West Ham U.S.A. Happy reading. Meanwhile, at No. 23, it's Crazy Train by Ozzy...

Breakers 1-2 Red Stars: The Bad Streaks Continue

The Breakers' winless streak (nine games) and home losing streak (four games) are very much intact tonight, as a leaky Breakers backline allowed Chicago striker Ella Masar to score two long-range goals in a 2-1 Red Stars victory. The heat surely must be on Tony DiCicco at this point, and he and his players seemed at a loss for answers tonight after another home defeat.

Steven and I have our full report up on Bleacher Report, so check it out. The Breakers play at Philadelphia on July 4 and then take on Atlanta at Harvard stadium on July 11, the day of the World Cup final.

For more on the Boston Breakers, check out Boston Breakers Report.

Monday, June 21, 2010

ESPN's World Cup Coverage

In recent years, I've really come to dislike ESPN. SportsCenter has become an embarrassing circus, and in general the "worldwide leader in sports" has been the lead agitator in misreporting and over-hyping sports stories. I don't even watch the network that much anymore. I almost never watch SportsCenter.

Soccer, in particular, has never come easily to ESPN. While its Champions League match coverage has generally been decent, ESPN's studio work for soccer has long been lacking, and its attempt to cover the 2006 World Cup was downright embarrassing.

In 2006, the network tried to shoehorn baseball announcers into doing play-by-play and offered a studio show full of clowns and half-experts who contributed little in terms of analysis or perspective. (Georgio Chinaglia might have been a great figure in American soccer in the '70s and is something of a likable scamp, but he was a cringe-worthy studio pundit four years ago.)

That's why it almost pains me to say that ESPN's coverage of the 2010 World Cup has been...pretty darn good. Maybe excellent. First of all, Disney decided to spring for play-by-play announcers with experience and legitimate English accents, and while Martin Tyler could show a bit more enthusiasm, he's miles better than poor Dave O'Brien was four years ago.

But where the ESPN coverage really excels this year is in the studio. The network's decision to stop pandering to American audiences with American commentators and bring in foreign experts has been a master stroke. The likes of Jurgen Klinsmann and Roberto Martinez have illuminated matches adeptly, and Ruud Gullit has been nothing short of a star with his classically blunt Dutch candor.

Steve McManaman is a bit of a loose cannon, but he knows his football. And ESPN very much did the right thing by bringing in Shaun Bartlett to offer a distinctly South African flavor. Even Alexi Lalas, often annoying and obnoxious, has toned down his presentation and has become a worthwhile studio presence, although he does have a tendency to repeat himself.

The network has stuck to football for the most part, but its brief vignettes on apartheid South Africa have been poignant and moving. Clearly the nation and the network both want to celebrate football with this World Cup and not dwell on South Africa's horrible and very recent history, but to its credit ESPN hasn't glossed over the horrors of apartheid. Even the normally Kleenex-weak Julie Foudy managed an excellent piece on black prisoners of apartheid, and Sunday's bit about South Africa's 1996 African Cup of Nations win was nothing short of inspirational. A recent piece on Youth Day in South Africa was also very good.

The real strength of ESPN's studio coverage, though, has been its American hosts. No longer just clueless question-posers, ESPN's veteran announcers have clearly studied up on football and can now discuss the game intelligently with the likes of Lalas, as well as with their foreign studio counterparts. Mike Tirico is the consummate professional as always, and Chris Fowler has performed admirably with the unpredictable McManaman sitting next to him.

The real star, however, has been long-term ESPN veteran Bob Ley, whose expertise and professionalism are at the very least equal to those of the best European commentators. Ley, somewhat marginalized by ESPN these days, reminds me during every broadcast of what the network used to be before it became a spectacle of traveling idiots. Ley is personable, knowledgeable, witty and engaging, all without being a parody of himself. He's a much-needed throwback and a refreshing presence on television in general and on sports television in particular. His work on the World Cup should win an Emmy if he's eligible for that sort of thing.

Some programming executive at Disney finally got soccer coverage right. (Surely a non-American was in charge of this process...) The result has been pre- and post-game shows very much worth watching, along with a prime-time highlights show that is one of the best to come along in years. ESPN has started broadcasting Premiership matches--West Ham's away loss to Man City was on the network last year. I've long hoped for more football coverage on ESPN and less on Fox Soccer Channel (which I still can't get in HD), and with ESPN's current World Cup lineup I'm looking forward now more than ever to watching the world's game on the worldwide leader. If only ESPN would hire Eric Wynalda back, everything would be just about perfect...but that's another post for another time.

For more on my unhealthy obsession with West Ham United and soccer, check out West Ham U.S.A.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Goalless Breakers Lose Again

Out in San Francisco last night, the Breakers' poor run of form continued. Kelley O'Hara netted the only goal of the match in the 37th minute as FC Gold Pride beat Boston 1-0. Gold Pride also beat the Breakers 2-1 back in May after a stunning performance by Marta. 

The loss leaves the Breakers with just one win for the season to go along with four draws and four losses. Gold Pride extended their advantage at the top of the table, but the Breakers could soon find themselves in last place if the Atlanta Beat can manage to win the game they have in hand over Boston.

The Breakers will be back home to take on Chicago on Friday, June 25, at 7:30 pm at Harvard Stadium.

For more on the Breakers, check out Boston Breakers Report

Monday, June 14, 2010

TCU, the CWS, the BCS and the SWC

I'm not going to pretend that I'm a college baseball fan because I'm not. I never watch the sport and have rarely followed it. In four years at TCU, I went to one TCU baseball game. (I was much more of a TCU tennis fan, actually, as far as spring sports went.)

The "ping" of the aluminum bat in college baseball does my head in, and I've never seen a reason to follow what is for me essentially a less-exciting version of Major League Baseball, which I don't follow terribly closely, either. So, I wouldn't say that I'm jumping on the TCU baseball bandwagon; I didn't watch a single out of the regional or super-regional playoffs.

I am proud, though, of my alma mater. With a series win at Texas, TCU clinched today its first-ever berth in the College World Series. Baseball is a popular sport at TCU and long has been--it's easily as big as basketball there, if not bigger. (It doesn't hurt, of course, that our basketball team stinks, while our baseball team is evidently pretty good). I'm happy, then, for those fellow Horned Frogs who have followed the baseball team across Texas and the US in recent years and have dreamed of this day.

And, let's face it, the whole scenario played out pretty well. With conference realignment threatening to re-shape the college-sports landscape, and with many schools (including TCU) in uncertain positions, the baseball team's triumph has been a wonderful vindication. When the Southwest Conference broke up more than 15 years ago, the four schools that departed for the Big 12--Texas, Texas A&M, Baylor and Texas Tech--very vocally left us for dead.

But we didn't die. We struggled and persevered, and in 2009 our football team went undefeated in the regular season, won a conference championship and made a BCS bowl for the first time. Of the four schools that departed the SWC in the mid-'90s, only Texas and A&M have managed to go to BCS bowls--and A&M last went to one in 1998. Baylor hasn't played in a bowl game at all since 1994--back in the old SWC days. We've played in so many since then that I've honestly lost count.

It was with great pleasure, then, that I read that the TCU baseball team advanced to the super regional by beating Baylor badly in Fort Worth and then got to the CWS by winning a three-game series in Austin in front of a stadium packed with Texas fans. Add that success to football wins over Baylor and Texas Tech in recent years, along with the BCS accomplishment and the bowl games, top-10 finishes and MWC football championships, and suddenly we're not looking like SWC cast-offs anymore. We're looking like a pretty darn good sports school. (And remember, TCU is considerably smaller than UT, A&M and Tech and is also smaller than Baylor. And we don't get the guaranteed BCS money that they get, either, but our total sports revenue is still almost exactly the same as that of Baylor. The difference is that we earn it.)

I can't begin to keep up with the ongoing saga of conference realignment, and I'm not going to pretend that I'll follow the TCU baseball team's fortunes in Omaha outside of looking for scores once in a while. TCU football, of course, remains a passion. But I'm proud of all of my old school's sports accomplishments, simply because they all seemed absolutely impossible when I was in college in the mid-'90s and the ex-SWC traitors left us to rot.

Ours is a story of perseverance, commitment, belief and overcoming obstacles. As cheesy and Hollywood as all of that might sound, it's true. By achieving BCS and CWS berths in the same season, TCU proved that it could succeed against massive odds and harrowing competition. We also proved that the death of the SWC didn't kill us--in fact, it brought us to life. We're the best untold story in sports right now. I'm not going to start watching college baseball, but I still couldn't be more proud. Go Frogs!