Friday, September 4, 2009

A Sad Day at Michigan and Trumbull

When I turned on my computer this morning to, I saw a head line that brought a tear to my eye. As I read the article, the tear slipped out of my eye and down my right cheek. I wiped it away with my thumb but the emotion, the sadness remained. The last time I remember shedding a tear and it having anything to do with sports was in 1993 (but that's a story for another time). This time, I wasn't shedding any tears for my team losing or even a player that I idolized passing away. This had nothing to do with a player. But this had everything to do with baseball.

It was late Spring, 1999. I was in my first season in the front office of the Detroit Tigers. I was 24, very green and unbelievably wet behind the ears. I was still awe struck anytime I met a player or anyone famous that worked for the team at the time. So, when my boss asked if anyone wanted to help out the Tigers' radio guys during a game, I volunteered faster than Usain Bolt runs the 100 yard dash. An opportunity to work in the Press Box for a game with Jim Price and Ernie Harwell? Don't mind if I do!

When I got up to the booth, Price, an ex big-league catcher, was less than friendly. He certainly has more charisma than Kirk Gibson, but then again, so does a sloth. But meeting Price and hanging around him was not the highlight of my night. Not even close. Shortly after I set up the radio booth with the requisite visiting team stats, an elderly gentleman walked into the room. He looked like a grandfather. He was unassuming and polite. He took off his cap, smiled and shook my hand as if it were me who was the celebrity in the room. "Hi, I'm Ernie Harwell. Pleasure to meet you." "Yeah, I know," I responded softly. "It's an honor, sir." He laughed, "You're honored to meet an old man? You need to get out more." And that's how the night went. While Price was busy sulking and being crotchety, Harwell and I exchanged barbs and laughed for 3 hours during a Tigers - White Sox game. It just as easily could have been me and my grandfather. It was that comfortable. A kid he'd never met before that night, some punk who sold tickets in the Tigers front office and was running stats for him that night, he opened up to; he chatted with, like we were old buddies that had known each other 20 years. When the game ended, Harwell and I left the booth, still laughing uncontrollably. He patted me on my back, shook my hand and off I went. Off I went, with a memory forever etched into my head of that night. An 81-year old hall of fame broadcaster treated me like family for three hours. Turns out, Harwell is just as famous for his treatment of others as he is for his work on the mic.

Harwell has a very distinguishable voice. It's very soothing. He is one of the few broadcasters that you can listen to on the radio and fully enjoy the game. I know countless Detroiters who will watch a Tigers game on mute and turn up their radio to hear Harwell call the game. He's iconic in that regard. He is also one of a very few broadcasters who work for a team (and not a national channel), but is known throughout the country. The other of course, is Vin Scully (who actually did broadcast nationally for a time when I was a kid). The rest of the great baseball voices have passed on - Harry Caray, Phil Rizzuto, Jack Buck. Today's announcers don't get it. They try to make themselves a part of the game. That's not their job. Their job is to tell a story. They are there to describe the game to us and then stay out of the way and let us enjoy the game. But the arrogance of most of today's broadcasters gets in the way. The proverbial apple fell so far from Jack Buck's tree, that I often wonder if Joe Buck is adopted. I miss great announcing. I miss listening to a great voice tell a great story....without interjecting themselves into it. Harwell did that, masterfully.

Ernie Harwell is a great man, with a great passion for the game, a great voice to tell the story and always told the story in a great way. And his love of people is what made him a great man. I believe that God put him in the spotlight to give him the ability to touch thousands of people...myself included. Ask anyone living in the Detroit area and they will tell you - Ernie Harwell is Detroit Baseball. He spent 31 years covering Tigers baseball at the Corner of Michigan and Trumbull. He spent another three seasons with the team at Comerica Park, before retiring. All told, he spent 42 years broadcasting.

The tears I shed this morning were because ESPN's headline read: Hall of Famer Harwell has incurable cancer. He's 91 years old. He's led a great life. But it didn't make the news any less sad that a revered man like Harwell probably has a year or less to live and there's nothing he or the doctor's can do about it.

Harwell is a one of a kind gentleman. The Tigers once tried to put him out to pasture, but the fans revolted, and in time, the Tigers wisely brought him back. And now cancer is trying to take his life. I don't know if all the fans' voices will make a difference this time. But if this disease was curable simply by all the lives that he touched all banding together, then Harwell would beat this thing without missing a beat. Sadly, that's not the case. And sometime in the not too distant future, I will probably open and shed some more tears for a great man.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Trip Down Vegas Memory Lane...

I left the shed next to my framer's house with my masterpiece in my right hand. A framed up 1,000 piece puzzle of the Las Vegas Strip at night. And surrounding the puzzle was a $1 chip from every hotel on the strip. Anal and meticulous that I am, I had to ensure that the chips were in the correct order in which they sit on the strip. As I hung the piece over my TV in the living room, I got nostalgic. My last trip to Vegas was in March, 2008. I need to make another trip and soon. And this piece hanging in my living room will be a constant reminder.

My first trip to Vegas was for my 21st birthday. Maybe it was because it was preceded by a 3-day trip to the worst city on earth (Los Angeles), but the anticipation of landing at McCarren Airport can not be overstated. Since, my 21st birthday, I have made the requisite Vegas trips (although, sadly, I have never attended a Las Vegas bachelor party....yet. There is hope finally building for my little brother, and I am certain that's where we're headed). I have done the boys trip. I have done the family trip (yes, with my then-2 year old son). I have done the couples trip. I have run the gamut. And Vegas never disappoints. Even the trip on my 21st birthday when I was sick for a day and a half and lost a few hundred bucks (still, to this day, the only time I went to Vegas and came out a loser), we had a ton of fun.

Each of my Vegas excursions has left me with an unforgettable moment or 10. My first trip was well, my first trip. It was also the first time I ever realized that cocktail waitresses don't actually think you are as cute as they tell you that you are. This lesson has come in handy later in life in other establishments where women rely heavily on tips. That trip was also the trip where my underage brother won $1,000 at Keno. But since he was underage, I had to cash in his ticket. It was the only time that weekend I was actually ahead.

Each trip since, I have actually left Vegas having won money. But the memories and the famous one-liners that come from a Vegas trip are what stick with you. I will keep the authors of the following quotes anonymous, but they are all a reminder of the fun we had each time we went to Vegas...

"Pull your bets back, we're headed to Amen Corner." My 2003 trip. I won a lot of money that week. But one night, in a matter of about 2 hours, me and my buddies managed to lose about $300 each playing craps....and all because the 5 of us kept crapping out and losing everybody at the table money. We never quit, mind you. We just kept rolling 7s, killing everyone's winnings at the table, and made jokes about it. Why didn't we just leave the table???

"I thought you were up $1,800?"
"I was."
"So, how do you only have $800 left?"
"Strip club."
"Oh, you paid for a ----------"
"Then what did you get for $1,000?"
"We cuddled."

"We're gonna go have a 3some now." Ok, so obviously this didn't happen. But during my 2008 trip this line was uttered in an elevator by a girl who was with a woman and her husband, to a crowded elevator. The elevator's patrons stood silent in sheer shock at the comment. The husband was excited briefly, until he figured out that this wasn't actually going to happen.

Obviously, there are tons of other quotes and memories that stick in my head that I can't mention here. But, it just reminds me how much fun Las Vegas really is and how badly I miss it.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to check Orbitz for flight costs from Ft. Lauderdale to Las Vegas!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Bulldogs and Cowboys and Hokies....oh my!

The NCAA Football season begins in two days, and save for a couple of snoozers, opening weekend this year kicks off with a bang. Much like the NFL, the NCAA has expanded its opening weekend from a one-day event on a Saturday, to a Thursday - Monday weekend long extravaganza. Now, Friday and Sunday don't offer much beyond seeing how real Ole Miss is this year, and the battle for supremacy in Colorado (yawn), but Thursday, Saturday and Monday are filled with intrigue.

The college football season kicks off with the Ole Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier and his Gamecocks heading north to play NC State. Not a huge game, but a lot of people look at South Carolina as a potential sleeper in the SEC East. If they struggle with NC State, don't look for them to be able to compete with the Gators and Bulldogs.

Thursday does feature a matchup of ranked teams. Oregon travels to Boise State in a very intriguing match up, as Boise State continues to try to prove that they, and other non-BCS schools are just as worthy of a National Title shot. (Let's not forget, the only Division I school to go undefeated last year was not the Florida Gators, but rather the University of Utah) Beating a ranked Oregon team, out of the Pac-10 would be just another step for schools like Boise State, Utah and BYU. And speaking of BYU...

BYU will get its shot in the spotlight on Saturday, as they take on defending Big 12 Champion and National Championship game loser, Oklahoma in a neutral-site game. The 20th ranked Cougars will try to stifle last year's best offense and Heisman Trophy winner, Sam Bradford. If this game gets into the 30s or higher, OU could make a mess of the Cougars.

Two other games on Saturday feature ranked teams going head to head. A great SEC-Big 12 Battle in Stillwater, Oklahoma, as the Georgia Bulldogs head west to take on Zac Robinson, Dez Bryant and the Oklahoma State Cowboys....the trendy sleeper pick in the Big 12. Georgia's defense will have to try and find a way to slow down OSU's high powered offense. What makes OSU dangerous is their vastly underrated defense, which gave Big 12 QBs, including Chase Daniel and Colt McCoy, fits last year.

In the game of the weekend, 5th ranked Alabama plays 7th ranked Virginia Tech in a battle of two teams who believe that they can get to the National Championship game. Both are veteran teams with veteran head coaches. But Va Tech has already been stung by injuries and I just don't think they are as good as their pre-season ranking, and I believe they will have a hard time keeping up with the athleticism of the Crimson Tide. I think 'Bama rolls the Hokies.

Other games of note on Saturday: Baylor plays at Wake Forest. If you get a chance, watch this game and pay close attention to Baylor Sophomore QB Robert Griffin. It wasn't until the 9th game of the season that then-Freshman Griffin finally threw his first interception of the season, against Missouri. He is poised for a breakout season. He's probably still a year away, but I believe he will be in NYC for the Heisman presentation following the 2010 season. Also Saturday, Missouri and Illinois play their Arch Rivalry game in St. Louis. Mizzou is coming off its most successful back to back seasons in school history, with consecutive 10-win seasons and a top-5 and top-20 finish, respectively. But, Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin and John Mackey Award winner for best college Tight End, Chase Coffman are all gone from the offense. Can Blaine Gabbart (#4 High School QB in the country in 2007) take over the reigns along with outstanding RB Derrick Washington or is it back to the bottom of the Big 12 for Mizzou? Another game of interest on Saturday is the Citadel at North Carolina. Why is this game one I will be paying attention to? Not because I think UNC can be upset (or even that the Citadel can come within 40 points of the Tar Heels) but because UNC is my pick to win the ACC and go undefeated this year, which means they are my dark horse pick to compete for a National Championship. And Roy Williams and Tyler Hansborough aren't even involved.

I have two teams on upset alert on opening weekend. I don't think Wisconsin is going to be all that great this year and Northern Illinois is one of the better MAC teams. I think N. Illinois is going to give Wisconsin all they can handle and may even leave Madison with an upset win. And FAU, the boys from Boca Raton, Florida head into Big 12 country to take on the popular pick to win the Big 12 North, the 24th ranked Nebraska Cornhuskers. It will be a sea of red up there in Lincoln, but the Huskers better be ready. Howard Schnellenberger beat the 'Huskers for the 1983 National Championship (albeit with the Miami Hurricanes) so he'll know what to expect and have his boys ready for a fight.

The top two teams in the country are also playing on Saturday.....well, sorta. The defending National Champion Gators and 2nd ranked Texas Longhorns get their first tests of the season (cough, cough). The Gators are 73-point favorites against Charleston Southern and Texas is "only" a 43-point favorite against Louisiana-Monroe. Apparently St. Mary's School for the Blind and the Little Sisters of the poor were already booked on Saturday. C'mon fellas, man up and play some real teams.

The long weekend concludes with the much-ballyhooed Miami-FSU rivalry on Monday Night Football. The 18th ranked Seminoles have the more veteran team and the more seasoned head coach (even if he has been much maligned lately). They also have the home field advantage this year. But the young Canes have the better athletes and if they can keep it close late, may have an opportunity for the upset. But if the Canes struggle early, look for their youth to show through and for FSU to take advantage. The Canes will need to protect QB Jacory Harris on offense while pressuring FSU QB Christian Ponder, in order to have a real chance.

However the first weekend shakes out, it promises to be an entertaining weekend and an unpredictable season.