Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Weight Of The Moment

A couple of years ago I worked with former NFL Coach Herm Edwards. He wears many hats in his post-coaching life, including motivational speaker. I asked him to give me a sample, and he launched into some fiery verse on the difference between anxiety vs pressure

It's not completely removed from one of my favorite Malcolm Gladwell chapters about choking vs panic. And it all applies to the NCAA Basketball Tournament.

Under this intense one-and-done spotlight, anxiety, pressure, panic, and choking all come together in a cruel witch's brew. What was Georgetown's Freddie Brown thinking when he passed the ball to North Carolina's James Worthy? Why did Chris Webber call timeout when Michigan had none remaining? How did Derrick Rose miss those free throws against Kansas?

Edwards says that anxiety is good, it's how you know the game is big. The butterflies make you feel alive. But pressure makes you so afraid of failure, that you stop doing the things that instinctually put you in this lofty position in the first place.

And in this 2013 edition of March Madness, we've seen some maddening examples of players and teams buckling under the pressure. If Davidson had completed a simple outlet pass, they would have upset Marquette. If Ole Miss had gotten a timeout after La Salle's go-ahead shot, Marshall Henderson may have been able to make his own NCAA history - but not from the bench. And then there was Kansas, who felt the pressure and fell in one of the all-time March Mishaps.

It's true that Michigan's Trey Burke made one unbelievable play after another to lift Michigan to the historic win, but it never should've been up to him. Unlike what Syracuse University has done to their opponents in this tournament, Kansas allowed Michigan to get close enough to create a miraculous circumstance. And there were a number of reasons it didn't have to be that way.

Kansas was led by top-notch head coach Bill Self and senior point guard Elijah Johnson. They had gotten to this point largely because of these guys but as events unfolded, everything unraveled.

With 2:34 remaining, Kansas led 72-62. Michigan had just missed back-to-back shots, and Johnson had come down with the rebound. As a fan watching at home (and as a TV producer), I would have expected Johnson to walk it up the court while the huge Kansas fan presence gave a standing ovation for a victory that was imminent.

Inexplicably, Johnson forced his dribble into traffic and turned it over resulting in a dunk at the other end. So now the Jayhwaks were only up 8 with 2:22 left. Kansas not only failed to score, but failed to use clock, and Michigan chipped away until it was within a single prayer of a shot.

From that point on, Johnson had lost his mind. There was the key turnover, the missed free throws, the seemingly open layup he missed at the end of the OT session. But his coach wasn't much better. They actually came out of a late timeout in overtime with 6 guys on the floor.

So how do you explain all this? One and done makes you crazy, and when the game's on the line any play could be your last.

Trey Burke was a hero because there was nothing to lose. He had the anxiety, the desperation to save his team. Elijah Johnson crumbled because there was everything to lose. He only had the pressure not to blow it - which of course became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Cost Benefit Analysis: Johan Santana's No Hitter

On June 1st, 2012, ace left-hander Johan Santana pitched the only no-hitter in the 50-year history of the New York Mets. It was a cause for celebration for a franchise so renowned for their pitching, yet unable to ever complete 9 no-hit innings.

But was the moment worth the (presumed) consequences? Santana, a 2-time Cy Young Award winner, was 33 years old that night against the Cardinals. He had already missed the entire 2011 season with a shoulder injury. He threw a career-high 134 pitches to achieve the unforgettable.

Manager Terry Collins had to know his starter was fragile, but he was also pushed by the Mets' dubious distinction. It would be hard to find a manager to pull the plug in that situation. Well, maybe the Washington Nationals would have, and no doubt would've been bombarded by criticism.

Collins stuck with Santana, and New York had a party. But then there was the hangover. Santana went 3-7 in his next 10 starts before being shut down for the season in mid-August. Now it looks like this season will be lost with a tear in the same shoulder.

There's no hard evidence to suggest that throwing 134 pitches on a single night 10 months ago is alone responsible for the shutdown of Santana's career. He had a history of arm problems, and being a Major League pitcher seems to be a dangerous profession for one's throwing arm.

But here's the hard data: in his 6 seasons with the Mets (including this one), Santana will have gone 46-34. He was brilliant at times, but never pitched in a postseason game. His $137.5M contract games out to just under 3 Million per win.

If you're one to believe credit card ads on TV, Santana's no-hitter was "priceless," which is nice to say, but the Cost Benefit Analysis says otherwise.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

T-Town Times Three

As mentioned before, the NIT is "The Victory Lap," but I can't recall ever doing the same site three times. The games were Tuesday-Saturday-Tuesday, and I went home in between each time. So that's three round trips to Tuscaloosa. I was in-and-out on each trip, so there weren't a whole lot of highlights. Here's the Top Five:

1) Alabama hired a new Athletic Director. Mal Moore resigned due to health concerns, but they moved quickly to replace a man who's had a part in 10 Alabama football national championships. They hired Bill Battle, who once played for Bear Bryant and later coached Tennessee. His first game on the job as AD was our Saturday game vs Stanford.

2) Five. It never disappoints. Between the din of a lively bar & grill, and the (limited) gourmet menu, it is one of the top dinner joints in the SEC. Too bad we never stay anywhere near downtown.

3. Too bad we never stay anywhere near downtown (didn't I just say that?). The Yellowhammer Inn was a castle in the hinterlands. It's more of a hunting and golfing retreat with very little to remind you of Alabama football - except for the huge oil painting of Nick Saban in the lobby.

4. The NIT Quarterfinal game between Alabama and Maryland was one of the most dramatic games of the season, with Alabama falling 58-57 after Trevor Lacey's shot at the buzzer didn't go. More importantly it was a good telecast with some entertaining storylines. Did you know that Bear Bryant's first job as a college head coach was at Maryland?

If you don't have another game for 8 months, that's a good one to go out on.

5.  Superior Cuts. When you've been scrambling around on the road for a week and the sides of your head looks like a ChiaPet, it's probably a good idea to get tightened-up. So I returned from lunch hour 12 bucks and about a tenth of a pound lighter. I looked and felt better, but nobody on the crew noticed.

It was a quality African-American barbershop experience. They told me the Alabama hoops coach Anthony Grant and his family get their hair cut there as well.

So that's it Tuscaloosa. See you in September when it will be much warmer (it was really cold all week) and it will be a zoo. The NIT might be just the right speed for me there, just cruising like a Victory Lap.

Monday, March 25, 2013

How's Your Bracket Looking?

Sure. Like you lost to Harvard. Right.

New Mexico was my artsy pick for the Final Four, likely propelled by my love for Breaking Bad. Unfortunately Steve Alford and the Lobos didn't get anywhere close to Atlanta. Neither did Georgetown or Gonzaga.

This tournament has had it's share of upsets, but two regions still have #1 and #2, and one has #1 and #3. So for everyone whacking themselves on the head for not having Wichita, La Salle, or Florida Gulf Coast, there a lot of chalk still out there.

MIDWEST - Indianapolis

Louisville will have a big home crowd edge and the seemingly easier road with Oregon, while Duke and Michigan State beat each other to death.

WEST - Los Angeles

This is the wild card. There's #9 Wichita and #13 La Salle facing off for the Final 8. And Ohio State-Arizona maybe the game of the round.

SOUTH - Arlington, TX

Florida's road to the Final 8 was supposed to include UCLA and Georgetown, instead they get Minnesota and Florida-Gulf Coast. They look like a prime contender to knock off Kansas, if Michigan doesn't get there first.

EAST - Washington

I'm very happy my alma mater has played well, and the Indiana/Syracuse clash also has a shot to be a great one. I still like Miami to emerge.

So for all the attention to the Cinderellas, most of the big fish still lurk. So I suppose most brackets still look pretty good.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Ole Missed Again

First off, congratulations to the Rebels on a nice run. After a March 2nd loss at lowly Mississippi State and near-certain NIT fate, Ole Miss ran off 6 straight wins including the SEC Championship and an upset of Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament.

But the finish in the Round-of-32 game against La Salle in Kansas City showed way they've just barely missed the cut so many times.

In a tie game in the final minute, Marshall Henderson drove to the basket with the shot clock running down. He failed to draw iron, but got his own rebound and appeared to be fouled as he put it back up. There was no call and the sequence resulted in a shot-clock violation.

Not only did it deny Henderson, an 89% foul shooter, a chance to give the Rebs the upper hand. But it also gave La Salle the ball with 31 seconds left - a chance to take the final shot.

Andy Kennedy subbed Henderson out of the game to have his best defensive team on the floor, but failed to think one step ahead. And that may have cost Ole Miss their shot at the Sweet 16.

The Explorers ran a simple handoff and caught the Ole Miss guards on a switch. Tyrone Garland blew by Jarvis Summers, drove right down the lane, and went around Reginald Buckner - one of the nation's best shot blockers. The layup was a thing of beauty and the Southwest Philly Floater became part of NCAA Tournament lore.

But there were 2.5 seconds left and Ole Miss had a timeout. They had to use it if only to get Marshall Henderson back in the game. He could easily make a 40-footer either on a set play or off the dribble. Yet they frantically inbounded and wound up with a half-court prayer.

Whether the blame lies with Kennedy or the players isn't the point. It's that Ole Miss was ill-prepared for a crucial end-of-game situation, and fell to to tougher team that seized their opportunity.

And it can't be understated. The history of programs and universities are changed in these moments. It will be back to the drawing board in Oxford.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Would You Trade First Class For A Middle Seat To Get Home An Hour Earlier?

That's the decision that I was faced with today. There was a southeast storm system that caused residual delays throughout the area.

I know the ground shook overnight at the Yellowhammer Inn with some overnight thunderstorms. So my connection home was delayed but the previous flight was delayed as well, and had one seat left. Guess who was first on the list.

It was a 6 AM call time and not a great game in Tuscaloosa. Alabama easily handled Stanford to reach the NIT quarterfinals. It was bone-chilling cold and rainy in the morning and then after the game, the flight I tried to stand-by for in Birmingham was sold out. So I spent the time with some Good People at BHM.

The good news of the day was that I got the call to do one more game, a third in Tuscaloosa in an eight-day stretch, on Tuesday. An extra game this time of year is like a Christmas Bonus, hence the NIT "Victory Lap." An extra game pays one month's mortgage or two kids' summer camp.

But to answer the question posed in the title: definitely.

It's a short flight home, and time at home is precious this time of year. At least until the final leg of the Tuscaloosa 3-legged race.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Not Outta The Woods Yet

In what is likely my last basketball game of the season, our crew found itself in rather unusual digs. I've been on SEC sports for about 3-4 years now, and never stayed in a place like the Yellowhammer Inn in Tuscaloosa.

The NIT isn't a planned event, at least on college campuses. It's not on the schedule, so when we're assigned to Stanford vs Alabama the same weekend as the Alabama Relays (several major college track and cross-country squads), the Cardinal basketball traveling party was forced to stay in Birmingham. And our smaller group was forced about 15 minutes off the beaten path.

I called the Yellowhammer Inn "rustic," a term a more jaded colleague called a euphemism (for something crappy). I can honestly say I've never stayed in a hotel that featured eight bucks heads in the lobby beside an oil painting rendering of Nick Saban.

It is a hunters/golfers retreat, and I imagine it's where the high rollers stay for football. It is without business amenities or room service, which can be inconvenient for people used to life working on the road.

I'm sure some of them never actually used an actual hotel room key - until now.

Personally, it gives me a Tuscaloosa flavor I haven't felt before. This is the town that displays the BCS Championship trophy at Wal-Mart, so anything a little different is good.

Just so long as I don't see Scatman Crothers roaming the halls, I won't worry about being the main dish in a Stephen King movie adaptation.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Paper Backtime: Youth Basketball As Frankenstein's Monster

As today is day one of the "real" NCAA Tournament, we take a look back at the road that many of the players took to get to this point.

AAU basketball is a business, a factory, a dating service for kids and their handlers. It takes a lot of the joy out of the game and forces pre-teens to grow up way too early. This is all documented by Sports Illustrated's George Dohrmann in Play Their Hearts Out, where he embeds himself with a youth basketball coach and a number of kids over a several-year period. It is one of the most eye-opening books you will ever read.

Mostly it focuses on Riverside (CA) youth basketball coach Joe Keller, and his star player Demetrius Walker. In this world, it isn't about playing the game the right way or having balance in life, it's about garnering attention, subjective rankings, and building an empire.

The story begins with Keller, the coach who discovered future NBA star Tyson Chandler, but turned him over to a higher-profile squad and watched others profit off Chandler's success. Keller was determined that history wouldn't repeat itself with Demetrius Walker, a grade-school phenom.

Keller taught his players to press full-time and run up the score. An 8th grader who could dunk was far more valuable than a complete player. Because these things would draw the best kids to his team, and would fuel the machine that would generate uniform and shoe contracts, and put him in a position to negotiate directly with high school and college coaches.

As a result Walker transferred in and out of districts and high schools, before enrolling at Arizona State and winding up (seemingly) happily at New Mexico.

Walker's story, his family life, his notoriety and fade into ignominy, are worthy of a book. As are the story arcs of his teammates, especially those without a core family structure that youth coaches like Keller are able to manipulate with money and swag.

Keller goes from small-time wannabe to a nationally recognized power-broker to a youth basketball camp mogul. His experiences climbing the ladder and whomever he stepped on along the way delivered him to his goal stated at the beginning of the book - to be rich.

Walker has high points and low points along the way. Everything seemed to turn out okay as Walker was a good role player for nationally-ranked New Mexico, but was suspended indefinitely by coach Steve Alford two weeks before the tournament. So the struggle continues for Walker, whose tale is a cautionary one.

But it's not Walker that's broken, it's an unforgiving pipeline that answers to no real governing body. What these youth programs get away with would land NCAA teams on probation or worse.

Dohrmann doesn't offer solutions, but his gritty and stomach-turning look at the system at least sheds light on the exploitation of middle school kids, in extraordinary detail. It should be required reading for any aspiring scholastic athlete or coach.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Savannah To Tuscaloosa: Drive Or Fly (Or Both?)

The Victory Lap (aka The NIT) rolls on into the weekend. Naturally on my way home from Tuscaloosa I was told to head back there for a Friday set day and a Saturday 11 AM CT start. So it's T-Town times two in one week.

There are three options to get from Savannah to Tuscaloosa:

A) Take two flights (SAV>ATL>BHM) and then a 1-hour drive. The list time on the Atlanta-to-Birmingham portion is under an hour and back one time zone. So for example, a flight that leaves Atlanta at 12 PM will arrive in Birmingham at 11:55 AM. About this phenomenon, former ABA star Marvin Barnes once famously said, "I ain't gettin' on no time machine."

B) Fly to Atlanta and drive 3 desolate hours to the University of Alabama. Watch for speed traps!

C) Bite the bullet and just drive 6 1/2 hours. Take your own car and you can rack up mileage expenses.

If you add up all the time spent, all 3 options are actually pretty close, it's just a question of how you want to spend the time. You can't get any work done in the car, but you have a little more flexibility in how you want to break up your trip.

And if you're driving around the long stretches of the Alabama interstate, there's one other thing to worry about: dry counties. There's nothing more disheartening than pulling up to a Ruby Tuesday on the back end of your drive and not being able to get a drink.

See ya in T-Town this weekend. Method of transport: TBD.

Monday, March 18, 2013

March Madness At Savannah Hilton Head International

So here's the timeline: On Sunday evening the NCAA Tournament bracket was released. Immediately after that, the NIT schedule was released, and at approximately 10:30 PM on Sunday evening I learned my assignment: Tuesday night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

On Monday morning, I called travel and couldn't get a flight until much later in the day - thanks largely to the St. Patrick's weekend exodus. So I got a seat on the 6:25, complete with an upgrade.

But once I got to SAV, Atlanta was shut down. There was a tornado watch and several planes were diverted into Savannah. This added to the mayhem at an airport that does very little activity (at least outgoing) in the evenings.

Since there was an indefinite delay I waited in the gate area. I sat on the floor close to the desk so I could monitor the off-mic updates while I charged my cell phone and read my book.

By the way, how is it in this day and age we don't have cell phones that can be fully recharged in a minute? We put a man on the moon, right? I can send a message halfway around the world in a millisecond, but I have to sit in one place while my phone interminably juices?

Sorry about the digression. My proximity to the activity gave me a keen read on human behavior, and it was kind of like watching a bell curve in a petri dish.

Lined-up customers went from frustrated to irate to resigned to their fate. The (one) gate agent went from overwhelmed to extremely rude to mildly helpful. The diverted Atlanta-bound plane from Fort Walton Beach off-loaded and re-boarded before our doors even opened, adding to everyone's misery. I simply canceled my hotel in Tuscaloosa and thought about where to stay in the Atlanta area tonight.

We finally took off (pictured above) 3 hours and 20 minutes late with an arrival time more than 4 hours behind schedule. Now I consider myself a pretty hardcore veteran traveler. I can handle a crappy seat on an airplane or a long delay, but turbulence sucks. We flew right through the storm, and I closed my eyes and gripped my hands on the armrests like a scared little kid.

The phrase I use with my colleagues about the NIT is "The Victory Lap." After a long, hard basketball season there's one or a couple nice, low pressure games. Unfortunately it timed out with the low pressure in the Georgia atmosphere.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Backtime's 2013 Bracket

When building a "bracket of integrity" there are certain rules I follow. Except of course if I'm in Vegas or in a real high-stakes pool.

1) Print it the day it's released.
2) Free your mind of any personal prejudice.
3) Grab a pen, not a pencil.
4) Fill it out in 5 minutes or less, relying solely on your instincts.

Of course these are rules I created, and I don't necessarily adhere to item #2 "Free your mind of any personal prejudice." 

I pick Kansas and Kentucky to meet in the finals nearly every year. Except this year when Kentucky is not applicable. So in keeping with the teams in the conferences I cover with frequency, I had chosen Kansas vs Florida before Championship Week. Now at best it's a Final 8 matchup.

But Florida, while still very dangerous, faces a serious uphill battle. To get to a Regional Final against against the Jayhawks, they'd need to beat UCLA and Georgetown on the way. But the Gators have nobody to blame but themselves since their lackluster play put them in this predicament.

Instead I have Kansas against another Kentucky team, Louisville, with Kansas winning it all.

If I were to free my mind of personal prejudice, I would see Kansas for what it is: A team with possibly the most talented player in the country (Ben McLemore), an imposing, impactful defensive presence (Jeff Withey), and a senior backcourt (Travis Releford & Elijah Johnson). They also have a coach who's been there before, winning it all in 2008 and reaching the final game just last season.

Other observations:

> Down on the Big Ten. Illionis is a #7 seed. Really? Got none in the Final Four, and I have Michigan State and Michigan going down in major early-round upsets. Indiana is a force and Wisconsin is a threat, but as a conference I'm not seeing it.

> Big upsets. Familiar teams lurk, and I got two #14 seeds moving past their first game: Davidson over Marquette, and Valparaiso over Michigan State. I also like #13 South Dakota State over #4 Michigan.

> New blood in the Final Four. Miami (#2) and New Mexico (#3) may not have been there before, but their coaches have. They are every bit deserving of these seeds and have veteran teams.

Oh yes, then there's the alma mater. Got Syracuse beating Montana and UNLV before losing to Indiana in the Sweet 16.

So there it is. Set your watch to it, print it out, and call it in. Just don't point the finger if I'm wrong. How's that for integrity?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Meet Me At Oglethorpe Square? Good Luck

It's our 6th St. Patrick's in Savannah and today was my 4th parade (missed two out of town on work), and this was by far the worst experience - not that it was so bad. But a number of things became evident to me.

First, plot out your plan weeks in advance. Meeting friends at a square on the parade route isn't a plan. You need more specific direction, i.e. northeast corner, or specific tent or a particular garb. "I'll be in the green felt hat" isn't good enough. Especially with this many people in a concentrated area, and the same amount of cell phone service that Oglethorpe had.

Also, one adult lugging two kids plus chairs, snacks and gear isn't a great mix. Especially when one is hyper involved "Look at that! Look at that!" and the other is the opposite "I'm so bored, I want to go home. Where's my DS?" Google Maps puts our house 1.7 miles from our destination, so doing it all by foot - the kids were troopers. (Though they could have been much better getting up and out of the house!)

It was more work than party. I was in the spirit too, with the kelly green cords and lime green linen dress shirt over my Borat tee. But being a guardian doesn't lend itself too the free-spirited wild man, no matter how many dozens accosted me with, "Very Nice!"

You'll always run into someone, even if it wasn't your intended party. This year it was my daughter's elementary school teacher, who had room in the front row for the kids to watch for their Mom in the parade while I foraged for a much-needed cold beverage.

Then there was the 1.7 mile walk home. Fortunately Forsyth was a natural midpoint, and the kids got to relax and play. When we got home a little after 2 PM, we flopped for the rest of the day. Next year there will be a real plan with less energy spent.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Some Badass Shit

The FX drama Justified  is a wildly entertaining product though somewhat flawed. The dialogue is great, but great too often. It's what makes Elmore Leonard novels laugh-out-loud thrillers, but on TV you need good, developed characters and even better actors to pull off all the smart mouthing.

Deputy Marshall Rachel Brooks is terrible. That insidious Colton, the junky ex-military henchman is a waste of space - he doesn't even hold a cigarette right. And (dare I say it) I'm tired of Boyd Crowder trying to do Hamlet in every scene.

However, every conversation Raylan has with his boss Art Mullen is priceless.

When Drew Thompson (the Keyser Soze of Kentucky) eludes authorities yet again with the assistance of a small-town whore who has major info on the Crowders, Raylan suggests bringing in the state troopers on the manhunt. Art goes off on a major rant, one for the history books:

"The first thing we're gonna do is we're gonna acknowledge that this guy's awesome...I mean he shoots Theo Tonin, fakes his own death in a spectacular fashion, pushes a guy out of an airplane while he's flying it, parachutes into Harlan County with enough coke and cash to jumpstart the economy of a small country, and then he has the balls to get a job in law enforcement not once but two times...He spends a couple of days riding around with you (Raylan) while you're looking for him. And now he's run off with a hooker that's half his age. That's some badass shit." 

Raylan echoes "That's pretty badass." The "sir" was implied. Art's point is that the Marshall's service need to be the ones to corral one of the greatest fugitives eastern Kentucky has ever known.

And that brings all the old gang out. Wynn Duffy, Elston Limehouse, some Detroit gangsters in a helicopter, and poor "small-time asshole" Johnny Crowder playing triple-agent.

It's an intricate web involving people who are incredibly cagey, yet exceptionally dumb at the same time. It's a winner and a loser all in one. In short, can't-miss television.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Congratulations, You're Fired

I am a fan of the Ed Schultz message, but not the show. He's too bombastic and self-righteous, sort of the parallel universe version of O'Reilly. Thus while I am a target demographic for MSNBC, I don't watch in the most visible time slot. Seems I wasn't alone.

On Wednesday night, Schultz had two major announcements. First in perhaps the scoop interview of 2013, he landed Scott Prouty, the bartender who shot the infamous 47% video at a 50K-a-plate Mitt Romney fundraiser last May.

Prouty (a registered Independent) had many offers, but he chose Schultz to be the messenger because of the host's well-known advocacy for the common man. The interview was completely thorough. Schultz got into Prouty's head, explored his motivation for shooting the video and what he wanted to achieve by releasing it.

By the end of the hour, I was quite impressed with the way it was all handled and expected that I would now flip on The Ed Show from time to time - at least for the week between the end of college hoop season and the start of the baseball season.

But alas I won't have the chance. Ed is moving to weekends. He can say all he wants about how he lobbied for it, but nobody leaves a weekday 8 PM window voluntarily (unless you're Keith Olbermann, but don't set your watch to anything he does). So MSNBC, who had likely made up their mind on this long before Schultz landed Mr. 47%, wanted to go younger, subtler, wonkier.

Chris Hayes, the host of the popular weekend morning show Up With Chris Hayes is a logical, progressive, up through the ranks promotion. I enjoy him, I will watch, and it's the wrong move.

I love to speculate on network programming when it's not a network that employs me - that would be inappropriate and career suicide. Of course if I did that, it would probably generate a lot more traffic to this site. So Backtime's Editorial Department will stick to what it does best - TV viewing (as opposed to TV producing which is #1A).

The show on MSNBC that would generate the buzz and the ratings to take on Bill O'Reilly and Anderson Cooper is The Cycle.

The show is barely a year old but ready for primetime. Three libs and one conservative, they are rapid-fire and good-humored, and interchangeable in the host role. Toure' is their lightning rod for controversy and S.E. Cupp is one of the top (few) conservative/opposition voices at MSNBC.

It's a relatively new formula, so the network brass might still be playing it safe. Chris Hayes is very safe for a progressive audience, but a shake-up at 8 PM is in order.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Fighting For Bragging Rights Since 1889

History writes that The Dakota Territory was split into two separate states because the population base had boomed so quickly in the 1880s, that the people were recognizing two separate capitals.

Some of this dynamic was fleshed out in the HBO series Deadwood, one of the best TV dramas of all-time, and it just so happened to feature Timothy Olyphant as Marshall Seth Bullock: a complicated, unforgiving lawman with an itchy trigger finger. Sound familiar?

Deadwood was regrettably discontinued after 3 seasons, but had it gone on, the matter of statehood would have surely been a central focus. On November 2, 1889, North and South Dakota were admitted as the 39th and 40th United States. But there's more to the story.

There was so much rivalry and one-upsmanship between the Dakotas that while the states were admitted on the same day, President Benjamin Harrison ordered that the paperwork be shuffled so that nobody would know which executive order was signed first.

Technically North Dakota is listed as the 39th state. Since only President Harrison and his Secretary of State James G. Blaine know for sure, North Dakota wins for the history books since it comes first alphabetically.

This is all prologue for what took place in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, last night where the North Dakota State Bison took on the South Dakota State Jackrabbits. The Summit League Championship was on the line, and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament that goes with it. It was the biggest battle for state pride since 1889.

South Dakota had the edge going in with All-America guard Nate Wolters, who scored 53 in a game earlier this season. With the season in the balance, Wolters managed only half of that number in a brilliant career-defining game on national TV.

Wolters went around, through and over NDSU, finishing with 27 points, 6 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals. And while the Bison cut into the lead late, they never could cross the border.

So Wolters and the SDSU Jackrabbits are headed to their second straight NCAA Big Dance. And while the state has obviously been in existence for nearly 125 years, the Jackrabbits will have a real chance as March rolls on to put the state of South Dakota on the map. So to speak.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Postcards From The Edge (Of The World)

It should be noted that while South Dakota boasts Mount Rushmore, none of the presidents pictured are actually from there. And it would be hard to imagine they ever visited since statehood was achieved in 1889, part of America's manifest destiny.

This is my fourth straight year making the expedition to SD, always in early March, and it's always been cold and most often bleak though there were some periods of sunshine on this trip.

This time I thought I'd be smart and instead of taking 3 flights from Savannah to Sioux Falls, I took only a mere connection to Omaha to spend Sunday night at some familiar haunts down in the Old Market.

But I naturally flew into Omaha during the worst snowstorm of the season. It was one of the bumpier and more disconcerting flights in recent memory, but we made it.

Most of my old watering holes had already closed up shop when I plowed the GMC Terrain rental downtown at 11 PM. I found myself parallel parking through 6 inches of snow outside Old Chicago. Just like old times!

I walked in and there were about 50 people inside, it was fully staffed, and the kitchen was still open for another 90 minutes. The prevailing attitude was "Storm? Is this all of it?" I got my sandwich to go and was able to check in to my hotel ahead of the re-air of a great Walking Dead episode. Rick's sitdown with The Governor was classic television.

I woke up and predictably the Omaha street clearers had been out in force pre-dawn, and the mounds of snow had been pushed aside.

I went to the place where I got my coffee most every day between 2002 and 2004, the 13th Street Coffee And Tea Company. The same young woman was still working there. She remembered me but not my order.

In fact not much has changed in the upper midwest in the last 10 years. There's better coffee now, especially on the lonely highway truck stops between Omaha and Sioux Falls on desolate I-29.

The drive wasn't too bad, but it was pretty slushy. I almost went to get the rental car washed. But I arrived undramatically at my destination, and got something out of the trunk.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Paper Backtime: All In The Family

Savannah native Bruce Feiler put this book out a couple of weeks ago, and as it was a topic that meant quite a bit to me, so I of course devoured it.

It's not a typical self-help book (though it does contain a lot of lists) and there is a spoiler in the title. Note that it is not called "The Secrets TO Happy Families." There's a lot of trial-and-error stuff, a lot of adapting and unconventional family strategies. As the author indicates, nobody can use all of this information, but everyone can use some of it.

The most important key to a successful family dynamic is to be agile (chapter 1). It's hard to describe other than the word itself, there are a lot of lists involved but the lists are constantly changing. Think of a whiteboard on the fridge with dry-erase markers checklisting the family responsibilities before leaving the house in the morning, and who completed them.

That way everybody shares in the responsibilities, and scores can be kept. Ultimately the children (and parents) can be rewarded or punished in a manner that they helped formulate, creating camaraderie, accountability, and personal investment.

Knowing how to "fight smarter" is also a key. Siblings between 3 and 7 fight three-and-a-half times an hour, with only one in eight disputes reconciled. "The other seven wrap up when one child simply withdraws after being bullied or intimidated by the other."

While the disputes are inevitable, the lack of closure isn't. There are meaningful projects and chores kids can work on together, and empathic exercises in the conflict resolution process.

And when you do have to punish your children, dole out the consequences with the child sitting in a padded chair. This literally and figuratively cushions the blow.

There are hundreds of little things like that in here. Everything from displacing the family dinner talk (who really has the time?) to guidelines on kids' allowances to how to talk about sex. And these aren't things that Feiler came up with on his own, or channeled from child-rearing experts. Many come from the top business minds and conflict negotiators, which he applied very neatly (in most cases) to the family unit.

The final chapter, which I found the most interesting, was how the military teaches us how to put on the best family reunions. Where else do you get the "no pain, no gain" team fulfillment, to work together and in competition on goals that appear unreachable?

I have no military experience or family reunion experience, and yet I found this chapter fascinating. It resonated and inspired me. I thought about inviting family from all over the country to come down in the hot Savannah summer for an all-day tug-of-war sweatfest. Now that's bonding!

And the word "family" is the key to the book. Kids who know their family history, where their grandparents came from, the illnesses and adversity relatives have overcome, where their parents grew up, make children feel they're a part of something bigger. That effect on their self-esteem is immeasurable.

Bruce Feiler spoke at the JEA this morning. While his delivery was nice and engaging, I felt a sense of deja vu, since I'd heard it all before - in his book! So I bolted about halfway through to go work out.

I was only home a few hours, I still had to make lunch for the kids, take them out to burn some energy, and I had a flight to catch later in the day. The second half of the Feiler lecture on the idyllic family life got cut to accommodate my actual family life. Hey, you've gotta be agile.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Changing Stripes In Baton Rouge

The #1 attraction in Louisiana's state capital (other than the food) is Mike The Tiger. A beautiful creature, he prowls in his own private zoo between LSU's football stadium and basketball arena.

But on this Saturday morning, Mike was feeling a little comatose, napping just a few feet away from his many admirers.

The LSU Tigers, like their beloved mascot, didn't get their wakeup call. On Senior Day, the Tigers were out-hustled by a desperate Ole Miss Rebel squad led by likely SEC Player of the Year Marshall Henderson.

Henderson's histrionics on the court make him a player that opponents love to hate, but fundamentally he is very sound. Besides being a great shooter, he plays good D, looks for his teammates and sinks seemingly every free throw.

Ole Miss went to 12-6 in the SEC and now has a legit shot to finally bust the bubble and go to their first NCAA Tournament since 2002, primarily because Henderson is a difference-maker.

Henderson may get too exuberant or combative after big positive plays, but he makes all the little plays. He is well-coached and well-schooled, even if he isn't always well-behaved.

It's kind of like a golfer who wraps his 3-iron around a tree, but always makes a 3-foot putt. There's chaos and calm, fire and ice.

I thought about my hectic travel day to get to Baton Rouge, but got to my destination on a still 70-degree, and exhaled. My blood pressure lowered, my nerves eased, and I sat down and had a beer and watched the sunset.

There's dialing it up and dialing it down. Primetime and Backtime. Mike The Tiger, Marshall Henderson, and Me.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Keeping Up With The Jenningses

When do Cold War spies ever get a day off? When they're not planting recording devices, seducing government middle-men (and women), or assassinating turncoats, they have to be tortured by their own? That's a pretty tough existence for a suburban couple.

That's our week-in, week-out investment in Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans. They are so integral in how the Soviet-US relations play out that it wouldn't surprise me if the show ultimately didn't put them at the center of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But that's still 8 years ahead of 1981, when our favorite spies went to great length to lift encryption codes from the trunk of a CIA sedan. When the FBI's counter-intelligence smells a rat, the KGB goes mole-hunting, starting with their most valuable agents who just seem too Americanized.

As viewers we were onto it, because the Jennings' neighbor FBI Agent Beeman was in deep machinations with the real mole. But Phillip Jennings should have been on to it as well when his enhanced interrogation involved repeated phone book slams to the gut and nothing to disfigure his face.

If they messed up his face, there would be too many questions in case they were wrong (which of course they were), and jeopardize his cover.

Now they gave Elizabeth a black eye, but only out of self-preservation. She has proven to be the most kick-ass spy woman on TV since La Femme Nikita or Alias. She got quick and fierce retribution on the point person for their torture, and wanted to send a picture to Moscow as a message.

Meanwhile a residual effect of the Jennings' abduction was the kids being left at the mall. Paige and Henry had to hitchhike and wound up having to fight off a "creep."

The younger Jenningses obviously have no idea what their parents do, but seem to have the family resourcefulness in their DNA. There's also a co-dependency with them, a spirit of partnership, and a constantly shifting role of who's-in-charge, also transferred from their parents.

It's an all-American family dynamic.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Back For A Limited Time Only

We haven't completed the first full week of March yet, and I'm already posting back-to-back days on the Yankees. Probably a signal of things to come in Spring 2013.

It looks like Mariano Rivera will call it a career at this season's conclusion. It isn't that big a surprise, #42 is now 43 years of age. He may have done it after last season, but last season was never completed after a freak injury during pregame warm-ups in Kansas City in May 2012.

Rivera wasn't going out like that. The sport's greatest specialist needed to lace 'em up for one more year, and the Yankees will need every bit of him. But also, whether this arrangement was initiated by the Rivera or the team, it solves an unprecedented riddle going forward. What do you do with the games best closer when he can no longer close?

A superstar everyday player can be eased out in a DH role, platoon, or as a pinch-hitter. A former ace starting pitcher can still soldier on from the bullpen or be a ticket draw for a lesser team. But a closer? There's nowhere to go from being the guy protecting a 1-2 run lead for 3+ outs, 45 times a season.

Exit Light, Enter Night...Off To Never-Neverland.

Mariano Rivera will have the 2013 season as a victory lap around the American League. Hopefully he'll have a season worthy of his incredible career, and look back from Never-Neverland with no regrets. And the Yankees will have a year to plan for the succession, without worrying about muddying the reputation of a descending icon. We hope.

And as been brought up many times, Rivera will be the last MLB player ever to wear #42, the year that the motion picture 42 is released. Maybe his final season will be cinematic as well.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Infield Out

What's wrong with this picture? It was 2009, when the Yankees got huge contributions from Jorge Posada, Melky Cabrera, Hideki Matsui, and AJ Burnett on the way to a World Series Championship. It wasn't that long ago was it?

And it featured arguably the greatest infield of all-time. Now three-fourths of them are out, and you have to wonder if they will ever be on the field at the same time again.

After a gruesome injury in last year's ALCS, Derek Jeter has been on lockdown rehab and appears ready to rejoin the lineup before opening day.

Alex Rodriguez had a gruesome injury to his pride with his miserable performance in last year's ALCS, but then it was compounded with offseason hip surgery that will sideline him indefinitely. Initial reports were that he'd be gone half the season, but as has been said on many different occasions, he may have played his last game in pinstripes.

Now Mark Teixeira is sidelined with a wrist injury suffered while practicing with the Team USA World Baseball Classic team. Speculation is that he'll be gone 8-10 weeks.

That leaves the steady guy who mans second base. Robinson Cano is one of the most valuable properties in baseball, and will be requiring the Yankees or someone else to pay him as such at season's end. He does it offensively and defensively, with a swing like Bonds and an arm like Trillo.

But Cano's shaking off cobwebs too after going three-for-forty in the 2012 postseason. If A-Rod hadn't drawn all the fire, Cano would have been some easy target practice.

With the Yankees lineup in shambles, is it possible they could let Cano go at or before season's end? Anything is possible.

The four-man unit had their moment in the sun with the 2009 title, but for all their hype as a prolific quartet they only won the one. Now it looks like their time is done.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

SWM, 40+, Seeks Long Term Relationship

I didn't go to or even to look for a soulmate. I made the rounds, had a few first dates, kissed some frogs, and even dated out of my league. But ultimately I found something safe and built to last, a Honda Pilot.

Like any relationship, you don't know what the future holds. You take a leap of faith. And most of all, you need to find a car that fits your personality.

Are you in a mid-life crisis, looking for something slick and sporty to impress a significantly younger significant other?

Or are you resigned to your position in life as a bald, middle-aged Dad who uses the car to shuttle the kids to and from school, their activities, and on occasional family adventures?

I realize that no matter how much rap music I listen to, how often I work out, or how many video games I play, I know who I am. Just Joe Sixpack tryin' to pick up a spare. The new family roadster completes me.