Category Archives: Sports

Tom Tries Again: 2013 Bowl Picks

Andre Williams of Boston College runs for short gain against USC.

Andre Williams of Boston College runs for short gain against USC.

Last year my predictions for the college football bowl games were based on careful research and statistical analysis.  The results were mediocre, which is why I’m going with wild guesses this year.

Oh, I’ll be citing some numbers in support of my delusions, but if you’re planning on wagering, you’d probably do just as well by basing your picks on which team’s mascot is cuter.  So here are my hunches about some of the more interesting games…

Las Vegas Bowl          Fresno State (11-1) vs. USC (9-4)

Fresno State led the nation in passing; they averaged over 400 yards per game, and QB Derek Carr threw 48 TDs.  USC has lost their second coach this season, so I’m taking Fresno State even though the oddsmakers make the Bulldogs underdogs.

Russell Athletic Bowl           Louisville (11-1) vs. Miami (9-3)

It might surprise you that Louisville was 2nd in the country in total defense and in turnover ratio (+16).  The Cardinals’ offense was good, too — QB Teddy Bridgewater completed over 70% of his passes.  I like Louisville’s chances.

Holiday Bowl          Arizona State (10-3) vs. Texas Tech (7-5)

Texas Tech surrendered an average of 31.2 points per game, while Arizona State ran up 41 points per game.  This one could get ugly:  ASU in a rout.

Advocare V100 Bowl           Arizona (7-5) vs. Boston College (7-5)

The two best running backs in college football are featured in this game.  BC’s Andre Williams (see photo) gained over 2,000 yards rushing.  Ka’Deem Carey of the Wildcats averaged 156 yards per game.  Arizona’s defense is marginally better, so I give them the edge.

Sun Bowl          UCLA (9-3) vs. Virginia Tech (8-4)

Which is cuter, a Bruin or a Hokie?  Who knows what either of those things are?  Since Virginia Tech has an excellent defense, I’ll go with the Hokies.

Chick-fil-A Bowl          Duke (10-3) vs. Texas A&M (8-4)

The Aggies are heavy favorites, but I think Duke’s opportunistic defense just might deflate Johnny Football in what will likely be his final college game.

Gator Bowl          Nebraska (8-4) vs. Georgia (8-4)

Before the season began, some of us thought Georgia could be a top-5 team.  The Bulldogs didn’t live up to expectations but should be good enough to eke out a win over the Cornhuskers.

Rose Bowl          Michigan State (12-1) vs. Stanford (11-2)

Statistically, Michigan State has the best defense in the country, but Stanford is solid, too.  Neither team’s offense is what you would call spectacular.  Expect a low-scoring battle, with Stanford edging the Spartans.

Fiesta Bowl          Central Florida (11-1) vs. Baylor (11-1)

Let’s give Central Florida its due:  the Knights are a good team.  Baylor, however, is an outstanding team:  first in total offense (624 yards per game), first in scoring (53.3 points per game).  The Bears had over 60 points in six games this season.  They might not score that many against UCF, but Baylor wins going away.

Sugar Bowl          Oklahoma (10-2) vs. Alabama (11-1)

Alabama shouldn’t need to try a 57-yard field goal in the final second to win this one.

Orange Bowl          Clemson (10-2) vs. Ohio State (12-1)

Both teams averaged over 40 points per game and might do it in this game, too.  I give a slight edge to Ohio State because of their superior ground game.

Cotton Bowl          Oklahoma State (10-2) vs. Missouri (11-2)

If the Oklahoma State team that pounded Baylor (49-17) shows up, the Cowboys should win.

BCS Championship          Florida State (13-0) vs. Auburn (12-1)

Hardly anyone expected Auburn to have a winning record in 2013, let alone be in the championship game.  It’s worth noting that the Tigers had 5 wins this season by 7 points or fewer.  The Seminoles are strong all around:  #2 overall in scoring (53 points per game) and #1 in scoring defense, yielding only 10.7 points per game.  Auburn’s luck runs out as Florida State claims the national championship.

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Tom’s Top 25, 2013 Edition

Arizona State v USC Nov 2012This year’s college football national champion will not be a team from the Big East conference.  That would never have been a bold prediction, but I feel particularly confident that I’ll be right come next January, since the Big East no longer exists.

Some version of that league will still compete in basketball, but for football it is now calling itself the American Athletic Conference.

Here’s another reason a Big East team won’t win the championship:  A team from the Southeastern Conference will.  That has been true for the past seven seasons; last year 5 of the top 9 schools in the final rankings were from the SEC, including national champ Alabama.

Some experts thought Ohio State might have a chance to break the SEC’s streak in 2013, but that was before some of the Buckeyes’ best players got into legal troubles.  Apparently they were trying to prove that they were NFL-level criminals, but the effect is that Coach Urban Meyer and his staff will be handcuffed by the loss of a couple of potential stars.

It looks like any one of several SEC teams could win the national championship this season, but for the sake of tradition, I’m going with Alabama.  Here are my predictions, some of which may surprise you.  Some of them will surprise me, too, if they turn out to be right.

1.  Alabama          National champion 3 of the past 4 seasons, the Crimson Tide had an outstanding recruiting year, too.

2.  Stanford         The Cardinal has the country’s best offensive line, and 10 starters return on defense.

3.  Georgia          Scoring won’t be a problem for the Bulldogs; they averaged almost 40 points per game last season.

4.  Ohio State          An undefeated season didn’t earn them a bowl game because of NCAA sanctions, but they should get a nice post-season trip this year.

5.  Boise State           Broncos went 11-2 a year ago and should be better this season.

6.  Oregon          Coach Chip Kelly escaped punishment be taking an NFL job, but NCAA sanctions are so light, the Ducks won’t be slowed down.

7.  Texas A&M          QB Johnny Manziel and the Aggies play Alabama at home on September 14.  The winner could be headed to the national championship.

8.  South Carolina          The Gamecocks have an outstanding defense, featuring lineman Jadeveon Clowney.  He hits so hard, you feel the impact while you’re watching on TV.

9.  Florida State          This might be a stretch, but the Seminoles have a lot of talent.  A lot.

10.  Louisville       The Cardinals will only be the champion of the American Athletic Conference in its inaugural season.  Next year Louisville jumps to the Atlantic Coast Conference.

11.  Clemson       We’ll find out early how good the Tigers are.  Clemson’s opener is against Georgia.

12.  Nebraska          The Cornhuskers have won at least 10 games in each of the last 5 seasons.

13.  Notre Dame          Starting QB Everett Golson is academically ineligible and one of his backups had previously transferred out.   Even so, this team is capable of a 10-win season.

14.  Michigan          The toughest matchups — Notre Dame, Nebraska and Ohio State — will all be played in Ann Arbor.

15.  Florida          Gators’ defense is solid; do they have anybody who can play pitch-and-catch?

16.  Texas          Nineteen starters return; unfortunately, that includes members of a defense that had trouble making stops.

17.  UCLA          The Bruins have added an outstanding recruiting class to the foundation laid last year.

18.  Michigan State          Last year the Spartans lost 5 games by 4 points or fewer, finishing 7-6.  If they can change their luck in a couple or 3 games…

19.  Kansas State          Key players (like QB Collin Klein) have departed, but Coach Bill Snyder’s system works.

20.  Oklahoma          The Sooners struggled to stop the run; they were 89th nationally last year and problems remain on the D-line.

21. LSU          Major personnel losses are a challenge for the Tigers, and so is a tough schedule.

22.   Northwestern           Ten wins were a surprise a year ago, and the Wildcats may not get that many in 2013.  They have a lot of talent returning, though.

23.  TCU           The defense, led by All-American CB Jason Verrett, should help erase memories of a disappointing 2012 season.

24.  Baylor          This may be expecting too much from the Bears, but this team’s passing game sure is fun to watch.

25.  Miami (FL)          Coming off their self-imposed postseason ban, the Hurricanes are looking to prove themselves worthy of a late-December game.

Baseball’s First Bionic Arm

"I don't know how to describe it, Doctor Jobe. It sort of feels like my elbow is on fire."

“I don’t know how to describe it, Doctor Jobe. It sort of feels like my elbow is on fire.”

Tommy John has been immortalized for something he didn’t do.

Even if you’re just a casual baseball fan, you’ve probably heard of Tommy John Surgery, since it has been done to hundreds of ballplayers over the past several decades.  The thing is, Tommy didn’t perform that first operation, as some might mistakenly think — it was performed on him.

In July of 1974, John was pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers.  His record was 13-3; he had an impressive Earned Run Average of 2.59 on the night he threw a sinker and felt his arm go fiery pins-and-needles.  The sinker didn’t sink; instead, the ball sailed toward the box seats.  He had just torn the ligament in his left elbow.

After a month of complete rest didn’t produce any improvement in John’s throwing arm, Dodgers team doctor Frank Jobe made his own unorthodox pitch.  He proposed surgery to replace the torn ligament with a tendon taken from Tommy John’s right wrist.

Doctor Jobe had some hope that it might work because he had done a similar procedure on the ankle of a patient afflicted with polio.  Still, he didn’t give Tommy John a glowing prognosis — he told the pitcher that there was maybe a one percent chance that he’d be able to resume pitching.

The doctor explained how the graft would be performed:  Holes would be drilled in the ulna and humerus bones, through which the harvested tendon would be laced in a figure-eight pattern.  As Dr. Jobe later recalled, John looked him in the eye and said, “Let’s do it.”

The original Tommy John surgery (now known to the medical community as Ulnar Collateral Ligament Reconstruction) was performed on September 25, 1974.  It was followed by about 18 months of rehabilitation, which is the part of the process for which “T.J.” does deserve credit.  He worked at it diligently; part of his rehab was playing catch with his wife Sally.

In the 1976 season he returned to the mound, and on his third start of that season, Tommy John got his 125th career victory.  He continued pitching until 1989, when he was 46 years old, and by then he had amassed 288 career wins.  That is the seventh-most of all time by a left-handed pitcher.  Well over half of his wins — 164 — came after the surgery.

In the years since 1974, Dr. Jobe and other surgeons have performed tens of thousands of UCL reconstructions.  Some of the Major League pitchers who have undergone the procedure are John Smoltz, Stephen Strasburg, Chris Carpenter, David Wells, Adam Wainwright and Brian Wilson.  Prospects for successful recovery are now in the range of 90 percent.

So far, no pitcher who has had Tommy John surgery has made it into the Hall of Fame, including Tommy John.  The highest tally of votes he ever received from the Baseball Writers is 31.7%, despite having been a four-time All-Star with 46 career shutouts.

Based on his baseball accomplishments, Tommy John deserves to be recognized for more than a procedure that was performed on his left elbow.  Doctor Frank Jobe probably deserves to have that medical procedure named for him, and not for his patient.

As it happens, this July the doctor is going to be honored for his contributions to baseball  by the Hall of Fame.  Tommy John plans to attend the ceremony.

Dancing Backwards

Louis "Red" Klotz, 2011(photo credit:  Chris Polk/Associated Press)

Louis “Red” Klotz, 2011
(photo credit: Chris Polk/Associated Press)

When her husband called in from the road, Gloria Klotz never had to ask, “Did you win?”  That’s because Louis “Red” Klotz played (and later coached) for the Washington Generals, the perpetual opponent of the Harlem Globetrotters.

At the invitation of Globetrotters’ owner Abe Saperstein, Klotz founded the Generals in 1952; he was the point guard until 1984 when, at age 62, he gave up his playing career.  He coached for a couple of more decades, and still makes an occasional appearance on the bench.  Over all those years, the one constant is that the Globetrotters always win.  Well, not always — in almost 20,000 games, the Generals have won twice.

The last time was on January 5, 1971, in Martin, Tennessee, on a night when the Globetrotters’ entertaining antics went on longer than usual, and their opponents played efficient, workmanlike basketball.  The Globetrotters put on a burst at the end, but with seconds to play, Red Klotz hit a long shot to give his team a 100-99 win.  The spectators booed.

Technically it wasn’t a victory for the Washington Generals, by the way.  Over the years, Klotz experimented with name changes, so on that historic night, the Generals were performing as the New Jersey Reds.

The Globetrotters’ epic win streak, and Generals’ matching losing streak, is not necessarily due to a huge difference in skill.  There have been individuals from both teams who have spent time in the NBA, including the 5’7″ Red Klotz, who played briefly for the Baltimore Bullets.  There were also several Generals players who later jumped to the Globetrotters.

I don’t think it’s revealing a secret to say that the Globetrotters/Generals performances are really exhibitions, not games.  Not every last detail is scripted — the final score varies — but let’s say that the general outline remains the same from one night to the next.

The Generals aren’t as dim as they are made to look, or Red Klotz would have been justified in yelling during timeouts, “Dadgummit, that’s the 200th night in a row that they’ve pulled Henderson’s shorts down to his ankles.  Would somebody please watch his backside?  And Boyd — how many times are you going to let them dribble the ball off your forehead!?”

The current roster of the Generals has guys who were solid (if not spectacular) players at schools like Kutztown U., Voorhees College, and Robert Morris University.  And if you personally feel you have some unfinished basketball business and don’t mind being away from home for months at a time, the Generals are currently looking for recruits.

“An ideal prospect,” says the team’s website, “can strike a balance between sports and entertainment.”  It also notes that “The Generals serve an important role in the Globetrotters tours and realize the final score does not always define winners.”

Another way to express that notion is how Red Klotz once described his career.  “Like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the Harlem Globetrotters have always had a dance partner,” Red said, “but I’ve always been dancing backwards.”

Chick and Donna

Not your typical Lakers fan --   "Donna", c. 1968

Not your typical Lakers fan —
“Donna”, c. 1968

“Suh-LAMM dunk!”

That’s how Chick Hearn shouted it into the microphone, making “slam” a two-syllable word, and punctuating it with at least three exclamation points.  As the announcer for the Los Angeles Lakers, Chick coined the term “slam dunk”, along with “air ball”, “garbage time”, “no harm, no foul” and lots of others that are now commonplace in basketball’s lexicon.

Hearn called Laker games from 1961 until 2002, at one point reeling off a stretch of 3,338 games without an absence.  He had a rapid-fire style; it was once estimated that he occasionally reached a breathless 200 words-per-minute pace.  Now enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, Chick Hearn was one of the most popular Lakers ever.

Among his admirers was an elderly woman we called Donna.  No one in the family knows exactly when she became a Laker enthusiast.  To the best of anyone’s recollection, she had never shown any interest in sports.  Donna became captivated by Chick’s accounts of the games, though, so on February 26, 1979, I sent Hearn this letter to tell him about her…

Dear Chick:

The whole family called Alice Stephens “Donna”.  It was more a title than a nickname, like those given to Italian noblewomen.  She was that sort of lady — courteous, proper, and unfailingly pleasant.  But she also had unabashed enthusiasm for the Los Angeles Lakers.

I didn’t get to know Donna until she was in her eighties (she was my wife’s grandmother), but every time I saw her, we always talked basketball… no, not just basketball.  Laker basketball.  They were her team, and through your descriptions, she stayed current on Jerry and Elg and Kareem and, for that mattter, John Q. (Trapp, a Laker reserve).

There was one occasion at a dinner party when she brought a portable radio to the table with her.  It seems the meal conflicted with an important game, and in spite of her otherwise impeccable manners, she wasn’t about to miss that broadcast.

My wife Sally and I want to thank you and the team for all the enjoyment you gave to an old woman.  And somehow, we also thought you should know about the loss of such a loyal fan.  Donna died in her sleep yesterday at the age of ninety-seven.

Sincerely,

Tom Reeder

♦     ♦     ♦

A couple of weeks later, I got this handwritten note from Chick.  One thing I treasure about it is the strip of adhesive that still clings to the paper where he ripped it from the note pad, suggesting that he wrote it in his usual high-velocity style…

Dear Tom + Sally

What a meaningful message!!!  I am so grateful to you for sharing “Donna’s” love of the Laker team.

God bless you both + God have mercy on Donna’s soul.

Gratefully,

Chick Hearn

♦     ♦     ♦

If you ever heard Chick Hearn call a game — that is, if you ever heard Chick give his “word’s-eye view from high above the western sideline” — his voice echoes in this note, doesn’t it?

Scientific Bowl Picks

Trojans v Sun Devils Nov 2012We may look like we’re just sitting in front of the TV eating snacks by the fistful, but we are actually studying science, right football fans?

To the discerning eye, good teams have chemistry.  Many team names are derived from biological organisms, like bears and lions and various breeds of dogs.  Physics is an especially important aspect of football; when a linebacker comes through unblocked and sacks the quarterback, we may shout “yeaahhh!”  What we’re actually thinking, though, is F=ma.  Force equals mass times acceleration.

In that scientific spirit, I spent hours (OK, a few minutes) examining statistical tables compiled from this past college football season to enlighten my opinions on upcoming bowl games.

One thing that got my attention is that almost all of the top teams have this trait in common:  strong defense.  For example, the 2012 statistical leaders in total team defense included Alabama (#1), Florida State (#2), Florida (#5), Notre Dame (#6) and LSU (#8).

While passing is a crowd-pleasing aspect of the game, it was not a crucial component for the most successful teams.  In the statistical category Team Passing Offense, well down the list were Oregon (#66), Notre Dame (#75), Alabama (#84), Kansas State (#85), LSU (#90), Stanford (#92), and Florida (#114).  Ohio State, a team that went undefeated, was 101st.  (They are not eligible to play in a bowl game until the players give back the free tattoos they received in violation of NCAA rules.)

What we conclude, then, is that the teams with the highest success rates typically a) keep their opponents from scoring very often; and b) run the ball more than they throw it.  Considering those factors, and with other statistics and guesswork mixed in, here are my predictions for some of this year’s bowl games…

Holiday Bowl     Baylor (7-5) vs. UCLA (9-4)

Baylor was first nationally in total offense, and next-to-last in total defense.  The Bears’ scrimmages must have been chaotic.  UCLA (#20 in total offense) can score enough to win.

Alamo Bowl     Texas (8-4) vs. Oregon State (9-3)

Statistically, Oregon State has a slight edge in total offense, and a significant advantage on defense.  Because it will be sort of a home game for Texas,  though, I’m going with an unscientific hunch that the Longhorns will prevail.

Chick-Fil-A Bowl     Clemson (10-2) vs. LSU (10-2)

Last year Clemson gave up 70 points to West Virginia in the Orange Bowl, and they were presumed to be good back then, too.  One team named the Tigers will win, but it won’t be Clemson.

Sun Bowl     Georgia Tech (6-7!) vs. USC (7-5)

A guy on a pogo stick could gain 100+ yards rushing against USC’s defense.  On the other hand, Georgia Tech’s pass defense surrendered 22 TDs.  Matt Barkley might add 3 or 4 more to that total in a Trojan victory.

Rose Bowl     Stanford (11-2) vs. Wisconsin (8-5)

Wisconsin likes to run the ball, but stopping the run is what Stanford does best — the Cardinal was #3 nationally in rushing defense.  I’m picking Stanford.

Orange Bowl     Northern Illinois (12-1) vs. Florida State (11-2)

Sometimes statistics can be deceptive.  Northern Illinois put up impressive numbers, but they did so against schools like Tennessee-Martin, Army, Buffalo and UMass.  In this bowl, the Huskies will discover that Florida State is no pushover.

Sugar Bowl     Florida (11-1) vs. Louisville (10-2)

As noted earlier, the Florida Gators are defensive beasts.  Louisville represents the Big East Conference.  It might be closer than that comparison would suggest, but I do think Florida will win.

Fiesta Bowl     Kansas State (11-1) vs. Oregon (11-0)

Kansas State averaged 40 points per game; Oregon averaged 50!  This could be the most entertaining game of the bowl season; both will score often but the Ducks will win.

Cotton Bowl     Texas A&M (10-2) vs. Oklahoma (10-2)

Aggie Freshman QB Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy.  Among other things, he averaged almost 100 yards per game rushing.  Oklahoma QB Landry Jones was no slouch, though; he threw for almost 4,000 yards and 29 TDs.  I’m taking the Sooners in an upset.

BCS Championship     Notre Dame (12-0) vs. Alabama (12-1)

These teams led the country in scoring defense, averaging just a tick over 10 points per game.  Alabama has the nation’s most statistically efficient QB in A.J. McCarron (26 TD, only 3 Int).  Even though I’d like to see Notre Dame break the SEC championship monopoly, the Crimson Tide will rise, and scientists will ponder its effects on marine biology.

That’s Not a Sport

The batter is Eddie Mathews of the Milwaukee Braves.

To the best of my recollection, I have never attended a game wearing face paint in my team’s colors.  I am certain that I have never sat in a stadium in December with a group of my pals, all of us shirtless in freezing weather.  Right, I know what you’re thinking:  “And you call yourself a sports fan?”

Well, yeah, I am a sports fan.  As my wife once said about me, “he’d pay to watch two guys fish.”  That’s probably not true, in part because I’m not sure fishing qualifies as a sport.  Which raises a question occasionally debated by people who have had plenty to drink:  What is a sport, and what isn’t?

It occurred to me that when Sports Illustrated published its first issue in August, 1954, they might have printed a sort of mission statement, saying (in effect), “We’ll be covering X, Y and Z.  If you want stories and pictures about bean-bag tossing, look elsewhere.”

There was no definition of sports to be found in that first issue, but there was a lengthy article called “The Golden Age Is Now”, taking the view that interest in sports was at an all-time high in 1954.  The magazine cited statistics like this:  “Tens of thousands of pin boys are kept leaping by 20 million bowlers.”  A chart of the leading U.S. spectator sports had softball first with 125 million admissions; football was fifth with 35 million.

So I put that inaugural Sports Illustrated back on the shelf and looked for help elsewhere, including several dictionaries.  Their definitions of sports (or sport) varied slightly, but the general idea was that sports are a) physical activities that are b) competitive and are c) governed by rules and d) require skill.

By those standards, we can see that 110-meter hurdle racing is a sport, but jogging to Starbucks isn’t, since it lacks elements b, c and d.

My hesitation about classifying fishing as a sport is that it’s often solitary, not competitive, and when it does get competitive, it isn’t governed by rules.

Some people don’t consider golf a sport, usually on the grounds that it isn’t a physical activity.  On the contrary:  Golf often requires a lot of exertion, especially when playing shots from weeds or water.  However, I’ll grant you that miniature golf is not a sport — not enough a or d.  Also, amateur wrestling is a sport, but professional wrestling isn’t — it’s acting.

Here are a couple of other thoughts about what separates sports from other leisure activities…

1.  Just because you can get hurt doing it doesn’t make it a sport.  You and your neighbor are extremely competitive about stringing Christmas lights, but when you fall off the roof, that’s not a sports injury.

2.  It’s not a sport if you can smoke while participating in it.  That eliminates poker, billiards, chess, bridge, and maybe fishing.

There’s some irony in the no-smoking standard, since the back cover of that very first Sports Illustrated is an advertisement that shows a guy holding a tennis racket in one hand and a cigarette in the other.  The caption reads, “You’re So Smart to Smoke Parliament.”