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In Praise of Wisconsin Badger Basketball + No-Baseball Blues, Part II

Saturday April 4th would have been the start of the Final Four.  It is also the 27th birthday of the great Wisconsin Badger center Frank Kaminsky who five years ago on that night led my team to a stirring semi-final victory over previously undefeated Kentucky.  

 
It was sweet revenge for a loss to the Wildcats in the 2014 Final Four semi-final. 

It is too bad that Wisconsin couldn't hold a lead in the final against Duke - cunning Coach Mike Kryzewski successfully worked the refs in the second half and the Badgers didn't respond well enough. 

 

Yet the 2014-15 Badgers remain close to most of us alums' hearts. Frank Kaminsky was the poster boy for the Badger way of patient player development.

 

After needing the first two seasons to get used to the relentless toughness of Big Ten competition, Kaminsky exploded on the scene as a junior and in his senior year was named National Player of the Year, a first-of-its-kind honor for a Badger.

 

Kaminsky is currently recovering from knee surgery and hopes to resume his journeyman's pro career with the Phoenix Suns next season (whenever next season starts).  He's been the most successful pro from a team that included forwards Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes and point guard Bronson Koenig - all have played more in Europe than in either the NBA or its developmental league.

 

The line from Kaminsky went first to Ethan Happ who gave Kaminsky fits in practice when red-shirting. If only Happ, whose first cousin BTW is Yankees southpaw J. Happ, could shoot fouls and anything outside the paint.  (Last I heard Happ was playing in Europe before the pandemic ended his season.) 

 

It's a shame that this year's Badgers never got a chance to play in the post-season tournament.  The surprise #1 seed in the never-played Big Ten Tournament roared down the stretch with a eight-game winning streak.  

 

Big men Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter showed they were worthy successors to Kaminsky, Dekker, and Happ; gritty guards Brad Davison and D'Mitrik Trice brought back memories of the Ben Brust-Josh Gasser-Traevon Jackson trio; and swing men Aleem Ford and Brevin Pritzl, the only senior on the team, had great moments as well.   

 
The pain of losing basketball at a crucial time was bad enough even if an ESPN simulation predicted the Badgers would have gone all the way. Since coach Greg Gard, a worthy successor to his former boss Bo Ryan, gave crucial minutes to only six men makes me wonder if these Badgers would have gone all the way. Alas, they never had a chance so we'll never know.

 
No March Madness, and now we are dealing with the ongoing no-baseball blues. There are so many movies one can watch on TCM before one lusts for outdoor activity and seeing live sports again.  

 

I did catch a lot of TCM's late March baseball films.  Never had seen "Pride of the Yankees" straight through and Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright as Lou and Eleanor Gehrig made for a very endearing couple.  

 

I hadn't realized that Yankee catcher Bill Dickey plays a role in the 1942 film as a defender of Gehrig, slugging a teammate who criticizes the Iron Horse as his career tragically declines.  Babe Ruth also plays himself in the film and brings a lot of Ruthian energy to the role. 

 

Alex Mankiewicz, the daughter of co-screenwriter Joe Mankiewicz, made the pertinent observation in pre-film commentary that her father did love baseball and had been a pretty decent player.

 

MLBTV, of course, is another baseball outlet for me these days. I caught on April Fool's Day the replay of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series with the Twins beating the Braves in a 1-0 10 inning thriller.   

 
I remembered it as the Jack Morris Show with the Series-winning pinch hit delivered by Columbia's Gene Larkin.  I had forgotten that it was Dan Gladden's hustle leading off the bottom of the 10th inning that set up the winning run. 

 

Gladden never stopped running on a bloop single to left center and just got into second in the nick of time. Then Chuck Knoblauch did when the analytic geniuses of today pooh-pooh, gave himself up with a 4-3 grounder that sent Gladden to third base with the winning run. 

 

After intentional walks to Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek, pinch-hitter Gene Larkin ended the drama with a first pitch single over the head of left fielder Lonnie Smith

for the World Series-winning RBI. I felt bad for reliever Alejandro Pena who had pitched two innings in Game 6 and had worked this game since the 8th. 

 

I had forgotten that the Twins had great chances to score in the 6th, 8th, and 9th innings before Gladden and Larkin delivered in the 10th.  Of course, Game 7 is most remembered for Lonnie Smith's inexplicable stopping at second base on Terry Pendleton's drive over Gladden's head in left field.

 

On a play in front of him, Smith somehow got deked by the Twins' adroit DP combo of future Yankee Knoblauch and former Yankee farmhand Greg Gagne.

Of course, Jack Morris deserves full credit for pitching out of the second and third and no out situation on his way to a stirring complete game victory.

 

I had forgotten that Sid Bream, whose slide into home on Francisco Cabrera's single beat the Pirates in the NLCS to get Braves into the Series, hit into a 3-2-3 DP that got Morris out of the 8th inning jam.  How like capricious baseball to turn a hero into a goat in a matter of days.  

 
Announcer Jack Buck annoyingly wouldn't let Smith forget the booboo for the rest of the broadcast. But to Buck's credit, he did realize that the scoreless battle was a classic in the making.  After one half-inning, he invited viewers to return after a commercial break for more "torture and pleasure". 

 
I'm sure MLB will fill the void with more great games from the past.   It is a pale substitute for the real thing, but I do believe that patience is a virtue.  It looks like we'll have a chance to be very virtuous in the weeks ahead because I cannot see a baseball season starting before summer if then. 

 
Nonetheless, as always take it easy but take it!

 

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One Man's Guide to Coping With A World Temporarily Without Sports

The sun was shining yesterday, Tuesday afternoon March 24 2020. I went outside cautiously to pick up prescription nasal sprays and shop for some more groceries.  

I kept a six-foot distance waiting on line to get in, which was impossible to maintain once you did make it to the shelves in a narrow-aisled store.  

 
The sunny day and the promise of increasing light brought me back to my younger days in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Listening on the radio to the sound of baseballs crackling on bats, and being entranced by the background sound of humming crowds as the teams played their last games in warm weather and worked their way up by train to opening day in the big cities around April 15th.  

 
I thought back to my interview with Robin Roberts during my first visit to spring training in 1979, the year I got serious about writing about baseball. The next spring my first book "The Imperfect Diamond: The Story of Baseball's Reserve and The Men Who Fought to Change It" came out, a collaboration with Tony Lupien, the former Red Sox first baseman and Dartmouth College coach.

 

Roberts, the future Hall of Fame pitcher with the Philadelphia Phillies, was in his last years of coaching at the University of South Florida in Tampa.  Along with future Hall of Fame pitcher and future U.S. Senator Jim Bunning, Roberts had been instrumental in bringing Marvin Miller into baseball to revitalize the Players Association.   

 
On this day about 41 years ago, Roberts remembered wistfully how each team used to play their regulars for five innings in smaller cities as they moved North. He sensed that already, the intimate connections of players to fans was disappearing, but it was still a poignant memory. 

 
Now we are bereft of baseball until late spring, at the earliest, because of the novel coronavirus that, as I post, could erupt even more in New York City and its environs.  Nobody knows when it will be safe to go out in groups and congregate again at ballparks and in arenas. My guess is late June at the earliest but it's just a hope. 

 
It's not that there isn't baseball news. The Mets learned yesterday that pitcher Noah Syndergaard needs Tommy John surgery and likely will be out until the middle of next season. 


I don't consider myself a pundit or a baseball seer and I'm not a doctor or athletic trainer. But I just KNEW that it was inevitable that Noah would break down.  He bragged about wanting to throw 100 mph and more almost every pitch.  

 
I also just KNEW that the ballyhooed Dylan Bundy would break down early in his Orioles career. Because he too crowed about his vigorous weight program.  Bundy has a chance to show he has become a pitcher with his new team, the Angels.  One wonders if Noah will learn anything during his enforced idleness.

 

Here's a shout-out to the documentary and great game-rebroadcast programming on MLBTV.  Check out "Joy in Wrigleyville," narrated by actor John Cusack who played Buck Weaver, the man with guilty knowledge of the fix who didn't participate in it, in John Sayles's memorable film "Eight Men Out,".  

 
It's a heartwarming film focused primarily on many lifelong Cubs fans who found joy at last when the Cubs won the 2016 World Series over the Cleveland Indians, breaking their 108-year-long drought. 

 

Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins rock band is one of the frequent talking heads. Most memorable for me were a husband-wife firefighter couple from North Carolina that drove fo Game 7 at Cleveland's Progressive Field.

 

Also very moving were two fans who came to the Series with their children. 

One of them said that every parent wants their child to fulfill its dreams.

And it is just as wonderful to watch their parents' dream fulfilled.  Even if most didn't live to see the glorious triumph that eliminated the 108 years of frustration. 

 
Another fine MLB documentary focused on pitcher Mark "The Bird" Fidrych who rocketed on the scene in 1976 to become the darling of Detroit Tiger fans and most baseball fans all over the country. Interviews with Mark's widow and daughter and teammates Rusty Staub and Mark's personal catcher Bruce Kimm added immeasurably to the production.

 

It was followed by a rebroadcast of the ABC Monday Night Baseball game in which Fidrych threw a complete game victory over the Yankees before a packed Tiger Stadium crowd.  Was nice to hear the sounds of a broadcast team that wasn't together very long on national TV - Bob Prince, Al Michaels, and Warner Wolf.

 
Don't forget TCM shows "Pride of the Yankees" after 1015p on Sunday night March 29 and airs some classic baseball films from dawn to dusk on Tuesday March 31.

 

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT!

I heard last night a tremendously informative interview with Max Brooks on Terry Gross's long-running NPR interview show "Fresh Air."  He is an incredibly knowledgeable young family man of 47, the author of both non-fiction books about civil defense and zombie fiction books including the best-selling "World War Z" from 2006. 

 

Brooks said, "Fear can be conquered but anxiety must be endured."  He advised that we all practice "fact hygiene," i.e. don't fall for conspiracy theories or pass along dubious information. 

 

Without getting snarky about it, he suggested that the President must be fact checked after all his statements.  Max Brooks is a fully credentialed defense analyst who is part of research teams at both West Point and Naval Academy institutes. 

 
Check out a 43-second PSA (Public Servic Announcer) Max put out on the internet about the importance of social distance in these nervous times.  He created the clip with his father Mel Brooks, now 93, in the background.  How Max's mother the late Anne Bancroft would be proud of her son.

 
Here are a couple more cultural notes.  I watched on Amazon Prime Mariette Heller's "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood," a drama about Pittsburgh's beloved the late Mr. (Fred) Rogers, the children's TV star. 

 

Heller and her staff, including her brother Nate who wrote much of the music, had the full cooperation of the Rogers Foundation including access to his closet and his famous sweater and sneakers.  I haven't seen the 2018 Rogers documentary, but "Neighborhood" is a truly deep dive into a man who truly believed that "everything mentionable is manageable." 

 
The cast is superb with Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers (Hanks sadly is now in quarantine with his wife Rita Wilson in Australia, who also carries the coronavirus) and Maryann Plunkett as Mrs. Rogers.  

 

In a key role Matthew Rhys plays the journalist who is interviewing Rogers for a magazine story; Susan Watson as Rhys's wife; Chris Cooper as the overbearing father of Rhys' character (based on the Esquire magainze writer Tom Junod), and the glamorous Christine Lahti in a brief but important role as Rhys's demanding editor. 

 
Mariette Heller is only 41 and I loved her prior film, "Will You Ever Forgive Me?" about the literary forger Lee Israel starring Melissa McCarthy who got a deserved Oscar nomination for making a not very pleasant woman very human and relatable. (We all owe a debt to Melissa for her hilarious takedown of press secretary Sean Spicer on Saturday Night Live early in the Trump years.)

 
I love so-called classical music and there is a marvelous moment in "Neighborhood" where Mr. and Mrs. Rogers are playing a duo-piano version of a gorgeous piece by Robert Schumann, "Pictures From The East," op. 66.  

 
Talking about special moments, I was listening yesterday to WQXR, NYC's only classical music station, and I heard a stunning vocal piece, "In My Father's Garden," by Alma Mahler. It was written before Alma Schindler at age 22 married the great German composer Gustav Mahler who was 41.

 

In a terrible commentary on the age of patriarchy, he forbade her from writing any more music while married to him. What marvelous new tones and sounds she would have created if he had been more tolerant. 

 

She did live a half century after Gustav died in 1911 but none of her later music had the deep creative vein of her earlier work.  (She did become the subject of Tom Lehrer's classic ditty about her marriages to other German notables, writer Franz Werfel and architect Walter Gropius.)

 
Well, that's all for now.  Back to you next month hoping we see some light at the end of the tunnel of the enforced and necessary hiatus on sports.  In the meantime, now more than ever, always remember: Take it easy but take it.   

 

 

 

 

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