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Proud To Be A Badger! + Thoughts on World Baseball Classic

Wisconsin basketball has surprised the pundits and even many loyal fans like yours truly by making the Sweet 16 of the NCAA basketball tournament for the fourth year in a row. To make matters even sweeter, their chance to make a third Final Four in the last four seasons will take place at Madison Square Garden starting Friday March 24.

Funny how things work out in unpredictable sports. With four seniors in the starting lineup plus the gifted redshirt sophomore Ethan Happ (a guard in a forward's body), the Badgers were supposed to contend for both a Big Ten title and a deep run through March Madness.

Then calamity hit late in the regular season as Wisconsin lost five out of their six Big Ten games ceding the league title to Purdue and their player-of-year candidate Caleb Swanigan. The return to health of senior guard Bronson Koenig helped get Wisconsin out of their funk and they won their first two games in the Big Ten tournament.

They did lose the title game to Michigan that joins them in the Sweet 16 along with Purdue. Watch out for Michigan that survived a near-plane crash on the way to the Big Ten tournament to become a force to be reckoned with.

Bravos in order for a supposedly mediocre Big 10 while the ballyhooed Atlantic Coast Conference started the tourney with 9 teams and they are down to one, North Carolina who were lucky to beat Arkansas in the second round.

According to the website uwbadgers.com, there will be an open practice at MSG for the Badgers on Thursday at 1p. I intend to go and will report back after the games.
I say "games" because if Wisconsin beats Florida starting at 10p Fri on TBS, they play in the final against either Baylor or South Carolina on Sunday afternoon.

Meanwhile the World Baseball Classic winds up at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles on Wednesday night March 22. Puerto Rico nipped the Kingdom of Netherlands on Monday night taking advantage of the bizarre rule that starts the 11th inning with runners automatically on first and second base and no out.

Puerto Rico will face either USA or defending champion Japan. They are squaring off on Tuesday night March 21. Regardless of the result, Team USA has already experienced a great moment when Adam Jones robbed Manny Machado of a home run that kept the lead for USA and ultimately eliminated the DR team.

It was a special moment for at least two reasons. Jones and Machado are teammates on my Orioles but Manny decided to honor his mother's country of birth by playing for the DR team. Manny tipped his cap to Jones for his great catch as the USA avenged the DR's dramatic victory in Miami a week earlier.

From all I've heard and read, the atmosphere at Marlins Stadium was unlike anything ever experienced. A largely Dominican sold-out crowd were celebrating their heroes and the game of baseball from hours before the first pitch to hours afterward.

The DR team roared back from a 5-0 deficit to win 7-5, thanks in big part to a 3-run home run by Seattle Mariner Nelson Cruz over his former Oriole teammate Andrew Miller (now with Cleveland).

There are a lot of problems with the timing and the mechanisms of the WBC. But the great moments have made it worthwhile, especially when you consider the boredom and increasingly superficiality of most spring training games.

Well, that's all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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Kicking Cancer's Ass and Other Memorable Moments from the NYC Baseball Writers Dinner

The 94th annual dinner of the New York chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America was held this past Saturday night January 21st at New York's Hilton Hotel. Last year’s dinner was canceled by a blizzard so there was a lot of pent-up enthusiasm for this year’s shindig.

The evening did not disappoint with a fine mixture of levity and serious comment.
Mets general manager Sandy Alderson twitted the writers for the awkwardness of their group’s acronym BBWAA. “Don’t you know baseball is one word?” he asked.

Sandy obviously forgot that Base Ball for a long time in its early decades was indeed two words. But on a winter’s night with still three weeks to spring training, who expects exactitude?

Alderson accepted “The Toast of the Town” award for former Mets pitcher ageless Bartolo Colon who will play for the Atlanta Braves in 2017. He relived with relish Colon’s remarkable homer in San Diego off James Shields. “In front of the #7 line army,” he recalled about the ardent traveling group of Mets fans.

Indians manager Terry Francona presented two awards. One was to his reliever Andrew Miller who pitched remarkably after his July trade from the Yankees. “If you look closely, he’s still icing his left arm,” Francona quipped.

Francona, who everybody calls Tito in honor of his father a former player, also presented Cubs pitcher Jon Lester with the Babe Ruth award for his postseason MVP. Lester not only was a key cog helping Francona’s Bosox to win the 2004 and 2007 World Series, but “he kicked cancer’s ass,” his admiring manager added.

In accepting the award for NL Manager of the Year, LA Dodger rookie skipper Dave Roberts noted that he also had “kicked cancer’s ass.” He thanked Jed Hoyer, now president of the Cubs, for giving him his first job with the Padres organization in 2010 once his treatment was over.

You can see why Roberts has drawn universal praise from every realm of baseball. He walked up to the low dais and quipped, “I am the first person tonight who doesn’t have to bend down to the microphone.”

Turning serious, he said that the game “was in a good place” and will be as long as we remember that “we’re all stewards of the game.”

Retired Dodger first baseman Steve Garvey gave a warm introduction to sportswriter Claire Smith who will be inducted at the end of July into the writer’s wing in Cooperstown. When his 1984 Padres teammates refused to let Smith into their clubhouse, Garvey came out into the hallway and answered every question she asked.

“If I can’t stand up for a friend, who can I stand up for?” he said. In her gracious remarks, Smith reflected on her first year on the baseball beat - she covered the 1982 Yankees that under impetuous George Steinbrenner ran through 3 managers, 6 general managers, and 54 players. “You had to fight for everything you got,” she said, adding it was “the best journalism school you can get.”

By Valentine’s Day the greatest phrase in the English language will ring true again: “Pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training.” So keep the faith, dear readers, and back to you next with a report on the 52nd annual NYC Pro Baseball Scouts dinner this Friday.

Until then, always: Take it easy but take it!
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