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Yours In Baseball Forever But College Basketball Nice, Too

This past Tuesday Feb 24 I made my first trip ever to the Xfinity Center formerly known as the Comcast Center on the University of Maryland campus in College Park.
I guess I hadn’t seen the Wisconsin Badgers live since my days in graduate school
in the late 1960s. But I follow them closely on TV, the web, and in print.

Though I haven’t forgiven the athletic department for dropping baseball in the 1980s (Wisconsin remains the only Big Ten school without varsity baseball), basketball and football have become contending programs. It all dates back to then-UW president Donna Shalala hiring Barry Alvarez as football coach. In a few years, starting in 1994, Rose Bowl appearances became frequent. (Alvarez is now athletic director.)

The hiring of Bo Ryan as basketball coach in 2001 has led to similar excellence on the hardwood. Last year they reached the Final Four and lost narrowly to the Kentucky powerhouse in a semi-final. Returning most of last year’s team, the Badgers entered Tuesday night’s game with a chance to clinch the Big Ten regular season title.

However, the Maryland Terrapins were too much for the Badgers this night.
They took control of the game in the middle of the first half and roared to a 31-20 halftime lead. Though Wisconsin led by 7’ foot center Frank Kaminsky did manage to tie the score at 47 in second half, they never reclaimed the lead. They could not stop the talented Maryland guards, high scorer Dez Wells and freshman wunderkind point guard Melo Trimble, when it mattered.

I was pleasantly surprised by the fan-friendly Xfinity Center arena. The architects have recreated the compactness and good sightlines of the storied Cole Field House that fortunately still stands less than a mile away on the campus. (It is hoped that old Cole will be turned into an indoor football practice facility.)

The yellow-gold clad Maryland faithful provided a great home court advantage to the Terps who have lost only one game at home all season. At the top of the steps heading into the main entrance of the arena, there is a little bronze statue of Testudo the Terrapin icon.
Dozens of fans rubbed the head of Testudo before they entered.

It sure brought plenty of good fortune this night. The Maryland fans' vocal support and their booing of the Badgers created an electric atmosphere that after the game Badger forward Sam Dekker paid homage to. (An improving junior, Dekker could turn pro after the season, a decision that Badger fans don't want to think about until April.)

That's it for my basketball report. Spring training has begun and in this winter from hell in the Northeast the sights of players getting ready for the season are particularly consoling. I head for the NINE Baseball magazine conference in Phoenix in less than two weeks and will be reporting back from some of the highights there.

With so many changes to so many teams, it's ridiculous to make predictions this early. I do think that the Dodgers with a new and aging double-play combination in Jimmy Rollins and Howard Kendrick are not the high-90-win lock some experts are predicting. But that's why they play the games, to see who is best.

So in the meantime, always remember: “Take it easy but take it.”
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Cheers for Columbia and Wisconsin Basketball on The Eve of Spring Training 2014

I have long believed that bad winters create good baseball fans. If so, 2014 should be a banner season because we are enduring in New York City and much of the country the worst winter in recent memory. There is no relief in sight as March is coming in as a lion with more snow predicted for next week.

At least my Columbia Lions are providing thrills and hopes for the future on the basketball court. Picked for the basement by the pre-season "experts," Columbia has established itself as a first-division team with four games to play in the Ivy League season. With no seniors on the team, the prospects are seemingly bright for the future.

Under fourth-year head coach Kyle Smith, Columbia has an aggressive team with two possible All-Ivy players in forward Alex Rosenberg and guard Maado Lo providing consistent double-digit scoring. The roster is versatile and talented and Smith is using almost all of them. They provide "deep depth," to use Earl Weaver's wonderful phrase
to describe a winning team.

Columbia baseball won the Ivy League last year and beat New Mexico in a NCAA tournament game, a first-time achievement for a Lions nine. Those dreaded "experts" now pick us to repeat but it will depend of course on merit on the field beginning at U of South Florida in Tampa Feb 28 through Mar 2.

Coach Brett Boretti enters his 9th year as head coach with a balanced squad led by tri-captains, catcher Mike Fischer, shortstop Aaron Silbar and southpaw ace David Speer. It is very pleasant to be talking about successful Lions teams and not hearing the tired jokes about moribund Columbia football that has nowhere to go but up in 2014.

The cagers at my graduate alma mater the University of Wisconsin-Madison started the year with 16 straight W's, then lost five out of six in the tough Big Ten. They now have righted the ship with seven straight wins and look poised to give a good showing in March Madness.

Spunky 66-year-old Badger coach Bo Ryan has gone to the tourney every year since he became head man in Madison in 2001. I'm rooting hard for this year's edition to go all the way into April. The emergence of 7' foot center Frank Kaminsky as an offensive threat has given Wisconsin a very potent lineup.

I spent five winters in graduate school in Wisconsin in the 1960s and bigtime sports were mediocre until Cleveland-born Donna Shalala, the former president of Hunter College of the City of New York, arrived in the 1980s. Her hiring of Barry Alvarez as football coach brought the pigskin boys to national attention and Bo Ryan has done the same for basketball. On Wisconsin!

It's been a long time since my alma maters have done so well in college basketball and I'm savoring every moment. With the opening of the baseball exhibition season I am experiencing additional pleasure..

I'm sorry, marketers, they will always be exhibition and not pre-season games for yours truly. I still cherish memories from the 1950s of listening to games from Florida on the radio. Oh, how the sounds of bat on ball and softly buzzing crowds warmed me in my eighth floor apartment in midtown Manhattan.

The Orioles have suddenly been active on the free agent front, signing RHP Ubaldo Jimenez to a four-year contract and former Texas Ranger slugger Nelson Cruz to a one-year contract. I love the latter - I wish most players in baseball were on one-year deals because the desire to get another deal next year by playing hard this year would never be doubted. Wishful thinking I know. More on spring training and how the season looks in the next post.

That's all for now. Always remember - take it easy but take it!
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