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Pitchers and Catchers Have Reported, but I Must Admit College Basketball Still Grabs My Attention

The Northeast has been experiencing a record-breaking heat wave. Well, "heat" is a bit of an exaggeration - temps in lower 60s - but I've been parading around my Upper West Side NYC neighborhood in my Cape Cod Summer Baseball League sweatshirt without need for an overcoat.

(The CCBL, by the way, should be on any baseball fan's bucket list: Games at no cost from early June to early August with some of the best amateur players in competition - many of them are on the cusp of pro careers. More info: check out www.ccbl.org)

The main thing about spring training is to get and keep everyone healthy before the season begins. In the days of the reserve system when players had to work in the off-season, spring training was a time for getting into shape and losing weight.

Today, the six weeks or more in Florida or Arizona might seem excessive because smart players stay in shape all year round. But who wants to give up the relaxed environment of warm weather climates?

Just don't believe any spring training stats esp. during the first few weeks of exhibition games. Yes, exhibition games were what they used to be called and should still be called. "Pre-season" sounds more serious and it allows ticket prices to reach the ridiculous $40 and $50 range and even higher.

Turning to the hardwood game, the Wisconsin Badgers broke their two-game losing streak with a much-needed home win on Sunday Feb 19 over the Maryland Terps.
The two big Badger frontcourtmen sophomore Ethan Happ and senior Nigel Hayes led the way in scoring.

But it was the second half return to form of senior leader Bronson Koenig that triggered the Badger victory. A calf injury caused Koenig to miss the loss at Michigan earlier in the week, but after not scoring in limited first half action Sunday, Koenig hit a couple of jump shots that really triggered the comeback win.

As Koenig goes so goes the Badgers is the short story of the 2016-2017 squad. He has much on his plate as he is also an activist in the native American movement against the Dakota pipeline.

I noticed today huge tattoos on his chest honoring his Ho-Chunk heritage. The team has been supportive of his commitment because there is no doubt that he remains a court leader in the Badgers' quest to go deep into the post-season.

Yet winning the Big Ten title and hoisting another banner at the Kohl Center home court means a lot to the team and to me as a semi-fanatical alum. Wisconsin is tied with Purdue in the Big Ten title race with Maryland a game behind with four games to play.

The Big Ten may be down this year according to the pollsters and the tournament seeding mavens, but the competition level remains high. I only wish the refs would use more restraint in their dishing out technicals to benches.

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon got one in the Wisconsin game, and it was nice to see his assistants calming him down to keep him from being ejected. The T did not affect the final outcome because Wisconsin controlled the game from the middle of the second half.

The T on the Michigan bench in the tough struggle against Minnesota at Minneapolis Sunday night basically determined the outcome. Though Michigan gallantly fought back to force overtime, the Wolverines would have won except for the technical.

In the Ivy League, home of my other alma mater Columbia, the Lions have lost excruciatingly close games the last two weekends. After an 0-5 start Penn has roared back into playoff contention.

The Quakers jumped ahead of the Lions for the fourth and last spot in the first-ever Ivy League tournament. It is coming up the second weekend of March at Penn's legendary home court the Palestra.

Columbia meets the Killer P's, Princeton and Penn, at home this coming weekend.
Odds are long now against the Lions but they will compete and compete hard. Of that I am sure. How well and how smart is another question that will decided on the court.

On the women's side, Columbia broke a three-game losing streak Saturday night by thumping Dartmouth 69-48. Picked for last in the Ivy League, the Lions under new coach Megan Griffith has won 3 games in the league and lost some very close ones.
They need one more win in their last four games to be assured of an overall winning record for the season.

Junior Camille Zimmerman is a legitimate Player of the Year candidate as a consistent 20-point scorer who tries her hardest to work within the team framework.

Perhaps the most optimistic event of the weekend was the play of first year guards Janiya Clemmons and Maya Sampleton. Rushed into action because of injuries to upperclassmen, they both performed with poise.

Clemmons has a chance to be an electrifying player because she always keeps her head up and is eager and willing to drive to the hoop, not afraid of making mistakes.
As long as the Lions keep playing outstanding defense, they have a real chance in future seasons to crash the Ivy League women's cage elite.

That's all for now - until the next time, always remember: Take it easy but take it.
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New York Scouts Dinner and A Memorable Basketball Saturday

The annual Hot Stove League dinner sponsored by the New York-area baseball scouts has always provided many memorable moments. Last Friday's 52nd annual gathering at Leonard's of Great Neck maintained the fine tradition.

Several ovations were deservedly bestowed upon dinner organizer Billy Blitzer whose 35 consecutive years with the Cubs were finally rewarded in November. But emcee Ed Randall, who joined Billy in donning a Cubs World Series shirt, couldn't resist telling some jokes that no longer apply.

My favorite: "What would Jesus tell the Chicago Cubs?" Answer: "Don't do anything until I come back."

Guest speaker Art Shamsky called his experience on the 1969 Mets the highlight of his career. He said the team's success permanently inscribed his name in the book of New York heroes. He added that he didn't mind having a dog named for him in the "Everybody Loves Raymond" TV show.

Shamsky shared some tales of earlier Mets teams. After beginning their first two seasons losing 9 and then 8 games in a row, the Mets were rained out the following year in their first series in Cincinnati. Before their home opener, announcer Ralph Kiner quipped, "The Mets are off to the best start in their history."

Cincinnati scout John Ceprini, the winner of the group's prestigious Turk Karam award as Scout of the Year, was moved by Shamsky's appreciation of his career. Ceprini paid homage to the mentors who had encouraged him on his path towards scouting.

San Francisco Giants scouting honcho John Barr, who was awarded the Jim Quigley award for service to baseball, concluded the evening with some indelible insights into the scouting profession.

"Listen to the sound off the bat," George Digby, who signed Wade Boggs, told him.

"Who can help us win?" asked Joe McIlvaine, who was with the Mets when Barr started in his career in the 1980s. (Barr went on to work with the Orioles where he signed number one draft picks in Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina.)

"Sit on a guy . . . See him when he fails . . . See him in another sport where he is not so dominant. . . . How comfortable does he look?"

No need to attribute these quotations to anybody. They are eternal truths - if only the number-crunchers and "advanced metrics" people would understand.

I do take solace in the great saying - "It's amazing what you can accomplish if you don't care about who gets the credit."

Before I close, I must kvell a bit about my dream basketball Saturday. All three teams that I follow closely won games and I saw two of them in person.

My girl friend's alma mater Davidson, avenging a loss at home earlier in January, walloped Fordham at the marvelous oldest-in-country Rose Hill gym in the Bronx.

My alma mater Columbia held on to beat Harvard on Morningside Heights and improve to 3-1 tied with Yale and Harvard and 1/2 game behind Princeton.

And my graduate alma mater Wisconsin rallied to beat Rutgers in overtime at Madison Square Garden. The Badgers are living on the edge in recent games but they sure know how to win.

Redshirt sophomore center Ethan Happ, first cousin of Blue Jays LHP J. Happ, scored 32 of Wisconsin's 61 points. He only went 8-16 on the foul line and that shortcoming remains a major problem. Yet all other aspects of his game - footwork, quickness, willingness to learn, and will to win - Happ inspires hope!

To make Saturday January 28 a day to live long in Wisconsin annals, the hockey team also won an overtime game at the Garden over Ohio State in the evening.

And here's one more overtime story - the Columbia women's basketball team, picked for last in the Ivy League, beat Dartmouth in FOUR overtimes on Friday night. They lost by only 2 at Harvard the following night. As an unrepentant puller for underdogs, these developments are most promising. (I attended Columbia's other 4-overtime win about a quarter century ago.)

I wish the Knicks well but I cannot lose sleep over THEIR four-overtime loss on Sunday to the Atlanta Hawks. Until there are changes in ownership at the Garden,
I fear the Knicks will be spinning their wheels.

Well, that's all for now. Pitchers and catchers report in two weeks, tournament time nears in basketball, and the days are getting longer. A really exciting time of year in spite of all the political uncertainties.

So always remember: Take it easy but take it!  Read More 
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