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Tough Times for My Life As A Fan + Tribute to the Retired Nick Markakis & RIP Marvelous Marvin Hagler (updated)

The Ides of March 15th find me dealing with three aching disappointments in my life as a fan.

 

**Wisconsin's late-season collapse, early exit from Big Ten basketball tournament, and slippage to a #9 seed in "March Madness" tourney. 

 

**The second straight season with no Columbia or any Ivy League baseball because of the pandemic. 

 

**The plummeting of the Orioles into baseball's netherworld.

 

As the Badgers' slide became evident in the last few weeks, I thought often of a great quote by former coach Bo Ryan:  "We judge our players by what it takes to disappoint them."  Sadly, on a heavily-senior team, the Badgers' loss of confidence in themselves and each other was painful to watch.  

 

Supposedly coach Greg Gard, Ryan's former assistant who lobbied hard for him to get the job, has a good recruiting class coming. It will have to be because the Big Ten is the toughest league in college basketball. 

 

Anyone who saw Illinois win the post-season tourney yesterday in overtime over a very resilient Ohio State will attest to that. Kudos to Illini point guard Andre Kurbelo, the Big Ten Freshman of the Year, who played high school ball in Bay Shore, Long Island.  So did the valuable Buckeye reserve Zed Key.  

 

Perhaps the most appropriate name for today's world is Buckeyes' talented forward 6' 7" Justice Sueing, a transfer from Cal-Berkeley who comes from Honolulu.  It prompted CBS sportscaster former coach Bill Raftery to bring up the name of Red Rocha, who starred for and later coached the University of Hawaii. I remember him playing in front court with Dolph Schayes on the Syracuse Nationals. 

 

Illinois is a number one seed in the Midwest regional that includes Rutgers, making its first NCAA appearance in 30 years, as a #10 seed against #7 Clemson. They will play games starting this Fri March 19.

 

Michigan will be #1 seed in East regional that includes #10 Maryland against #7 UConn. The likely loss of senior starter Isaiah Livers is a big blow to the Wolverines. Mike Smith, the talented Columbia graduate transfer/point guard, took on more of the offensive load in the tourney loss to Ohio State and it didn't work out. 

 

In the same regional as Michigan, #2 Alabama plays #15 Iona coached by Rick Pitino who after bellyaching about Covid delays all season did lead his team to the tourney.  These games start Sat March 20 and the round is concluded Su Mar 22.

 

A twist in this regional is that perennial powers Michigan State and UCLA will have a play-in game on Th Mar 18 with winner facing Brigham Young on Sat. This will be the first tourney without Duke and Kentucky and their ballyhooed coaches Mike Kryzewski and John Calipari - unless Covid causes another team in their leagues to drop out. Then they could be possible replacements.

 

Ohio State is a #2 seed in a South regional that starts F Mar 19.  #9 Wisconsin plays against #8 North Carolina

with the winner having the unenviable task of playing #1 seed Baylor on Su Mar 21. I presume that Baylor beats one of this year's Cinderella entrants, Hartford. #4 Purdue is in the same bracket playing Winthrop. 

 

The West bracket is headed by #1 overall seed Gonzaga, trying to be first undefeated team to go all the way since 1976.  They impressed me last week by quickly making up a 12-point halftime deficit against a good Brigham Young team, then winning going away.

 

#2 Iowa might possibly stand in Gonzaga's way though the Zags beat Hawkeyes in regular season. I think Gonzaga gets a break by having less in-person press coverage and fewer fans because of the pandemic.  They won't hear as much of the 24/7 litany, "You've never won the Big One."

 

The Big Ten teams may have somewhat of an advantage having played their tourney in the same huge arena where the concluding games will be played.  In a single elimination tourney, though, the unpredictable often happens so there is no sure bet this year.

 

Because there was no tournament in 2020, every senior can return for an extra year of eligibility. No word yet on how many veterans will take care of that opportunity. 

 

I don't think it's likely, but I'd like to see Micah Potter come back to the Badgers.  They desperately need big men who can tangle with the Big Ten behemoths, and Potter deserves another year because the NCAA kept him ineligible longer than most players who transferred - in Potter's case from Ohio State.

 

I think I've gotten so into college basketball this year because my baseball rooting interests have taken a big hit.

Ivy League baseball has been canceled for the second year in a row. I dearly miss going to root on always-competitive Columbia baseball.  PSAL high school baseball is slated to return to NYC in May and that hopefully will be pulled off.    

 

As for the Orioles, the pundits have already determined that they have zero chance of the post-season. So far the Birds' lack of offense and pitching woes in exhibition games are living down to these expectations.  

 

I've been around long enough not to treat early results too seriously. Former Oriole pitching coach (and later Brewers manager) Staten Island-bred George Bamberger once said that a 14-12 record in spring training was acceptable:  An above-.500 record and just enough losses to test one's ability to bounce back the next day. 

 

But the way Orioles look so far - 3-10 record averaging barely a run a game -  they will be lucky to enjoy a two-game winning streak this year.  So let's turn to the memories. Even here they are bittersweet.

 

Nick Markakis, 37, just retired after a 15-year-career marked by remarkable consistency. He played his first eight seasons with the Orioles, compiling a .288 BA, .358 on-base average, .435 slugging average.

In seven seasons with the Braves, the numbers were quite similar:  .288/.358/.403.  

 

A rare new-fangled statistic that caught my attention is that Markakis retired with 2388 career hits and only 1969 swings and misses.  His career BB-K ratio was 891-1230, quite good in the free-swinging age he played in. 

 

In Baltimore, he won three Gold Gloves as a right fielder. He was blessed with an impressive arm and knew how to use it - some scouts even envisioned him as a pitcher (two decades earlier, some scouts had similar thoughts about Cal Ripken Jr.) 

 

Markakis as an Oriole averaged almost 150 games a season. The number would have been higher if he hadn't been hit by an errant CC Sabathia pitch that broke his hand in September 2012 - he missed the Orioles' return to the playoffs after a 15-year absence.

 

In 2019 he finally made the All-Star game.  In 2020 he elected not to play during the shortened season. But when teammate Freddie Freeman came down with a serious Covid case, Markakis un-retired.  He contributed to the 2020 playoff team but looked overmatched in his ABs during the Braves' NLCS loss in seven games to the eventual World Series-winning Dodgers.

 

Markakis was one of those players who was far more than the numbers on his baseball card.    He was a complete player and a quiet team leader.  His professionalism will be missed.  

 

Owner Peter Angelos's decision not to re-sign Nick after the 2014 season certainly was a factor in the slide of the team to its current state of embarrassment. Angelos was hesitant to give him a fourth year because of a neck injury that was ultimately healed by surgery when he was a Brave. 

 

One final note - RIP - Marvelous Marvin Hagler, former middleweight champion of the world, died in New Hampshire on Saturday March 13 at the age of 66.  Born in Newark, NJ, he was raised in Brockton, Mass. when his mother decided to flee the urban riots in the 1960s.

  

I was at the theatre-TV showing of his classic 1985 bout with Detroit's Thomas Hearns.  It remains one of the most amazing bouts in history even if it ended in less than three rounds with a bleeding Hagler knocking Hearns out.

 

After losing a disputed decision to Sugar Ray Leonard for only his third loss in the ring, Hagler moved to Italy to make movies.  

 

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

 

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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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