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Three Cheers for Giannis + A Modest Suggestion for A Baseball Rule Change

I'm not the greatest fan of the NBA.  The old adage, "You only have to watch the last few minutes of a game" to find out a result still holds true IMO. 


Yet the recent championship run of the Milwaukee Bucks led by the remarkable Mr. Everything Giannis Antetokounmnpo deserves plaudits. His is really a Horatio Alger story about a Greek-Nigeria immigrant who came to this country with his family and rose through hard work and talent to the pinnacle of a major sport. 


He wasn't a widely regarded "can't miss" recruit but the Bucks took a chance on him and he rewarded the team and its fans with only their second NBA title and the first since 1971.  It was nice to see stars of that earlier team, Oscar Robertson and Kareem-Abdul Jabbar (still known in 1971 as Lew Alcindor), seated together during Game 4 as the Bucks evened the series against the Phoenix Suns. 


As a free agent, Giannis turned down bigger offers from more glamorous teams.  He chose being comfortable in his surroundings and with his teammates and ignored the popular notion that "the gra$$ is always greener on the other $ide of the track$."  


Another touch of class Giannis displayed was after the final Game 6 victory over the Suns in Game 6, he invited Phoenix coach Monty Williams into the Bucks' locker room to pay homage to his worthy opponent. 


That was a remarkable moment and speaks volumes about what kind of real sportsman as well as competitor Giannis Antetokoumnpo really is.  Once you break it down, his name is not too hard to pronounce.  It sure is classier and more respectful than calling him "The Greek Freak".    


Knick fans should remember Monty Williams who drafted him and let him go too soon. It is so hard to repeat in any sport or league these days, pro or college, but it would be nice to see a repeat of these two teams from smaller markets.


An ironic sidebar to the thrilling Game 6 was the fine play of Suns backup center Frank Kaminsky, the former Wisconsin Badger great who was once the national Player of the Year.


One final note of praise for the Bucks - they drafted on July 29 Mike Smith, formerly of Columbia and the University of Michigan.  He is a undersized point guard to be sure, but he showed during Michigan's thrilling 2021 ride to the Elite Eight that he possesses a lot of skills as ball-handler and leader. 



I fear that the gap between the rich and the poor in baseball will now be wider than ever.  There is no relegation principle in American sports as there is in European soccer.  If you are consistently bad in European soccer, you get demoted to a lower league.  Not so in America.


So it looks like the underclass of teams without a prayer of competing for a title will grow.  Recent members have included my Woerioles (with one of the weakest starting pitching staffs in baseball history), Pirates, Rangers, Diamondbacks. Marlins, Rockies, Tigers (though they have had a good season even if still under .500), Royals, and quite possible the Angels despite the presence of Shohei Ohtani and now oft-injured Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon. 


After the stripping of many of their core players, it looks like the Cubs, Nationals, Twins, and the soon-to-be-renamed Cleveland Guardians will join the also-rans.  As always, there is nothing that fans and loyalists can do about this unfortunate situation.


The current Basic Agreement expires in December.  It will be very interesting to see if there is an any consideration of the current lack of "competitive balance" throughout baseball. I'm not holding my breath. Especially since financial aid to the poorer teams was eliminated in the last Basic Agreement.


Here is one minor change in the rules that Jim Henneman, Baltimore's astute sportswriter, has suggested.

Why not eliminate the bunt rule where a bunt with two strikes is an automatic out?  Let every bunt be considered just another foul ball. 


The reasoning is that such a new rule would keep the third baseman near his normal position and not playing right field on two-strike counts as so often happens under the new "analytic" schemes. Padres third baseman Manny Machado has made some spectacular throws from the right field corner, but I can give them up for a return to relatively normal positioning.


If commissioner Manfred could institute by fiat this season the three-batter-minimum rule for relief pitchers, maybe he can bring up the bunt change up and get bipartisan agreement.  Not predicting anything positive happening but as someone who believes in "least worst" solutions, changing the bunt rule might be a good place to start. 


It may not be as ludicrous as it sounds because so many players are coming from college programs where the bunt is still a big part of the game. It might be easier to implement than one might think.  


That's all for now.  Next time I'll report on my experience at Chautauqua teaching Baseball and American Culture again with the focus on the period from the Black Sox Scandal through westward expansion of MLB in 1950s.


Until then, remember to stay positive, test negative, and take it easy but take it!  

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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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