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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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Troubled Musings on Baseball + Farewells to Carl Reiner & Johnny Mandel & More TCM Tips (updated)


I cannot say that I'm looking forward with any eagerness to the delayed opening of the MLB season on July 23 and 24. There are too many public health complications that could arise because of the still-uncontrolled coronavirus.  

 
Although travel will be mainly regional in the shortened 60-game regular season, teams will still be constantly on the road interacting with local populations that too often have disdained mask wearing and social distancing.   It may also be too much to expect the virile young players themselves to obey these rules and stick to their hotels while on the road.

 

There have already been some significant player defections. The biggest names so far who won't play at all in 2020 are Dodgers new southpaw David Price; Giants onetime All-Star catcher Buster Posey who doesn't want to put at risk his newly adopted infant twin daughters; and the Braves all-around outfielder Nick Markakis whose concern grew when he talked with his star teammate, first baseman Freddie Freeman who is already suffering with Covid-19.     

 
The quietly productive Markakis has 2355 career hits and will hurt his outside chance of reaching the magic number of 3000. Markakis was an Orioles mainstay for the first nine years of his career. But Baltimore blundered by not re-signing him after the 2014 season (sigh and double sigh. And still-active and productive Nelson Cruz too - more sighs.)   

 
Even before Freeman's affliction, Markakis was not thrilled at playing a season in empty stadiums. A gamer and a quiet leader, Nick liked playing in front of and for fans.  Perhaps he also remembered that game in 2013 when the Orioles played the White Sox in an empty Camden Yards after the riots sparked by Freddie Gray's death in police custody.  

 
As always, Houston's new manager Dusty Baker expressed some trenchant thoughts about baseball's situation during the pandemic. Interviewed during the Fourth of July weekend on WFAN's 33rd anniversary, he said he had used his time off clearing out a lot of unneeded stuff from closets and garages in his home.  

 
"We have too much," he noted.  The very charitable and socially conscious Baker, who at 71 is the oldest manager in MLB, said he donated a lot of material to garage sales and the homeless.  

 
Houston may have caught a break by the enforced idleness because the booing of the Astros in abbreviated spring training was intense.  Of course, the high tech-low comedy sign-stealing scandal occurred under previous manager A. J. Hinch and bench coach Alex Cora. 

 
Life must go on even in a pandemic.  "There is no wealth but life" remains my favorite adage courtesy of John Ruskin the British social theorist and art historian (who had no discovered connection to baseball, at least at press time).  


Here on the Upper West Side of New York City, we seem to be practicing social distancing and mask wearing very well.  The permanent closing of many restaurants and stores is very sad, but I was able this weekend to dine in the outdoors. Under Phase 3 recovery regulations,  surviving eateries are allowed to set up as many tables on sidewalks as space allows.

 
Before I close, I want to salute the memory of two nonagenarian creators who left us since I last posted: Composer-arranger Johnny Mandel, 94, and actor-comedian-writer Carl Reiner, 98.

 
I never met Carl Reiner but his role as a second banana to Sid Caesar on NBC Saturday  night's "Your Show of Shows" was a formative part of my first TV viewing in the early 1950s.  

 
Some of Reiner's bits with Caesar are etched forever in my brain.  Like his playing the title role in "The Dancing Doughboy" skit, a satire on World War I.  Poor Sid goes off to war while Carl is at home singing and dancing.  That's why you're fighting overseas, he tells Sid. So he can have fun at home.   


Or the Scrabble game where Reiner questions a strange word that Caesar has put down, and Sid challenges Carl's "MACHINE":  "What's this "MAC HINE?  That's not a word, it's a name." 

 
Reiner was truly American entertainment's Renaissance man.  He was Mel Brooks' interviewer on the hilarious "2000 Year Old Man" albums; director of TV's "Dick Van Dyke Show" and many movies; and of course father of actor-director Rob Reiner who first came to fame as Archie Bunker's son-in-law aka "Meathead". 

 
Dear reliable TCM will devote the evening and early morning hours on Th July 28 to a Reiner salute beginning with the semi-autobiographical "Enter Laughing" at 8p, followed by "All of Me" with Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin at 10p, "The Comic" at midnight, "Where's Poppa" at 2a, and "Oh God!" with George Burns at 330a.

 
While I'm plugging TCM's great programming, set your dials this coming Saturday night July 18 for "Bogie in 1941".  Coming at us back-to-back: "Maltese Falcon" at 8p, followed by "High Sierra" at 10p.  Earlier at 2p from 1944, Dick Powell breaks permanently free from his goody-two-shoes persona in "Murder, My Sweet". 

 

If that's not enough, at midnight Eddie Muller's Noir Alley features "Three Strangers" 1946 with that memorable duo of Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet plus Geraldine Fitzgerald all tied together by one winning lottery ticket. 

 

TCM program note:  After July 25-26 "The Breaking Point," John Garfield's last film, Noir Alley will be on hiatus in August, but happily will return the second weekend in September.

 
Another great loss to our culture recently was Johnny Mandel, 94, in southern California. The New York-born composer-arranger - his early schooling was at PS 6 on Upper East Side - gifted the world with many great movie melodies.

 

A partial list includes "The Shadow of Your Smile" (from "The Sandpiper" with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton); "Emily" (from the "Americanization of Emily" with James Garner and Julie Andrews); "Suicide Is Painless" (the theme from "M*A*S*H); and a particular favorite of mine, the chromatically lush "Close Enough For Love" (from "Agatha").  

 

"I Want to Live" was his early breakthrough score in the 1950s, based on the real story of the jazz-loving unfairly-convicted murderer Barbara Graham (Susan Hayward). 

 
In one of my last interviews for WBAI-Pacifica in 1991, I visited Mandel when he was staying at a hotel in New York.  For all the great acclaim he received for his writing for movies, he considered playing horns in the Count Basie band in the 1950s his greatest musical thrill.  

 
We lost another great nonagenarian movie composer last week when Ennio Morricone died at 91.

 

And finally, here's a hoist of a glass to film-maker Kevin Rafferty, who left us much too early at age 73.  His doc. about the nuclear industry, "The Atomic Cafe," is a renowned classic.  

 
I discovered his work through his enjoyable and informative documentary "Harvard Beats Yale, 29-29," about the 1968 classic football encounter between two undefeated Ivy League powerhouses.  Viewing this film might take the sting away from the recent announcement that there will be no Ivy League football in the fall of 2020. 

 

Let's hope these great creators are never forgotten.  And those younger amongst us can find inspiration for such memorable fulfillment in our work. 

 
Always remember:  Take it easy but take it!  

 

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