Nothing Could Be Finer Than Carolina….

Well, next exactly. I have the Tar Heels to win it all. I have three of the Final Four. I am leading my NCAA pool after 60 games. But none of that is good enough.

Even if the Tar Heels win the national championship, I’m losing my pool to the winner of the Memphis-UCLA game. If UCLA wins, goes to the finals and loses to UNC, I lose by one point.; If Memphis wins and loses to Carolina, I lose.

Either way I lose. Loser. Sure, I still have a good shot at finishing in the money. But that’s not good enough when winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.

Like I said three weeks ago, toughest pool in America is Comms Before the Storm.

Empty Seats at Yankee Stadium


As the Yankees get set to open their final season in the original (albeit renovated) Yankee Stadium, look ahead to what I predict will be the toughest ticket in New York sports history — Opening Day at the new Yankee Stadium in 2009.

Yankee tickets weren’t always tough tickets. Even during the great championship runs and dynasties, an SRO crowd in the Bronx was a novelty, not a daily occurrence. Yes kids, there was a time, not that long ago, that the average fan could buy an average price ticket and see the Bombers in person.

Heck, as kid I used to take the El down from Woodlawn, buy a $1.50 general admission ticket for 75 cents with my high school G.O. card, and sit wherever I wanted in a half empty upper deck for a Sunday doubleheader.

Remember 1966, when Yankee announcer the legendary Red Barber was fired for telling his audience that only 413 fans filled the Stadium for a game against the Chicago White Sox.

Those days are gone, forever. Prices for field championship boxes this year range from $325 to $400. Forget about a luxury suite.

Over the past few years, as the Yankees and their fans began counting down the seasons in “The House that Ruth Built,” tickets have been more and more difficult to come by. A weeknight game with Texas in July has become an event.

And if it’s a tough ticket now, it will be a tougher ticket next year in the new Stadium, with more luxury suites and corporates and even higher prices.

Gone are the days of empty seats at Yankee Stadium.

What Are The Odds?

What are the odds? The Giants have played in four Super Bowls, all since 1987. In those games, they have faced two Hall of Fame quarterbacks — John Elway and Jim Kelly — a certain Hall of Famer to-be in Tom Brady, and rag-armed vagabond Trent Farris Dilfer.

Yes that same Trent Dilfer who has played for five teams and thrown more interceptions than touchdowns. The same Trent Dilfer who was recently released by a terrible 49ers team, perhaps signalling the end of a nondescript, 14-year NFL career.

The Giants won three of those four Super Bowls. The one they lost — a 34-7 beating in 2001 — Dilfer was the quarterback for the Ravens. Go figure.

Like I said, what are the odds?

Survive And Advance

March Madness….survive and advance….laying it all on the line, agonizing over a turnover, exulting after a long three. Sweating it out until the final buzzer.

College basketball players? Heck no, we’re talking about the pool players in NCAA tournament brackets.

It’s all about survive and advance at this point of the year, where one loss can turn those picks into pumpkins.

Quick, pop NCAA quiz. Who are the only two players to have triple doubles in the Final Four? Two very usual suspects. Scroll down for answers below.

That’s the sound you heard this weekend, the sound of brackets crashing as Duke and Georgetown were brushed aside. And there was a distinct bracket creak before top-seeded UCLA, one of the tourney’s darlings, got a last second basket to subdue Texas A&M.

Ever play the game knock out? There are several different renditions of this sport, including one where you pick one NFL team to win each week, irregardless of point spread. Once you pick a team, you can’t pick that team again. If your team loses you’re out; if they win you advance to play another week. Winner is the last one left standing. Survive and advance.

That’s what pool play is all about. Give yourself a chance going into next weekend, grab enough points in the early rounds, and hope you’ve picked the winner and that your Final Four can run the table. And even then, that might not be enough to put you in the money, honey.

Just win, baby.

The Sweet 16: Three teams apiece from the Big East (West Virginia, Villanova, and Louisville) and the Pac 10 (UCLA, Stanford and Washington State). Two apiece from the Big 12 (Kansas, Texas) and Big 10 (Michigan State, Wisconsin). Only one from the ACC, although that one is top-rated North Carolina.

Rule change: In the final minute of UConn’s stunning OT loss to San Diego on Friday, the Huskies, trying to catch up, had to commit a succession of fouls just to force San Diego to the free throw line. In effect, because of the team foul rule, UConn was being penalized for avoiding fouls throughout the second half. In this instance, why not give the team committing the deliberate foul the option of sending the other team to the line instead of having to commit a series of fouls. Otherwise, they’re being penalized for not being penalized.

Not to make excuses for UConn, they were listless not only against San Diego but in their brief appearance in the Big East tournament.

Trivia Answer: Oscar Roberston (39 points, 17 rebounds, 10 assists) of Cincinnati against Louisville in 1959 and Magic Johnson (29 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists) of Michigan State against Penn in 1979

Gotta Love The Drake….

….that is if you had Western Kentucky in your NCAA brackets….or if you knew The Drake before he broke up with the Drakette. Best game of the tournament so far, the Hilltoppers blow a 16-point lead with eight minutes to go in regulation, then come back to best Drake on an outrageous three-pointer at the buzzer by Ty Rogers in overtime, 101-99.

Rogers joins one-shot legends such as Bryce Drew, Tate George and Tyrus Edney — not to mention Christian Laettner, Lorenzo Charles and Keith Smart — who will forever be remembered for a single swish in time.

Gotta love the Drake.

Gosh, I miss Al McGuire, New Yorker, coach of 1977 NCAA champion Marquette, basketball commentator. McGuire once said: “My rule was I wouldn’t recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house. That’s not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk.”

Gotta love cracked sidewalks.

And for the upset of the tournament, how about San Diego beating the UConn Huskies on a last-second basket by De’Jon Jackson in OT, 70-69. San Diego is nicknamed the Toreros.

Gotta love the Toreros.

Almost as shocking was Siena’s 83-62 victory over Vanderbilit, another 4-13 shocker. Although CBS-TV Channel 2 in New York televised everything but the Saints. Hey CBS, last time I looked Albany was still in New York. Yeah, lots of interest here in Mississippi State-Oregon.

Gotta love the Saints

Western Kentucky, San Diego, Siena and lastly Villanova made it a clean sweep in Tampa –four games, four upsets, four lower seeds advance.

Gotta love Tampa.

You knew that Notre Dame’s Austin Carr held the all-time, single game NCAA tournament scoring record with 61 against Ohio University in 1970 right? In fact, Carr has four of the top nine scoring performances of all time — 61, 52 twice and 47 — in tournament history

Gotta love Austin Carr.

Is George Mason This Year’s George Mason?

Is George Mason this year’s George Mason? It was just two years ago that Jim Larranaga’s 12th-seeded Patriots of the Colonial Athletic Association made a run to the Final Four before losing to eventual champ Florida in the national semis.

A nice story, but Cinderellas in the Final Four are about as rare as a snowy day in Miami. Really, outside of the Pac 10, Big 10, Big 12, Big East and SEC — who makes the Final Four?

Marquette (2003) and Louisville (2005) got there, but both were on the verge of leaving Conference USA and joining the Big East.

In 1998, Utah out of the Mountain West Conference lost to Kentucky in the championship game. UMass from the Atlantic 10 advanced to the Final Four in 1996.

But for a real Cinderella, you need to go back-back-back to the Penn Quakers in 1979. That same year, Indiana State and Larry Bird lost to Michigan State and Magic Johnson in the title game.

And for a Cinderella winner how about Texas Western upsetting top-ranked Kentucky in 1966. Don Haskins unheralded Miners knocking off the legendary Adolph Rupp and his top-ranked Wildcats.

Guess I’m just trying to rationalize my picks in this year’s tournament — three 1 seeds (North Carolina, Kansas and UCLA) and a 2 seed (Texas) in the Final Four.

Cinderella, forget about it. I do have a 13 seed (Siena), 12 seed (Western Kentucky), 11 seed (St. Joe’s) and two 10 seeds (Davidson and St. Mary’s) winning in the first round.

And two 6 seeds (USC and Purdue) reaching the Elite Eight. But that’s about it as far as upsets.

The final pick — the North Carolina Tar Heels edge Texas, 83-82, in a thrilling shooting for their fifth national title and second under Roy Williams.

Let the Madness begin.

Comms Before the Storm: A Tough Test

Enter at your own risk, At the center of the March Madness maelstrom, it’s the toughest test in America. The law boards, your first driver’s test or that final exam in quantum physics are cupcakes compared to this exercise.

It’s “Comms Before the Storm,” the IBM communications NCAA basketball pool.

One year ago, I picked the Final Four, and had Florida beating Ohio State for the championship. That’s precisely what happened. Heck, I even went to the Final Four in Atlanta to bear witness to my prognostic abilities live and in person at the Georgia Dome.

So how much did I win? Nothing. Nada. Finished out of the money. Didn’t even get a mention in the wrap-up story.

Who am I picking this year? I’ll let you know after I consult my crystal ball, do my homework and fill out my brackets.

Like I said, toughest test in America. It’s awesome baby.

Perfectly Natural: The Odd Couple of Baseball

The cycle and the no-hitter are strange baseball companions, like Oscar Madison and Felix Unger, “The Odd Couple.”

Throughout baseball history, there have been 276 occurrences (30 before the turn of the 20th Century where batters have hit for the cycle — single, double, triple, home run — in the same game.

Over the same period, there have been 255 no-hitters (42 before the turn of the century). Of those no-hitters, only 17 were perfect games, 15 since 1900. Cy Young and Sandy Koufax are in this exclusive club

A natural cycle — single, double, triple and home run in order — is even more unusual than a perfect game. Only 14 batters in major league history have gone for the natural cycle, including Hall of Famers Tony Lazzeri, (right) Charlie Gehringer and Billy Williams

Lazzeri is the only player ever to finish a natural cycle with a grand slam on June 3, 1932. However, this achievement was overshadowed by his popular Yankees teammate Lou Gehrig, who picked that same day to become the first player in the American League to hit four home runs in the same game. But the headlines the next day went to New York Giants manager John McGraw, who decided to announce his retirement after a 31-year career.

Personal Note: I’ve been lucky enough to witness both a natural cycle and a perfect game. Jim Hickman (left) did the honors for the Mets in 1963 in a game against the Cardinals at the Polo Grounds. And Yankees left-hander David Wells threw a perfect game against the Twins in 1998, 27 men up, 27 men down, baseball immortality.

Top Ten All-Time Quarterback List

1. Johnny Unitas (Colts, Chargers, 1956-73)
A three-time champ with Baltimore, nine times an All-Pro, seventh all-time with 290 touchdown passes. Holds the NFL equivalent of Joe Dimaggio’s streak, 47 straight games with a TD pass.

2. Joe Montana (49ers, Chiefs, 1979-94)
Joe Cool, a third-round draft pick out of Notre Dame, won four Super Bowls in nine years with the 49ers in the 80s, 45 playoff touchdown passes, and five passing titles. He was an All-Pro seven times.

3. Brett Favre (Falcons, Packers, 1991-2007)
All-time QB leader in virtually every category, including consecutive games started (253), wins (160), touchdowns (442), completions (5,377) and yardage (61,655). This Packer legend did it all with a certain joie de vivre.

4. Dan Marino (Dolphins, 1983-99)
Lifelong Dolphin set many standards later broken by others. His record 48 TD passes in a single season snapped by Peyton Manning and Brady; Favre broke his career record of 420 TD passes last year.

5. Otto Graham (Browns, 1946-55)
Talk about championship pedigree, Graham played for the league title in each of his 10 years in pro football, four in the AAFC and six in the NFL. A 10-time All-Pro, he won seven league championships.

6. John Elway (Broncos 1983-98)
This gunslinger from the Rockies played in five Super Bowls and won rings in his last two years. Noted for nearly 50 fourth quarter comeback wins, he’s fifth all-time with 300 passing TDs.

7. Roger Staubach (Cowboys, 1969–79)
The sole Heisman Trophy winner on this list (in 1963), this Navy graduate, aka Roger the Dodger, won two Super Bowls and five passing titles, and was named All-Pro five times.

8. Sammy Baugh (Redskins, 1937-52)
Slingin’ Sammy dominated the late 1930s and 1940s, winning six passing titles, two NFL championships, and nine All-Pro berths. And if that wasn’t enough, he could punt too….very well.

9. Bart Starr (Packers 1956-1971)
Starr quarterbacked the great Green Bay dynasty that won three NFL championships and Super Bowls I and II. The leader of Pack scored the winning TD in the Ice Bowl, and won three passing titles.

10. Terry Bradshaw (Steelers 1970-83)
A number one overall pick out of tiny Louisiana Tech, Bradshaw led the Steelers to four Super Bowl wins in a six-year stretch. A three-time All-Pro, his pass helped author the Immaculate Reception in 1972.

Honorable Mention

Fran Tarkenton, Vikings-Giants…third in passing TDs, fifth in yardage
Sid Luckman, Bears…four NFL titles with Bears in the ’40s
Steve Young, 49ers…six passing titles, one Super Bowl

Quick Hitters IV — SportsLifer Observations

Before we rush out to canonize Josh Beckett just yet, let’s take a look at the numbers. At age 27, he’s won more than 16 games in a season just once (20-7) last year, and overall is 77-52 with a 3.74 ERA.

Yes he’s been dominant in the post-season (he’s been there twice, in 2003 and last year), but he does have two losses. He’s not Bob Gibson or Sandy Koufax, at least not yet.

At age 27, Doc Gooden had 132 wins and a Cy Young….and look what happened to him. At age 27. Bob Feller had 112 wins, despite missing three full seasons and most of a fourth serving his country in World War II. Roger Clemens had 89 wins, two Cy Young awards and an MVP….and look what happened to him

And now Beckett has back spasms and may miss the Red Sox opener. He’s had injury problems before. Time to put a stop to the Cooperstown campaign — at least temporarily.

With the signing of David Carr to back up Eli Manning, the Giants now have two overall #1 selections on their roster — Carr and Eli. Makes you wonder if any other team has two #1s. Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer and Orlando Pace are among the few members of that elite #1 club still active. Michael Vick is not.

Prediction — the toughest ticket in New York sports history will be for Opening Day at the new Yankee Stadium in 2009.

Leigh Montville has written two great baseball bios, on Babe Ruth (The Big Bam) and Ted Williams (The Biography of an American Hero). The trilogy piece should be on Willie Mays, the greatest player many of us have ever seen.

Looking forward to selection Sunday, although I doubt my alma mater, Holy Cross, will make the big dance. Bob Cousy and Tommy Heinsohn are nowhere in sight.

My early picks for the Final Four — North Carolina, Texas, Kansas and Louisville. These are “draft” picks only, and subject to change, esp if two appear in the same bracket.

How do you spell Syracuse? N-I-T