CRASH!!! Going Zero for the Final Four

CRASH!!!

That sound you heard was brackets breaking.

Been hearing it all weekend.

CRASH!!!

Things started out so well. Coming into the regional finals had three of four teams still alive.

Cookin’ with gal. Ready to rumble. Pedal to the metal.

Then it all came unraveled.

UConn’s win over Mizzou, no big deal. Had Memphis in this bracket, losing in the national semis.

Later Saturday Pitt, another of my Final Four teams, lost a heartbreak to Villanova, which is looking like this year’s Cinderella..

Again, no problemo. It was all locking in for the SportsLifer.

Had the inside track on the money in Comms Before the Storm. Just needed a Louisville-Oklahoma final and a Cardinal title.

Number one seed Louisville seemed like a lock.

Not so said Michigan State.

CRASH!!!

Well how about the Sooners. Forget about it. North Carolina in a romp.

CRASH!!! CRASH!!!

The SportsLifer has done well in the office NCAA pool the past three years. Rode UCLA to a third place finish in 2006. Had the Final Four in 2007, had Florida beating Ohio State, even went to the game in Atlanta. And still finished out of the money in the nation’s toughest pool. And last year, looked good with North Carolina until Kansas buried them in the national semis.

So now the Lifer feels like Mr. Loser.

It’s tough not to pick a single Final Four team. Like playing one of those football cards in Vegas and getting every game wrong. Been there, done that.

Is there some sort of consolation prize at least?


Blanchard Was Johnny on the Spot

Johnny Blanchard, right, Yogi Berra, left, and Elston Howard split catching duties with the World Champion 1961 New York Yankees.

In the long and storied history of major league baseball, no player has ever homered in five successive at  bats.

Johnny Blanchard, the former Yankee who passed away earlier this week, may have come the closest.

On July 21, 1961, Blanchard hit a pinch-hit grand slam with two outs in the ninth inning to give the Yankees an 11-8 victory against the Red Sox at Fenway Park.

The following night, Blanchard, again hitting for Clete Boyer, hit another home run in the ninth to tie the score, helping the Yanks rally for an 11-9 win.

After a couple of days off, Blanchard homered in his first two at bats against the White Sox on July 26 at Yankee Stadium in a 5-2 win. His bid for a record fifth straight homer landed in the glove of Chicago right fielder Floyd Robinson a few feet shy of the short porch in right.

Only 34 players in history have homered in four straight at bats. Notable accomplishments include the following:

  • Robert Lowe (1894), Lou Gehrig (1932), Rocky Colavito (1959), Mike Schmidt (1976), Mike Cameron (2002) and Carlos Delgado did it in one game.
  • In addition to Blanchard, three other Yankees performed the feat: Gehrig, Mickey Mantle (1962) and Bobby Murcer (1970).
  • Another Yankee, Reggie Jackson, hit four homers in a row against the Dodgers in games five and six of the 1977 World Series.
  • Schmidt also hit four in a row over the course of two games in 1979, the only player to do it twice.
  • Blanchard and Baltimore’s Jeff Manto(1995) are the only players to hit four straight over three games.
  • Ted Williams hit four in four games with the Red Sox in 1957, the only player ever to do that.
  • Jimmie Foxx (1933), Hank Greenberg (1938), Stan Musial (1962) and Barry Bonds (2001) are among others who did it.
  • Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Mark McGwire are among those who didn’t.

Blanchard, a native of Minnesota, had a brief stint with the Yankees in 1955 before coming to the majors to stay four years later.

A catcher, first baseman and outfielder, Blanchard was a valuable utility man on five straight Yankee pennant winners (1960-64), and played on both the 1961 and 1962 champions.

Blanchard had a career year in 1961, batting .305 with 21 homers and knocking in 54 runs in just 243 at bats.

He batted .345 in five World Series, including .400 in 1961 against the Reds. In that Series, Blanchard hit a game-tying home run in the eighth inning of game three and a two-run shot in the game five clincher.


Ticked Off: Yankee Ticket Policy Sells Out Fans

The Yankees sent me a Dear John letter the other day.

It was sad. It broke my heart. No more pinstripe sweethearts.

The Yanks told me they had chosen others for their random single-game ticket lottery, They let me down easy with an option to buy any  remaining tickets online.

But outside from a pair of upper deck tickets for a May mid-week game against Baltimore, that fruitless exercise yielded dozens upon dozens of rejection notices, to wit:

Sorry, no exact matches were found, but other tickets may still be available

Other tickets. Yeah, I could have had two tickets behind home plate for a July 26 game against the A’s….for a modest $2,625 per ticket, plus handling charges. Tough to justify when you’re worrying about the economy and the mortgage and trying to put a son through law school.

Loyalty Doesn’t Count
Guess loyalty no longer counts at Yankee Stadium, especially for the fans who have stuck with the Bombers through good times and bad.

Sure I saw Mantle and Reggie and Jeter, but I also sat through doubleheaders in the 60s with Horace Clarke at second base and Dooley Womack on the mound. And I also endured the Stump Merrill era and some terrible baseball in the late 80s and early 90s.

For years, I’ve purchased Yankee single game tickets on the Internet. I’ve taken family and friends to games at the old Stadium, winning many new fans for the Bombers in the process.

But loyalty only goes so far…certainly not across 161st Street in the Bronx. The Yankees are in the new Stadium now, and they want to push season ticket packages and corporates in the suites and behind the plate and wherever else people will plunk down mucho pesos for a seat.

I guess the Yankees just don’t want my business anymore. Not when they can sell tickets at $2,625 a pop.

Oh yeah, almost forgot. Here’s the Dear John letter.

Dear Yankees Fan:

Thank you for registering for the chance to be included in an online Pre-On-Sale Ticket purchase opportunity.  Unfortunately, however, your entry was not selected.  Thank you for taking the time to register and please remember that any Tickets that remain after the conclusion of all Pre-On-Sale opportunities will be available for purchase, online only, beginning Tuesday, March 24, 2009 at 10:00 am.

It may as well have been signed: Forget About It.

Related Blog: Empty Seats at Yankee Stadium


Top 10: The Best of the SportsLifer

1. Woodstock: Better Late Than Never

“The thing the sixties did was show us the possibilities and the responsibility that we all had. It wasn’t the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility.”

– John Lennon

Well, I finally made it to Woodstock, 39 years too late.

2. 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.

3. NFC East Is NFL’s Beast
Historically, what’s the best division in the NFL?  If you use Super Bowl titles as the ultimate criteria, then it’s the NFC East, hands down.

4. Running Backs Once Ruled at Syracuse

Just like USC is known for producing tailbacks and Penn State linebackers, Syracuse University was once a football factory for running backs.

5. Celtics-Lakers Would Be Historic NBA Final

They’re the Lennon and McCartney of basketball, the Rogers and Astaire of hoops, the Batman and Robin of the hardwood.

6. All-Star Game: The Price Ain’t Right
The last time the All-Star game was held at Yankee Stadium in 1977, tickets were priced $10-15 for box and reserved seats. That’s a far cry from the $150-725 price range for the July 15 midsummer classic, and roughly two-three times the cost of tickets for last year’s game at San Francisco.

7. The Lifeline That Is Football

On a November afternoon in 1963, five days before President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, a 12-year old with this mother, father and cousin sees Y.A. Tittle and the Giants pound the 49ers in Yankee Stadium.

 

8. The Best of Yankee Stadium: Post-Season

As Yankee Stadium closes its doors, this is the final of a three-part retrospective on the moments that shaped Yankee Stadium, New York and the world of sports.

9. 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.

10. Bidding Adieu to The House That Ruth Built

It’s been compared to the Colosseum, been called The House That Ruth Built.

Mel Allen, the late Yankee broadcaster, once said, “St. Patrick’s is the Yankee Stadium of cathedrals.”


Gretzky Was Great, But Orr Was the Greatest


On September 18, 1975, publishing heiress turned urban guerilla Patty Hearst, victim of a bizarre kidnap by the Symbionese Liberation Party, was found by federal US agents following one of the most extensive manhunts in history.

That same afternoon, a cub reporter from the Fitchburg Sentinel parked his car in a field on the New England farm of noted philanthropist George R. Wallace, Jr. Phil Esposito, all-star center of the Boston Bruins, pulled up next to the journalist.

Both were heading for a clambake at the Wallace farm, an event to fete the Bruins, who in those years held their pre-season training camp in Fitchburg, Mass.

As they walked up to the barn to join Bruins players, coaches and local politicians and luminaries from Fitchburg, Esposito turned to the reporter and said, “Did you hear? They found Patty Hearst.”

Knee Troubles
Moments later another Bruins player, all-star defenseman Bobby Orr, emerged from an apple orchard on Wallace’s farm. Orr was limping noticeably. Espo, concerned about this teammate, asked him if he was all right. Orr smiled, but admitted the knee was bothering him.

Little did Orr — or Espo, the reporter and the clambakers — suspect it at the time, but Orr’s his brilliant career was just about over at age 27. A few days later, Orr was sidelined and had knee surgery.

He would play just 10 games for the Bruins in 1975. Orr would never skate for the Bruins again, playing 26 games for the Chicago Black Hawks between 1976-77 and 1978-79 before retiring, his brilliant career over at age 30.

Orr played all 80 games during his final full season in 1974-75, scoring a career-high 46 goals, and won his second Art Ross scoring trophy as he led the NHL in both assists with 89 and points with 135.

He was never the same player after 1975,  when he won a record eighth straight Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.

Award-Winning Defenseman
But during his Koufaxian-like career which began with a Calder Trophy as an 18-year-old NHL Rookie of the Year in 1966-67, the Parry Sound, Ontario, native was the best hockey player ever. Orr redefined the position of defenseman and led the Bruins to Stanley Cups in 1970 and 1972.

In 1970 he became the only player ever to sweep the league’s top awards — Norris, Ross, Hart Memorial as regular season MVP and Conn Smythe as playoff MP — and scored the Stanley Cup winning goal in overtime, flying through the air to complete a four-game sweep of the St. Louis Blues.

The following year Orr recorded a plus/minus of 124, best in NHL history and quite likely the most unbreakable record in hockey. Only one other player, Larry Robinson of Montreal, ever had a plus/minus over 100 in a season.

Orr broke the mold of the defensive-minded defenseman, winning two scoring titles and leading the NHL in assists on five separate occasions. He won three consecutive MVPs (1970-71-72) and was also the playoff MVP in 1972, when the Bruins defeated the New York Rangers in six games to win their last Stanley Cup.

Wayne Gretzky may have been The Great One, but Bobby Orr was The Greatest.


Cardinals Rule: Louisville the Pick in NCAAs

It says here, sometime around midnight on Monday night, April 6, Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals will be celebrating a win over the Oklahoma Sooners and cutting down the nets in the Motor City.

Pitino is due to join a select group of coaches whose teams have won at least two NCAA championships. And if Louisville wins, as forecast, he’ll become the first coach to win championships with two different schools.

Pitino coached the 1996 Kentucky team that beat Syracuse to win the National title. He also led Providence to the Final Four in 1987.

UCLA’s legendary coach John Wooden is far and away the all-time leader with 10 championships (all between 1964 and 1975). The Baron, Adolph Rupp, won four titles with Kentucky. and Indiana’s Bob Knight and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski took three apiece.

Pitino would join a group of eight coaches with two championships, including Louisville’s Denny Crum, Florida’s Billy Donovan and UConn’s Jim Calhoun.

Multiple Championship Coaches

Coach                        School                     Championships

John Wooden            UCLA                      10
Adolph Rupp              Kentucky                 4
Bob Knight                  Indiana                    3
Mike Krzyzewski      Duke                         3
Dean Smith                North Carolina       2
Billy Donovan             Florida                     2
Denny Crum               Louisville                2
Ed Jucker                   Cincinnati               2
Hery Iba                       Oklahoma State   2
Jim Calhoun               UConn                     2
Phil Woolpert              San Francisco      2
Branch McCracken   Indiana                   2

The Cardinals will win because they have the most athletic team in this year’s tournament.  They’re deep, and they play 40 minutes of relentless defense.

Louisville won both the regular season and post-season tournaments in the Big East, generally regarded as college basketball’s toughest conference in years.

In addition to Louisville, the SportsLifer Final Four features top-seeded Pitt and second seeds Memphis and Oklahoma.

NCAA tournament pools are often decided in the early rounds, especially in pools where points are awarded for picking lower seeds..

Some sleepers to watch in the early rounds:

— 13th seed Mississippi State will beat both Washington and Purdue
—  Western Kentucky will beat Illinois in the annual 12-5 stunner
— 11th seeds VCU and Utah State will eliminate UCLA and Marquette respectively
— 10th seeds Maryland, USC and Minnesota will all advance to the next round

Remember, when it all comes true, you read it here first.


Holy Cross Was Once King of Hoops

The Last Amateurs, John Feinstein’s highly acclaimed chronicle of a season in the Patriot League, talks about playing for glory and honor in Division One basketball — but not for NCAA basketball championships. That’s left to the big guys, the elite.

In fact, for the vast majority of the 342 Division One combatants — the small schools of the Patriot League, the Ivy League, the Summit Conference, the mid-majors, even the long downtrodden programs in the major conferences — just getting a ticket to the Big Dance is the Mecca, that one shining moment, the  equivalent of the North Carolina or UCLA or Kentucky making the Final Four and more.

But for the College of the Holy Cross, which lost in the Patriot League championship game to American University. it wasn’t always that way.

Glory Days
Once upon a time, Holy Cross (my alma mater), a small Jesuit college located in Worcester, Mass., with undergraduate enrollment around 2,700, was the best team in the country. In 1947, the Crusaders, behind coach Doggie Julian, NCAA tournament MVP George Kaftan and a freshman point guard named Bob Cousy, right, beat Oklahoma at Madison Square Garden to win the NCAA championship.

The Crusaders finished third in the tournament the following year, and were ranked No. 1 in the 1949-1950 campaign as they won 26 straight games to start the season.

In 1954, behind Tommy Heinsohn,, Holy Cross won the NIT back in the days when that meant something. Heinsohn and Cousy, below, are Hall of Famers, two key players in the Boston Celtics dynasty of the late 50s and 60s..

As late as 1977, Holy Cross was still considered a national power. That year, HC knocked off a good Providence team twice on last-second shots by forward Chris Potter, and led top-ranked Michigan at the half in the first round of the NCAA tournament before running out of gas down the stretch,

The following year, Sports Illustrated ranked Holy Cross and freshman of the year Ronnie Perry ninth in its pre-season poll, but the Crusaders never did achieve those lofty ranks. And they’ve never come close since.

HC and the Big East
When the Big East was founded in 1979, Holy Cross could have been a charter member. Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown, Syracuse and Seton Hall, all teams that HC once played on a regular basis, agreed to start the Big East, but the league needed more New England representation

However, athletic directors at Holy Cross, Boston College, Rhode Island and Connecticut agreed all four schools would remain a block. Take `em all or get none. If they couldn’t be separated, and the conference wanted the Boston market, which, of course, it needed, there would be a  big league.

“Connecticut had been very good in the Yankee Conference. Boston College and Holy Cross was a toss up; actually, Holy Cross had the better basketball tradition. But their president couldn’t be convinced,” said the first Big East commissioner, Dave Gavitt, about the league’s founding. “He felt academics would be compromised.”

DSCN1895 Former St. John’s coach Lou Carnesecca spoke to me, Lou with the SportsLifer right, about these inside Big East formative dealings during a talk at the 2007 East Regionals at the Meadowlands. He told me that Holy Cross was supposed to join the Big East, but the school’s president, the Rev. John E. Brooks, S.J., vetoed the move for academic reasons.

Eventually, both BC and UConn agreed to join, making the Big East a seven-team league in the inaugural 1979-80 campaign.

Villanova joined a year later in 1980. and Pittsburgh joined in 1982. Also in 1982, Penn State applied for membership, but was rejected when Syracuse cast the deciding vote against the Nittany Lions application.

Crusaders Come Close
Holy  Cross remained independent for several seasons, but eventually joined the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) to start the 1983-84 season. Seven years later, Holy Cross entered the Patriot League, and coach George Blaney led them to the league championship and an NCAA berth in 1992, the league’s second season.
Ralph Willard, like Blaney a Holy Cross grad, took over the program in 1999, and two years later the Crusaders were in the NCAAs .

Beginning in 2001 they made it to the NCAA tournament three years in a row. They gave both second-seeded Kentucky (2001) and a Marquette team that went on to the Final Four in 2003 major scares, eventually losing both contests by the identical score of 72-68.

And in 2002, the Cross nearly achieved immortality.

A number 16 seed has never won a game, excluding the play-in game, in the NCAA tournament. But Holy Cross came close before losing to Kansas, 70-59, seven years ago.

The Crusaders held a five- point lead with 12 minutes to go and were behind by only four points with one minute left before the Jayhawks finally secured the win.