Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Gary Sheffield: You had me at "hello"

Big Time Sports' recognition of the feats of Gary Sheffield has been long overdue. In honor of Sheffield, I have been working on several opening lines to this column, like "The Shef is cooking up an RBI special, and it' delicious," and "Can you smell what the Shef is cooking? It's great baseball," and my personal favorite, "Shef boy-are-dese Yankees something else, or what?" But then I realized that none of these lines make any sense, and are all predicated on the assumtion that Gary Sheffield is an actual chef, which he is not. Nevertheless, he is very good at baseball.

I, along with Yankees' fans worldwide, had assumed that the off-season acquisition that would make the biggest impact in the Bronx Bombers' lineup this year would be, quite obviously, Miguel Cairo. But even though Cairo has played well this year, it's been Gary Sheffield that has separated himself from the pack. And that "pack" is not just Sheffield's teammates, but also the rest of the American League.

Let's talk numbers. Here are Sheffield's: .297 batting average, 33 home runs, 98 RBIs, and 101 runs scored. He also leads the AL in walks with 79. But Sheffield isn't all about the numbers. He likes words too. And if he were writing this column, some of the words he would probably say would be, "don't forget about my great plays in right field this year," and "what are talking about, steroids?" And he's right (about the defense) - Sheffield has eight outfield assists this year, tied for second in the American League. That figure doesn't even begin to describe how many base runners have thought twice about taking an extra base, out of fear that they will be gunned down like the scum that they are.

But even though Sheffield does enjoy playing great defense, his favorite part of baseball is hitting, as evidenced by his infamous bat wag. The bat wag is not just a timing device, it's also a means of intimidation on Sheffield's part, similar to Dikembe Mutombo's finger wag, except that it's intimidating, and not hilarious. The bat wag tells opposing pitchers, "throw your junk my way and you'll be using a bed pan for a month,' or something similarly vindictive. You can just never tell what phrase the bat wag will come up with next.

What has made Gary Sheffield so valuable to the Yankees this year is not just the fact that he earns over $12 million, and that theYankees just could not afford to lose him somewhere, like in the airport. Okay, fine, maybe they could. But regardless, Sheffield's abstract value lies in the fact that almost every one of his hits has been a "big hits", as in Wham!'s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." Just last week, Sheffield hit a game-winning two-run home run to give the Yankees a much-needed win over the Cleveland Indians, and snap the team's five-game losing streak. Two weeks ago, Sheffield muscled a down-and-away slider against Minnesota Twins' closer Joe Nathan for a home run that would help the Yanks win that game as well. Three weeks ago Sheffield hit a game-tying two-run home run against the Oakland A's, a game that, you guessed it, the Yanks would go on to win. It seems like every time there are runners on base in a big situation, Gary Sheffield brings them home, as if they were his kids, and were not having a good time at summer camp.

Unfortunately, there are some negatives to Gary Sheffield. It is rumored that he may put steroids in his Frosted Flakes. I do not know if this is true or not, but I must admit that, going into this season, I was very skeptical as to how Gary Sheffield would perform in New York, especially in the middle of a steroid controversy. And not only has he won me over with his great play, but he has repeatedly denied the allegations against him, saying, "I eat Cap'n Crunch." And I have to believe him. Why? Because I want to.

One concern I do have about Sheffield is that his shoulder may fall off of his body and land in the outfield grass. You see, Sheffield suffers from bursitis in his right shoulder - which is a disease that causes your baseball bat to wag involuntarily - and has received cortisone shots to numb the pain. The pain is so bad that he even recently hinted that he may retire after this season, unless George Steinbrenner pays him enough to buy another shoulder.

Sheffield is currently struggling through an ankle sprain that has kept him out of the last few games, and the Yankees haven't been the same without him. But by the time you read this, Gary Sheffield will probably be back in right field, still in one piece, and still vying for an AL MVP Award that he may certainly win when all is said and done. Until then, try the delicious RBIs. In fact, the Shef recommends it.

(I'm sorry. I couldn't resist.)

Thursday, August 26, 2004

That's it - We're going home

I walked into a Toys 'R Us store the other day for the first time since "He-Man" was the hottest cartoon on the planet. I won't get into why I was there, but I will say that I am currently a Godfather two times over, and my Godsons don't necessarily accept Best Buy gift cards.

Since it had been so long since I had walked through those hallowed automatic doors, I was fairly intimidated upon entering the store. For one, my mom wasn't with me, which was a first. Secondly, I had no idea where to go, plus I was wearing a tie, which signified that I DID grow up, and was no longer a Toys 'R Us kid - a fear of my youth that had come to pass.

As I walked around aimlessly for what seemed like several hours, a thought occured to me. All of these years I was under the impression that this store was a happy and festive place. After all, it was filled with toys. And when I walked in, I had expected to see Geoffrey the Giraffe galloping about with a bunch of excited kids, while the more well-to-do children rode around in automatic Tonka trucks that probably got better gas mileage than my own, real truck. But after I realized that giraffes don't gallop, I was reminded that Toys 'R Us itself actually exists as a means to experience inevitable disappointment, no matter what your age. This fact was evidenced by the various phrases I heard throughout my wanderings down the aisles:

Put that down!

Wheres your sister?

Put your sister down!

Im leaving! Are you staying here? Fine! Well see what your father thinks about THAT when he gets home!

But Billy's mom bought him one!

Do you wanna go live with Billy's mom, cause that's fine with me!

I'm not paying that much for a piece of plastic. Put it back.

I think I made stinky in my pants.

Put it back.

You can ask Santa Claus for that.

F@#* Santa Claus!


Yes, any false nostalgia I had experienced from the outset of my errand was immediatley dashed once reality set in. I was having flashbacks of getting dragged back into the parking lot, driving home in silence, and then hiding in my room - with no new toys - dreading the moment the clock hit 4:30 p.m., when dad usually got home from work.

Anyway, I didn't find anything in the store, mainly because I didn't recognize any of the toys, and couldn't afford 95 percent of them. But some good came out of it anyway, in that I'm finally content that I'm no longer a Toys 'R Us kid, and Best Buy has Elmo videos.

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Professor fails to teach fundamentals

There is a show on ESPN called "Streetball," where various streetballers with names like "The Professor," "Hot Sauce," "Mr. Dribblesworth," and "Sir Dunks-A-Lot" travel the country playing basketball and doing crazy dribble moves until the crowd goes wild. It is an enjoyable show, and like any reality television show, the viewer is asked to ignore certain, very obvious aspects of each episode. For example, the streetballers don't necessarily play basketball by the "normal rules," in that they often carry the ball, walk, use props, sit in the stands when they're supposed to be playing defense, and don't tuck their shirts in. They are like the Harlem Globetrotters if the Harlem Globetrottters actually played in Harlem, and not Madison Square Garden. The only problem with this is that the line between "Streetball" and the NBA has become very thin, and many professional players have crossed that line, which is bad because that line signifies out-of-bounds, which is also against the rules to cross.

With the embarrassing showing of our NBA players at this year's Olympics, this issue deserves to be examined. Not that I, personally, am embarrassed by our basketball team's poor play. I usually only get embarrassed when I fall down the stairs, or when my fly is open while I'm waiting in line to order deli meat. But regardless, there has been much talk about how we play basketball here in America, and why we can't beat European countries, like Puerto Rico, who were introduced to the sport of basketball only three weeks ago. Plus, I just got word that Puerto Rico isn't even a European country, which makes THAT loss even worse.

It's become quite apparent that the aspect of teamwork (as in, passing the ball to other people) has been lost in today's version of pro basketball, with its streetball mentality. Basically, in "Streetball" whoever gets the rebound takes the next shot, whoever has the ball dribbles endlessly, nobody moves on offense, and defense, well, forget about it. This philosophy has apparently transferred directly to the 2004 version of the Dream Team. The weird thing is that, we - the United States of America - are only 12 years removed from watching the greatest collection of basketball talent ever assembled (and Christian Laettner) work like a well-oiled, basketball machine on its way to winning gold in Barcelona. With the original Dream Team, it wasn't about egos, or points, or even "Hot Sauce," it was simply about winning.

Can you imagine the original Dream Team shooting 3 for 24 from three-point range during the Olympic Games, against Puerto Rico, a team that doesn't even have one guy that, height-wise, comes up to Tim Duncan's nipples? If anything, Michael Jordan himself wouldn't let that happen, and would sooner punch one of his teammates in the face during the game than allow that guy to miss even three shots in a row. And missing three shots in a row is something not one member of the original Dream Team, sans Christian Laettner, would ever do anyway.

I'm so sick and tired about hearing how various countries have caught up to the U.S. in basketball. Other countries have not improved, we've simply REGRESSED as a basketball playing nation. Am I to believe that Italy is now better than America at basketball? Really? I don't think so. In fact the only reason that Italy beat the U.S. in a preliminary match last week is because the Italians have not been adversely influenced by "Streetball," because there are no TVs in Italy. Or streets. And nobody in Italy, to my knowledge, calls himself "Sir-Dunks-A-Lot."

People are making so many excuses for our poor Olympic play, like "We're not used to the zone defense!" and "Our best players aren't even there!" and "They use square basketballs in Greece!" But the simple reality of the matter is that American basketball is getting a wake up call in Athens, and that wake up call is America's mother, getting America out of bed because it's time for school. The school of fundamentals, that is. And nobody can watch "Streetball," or have dessert, until they do their homework.

And tuck your shirt in.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

A mouthful of regret

When I was growing up, I rarely brushed my teeth, which, in retrospect, was probably a bad idea. I don't know why I avoided brushing my teeth. It's not like it hurt. Yet, I hated to do it.

In fact, I hated doing anything that involved my teeth. When I had my braces on as a kid, I never wore that God-forsaken headbrace at night, or put those attractive rubber bands in my mouth during the day. On one particular visit to my orthodontist - who was evil, and had chairs in his office shaped like teeth that I still see in my nightmares - he asked me if I had been wearing my rubber bands, to which I replied "yes." Then he told me to put them in, but I didn't know how, and rubber bands began slipping off of my fingers, shooting across his entire office, hitting other patients. This resulted in myself, my orthodontist, and my mother having a very heated discussion, on top of tooth-shaped chairs, about how I will never amount to anything unless I start wearing my rubber bands, which I never did.

Because I never brushed my teeth, it was not a pretty sight when my braces came off, roughly four years after I had them put on. There were whole turkey sandwiches behind the metal on my top teeth. But everything was okay, because my orthodontist gave me a retainer to wear, which I accidentally dropped down the drain the following day.

Then I went to college, where most nights I would forget to brush my teeth, mostly because I couldn't remember which dorm room was mine. As a result, my summer vacations were basically spent in a reclining chair in my dentist's office, with a copy of "Teen People" in my lap, and my mouth wide open for seven consecutive hours. You know you never brushed your teeth as a kid when you consistently have to interrupt your dentist's work because you have to go to the bathroom. Fortunately, my dentist has this great contraption that you put over your forehead and that plays movies. The last time I was there, I watched TWO movies while my dentist worked on my teeth, and then I left with a humongous red line on my forehead that didn't go away for two weeks.

Luckily for me, I have a great dentist, who has been able to virtually fix a mouthful of teeth that was ignored for years. They are straight, white enough, and can still chew food with the best of 'em. Unfortunately, the last time I was there, he discovered that I grind my teeth violently at night, and now I have to wear a mouthpiece to bed every night, for the rest of my life, which my wife says is starting to smell.

So it was yesterday that I received the notice in the mail that I dread the most. No, not the mortgage bill, but a postcard with Garfield smiling on it, reminding me to make an appointment for my once-every-six-month cleaning. Maybe this time, he can just clean my teeth, and I can leave. But, he will probably take some x-rays, look at them while making sad faces, tell me the "good news" is that he has a bunch of new movies, and then put a gas mask over my face and stick needles in my gums.

I now brush my teeth several times a day, and even use mouthwash. But I can't help but wonder what my life would be like if I had worn those damn rubber bands.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Family softball: Hazardous to your health

I normally use this allotted space to discuss recent happenings in the world of professional sports, and then insert bad jokes periodically. But this week we’re going to try something different, because quite frankly, I’m getting sick of professional sports, with all of its’ ridiculous contracts, weed smoking, and non-televised games due to greedy cable companies. This week, we’re going to talk about people who play for the love of the game. People who play for pride. People who play, mostly, for beer.
My family.
Last weekend was important for many reasons, not the least of which was the commencement of the 1st Annual Kenny Family Softball Game, which was held at Johnson’s Park in Piscataway, and commanded the usual celebrity crowd, including “Pop� (my grandfather), Frankie Muniz — who was mistakingly under the impression that this was Rock & Jock 2004, and subsequently left in disgust — and Park Ranger John, who assured me that, as long as he didn’t see any labels, he would assume we were drinking apple juice. He was, by far, the finest Park Ranger I have ever come across, and I’ve met two in my lifetime, including John. I cannot recall the name of the other one, but I ran into him in a different park, at midnight, when I was sixteen, with a labeled beverage in my hand. He was not as pleasant.
We couldn’t have picked a nicer day to have this much-anticipated game, unless that day was about 30 degrees cooler. And the field itself was perfect, other than the fact that it was covered with duck droppings instead of grass, and had no fences, indicating to every duck in Central New Jersey that they are welcome to come by and use the facilities. But once the teams took the field, and the apple juice was tapped, everybody was ready to have a great time, and everybody did, except the White Team, which lost the game.
As far as the game itself was concerned, the team spirit was apparent from the outset, when, after I placed my wife at second base, she informed me that she was not going to run, or move, unless the ball was actually hit towards her, in which case she would move ever so slightly out of the way, so as to let the ball pass by, like a matador. And she proved true to her word, for the most part. My wife was there less for the game than for the potato salad. Luckily for us— the Blue Team —we had my brother-in-law Joe playing the all-important position of “behind the girls.�
Ironically enough, the only time during the game that my wife did run was while she was on base, after a pop fly, with no outs, which resulted in the first converted triple play in family softball history, initiated by my cousin-in-law, and fan favorite, Steve. On his way back to the dugout, Steve aimed some taunts in my direction, which included, “Why don’t you go write about THAT, jerk!� Only he did not call me “jerk,� but much worse, although not as bad as what my wife called me for neglecting to tell her not to run after a pop fly with no outs.
The game featured many other highlights, including my father-in-law’s head-first slide into first base, which may or may not have been an accident, but proved to be a crowd pleaser, except in the case of my mother-in-law, who was busy dialing 911. Nevertheless, he was safe, and that’s all that mattered. My sister Jill, who pitched a gem, had a great no-look catch on a hard ground ball back to the mound, and was so excited, she forgot to throw the runner out. Also, Joe had a fantastic diving catch in the outfield on a fly ball most likely intended for my mom, although she was unable to focus after Joe pushed her out of the way. He was named the MVP.
But the highlight of the day occured when my cousin John hit a scorching line drive into the outfield gap, which appeared to be an easy home run. As I received the cut-off throw, I thought it pointless to even bother throwing home, being that John was already about five feet from home plate. But I did anyway, and as the ball was released from my hand, John apparently tripped over a duck dropping and was reduced to a cloud of dust. My Uncle Dave, the catcher/umpire, begrudgingly tagged him out, almost unable to add insult on top of injury to his beloved nephew. I, along with the rest of the apple-juice drinking guys, was less-sensitive to John’s plight, and spent the rest of the day addressing him by his new name: Jack Cust.
Most importantly, our softball game was free of serious injury, although there were two very close calls. My dad, who had made it a point to stretch out before the game, even going for a three mile walk beforehand, pulled up lame at third base with a tight hamstring in the first inning. He spent the rest of the game guarding the keg, and critiquing my performance, which eerily reminded me of Little League. In a separate incident, after a ground ball was hit to me, I threw it to first, mistakingly assuming that my cousin Mark, who was playing first base, would be covering the bag. Also like Little League, Mark was somewhere in outer space, and the throw raced just past the head of my 10 month-old godson, who was the only one really drinking apple juice.
Overall the game was a huge success, except for some whines from the White Team about the teams being unfair, mostly because all of the members of the Blue Team were able to run the bases without falling down. After the game, we all congregated for a picnic, had a great barbeque, and my sister Kelly and her husband Ken led some others in a game of non-extreme frisbee. We, however — most of the guys and my cousin Cara — participated in the most difficult and dangerous game of all: horseshoes minus the sand. Try it. It’s impossible.
I’ve always wondered why baseball players get so much respect for playing everyday. I mean, it doesn’t appear to be such a physically demanding sport. Then, I woke up on Sunday morning, after the 1st Annual Kenny Family Softball Game, and seriously wondered whether I’d be physically ready for the 2nd Annual Kenny Family Softball Game. So, I now have a new respect for baseball players. But I’d still like to see them play horseshoes, without sand, after downing 11 cups of apple juice. That’s a real man’s game.

Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Non-retirement speech

A lot of people often say to me, “Hey Mike — you’re young, untalented, undeniably charming, AND a great lover. Have you ever thought about retiring early, before your writing gets worse than it already is?� That’s a great question, and a very relevant one for this week, considering that Miami Dolphin running back Ricky Williams recently retired after just five seasons in the NFL. But enough about Ricky Williams. Let’s talk about me.

Retirement isn’t in the plans for me just yet. For one, I still love to write. Secondly, I have no other source of income. And finally, as much as I would love to stay home all day and watch reruns of “Mama’s Family� and “Judge Joe Brown,� I would probably go crazy, at which point I would have to call a news conference that nobody would attend where I would declare my intentions to drammatically return to the field of writing. I would have to wear a #45 jersey, instead of my usual shirt and tie. And, needless to say, I would prefer not to have go through all that, because most news conferences feature bagels and juice, and I just don’t have that kind of money.

Another important reason that I refuse to retire is that I just couldn’t do that to the great people at The Courier. This newspaper, even though it has miraculously thrived from 1954 to January of 2004 WITHOUT “Big Time Sports,� needs me. In fact, each morning everybody in the office pleads with me not to retire, before they demand I get them some coffee.

Contemplating all of the various reasons that I refuse to retire forced me to do some serious contemplating, but about other people. People even slightly more famous than me. Like, for example, the aforementioned Ricky Williams.

Ricky Williams — let’s call him “Ricky� for short — has been receiving a lot of heat regarding his early and abrupt retirement. And by “heat� I mean criticism. And by “criticism,� I mean threats. You see, the people in Miami are crazy for their Dolphins, and even more so for their football team. So, they were understandably less than thrilled when they discovered that their star running back, Ricky, no longer wants to “be in the business anymore.� This, of course, means that the Miami Dolphins, who usually blow their season around December, most likely blew their season two weeks ago, when Ricky suddenly retired.

Even Joe Fan is confused by Ricky’s decision to walk away from professional football. Said Joe, “Why would a guy, who’s making like a billion dollars per carry, and probably gettin’ all kinds of crazy hot chicks, want to walk away from THAT? I mean, it’s football! You only play once a week, for like three months out of the year! How hard is that? And didn’t he sign a contract? Doesn’t he have to honor that? Plus, what about all the hot chicks? You know what I mean?�

But there’s a flip side to this issue. Ricky, who several years ago was diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, and more recently tested positive for marijuana, has his own issues. Those issues are social anxiety and not being allowed to smoke weed, due to the NFL’s drug policy. Upon his retirement, Ricky said, “I’m finally free. I can’t remember ever being this happy.� How can you argue with that? It’s Ricky’s decision, so what gives Joe Fan the right to say anything about it?

Said Joe, “What gives me the right? What gives me the right? I’ll tell you what gives me the right! You see these season tickets in my hand? Do you have any idea how long I waited for these? I waited 30 years for these! My great grandfather was put on the waiting list for these tickets back in 1951, when the Miami Dolphins were the Washington Senators! Now I finally got ‘em, and I had to pay a pretty penny too! I worked for these tickets! And now I gotta watch Travis freakin’ Minor run the ball every Sunday, because this guy wants to ‘be free’? No, I don’t think so!�

So as you can see, there is more than one side to this issue, and it appears as though the people in Miami will have a lot to discuss in the coming years, like how big Shaquille O’Neal is in person, and what the heck they are going to do with all of the Ricky Williams jerseys they bought.

But I have my own opinion on this retirement question. I’d much rather see a talented athlete retire early, than watch a stats compiler stick around for too long. The list of guys who missed the retirement boat is endless, like Willie Mays, Emmitt Smith, Ricky Henderson, Billy Bob Thornton, and Freddy Adu. On the other hand, there’s a certain aura surrounding those particular stars who left too early, at the height of their careers, like Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, Taylor Dane, Smarty Jones, and Arsenio Hall. Only time will tell if Ricky will be added to this prestigous list.

Time’s up. He didn’t make it.

As for me, I’m going to continue to do what I do best: not retire. I have commitments here, and I love what I do. Plus, they don’t give us drug tests.