Friday, October 10, 2014

Root Canal, or Sharp Stick in the Eye?

1985 ALCS with George Brett at the Plate
Photo Courtesy of Michael R. Finley
Last Sunday night, as Greg Holland struck out Mike Trout,  40,657 fans at Kauffman Stadium experienced their own, personal, Shawshank Redemption Moment.  Looking  heavenward into a pelting rain,  they celebrated their emergence from a 29-year banishment to the cesspool that is baseball obscurity.

Tonight, this Kansas City Royals team, the team that ended the longest playoff drought in the history of the four major North American sports, returns to the American League Championship Series for the first time since 1985.

Much has written about the Royals ending its 29 year playoff drought. And rightly so. Twenty-nine years is a long time. Young men, like me in 1985 are, well, now no longer young.  Those barely able to remember 1985 are now rapidly approaching middle age. Many of those who were old already in 1985 are no longer with us. So it is no small feat.

My oldest son, Davis, and I were talking about the two eras (1985 and 2014) the other day. And as an aside, this is perhaps the most exciting thing about this year for me.  This younger generation no longer has to hear the old stories from “back in the day.” They are now living and writing their own stories, ones they can put their own indelible marks upon. Now my sons and daughters have a story they can tell their children. These stories, like that of last week’s Wildcard game, will outlast me. And that is a good thing. 

But back to earlier this week, and my son Davis. He asked me how 2014 was similar to 1985. Is it better? Is it not as good? I had to think about this a bit.

This playoff run, like the Wildcard game which still defines it in my mind, is so sweet because of the range of emotions which it has provided. We were down three times in that WC game, and a couple of more times against the Angels, and still came back to win the ALDS Series.
As such, the 2014 is a microcosm of 1985.
This year has been sweet because it ended a 29 year era of ineptitude and futility. 1985 was great because it ended almost a decade of near misses, close calls, and what-might-have-beens.

I'm convinced that our emotions in baseball, and perhaps in all of life, are often governed by expectations, especially un-met expectations. They are further accented by how close we get to the promised land. If we've never gotten a sniff of it, then the disappointment of not crossing over to it might not be as painful

The Kansas City Royals were a successful franchise almost from the get-go. The team had a winning record in its third year (1971) of existence. In its eighth year (1976), the team claimed its first of three consecutive A.L. West crowns. In 1980 the team won 4th A.L. West Championship and its first A.L. Pennant and made its first World Series appearance. The team remained competitive in the early 1980's before claiming its second A.L. Pennant and first World Series crown in 1985.

Yankee Manage Billy Martin-the Royals' nemesis
Photo Courtesy Mike Finley
But the years 1976-85 were difficult ones to be a Royals fans. Regular season successes in the late 1970s bred high post season expectations and high hopes that the Royals would finally break through and compete for a World Championship.

These early dreams were extinguished three consecutive years by the New York Yankees. In 1976, the Royals tied the 5th and deciding game 6-6 with three runs in the top of the 8th. If you were alive during that game, you can't quite shake the image of Chris Chambliss trying to touch all the bases amidst a throng of Yankee fans who had stormed the field after Chambliss had sent Royals' reliever Mark Littell's first offering over the right field wall for a walk-off home run.

In 1977 the Royals had the best record in baseball at 102-60. The Royals went up 2-1 in the series with home field advantage but lost the 4th game then blew a 3-2 lead in the top of the ninth to lose the 5th game and deciding game of the series. The image of Freddie Patek hunche over in the dugout after the game, immovable for what seemed to be all night, sticks with me.

The next year, 1978, was painful but the Royals were spared losing in the 5th and decisive game, losing the series four games. None of us held much hope of winning game 4 after watching the Royals lose game 3 despite George Brett hitting three home runs in a losing cause.

As the Royals entered the 1980's, things turned around and they finally beat the Yankees in the 1980 ALCS, sweeping New York in three games. It was fitting that George Brett's home run off of Goose Gossage had made the difference. The Royals had their first A.L. Pennant.

Despite the momentum gained by sweeping the Yankees, it seem for many of us fans that this was almost enough, after having endured the three consecutive losses to them in 1976-78. It is unknown whether or not the players felt the same way, but the Royals lost the 1980 World Series in six games to the Philadelphia Phillies.

And we know that it would take five more years before the Royals would finally win the World Series, defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in 7 games. After that 7th game in 1985, the post season drought would begin, only to end last week when the Royals took the field against the Oakland A's in the A.L. Wildcard game.

And so the discussion is really what is worse? Three decades of futility that were mostly devoid of any success whatsoever and where you were never really in the mix? Or, a decade of high expectations and perennial  playoff contention marked primarily by heartbreaking losses to the New York Yankees?

Answering this question is like choosing between a sharp stick in the eye or a root canal? Neither options are very much fun.

The two breakthroughs--1985 and 2014--are both sweet. It's nice to once again be in the conversation, but hopefully we won't be content for it all to end there.
I just want to enjoy the ride a bit longer. At least a week. Maybe two. Maybe more.
The St. Louis Cardinals' Willie McGee in 1985 World Series
Photo Courtesy Mike Finley


Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The Rusty Kuntz Jersey: Coming to a Retailer Near You

KC Royals 1B Coach Rusty Kuntz and DH Billy Butler
Photo Courtesy : Minda Haas
When my wife sets her sights on a retail purchase, she is rarely denied.

But she has struck out against in her quest to acquire the officially licensed replica jersey of Rusty Kuntz, first base coach of the Kansas City Royals. So I’m coming to her rescue.

This season has been a special one for our family. We've gone to many games together, and our seats are sort of perched over the top of Rusty.

And even before the Royals clinched a playoff berth, this season was special in that it marked the transition of my wife from occasional Royals game attender to bona fide fan. Some would even say she’s become a student of the game.

Case in point: On a good day she can tell you the difference between a suicide and safety squeeze play.  I think she can also define for you the term “quality start.”

Her real breakthrough, however, came last week when some announcers on ESPN were talking about Clayton Kershaw’s “no-no” from a few months ago.

She asked me, “What did that pitcher (Kershaw) get in trouble for?”

“What do you mean?” I answered.

“You know, they said he did a no-no.”

She won’t be fooled again.

As a now-student of the game, it was only natural for my wife to not take an interest not in one of the Royals’ star players, but instead in an unsung hero like their first base coach.

But Rusty Kuntz is no ordinary first base coach. In fact, as I thought about it, I came up with a handful of reasons why he deserves his own officially licensed replica jersey. Here they are:

·       His name is Rusty Kuntz (sounds like KOONTZ). It’s recognizable. It’s a baseball name. It’s been around for 30 or 40  years, so it has staying power.

·       He’s at least partly responsible for the Royals’ speed game. Maybe the third base coach (Mike Jirschele) is flashing the signs, but Rusty is interpreting them and making sure the guys are getting the jumps they need. Actually, he is considered one of the finest base coaches and outfield coaches in the game.

·       He is such a factor in the game  that I found myself yelling at him (or at the TV) when Nori Aoki got picked off first base in Anaheim last Thursday evening. Surely Rusty should’ve shouted “Back!” at the appropriate time. I’ve never blamed the 1B coach for something like that before, and that’s because I’d never given one credit before either.

·       He did not throw himself down in front of Billy Butler before he attempted to steal second base Sunday night. Need I say more?

·       As my wife said, “he has Robert Redford hair.” And to think, I thought it was just “hat head” or more accurately “batting helmet head.” 

·       Did I mention his name was Rusty Kuntz? Actually, and in all seriousness, my wife has a fondness for the name Rusty. That was her older brother’s name. She lost him a little over three years ago.

·       I appreciate the passion he displayed the other night when he petitioned the 1B umpire to call a balk on the Angels’ pitcher when he made an awkward move to second base. You don’t usually see that sort of intensity out of a base coach. I appreciated his fire.

Well, there you have it. I hope I’ve convinced you. Rusty Kuntz deserves his own official jersey.

So join us in starting a campaign via Twitter (or any other social media platform you may choose) to petition the @Royals and @MLB Properties to license the official replica jersey of Royals 1B Coach Rusty Kuntz.
Let’s use the hashtag #RustyKuntz15Jersey and see if we can move the mountains of capitalism to affect change as we honor this man and his integral role in the Royals successful 2014 campaign.
See you at the ballpark--wearing No. 15, of course.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It's a Generational Thing

My Father and Me at the 1973 All Star Game
One October morning in 1968, most likely while my full attention was devoted to a bowl of Kellogg’s Sugar Frosted Flakes, my father placed a copy of the Kansas City Star in front of me. He showed me a picture of a man named Roger Nelson, and told me he was the first pick of the Kansas City Royals in something called an expansion draft. I don’t think I understood at the time what an expansion draft was or why it was necessary, but I am relatively sure I thought Roger Nelson wore some really big glasses.

The 1968 Expansion Draft was held so that the four MLB expansion teams for the 1969 season could populate their rosters with current major leaguers not protected on their respective teams. The Kansas City Royals, along with their expansion counterparts the San Diego Padres, Montreal Expos (now Washington Nationals), and Seattle Pilots (now Milwaukee Brewers) chose about 30 players each, Roger Nelson being the number 1 choice of our hometown Royals.

During October, 1968, while the World Series was being contested between the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals, I was nearing the end of the first baseball season of my life without a local team to root for. The Kansas City A’s had skipped town for Oakland after the 1967 season, and this distressed me probably not as much because it meant no major league baseball for a while, but rather because we could not go to K.C.’s Municipal Stadium to experience things like a petting zoo, a baseball-delivering mechanical rabbit,  and a Missouri mule named Charlie O.

But thanks to my father and my older brother, Mike, baseball was kept in front of me during 1968, and by the first pitch of the 1969 season, I was a bona fide fan of the Kansas City Royals. Municipal Stadium slowly was transformed from a place of futility and  gimmickry to a place that was about the game of baseball itself.

From 1969 to 1985, slowly but surely, the Kansas City Royals rose from  infancy to respectability, then from respectability to excellence, then from excellence to a  World Championship. These years were wonderful years to be a baseball fan, especially to be a young baseball fan, in Kansas City. We grew up following George Brett  and other Royals around to public appearances, and I spent my summers with my parents and with my brother  and with my buddies and eventually with my nephews and other extended family watching and loving the Kansas City Royals.

The memories of these years are too numerous to fully document. I was in the stands when the 1976 batting title was decided between the Royals’ George Brett and Hal McRae and the Minnesota Twins’ Rod Carew and Lyman Bostock—three of the four men within hundredths of percentage points entering the season’s 162nd game. I recall another night when George Brett stole home for a walk-off win. There was game 4 of the 1980 World Series, a game the Royals won 5-3 over the Philadelphia Phillies. As I got out of the car I was in awe of the Goodyear blimp floating above the Truman Sports Complex. And although we lost that Series in six games, we’d be back five years later to claim the Title, and I would be there for games 1,2, and 7. 

After game 7 of the 1985 Series, I ran down on the field and circled the bases. I jumped up against the 385’ sign in left-center field, imagining a catch that certainly would have made today’s Top Ten on ESPN’s Sports Center. I stole some dirt from around home plate (has the statute of limitations expired on that crime?) as one of the most prevalent dreams of my childhood was fulfilled in front of me.

And on that night, October 27, 1985, it all came to an end. The Royals would exit post season play that night and not return for the next 29 seasons.

On that night in 1985 I was a 24-year-old city planner who had recently completed graduate school. My father was a 67-year-old retired postal worker. My nephew Matt was a ten-year-old and attended the game with us while his younger brothers, Zach and Josh—seven and five, respectively—stayed home with a their grandmother. Who’d have thought at the time that the Kansas City Royals would not make a post season appearance for almost the next thirty years?

Baseball, perhaps more than any other game, is experienced multi-generationally. It is often introduced by fathers to sons—by fathers and sometimes mothers, to daughters. It is experienced by families together as the next generation learns the history and the beauty of the game, as the next generation learns the nuances and "codes" and the differences between a suicide and safety squeeze play.

Tonight, the Kansas City Royals end a 29-year post season drought as they host the American League Wildcard game against the Oakland A’s. How fitting that the game is against the A’s, the team that spurned our city some 47 years ago? How fitting it is that  we will once again enjoy this game in a multi-generational context. I’ll be there with my wife (the same young girl that joined me for game 2 of the 1985 Series as my girlfriend) and our children. My oldest daughter (Olivia) is the same age now as I was in 1985. My brother is the same age as our father. Also there will be my brother and two of my nephews (Josh, wish you were here). My oldest nephew will bring his wife and their oldest daughter. All of them will be able now to experience themselves the things I had only told them about and that would never seem to be possible for them personally.

My father undoubtedly no longer remembers that day in 1968, and I'm certain he could no longer place the name "Roger Nelson." He is 96 and has been through a lot, so we'll need to forgive him for that.

A couple of things, though, I know for certain. One is that my father will be wearing his Royals cap in his assisted living room as he watches tonight's game until he's too tired to watch any longer (I predict the 5th inning). The other is that almost all of his lineage will be rooting the Royals on at Kauffman Stadium, following in his footsteps and continuing the tradition he established and fostered, so many years ago.

Perhaps that tradition that will be continued on down my line, well after I've watched my last game.

My Four Oldest Children (Annika, Where Were You?) before one of their first Royals games some 15 years ago.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Bulldogs, Cougars, and the Beauty of Sports

In the summer of 1977, while the Kansas City Royals were en route to winning 102 baseball games, some ten miles to the south  of Royals Stadium  I was playing a less beautiful  and more obscure version of the national pastime  at Clark-Ketterman Fields, home of the South Suburban Junior Baseball Association—“SSJBA”  for short.  

For me, the summer of ’77 was in many ways not much different than that of the nine or ten summers that preceded  it.  As reliable as homemade ice cream  or fireworks on the Fourth of July, my summer ritual of playing baseball in the SSJBA was a comfortable thread woven throughout my childhood.

But while the summer of ’77 and the baseball that went with it carried a reliable and familiar feel, it also delivered a handful  of small transitions, as the certainties of youth were slowly unearthed, foreshadowing an impending and unavoidable adulthood.

We were now in high school, and the rosters for our age group were dwindling. The  really good players were playing in leagues filled with college-bound talent, while many of the other guys had by this time lost interest and were spending their summers cultivating other pursuits.

The result of this smaller talent pool was that I landed in unfamiliar territory, and  ended up becoming teammates with  guys that before I’d only played against—guys from rival high schools like Ruskin and Hickman Mills. I had been familiar with many of their names—John  Galloway, Richard  Hinton, George  Fizer, Mike  Newman, Jeff  Leiding—and maybe even recognized a face or two, but now they were teammates and I found them, surprisingly,  to be much more likeable than in previous years when we had worn different colors.

I have not thought about many, if any, of those names in over thirty years. The last name on my list—Jeff Leiding—came to mind last week when I learned that he had died of a heart attack. He was 52, a year younger than me.

Few memories have survived from that summer team in 1977. We had a pretty good team, and I learned that teammates and alliances can be forged from among unfamiliar and previously hostile tribes.

That could’ve been that. And those names, including Jeff Leiding’s, would have been but  footnotes from my childhood had not high school football brought us back together just fourteen months after the conclusion of that baseball season.

In September, 1978 my Grandview Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 in Kansas City.  Right behind us at No. 2 were the Hickman Mills Cougars, and we met September 15—the third game of the season—to determine the bragging rights not only for south KC, but for the entire metropolitan area.

Hickman Mills was led by my old little league baseball teammate, Jeff Leiding. Leiding,  a junior linebacker and fullback that year, was already one of the most highly touted  high school players in the state. He would eventually go on to be an All-American at Texas. I watched him on the Bob Hope special.  He was an imposing figure, topping out at 6’3” and 230 pounds.

The game was a highly anticipated and much publicized contest. It drew a standing room crowd at Grandview’s stadium, and was covered extensively in the Kansas City media.  All week our preparations took on a new dimension as we tried to fathom the significance of the game that awaited us Friday night.

I played tight end for Grandview’s wishbone  offense.   We were not known for our passing game. I think I had four TDs on ten receptions that season. As the wishbone  dictates, ours was a running offense, and it highlighted the talents of QB Rusty Hill, FB Andy Gibler, and RBs Angelo Malone and David Haynes. Haynes would rush for over 2,000 yards that season and later attend Arkansas. Hill would join him as a Razorback while Gibler would go on to be a tight end at Mizzou and Malone a running back at Northwest Missouri State. So there was a significant amount of talent on both sides of the ball.

Hickman Mills beat Grandview that night 14-7. It was a stinging defeat, the sort of loss that feels like the death of a loved one.

There is a lot that could be said about that game. I could write about injuries and sicknesses and miscues and what might-have-been. These would simply be excuses, the sorts of things that should have been put to rest three decades ago.

What remains from that game for me is not the bitter gall of defeat, but the wonder of sport itself and the kinship that is established among teammates and opponents alike.

As a tight end in the wishbone offense, I was given the unenviable task  of attempting to neutralize Jeff Leiding in his role as linebacker that September night. It was an assignment that I did not take lightly, and it was an assignment I would have gladly traded for a seat on the sidelines. After the loss, I don’t remember thinking that I did well or poorly against Leiding. I’m sure he made his share of tackles. The game seemed to hinge on a turnover or two and our offense sputtering in general (probably because of Leiding and the rest of their defense). After a loss like that you just hurt, and don’t over analyze your own personal performance.

The following Monday morning I was dreading reviewing the Hickman Mills game film. It was a painful experience, like watching a video of your dog dying. When concluded, Coach Bob Tavernaro  said that he would like to acknowledge one player who the coaching staff thought, after reviewing the game film, did an exceptional job against the Cougars. As I looked around, wondering, who they thought did a good job in this train-wreck of a game, Coach called my name.

This was a forgotten memory for me, one which by-and-large had laid dormant until I heard of Leiding’s death. I don’t share it to pat myself on the back. I was a mediocre football player by anyone’s standards.

I share this memory because I think it represents the best there is about sports.  Whether teammates or opponents, (or in the case of Leiding who had been both),  there is this kinship, this bond, that transcends culture, that transcends class, that transcends ethnicity,  that even transcends whether or not a guy is personally likeable.

There is this sort of duty we all have to make one another better. To encourage one another to rise to the occasion. There is a code of honor that dictates we respect an opponent by giving him our very best. I marvel that although it has been over 30 years since I’ve played competitive sports, I still speak of these duties in the present tense.

Jeff Leiding and many others in that game in1978 went to much larger and more prestigious stages than we were on that night. I’d like to think that a little bit of each of us went with them. Hopefully we were all better because of the investment from teammates and opponents alike. I know that night, Jeff Leiding made me a better blocking tight end than I ever dared believe I could be. I hope in some small way I made him a little bit better as well.

In Coach Bob Tavernaro’s pre-game charge he told us—the assembled Grandview Bulldogs—that whatever happened that night on that field we would remember  for the rest of our lives. This was a true statement.

Despite the accuracy of Coach Tavernaro’s words, time and Providence have framed them, forged them, and shown me two things.  The first is that although that game and its memories are forever etched upon me, that which was once important is not Ultimate. The wound that laid raw on the morning of September 16, 1978, the wound that we thought would haunt us to our graves, has healed, and has been placed in its proper perspective along with all the other meaningful but temporal pursuits of youth.

The second thing I’ve been shown is that while all those that played in that game will certainly remember its results for the rest of their lives, the length of days of those lives will not be the same. Some of those lives—like the life of Jeff Leiding, and the lives of my teammates Bill Burgess and Rusty Hill—from my earthly, mortal, perspective, ended much too soon.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Greinke's Homecoming

It is bittersweet tonight as Zach Greinke returns to Kauffman Stadium as his opposing Dodgers play the Royals in interleague play. As much as I wanted to stay away, I couldn't resist the desire to watch him pitch live again.

So I will be there tonight, and will now zealously root against him as he takes on the Royals. A lot has happened since he left us. The Kansas City Royals are better and at least some degree of their success can be traced back through Greinke's trade from the Royals in 2010 as we would not have Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain, and (arguably) James Shields had it not been for that trade. Besides the changes with the Royals, there have been massive changes in Greinke's bank account.

I am re-publishing below a blog post I wrote  back in 2009. It's too bad he couldn't have continued to play here, but such is the way it goes for small market and underachieving teams. Perhaps we can see tonight  a few of Greinke's beautiful sliders, and then the Royals can send him to an early shower.

From August 26, 2009:

My brother is on an Alaskan cruise, so he gave me a week's worth of his Royals season tickets. In the spirit of Beaver Cleaver, my immediate reaction was "Gee Wally (not my brother's real name), do I half ta go?" I endure enough pain, torment, and blown saves during the day not selling commercial real estate, so I was not necessarily excited about continuing the frustration after hours at Kauffman Stadium.

As it turned out, I could only go to two of the six games, the first being this past Sunday where my expectations of utter frustration were fulfilled. Among other things, I was treated to the Minnesota Twins' 8-run 7th inning which featured Michael Cuddyer's two home runs, a feat not accomplished in the major leagues since David Ortiz did it for the Red Sox last year. I also endured the Royals feeble attempts at a sacrifice bunt while observing the Twins' perfect execution of this most basic of baseball fundamentals.

Other lowlights included a drunken Twins fan who insisted on remaining shirtless for most of the game. He kept waving his Twins hat throughout the game while turning around so that the sun could fully burn his massive girth. To my surprise, when he finally put on his shirt it was a George Brett Royals jersey. I'm not sure to whom the most dis-service was delivered. Was it the Royals jersey to the Twins cap or the Twins cap to the George Brett jersey?

To pass the time I surfed my Blackberry to see how many games the Royals were out of first place as I wondered if they had yet been mathematically eliminated. I then learned from that the Royals were about 19 games out of first place and maybe five games out of 4th place in the AL Central. They own the worst record in the American League but are some three games better than the Washington Nationals of the National League. As if this were not depressing enough, I saw that the Royals were 24 games out of the wild card playoff race. So let's get this straight, it is five games harder to be the 4th best team in the American League than it is to be the Division leader and presumably third best team? Oh well, at least we're better than the Nats.

When the game was over the drunken Twins fan pulled a little broom out of his back pocket to celebrate his team's sweep of the American League's worst team. It was a little wimpy broom, smaller than the whisk broom that the umpires might use during the game. Although it takes a little nerve to bring any broom to the opposition's ballpark, if you're going to be that brazen you should not apologize for it with a whisk broom and come with an industrial strength broom. Crocodile Dundee would have not approved. But this guy had the ultimate defense. If anyone ever considered hitting him he'd pull out his George Brett jersey. A Royals' fan hitting someone in a George Brett jersey is worse than a guy hitting a girl with glasses. It simply cannot be done.

Mourning turned to dancing though when I went to last night's (Tuesday's) pitching gem offered up by the Royals' ace, MVP, all-world, hope-for-the-future, and walk-on-water stopper Zack Greinke. Greinke amassed 15 strikeouts during his 8 innings of work. This total eclipsed his previous personal best of 11 K's and broke Mark Gubicza's Royals' record of 14 set in 1988.

Greinke has changed the way I watch a baseball game at Kauffman. I used to plan trips to the bathroom, concession stand, and miniature golf course around the opposing team's at-bat. I used to want to watch the Royals attempt at offense and wasn't too interested in watching them in the field. After all, I know what it looks (and feels) like to miss a cut-off man. However, with Greinke on the mound, I now will not leave my seat while he is pitching. I'm content to hear the Royals at-bat over the radio play-by-play in the men's room or watch it standing in line at the concession stand. I'll be perfectly fine missing a grand slam or a hit-and-run or even a perfectly executed sacrifice bunt, but I won't miss a Greinke pitch. They are too beautiful to watch, especially the slider that was responsible for most of last night's strikeouts.

Greinke has become a sport within a sport. His pitching is so phenomenal that you forget that he's a play within a play. He's a Mid-Summer Night's Dream. And even though the Royals are entrenched in a bomb of a 2009 production, the Act that is Zack Greinke stands alone.

And last night, that was enough.

Monday, December 30, 2013

NFL: Chiefs’ J.V. Awarded AFC's Sixth Playoff Spot

Editor's Note: This post was first published on our sister blog ( because of the satirical nature of its content.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced this morning that the Kansas City Chiefs B Team will replace the San Diego Chargers in this weekend’s opening round of the AFC Playoffs.

The League cited several reasons why it decided to override its own formula for choosing which six teams would represent each conference in the quest for this season’s Super Bowl, to be held February 2 in New Jersey. “After reviewing the film of yesterday’s game in San Diego, we believe it would be an insult to the integrity of professional football for the San Diego Chargers to represent the American Football Conference in this year’s wildcard playoff game,” said Goodell, reading from a prepared statement.

The Chiefs, with its fifth seed sealed, gave the Chargers every opportunity to route them in yesterday’s game, but the San Diego club took advantage of none of them, barely escaping with a tainted 27-24 OT victory on their home field. The Chiefs played its scout team and did not even activate many of its eight pro bowlers.

 What’s more, the Chiefs denied their starters a pre-game meal and withheld Gatorade until the game reached overtime.  “We did everything in our power to give them the game except to take a knee,” said Chiefs’ coach Andy Reid in assessing the loss. “I’m not sure what more we could’ve done. You know, we don’t much like Todd Haley and all but we had to make it look like we were at least trying so as not to insult the Steelers. Shoot, our scrubs made that redneck Philip Rivers look like he was wearing a tutu out there,” exclaimed Reid. “I was like ‘Phil-take a valium and put on your big boy pants,’” he said as he shook his head laughing.

The Chargers could not take advantage of any of the Chiefs charity, but instead were forced to rely upon errors from the officiating crew, which it was later determined to be a holdover “scab crew,” from last year’s referee strike. “The zebras clearly blew two calls,” said Goodell in a departure from his prepared remarks. “The Chiefs kicker (Ryan Succop) should’ve gotten another chance to make a 36 yarder at the end of regulation because of that illegal formation, and then I don’t know what they were thinking when they gave the ball back to the Chargers on that fake punt in O-T,” admitted Goodell. “In my book, that was either a fumble/T.D./Chiefs’ win or Chiefs ball on the San Diego 22. Either way, ‘Good Night Chargers!’”

“While the NFL acknowledges that this decision is both unorthodox and certainly controversial,” read Goodell as he returned to his script, “we believe it is in the best interests of this game we all love to implement this decision.” He continued: “It would be an absolute joke for those sissy Chargers to go to Cincinnati Sunday to take on the 11-5 Bengals. I’m sorry, but if those pantywaists in San Diego can’t convincingly beat a bunch of rag tag B-teamers, then what in the world will Andy Dalton and the Bengals to them?” he said. “That’s simply not going to happen on my watch.”

Many around the NFL were immediately critical of the League’s decision because it did not choose the Steelers to take the Chargers’ spot, instead giving the nod to the Chiefs’ second string. When asked about that, Goodell, clearly annoyed, simply stated: “Bottom line—we  chose what we thought was the best remaining available squad from what we had to pick from. This decision was about putting the best 22 guys on the field against the Bengals. Period.  No more, no less. I can’t involve myself in conjecture and ‘what-ifs?’ If Rooney’s boys had taken care of their own business we would not have had to step in. Let them go cry on their collection of Lombardi trophies,” said Goodell.

The Chiefs’ Reid was clearly pleased with the NFL’s decision, which will allow him to coach games on consecutive days this weekend and allow backup QB Chase Daniel additional meaningful work. “I think our staff is up to the task,” said Reid. “We’ll practice like we always have—starters vs. scout—during the week. We’ll all head to Indy Friday, then the J.V. will bus to Cincy at halftime Saturday. Both squads will be without backups but hopefully we’ll remain injury-free,” said Reid. “The only other thing we’ve got to figure out is how to get Ryan (Succop) and Dustin (punter Colquitt) down to Paul Brown (Stadium) by noon Sunday,” he said. “We’re essentially approaching this like the Royals do a split squad game out in Spring Training,” said Reid.

The NFL declined to meaningfully address the possibility that the Chiefs’ first and second strings could play each other for the AFC Championship January 19. “There’s a lot of football to be played between now and then,” said Goodell. "Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves."

He paused, then added: “I can tell you one thing for certain: If the Chiefs end up essentially having an intrasquad scrimmage for the AFC Title, then that game will definitely be played at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City,” he said.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Tale of Two Tigers

In sports, as in life, allegiances and loyalties are forged over time, the jagged products of family, place, and experience.  And sometimes loyalties are dislodged and become fluid, as influences emerge, shift, or change.

If you are a Tiger fan, defined as one whose loyalties rest with either Auburn University or with the University of Missouri, you are not wondering who to root for this afternoon as these two schools clash for the Southeastern Conference (SEC) Championship. But I find myself on the morning of this game in a bit of a quandary. A quandary that certainly took me my surprise, unexpected in the momentum it has gained as the week has ambled along.

In my youth I was a diehard Mizzou fan.  As I listened to Saturday afternoon broadcasts, I dreamed of one day replacing Monte Montgomery as the Missouri punter, or kicking a game-winning field goal for the Tigers in the Orange Bowl.  But alas, I was only Division II talent (if that) and didn’t  receive even one letter from the Missouri coaching staff.

Despite playing for an emerging I-AA team in the State, my allegiance to those Missouri Tigers remained strong throughout my collegiate days. One November Saturday  in 1980, I traveled  with friends to Columbia  to watch the Missouri-Kansas game, a game which featured, on opposites sides of the ball, two of my high school teammates—Andy Gibler for Missouri and Mike Arbanas for Kansas. Although we visited Mike at the Jayhawks’ hotel, I still rooted for Missouri, who won the contest 31-6.

I took a fondness for Mizzou to graduate school at Kansas. I chose KU because of its reciprocal agreement with Missouri for students entering its School of Architecture and Urban Design. I chose Graduate School because I didn’t take a job with the City of Springfield, Mo. which was going to pay $13,900 per annum, and if the truth be told, I wasn’t quite ready to work anywhere for any amount of money.

I learned quickly at Kansas and during the years which immediately followed that it is unheard of to be a fan of both MU and KU at the same time in the same way and in the same dimension. So my fondness for Mizzou weakened a little during my 18 months in Lawrence as I became indoctrinated in all things Jayhawk, not the least of which was Kansas basketball.  It was during that time that I realized that even William Clarke Quantrill could not have spent two winters in Lawrence without being a bit smitten by the mystique of Allen Field House.

As I concluded by tenure at KU and entered the workforce, I began spending a great deal of time with a young lady with whom I had become reacquainted since our days together in high school. That young lady, whose name was Sandee and who would eventually become my wife, had spent some time as a freshman at Auburn University, which happened to be her father’s alma mater. She had also lived the first year of her life on the Auburn campus in married student housing.

When Sandee and I were joined in matrimony, I was grafted into a family of Auburn Tigers. Sandee’s father had not only graduated from Auburn but starred for its football team before becoming the Kansas City Chief’s 4th round draft choice in 1963.  A host of Sandee’s kin—grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins taught me about the magic of the Plainsmen and Toomer’s Corner and the battle cry of War Eagle!

I eventually visited Auburn and experienced game day in person, attending the first Iron Bowl (Alabama-Auburn game) ever played at Auburn. The game had always been played in Birmingham, off campus for both schools, which my father-in-law always claimed was virtually a home game for Alabama  and not the neutral side claimed by the Tide. I’d heard the Bear Bryant quotes about what hicks they were down on the plain, and how he would never play at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, which was Auburn’s name until 1960. My first Iron Bowl was an unbelievable experience, and this annual contest is everything that it is advertised.

Auburn won that first Iron Bowl in Auburn and I got to witness  another Iron Bowl victory a few years later. Most memorable from that second game was the time I spent with my brother-in-law Rusty and Sandee’s dad and uncle in the “A-Club,” which is Auburn’s letter club. The A-Club has a pre-game get together in a suite that is tucked inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. I remember vividly Rusty and I munching on snacks while former Auburn TE and then Chicago White Sox first baseman Frank Thomas (the "Big Hurt") made an appearance in the suite.

While my fondness for Auburn grew, I returned to Missouri as a resident and employee. But the city in which I landed, Harrisonville, had little tolerance for Jayhawkers. When I drove my moving van across the stat line from Olathe, Kansas, it was as if Bloody Bill Anderson had invaded Bushwhacker territory anew. The ribbing I took for attending Kansas was mostly good natured, but its intensity and the taunting that followed a Missouri win over Kansas made it harder for me to rekindle any dormant loyalties to the Black and Gold.

So I have these ties to Kansas and Auburn.  Add to these ties a bit of a distaste for the way the Mizzou alums in the Missouri General Assembly handled the transition of my alma mater, Southwest Missouri State,  to D-I sports and name change to Missouri State, and it’s a wonder I'm in much of a dilemma at all today.

But something strange happened this year, I started watching Missouri football again. I enjoyed their style of play and I enjoyed seeing them win against historically great teams from the SEC.  I think Missouri was the only team I watched on TV for any length of time all year. The program’s move to the SEC made it seem palatable to watch them and enjoy them, if not all out root for them.

Another thing tugging at me this morning is the scattered comments I’ve heard this year about Mizzou not being Southern enough to be in the SEC.  As a Missourian, that bothers me a bit as it demonstrates a bit of ignorance about the state as a whole. Trying selling that notion in Poplar Bluff or Sikeston or even as far north as Fulton.

So today I throw in a blender all of my history with Mizzou, Auburn, Missouri State and Kansas and all the thrills and memories and baggage that goes with each of them. Affecting the mix greatly is that I am a son of Missouri. Also tugging are all the childhood hurts from losses to Oklahoma and Nebraska and near misses of Big 8 Championships and Orange Bowl berths.

I've polled my wife and children and they are leaning solidly Auburn's way. The lone exception is my oldest son, Davis, who told me he wasn't sure who he was going to root for. He said he was just going to watch the game and "walk by the spirit."

I think I'm going to take Davis's approach and simply see what happens, enjoying the game for the earthly pleasure it provides.

Sometimes when you have too many dogs in the fight, you simply sit back, enjoy, and wait to learn which pack of dogs you love the most.

But whoever wins today, I'll be watching from a distance, not really in anyone's inner circle. But I'm certain I will in the end be happy for many people that I know well and love much.