Thursday, October 5, 2017

A tribute to my first Hall of Famer

I remember the first time I saw Jere White: the Myth, the Legend, the Zeus-like Superstar Athlete.
For years as kids we used to play neighborhood pick-up tackle football games on Eric Annis’ lawn off Morton Avenue in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine. It didn’t dawn on us that it was really creepy playing football right next to the embalming room of a funeral home. It only mattered that the lawn was the largest makeshift football field in town, and Eric already had the largest dog in town, a great dane that I swear must have been operated by remote control.
Jere was larger than life to me. I had heard about him for years but he lived on the Dover side of town, which seemed as far away as California or World Peace. And then one day he showed up unannounced at Eric Annis Field to play and I was in total awe. I remember being scared to tackle Jere because I had built him up in my mind over years of silly childhood imagination to be a demigod, quite capable of charging through me like a lightning bolt or leaping over me like Pegasus carrying pigskin. He was a chiseled statue in the making.
I never imagined at that time that Jere would one day become “Whitey,” my classmate, my teammate, and one of my best friends for life. He became my Ferris Buehler hero.
This weekend Whitey is being inducted into the Foxcroft Academy Athletic Hall of Fame. I am happy and proud of him for this. Although I regrettably am unable to be there for his honor, I am honored to have played football and basketball and baseball alongside him, not to mention being his buddy and co-pilot in the rusted, beat-up blue car we called “The Bomb” that he used to drive to school. It had a corroded hole on the passenger side floor that I figured I could use to power the car in Fred Flintstone fashion in the event we ran out of gas. I was Whitey’s Barney Rubble.
In baseball, Whitey was our catcher who was always in control. He was serious as a clutch-hitter, but I remember the fun he had behind the plate. How he would get into his crouch then spin his arms like a paddle wheel, a signal to me at second base that it was time to smile and play the game with joy.
In basketball, Whitey was what I always envisioned a point guard to be. He was a take-charge guy who could muscle-up and drive to the basket and score at will whenever he wanted to.
In football, Jere was our Joe Namath. He had Broadway Joe’s poster on his bedroom wall and when we as a team started wearing white cleats like Joe Willie our senior year it seemed like destiny. Those were the best years even though we didn’t have the best teams.
I remember the night we ran countless wind sprints all the way to the other side of the practice field in the dark to pick leaves as punishment after Whitey expressed our team’s frustration and lipped off at our legendary team trainer Lap Lary. It was the worst practice of our lives, but strangely it brought us closer together as a team and as naturists I suppose.
I was the starting safety and back-up quarterback behind Whitey. The highlight of my career was catching an arching perfectly-thrown 70-yard touchdown pass from Whitey in my first start at wide receiver on the very first play of the game in the final home game of our football careers – a 60-0 win over Greenville. I did my Elmo Wright high-kicking TD celebration in the end zone which I now regret. Shorthanded and low on morale, the game turned out to be Greenville’s final high school football game.
The next week, playing our first ever game under the lights in Bangor against John Bapst, our crack coaching staff decided to run the identical play for the first play of the game again to stun John Bapst as we did Greenville. I ran my precise double-move route downfield and looked back for the ball. Whitey already was flat on his back as John Bapst defense wisely anticipated the play, blitzed and sacked him.
So much for smart coaching and the element of surprise.

Yet my most vivid memory of Whitey came in a home game earlier that season against stinkin’ Lincoln. We were tired and irritated and struggling on defense and Whitey, our co-captain, suddenly stepped in, faced us, raised his voice and delivered a quick fire-and-brimstone speech that instantly refreshed our spirits and raised our intensity. We loudly clapped our hands and broke the huddle united as rejuvenated and fired up as I ever remember being in my life.
That spoke volumes to the leadership capabilities that Whitey possessed. He didn’t say much – like Joe Montana – but when he did it was instant inspiration.
It’s also a vivid example of how much my teammates and I looked up to Whitey. Since that day on Eric Annis’ field, I have idolized Whitey and, to be honest, some 50 years later I still do. And I’m still scared to tackle him.
So, speaking for the FA Class of 1972, I would like to congratulate Jere on his honor. He is our classmate, our teammate, our friend, and now our Hall of Famer.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Is the A's Matt Olson the next Aaron Judge?

OAKLAND – On Star Wars Night, the Oakland A’s may finally have a new Jedi.
May the Force continue to be with you, Matt Olson.
Matt Olson? Never heard of him? He is Baseball’s Best Kept Secret right now. While the Baseball Universe has revolved about the Cleveland Indians’ insane record winning streak , the Dodgers’ ridiculous losing streak, and assorted playoff races that naturally have come into focus this time of year, the 23-year-old A’s first baseman, a first-round pick in 2012, has emerged has the game’s newest, greatest, super human-like slugging superstar.
The next Aaron Judge, if you will.
Aaron Judge you know. He plays for the Evil Empire and ESPN, MLB, and Fox made him a media megastar practically overnight leading up to the All-Star Game in July and crowned him King of Swing when he won the Home Run Hitting Contest. He got big enough in New York to qualify as a float in this year’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
Then along comes Matt Olson, Mr. Anonymous. Everything he has done has been the equal if not exceeded anything Judge has done. They both struggled mightily when called up to the big leagues last year but have redeemed themselves like Hans Solo in their major league sequel this season.
But what Olson has accomplished in comparison to Judge should prompt baseball fans to all rise. The amazing A’s player this month homered in five consecutive games and 16 of his last 24. Judge has never had a power stretch to match that.
Through his first 68 games in the big leagues, Olson has hit 24 home runs. Since 1913 – 1913! – only one player in the major leagues, Jose Abreu of the White Sox, has hit more in that short amount of time.
Moreover, Olson has homered every 7.75 at bats. For players with a minimum of 200 at bats, only Barry Bonds (6.52 in 2001) and Mark McGwire (7.27 in 1998 and 7.38 in 2000) averaged a home run in fewer at-bats.
Furthermore, if you include the 23 home runs he hit in Triple A Nashville before being called up permanently this season after the A’s traded All-Star Yonder Alonso, Olson and Giancarlo Stanton are the only players in the last 30 years to hit 20 or more homer in the minors and majors in the same season.
A’s manager Bob Melvin last week admitted he had ran out of adjectives and superlatives for Olson’s extraordinary run. His 14 home runs in September are also the most by a rookie in MLB history and the most ever by an A’s player and that includes Hall of Famer Jimmy Foxx.
And yet Judge gets all the attention, even when he strikes out, which he did for 37 consecutive games, an MLB record. Well, check out Twitter. Olson has roughly 5,000 followers on Twitter. Judge has 167,000.
Why is the world so enamored with Judge but it doesn’t give a tweet about Olson? Olson is a better fielder who puts the ball in play and over the fence far more than Judge.
Then why, why, why?
Location. Location. Location.
New York is the Media Capitol of the Solar System. Judge is there in pinstripes and the interlocking NY. Olson is in Oakland, which is losing professional sports franchises faster than the White House is losing the NFL and NBA.
The Yankees are in the playoffs no matter how many times Judge Ks. The A’s were out of the playoff race by Labor Day and have been in sole possession of last place in the AL West since May 30.
And this is September when attention in the world of sports shifts to football and Draft Kings. As fantastic as Olson has been, it pales to fantasy football.
In a nutshell, Olson and the A’s timing really sucks. This has been the best month in years for the A’s – Olson’s emergence, the announcement of a new downtown ballpark being built in Oakland, the team has won season-high six straight games and has hit more runs than anyone in September. Yet even the Giants across the Bay are getting more recognition for the fact they are fighting to avoid a 100-loss season.
Olson can’t win for trying. Before a Star Wars Night crowd of more than 38,000 feeling good about Olson’s awesome feats, another A’s win, and post-game fireworks, the media flash point turned toward another A’s rookie, Bruce Maxwell, who became the latest pro athlete, albeit the first in Major League Baseball, to kneel in protest during the National Anthem.
This now has gone from just a BlackLives Matter topic to just complete inequality of any man or woman that wants to stand for Their rights! Maxwell tweeted Saturday afternoon before the game.
Nice of Maxwell to make a stand by taking a knee. The A’s back-up catcher, the son of an Army officer, had his hand over his heart when he did. He did something heroic on an evening when A’s fans and baseball were searching the galaxy far far away for a new hero.
I thought it was Matt Olson. My timing really sucks.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

IndyCar finally catching up with NASCAR behind a new, young, brash, good-looking American hero

SONOMA -- By most measurements and judgements these days –Donald Trump’s Rambling Tweetmeter withstanding– IndyCar Racing would appear to be more popular than NASCAR.
IndyCar wins the eye test. Its cars are sleeker and sexier than NASCAR’s. It’s like comparing a Ferrari to a Ford, and I don’t mean Harrison.
IndyCar wins the ear test. Its cars are not only faster, but sound faster. It’s the difference between listening to a race between the beep beep Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote with an Acme Co. rocket strapped to his chest.
And IndyCar wins the greatest popularity test of all: My mother-in-law’s Dancing With The Stars’ test. Mirror Ball Trophy finalists Helio Castroneves and James Hinchliffe were a champion and runner-up, respectively, in the DWTS competition when they competed while NASCAR put its best foot forward and served up Michael “Bust A Move” Waltrip, who danced like his clutch was broken before he was sent to the shop. He even got outlasted by 76-year-old perennial pot head Tommy Chong, which is like being outdanced by a drunken dinosaur with a walker.
And yet, even though IndyCars’ 2017 series-ending race at Sonoma Raceway on Sunday attracted the likes of David Lettermen and Grand Marshall Klay Thompson and produced the high drama of the possibility of six different drivers winning the championship, fewer people were on the edge of their seats. IndyCar’s season finale at Sears Point attracted less than half the crowd that the NASCAR race drew to the same track in the middle of its season. Butts in the seats and in front of the television set are ultimately the test of time that NASCAR wins hands down.
Well, I don’t get it.
As a kid growing up, the Indianapolis 500 was THE race to watch. They had death-defying drivers with cool names like Mario Andretti, Parnelli Jones, and Johnny Rutherford driving powerful and fancy cars that zoomed around the track like James Bond in a leer jet. Yet, somehow, the “It” Factor that IndyCar owned swung like a pendulum to NASCAR in the South which suddenly and steadily began growing its popularity from a Southern-only sport to mainstream America’s favorite race circuit. They won over more people with champions with mundane names like Jeff Gordon and Jimmy Johnson from California and the nation’s attention shifted from A.J. Foyt and Bobby Rahal to a new racing era that included A.J. Allmendinger and Ricky Bobby.
IndyCar, of course, was its own worst enemy. Its circuit waged a civil war in 1996, splitting in two – CART and IRL – leaving a void that NASCAR swooped in to fill. It was like the Dodgers and Giants leaving New York for greener pastures in LA and San Francisco, leaving the Yankees to grab the spotlight and run with it.
Within a few years, NASCAR had twice as many races, more sponsors and TV networks eyeballing it, better marketing, and a surplus of personalities and budding rivalries. NASCAR traded paint and track position in wake of a period of time that can only be called the Indy Error. IndyCar’s edge disappeared faster than Billy Bush and a live microphone.
Two decades later, IndyCar is now better united and making a comeback. The 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 this year drew a record crowd of 350,000 and IndyCar’s TV ratings are improving while NASCAR’s are declining.
“We have more people calling us wanting to get involved than than I’ve ever had before,” said legendary IndyCar owner Roger Penske.
The future for IndyCar is beginning to look brighter than NASCAR for change. They put Jeff Gordon in the pace car at this year’s Indy 500 and there is speculation that Kasey Kahne and perhaps Danica Patrick could switch from NASCAR to IndyCar. Patrick, of course, cut her teeth on IndyCar racing but her much-publicized jump to NASCAR didn’t pan out in the long run. She ran among the leaders in NASCAR each week about as often as the Cleveland Browns in the NFL.
And yet the fact that NASCAR drivers are more open to leaving and looking seriously at IndyCar bodes well for the open wheel people. These are testy times for both circuits and NASCAR seems to be relying more on gimmicks than good ole boys’ guff to win back fans.
Meanwhile, IndyCar is building a new generation of fans led by this year’s “All-American” circuit champion, Josef Newgarden, a rising star in a sport that desperately needs a boost. Newgarden is a handsome blond 26-year-old driver who was born in Tennessee and lives in NASCAR’s backyard, Charlotte, N.C. He drives a Chevy for Penske and he’s an American Ninja Warrior, having actually appeared in NBC’s popular televised obstacle-course competition.
In American Ninja, Newgarden managed to get past the first two obstacles on the course and celebrated by stripping off his “Indy Car Ninja” T-shirt to show-off his chiseled body. He fell into the water on his third obstacle.
The only tough obstacle he faced on the track on Sunday in Sonoma was the glare of a sunset that threatened to blind drivers’ sight coming up Turns 1 and 1A. Fortunately, the race, which didn’t start until 3:30 p.m. locally for NBC’s coverage, was a clean race with no cautions which didn’t bring the sunset into play at the end.
Newgarden placed second overall in the race, yet scored enough points to emerge as IndyCar champion. To celebrate, he wrapped himself in an American flag and became the torch bearer as the new spokesman for IndyCar. He didn’t waste any time promoting the future of his sport.
“If people don’t know, tell them about IndyCar racing,” Newgarden said.
Newgarden represents the new age of IndyCar and maybe it’s time for IndyCar to make its big move and that can only mean one thing. That’s right. It’s time to get another driver on Dancing With The Stars.