Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Take That, Boston Celtics

In the freak show that is the NBA Lottery (picture the scene at Jabba the Hutt's bar in "Return of the Jedi"), the NBA and the Boston Celtics lost tonight.


First, the NBA. Two of the best players to come out of college in a long time will be playing their pro hoops in those basketball hotbeds -- Portland and Seattle. Those pro teams were hot in the late 1970's, but I'll bet that Greg Oden and Kevin Durrant know only that Bill Walton is a TV hoops commentator, and I doubt they know of Downtown Freddie Brown, Jack Sikma or Maurice Lucas. Most of the country doesn't follow West Coast teams because of the time difference, so it's hard to figure that they'll pay much attention to either the Trail Blazers or the Sonics. Since those teams finished 1-2 in the lottery, they're the most likely to come away with Oden and Durrant.

Second, the Celtics. They ran their team into the ground a la "The Producers," doing everything this season but staging "Springtime for Hitler" on their home court in order to tank their season and finish first in the lottery sweepstakes. But somehow, the basketball gods were throwing thunderbolts at that storied franchise. Okay, so they didn't use their magic to elevate the Philadelphia 76ers, who had about a 1% chance to enter the top 3, into the top 3. The 76ers, you'll remember, traded Allen Iverson to Denver and could have let their season fall by the wayside. Instead, the former supporting cast, ride of the ball and chain of a shoot-first point guard, revived themselves and had a strong finish. The 76ers should be proud of their body of work after the AI trade; the Celtics should be downright ashamed.

And they won't be rewarded with one of the two plum prizes in this year's NBA draft, and that's the way it should be. The NBA also gets punished, as I'm sure that their production staff already had been figuring out ways to tout Greg Oden in the Celtics' classic uniforms.

Naturally, as a native Philadelphian who rooted tirelessly for the 76ers, I have a bit of schadenfreud when it comes to the Celtics' predicament here, but the Celtics got what they deserved.

As did the NBA.

The NBA's western conference is, to a great degree, stronger than the east. Yes, the Pistons are formidable, but they're getting older, and the Cavs really don't scare anyone. The rest are, well, the rest. Meanwhile, in the west you have four of the five best teams in the league already and, when you bring Oden and Durrant to the west, you're close to making the league lopsided from a talent perspective. It could well get to the point that making the playoffs in the west will be tougher than winning the east.

What a mess.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Magic of the Ballpark

Last night the family and I went to Citizens Bank Park to watch the Phillies play the Blue Jays. As SI pointed out, the hometown nine has a decent chance to make up some ground on the Mets if only because the Phillies' inter-league play schedule is easier than that of the Mets. Whether a team that has as regulars Wes Helms, Abraham Nunez and Rod Barajas in it and a bullpen has signs on the inside of its uniform jerseys that warn "do not put this pitcher near an open flame" can actually catch the Mets is, of course, another story, but that's why they play the games.

We always have fun driving down I-95 to the park, and last night was no exception despite the fact that it was about 55 degrees with a stiff wind blowing. Funny, but having lived in northern California for a while, I thought for a split second that I was at Hunter's Point at Candelstick Park and that there was a chance that a diminutive pitcher could get blown off the mound. The kids donned their Under Armour under their Phillies' shirts, and we took plenty of layers. Fortunately, our seats were under cover, as the weather couldn't make up its mind whether to pour or to let the sunshine in. Instead, there was a fine mist for a good part of the night.

A good ballgame figured to be in the offing. The night before, a rookie Jay's pitcher no-no-ed the Phils for four innings before combusting in the fifth, and the Phillies won the game. Last night, another youngster was taking the hill for the visitors, and he looked sharp early too. Still, we didn't think it would matter, because we had the veteran Jamie Moyer hurling for the home team (it was the fans who would end up wanting to hurl before the night's conclusion), and it was his folk's fiftieth wedding anniversary to boot.

Before the game, we bought dinner (spending a relative fortune for food that's lucky to have escaped Morgan Spurlock's classic "Supersize Me"), and, after the kids finished their shared cheesteak and steak fries and I ate my Italian sausage with grilled onions and peppers, we made our way to behind the Phillies' dugout, once again looking for autographs. My wife, meanwhile, stayed in our seats and was trying to enjoy a more nutritious dinner (if you call a turkey hoagie more nutritious).

We clearly weren't in the right spot for autographs last night, but we were the only ones standing where we were, and about 5 minutes before game time a cameraman walked in front of the dugout where we were standing and put the camera on us. Several seconds later, we realized that we were on "Phan-a-vision", the big-screen TV on the huge scoreboard above left field, being broadcast all over the ballpark. We smiled and laughed (thankfully, the kids are actually photogenic and, yes, much more photogenic than dad), and Mom saw her family (as did about 39,999 others) for about 20 seconds or more. She said that she enjoyed the moment very much, as did we.

The magic continued.

Sort of.

Moyer laid an egg on the big night for his folks, and he looked more like a batting practice pitcher out there than a guy who has a couple hundred wins. Even the outs were hit hard, and Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay hit three-run shots off him. By the time Chase Utley came up in the fifth inning, it was 7-0, Jays.

Chase Utley batted that inning, and I said the following for my family to hear as he approached the plate (others in the row before us heard it too).

"Okay, guys, I can feel the magic now. On the second pitch, Chase hits a homer to right."

First pitch was a ball.

On the second pitch, the All-Star second sacker hit a ball into the upper deck.

The kids and my wife laughed and laughed, as did I. The people in the row before me nodded in approval.

Then my daughter, whose the big Chase Utley fan in the family (my son was disappointed that Ryan Howard is on the DL), met my eyes.

"Way to go dad."

"Let's face it," I said, "I'm a wizard."

More laughs.

But a wizard with limited powers.

We left after 7 (the kids got cold and the hot chocolate was a disappointment; why the Phils can't partner with Dunkin' Donuts or Starbucks for better hot drinks is beyond my comprehension, except that while they might be able to get away with charging, gulp, $6.75 for a Bud or Bud Light, they can't charge $7 for a grande latte), and we started to listen to the game on the radio. Apparently journeyman reliever Clay Condrey put some TNT on the fire and contributed to yielding an additional six runs, walking three and hitting two.

Final score, Blue Jays 13, Phillies 2.

Would we have had more fun had the hometown nine actually won the game?


But did we have fun anyway?

Of course.

After all, it isn't every night you get to be on TV.

[As an aside, many of you have wondered whether I had given up on this blog or why I was AWOL. Actually, may day job and principal extracurricular activities have kept me quite busy, and blogging will be intermittent between now and early June. I am reading some good sports books on which I'll blog, and I'll offer some commentary on kids' sporting activities. Thanks for your patience.]