Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Horse Racing's New Good Luck Charm?

HBO does TV about as well as anyone.  The Sopranos, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Entourage, the shows keep on coming.  HBO's newest venture is Luck, a show starring Dustin Hoffman as a gangster dominating the horse racing world in California.  Horse racing has been struggling for some time; will Luck be the industry's rabbit foot?  Although this is a serious business, I will be judging every scene by whether I see (1) corruption, (2) I can't understand on of the characters or (3) if I see some exciting horse racing/action.

Sunday, 9pm.  The first scene has Dustin Hoffman being released from prison for some unknown crime.  He's picked up by a confidant in a Mercedes, just like someone in organized crime.  Not a good start for the industry, in my view. (1)

Then we are treated to a stables montage follows highlighted by a Pick Six pot of 2.25 million.  Foreshadowing of something, of course. (1)

Nick Nolte looks about 85 years old as he mumbles something about horse racing.  It appears that he is a trainer of a super horse. With his constantly shifting eyes, Nolte definitely looks shady...or he's getting paranoid in his advanced age. (1) (2)

We then meet Escalante and one of the lone women in the show, Jill Hennessey (wasn't she some good looking woman in a show a long time ago? Oh right, Crossing Jordan)  Again, some more shifting eyes from Escalante, although he might have just been giving googly eyes to Hennessey's track veterinarian.  He apparently is another trainer who has difficulty with the English language. (1) (2)

In another character study, Richard Kind seems to be playing some sort of jockey handler or agent who gets pissed off when one of his English jockeys starts mouthing off about how he's going to win big with Esperante's horse, which Esperante does NOT want to be said.  I don't understand why he's given a stutter though, its hard to understand him.  He then notices Nolte's horse and calls some drunken jockey because he thinks the horse is a live mount heading to the Kentucky Derby. (1) (2)

Then we meet the stable of betters that I will call the Curious 4.  Jason Gedrick, who is far removed from his Iron Eagles days, a guy in a wheelchair and oxygen tank, a squealy guys contributes $255 and a fourth guy in a funny looking hat.  We know from the storyline that these guys win that Pick Six that we see at the beginning of the show.  Gedrick appears to be the horse picker as well as the degenerate gambler (the irony).  Gedrick's singles Escalante's horse that he's preparing at the beginning of the show.  This doesn't smell right since you wouldn't single a longshot like that you would includes some sort of protection.  And no, I'm not walking behind the horses.  Meanwhile, Escalante cashes in about $40,000 of winning tickets on his horse "Mon Gateau." (1)

In the defining scene of the first show, Dustin Hoffman rips off his shirt to demonstrate that he's not wearing a wire at a business meeting.  Need I say more?

The horse racing action itself is exciting, the race with Escalante's horse is exciting with the close up angles.  It seems truly authentic.  I wish we saw more of the action and less of Nolte staring at his horse mumbling some nonsense. Although with some of the between races storyline we did get a couple of glimpses of the Danica Patrick of Horse racing, Chantal Sutherland. (3)

As we work our way through the Pick Six, the 8th race is another exciting race, as the English jockey (who seems way too big to be a jockey) rides the longshot who will win the Curious Four $2.7 Million Dollars.  Of course, there is a continuity error here as well.  When we first see the possible payouts, the 5 and 8 horses will win the Curious 4 the most money.  When the race is actually run though, it is the 2 and the 8 horse that will win the most money.  Uh oh. (3)

I enjoyed this movie.  I think it had more to do with the shows authenticity more than the plot or the acting.  If you are unfamiliar with the sport of kings, some of the nuances will get lost on you.  I give the show a thumbs up as things only get better from the pilot.

photo courtesy of tvworthwatching.com

Sunday, January 22, 2012

JMR's Game Blog - 2012 AFC and NFC Championships

The games this weekend are shaping up to be some of the most interesting NFC and AFC Championships we've seen in years.  Whether it's Joe Flacco vs. Ed Reed, Bernard Pollard vs. Tom Brady's knee, the general lunacy of Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, a possible rematch of the 2008 Super Bowl between the Patriots and the Giants or the sudden emergence of Alex Smith as a football hero, the subplots this weekend are mind boggling.

Patriots' Secret Weapons.
All this could only mean one thing - the return of the JMR Game Blog.  The rules are easy.  The kids and I pick the games.  Only I know the line, only they know the reasoning behind their answers.  Let's get started.

49ERS (-3)

G:  49ers.  They crushed the team they faced to get there"  His response was reminiscent of his thought that his basketball team "crushed" his last team, even though his team lost by 8 points.

"The Saints?" I ask him.  When he agrees with me that the 49ers killed the Saints, I was stuck wondering who was watching the game with me last weekend.

S: 49ers.  "Because they beat the Saints.  And the Saints are my FAVORITE team."  She emphasizes "favorite" because she loves wearing the Drew Brees jersey we got her a couple of months ago when we were in New Orleans.  I don't think she could name a single player in football other than her brothers and Drew Brees.

JMR:  Giants.  This Giants team is reminiscent of the 2007-08 Giants team.  They played a great game to just get into the playoffs (a 24-14 trouncing of the Cowboys), which reminded me of Week 17 against the undefeated Patriots, which required a startling comeback (and a great bomb to Randy Moss for Brady's 50th Touchdown Pass) to win that game 38-35.  I think the pass rush will relentlessly pursue a green Alex Smith leading to at least three takeaways. 

And the 49ers secondary was exposed in the Fourth Quarter against the Saints.  While the defense forced 5 turnovers, and won the turnover battle 5-2, the Niners required heroics from Smith to pull the game out.  If the Giants can hold onto the ball, this team and this defense can be beaten.  Giants 27-16.

Ravens (+9)

S:  Patriots.  "Because I have the Patriots shirt, too.  And because I want them to win today!!"  She's so excited.  Maybe she'll be the rabid Patriots fan of the family.  Now if only I could stop her from using sharpies on the dry erase boards...
G.  Patriots.  "You know I want the Patriots to win, Dad."  When I ask him why he answers me "because they have Tom Brady and Gronkowski and Gronkowski scored 3 touchdowns last week!"  When you're team is one of the teams left in the Playoffs, like this year, everyone gets excited.

JMR.  Patriots.  I think this line is too high.  But one of the first rules of football wagering is to never take the points unless you think your team can win the game outright.  Believe it or not, I think the the 2010 Divisional round game where the Ravens came to Foxboro and destroyed the Patriots was the best thing that could have happened for this Patriots team.  There is a score to settle, even though everyone believes that the Patriots will walk all over the Ravens.  Bill Belichick thrives in those kinds of situations. 

Further, I think the Patriots will key on Ray Rice (when he was more of an unknown quantity in 2010) and make Flacco beat the Patriots with his arm.  I just don't see that happening. 

Oh yeah, we have Gronkowski and Hernandez, and they don't.  Patriots 34 Ravens 24.

photograph courtesy of zimbio.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Case Against Barry Larkin's Hall of Fame Entrance

Barry Larkin was the only eligible player to be voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2012.  Beating out the likes of Jeff Bagwell, Jack Morris, Tim Raines and Mark McGwire, Larkin was the stalwart Shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds who somehow garnered over 86% of the BBWAA's vote in 2012.  His accomplishments suggest that he is deserving of the honor.  He won the MVP in the strike-shortened 1995 and was named to the All Star Team 12 times in his illustrious 19 year career.  He won the Silver Slugger nine times and the Gold Glove at Shortstop three times.  He was the leader of a Reds team that won the 1990 World Series.  No doubt he was one of the best players in the 1990's.

But the case that I just made for Larkin is also the strongest case against his enshrinement.  He was one of the best players in 1990's.  A big red flag in an era where guys like Trot Nixon and Jeremy Giambi were taking steroids and flaunting around about it.  In fact, let's compare Larkin's statistics in one of his Silver Slugger, all star years with the statistics from one of his peers in 1996 who had similar career peaks and valleys:

Larkin:  33 home runs, 89 runs batted in, .567 Slugging Percentage, .977 OPS

Brady Anderson: 50 home runs, 110 runs batted in, .637 Slugging Percentage, 1.034 OPS

Taking these statistics in a vacuum, nothing seems out of place and Anderson had the superior season.  But then you start comparing these seasons with the rest of their careers.  Anderson never approached these numbers again in his career.  He never hit more than 24 home runs or drove in more than 81 runs batted in again - and this coming in a hitter friendly ballpark like Camden Yards.  His OPS never reached .900, much less 1.034.  Likewise, Larkin never hit more than 20 home runs again.  His slugging and OPS highs before and after 1996 never came close to those gaudy 1996 numbers.  Of course a lot of players had statistical anomaly-type seasons.  Wade Boggs hit 24 home runs one season and never hit more than 10 in a season again.  I remember Bert Campaneris hit 22 home runs in 1970 and hit only 57 for the rest of his TWENTY year career.  It's possible.

But we're talking about 1996, not 1970.  Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens were beginning an epic string of seasons that saw home run and strike out records shattered.  Mediocre players like Todd Hundley and Jay Buhner hit 40 home runs.  Clemens struck out 20 Detroit Tigers at the end of a mediocre, injury-plagued season season.  It was astounding, and somewhat mysterious.

At the time, we were thinking that the balls were wound tighter, that Andro was leading players to faster recoveries.  We thought that pitching depth in the Major Leagues was substandard.  We now know exactly what caused the dramatic rise in statistics, particularly power numbers.

Unfortunately, Larkin's prime was the same as these players.  Not only that, 1993-1996 was the Kevin Mitchell era in Cincinnati, who has himself been plagued by steroid accusations ever since his breakout 1989 season in San Francisco (and don't discount the fact that just across the Bay were the Bash Brothers).  It's quite a coincidence that Larkin's MVP season in 1995 and by far best statistical season (1996) came in the three and a half year period that a player plagued by steroid accusations was on the team. Seeing the writing on the wall as he entered his 30's, did Larkin and Mitchell share steroids in the Reds' clubhouse.  It would certainly explain his Brady Anderson-like year.

Don't get me wrong.  Larkin had a fine career.  But players like Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro had fine careers too.  But because of steroids, they have little chance of making the Hall of Fame, and perhaps that's a fate that Larkin should have had too.

photo courtesy of mlbblogs.com

Thursday, January 12, 2012

When I Went to Sugarloaf, Maine

First it was pleading to go skiing two years ago.  Then it was off to Waterville Valley last year during February break.  This year we upped the ante.  A five hour drive, really?  Yes.  Up to the middle of Maine in January?  Yes.  Friends of our rented a condo right on one of the trails on West Mountain in Sugarloaf.  We had no chance against the kids' all out assault once they found out that their friends were going away skiing...

What follows is my seven year old's version of that vacation.  As usual, this is his story in his words (spelling errors included)

Carrabassett Valley, Maine.  Days 1-4.

"When I got to Maine with all of my freinds we climbed up the ladder to play.  We played Wii!  We played games.  I brought my stuff animals.  Then I went to bed.  The next morning we went skiing.  I did not like it because I did not ski with my freinds.  I took ski school but after ski school I went with my freinds.  We went on big hills.  I did not fall down (JMR:  totally untrue).  Then after I went skiing I took all of my stuff off and played with my iTouch and went upstairs.  They went upstairs, too.  I went on a beanbag.  I played with my iTouch.  I kept playing.  Then we played another game.  Then I went to bed.

Then we went skiing again.  I went with my freinds the hole day.  We had to because it was icing.  Then we went back to the condo.  I played with my iTouch on a beanbag.  Then I went to a new year's party and it wasn't very fun, then we went to see fireworks and I thought that was really cool because I thought they were going to spell out "Happy New Years."  Then when I went to bed I went in my Mom and Dad's condo.  I went to bed with all of my stuffed animals.  Then when I woke up at six to go in the car and go.  It was a really fun trip."

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Why David West is What's Wrong with the NBA

After watching the Celtics paltry performance against the Indiana Pacers last night, I decided that the most interesting thing about the game was the crowd's reaction to David West's appearance in the game.  West, remember, was slated to become one of the Celtics' saviors for the 2011-2012 season.  At the last minute he decided to join Danny Granger, Tyler Hansbrough in Indiana with the Indiana Pacers.  Well Celtics fans didn't take kindly to this slight, mercilessly booing West every time he touched the basketball. 

West consistently averaged 18-20 points per game for the Hornets as Chris Paul's sidekick since he was drafted out of Xavier in the First Round of the 2003 Draft.  And Ray Allen would have you believe that he actively recruited West to join the Celtics during the free agent frenzy back in December - to the point that media reports were that West was joining the Celtics.  David West would have you believe that he thought of nothing but joining the Pacers.  He wanted to play with Danny Granger.  Who knows what really happened - West isn't setting the world on fire right now averaging 10 points and 7 rebounds in 27 minutes - but the point really has nothing to do with David West.  The point is that Danny Granger could do what Ray Allen couldn't.  I'm not sure this is a good thing.

LeBron James wanted to play with Dwyane Wade and joined him in Miami.  Carmelo Anthony wanted to play in New York and pouted his way like a headbanded baby until it happened.  Chris Paul bitched and moaned about playing in one of the coolest cities in the World until he was traded to LA.  It was so bad that he was actually traded to Los Angeles twice.  Now Dwight Howard is rattling cages about leaving Disney World.  Do these guys realize that they are all becoming like Eli Manning?  And they think that is a good thing?  This is crazy.

I'm all about being able to change jobs, live wherever you want work with whomever you want.  That is our right in this country. 

But we are normal people.  These guys are athletic freaks who make enormous amounts of money.  They are recognized on the street and play in front of millions of people.  With these perks come great responsibility  The reason they are able to make so much money is that people like me pay a couple hundred dollars to see a crappy game like the Celtics-Pacers in the middle of January.  But competitive balance becomes a real issue when players decide that they all want to play in LA or New York or Miami.  This isn't the Premier League where a couple of teams are always at the top of the pecking order and everyone is happy cheering on their team.  If my team doesn't have a chance to win the whole thing, I'm not going to shell out that much money to watch them play.

That 's the real problem.  I don't really care about the NBA if the Championship always pits the Heat or the Bulls against the Lakers or the Clippers.  It's just not that interesting to me and I have better things to do with my time and money.  Maybe this is a problem for me because I don't live in Miami or Los Angeles or New York.  But I'm not the only person to think this.  Fans of NBA teams are just like me.  We have enough money to go to a few games a year.  We will spend our money on hockey, football or baseball instead if our NBA teams aren't any good.

Ultimately, the solution is difficult to discover.  The Larry Bird exception allowing the original team to offer its player more money in free agency is a good start.  But ultimately, someone like Kevin Durant can make more money playing on one of the coasts rather than playing in the Midwest.  The solution might lie with the players themselves.  But when you're dealing with 25 year old coddled athletes, good luck having them do something that isn't completely selfish. 

Back to West.  He scored 2 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and dished out 3 assists.  He had nothing to do with the Pacers win last night and he would have had made a difference for the Celtics if he were playing for the Green.  It's just that I would have liked to have seen what would happen if the teams were switched.  Call me crazy.

Monday, January 2, 2012

When We Relived the 1972 Summit Series

We had just finished watching the Winter Classic (a great ending, by the way, with a penalty shot awarded with 19 seconds left in the game) when a weary Bob Costas implored us to go over to the new NBC Sports Network to watch "Cold War," a two hour special that brings to life the 1972 Summit Series between hockey dynasties Canada and the U.S.S.R.  Booby Orr vs Viktor Tretiak.  At least that's what I thought hockey between Canada and the Soviet Union would be from the early 1970's would be.

Consensus is that this guy is Weird.
A little history...The Soviet Union, despite picking up the game only 25 years before, had developed a hockey program that dominated the European leagues and championships as well as the last couple of Olympic gold medals - most experts believed that the Russians had the best program in the World.  Canadian hockey players and administrators sneered that the Russians had only dominated inferior teams since they never had to play Canadian professional hockey players from the NHL (they weren't allowed to play in the Olympics at the time).  The rhetoric was heating up!  Who had the best program - natural skaters/hitters/shooters being allowed to do what they did best (Canada) vs. a team-building atmosphere that stressed motion, pressure and stamina (USSR)?

Alan Eagleson and Harry Sinden (Wasn't this particular tandem spelling doom from the beginning?) responded by entering into an agreement with the Soviets to play 8 games for hockey supremacy - 4 in Canada and 4 in the USSR.  The games would be played in September 1972, before the NHL season started.  Pride, honor and (if Phil Esposito had his way) booze were at stake. 

The boys looked hopeful as the video montage showed bruised and bloodied guys with no helmets skating around taking swings at each other. Just like the latest video game they were playing - ninja zombies or something like that.

"That's really dangerous" my nine year old remarked as he watched the Canadian team skating around without helmets on during the prologue.  The question I have would be if I could keep C interested in the series for its entire two hour run - we already lost G when he found out that the Hartford Whalers weren't playing.  I'm hopeful myself, I put it at about 60% that C stays the entire time.  It is Canada vs. the Soviet Union after all.

Here are the 5 things that we took away from the Summit Series.

1.  Paul Henderson was a great player.  With 7 goals in the series - including three game winners, Henderson was the star of the Canadian team.  Not that I'm a hockey historian, like the weird historians they trotted out for this series, but I had never heard of Paul Henderson in my life.  And apparently he's some hero in Canada like Benjamin Franklin is a hero in the United States.  No, seriously.

2.  The Canadians were dirty players.  Now that we know that the Soviets were essentially forced at gun point to train for every sport that the country competed in, they seem almost quaint when compared to the ruffian Canadians.  Bobby Clarke was told by a coach to take out the Russians best player by swing his stick at his leg; Jean-Paul Parise threatened a German referee with his swinging stick when called for a penalty, the braintrust (Eagleson) and his cronies went after the goal judge because he didn't immediately turn on the red light after the tying goal was scored in Game 8 and Canadian players admittedly won Games 2, 6 and 7 by playing "goon hockey."

3. "Paranoid" does not mean that two people annoy someone.  When the Canadian players were convinced that they were being followed in Moscow and that their rooms were bugged, some though that they were just being paranoid.  When I explained this meaning to C, he thought that paranoid meant that two people were being annoying.  For example, his brother and sister were "pairannoying" him when they were both playing their recorders in the car.  That is incorrect, although cleverly conceived.

4.  Canada's win in this series was as big in Canada as the Miracle on Ice was for the United States.  The historians said that Canadians remembered where they were when Henderson scored the Series-winning goal just like American remember where they were when JFK was shot.  That's an absurd comparison but a comparison nonetheless.  As for the Miracle on Ice comparison, I might believe this if Canada didn't go into this game thinking they were going to sweep the series because they were the best players in the world.  And whether you believed in a sweep or not, no one predicted that the Soviets would give the Canadians much of a challenge, remember, the Soviets were the underdogs.  I disagree with that comparison, too.  Incidentally, C was not impressed when I showed him a you tube video of the Miracle on Ice.

"They didn't win the Gold Medal in that game, you know that Dad, right?"  Yes, I know.

5.  Phil Esposito is a weirdo.  While he was initially impressed that Esposito played for the Boston Bruins, he grew more and more tired of him.  He swore too much, his clothes were too weird (it was the 1970's, after all) and he was all sweaty and gross after Game 4 of the Series when he was interviewed after the game to call out all Canadians everywhere.

We watched the whole thing though.  He even made me rewind one play when he thought the Russians were offside on one of their goals.  Although no one in my family will be playing hockey, maybe the kids can become hockey fans after all?  The next stop is to have everyone watch that Miracle on Ice game.  Do you believe in miracles?  Yes!

photo courtesy of cnnsi.com