This is that time of year when two worlds collide: Specifically, college basketball and Major League baseball.
It’s a tortoise-and-a-hare thing. And the transition gives me whiplash.
And so, thoughts on two beloved pastimes. . .
The NCAA tournament is an unblinking, relentlessly thumping energizer bunny. The first weekend, when four games can be going on at the same time, I need more eyes.
That, by the way, is my favorite part of the NCAA tournament—especially those first two days. Anything is possible. It’s like being young again.
The Sweet 16/Elite Eight tends to be a pray-for-your-bracket-and-favorite-teams grind. The Final Four is either more of that—or nothing at all.
That said, college basketball games are filled with action and displays of emotion. As opposed to baseball games. Which aren’t.
In tonight’s Final Four, for example, I have only mild rooting interests. For the sake of my Illini friends, who still seethe at Bruce Pearl’s transgressions, I suppose I favor Virginia. And I am an unabashed Tom Izzo fan, although what Texas Tech has done (especially defensively) under Chris Beard is very good stuff.
But my bracket and my favorite teams are long gone. This Final Four is more of a curiosity than a rah-rah thing for me.
In contrast with college hoops, baseball games plod along like an aging turtle. In the middle of the summer, when we are used to it, that’s a good thing. You can chat with friends, prepare dinner, read a book while watching a baseball game and not miss a thing.
It’s very soothing, in its way. It just takes a while to adjust.
``C’mon! C’mon! Throw the ball already!’’ I found myself yelling at the television on Friday night, when Cubs pitcher Jose Quintana was re-enacting The Day the Earth Stood Still against the Brewers.
We all knew this wasn’t going to go well: The Cubs are off to a 1-6 start that looks like something out of a bad movie—or a Cubs’ season of my youth. . . So at least pitch the ball and get it over with.
The bullpen qualifies for disaster relief. And considering the money they are being paid, many of the starters could be sued for fraud. The hitters? Meh.
Not to pick on Jason Heyward, whom we admire in many ways for his character and defensive skill. But when two bouncing balls bounce right through the wickets of a Gold Glove outfielder in the first week, something ain’t right.
And let’s not even talk about Anthony Rizzo, another beloved Gold Glover, bobbling the ball and then hurriedly flipping it—into the dugout. I could swear I saw Ed Bouchee do that when I was a kid.
Some of my baseball-watching friends already are debating exactly when manager Joe Maddon might be shown the door. (Keep that mobile phone nearby, Joe Girardi.) Not that it’s necessarily Maddon's fault that the starters lack a sense of urgency and the relievers lack all kinds of things. And the hitters seem to realize they’ll need to set a scoring record to overcome this pitching.
But you can’t fire the players, as they say.
How to get a moribund team going again? This is one of the questions we have much time to ponder between Quintana pitches.
Don’t get me wrong. In its way, Baseball is life itself. A game virtually every day. A slow building process to create a team. A difficult crumbling process as a team retreats into nothingness.
I’ve been meaning to send Maddon a copy of my book The Run Don’t Count: The Life and Times of Frank Chance and His 1908 Chicago Cubs. With the inscription, ``To Joe. You are without peer since the Peerless Leader.’’
In other words, Joe Maddon is the best Cubs’ manager since Frank ``the Peerless Leader’’ Chance.
The only other guy in that discussion, as far as I’m concerned, is Joe McCarthy, who guided the Cubs to the 1929 pennant and would have won more if Rogers Hornsby hadn’t talked the original Mr. Wrigley into firing McCarthy and installing Hornsby as manager.
All McCarthy did after that was win seven World Series with the Yankees.
One of my favorite reactions from readers of The Run Don’t Count is this: ``I had no idea that 1908 baseball has so much in common with modern baseball.’’
In the book, which actually goes far beyond 1908, we see how a team inevitably declines after reaching the heights—even a team that won an MLB-record 530 games in five years.
Tightwad owner refuses to give raise to essential catcher, who sits out 1909 season, costing Cubs chance to win five pennants in a row. Feisty second baseman breaks leg in meaningless September game in 1910, costing Cubs key piece in their World Series showdown with the A’s. And in 1912, Chance underwent what was described as ``brain surgery,’’ although he was smoking a cigar in his hospital bed a couple days later.
And so on. And so on.
Here’s one thing that the Deadball Era had in common with the NCAA tournament, though: Pace of games.
Most of the Cubs’ 1908 games were played in two hours or less. There was one 3½-hour game, but it went 17 innings. And the Cubs played for three hours one September afternoon in Brooklyn. But they won both ends of a doubleheader. Ed Reulbach pitched two shutouts, beating the Superbas 5-0 in one hour and 45 minutes and 3-0 in an hour and 15 minutes.
Contrast with the Cubs’ first six games this season, in which four took at least 3½ hours, and all exceeded three hours.
I know this is a sportswriter’s rant. Some people like long games. I get it. When I was young, I used to sneak essays about the joyous timelessness of baseball into English class, history class, wherever writing about sports could be sold.
Now? My feeling is more like, ``Throw the damn ball already.’’
So let’s get on with this Final Four. If I had to pick, I would say, ``Virginia over Michigan State on Monday night.’’
That should assure that that doesn’t happen.
Enjoy the fast-paced games. The long ones are about to take over.