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Sunday, April 26, 2009

In memory of Mark "The Bird" Fidrych

I wanted to write this post earlier, but for a variety of reasons (most of them associated with a schedule that revolves around work and family) I haven't gotten to it until now.

I was greatly saddened a few weeks ago to hear of Mark "the Bird" Fidrych's tragic death. I remember the Bird's magic summer of '76, because that's the year I became interested in baseball. It was largely due to the exuberance and individuality of Mark Fidrych. He was one of a kind, and I don't know if we'll ever see a player quite like Fidrych.

I lived in Detroit from 1973 to 1979, so I was there to experience the Bird. I, along with other kids on my block, mimicked all of Fidrych's oddball traits: running to the mound at the beginning of an inning (and running off the field after the third out), smoothing the mound, talking to the ball, and the Bird's herky-jerky pitching motion. I distinctly remember talking to a tennis ball (and telling it where to go in a way that I imagined the Bird would do it), winding up like Fidrych, and throwing the ball against our garage door.

I became a big fan of the Tigers that summer of '76. My parents took me to a game against the Cleveland Indians (lower deck box seats, third base side) and I remember watching Bill Freehan warm up the pitcher in the bullpen (who wasn't Fidrych, by the way. I can't remember who started the game). I had the same reaction so many other kids have the first time they see a major league game. Walking up the ramp to the stands, I was overcome by the lushness of emerald green of the field. My mom bought me the 1976 Tigers yearbook, with its cover draped in Bicentennial red, white and blue (and featuring a photo of Milt May, Rusty Staub, and Dave Roberts amiably chatting in a circle in the Tigers' locker room). Players like Freehan, Staub, Ron LeFlore, Ben Oglivie, and Jason Thompson also became my heroes, thanks to the door opened for me by that the goofy, curly-haired pitcher.

Because of Mark Fidrych, I became a passionate Tiger follower, and a life-long baseball fan. Rest in peace, Bird.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A great year for Spartan basketball

As everyone knows by now, Michigan State lost to North Carolina 89-72 in the NCAA Championship game back on Monday. The Tar Heels proved that they were the best team in college basketball this year, but having said that, the Spartans looked out-of-sync for essentially the entire game (but particularly in the first half). However, even if State had played at the level they showed in the Louisville and UConn games, I think North Carolina still wins the game by about 7-10 points.

What a great run the Spartans had this year. If someone had told me back in November or early December that this team would not only win the Big Ten title, but play in the national championship game, I would not believe him (or her). This team improved exponentially from the beginning of the season to the end. Delvon Roe finally got reasonably health and was excellent during the Big Ten season (but looked like he ran out of gas in the tournament), Goran Suton fulfilled his great promise in a big way, and Draymond Green was the most pleasant and unexpected surprise of the season. Add to that the emergence of Durrell Summers, the blossoming leadership of Kalin Lucas, and the awesome defender and emotional sparkplug that was Travis Walton, and it all added up to a great season. They weren't always a fun team to watch play during the regular season, but by the NCAA tournament they were positively exhilirating. The future looks bright for Michigan State basketball.

I only attended two MSU basketball games in person this year, but the two I saw demonstrated the two "Jeckyll and Hyde" extremes of this team. The first was a non-conference game against the Citadel, in which the Spartans sleepwalked their way to a sloppy and uninspired victory against a much weaker opponent. (In fairness to MSU, how inspired can you get against the Citadel, for crying out loud? Plus, the game took place just before the Spartans were about to go on the road to play Texas--and I'm sure they couldn't help but look ahead to the Longhorns). The other game I saw in person was the home game against Minnesota. State had just come off the devastating home loss to Penn State, and the poor Gophers were in the wrong place at the wrong time. MSU came out as focused and inspired as I saw them the entire year (until NCAA tournament, that is) and completely demolished Minnesota. It was an awesome display of nearly flawless basketball.

Anyway, congratulations to the Spartans on providing us with a season we will remember and cherish for a long time.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Another dispatch from Chicago

I'm in our hotel room at the Courtyard Marriott, Hubbard and State in Chicago. Finished some excellect takeout Thai from a place called Yong's Thai Kitchen just across the street from the hotel. Spicy chicken pad thai: it really hit the spot. Luckily, there is also a 7-11 just down the street, so picked up some beer in preparation for tonight's national championship game.

Today, we took the kids to Shedd Aquarium, but did not consider the possibility that all the schools in the Chicagoland area ALSO were on spring break. We waited in line outside, with a blisteringly cold wind howling off Lake Michigan, for what I would guess to be 45 minutes to an hour. Once we got in, it was fine, albeit insanely crowded. Devon, our youngest son (four years old) ran out of gas and wanted to get back to the hotel. Just as we were leaving, someone inadvertently swung their arm back and poked him squarely in the eye with the corner of their fold-out Shedd Aquarium map/brochure. Poor Devon cried in pain and it was a scary fifteen minutes or so as we were trying to determine if his eye was okay. As it turns out, he is fine. Thanks to the Shedd Aquarium staff for being so kind. One staff member in particular was great, and actually gave Devon a beluga whale plush toy to take home.

It's difficult being on vacation in a big city with two young kids. As the cliche goes, "I need a vacation from my vacation." I think maybe they're still too young to appreciate the city and the museums we've visited. Avery, our seven year-old, has had fun at the Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium, but Devon has been bored and overwhelmed by the crowds and the general sensory overload that comes with being in the city. I think the most fun they've had has been in the hotel pool, and I don't blame them. Maybe we'll make this trip with them again in about five years.

Of course, the Michigan State/North Carolina national championship basketball game is starting in about eighteen minutes. Before the season started, I would not have guessed that the Spartans would be playing in this game. It has been an amazing season, and the icing on the cake (ugh, sorry for that cliche--it's just too easy!) would be if the Spartans won tonight. I don't want to be too disappointed if State loses tonight, but who am I kidding, it would be a bummer! I'm sure Tom Izzo and his staff will have the guys ready to go, and I hope a raucous and decidedly pro-MSU crowd will carry State through.

I've heard the early December game between State and NC brought up a few times in the last few days, and there is no question that this MSU team in no way resembles THAT MSU team that lost to the Heels by 35 points. Suton and Roe are healthy now, Draymond Green is now in the mix and is playing exceptionally well, and it just seems that now all the players on the team understand their roles. The Spartans will be able to throw a lot of big bodies at Tyler Hansbrough. As long as the Heels don't shoot out the lights from three-point range, I think State will be fine. In any case, I hope that my next post will be me celebrating a national title for the Spartans.

Pulling for the Spartans in Chicago

I am still on vacation with the family in Chicago. We spent most of yesterday at the Field Museum with our two young sons.

Saturday night, we watched the Michigan State basketball game from our hotel room here at the Courtyard by Marriott on State Street. What an exciting game, and I am so proud of this team. The groundswell of state pride (and by "state pride," I am referring to the state of Michigan) is truly moving. It feels like "our kids" (particularly because most of State's players are from Michigan or Ohio) carrying the banner for our downtrodden state. It's been nice here in Chicago, but there is definitely a part of me that wishes I was back home in Okemos to feel the hole vibe of this amazing conclusion to the college basketball season.

Could there be a more fitting final game of the NCAA tournament?: The "blue collar" midwestern kids from Michigan State against the much more lauded national recruits of the blue blood North Carolina Tarheels.

Regardless of what happens tonight, it has been a great season for the Spartans. Call me crazy, but I have a good feeling about tonight's game. It just feels like the stars are aligned for a Spartan victory.

Time for me to run, as we're getting ready to take the kids to Shedd Aquarium.

Go State!

Friday, April 3, 2009

On my way to Chicago with thoughts of the Final Four in Detroit

Tomorrow, we are taking the train to Chicago for a four-day mini-vacation. We'll be taking the kids to some of the museums and maybe do a little shopping. Naturally, we'll have to be in our hotel room by 6:07 sharp to catch the Michigan State-UConn basketball game.

Lots of excitement this week with the Final Four in Detroit. If the Spartans win tomorrow and make it to the National Championship game on Monday, there will be a big part of me that will be bummed that I'm not in the Lansing area to witness the ferver. Then again, if State loses tomorrow, Chicago should offer a good buffer zone from the disappointment.

Whatever happens tomorrow with the game, it has been a great year: Big Ten title and Final Four. I'd love to the see the Spartans make a run at the championship, but don't want to get my hopes up. The key as a fan is to always prepare for the worst, so if the result is positive, it make it all the sweeter.

Well, time for me to hit the hay. I have to get up early tomorrow.