April 3, 2010

Bob  Ryan, of The Boston Globe, talked about the NCAA trying to fix something that isn’t broken.
“Call it Ryan’s Law: There is nothing good in life that can’t be, or won’t eventually be, screwed up.
It might be your favorite restaurant inexplicably changing its menu (usually the result of a “consultant’’). It might be your favorite radio station changing its format (see favorite restaurant). It might be the sport of baseball bowing to TV money and basically eliminating the cherished ritual of Saturday afternoon games, when a man could bring his kids without worrying about bedtime and school the next day. Sooner or later, everyone will encounter one of these inexplicable and frustrating disturbances in our lives.
High on the list of life’s great sporting pleasures is the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. It began in 1939 with an eight-team field, and it has evolved into a near-perfect concoction. Sixty-four, er, sixty-five (oh, that damnable play-in game) gives us an idyllic three-week spectacle in which great matchups evolve and there is something for everyone, from the scrappy No. 16 David matched up with the No. 1 Goliath to the team that gets to cut down the nets on that first Monday in April. There is a soothing rhythm to it.
It is absolutely wonderful. Eliminate the foolish play-in game, and it would be perfect, but since perfection is probably an unrealistic goal we’ll happily settle for it the way it is.
There is nothing essentially wrong with it. So, naturally, Ryan’s Law is about to kick in. They are about to fix something that is not broken. They are about to screw up the NCAA Tournament by expanding it from the current 65 to 96.
The NCAA has the option to opt out of the final three years of the $6 billion contract it has with CBS to televise the tournament. The assumption is that ESPN will make an offer the NCAA cannot refuse and ESPN will impose a 96-team tournament in order to televise more games, whether we need them or not.
Many college presidents — understand that the NCAA is the colleges — like the idea because the assumption is they will make more money, and need any more be said? Many coaches like the idea because more teams will make the tournament, and, therefore, fewer coaches will get fired for not making the
To the first group, I say, “You mean whacking up $6 billion isn’t enough?’’ To the second group I say, “OK, so No. 97 gets fired instead of No. 66?’’
The greatest casualty of an expanded tournament will be the superb first weekend, when there are always upsets, whether real or imagined (a 12 beating a 5 is not an upset), and when there is always great fun and great drama. There is excitement in a 16 challenging a 1, and, yes, it’s true no 16 has beaten a 1, but some have come very close, and there have been some memorable games. Meanwhile, 15s have beaten 2s, and I can cite one that did in every way but on the scoreboard (I hope Villanova’s check to the Referees Retirement Home is in the mail) and that was Robert Morris against Villanova this year. Drop down a notch, and we had No. 14 Ohio U. just abusing No. 3 Georgetown and No. 13 Murray State taking out No. 4 Vanderbilt.
And that’s just partial results from this year. Anyone doing minimal research must come to the conclusion that much of the romance we attach to the
tournament takes place between Thursday and Sunday of the first week, and with an expanded tournament all this buzz will be gone forever, and forget about those zillions of office brackets. You can’t bracket a bye.
Which is what we’ll have. There will henceforth be first-round byes. Name me three things worse in sports than byes. Name me one.
So the first-round fun will be gone. In its place we’ll have bye vs. 43, 77 or 95, or whatever. This much we know: It won’t be the same.
The way I understand it, the new first rounds will take place on Thursday and Friday. The next phase will pit the top eight seeds playing on Saturday and
Sunday, with the winners playing on the following Tuesday and Wednesday. The regionals will take place on Thursday and Friday. So much for academic
integrity and missed classes. Teams who now get back home for three or four days will be hanging out for a week. Your head spinning? I’m sorry, but I’m just the messenger. It’s not exactly taking clear shape in my head, either.
And it’s all so completely unnecessary.
Sixty-four, er, sixty-five is enough. Isn’t there something to be said for merit? Already I’ve heard that, well, NIT champ Dayton could have won a game or
two in the NCAA Tournament. Well, maybe it could have. Tell them to win a few more games in the regular season next year. Maybe they’ll get that at-large bid if they don’t win the Atlantic 10 tournament.
Puffing up the NCAA Tournament isn’t going to alter the eventual outcome. None of the additional 31 will ever win it. All these people will do is create a
who-cares first-round that will force people into a ridiculously hectic second week while giving us very few games we really want to see.
The NCAA Tournament has gone from eight teams to 16 (1951) to a fluctuating 22-23-24-25 (1953) to 32 (1975) to 40 (1979) to 48 (1980) to 52 (1983) and, finally, to 64 in 1985 (the play-in game was created in 2001). It took 46 years and a vastly changed college basketball landscape to arrive at the idyllic number of 64, but we got there, and the result has been a format that, depending on the year, has produced as great a spectacle as American sport has to offer.
There was a long-running off-Broadway musical called, “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.’’ The NCAA is about to bring that concept into real life.
But it was inevitable: Ryan’s Law, you know.”

If any of you have coached 6-and 7-year-olds on tee-ball teams, you know there is a lot of instruction to keep the left fielders from poking themselves in the eyes through the laces of their gloves. Chris Erskine talked, in The LA Times, about his mini-coaching career.

“They are tethered to this earth in only the most tangential ways. At any moment, they could leap the moon. You have your Dodgers? Well, I have mine. It is like coaching popcorn as it pops.

The mini-Dodgers of the Pinto League are 6 and 7, which means they know almost everything. They know about superheroes and bugs and how, if you blow your nose the wrong way, you could actually die. I had a 10-minute conversation with our second baseman the other day about the dangers of queen moths. I didn’t even know there were queen moths. But if they sting you, you will die.

What these mini-Dodgers don’t know much about is baseball, and they are reluctant to learn. On the basepaths, they keep trying to pass each other up — tiny NASCARs. As with most men, they are ruled by their own natural impulses, and one of them is to run as fast as you can until you mow down the person in front of you. Sorry, dude.

“Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever pass the guy in front of you,” I tell them during warmups.

“Ever, Coach?”

“Never ever,” says James, our manager.

And still they do. Bunch of punks.

I love them as if they were my own, and for the next month or two they will be. I am part coach, part shrink, part uncle, part scold. Since they are 6- and
7-year-old boys, they have no sense of hearing, not a bit. The only sounds they can identify with any certainty are their mother calling them Christmas morning, or the ding-ding-ding of the ice cream cart.

The other day in the outfield, Valentine was so distracted by the ice cream cart that he literally could not breathe. His knees kept bucking at the very thought of ice cream. The way I think of charred sirloin and a good Cab is the way Valentine thinks of ice cream.

“Watch the game, V,” I’d tell him.

“Coach, he’s LEAVING!” Valentine said, unable to keep his eyes off the ice cream vendor. “He’s LEEEEEEEEEEEAVING!”

They can be as athletic as colts, yet have issues with basic things — like standing up or thinking. Get two or three of them together, and they begin to pile atop each other as if they won something. It’s like puppies, though the smells are different. They roll around in the spring grass, greening up their knees and elbows? bonding.

Let me just say this about bonding: It is hugely overrated.

“Quit jumping on each other,” I say, forgetting for a moment that they cannot hear.

Batting is a game of “Whack a Mole.” I got clubbed the other day while helping a kid with his swing. No biggie. The pain shot like snake venom up and down
the leg, first numbing the abdominal area — which I rarely use anyway — then up through the lungs and out my beer hole.

“Gasp,” I gasped.

“Sorry,” said the kid.

“No problem,” I lied.

We’re using a pitching machine this year, which is good. The pitching machine has an ERA of 84.6 in our first five games. The pitching machine gives up so
many home runs that it could be the Pittsburgh Pirates’ fifth starter.

Indeed, it is a marvel of modern science, crafted of soft pretzels and discarded Toyota parts. It throws perfect strikes every time, till the battery runs low and the balls fall like wounded quail to the hitter’s toes (usually around the second inning).

At this point, it is a league tradition for three dads to surround the machine and attempt to fix it. Then it will work even worse.

Amish barn raisings, these games. Everybody helps. One dad feeds the pitching machine. One dad stays near the backstop, to help the catcher put his knee guards on 10 times. They fall off. He puts them on. They fall off. He puts them on.

The games last approximately four days, though some have lasted far longer. Over the course of a single six-inning game, babies are born, nations are formed, Madonna dumps three husbands.

“These games go on forever,” one dad notes.

Yeah, and how lucky is that? Mostly in life, good things happen in short staccato bursts, blink and they’re over.

Not these games. These are long, languid affairs — slices of Americana. They should sell rhubarb pie in the outfield. They should sell U.S. flags at third base.

In the meantime, just look at the kids browning up like biscuits in the spring sun, which hits them square in their rubber-chicken faces. Freckles take over their noses. Gatorade drips down their chins.

No wait. Sorry. Those are the moms.”


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