Sports bar fun

I got funny looks from my girlfriend and I definitely creeped out the waitress, but the kid inside of me teamed up with the sports nut and took over. I was at their mercy.    

It was getting late Saturday night after the U.S. had been eliminated from the World Cup, and my girlfriend insisted I begin to cheer up (women, huh?). We decided to go out to eat. I made my way towards Red Lobster on Maple by the Boulevard, and somewhere between the indecisiveness of women, heavy traffic and my lack of patience…we ended up at Tully’s on Main and Transit.      

Clearly, I was aggravated by the time we got to our seats, and to make matters worse, the soccer game was being replayed on every other television. It was too hard to watch, and I ended up putting my head down on the table to get away from it all.      

And there they were, baseball cards in the table. How cool was that? It’s not that hard to do, but I liked what I saw and it took my mind off the game. I read off the names in front of me, and, making small talk, I asked my girlfriend who she had on her side. This table has some good players, I thought. I read off more names. This table has some great players.      

And just like that, I was gone. I was moving ketchup bottles and napkin holders to read off every card on that table. By the time I finished I was certain this table had to be the best table ever in the history of a restaurant.      

I took a Powerball card and pencil and wrote down my roster (side note– trying to find pictures… could Tully’s have a lamer website?):      

My starting rotation was solid.      

1. Nolan Ryan. No explanation needed. All-time MLB strikeout leader. Absolute flamethrower.  An video exhibit at the Baseball Hall of Fame the last time I went said that when Ryan was on his game, “hitters” would come back to the dugout (from striking out) and tell the on-deck batter, “Don’t go up there.”    

To the couple behind us, I’m sorry I interrupted your meal when I raised my voice, but my girlfriend told me she didn’t know who Nolan Ryan was. You can see where I’m coming from.      

2. Roger Clemens. Another pitcher who needs no introduction. I think he’s innocent on the steroids, but that’s another story. Seven Cy Youngs, third place all-time in strikeouts and ninth all-time in wins. Big game pitcher.      

3. Orel Hershiser. Baseball Tonight host, a career batting average above the Mendoza line, and he was born in Buffalo. In 1988 he won 23 games, the Cy Young award, a Gold Glove, and was named World Series MVP. What’s not to love?      

These cards were great. Not Honus Wagner T206 great, but pretty darn good. Note the age of the card; Pittsburgh didn't have an "h" at the end.

4. Dave Stewart. AL All-Star in 1989 who led the league in games started four consecutive seasons (’88-’91) and owns a post-season ERA of 2.77.      

5. Mike Moore. Number one overall draft pick in 1981 and was another member of the AL All-Star team in ’89.      

In relief, I can call on either Tug McGraw or Jesse Orosco. Orosco is the all-time games leader for pitchers, while McGraw owns a 3.14 lifetime ERA and was one of the best character people in the game.    

After my pitchers put goose eggs on the scoreboard, I’m going to need some run support. My lineup is just as deadly as my rotation.   

1. Leading off is Hall-of-Famer Wade Boggs (3B). Led the league in on-base percentage six times and hit .328 for his career. Won two Gold Gloves and was a 12-time All-Star.   

2. Batting second is HOFer Tony Gwynn (OF). Led the league in batting average eight times and was a career .338 hitter. Not known for his power (135 HRs in 20 seasons), but struck out only 434 times in over 10,000 plate appearances.   

3. Third is HOFer and 10-time All-Star Ryne Sandberg (2B). Has over 1,000 career RBIs to go along with a .285 career batting average, and slugged over .500 four times. Also owns nine Gold Glove awards.   

4. Cleaning up is none other than Hank Aaron (OF). Don’t know what his card was doing in a table (must be a reprint), but he can hit cleanup for me any day. Still the all-time home run leader in my eyes with 755, Hammerin’ Hank was named to the All-Star team 21 times and is the MLB career leader in RBIs with 2,297.   

5. Batting fifth is Juan Gonzalez (OF), who led the league in homers twice and has over 1,400 career RBIs. If anybody is left on base after Henry bats, Juan will hit them in.  (Bonus points with me because my Sega Genesis game used to say “Juan Gon is long gone.” Sorta rhymes.)  

6. Catcher was the only position I didn’t have on the table, but Kevin Mitchell will have to do. We’re hoping to get him in 1989 form, the year he won the MVP after hitting 47 homers, slugging .635 and knocking in 125 runs.   

Hot Chili

7. No easy out in the order. Seventh is Wally Joyner (1B), who hit .280 or better 11 times in his 16-year career.   

8. Miguel Tejada (SS). Gives power and speed to the bottom of the order, and can get on base for when the top hitters come back up. Twice led the league in doubles and once reached 150 RBIs. Is a six-time All-Star and owner of a .289 career average.   

9. Pitcher.   

My bench players (or DHs) are Jose Offerman and Chili Davis. Offerman is a two-time All-Star who twice led the league in triples. He once stole 45 bases, so he could pinch run late in games too. Davis was a three-time All-Star… and who doesn’t love Chili Davis?     

So that’s my roster. No rhyme or reason for doing this, but it was fun and it killed time before my meal. Definitely took my mind off U.S. soccer losing, which I am very thankful for. I wonder if other tables have good players like this too. In the rare event that you read this and are going to Tully’s later, make your roster and comment it below. I mean, my team would kick your team’s behind with blindfolds on… but it would still be fun.   

Other thoughts on recent sports:   

One of Big Z's many outbursts

Stephen Strasburg is due for a Carlos Zambrano-sized fit if he doesn’t start getting more run support. One of these days he’s going to shut the other team out on the mound, then get on base and help himself out like he did against the Bisons. In his two wins, the Nationals have scored a combined 14 runs, but in his two losses? Zilch.   

Speaking of the Carlos Zambrano situation, I think the Cubbies need to take five and chill out. I’m fine with him going out to dinner with White Sox’s manager Ozzie Guillen hours after it happened. If anybody has experience with losing their temper, it’s Ozzie. I’m sure he had a pointer or two for Big Z about the course of action to take to make things better between him and his ball club. And what’s the worst that could happen? Ozzie woos Zambrano and he signs with the Sox? That would do the Cubs a huge favor, getting rid of a mediocre pitcher with a big salary.   

I’m slightly confused on the AP style for all time versus all-time, so I just kept it consistent. It reads “An all-time high, but the greatest runner of all time,” with no further explanation.    

So near, but yet so far

For a second, everything was perfect. It seemed like Ghana, who made it through by way of two penalty kicks, were going to get a taste of their own medicine. We were about to avenge a defeat at the hands of Ghana during the last World Cup. Landon Donovan had netted a PK to tie it for the USA, and we were pressing for more. But shortly during the first period of extra time, disaster struck. And then before we knew it, it was over.

First, there was disbelief. The entire room was stunned. It was a hands-on-your-head, blank stare, “that didn’t just happen” kind of moment as everyone looked up at the TV in silence. For some, glazed eyes turned to tears. Others too proud to cry found a chair and sulked for what seemed like an eternity. Head shaking replaced verbal communication, as if the dejection itself was enough to overburden a voice box. It is by no stretch of the imagination to say heartbreak had set it.

Anger soon followed, and for myself it was a widespread anger at that. I was mad at Ghana for winning. I was mad at Africa for owning Ghana. I was mad at Ghana’s players for wasting so much time and pretending to be injured, and I was mad at the referee for not doing anything about it. It’s depressing that we can’t even hope for next year, and who knows what I’ll be doing four years down the road. Olympic soccer is two years away, but it isn’t the same.

I was irate with Jozy Altidore for playing such a miserable game. I was mad at our defense for letting 80 minutes of decent soccer go to waste because of the first 10, for the third time in four games. I was livid that no one showed any killer instinct in the final third, and I will never understand the reasoning behind the short corner kick.

Another reason I’m furious with Ghana is that they are a great example of why people hate soccer. They showed that diving, wasting time and pretending you’re hurt are all successful tactics that can be used to help you win soccer games. The one guy on Ghana was down late holding his ankle in his own box, doing his best to look like he was on his deathbed. They brought the stretcher out for him, and the second they put it down on the sideline he hopped back up and started walking. It’s a miracle! It’s… exactly why soccer players catch a bad rap.

I guess the most upsetting thing of all was understanding where the anger was really coming from. Despite the waiting and suffering endured as a U.S. soccer fan, we still aren’t there yet. Ghana was the better team on the pitch. In what was arguably the most important game of their lives thus far for the majority of our roster, how many players can you name who really played well? For all 120 minutes? Tim Howard’s wife can count them on her Y chromosomes.

If being outplayed isn’t enough, it’s insult to injury to remember Ghana did so without their best player, Michael Essien. How many teams are the USA beating without Donovan? Realizing just how much work is still left to be done is another deep gash into the sides of American supporters.

Back at the bar, I started to find the strength to make my way back to the car. I unlocked the door, and then just sat in my seat and thought. I didn’t feel like driving just yet. As the time passed, a new thought came to mind. As depressed as I was about the elimination, something else was nagging me. It wasn’t just that we lost, but how we lost it. Not that it was in extra time, but the vague familiarity of it all. Watching Team USA today felt an awful lot like watching the Sabres in the playoffs.

You wanted so badly for your team to pull through, but somewhere in the back of your head there was that doubt that wouldn’t go away. Being dumbfounded as to why your team can’t get their butts in gear until the very last second definitely felt like being a Sabres fan, as did wondering where that extra effort was. How many times have we complained of a lack of desperation? The Sabres and Team USA look similar during the first 40 minutes. Pouring it on late and hoping it’s enough? That’s definitely a Buffalo thing.

How about a Tim Howard-Ryan Miller comparison? I’m sick of the goalie being the only one who wants to win during the first 90% of the game. If you wanted to be corny you could say Ghana was a “head” better, because we couldn’t win a head ball to save our lives, but this picture may be the most telling of all. There’s five Americans in the shot, and who wants it most? The only guy who doesn’t belong in the box for a corner kick. I’m sure Miller would park himself in front of the net on the power play if they’d let him.

So yes, I’m mad that we lost, I’m mad we’re not good enough, and I’m crushed that the dream is over. I’m extremely bothered by the fact that I have to be surrounded by teams like this, and I refuse to accept my team turning in half a performance and thinking it’s good enough.

So maybe my girl friend will never understand why I buried my head in my food at Tully’s to avoid seeing replays from the game, or why I can’t sleep at 6 a.m. after the night following the loss. But through all the tears and heartbreak, the stunned silences and minutes spent with your hands over your face, somewhere in there will all become true Buffalo sports fans. You can tell me I’m in the bargaining stage of grief right now if you want, but I wouldn’t trade that for anything. There are times like these where we stare at our computer screens at a complete loss for words, wishing we could just go to sleep and wake up from this nightmare; but at the same time, we know the suffering will make winning the big one that much sweeter when it finally happens.

There’s a lot of work to be done, but that’s the great part about sports, there’s always next time. Go States.

Couldn’t fit this in, but more thoughts on something I mentioned earlier, Ghana showing that diving equals wins. Perhaps America will always be behind the eight ball in soccer for one reason–pride. Think about it, if somebody hits you in the face, as an American, whats your reaction? You find the mother f—er who hit you and get him back twice as hard. But for the rest of the world, apparently the proper reaction to getting hit–or cleated, or pushed–is to lay on the ground like you just got shot. No shame. Can it be that Americans are too proud for that?

Slow and steady wins the race…

Their faces say it all.

For one, it’s a look of joy and relief—and as much happiness as he can muster. For the other, it’s an angry look of despair; sadness beyond tears and a wondering of what could have been. It was truly a match that “no one deserved to lose,” no matter how much I despise that cliché. For something this special I can make an exception.

Just one more time for emphasis: THEY PLAYED TENNIS FOR 11 HOURS AND FIVE MINUTES before a winner was crowned.

From a purely athletic point of view, it would have been much more impressive if the match was 11 continuous hours, starting at maybe 10 in the morning and ending at 9 at night. But from tennis’ point of view, it worked out perfectly for them.

A match spread over three days (three days!!) boosted the publicity ten-fold. People haven’t paid this much attention to tennis since the Williams sisters started wearing tight clothing. Let’s be honest, for most people, tennis on TV is one small notch above golf on the excit-o-meter. But the longer John Isner and Nicolas Mahut battled and the more attention it picked up, people across the globe tuned in by the bunches. For all the talk soccer is getting lately for making its way into pop culture, tennis scored an ace of its own with this match.

Something else I find interesting is the way fans picked which guy to pull for. Some picked straight along country lines and went with Isner, the American, but others were drawn to Mahut for his resiliency and underdog quality. This guy was on the ropes for about six hours straight and never gave up. Finding the strength to stand at that point is a feat in and of itself, but the hustle, the full extension dives, and the never-say-die mentality of Mahut were hard to root against.

Neither player was a big name in tennis coming into the match, but now, their names are etched into the history books with a record that won’t be broken any time soon.

Other thoughts:

  • In a true testament to sport and superstition, I thought it was awesome that both players came back out for the remainder of the match in the same clothes they wore the day before.
  • I know ESPN Classic was having some troubles. I think they just found a way to fill a whole bunch of time…
  • Eleven hours and five minutes. The world record for the marathon (26.2 miles) is Haile Gebrselassie’s 2008 time of 2 hours, 3 minutes and 59 seconds. At that pace, he could have run just under five and a half marathons during the time it took to finish that match.
  • ESPNU showed the match over their scheduled programming yesterday. I don’t know if anyone else noticed it, but sorry lacrosse. You finally got national television and bam! Snuffed for tennis. It’ll be okay though, just play “The Ultimate Lax Bro” video a few dozen times and put your pinnie on. The hurt will fade.
  • Last but not least, the final score line was 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7), 7-6 (3), 70-68. Wait a second, the guy is 6’9” and just put up 70? Somewhere out there, Fran MacCaffery is planning a recruiting trip for Mahut.

The day Landon Donovan saved U.S. soccer

The game has been over for almost 12 hours now and I’m still pumped up about it. And if you knew how important today was for soccer in this country, you would be too.

Donovan’s goal is more than just an exciting goal at the end of a game. Way more. This year was the year for the United States. We had the right players and a great draw for our pool. There was no reason for us not to advance. For the sake of soccer in the United States, this was a must have.

For Donovan himself to get the goal, that was special too. He has arguably done more to advance the game in the States than any other American player before him, and this was huge for his place in world soccer, as well as the legacy he will leave behind.

But let’s think of this from the other way. What if a defender clears the ball and Donovan doesn’t score. The USA and Algeria play to a scoreless draw and we finish with three points in the group, behind both England and Slovenia.

For passionate soccer fans, their spirits are demoralized once again. It’s yet another year where our country watches the rest of the world, from the outside looking in. In most basic terms, losing is simply un-American. It’s not something we’re used to experiencing, and it’s certainly not a trait we want to become accustomed to.  But when it happens repeatedly… people don’t know what to believe.

For the casual fans, it drives them away from something we’ve been trying so long to promote, the idea of soccer becoming popular in America. Nobody likes a loser, especially one that breaks your heart. “We were supposed to do well this year,” they’d say. “But forget this team and their losing ways. Football… American football… now there’s a sport we’re can win at.”

Last, but certainly least, this would affect the soccer haters too. “See, what a stupid game. We can’t even beat countries that I’ve never heard of. Slovenia, who? Those foot fairies and worthless sport.” The worst part is, that criticism would be directed at passionate soccer fans, who have the purist motives of all. It’d be four more years of abuse and name calling, which can be enough to drive some people away from the beautiful game.

Years—perhaps even decades—of soccer clawing its way into mainstream America would have been ruined without Donovan’s strike. It’s one thing to be consistently bad (the Pirates still bring people out to the ballpark), but it’s the heartbreak that drives people away (say, the Mets, anyone?).  And this World Cup, one we should have had success in, would do just that. Had the U.S. not advanced, it would have been detrimental to soccer and soccer fans across the country.

It’s safe to say that what Donovan has built up over the years, he saved today with his already famous finish.

So the question has to be asked, is Donovan’s extra time goal the most famous goal in all of U.S. history? I certainly don’t know all there is to know about U.S. soccer, but at the same time, I don’t think it’s that long of a list. Off the top of my head, other famous goals might be:

  • USA over England, 1-0, in 1950. Such an upset that English papers thought it had to be a misprint and ran scores of 10-1, England
  • USA over Mexico, 2-0, in the round of 16, 2002. Always good to beat a geographical rival, and Mexico is best competition in North America
  • USA over Spain in the Confederations Cup, 2009. Not the World Cup, but a huge win for the States over a world-wide superpower

Of course, I’m sure I’m missing some. If you have one I forgot, comment below.

Other thoughts on the game:

Donovan saved Clint Dempsey’s butt. Dempsey did not play well and missed some open looks. The dives were on the soft side too. I know it’s Clint, but I was considering subbing him for Edson Buddle early in the second half.

Did the USA get the ref job again? Didn’t look offside to me… and if it was that’s an awful ballsy call from the side ref. But come on, Jozy Altidore’s yellow card was the softest call I’ve ever seen. The guy took two steps and then fell.

Michael Bradley had another solid game, but my new man crush has to be for his dad, Bob Bradley. I love the guy. He’s not sitting there all arrogant like Slovenia’s coach Matjaz Kek, and he gets visibly excited an angry with the rest of us. He has both the feistiness of Ozzie Guillen and the cool, collectedness of Joe Torre all in one. The shot of him after the goal called back today was priceless… and who doesn’t love when coaches get mad.

But on the other side of the spectrum, I can’t stand Algeria’s Hassan Yebda. I think they used his picture on UrbanDictionary next to “that guy.” I think the hair alone does it for me.

I do feel bad for Slovenia, not advancing after leading for so long, but if we would have missed advancing because of Edu’s called back goal (I’m thinking there’s a problem if I have to specify which one) I would have been seriously pissed at their country. We should have fought them.  I mean if we were in a war, we could fight their entire country 2-on-1 with the state of Kentucky…

And finally… wow! Look what happens when we have a clean sheet. Tim Howard finally had a shutout, and the team finally won a game. Coincidence? I think not.

Soccer fans, we’ve waited a long time for this day. I haven’t been this proud of U.S. Soccer since we were up 2-0 on Brazil last year, but this is way better than that. Before you go to bed tonight, I want to you smile—your team is undefeated.

Lack of killer instinct and nightmare officiating hurt USA

Something wasn’t right.       

There sat the ball in the back of the net, but the looks on the faces of the American players didn’t match the exuberant levels we were expecting. Then they showed a close shot of Maurice Edu, and his expression alone was gut-wrenching.       

The goal had been disallowed, and no one knew why. Not the broadcasters, not the coaches, or the players from either team. After watching the replay, it’s hard to believe the ref even knew why.       

After the game, Landon Donovan said that they repeatedly asked the official what the call was, and that he simply ignored them and walked away. He also noted that the ref hardly spoke English and may not have understood what the Americans were asking.       

“I don’t know how much English he speaks but we asked him numerous times in a non-confrontational manner to explain his call, but he just ignored us,” Donovan said. “Or maybe he just didn’t understand.”       

However, what I have found is a site (which I believe is Egyptian) that had a piece about the referees for the Africa Cup of Nations Tournament. Translated through Google Translate, the site says Koman Coulibaly, the referee in question, “Speaks French and English as well as local language of the country.”       

A bloodied Brian McBride in 2006 vs. Italy

No matter what happens in the final match, this game will be remembered in a number of different ways. For some, Coulibaly’s name will go alongside Jorge Larrionda’s in the annals of history and this will be marked as the second consecutive World Cup in which the U.S. was plagued by poor officiating.       

For others, it was a second half to remember. Slovenia was faced with an onslaught of attacks for the better part of 45 minutes and were lucky to escape with one point still in their pockets. As controlling as they looked in the first half, the United States were the enforcers in the second half and imposed their will on the European side. The desperation and intensity shown in the second half from the Americans is what we have been waiting for all along; the only downside is that we had to be scored on twice to wake up.      

What the USA needs to do in our final match with Algeria is come out with that same energy and reckless abandon that we had in the second half last Friday. We need to stop playing like this is some throw away game up in Rochester and realize where we are. We are competing in the world’s largest sporting event and, with a win, we will advance to be one of the top 16 teams. We weren’t playing bad soccer before we were scored on in the first half–passing well and didn’t look nervous–but there was no desperation. No forward runs, no defenders pushing up. We seemed almost content to knock the ball around long enough for the other team to screw up and then we would take advantage of it.      

This is the World Cup! Nobody is giving our freebies. The lack of killer instinct was maddening… similar to the Sabres power play against Boston. I’ve liked Bob Bradley as a coach so far, and the changes he got out of his team after the break really make it seem like he has a handle on his squad. All that’s left now is simple: win and we’re in.      

Other thoughts:      

I was very impressed with the play of Bob Bradley’s son, Michael. Even before he scored, he got himself involved and was committed to make a difference in the game. He was also the most vocal American in the moments after the disallowed goal and after the final whistle blew. Much like Tyler Myers sticking up for Ryan Miller, you gotta love a young guy with that kind of spunk.     

It was one heck of a strike by Donovan for our first goal, but honestly, what was their goalie doing? Instead of coming out to cut down the angle or at least make himself look big in the net, he got out of the way and hid in the goal. Not saying I would have wanted to get in front of that shot either, but… come on. Weak effort.    

With one game to play for each team in group C, all four teams are still alive, and three can clinch a spot with a win. For the downers who want to point out that we only have two of a possible six points, think about how some other fans have it; fans whose teams are normally a lot better than ours. England is a traditional soccer powerhouse, and they could be knocked out even if they tie their final game. And how about France? The runner-ups four years ago now look to be in complete dismay as they have earned only one point through two matches and dismissed arguably their top player, Nicolas Anelka. The day after he was released from the team, but rest of the players refused to practice in protest of his departure, and that led to France’s team director straight up quitting and going back to Paris. (More info here.) Not even last World Cup’s champion Italy is doing well, drawing both of their matches against much lower quality teams.    

Coulibaly was back on the field today as a fourth official, so it doesn’t look like FIFA will be banning him from other games. 

Vuvuzelas are awesome, and you too can own one for just $7.99. If you overhear someone talking about soccer and you want to know if they are a legitimate fan or not, the vuvuzela proves to be a good litmus test. If they don’t like the horn, well then they just aren’t a real fan. Simple as that.    


In a completely unrelated note, Mets’ pitcher John Maine made a rehab start Friday for the Bisons. He gave up only one hit in 4.1 innings of work with four strikeouts and three walks.  Never looked comfortable on the mound but got results; had a no-hitter through four. 50 strikes out of 88 pitches is a good ratio for a rehab start, but that’s too many pitches to throw over that few innings. Should make at least one more start with Buffalo.