Two weeks into the baseball season, a couple things are clear. First of all, for a couple years I’ve heard a lot of hype about the future of the Washington Nationals, even as they have delivered fantastically awful seasons, losing 102 games in ’08, 103 in ’09, and improving to 93 losses in ’10. All the while we were told the team would be good in 2012, just you wait and see. Well, a week and a half is not a lot of time, but the Nats are 7-3 and first place in the NL East. It’s early, and I don’t expect this team to win the division. But hey, they don’t totally suck. So maybe the yay-sayers were on to something?
When it comes to the Cubs, I have a grim feeling of resignation growing in my gut, and for once it has nothing to do with the abysmal product they are putting on the field. No, it’s the creeping commercialism being inflicted on the ballpark by the new ownership. I’m hearing they are close to a deal with the Mayor’s Office to secure public assistance in renovating Wrigley Field, and I hate it. Yes, the place is kind of run down and could definitely use some rehab, but if the new LCD scoreboard in right field is evidence of the kinds of changes they want to make, I don’t want any part of it.
The Cubs have been playing at Wrigley since before World War I. In that time, much of the experience has remained the same, from the hand-operated scoreboard, to the drunk guys in the bleachers, to not winning the world series. And while that last part is something most of us Northsiders would like to see change, the rest of it is part of our collective identity. Being a Cubs fan is in fact about baseball, in spite of what Southsiders will say about us, but it’s not just about baseball. The collective experience, the tradition, the taking part in something that’s sacred and virtually unchanged for generations are all part of why I love the Cubs. I want them to win, but I want them to win as the Cubs. I want them to win in a way that vindicates the past century of futility and carries forward the hopes and dreams and traditions of all the Cubs fans who have gone before. And I want them to win in the same goddam ballpark where they lost to Babe Ruth and the Yankees.
Because we already have a modern baseball stadium with a bigass jumbotron screen in this town, so if that’s what you’re looking for in a game day experience then you know right where you can go. That’s right, 35th and Shields. It’s nice there, have fun. Per Ozzie Guillen, the rats are not on steroids there.
Ah, Ozzie. I miss you so. You made sports in this town so much more entertaining, bringing that certain je ne sais quoi of professional wrestling to the sports radio morning shows. But when you said you admired Castro for his toughness and survival skills while you were in Chicago, nobody batted an eye. Everybody just smiled and nodded at everything you said in Chicago, Ozzie, because you brought home a World Series title. And also because we thought you were a crazy person and were every so slightly afraid of you. But mostly because we didn’t want you to stop talking, because it was entertaining. Personally I think we should have normalized relations with Cuba a long time ago. The Cold War is long over, and we need the pitching.
Speaking of the sports scene, the most gripping event I’ve seen in the last couple weeks wasn’t baseball at all. It was a roller derby bout, the Windy City Rollers on the road in Portland challenging the Rose City Wheels of Justice. Gripping because if place any stock in the Derby News Network rankings, Windy City was a distinct underdog. Basically, they are a big fish in a small pond. While there are a number of great athletes on these teams, the North Central region is basically a weak division, sort of the NL West of the WFTDA. It’s got some up and comers who are hoping to contend soon, but the powerhouse teams are all in the East (Gotham Girls), South Central (Texacutioners, Kansas City Roller Warriors) and West (Oly Rollers, Rocky Mountain, etc). So Rose City is a powerhouse team from the West, ranked #6 to Windy City’s #10 nationally, and most observers expected them to win by a comfortable margin.
But this is a Windy City team that believes it has a legitimate shot at they Hydra, and with star jammer Kola Loka back in the lineup after several years’ absence, maybe they do. Certainly they put up much more of a fight than Rose City expected. The game was close and tense, with Windy City leading for much of the bout but essentially blowing the game with two key penalties, one on the very last jam, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory and coughing up a 17 point lead to lose 133-130.
So that was the positive spin. Another way to put it is they were two penalties away from an upset win over the #6 ranked team in the nation. The first penalty was the failed jammer handoff from Zoe Trocious to Hoosier Mama. Why this was even attempted I can’t even fathom, since with a substantial lead it wasn’t necessary by any means. But the handoff was botched when Hoosier Mama’s “pivot panty” – the striped helmet cover – popped off. Since only the pivot can receive Jammer status, this made the transfer an illegal procedure. As a result, none of her apparent points counted. The second penalty was a back block major on Jackie Daniels in the final jam of the game, resulting in a 20 point power jam that erased a 17 point deficit and gave the Wheels of Justice a 3 point win. Jackie Daniels is one of Windy City’s best skaters, a team captain and one of the best blockers in the country. But I question using her instead of Kola Loka in the last jam of the bout. While she’s a great defensive player and has had success as a jammer in many situations, what was needed here was someone to stay in the game and hold Scald Eagle to less than 17 net points on the jam. There were a couple ways to do this, the way I see it. First of all, get a fast skater to break through the pack. On the last jam of the game there was no way to get Scald Eagle to hit it and quit it after 4 points, but even one penalty-free pass would have won the game. The other option, of course, would be a penalty on Scald Eagle. She had six majors already, but that hardly mattered with just 1:15 left in the game. Any penalty, as Windy City discovered, was the game. Jackie Daniels is a hard hitting, tough player who can be penalty prone in tough situations like this one. But last fall, I saw her put in for the last jam against the Kansas City Roller Warriors in a similarly close game, and once again the Rollers fell short in the final seconds. Don’t get me wrong, Jackie Daniels is an amazing skater, who’s made an immense contribution to this team since transferring from Grand Raggedy. She’s made it a tougher, more physical, harder hitting squad. But it seemed to me that this was one of those situations where the best defense is a good offense.
But without those two penalties, Windy City would have an “upset” victory over the #6 ranked team in the country. So in spite of the loss, I think they have a real shot at contending for the Hydra, if they can master the art of penalty management.
And that’s your mid-April sports update, folks.