Bears Down

If graciousness were in my playbook, I’d say, “Go! You Packers! Go!” and wish them well in bringing home the bacon to old Green Bay. But that’s a big if. Instead, I’ll note that the sum total of my media experience for the game was turning on CBS Radio when we got back in range (we were driving home from a weekend outing to the Mendocino coast) and hearing, “So the Packers will move on to the Super Bowl, beating the Bears 21-14.” Which only left the suspense of how well or badly the game was actually played. I come away from the game stories I’ve seen feeling like the Packers needed luck to get out of there with the game and the Bears supplied it. Not a bitter disappointment–the Bears were clearly not a great team, but they were entertaining on their better days. It would have been a great story to see the third-string quarterback bring ’em home.

Rooting Interest

I’m going to do what no Chicago sports fan should ever do—the great majority of us seem not to abide by this wisdom—and say I’m really hoping they win tomorrow. Beyond matters of vicarious athletic attainment and hometown pride, I hope they prevail for aesthetic reasons. In an anthem vs. anthem matchup, Chicago’s “Bear Down, Chicago Bears” must triumph over Green Bay’s polka-flavored, raccoon coat-evoking slop, “Go! You Packers! Go!” I submit lyrics and clips in support of my position, starting with “Bear Down”

Bear down, Chicago Bears,
make every play clear the way to victory.
Bear down, Chicago Bears,
Put up a fight with a might so fearlessly.

We’ll never forget the way you thrilled the nation
With your T formation.

Bear down, Chicago Bears,
And let them know why you’re wearing the crown.
You’re the pride and joy of Illinois,
Chicago Bears, bear down!

And here’s a representative performance of “Bear Down” :

Now, here’s the Green Bay hymn:

Hail, hail the gang’s all here to yell for you,
And keep you going in your winning ways,
Hail, hail the gang’s all here to tell you too,
That win or lose, we’ll always sing your praises Packers;
Go, you Packers, go and get ’em,
Go, you fighting fools upset ’em,
Smash their line with all your might,
A touchdown, Packers, Fight, Fight, Fight, Fight!
On, you Green and Gold, to glory,
Win this game the same old story,
Fight, you Packers,
Fight, and bring the bacon home to Old Green Bay.

And here’s a specimen rendition of the above:

Berkeley: Memorial Stadium


A friend had tickets to last Saturday’s game between the local college’s gridiron squad, the University of California’s Golden Bears, and the top-ranked University of Oregon Ducks. Great game. The local lads almost pulled off an upset before succumbing to the insistent nibbling of the visiting waterfowl (score: 15-13).

There’s construction at the stadium,, which is built directly on a fault at the mouth of a canyon in the Berkeley Hills. The current project doesn’t address the high seismic risk to the stadium. Instead, the university is building a training center for Cal sportsmen and sportswomen (it’s called the Student Athlete High-Performance Center). [Update 11/19: I was wrong about this: the bracing illustrated here is part of the larger stadium renovation project that will get under way in earnest after the season’s final home game, against Washington on November 27. Details here.]

In large part, the new center will be The House that Tedford Built. That’s Jeff Tedford, the coach who ushered in an era of winning football at Cal (eight straight winning seasons, seven straight bowl appearances; both streaks could end this year). The university–the Athletic Department, the administration, and the alumni, not necessarily in that order–were so gaga over Tedford’s prowess that they essentially promised they’d build the training center to get him to stay in Berkeley. Cal is also paying him north of $2 million a year–details of his contract here (PDF)–despite being so strapped for cash it has raised undergraduate tuition about 45 percent over the last three years. That’s big-time college sports.

The stadium construction, though. Well, the temporary measures outside that exterior shell are kind of cool. memorialstadium111310a.jpg

Fall Classic: ‘Pitcher’

By Robert Francis, and pointed out to me by Kate (more than once) in the anthology “Hummers, Knucklers, and Slow Curves,” edited by Don Johnson.

His art is eccentricity, his aim
How not to hit the mark he seems to aim at,

His passion how to avoid the obvious,
His technique how to vary the avoidance.

Yet not too much. Not errant, arrant, wild,
But every seeming aberration willed.

Not to, yet still, still to communicate
Making the batter understand too late.

Of Francis, I find not a lot online. doesn’t even include a listing for him, though he was once remarked to be a protege of Robert Frost (he got an obit in The New York Times headlined “Robert Francis, a Poet Hailed by Frost, Dies”). Three years ago, NPR ran a posthumous piece that featured Francis reading some of his work.

As to the poem, well, it gets to the part of pitching that’s hardest to see, even when it’s there in plain sight. You’d think it was the work of what W.P. Kinsella describes as “a true fan of the game.” Here’s what Francis has to say about his boyhood interest in sports in his autobiography:

No need to say that I was not good at any sport. A boy who shrank from the rough-and-tumble of recess would not be one to take to football. Baseball was a little better, but only if the pitcher was not too speedy. I lacked courage, toughness, surplus energy, but I also lacked interest, interest that could have made me a fan if not a player. I never learned a single big-league player’s batting average. Once Father took me to a big-league game in Boston, but my chief impression was the grossness of the free-for-all urinating under the stands between innings.

Fall Classic: ‘The Southpaw’


“I have seen many a pitcher, but there’s few that throw as beautiful as Pop. He would bring his arm around twice and then lean back on 1 leg with his right leg way up in the air, and he would let that left hand come back until it almost touched the ground behind, and he looked like he was standing on 1 leg and 1 arm and the other 2 was in the air, and then that arm would come around and that other leg would settle down toward the earth, and right in about there there was the least part of a second when his uniform was all tight on him, stretched out tight across his whole body, and then he would let fly, and that little white ball would start on its way down the line toward Tom Swallow, and Pop’s uniform would get all a-rumple again, and just like it was some kind of a magic machine, the split-second when the uniform would rumple up there would be the smack of the ball in Tom’s mitt, and you realized that ball had went 60 feet 6 inches in less than a second, and you knowed that you seen not only Pop but also a mighty and powerful machine, and what he done looked so easy you thought you could do it yourself because he done it so effortless, and it was beautiful and amazing, and it made you proud.”

–Mark Harris, “The Southpaw,” 1953.

Tour de France: 39 Seconds

Unremarked by the Versus boys–Phil and Paul–in their wrap-up of today’s Tour de France time trial is the significance of the margin between first-place Alberto Contador and second-place Andy Schleck. The gap is 39 seconds, and that happens to be the precise amount of time that Contador gained on Schleck on the final climb and descent on the Tour’s 15th stage. Yes, that’s the one where Schleck attacked, dropped his chain, and Contador attacked as Schleck first slowed then was forced to dismount to fix his mechanical issue. At the time of that small mishap, Schleck was 31 seconds ahead of Contador in the overall standings; at the finish of the stage, he was 8 seconds down. Controversy attended Contador’s move, since many feel it was unsporting to attack a race leader suffering a problem with his bike. That a fair number of cycling fans appear to subscribe to this unwritten rule of Tour sportsmanship and disapproved of Contador’s tactic became obvious when Contador was awarded the yellow jersey at the end of the stage: many in the crowd booed, a reaction I don’t remember hearing before, even with some of the rats who have worn yellow.

In the end, that slipped chain and the 39 seconds that Contador gained determined the winner in this year’s Tour. Pending the results of all the Tour doping tests, of course.

We Was Robbed, We Was

It turns out the worst thing about this edition of the World Cup is not the vuvuzelas–and by the way, if you're suffering from that affliction, various hucksters and hustlers are offering cures.

The worst thing turns out to be a referee who takes away a goal–a great goal, a game-deciding goal, an end-of-game goal–with no plausible explanation. Wait–forget "plausible." The referee in the U.S.-Slovenia game nullified the Americans' go-ahead goal with no explanation at all. It kind of makes you miss Jim Joyce, the umpire who blew a big call earlier this month but was man enough to admit it and cry about it, too. 

But the really damaging part of the bad call at the Cup is the impression it leaves among Americans who aren't really soccer fans but were watching the game out of curiosity or some sort of patriotic fetish.  Imagine them watching Friday morning's contest and seeing it so arbitrarily and so wrongly decided, based on what looks like the referee's whim. Why would they come back to watch again?

Vuvuzelas: A Brief Inquiry

A word I didn’t know 72 hours ago: vuvuzela.

Definition: The South African version of the familiar plastic ballpark horns that the casual inebriate or wayward child uses to call attention to themselves with periodic un-poignant blats. But that’s a perhaps culturally insensitive view.

Relevance: South African football (soccer) fans deploy vuvuzelas by the tens of thousands and blow them incessantly. If you’ve watched (and listened) to even a minute of the World Cup so far, you know what that sounds like). Enthusiasts celebrate their presence at the games. “This is our culture,” one former member of South Africa’s national team says. This is how we create our national rhythm and dance.” Others see them as an annoyance, a hindrance to fair play, and a threat to hearing (there was a pretty good write-up of the vuvuzela issue last week in The New York Times: “Celebrating, and Berating, the Horn of South Africa.”

Use “vuvuzela” in a sentence: Would you please, please, please shut that thing up?”

Berkeley Softball, Revisited Briefly


Last Monday night, a book group came over to the house. Not my book group, though. So I made myself scarce with plans for a wild night out on the town. First stop: CVS, where I purchased some glucosamine and chondroitin among other supplies needed for my middle-aged lifestyle. That errand completed, I sought even more fun. A movie? “The Ghost Writer” sounded appealing, but I had missed the early showing at the only nearby theater running the film, and the second show, just before 10, was too late for the my middle-aged lifestyle. I had a book with me and thought about going over to a restaurant that serves good small salads and what they call a Portuguese sandwich–salt cod and some tasty tomato-based spread on thick toast. I could sit there, have a glass or red wine and modest dinner and read. I drove by, but the place is closed on Mondays. I rolled past a couple other restaurants but was not tempted to stop.  

By that time, I was near San Pablo Park where I used to play night softball games. I thought I’d drive by and see if I knew any of the teams that were out there playing. I checked out one game on a baseball-sized diamond. I recognized the umpire–someone who had been a decent player and who was OK when he started calling games–but no one else. I’ve thought about going back and playing sometimes, and I saw nothing in the play on the field–there were lots of balls hit in the air–that made me think I’d be too physically out of place. But I have to admit it didn’t look like a whole lot of fun. It was the late game of the evening and the plate umpire was running everybody in and out of the dugouts pretty fast and calling strikes that looked strange even given the weird strike zone in slow-pitch softball. He was just moving the game along. I took a few pictures, then strolled across the park to the next diamond.

At first glance, I didn’t recognize anyone in the second game, either. But at a distance something about one of the pitchers seemed familiar. And was: He turned out to be one of my teammates from the very first Berkeley team I played on, back in 1979. I hung around an inning or two and watched him pitch and hit. He did OK, even though I didn’t entirely approve of his team’s uniform shirts, which carried the players’ names on the back, a fussy and over-serious touch for a Berkeley league game. It was getting cold at the park, and I got a call that the book group had hit the road. I almost said hi to my old teammate, and then I headed home.


Pac 10 Football

We’ve expended exactly zero words in this space on this year’s football season, college or pro. There is a local team worthy of regular comment–or ridicule–and that’s the Oakland Raiders. But enough about them. The two teams most avidly followed under this Berkeley roof are California, of the NCAA’s Pacific 10 conference, and Chicago, a founding club of the National Football League. Both perform their gridiron labors under the sobriquet “Bears.”

We don’t lose a lot of sleep over either Bears squad. They’re just not good enough to cause that or to merit it. But emotional attachments are hard to sunder and occasionally the teams are entertaining. Cal is a more immediate experience, seeing they play a couple miles from our house, close enough that when the stadium cannon is fired to celebrate a touchdown it’s clearly audible here.

The conceit for any fan of a decent college football program is that the team they follow is on the threshold or at least capable of greatness (some people root for teams that actually are great–such as the quasi-pro squads at schools like Florida, Texas, and the University of Southern California. I don’t know have any idea what it would be like to root for such a team, though a certain infuriating smugness seems to come with that rarefied territory).

California, at any rate, is a school with a consistently decent football program, a program good enough and rich enough that its coach is a millionaire and fans enjoy a week or two every season thinking that, “Gee, this year these guys are for real.” But Cal, millionaire coach and all, is also a consistently inconsistent team, capable of spectacular performances, weird lapses and blind stupidity–sometimes on the same play. The team won its first three games this year, badly abusing a collection of overmatched squads. Then it began its conference schedule with a game against Oregon in Eugene. Cal looked helpless and scored a single field goal while the Ducks ran riot. Cal made an identical impression against USC in Berkeley: a lone field goal while the Trojans cruised up and down the field at will. Since then, freed of expectations, the Bears have had an OK season. They lost to a good Oregon State team. They beat UCLA, Washington State, Arizona State and Arizona. Today they played Stanford.

Step back a moment from the Cal particulars. The rest of the conference has been pretty interesting.

Oregon demolished Cal, then went on to smash USC, the perennial conference power. It was Oregon’s year, until they played Stanford a couple weeks ago. Stanford whipped them.

USC lost an early game to Washington–continuing a string of seasons during which it has lost a close game to a weaker conference opponent (other upsets in recent years came by way of Oregon State and Stanford). Then the Trojans seemed to get back on track by dominating California. But USC didn’t really flatten anyone else. In fact, they got steamrolled themselves by Oregon in Eugene. And last week, Stanford not only beat them but racked up more points against them than any team in history. It couldn’t have happened to a nicer bunch of guys (by which I really mean: a more entitled-seeming group of fans).

So Cal vs. Stanford. The Cardinal took down Oregon immediately after the Ducks’ big win against USC, and then it simply overpowered USC. Both Oregon and USC stomped Cal. What chance could the Bears possibly have? Naturally, the Bears beat them. Not just beat them, dominated them — the 34-28 score hid the fact Cal held the ball for nearly 40 minutes out of 60 and got 31 first downs to Stanford’s 16.

Elsewhere, Oregon came from behind to beat Arizona and keep the inside track for the conference championship and Rose Bowl berth. But to get there, they need to beat Oregon State on December 3. It’s a home game for the U of O. I’ll give the edge to the Ducks over the Beavers.

But this is the Pac 10, so don’t bet on anything.