Friday, July 25, 2014

An annual pilgrimage to Baseball’s Mecca

We all have to point to our favorite team in
the standings on the scoreboard just outside
of the Hall of Fame museum before entering
on Saturday morning.  Here in 2012, I was
pointing to last place, and will do so again
this time around.
It’s always a weekend in late July.  The weather in my hometown of Cherry Hill, New Jersey is insanely humid and temperatures are in the 90s.  The baseball regular season enters its final third, but unfortunately around here everyone begins to gear up for the Eagles as the Phillies are in the midst of another disappointing season.   However for someone like me it’s usually a disappointing time in Philadelphia sports.  While I’m as excited as the next guy about the Eagles, baseball was always my first love, and to know the Phillies season is down the drain with roughly 60 games to go disappoints me.  That’s how things have been the last couple years and will be so again this year during this late July weekend.   But regardless of where the Phils are in the standings, this weekend is always a special one for me.

Three days at National Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Weekend in Cooperstown, New York.   For someone who fell in love with baseball at such a young age, there’s nothing better.  Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice in 2009 was the first class I saw get inducted and it didn’t take me long to ask myself the question “What took so long?” as I was loving every minute of the weekend.   There’s baseball merchandise in every shop, hall of famers outside almost all of the shops signing autographs, and walking right by legends of the game has become so normal to me now entering my sixth straight induction weekend trip.

While seeing the many hall of famers and browsing in the shops on Main Street is a lot of fun, what makes the trip special more so than anything else is who I’ve been going with.  My dad is a lawyer.  When I was little he would frequently bring me into the office to talk to Pete, another lawyer at his law firm and a gigantic baseball fan.  While it was hard to accept sometimes that he was a Mets fan, we both had no problems talking baseball whenever my dad brought me in.  Pete’s been a member at the Hall of Fame for quite a while as induction weekend goes back a lot further than just 2009 for him.  But when my dad got the call from Pete in the winter of 2009 asking us to join, we never looked back.

Pete’s friend Tom, another huge baseball fan, flies in from California.  With Pete having left my dad’s law firm and Tom living on the other side of the country it’s really the three days of the year we get to see both of them.   As the induction weekends have gone by, tons of traditions have unfolded.  In 2009, Pete found a 25-question quiz in Newsweek magazine by George Will.  We all attempted the questions on the ride up and enjoyed it.  By 2010, both Pete and I were making our own quizzes and by 2011 there were prizes awarded to those who did the best on each quiz.  Tom, formerly a high school English teacher, made a literature quiz one year.  Even now my saxophone-playing brother Peter, who started coming in 2011, has decided to make his own quiz about pop culture and jazz.  To Pete’s credit he now goes above and beyond just a quiz.  Everyone in the group that is going to Cooperstown with Pete receives their own binder which is known as the official guide and quiz.  In addition to Pete’s quiz, the binder includes plenty of induction weekend information, and a history of our trips together and notable moments.  George Will, just in case you happen to be reading this, this is your fault.

There are also specific eating locations which have developed over time.  Our Saturday night dinner location is a place called Sal’s Pizza on Main Street.  On Saturday night around six o’clock all the hall of famers that are in Cooperstown for the weekend ride down Main Street in pickup trucks  in a parade for the fans.  Then they gather for a dinner together.  In 2012, Mike Schimdt, Robin Yount, Paul Molitor, and George Brett decided to have their own dinner in a loft above Sal’s.  We happened to be eating outside that night and were the first to spot the four hall of famers coming up the stairs and shortly thereafter others that were eating at Sal’s began to realize.  This is known as the Sal’s Pizza Encounter of 2012.

Taken in 2013, this is outside our lunch spot on the way
up on Friday afternoon at Subway.  From left to right. Pete, Tom,
myself, Peter, and my dad.
Due to anticipation of the trip, the day before Cooperstown is known as Cooperstown Eve.  It’s traditions like eating at the same places, e-mailing on Cooperstown Eve about our excitement for another trip that make this weekend so special to me.  Oh and not to mention this year happens to be the best class I’ve ever seen in my time going up.  Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, Joe Torre, Bobby Cox, and Tony La Russa all will be inducted.  It’s no longer Cooperstown Eve.  So I guess I’ll try and get some sleep before the three-day annual tradition starts all over again.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Why the Big Four is good for men’s tennis

Wimbledon always goes by way too fast.  Having played lots of tennis growing up and slowly becoming a tennis fan, I love the two weeks that is Wimbledon.  But in the blink of an eye the fortnight is over and the All England Club is quiet again.  A day after a thrilling five-set final between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic tennis goes back to being all but irrelevant in the minds of many American sports fans.  Now surely someone could say the same about soccer and the World Cup as it seems like soccer steals the headlines every four years in America and then everyone goes back to caring about the more popular sports in the states.  However, it seems like four times a year, after every grand slam final, tennis gets its fair share of coverage on SportsCenter.

Here is the Sports Illustrated cover after Roger Federer
and Rafael Nadal played what remains the greatest
tennis match of all time.  The 2008 Wimbledon Final.
Federer, Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray are what causes SportsCenter to start the show with a Wimbledon Final like they did yesterday after Sunday Night Baseball.  Had the final been between Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria and Canada’s Milos Raonic, two young upstart tennis players on the rise and the other two Wimbledon semifinalists, I highly doubt many people would even be interested in knowing who won.  The average American sports fan knows these four tennis players and, for the most part, that’s it.  The average American sports fan isn’t aware of the fact that Dimitrov and Raonic are two faces that should be around for a while in men’s tennis.  The average American sports fan hears Stanislas Wawrinka defeats Rafael Nadal in the Australian Open Final, pauses, and then says…who?

It’s a shame there isn’t an elite American tennis player right now like an Andy Roddick.  Sorry John Isner I’m not seeing it just yet. This certainly would help.  But Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray are four names known across the world as the elite when it comes to men’s tennis and everyone else is trying to break through.  Over the last six to seven years, so frequently have we seen two of these players facing off in grand slam finals and semifinals.  Often times this leads to a great match like we saw yesterday.  So the average American sports fan looks at something like yesterday knowing that two of the best players in the world are competing on the biggest stage in tennis and decides to tune in.

                                                                           Getty Images
Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic embrace after Murray
defeated Djokovic in last year's Wimbledon Final
becoming the first British man to win Wimbledon in 77 years.
For someone like me, who watches as much of every grand slam as I can and tries to keep an eye on what’s going on in the other smaller events, the first week of a major can be rough.  I’m watching the big names cruise and I’m thinking, where’s the parity in this game?! Where’s the madness?! Sure Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, and Murray have all bowed out early in majors before.  As a matter of fact, Nadal and Murray were both out before the semifinals at Wimbledon.  But these four men drive the sport and parity maybe isn’t what’s best for the game regarding popularity in America.  Epic grand slam finals are what gets people in America talking about tennis.  I’ve had an ongoing debate with the man who I began taking tennis lessons from about who the best tennis player of all time is and it seems like the conversation is down to Nadal and Federer, no disrespect to Pete Sampras, Rod Laver, and all the other greats.  The point is, you can talk about a lot about these four, partiucarly Nadal and Federer who have been at the top a little longer than Djokovic and Murray, because we’re so used to seeing them in big matches.

Considering many would say Federer and Nadal will go down as the two greatest players of all time, leave the order in which you rank them up for debate, just knowing that right now we can watch both and the talent level of Djokovic and Murray is equally as capable right now, should make any match when two of these four are playing worth watching by any sports fan regardless of how much tennis one may watch.  Popularity in American sports is very dependent on stars.  Look at how popular the NBA has become and how it’s such a star-driven league.  Say what you want about Stephen A. Smith, I for one don’t really care for him, but he saw two tennis stars going at it in the final decided to put out a few tweets about the match most notably this:

Another tweet that caught my eye was Stephen A’s response to a follower asking for them to talk more about tennis on First Take to help its popularity in America:

While I can’t say I always do, I definitely agree here.  While the increased coverage is nice, what America really needs is its own tennis star, and as I alluded to earlier, I’m just not seeing that yet.  But watching these four battle it out for majors isn’t a bad consolation and almost surely gets the average American sports fan to tune in.