Sunday, July 5, 2015

The Birds

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com)

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Good evening.

Birds in nature: beautiful, melodic and peaceful creatures.

Birds, under interpretive genius: grotesque, swarming, vicious, psychopathic killers.

That was the bizarre premise behind Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1963 horror movie “The Birds.” But why take my word for it? Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 96% on the Tomatometer and offers this critique: “Proving once again that the build-up is the key to suspense, Alfred Hitchcock successfully turned birds into some of the most terrifying villains in horror history.”

Hitchcock’s birds: nothing like we knew or could have imagined. He turned a gift of nature into a star of horror. If only this avian alter ego had remained confined to the big screen. If only…

A friend of mine is a Pittsburgh Pirates fan. Me? The Nats…despite warts, wounds and October performance-anxiety. We are proud loyalists. Aside from that shared and arguably foolish trait, our sports discussions rarely find common ground – with one exception. We both hate – in an “I can’t stand their goodness” way - the St. Louis Cardinals.

Here are a few excerpts from our “The Birds” horror flick.

In 2012, the Nationals led the fifth and final game of the NLDS 6-0 after three innings. Print the NLCS hats and shirts. Ice the champagne. It’s over. Party time, D.C. It was 6-3 after the fifth inning. By the eighth it was 7-5. Gulp. After nine it was 9-7…Cardinals.

My buddy has better justification. After suffering through two decades of hideous post-Barry Bonds baseball, the Pirates snagged playoff berths in 2013 and 2014. The Bucs were a wildcard team – a position with a more arduous path to the World Series – because they finished second in the NL Central…to the Cardinals…both years. And in 2013, the Pirates lost the NLDS 4-2 to…do I even need to say it? Chirp, bleeping chirp. Tweet, bleeping tweet.

In hate there is often an element of admiration. After a few beers, my buddy and I would admit as much about the Cardinals. They are…an amazing franchise. Over the years, we watched long-time manager Tony LaRussa retire, future hall-of-famer Albert Pujols sign with the L.A. Angels and ace pitchers Adam Wainright and Chris Carpenter suffer serious injuries. Yet the Cardinals keep winning. Since 2000, St. Louis has won two World Series’ and missed the playoffs but four times. They currently have the best record in baseball.

St. Louis’ fifteen-year win/loss excellence compares to that of Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the New England Patriots’. After a recent ethical breech, the Cards are now the Patriots’ baseball synonym.

The Cardinals saw the Patriots’ “Spygate” and “Deflategate” controversies and raised them one “Hackgate.” It seems Cardinals front office personnel have been breaking into the information systems and stealing player evaluation data from the Houston Astros – a team whose General Manager, Jeff Luhnow, worked for St. Louis from 2003 through 2011 - since roughly 2012. The story is evolving. The FBI is investigating. It’s a hot mess.

This is life in 2015. Baseball’s rascals used to poach an occasional sign, use too much pine tar, cork bats or scuff the baseball. So cute. Then the mischievousness went rogue during the steroid era. Now, in the information and analytics age, it’s disintegrated into blatantly stealing organizational trade secrets.

When Cardinals hack/attack: Hitchcock’s once horrifying and extreme portrayal of birds now seems…appropriate. Holy cyber warfare, Batman.

It is routine shtick for graybeards to embellish childhood tribulations and playfully criticize the current generation’s softness. We worked harder in years past, trudged through snow in newspaper-wrapped shoes to get to school and always cleaned our plates – vegetables and all. Right.

The truth is, the world and life in it gets more complicated as time passes. I was 14 when Minnesota Twins pitcher Joe Niekro tried to inconspicuously toss an emery board from his pocket, only to be busted by an umpire. It was more hilarious than offensive. If you’re 14 now you’re dealing with the best organization in baseball intentionally launching a cyber attack to steal proprietary information.

Sorry about that, kids. As it was in 1963, so it is in 2015: when birds attack, it can be quite disturbing. 

Misconceptions, Rock Stars and MVPs

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com)

By Ronald N. Guy

His dirty blonde hair was shoulder length, a tad greasy and unkempt. Legitimately well-worn blue jeans, not the kind intentionally distressed to show age, and a tattered knit sweater over an old tee shirt comprised his preferred uniform. A few days of stubble always graced his forlorn face. Smiles were few. In a word, his expression was “elsewhere.” His eyes, when they could be contacted directly, were angry, distant and haunting, but they always hinted at a troubled, vulnerable core.

There was nothing obviously special about the man. No presence. No promise of greatness…or mediocrity for that matter. Had you passed him on the street in 1990, you likely wouldn’t have even taken notice, unless it was to shoot a judging, “get away from me, bum” stare toward the unassuming, inconsequential vagabond. A year later, this perceived nobody was the biggest rock star in the world.    

When Kurt Cobain strummed the first few cords of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, he and his fellow Nirvana bandmates – Chris Novoselic and Dave Grohl – ended hair metal and ushered in the grunge era. In Cobain, rock music and pop culture had found its latest antihero, even if it wasn’t knowingly searching for one.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, the son of former NBA player Dell Curry, was three years old when Nirvana exploded in 1991. The Wiggles and Sesame Street were his rock stars, not Cobain and company. Years later, however, when it came time for Curry to select a college, a future NBA star’s story intersected with one-time Prince of Grunge. 

Curry played his college ball in North Carolina. Not for North Carolina. Or Duke. Or N.C. State. Or Wake Forest. In North Carolina…for tiny Davidson College. Despite his NBA genetics, no major college wanted him. Curry’s undersized, frail frame were his undoing, his shredded jeans, worn out sweater and far-off gaze.  

Playing in North Carolina – for anyone – proved prophetic. The Old North State’s slogan “To be, rather than to seem” describes Curry perfectly. The baby-faced, 6’3”, 185-pound (soaking wet) guard didn’t seem like much upon visual inspection, but Curry’s performance for Davidson was extraordinary.  In the 2008 NCAA Tournament, Davidson defeated college bluebloods Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin before finally losing to Kansas by a bucket in the regional final. Curry averaged 34.5 points in the four games, a stretch that solidified his NBA prospects.

Still, there were whispers entering the 2009 NBA Draft.  Curry could shoot, but was he big enough to get his shot off against NBA competition?  Could he handle the ball well enough to play point guard?  And if so, could he absorb the physical toll of an 82-game season?       

Golden State eventually selected Curry with the seventh overall pick, after NBA busts Hasheem Thabeet (second overall) and Jonny Flynn (sixth overall) and lesser NBA players like Tyreke Evans (fourth overall) and Ricky Rubio (fifth overall).  It was an appropriate spot for Curry’s name to be called, one that both acknowledged his talent and the persistent concerns with his atypical NBA size. 

If you’ve been watching any basketball lately, you know how this ends. In six NBA seasons, Curry has transformed himself into a superior point guard and one of the best shooters in league history. This year Curry won the MVP award and Golden State, after logging the NBA’s best record, is playing for its first championship since it swept our Washington Bullets in 1975 NBA Finals.  Curry’s doubters have been silenced.

Society is quite accomplished at burdening individuals with misconceptions - encountering them on life’s trail is practically inevitable. Rare is the person who hasn’t at some point been considered too short, too tall, too slow, too frail, too large, insufficiently educated, just not right for the part, incapable of performing a task or saddled with some other unfair or patently false limitation. Of course not everyone is destined to redefine “rock star” or go from unheralded college recruit to NBA MVP, but when doing battle with our personal naysayers, and attempting the tall task of overwhelming perceptions with an alternate reality, it is comforting to draw inspiration from those who did. 

Cornerstones, Breaks And Chemistry

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com)

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

My wife wears me out for my alleged man crushes. She latches on to many suspects - Hunter S. Thompson, Keith Richards, Art Monk, Martin Luther King Jr., Batman, Abe Lincoln, Sam Calagione (Mr. Dogfish Head Brewery) and The Dude from The Big Lebowski – and produces an avalanche of comic relief…at my expense. Admittedly, it’s quite a list, an (apparently) irresistible cornucopia of material for her needler gene. 

Of course she often (and intentionally for the sake of laughter) mischaracterizes affinity for awkward infatuation. But I am guilty. I have man crushes, like my little thing for Gary Williams, former Maryland men’s basketball head coach and member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Williams’s rebuild of the Maryland basketball program after Len Bias’s death and the NCAA sanctions in the late 1980s is legendary. Williams inherited a program in 1989 that was in the midst of a near death experience. Thirteen years later, Williams’s Terps won the 2002 National Championship. His signature now appropriately adorns the court at Xfinity Center on the Maryland campus. 

Man crush? Oh yeah, I love me some Gary Williams. But it was another Williams – Walt Williams – that Gary often credits with much of his success. Walt arrived at Maryland a year before Gary and by all accounts should have transferred. He was too talented to languish on a bad team and with a program banned from postseason play. But Walt stayed and became the cornerstone player for Gary’s great reclamation.

Current Maryland head coach Mark Turgeon found himself desperately seeking a program cornerstone last year. In three seasons at Maryland, Turgeon hadn’t produced a NCAA tournament team and several talented players had transferred. The program was flailing – again – and Turgeon was on the hot seat.

Then Melo Trimble arrived and changed everything. Trimble, a McDonald’s All-American point guard from Upper Marlboro, was sensational last season. He distributed the ball. He scored. He calmed. He inspired. After ripping off 28 wins, Melo and the Turtles gave a school and its coach their swag back. 

Turgeon was fortunate to get Trimble. Gary was lucky to keep Walt. Such is life. Getting a break is one thing; doing something extraordinary with it is special. Gary did (hence my crush). Turgeon might too.

Since Maryland’s season ended with a third-round NCAA Tournament loss to West Virginia, no school has improved more than the Terps. Turgeon, already with highly touted Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter inbound for 2015-16, used Trimble’s decision to return for his sophomore season to score Diamond Stone, a five-star recruit, and Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon. The additions have Maryland, a program that just made its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2010, tucked well within the preseason top five.

What a difference a year makes. Turgeon was Robert Zimmerman last summer; he’s Bob Dylan (yes, another man crush) now. Turgeon’s no longer fighting for his job, but the recruiting success has created new concerns. The Terps will sneak up on no one next year and will face expectations Maryland hasn’t seen since Juan Dixon was playing at Cole Field House. But those are uncontrollable, external forces. Turgeon’s biggest challenge is internal: molding this massive collection of randomly assembled talent into a cohesive unit.

Maryland's pending chemistry experience will likely include three new starters (Stone, Sulaimon and Carter), a handful of players with designs on the 2016 NBA Draft and talented incumbents vying for playing time. Turgeon will have to compel this fabulous collection of 18 to 21-year-olds, many stars in their own right, to sacrifice and accept roles for the betterment of the whole. It’s a better problem to have – any manager in any facet of life would choose excessive talent over a talent deficiency - but Turgeon will be tested, as a master of basketball X’s and O’s and human behavior. I wish him luck. I can’t get my kids to collaborate on modest household chores.

With Maryland’s recent success and bright future, am I crushing on Turgeon? Not yet…but if the Turtles cut down the nets next April, suffice to say my wife will have some new material.

Risky Business

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com)

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

In 2008/09, a flushing toilet would have been the perfect sound to describe the U.S. economy.  “Bailouts” and “toxic assets” were common terms.  The unemployment rate was spiking toward 10%.  The financial sector, after years of reckless lending, was about to collapse.  The Dow Jones Industrial Average, hovering around 7,000, had lost nearly half its value in less than two years.  The Great Recession, a dark, menacing entity, had arrived baring fangs and wielding a razor-sharp scythe.  The Grim Reaper likely feared for his financial future.  Can you imagine planning for a retirement that lasts an eternity?

As my buddies and I watched our 401(k)’s get halved and our children’s 529 plans dwindle, we debated our “now what?” strategies.  Everything we had learned in business school indicated that opportunities existed.  As an Economics professor once told me, when a market correction occurs, “stocks go on sale.”  Right.  So weren’t equities discounted when the Dow was at 11,000?  And 10,000?  And 8,000?  Where was the bottom, Doc?  Wall Street was a dumpster fire.

Ultimately we lacked the courage necessary for an aggressive stock purchase, instead opting for modest individual investments.  It worked, but with the Dow now near a record high, history has proven that stocks weren’t just on sale in 2009, they were trading at clearance prices.  In hindsight, it was largely a missed opportunity.  Although given the little mouths to feed and futures to secure, we’re all happy to be employed and to have benefited from the economic recovery.   

Credit this revisited experience with The Great Recession to the Dallas Cowboys and owner Jerry Jones.  Despite our area’s widespread disdain for that godforsaken blue star, this much can be said for “Jerry’s ‘Boys”: they are consistently entertaining.  During Jones’s 26-year tenure, Dallas hasn’t always been good, but they don’t do boring.  High profile coaches, extravagant free agents and big trades have been the norm.  Jones even built a massive new stadium, pole dancers and all, to house the circus. 

But Jones may have lost his outlaw spirit. 

Since gambling on troubled WR Dez Bryant in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft, Dallas’s personnel moves have been, by Cowboys’ standards, benign.  Jones has had only one head coach – Jason Garrett – since 2010 and he resisted the temptation to draft Johnny Manziel last year.  Rational.  Measured.  Patient.  Conservative.  Jerry? 

Apparently Jones’s gambling spirit was tempered only by Dallas’s recent run of mediocrity.  Invigorated by last year’s NFC East championship, Jones is back at the table doubling-down.  During free agency, he signed talented DE Greg Hardy who is currently serving a suspension for domestic violence.  In the second round of the NFL Draft, the Cowboys selected DE/LB Randy Gregory, a top-10 talent with a well-documented affinity for marijuana.  Last week, Jones added to his all-in offseason by inking offensive lineman La’El Collins, a first round talent who went undrafted after being named a “person of interest” regarding the murder of his former girlfriend.      

Since Roger Goodell was named NFL Commissioner in 2008, he has made “protecting the shield” and policing the conduct of players, coaches and executives a priority.  “Bountygate” cost Saints head coach Sean Payton a one-year suspension.  Colts owner Jim Irsay was bounced for six games after a DUI conviction.  The ‘Skins received a $36M cap penalty for creative accounting.  Players are routinely suspended for conduct detrimental to the league, as Tom “Deflategate” Brady will soon discover.   

Goodell’s actions have left most organizations less nervy about taking risks.  Jones smartly and cautiously capitalized on the pervasive forbearance.  Hardy’s on a one-year “prove it” contract.  With Gregory, Jones will leverage the structure and support that turned Bryant into an All-Pro.  And Collins, questioned by authorities after the Draft, is not considered a suspect.

Time will tell if Jones’s moves come up aces.  If nothing else he took a calculated risk in an environment excessively risk-averse - not a bad plan in sports, business or life.  Jones probably bought a ton of stocks in 2009 too, another reason to hate…and respect…the guy.  Of course with stocks, he had more margin for error than the average Joe…or Ronnie. 

Tom Brady’s Not A Patriot

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com)

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

There is a long history between sports and the nation’s presidents.  In 1910, William Howard Taft threw out the first presidential “first pitch” on opening day of the baseball season.  Every U.S. president since, with the exception of Jimmy Carter, has followed in Taft’s enormous shadow.  And while it wasn’t opening day, the most consequential presidential fastball occurred when George W. Bush, just weeks after 9/11, threw a strike from the Yankee Stadium mound before Game 3 of the 2001 World Series.

Other sports share a White House connection too.  President Obama, who is a huge basketball fan, annually completes a March Madness bracket.  Football owes its very existence, in part, to Teddy Roosevelt.  As a proponent of physical athletic confrontation, Roosevelt advanced game-saving rule changes to curb an alarming number of on-field fatalities.  Gerald Ford was an All-American offensive lineman for Michigan in the 1930s.  And it was a common love of football that prompted an unimaginable private chat between Richard Nixon and raging liberal journalist (and Nixon hater) Hunter S. Thompson during the 1968 presidential campaign.     

Ronald Reagan gets the primary credit for the presidential tradition of hosting sports champions.  I have fond memories of The Gipper hitting Ricky Sanders on a crossing route on the White House lawn – literally - after the ‘Skins won Super Bowl XXII.  Four successors and three decades later, champions still visit 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue regularly.

But all is not well.  Athletes have occasionally left the president hanging.  Michael Jordan cited a schedule conflict in 1991 when he no-showed on George H. W. Bush.  In 1997, Packers TE Mark Chmura, a guy once charged with sexually assaulting a 17-year-old girl at a high school party (when he was in his 30s), passed on Green Bay’s visit with Bill Clinton because of his moral disgust with the president in the wake of the Monica Lewinsky scandal. 

No matter.  These were one-offs.  Anomalies.  There was no trend of athletes stiffing the highest office in our land – until recently. The White House snub is now commonplace.  Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison blew off Bush in 2006 and Obama in 2009.  Boston Bruins Goalie Tim Thomas bailed on Obama in 2012.  St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa and star Albert Pujols declined Obama’s invitation in 2012.  Baltimore Ravens center Matt Birk and three members of the undefeated 1972 Dolphins team – Jim Langer, Manny Fernandez and Bob Kuechenberg – cited political reasons for their White House absences last year.  At least they were honest, I suppose. 

Add New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady to the growing list of presidential rejecters.  Brady used the tired and lame “schedule conflicts” line to excuse himself from the Patriots’ recent visit with President Obama.  Sure Tom.  Non-specific scheduling conflicts and family obligations.  Got it.  Sounds similar to Brady’s insulting “the public is so dumb they’ll buy anything” bull he offered in response to “deflategate.”

The evidence is clear: it is now routine for self-absorbed athletes who get a White House invitation for playing a game – a game – to disrespect our nation’s highest office.  It is beyond their meager ability to bite their political tongues and participate in an apolitical, celebratory event.  Tom Brady might be a Patriot, but don’t mistake him or any of his fellow White House boycotters for patriots – my opinion. 

This overtly rude political behavior has coincided with debilitating partisanship – a sad situation created by both parties - in Washington.  What’s the cart and what’s the horse?  No matter.  It seems a Democratic or Republican label now trumps our common identity as Americans.  Discord is fundamental to a representative government, but for that discord to yield national benefit, active listening, mutual respect and an understanding that political gains are realized through commensurate political gives is required.  Otherwise, it’s just arguing for arguing’s sake.  In that case, why even bother to show up and attempt to govern?  In other words, why act differently from Tom Brady, et al.

Brady and his boycotters stiffed the White House to express some sort of political disgust and to promote change.  Ironically, they have the exact government they created…and deserve.     

The Yips

As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com)

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

I’ll start where the last column ended - with Tiger Woods.  Show of hands.  Who read it?  To those reaching for the heavens - assuming you aren’t shameless liars - thanks.  Hopefully you were entertained.  For those fiddling with phones and refusing to make eye contact, you have some explaining to do.  To assist, “I was north of Antarctica on a Greenpeace vessel battling illegal whaling”, is a good excuse, but I’ll need proof.  “Trust but verify”, a wise man once advised.

Why Tiger?  The alternative was a loathsome diatribe on the punchless Washington Nationals, a team currently scoring as often as a World Cup soccer team. Such depressing things could threaten a community’s spring groove and he who dares interrupt the spring groove after a heinous winter invites the people’s wrath.   

Of course Woods’s story is hardly uplifting.  The once incomparable Woods entered The Masters last week ranked a 111th in the world, sandwiched between Tomohiro Kondo and Hennie Otto.  Who coulda thought such things?  Tiger Woods?  Fourteen majors?  Greatest golfer of his generation?  111th in the world?  That’s two more “1’s” in his ranking than we are used to. 

The long descent from numero uno to 111th took a while and was filled with enough drama to fuel a reality show.  Woods lost his father Earl, a significant influence on his life and career, in 2006.  He had reconstructive knee surgery in 2008 and detonated his marriage a year later. Woods dumped his long-time caddie, Steve Williams, in 2011, has rifled through swing coaches like mistresses and had his schedule disrupted by nagging injuries and last year’s back surgery.

While Woods hasn’t won a major championship since 2008, he has remained competitive and shown flashes of dominance despite that burdensome personal and professional chronology.  This year, however, Woods has been inconsequential.  He finished seventeenth at the Hero World Challenge in December, missed the cut at the Waste Management Open in January and withdrew from the Farmers Insurance Open in February due to non-competitive play.  “Non-competitive” is being nice.  Woods lost the ability to strike a golf ball flush with a wedge.  He sent balls ripping past the hole or launched chips over the green altogether.  He looked…like me!  Tiger Woods had the yips.  His days as one of golf’s best appeared over.

My wife asked me once when I learned the rules of football.  I’m sure I did – no one is born being able to identify illegal procedure – but for the life of me I can’t remember not knowing the game.  I doubt Tiger Woods, once featured on That’s Incredible! as a five-year-old golf prodigy, ever remembers not being the alpha dog on a golf course.  Yet there he was in February, completely lost on the links, his lifetime haven.  He was a suit-less Iron Man, Sampson without his hair, Superman adorned in kryptonite.  It was equally fascinating and disturbing.

Work, save for the few who pursue their passion professionally, is not typically the desired human condition.  Recreation, hobby-indulgence or sleep are preferred.  But work we do, to meet obligations, pay the bills or to just pacify our consciences.  We teach, build, supply, farm and engineer and procure defense systems.  In time, we get quite good at it – what we do – and assume that our skills and the opportunity to continue our craft will persist.  The professional yips?  An afterthought. 

Fortunately, golf - as any golfer will attest - is far more mercurial than the average job.  Woods, with a solid performance at The Masters last week, appears to have rebounded.  Still, the site of Tiger lost with a golf club in his hand was jarring.  Oh, look at the time.  I need to end there.  It’s past my bedtime and work beckons tomorrow.  My commitment is renewed.  Bills are inbound and retirement is a distant dream.  I have to drill it down the middle when I “tee off” tomorrow…and the next day, and the day after that.  Hope you do the same.  I suspect a case of the professional yips for either of us would be far more consequential than a double-bogey or a missed cut.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Perfect Day

Rough night of sleep.

Shitty day at work.

Heinous traffic on the way home.

Take out dinner order was screwed up.

Driving range was closed.  

At home, greeted by smiling kids and hugs.

See the title.