Monday, January 5, 2015
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com)
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Years ago a colleague convinced me that sports curses were real. His trek to Southern Maryland began on a different continent – Africa, his place of birth – and included a long stay in New York City where he became an avid Yankees fan (unfortunate but understandable). His story was fascinating, particularly as compared to my journey to the land of blue crabs and stuffed ham – a tale that starts and ends with a hearty “born here.”
The improbable intersection of our lives occurred in 2003, a time when the Yankees were perennial contenders and the Boston Red Sox, their sworn enemy, hadn’t won a World Series since 1918, the year they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees and spawned the “Curse of the Bambino.”
As fate and a good story would have it, the Yanks and Sox played for the American League pennant in 2003. The teams split the first six games, but my buddy’s confidence never wavered. “Ronnie, listen, the Red Sox can’t win…they are cursed”, he would say. Sure enough, in the bottom of the 11th inning of Game 7, an unlikely hero – Aaron Boone – hit a series-clinching home run for the Yanks.
It was the final chapter of Ruth’s alleged curse – the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 - but it opened my mind to the possibility of dark forces enveloping a team or, in the case of D.C. sports, an entire region. D.C. is cursed. The evidence - the Nationals’ recent playoff failures, the spring collapses of the Capitals and the ‘Skins’ two-decade-long organizational death spiral - is overwhelming. I’m spooked. When optimistic forces – think Robert Griffin III, Stephen Strasburg and Alex Ovechkin – attempt to clear the gloom, I avoid acknowledgement for fear of provoking the gods and accelerating the return of hopeless suffering. It sounds nuts - unless you’re a fan too.
But I’m going to risk it to talk about John Wall.
Wall, 24, was drafted first overall by the Wizards – another lovable D.C. loser - in 2010. He was athletically gifted but lacked a consistent jump shot and often played out-of-control. Four years later, there isn’t another point guard in the NBA I’d rather have.
During a period (their early 20s) when Ovechkin was in playboy mode and toured D.C. in exotic sports cars and Griffin was selling athletic shoes and sandwiches and pushing his brand, Wall has, to his immense credit, quietly worked on his game far removed from the headlines and intoxicating distractions. He’s the rare elite talent with a blue-collar work ethic. He is a no frills gym rat and the consummate teammate. For a town mired in Griffin-drama, Wall is the antidote.
Wall’s dedication and throwback approach is paying dividends. Through last Saturday, the Wizards are 19-6, second in the Eastern Conference, and Wall is fueling their ascension. The kid has grown into a bona fide star with an all-around game. Wall can score the basketball and play lock-down defense. But what I love most is his unselfishness on the offensive end. He currently ranks second in the league with 10.8 assists per game. With Wall, every possession is the season of giving.
But Wall’s play didn’t convince me to acknowledge his greatness; Miyah Telemaque-Nelson did. Wall - again with no fanfare or grandstanding - befriended Miyah, a pediatric cancer patient last year and facilitated a meeting between her and Nicki Minaj. He wrote her name on his shoes before every game. It’s the sort of story that slips through the newsreel these days and, frankly, one I had missed until the heart-wrenching end.
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com)
The band Hole’s song “Celebrity Skin”, a raw account of fame’s perils, contains the following lyrics: “Oh look at my face; my name is might have been; my name is never was; my name’s forgotten.” Ryan Leaf is an NFL “might have been” and “never was” but he isn’t forgotten. He is a famous and sadly recurring example of the destructive powers of addiction and the fragility of success. He is also a challenge, in this holiday season, to be more sensitive to human struggles and appreciative of our personal successes. While navigating life, every person strives to emulate Peyton Manning and seeks to avoid troubles like Ryan Leaf’s. The truth is, a little bit of both quarterbacks – the excellence of Manning and the flaws of Leaf – resides within each of us. Be well.
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Not so long ago – April 2012, to be exact - quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III lit up the NFL Draft as the first and second overall picks of Indianapolis and Washington, respectively. Luck’s star had been on the NFL’s radar for some time and his all football, low profile demeanor seemed a perfect backfill for Peyton Manning. Griffin, meanwhile, took college football by storm in 2011. He won the Heisman Trophy and through the draft process displayed an electric confluence of athletic skills that was part Michael Vick, part Aaron Rodgers. Luck and Griffin were different players and personalities, but their collective talents earmarked them as destiny’s darlings. Pro Bowls were a lock. Super Bowls were a distinct possibility. And a decade-plus of jaw-dropping moments was a virtual certainty.
The brochure was half right. Luck is a star and, barring injury, is on an arc to the Hall of Fame. Griffin…yeah. The gory details are well known and the dumpster fire continues to burn. Griffin’s precipitous fall from grace would have been implausible two years ago when he won the 2012 NFC Offensive Rookie of the Year award – but it shouldn’t have been. Highly touted college quarterbacks flop in the NFL all the time and their collapse is often swift and complete. So while the details are unique to this situation, the fact that Luck has boomed and Griffin has busted is routine. In fact, the widening divergence between their careers isn’t even close to the greatest chasm of the last twenty years, much less league history.
Before Luck and Griffin in 2012, there were the top two selections in the 1998 NFL Draft: quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf. Manning, the NFL’s all-time leader in touchdown passes and one of the league’s classiest players, is concluding his seventeenth season and is poised for another Super Bowl run. Leaf, his one-time peer and talent equivalent, was just released…from prison.
Emotional immaturity, injuries and poor play ended Leaf’s career in 2002 at the age of 26. After the NFL, he earned his degree from Washington State and eventually returned to football as a college coach. It appeared to be a commendable soft landing from a disastrous NFL tour. However, prescription drug addiction soon shattered his post-NFL life. Since 2009, he has been indicted multiple times on various burglary and drug possession charges in the states of Montana and Texas. He is now out on parole and the next negative headline seems an unfortunate certainty.
Excuses shouldn’t be made for Leaf. His story is a human infomercial for the consequences of poor decisions. He was a complete boob during his NFL tenure - spoiled, arrogant and disrespectful. If Manning is the poster boy for the link between hard work and dedication to craft and success, then Leaf is the counterpoint, the warning label and the disclaimer.
The bright lights and visceral criticism of the NFL’s fishbowl revealed fissures in Leaf’s psychological makeup but his biography is now less about a failed quarterback and more about a life in the balance. He isn’t just a football punch line anymore. He’s nothing to laugh at or dismiss. His problems are undoubtedly real, beyond his control and, in a society struggling with the proliferation of prescription drugs and the addictive properties of painkillers, not uncommon.
Thursday, November 27, 2014
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
I don’t watch network television. I couldn’t name the most popular shows, much less their broadcast network. The last episode of “Survivor” that I watched was the finale…of season one. The next time I watch “Dancing With The Stars”, “The Voice” or “American Idol” will be the first time.
This unintended phenomenon started in the early 2000s, about the time “Taps” played for sitcoms and reality T.V. went viral. The reason for my network television divorce is, as of yet, undiagnosed. My wife gets a hoot out of it; her dismissive chuckles scream “weirdo.” It confounds and frustrates my daughter; I sense a growing concern that her decidedly un-cool father will inevitably cause horrific social embarrassment. Am I wrong to proudly anticipate that moment?
What I do enjoy watching (besides sports, of course) are shows such as “American Pickers”, “American Restoration” and “Down East Dickering” on The History Channel and “Deadliest Catch” and “Moonshiners” on Discovery Channel. Why? Well, I like antiques, resurrecting battered classics, bartering, fishing and homemade adult beverages. I guess one could interpret it as an ode to my Southern Maryland roots.
There’s something else about these programs, though, something more appealing than just an alignment with my interests. They have an element of unpredictable chaos that the cast always overcomes. The pickers sometimes stumble on dud leads and have to wing it. The dickerers live week-to-week and creatively manufacture value and cash out of little to nothing. The guys on American Restoration fix old, dilapidated stuff…enough said. The “Deadliest Catch’s” crabbers manage unpredictable weather and finicky crustaceans. And the moonshiners produce product in homemade stills deep in the Appalachian Mountains while evading the law. Nothing is neat or as it should be - but they all make it work. They expect the unexpected, adapt and press forward.
I love that about those shows – the human resolve. Which is to say I love the New England Patriots.
Wait. What? I hate the Patriots: smug Tom Brady with his rings and model wife and Bill Belichick with his awful hoodie and curt, mumbling press conferences. What’s to like? How about this: in my lifetime, no team has handled adversity, change and chaos as well as the Pats.
We are now 14 years into the Brady-Belichick era. From 2001-2013, the Patriots won at least 10 games 12 times, made the playoffs 11 times, appeared in five Super Bowls, advanced to eight AFC Championship Games and won three championships. Considering the sport, the era (salary cap) and the mercurial nature of modern athletes, that might be the greatest run by any professional sports team - ever.
The Patriots have maintained their excellence despite “Spygate”, Aaron Hernandez’s murder charges, the loss of coaches like Charlie Weis, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, and Bill O’Brien and the various injuries (back, arm and knee) of all-world TE Rob Gronkowski. They jettisoned stars such as Lawyer Milloy, Brandon Meriweather, Ty Law, Richard Seymour, Randy Moss, Wes Welker and Logan Mankins without identifiable impact and survived the failed acquisitions of Chad Ochocinco and Albert Haynesworth. They even plugged in Matt Cassell for an injured Brady in 2008 and won 11 games. The Patriots seem impervious to the NFL’s intense variability, an unstoppable winning machine.
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Quarterbacks Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger might be fans of vinyl records, or at least sworn adversaries of the compact disc (CD). With that introduction…
The CD dealt a serious blow to human civilization. An overstatement? Probably. Completely false? Absolutely not. Its sin? The CD, that sleek invention from the depths of the place where dark souls are said to reside, made real-time music surfing possible and, in the process, forever disfigured how we listen to music.
Prior to the disc, music resided on cassettes, 8-tracks and vinyl records, formats that forced more a deliberate, patient listen. If you wanted to jump around to hit songs, you could, but it involved toggling between four often disjointed programs (8-tracks), an inexact fast-forward or rewind (cassettes) or getting up off the couch and manipulating the needle (records).
The “consequence”, as I’ll sarcastically call it, was that the listener tended to experience the entire album. What a concept! Recognizing the inconvenience of pre-CD media, hit songs were often placed at the beginning of a side, prime territory for a quick find or replay; I appreciated artists that didn’t follow the marketer’s script, the ones that slotted their singles in awkward places, thereby ensuring total album consumption and creating an opportunity to discover hidden gems. I’m tipping my cap to Kix, the Maryland-based band, who placed the song The Itch at the end of side one of their debut album and the Rolling Stones for tucking Tumbling Dice at the end of the first Exile on Main Street record.
And then there were the artists who buried great songs in inauspicious places, little rewards of sorts for dedicated listeners. “Rocket Queen”, the last song on Appetite for Destruction by Guns N’ Roses is incredible. Prince put the fabulously raunchy “Darling Nikki” last on side one of Purple Rain. Bob Dylan’s ended his iconic Highway 61 Revisited album with the absolutely amazing “Desolation Row”.
If the CD didn’t completely kill such album experiences, the MP3 and digital media seem certain to choke out its last breaths of life. The single rules now: three minutes of overproduced, hyper-marketed sound from computers and bedazzled pop stars that can be downloaded for instant satisfaction and played until it promotes nausea. Who has the patience to spin a record?
The aforementioned Rodgers, age 30, isn’t old enough to remember cassettes, but he has cracked back on society’s impatience. In response to early-season criticism, Rodgers, one of the coolest and best quarterbacks in the NFL, spelled out a five-letter retort to irritated Packers fans: R-E-L-A-X. The Packers have done just fine since. The agitation isn’t confined to the land of cheese. A few weeks ago, New England and Pittsburgh were struggling. Brady and Roethlisberger, despite their five Super Bowl titles, allegedly couldn’t play anymore. Patriots coach Bill Belichick had lost his hoodie-fueled brilliance; Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was on the hot seat. Well, since the gripes reached a crescendo, no team has been hotter than the Patriots and Roethlisberger tossed six touchdown passes in consecutive games. Premature panic? You think?
The death of the album and quick criticism of the NFL’s best quarterbacks is bothersome, but its root cause – pervasive impatience and an intolerance of any frustration or discomfort – has significant reach. We have to have it all – hit songs or wins on Sunday – right now. The grass elsewhere is assumed to be greener the minute the blades under our feet discolor. The bird in the hand, despite its accomplishments, is obsessively critiqued while the unknown two in the bush are romanticized. Shortcomings and bad moments create labels that cannot be removed. No one – not even Super Bowl winning quarterbacks – are permitted the latitude to fail, to grow and to overcome. To heck with the process, the journey, evolution or the opportunity to reveal something – a character trait, a team quality or a great song – that’s not immediately apparent.
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
I have officially become my parents. I laugh at my own futile arguments against the obvious. I don’t know when the transformation happened specifically, but it’s indisputable – fait accompli.
I was warned that this unsettling change would happen. Unconvinced, I fought it - passionately. But then my own kids started navigating their world, one quite different from the one of my childhood, became instant experts (apparently) on all things life presents and emboldened to argue against the often inconvenient and mostly unsolicited advice of their gray-bearded, clueless father.
Regardless of topic – homework, extracurricular activities, Ebola, ISIS, unplugging from the electronics or the social dynamics of middle school – our discussions don’t always go so well…for anyone involved (again, similar to “debates” with my parents). When I am challenged (or ignored completely), my temperature rises, my words become more direct and I usually blurt something completely unproductive like, “this is not a democracy.” I doubt my kids even understand what a democracy is at this point. But it makes me feel better, so...
I try not to preach. Honestly, I do. What I have is wisdom; I don’t portend to have perfect answers for their unique situations. I recognize that my antiquated childhood experiences and Gen-X worldview don’t always produce sound advice today. Of course how could I forget my limitations when two pint-sized critics and their whopping two decades of combined earthly experience are constantly questioning my theories? But here’s an odd twist. I’d be willing to bet a six-pack of fine Maryland craft beer (high stakes for me) that if you wrapped either of my kids in Wonder Woman’s truth lasso, they’d begrudgingly spill this fact: dad is usually right.
Why am I usually on-point? Is it because I’m some oracle of life experiences or all-seeing eye affixed atop the parental mountaintop? Hardly. I’m usually right, and my parents were usually right (ouch that hurt), and their parents were usually right for a very simple reason. And the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind; for those seeking less abstract, anti-Dylan proof, grab a chair in the sports world’s classroom.
I’m betting even the most casual sports fans noticed that the San Francisco Giants and Kansas City Royals made improbable runs to the World Series and that (this is really going to hurt) the left-for-dead Dallas Cowboys, their leaky defense, embattled quarterback and kooky owner are firmly in the playoff conversation. How did they all do it? The Giants rode the golden left arm of pitching ace Madison Bumgarner and the Royals leaned on a nasty bullpen full of guys throwing 100 MPH and capable of making a baseball move like a wiffle ball. And the Cowboys? The Cowboys, behind a young, talented offensive line and RB DeMarco Murray, are running the football like it’s 1975.
Pitching and running the ball: as much as sports have changed, these fundamental tenets of success in baseball and football, respectively, have not. The same applies to the fundamentals of parenting and life. The basics are timeless: that’s why my parents were almost always right and that’s why I’m usually right. I am a father, validated by sports.
What are those enduring, trans-generational lessons, the pitching and running game of parenthood? Well, here are a few. Work hard. Be reliable and trustworthy. Respect authority but don’t be afraid to question it. Care – about yourself and others. Brush your teeth. Bring a positive, can-do attitude to every situation and challenge. Understand that a broken heart is often an unfortunate part of ultimately finding lasting love. Live below your means. Candy is not a food group (except on Halloween night). Chores and adversity build character. Video games are fine – in moderation. Learn when to speak your mind and when to bite your tongue. And yes, you have to eat your vegetables.
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
Warning: melodrama lies ahead. Your favorite bleacher-dweller is feeling sorry for himself. Empathy is expected, and darn near assumed, from understanding readers and fellow local sports fans.
As I rehash last week’s offerings from the sports gods on a fall-chilled evening in Southern Maryland, I’m left to conclude that this is a divine test of our devotion. Salvation must lie ahead. Let’s break this mess down by beltway, starting with the 495ers.
The Nationals, after running up the best record in the National League, promptly dropped three of four games and the series to the San Francisco Giants. There goes the season, D.C. baseball fans. At least the neighborhood's still intact. In some sick attempt to deliver a tonic, CNN.com actually featured a recently uncovered video of the 1924 World Series. Guess who won that one? That’s right – the Nats! Am I supposed to feel better? So much for 2014…but at least we have the memories (or grainy silent video) of ’24!
The pain would roll on. The ‘Skins lost to Seattle on Monday Night Football, the Capitals dropped their opener to Montreal and Wizards guard Bradley Beal broke his wrist in a preseason game. He’ll miss 6-8 weeks. Oh…and four Wizards players were suspended for the first regular season game after a pre-season skirmish with the Bulls. Somewhere LeBron is snickering.
Ready for the 695ers? Fresh off a dominating American League Division Series win, the Orioles promptly lost the first two games of the League Championship Series (LCS) to the Royals - at home. But there’s still hope, hon - or is there? As I was hammering out this piece, ESPN’s Buster Olney sent out the following tweet: “ELIAS: No team has ever won a best-of-seven LCS after dropping the first two games at home.” Alrighty then. Thanks, Buster. Apparently solace can only found at the bottom of several Natty Bohs.
Speaking of Bohs, my wife tempered my anguish by reminding me that October is beer month. Yes it is…yes it is indeed. So there’s that my fellow D.C and Baltimore sports fans, and “that” – beer – is a significant elixir. Perhaps Hall of Fame broadcaster Bob Wolff was on to something when he titled his book, “It’s Not Who Won Or Lost The Game – It’s How You Sold The Beer.”
But wait, before getting well with your favorite combination of water, malt, hops and yeast, there’s more gloom. After that aforementioned Monday night loss to Seattle, the Sons of Washington were apparently clowning around in the locker room, almost as if they had won the game. The ‘Skins apparently were thrilled with the moral victory – losing by only 10 - achieved against the Super Bowl champions. The behavior inspired a scathing piece by Jason Reid of The Washington Post and considerable debate nationwide regarding appropriate behavior for losing teams.
Like many, I initially fumed at the thought of a jovial professional locker room after a loss. But time has offered a different perspective, if not an explanation or justification. I think that most people, regardless of profession, have an inclination toward complacency. Fatigue, routine and resignation can be its fuel. We expect athletes to be as emotionally invested as we are as fans, but the grind and mounting losses can sometimes get the best of even the most competitive. In September, every player is fired up. By mid-October, and with a season slipping away, a casual shrug replaces anger after losses and a passionate game is reduced to a routine occupation.
Monday, October 13, 2014
As published in The County Times (http://countytimes.somd.com) in Sept 2014
By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
I was indirectly introduced to New York’s latest alleged baseball phenomena during an autograph and memorabilia show in Baltimore. I was wearing a Joe DiMaggio jersey, a symbol not of Yankee fandom but of a love for baseball history and the iconic players of yesteryear. The misleading attire left a fellow attendee and promoter convinced he had a prospect. Catching a rare glimpse of pinstripes through the sea of humanity – how many Yankees jerseys could have been in the Baltimore-based crowd? – the guy approached me with great energy, pamphlet in hand and, while searching for his breath, explained that the next great Yankee would be signing autographs the following weekend a little farther up I-95.
I was polite. I acted interested, thanked him and said I might see him next weekend. I lied. The fellow was beaming with excitement. I didn’t have the heart to tell him the soul-crushing truth: that I wasn’t a Yankee fan and that I had never heard of this kid he was billing as the next Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Mantle, Munson, Ford, Berra, etc, etc, etc. Besides, only a Yankee fan would have known him. It was early 1995, after all, and Derek Jeter hadn’t yet played his first major league game.
But he would. He would play over 2,700 games for the Bronx Bombers during a 20-year career that saw him collect over 3,400 hits, record a career batting average over .300, win five World Series Championships, secure a ticket to the Baseball Hall of Fame and, yes, earn his place among those Yankee immortals. Mr. Promoter, wherever you are, please accept my apology. You were right.
As Jeter’s final season wound to a close this summer, the accolades showered upon the Yankee great admittedly grew excessive. With gifts being presented at every major league city, it was a victory tour of such proportions that it inspired a few chiding critiques of Jeter’s “forgotten-in-the-revelry” shortcomings. Was he a great player? Absolutely. But, as the Jeter-realists pointed out, he never won a batting title, hit 30 homeruns in a season or was voted league MVP. In short, he wasn’t Ruth, Gehrig or DiMaggio.
Okay, that’s fair - not many players are – but if Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio set the qualifying bar for celebratory farewells…we’ll never have one. Further, nitpicking over Jeter’s shortcomings, lamenting what he wasn’t or didn’t do, threatens to complicate all that he was: the best shortstop of his era, humble, incredibly clutch and genuine in a time when many were not.
I love quotes. I enjoy the thoughts posted on Guy Distributing’s sign just off the main drag in Leonardtown. I dig bumper stickers, even if I disagree with the propaganda. The dry erase board outside my professional abode often contains a few scribbled words of wisdom. I’m in constant search of inspiration, a miner of life-fuel, I suppose. But then again, aren’t we all?
Near my desk I have a collection of personal thoughts I’ve compiled over the years. They are quips that keep me grounded, motivated and connected to my personal foundation. One reads, “Son of a bricklayer.” It is an ode to my dad, to hard work and to the trade that helped provide me footing in this world. When I see those words I am reminded of the importance of grinding day after day, of doing things the right way and of not cutting corners.