Sunday, August 9, 2015

Silenced Roar

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

This column is a guilt-ridden obligation. I’ve never written about outdoor sports, despite frequently hunting and fishing in Southern Maryland as a kid.  My best childhood memories include catching crabs, hooking yellow perch in the McIntosh Run and hunting squirrels and deer in the fall.  But awful circumstances have forced the subject upon me.  As a human being and former hunter, I’m upset and outraged.   

I owe my outdoor experiences to two uncles who were, and still are, avid sportsmen.  They do things the right way and ensured their apprentice would too.  I took hunter safety courses and adhered to strict gun storage and handling protocol.  My licenses were always current.  All hunting was done in season.  Bag limits were gospel.  Game was clearly identified before taking a shot.  No mammal, fish or crustacean was harvested against the rules – ever – and every kill was used.  Nature and its species were to be respected.  Taking animals from the wild wasn’t a right; it was a privilege.  That was the Native American way.  That’s how I was taught.  That’s how it should always be.

Most sportsmen share those values.  That’s why most are disgusted by the recent death of a 13-year-old lion in Zimbabwe.  His name was Cecil.  He will roar no more.

In life, Cecil was a national treasure: a majestic, black-maned beast who was a resident of Hwange National Park and a collared participant in an Oxford University study.  In death, he has become a symbol of disturbing human arrogance and excess.

Walter Palmer, an American dentist, killed Cecil.  Palmer, an avid big game hunter, paid $50,000 for the “right” (money…the root of evil).  He and his local guides allegedly strapped a carcass to their vehicle, lured Cecil beyond the park’s boundaries and Palmer shot him with a crossbow.  The injured lion was tracked for the next 40 hours (ugh) until Palmer finally delivered the kill shot.  Cecil’s head was decapitated, his collar removed and his body skinned and left to rot.  

Regardless of whether this was a technically legal hunt, does it sound like sport or the behavior of a human with any regard for hunting ethics or basic morality?  To me it sounds like an act by a disturbed individual determined to seek and destroy beauty…just for fun.  And it wasn’t Palmer’s first offense.  In 2008, he pled guilty to lying to federal officials investigating a black bear kill.  An elephant hunt was next on his agenda.  Nice guy, eh? 

Palmer’s life is now unraveling.  He’s in hiding, his dental practice is shuttered and Zimbabwe has requested his extradition.  I suppose his existence resembles Cecil’s during those 40 hours when the wounded animal had an arrow – Palmer’s arrow - protruding from his body.  That’s how I like to think of it.

Palmer’s burden is excessive, yet I lack sympathy.  This problem – senseless trophy hunting and the harvesting of endangered game – needed a victim to mourn and a perpetrator to vilify.  Cecil and Palmer have assumed the roles.  The truth is there are a lot of Cecils and Palmers.  In fact, while I wrote this piece, The Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force reported another lion – I’ll call him Simba - was killed. 

If I’m blessed with grandchildren, it’s a virtual certainty that their world will be devoid of wild rhinos, a species brutalized for its prized horn.  Only four white rhinos remain on earth; the lone male is surrounded 24/7 by armed guards.  Elephants face a similarly bleak outlook; the amazing creatures could be extinct in Africa by the 2020s.  The future for big cats and many fish stocks isn’t marketably better.  And what of our precious blue crab?

What are we doing?  Aren’t we better than this? 

Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.”  Perhaps Cecil’s martyrdom will invigorate conservationalists, spur political action and change the world’s Walter Palmers.  Until then, whatever greatness resides in our capabilities will remain elusive.  What else am I supposed to say?  Feign optimism is all I can muster.  RIP Cecil.  RIP Simba.  RIP et al.     

My Dear Watson

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The story is usually about the winner: the person, depending on the sport, holding the trophy, being swarmed by post-game reporters, spraying champagne, doing burnouts or reveling in a downpour of confetti. That’s who gets the accolades, the attention, the endless SportsCenter loops and maybe – if the obstacles and drama were significant – a 30 for 30 documentary. Fits of strength, new levels of human athleticism, steely nerves under pressure, a killer instinct and absolute victory: that’s what fabulous sporting moments are made of.  Runners up or those buried deep in the field are soon-to-be-forgotten props on someone else’s glory train. 

Every now and then, though, there’s a story that cuts through the darn near exclusive celebration of victory.  With all due respect to the ultimate winner at this year’s Open Championship, a coronation that was delayed until Monday due to weather and perhaps not coincidently beyond my due date for this piece, THE story – for me anyway - happened at the end of Saturday’s rain-soaked and wind-swept second round. 

As Tom Watson, 65, approached the Swilcan Bridge to cross the burn (love the terminology used across the pond) bisecting the 18th fairway at famed St. Andrews, it was far from picturesque.  Weather delays had pushed the moment to the brink of sunset and left but a few brave and beer-infused souls in the grandstand.  Nevertheless, a series of photos was in order.  The first was with playing partners Ernie Els, Brandt Snedeker and the caddies for all three players.  A photo of Watson with his son/caddie followed.  Finally, Watson, a gentleman among gentlemen and the definition of grace, stood alone on the stone bridge as cameras popped. 

Watson was 11-over par at the time of the photo op and ended up 12-over, a career-worst for the five-time Open champion.  He not only missed the cut, Watson finished next to last.  So why the fuss over this forgettable performance?  This was Watson’s last Open tournament.

Of 1972 vintage, I don’t remember many sporting events prior to 1981. Jack Nicklaus, golf’s leader with 18 major championships, won 17 of them prior to ’81.  Watson, an eight-time major champ, won The Open and U.S. Open Championships in ’82 and repeated as The Open champ in ’83.  My impressionable young mind didn’t understand all the Nicklaus worship; Watson was the best golfer in the world. 

Those ’82 and ’83 titles created my “thing” for Watson.  Childhood memories will do that to you, I suppose.  Huge moments and competitors get chiseled onto your blank, impressionable canvas and that’s it…they’re forged like stone tablets.  Characters become larger than life.  Players and teams become better than they actually were.  And no one better try to convince you otherwise. 

Oh to recreate that young, unencumbered mind: there was no distracting static, no historical context, no disputable data and no cynicism.  There was only the now, and the now was fabulous.  Moments were never overanalyzed and, as a result of pure thinking, the present was better than it had ever been before and likely as good as it would ever be.

During summer break in the early 80’s, only Wimbledon and The Open Championship broke my morning routine of cartoons, Atari and professional wrestling.  Watching The Open engraved Watson’s legend in my mind.  Thirty-plus years later, his illustrious Open career is over and his farewell will quickly fade.  The storylines marinating at St. Andrews are just too good for nostalgia to hold its grip.  Will Dustin Johnson recover from a U.S. Open meltdown?  Could Sergio Garcia win his first major championship?  Or amateur Paul Dunne?  Will Jordan Spieth claim the third leg of golf’s grand slam and take the next step toward becoming the best golfer of his generation (and to a current 10-year-old what Watson was to me)?  The winner will dictate the ultimate headline for the 144th Open Championship.  But before getting there, before showering the latest man who hoists the Claret Jug with praise (forgetting all others), I had to pause to appreciate Watson’s excellence and an uncluttered child’s mind, the confluence of which made Watson the first “greatest golfer” I ever saw.  

Max: The Intoxicating Workhorse

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

In January, the Washington Nationals, already stocked with superb starting pitching, signed former Detroit Tigers pitcher Max Scherzer, the crown jewel of free agents, to a seven-year $210M contract that is paid out over a mortgage-like 14 years. 

My initial reaction: I hope the Nats locked in a low interest rate and avoided private mortgage insurance…and what a ludicrous waste of financial resources. With a starting rotation of Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez and Tanner Roark, was the addition of Scherzer necessary, especially considering teams typically use only four starting pitchers during the playoffs? Dollars aside, was the impact on team chemistry considered? With several key players – shortstop Ian Desmond, center fielder Denard Span and the aforementioned Zimmermann and Fister – facing free agency in 2016, signing Scherzer signaled many Nats would be playing elsewhere next year. And wouldn’t Scherzer’s presence at the top of the rotation cause the would-be/wanna-be/just-hasn’t-been pitching alpha dog Strasburg to pout?

That’s what I thinking in January.  Today, I’m an idiot. 

What does a $210M pitcher look like? I don’t know, but it must resemble Max Scherzer – he’s crushing it. The ace hurler became “one of the guys” immediately (scratch that chemistry concern off the list) and has been everything – fun, fiery, reliable and consistent – that the mentally and physically fragile Strasburg isn’t (he’s back on the disabled list…shocker). 

Through last weekend, Scherzer has posted a 1.82 ERA (second to Zack Greinke), recorded 139 strikeouts (fifth in MLB), walked 14 (second to Phil Hughes among pitchers with at least 100 innings pitched) and has thrown three complete games, two shutouts and a no-hitter.  “Going geek”, Scherzer’s advanced statistics layer on the superlatives: a WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) of 0.78, a strikeout/walk rate of 9.93 and batting average against of .181 - all tops in MLB. And then there’s Scherzer’s sick 1.25 Component ERA, a Sabremetrics formula that predicts a player’s ERA by analyzing surrendered walks and hits (thereby removing luck as a factor). Houston’s Dallas Keuchel is a distant second at 1.82.

But – and there’s always a but with D.C. sports – Scherzer’s usage is concerning.  In his 16 Washington starts, he’s pitched at least six innings and has gone seven or more 13 times. He has 118 innings on his golden right arm so far and is pacing to approach 240, 20 more than his career high. 

Remember, Scherzer is 30 and signed to a seven-year contract with a 14-year payment plan.  If you were going to make peace with burning him up, wouldn’t you do that in October? Why mid-season? And we all know pitchers are like sports cars: fabulous when running but often under repair.

Scherzer’s workload is odd too considering the kid gloves with which Washington has handled Strasburg. Who can forget the Nats putting Strasburg on ice just before the 2012 playoffs because he had reached a team-imposed innings limit in his first year back from Tommy John surgery?

But current manager Matt Williams wasn’t around in 2012 and he’s infatuated with Scherzer. Can you blame him? The man gets paid to win games and Scherzer’s as dependable as humidity during a Maryland summer. What do you do as a manager tasked with producing results – wins, earnings, market share growth, etc? You rely on your best employees, those you can trust. They get “new opportunities”, code-speak for more work and responsibility. Burnout? Ahh…nonsense. I had a “Scherzer” in high school - a buddy who happened to be a straight-A student. He was my ace; I called the poor dude nearly every night for homework guidance. He never seemed to mind – like Scherzer - but it probably drove his parents nuts.

While Williams has managed other players carefully, he has identified his go-to man, his horse, and he’s riding him. Thus far, the Nats have reaped the rewards of Scherzer’s workload, but in late September, after 240-ish innings and roughly 33 regular season starts, will he have anything left for an October stretch run? And isn’t $210M justified only by October dominance and a World Series championship? Has Scherzer’s brilliance compromised his manager’s prudence? Is it possible that Scherzer, like my homework lifeline, is too good?