Sunday, June 2, 2019

Expiration Date

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


By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

In mid-October 2012, a piece titled “Consolation Prize” appeared in this column.  That dusty old “View” lamented painful season-ending Game 5 ALDS and NLDS playoff losses, on the same awful day, by the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Nationals. 

The agony of the defeats was offset by a strong, pre-loaded tonic of hope for the once hopeless.  In 2012, baseball in Washington D.C. and Baltimore emerged from absolute and seemingly never-ending darkness.  Prior to that magical summer, the Nationals hadn’t had a single winning season since arriving in the nation’s capital in 2005 and the Orioles, lost in the post-Cal Ripken Jr. desert of suffering, hadn’t won more than 79 games since 1997.  More importantly, with talented cores and the in-season call-ups of young phenoms Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, 2012 felt like the cusp of a winning era for the Nats and O’s, one that would include regular postseason appearances and maybe even a beltway World Series. 

That promising future was the “Consolation Prize” for losing on that October night in 2012.  Fast-forward seven years and the sunny forecast proved to be fool’s gold, a vicious tease of a euphoric state never realized.  Yes, the teams combined for six playoff appearances between 2012 and 2016, but neither ever advanced to the World Series.  In Monopoly terms, it was not quite like going to jail, but area baseball fans passed Go without collecting $200 (in other words, no league pennants, no World Series championships…thanks for trying). 

Now the hope of October 2012 - that feeling that we were on to something big, that future summers would be a blast and the falls would be victorious champagne showers - is gone.  In its place is the depressing spring of 2019.  Much has changed in seven years.  Machado plays for the San Diego Padres and Harper is in Philly.  There are still some familiar faces on both teams, but not nearly enough.  As of this writing, the Orioles have the worst record in baseball and the Nationals, who have the MLB’s worst bullpen and regularly display fundamentals befitting the Bad News Bears, are well below .500 and in fourth in the NL East.  The teams have won just 38 games combined, which is just a few more than several division leaders.  Both teams just…stink.  The boys of summer have been slayed by an abominable spring.  Worst yet, with the Orioles’ glaring talent void and the Nats’ fatal flaws, it would be exceedingly difficult for even the most brazen optimist to find hope for improvement anytime soon.

Where for art thou, 2012?  Gone to the ether.  Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  There were signs this was coming - aging stars like Ryan Zimmerman, jettisoned free agents like Nick Markakis and the predictable departures of Harper and Machado – but it feels like the wheels fell off in a flash.  Contention now seems years away for either club.  The only lame consolation prize from this abysmal situation is higher draft picks and cheap tickets at half-filled (if that) stadiums.    

There might be another: To embrace this wild ride and the precious impermanence of any moment.  So when the Nats’ bullpen blows another win or the O’s give up more homers to the Yankees, pause to enjoy your favorite meal.  Watch Crash Davis’s b.s.-defying, conviction-fueled, waste-no-time “I believe” speech from “Bull Durham”.  Pour a beer and watch the ascending bubbles cascade northward to form an inviting, foamy head.  Hug your kids.  Pet your dog.  Kiss your spouse.  Read, and re-read this quote from Hunter S. Thompson: “Let us toast to animal pleasures, to escapism, to unemployment insurance and library cards, to absinthe and good-hearted landlords, to music and warm bodies and contraceptives, and to the ‘good life’, whatever it is and wherever it happens to be.”  Enjoy your work family.  Listen to Baz Luhrmann’s “Sunscreen”.  Appreciate the passive or not-so-passive “help” and judgment from your mother-in-law.  Do it all with greater feeling and with the knowledge that nothing lasts for long - not pleasure, not pain, not life itself, and certainly not winning (or losing) baseball.  Everything has an expiration date.

A Marvel-ous Ending

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


By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The view from the bleachers is melancholy, but satisfied.  It is also hopeful that the sheer majesty, and both the regretful but exhilarating feeling manufactured by this climatic event, didn’t blur or diminish the great end to the most spectacular superhero experience – ever.

With the spoiler prohibition now lifted discussing “Avengers: End Game” is fair game.  Although, if you are still clinging to ignorance, worry not – this is more about what we mere mortals can take from this departing franchise than any particular “End Game” scene.  Oh, and it has nothing to do with traditional sports.

I have come to appreciate my generation, the relatively small and overlooked Gen-X, for this fact: We will be the last generation to remember a pre-internet/information age and were its first navigators.  That said, the humble comic book was my introduction to superheroes.  It was a good day when I could talk my folks into buying me a pack of Topps baseball cards and a comic book from the old High’s store in Leonardtown.  I vividly recall the anticipation while holding a new comic in my hands.  What overwhelming challenge would the hero defeat?  How would the world…or the universe…be saved?  Beautiful artwork.  Suspenseful storyline.  Humanity’s fate in the balance.  All of it for just 35-cents.

That probably sounds antiquated (or altogether lame) to today’s kids, who have grown up on adrenaline-inducing blockbuster superhero movies.  It’s a fair assessment, but I’m still glad to have a connection to comic books, for that is how superheroes first captured our imagination. 

I am equally grateful for the technology that has enabled comic book heroes and villains to properly transition to the big screen.  That technology brought the Marvel Cinematic Universe to life - and what a ride it has been.  Starting with “Iron Man” in 2008 and now culminating with “End Game” in 2019, Marvel has taken us on a decade-plus, 20-ish film adventure that would have been unimaginable to my 10-year-old self while flipping through an early 80s Spider-Man comic. 

Now the future is uncertain.  More movies will be made, of course, and the franchise and the remaining characters will evolve.  But this run by Marvel, and the Avengers movies in particular, was a cultural apex for comics and superheroes that will be difficult to repeat.  The coalescence of heroes allowed for complex storylines, seemingly omnipotent forces of evil and I-can’t-get-enough-of-this, keep-you-coming-back-for-more battles – and the big screen was the big stage it all needed.  Even I’ll admit that a modest comic book would never have done it justice. 

Beyond the struggles between good and evil (a predictable plot), what Avengers always got right, and what should be its lasting legacy, is the power of collaboration.  It took a lot for all these powerful characters to coexist and adopt a common cause.  I would imagine (because that’s all I can do), that if you can fly, possess great strength or are legitimately a god, it’s hard to check your ego and operate within a team structure. 

The Avengers story line always included that struggle and, ultimately, their collective realization – sometimes at the passionate urging Nick Fury - that they were far more powerful united than separated.  The diversity of the heroes - in skill-set, background, generation, nationality, race and gender (and even life-form) - was certainly no mistake either.  The immediate message: No one is strong enough, not even Thor or Hulk, no one is smart enough, not Tony Stark or Shuri, and no gender or race is singularly adequate to defeat the challenges ahead.  The lasting message for the mere mortals: We all need each other. 

The choice Avengers leaves us with is simple, yet enormous.  It is a question for all humanity.  Are we going to do this together?  Are we going to unite and solve global issues like climate change and national issues like income disparity, racism, sexism, homophobia and gun violence?  Or will we close ranks and cordon off society based on petty differences?  If we choose the latter, a “Thanos” of some sort will ultimately win our end game, for unlike the comics, real life doesn’t guarantee a happy ending.

Focused

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


By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The NFL Draft process is exhaustive.  It appears to start as each season concludes and officially begins, in earnest, with the NFL Combine in early March.  In reality, the genesis of draft day for teams can trace back years, sometimes to when a prospect was learning to drive and attending proms.  For players, the trail can be even longer, back to a childhood dream and dusty backyards in neighborhoods nationwide. 

NFL teams actually draft a fraction of the total prospects evaluated – each team is just one of 32 franchises.  A far slimmer margin of kids harboring NFL aspirations, those who daydream through math class about what plays to run at recess, make it all the way to the league. 

With that backdrop, it is no surprise that once a team is actually on the clock and finally calls out a name, executives in draft war rooms erupt with jubilant high fives and players, who have instantly fulfilled what is likely a life-long goal, are overcome with emotion.   

It never gets old seeing kids celebrating their selections – the moment when dreams become reality.  Awesome stuff.  But the process is ridiculous.  NFL Draft vernacular includes things like arm length, “base” strength, upper body “punch”, hand size, speed, shuttle and cone drills, bench presses and squats, vertical and broad jumps, fast twitch, mean streak and closing speed.  Then there’s the psychological stuff – Wonderlic tests and interviews with questions that range from intentionally inflammatory to the completely unfair (and irrelevant). 

But of more recent vintage is a fixation on “football players” and determining whether a young man “loves the game” (or, I suppose, just plays it because he can).  More directly, teams want to know if a prospect has an unhealthy obsession with football and will forsake nearly all other things in life for it.  If a kid has another interest – like Washington draftee Bryce Love (who wants to be a doctor) or Chargers draftee Jerry Tillery (a well-traveled young man living well beyond the football bubble) – NFL executives have commitment suspicions. 

There might be something to it – greatness and a singular focus are frequently acquainted attributes.  I watched a PBS documentary on Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams recently.  Dude was obsessed with hitting – studied it, cataloged information, filed and “boned” his own bats.  Way ahead of his time…and one of the greatest hitters ever.  Bruce Springsteen worked himself to exhaustion and laid waste to relationships, all in the (successful) pursuit of the best damn music he could create.  Tiger Woods, fair to say, had an unhealthy, but historically successful, fascination with golf.  Former Washington Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs notoriously slept at the team’s facility throughout the season (and burned out after 12 years).  Masters of one thing they all were; jacks of many things they likely were not.   

I laud (I think) any NFL prospect with such laser focus on the game.  These times are the attention deficit era, set up, with 24/7 connectivity, to distract and multitask.  How any 22-year-old football player is supposed to be completely consumed with his craft escapes me.  Last weekend’s glorious weather had me struggling to focus on this piece.    

Moreover, we Americans tend to be a restless lot.  We are curious, adventurous and bold.  Witness: Some of the best songs ever written are stories about youthful angst, daring exploration and challenges to social norms - Springsteen’s “Born to Run”, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind”, Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” and, one of recent vintage, Ed Sheeran’s “Castle on the Hill”, just to name a few.  All football, all the time?  In your early 20s?  When we’re born to run?  What’s going on indeed.    

Nevertheless, many of the NFL’s latest additions are incredibly focused and fully committed to football (within reason).  They wouldn’t have gotten this far otherwise.  Are they myopic and otherwise ill-informed?  Most probably are not.  And good for them.  Football is, well, just football.  Developing well rounded, thoughtful and informed young men, who may soon achieve influential fame, is far more important.  The NFL could stand to be more focused on that. 

In Baltimore, No Hits; In Washington, No Outs

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


By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Whether obvious or hidden from view, everyone possesses special talents.  They can be born skills or ones acquired through dogged determination.  Some get parlayed into rewarding careers; others might be just a hobby; still others are something we break out when needed or on whim to get a few laughs or break the ice.  Whatever the case may be, it’s our thing - or things.  It’s what we do a little…or a lot…better than most people.

Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis and Washington Nationals pitcher Trevor Rosenthal are really good at baseball.  Davis has a total of 283 career homeruns and twice led the majors in dingers.  Rosenthal, a flame-throwing reliever, has had seasons of 45 and 48 saves, respectively.  Both are former all stars.  Both have received votes for the MVP award. 

But both started the 2019 MLB season as if they had lost all ability to play the game.  Davis, going back to last September, was mired in record-setting 0 for 54 slump.  Meanwhile, Rosenthal was a disaster.  In four appearances between March 30 and April 7, he gave up four hits, four walks, seven runs and retired exactly zero batters. 

They were the batter that couldn’t get a hit and the pitcher who couldn’t record an out.  These once dominant baseball forces were Superman with a pocket full of kryptonite, Batman with his broken back (courtesy of Bane), Iron Man without his suit and Dr. Bruce Banner with an inability to get angry and turn green.  In other words, Davis and Rosenthal had lost their superpower - baseball.
Winston Churchill once said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”  President Barack Obama, during his own time of struggle, concluded, “The best way to not feel hopeless is to get up and do something.”  Adding to those bold demands for perseverance, is this timeless optimism from Dr. Seuss: “When you think things are bad, when you feel sour and blue, when you start to get mad…you should do what I do.  Just tell yourself Duckie, you’re really quite lucky!  Some people are much more…oh, ever so much more…oh, muchly, much-much more unlucky than you!”

It’s doubtful that Davis or Rosenthal ever thought they were going through hell.  But they did get up and play and probably at least attempted Dr. Seuss’s recommended optimism.  Rosenthal eventually got an out – three, in fact – on April 10 to lower his season ERA from “INF” (for infinity) to an at least calculable, if atrocious, 72.00!  Davis eventually got a hit too – three, to match Rosenthal’s outs – on April 13 to finally register a “puncher’s chance” batting average of .079! 

I kid because I legitimately care.  Davis has probably been hitting prodigious bombs his entire life.  Likewise, Rosenthal’s probably been throwing smoke and making batters look foolish (he’s recorded 436 strikeouts in just 326 total innings pitched) since he first took a little league mound.  Now they suddenly couldn’t do the most basic things demanded by their craft – get hits and outs.  The two baseball gods were mere mortals.

The opportunity to observe competitive greatness - unimaginable levels of performance - is a major allure of sports.  But to see the greats struggle, grind and, ultimately and hopefully, author a comeback story, transcends sports.  It’s a more basic human fascination because it’s a more familiar human condition.  We can’t relate to hitting 54 homeruns or saving 48 games in a MLB season, like Davis or Rosenthal have, but everyone has figuratively been unable to get a hit or an out at some point in their lives (even in aspects where we fancy ourselves rather skilled).  It’s the reason the dominant reaction to Tiger Woods’s unbelievable win at The Master’s last weekend was some combination of joy and awe.   Tiger’s a complicated person; nevertheless, his personal and professional struggles are very real.  He pushed through and completed the ultimate professional comeback.  Davis and Rosenthal are trying to do the same.  And it’s likely all baseball fans are rooting for them, if only because at some point we are all lost, grinding and searching for redemption. 

B-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l

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


By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

It didn’t happen on a field or a court; the location was a retrofitted warehouse overlooking a baseball field.  Under the participants’ feet wasn’t hardwood, grass or synthetic turf; it was ordinary high traffic carpet.  No one was wearing cleats, helmets or eye black.  There wasn’t a scoreboard or clock.  No ball was ever in play, no whistle was ever blown.  Except for occasional encouraging and tension-cutting applause, the crowd was silent.  Nevertheless, the pressure and competition were real.  As every contender received their next challenge, a nervous hush fell across the room; as each letter was sheepishly spoken, the anxiety swelled.

That was the scene a couple weeks ago for the Maryland Sports Spelling Bee held at the B&O Warehouse in Baltimore.  The competition was for middle school children (mostly…there was one brave and talented third grader).  I was fortunate to be in attendance, but it was a humbling experience.  As a fledgling writer, I considered myself a decent speller.  Full disclosure: I would’ve struggled to make it past the third round.  These kids were impressive.  Smart.  Poised.  Respectful.  The story was all about them; this article will be too - eventually.   

Maryland has always been my home.  I have lived in Leonardtown, Catonsville, Baltimore, Towson, Cockeysville, Severna Park, Chesapeake Beach, Great Mills and, finally and currently, Leonardtown again.  My in-state exploration has taken me to Maryland’s western panhandle many times – for ‘Skins camp at Frostburg and weekends at Deep Creek Lake – and across the Eastern Shore to Ocean City and the sandy beaches of Worcester County.   

What I have always cherished about Maryland is that it feels like America in miniature.  The Old Line State has mountains, lakes, rivers, beaches and the largest estuary on the continent.  Like small towns, mid-sized towns or large cities?  Urban living?  Rural living?  Dig one-bedroom downtown apartments or expansive farms?  Maryland has it all – Goldilocks “just right” scenarios for everyone.  History?  Yeah, it has it that too: Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key, the Star-Spangled Banner, the birthplace of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis (the one-time nation’s capital), Dr. Samuel Mudd’s House, and four signers of the Declaration of Independence.  I’ll stop there.  You get (and feel) the point.

Back to those kids, the master spellers: as their lives unfurl, many will likely grow far more expansive roots than mine, ones that extend to other states, regions and countries.  For the moment, though, they are all, like me and many of you, Maryland residents.  Beyond that fundamental, shared trait, the diversity within this group of great minds was obvious.  As each child introduced themselves and their school, it was clear they had come from all over the state (including several from Southern Maryland) – from those aforementioned Maryland mountains and towns and cities.  Various races and, no doubt, religions were represented.  There was no discernable gender disparity between the competitors.  Some kids were more reserved in nature; others were more gregarious.  All were brilliant, all were there, at the B&O Warehouse, to do their best and share this wonderful experience.  Much like a basketball that’s shot, a football that’s thrown or a baseball that’s hit, the words didn’t care about the speller’s background, residence, skin color or gender.  Most importantly, the kids didn’t seem to care either.  They were, above all else, Maryland middle school students trying their best to navigate challenging offerings from the English language.  There was ultimately a winner, but there were no losers.

It was Maryland at its best.  It was America in miniature, or at least what she should be, if we could only get past the unfounded fears, prejudice and hate of the different.  If those afflicted could only overcome the suspicions, reject divisive rhetoric and commit to extinguishing the cancerous “isms” that create various versions of America and inequitable access to her promised liberties and opportunities.  If only…

Until then, this example from a flock of Maryland middle schoolers will serve as a picture of what is possible and what the American idea contemplates.  The day was simply, and after receiving the word origin and hearing it in a sentence, b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l. 

Aunts, Honest Abe and Shameless Fraud

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


I had a special aunt growing up.  You know the profile: younger, cooler than your parents, actually listened to your problems and offered advice like she could remember the struggles of adolescence.  Unlike mom and dad, her default mode didn’t involve lecturing, judging or reprimanding.  She was kind and jovial, didn’t embarrass you around friends and didn’t make you earn a piece of cake by choking down vegetables. 

Okay, she wasn’t really my aunt – or just my aunt.  For anyone and everyone who viewed the television show “Full House” with any regularity, she was our Aunt Becky.

Last week, in one of those reality ruins fantasy moments or, more specifically, when the real person destroys the character, we learned that Lori Loughlin, the actor who played Aunt Becky, is a crook.  

Loughlin, it is alleged, is one of nearly three dozen wealthy parents who used the services of William Singer, miscreant college recruiter for the stars, to develop fraudulent applications and bribe school officials to ensure their otherwise undeserving children were granted admission to prestigious institutions across the country.  Aside from the dirty dollars that exchanged hands, the trust fund babies’ applications included doctored ACT and SAT scores and faked photos of the “students” playing lower-on-the-radar sports (rowing, soccer, volleyball, etc.) they had never actually participated in. 

Aunt Becky, how could you?

See if this sounds familiar: I had the good fortune of attending Towson State University (now just Towson University).  Mid-sized, state school.  Largely unknown to non-lacrosse fans outside the mid-Atlantic region.  A prestigious institution?  Not by any outside measure, but to me it is.  I got there based on my (modest) academic credentials and graduated because of my own sweat.  I did not play sports at Towson because…I wasn’t good enough.  That’s how it’s supposed to work.  You get in, play and graduate – or not – based on your own credentials, talent and willingness to work.  

It would be recklessly na├»ve, though, to think privilege and connections don’t influence the admissions process.  As Deep Throat said to The Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward during the Watergate investigation, “Follow the money.”  Follow it indeed.  President Trump’s academic record and path to the University of Pennsylvania (Wharton) is shrouded in mystery and former President George W. Bush’s stint at Yale and with the Texas Air National Guard is dubious at best.  But Loughlin and her associates were involved in blatant fraud, a do-whatever-it-takes – money, test scores, manufactured profiles – to get my child admitted because it is their right, their privilege.  The outrageous mentality values perceived entitlement because of economic or social standing over merit.  The audacity and arrogance is enraging, but not surprising. Still, it p----s me off!       

My fellow parents and guardians, see if this also sounds familiar: My oldest is in high school and is on the cusp of the college hunt.  It seems daunting, a vastly different and more complicated process than I remember.  My wife and I are worried.  Our festering anxiety is based on this unfortunate reality: the gap between those with and without an advanced education has widened even since we were roaming college campuses in the 1990s.  Good grades, strong standardized test scores, participation in a variety of extracurricular activities, volunteer work and endorsements are all part of constructing a strong candidacy.  Then there’s the financial aspect (something else that’s changed dramatically in the last 20 years) – determining what is affordable and locating and competing for scholarships. 

Competing…now there’s a word.  Just like when an umpire yells “play ball” or a referee tosses the ball up to start a basketball game, ultimately most parents and children (or those with any moral compass) just want an ability to compete fairly during the college admissions process.  We owe that to our children.  To think that more qualified candidates lost opportunities because of this criminal scheme is unconscionable.  Shame on all involved.  

Abraham Lincoln once said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”  It is a simple test that many powerful people have failed.  Aunt Becky is just the latest. 

The Process

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


By Ronald N. Guy Jr.
This began as a speculative piece on final destination of Bryce Harper, baseball’s best and, after months of rumors and now weeks into spring training, oddly homeless free agent.  It was being written, literally, as news broke of him inking an unthinkably long 13-year, $330M contract with the Philadelphia Phillies.  So scratch the speculation.  Now we know.  All the better. 

“Harper 2018”, which turned into “Harper 2018-19”, was supposed to be the greatest free agent courting in the history of North American sports.  Maybe global sports.  Or intergalactic sports.  That might not be an exaggeration from Harper and super-agent Scott Boras’s perspective.

Harper peddling his wares across an adoring MLB landscape has been an unfolding story for years.  From the time he was drafted by the Nationals in 2010, the question was whether the phenom from Las Vegas, who grew up rooting for blueblood teams like the Dallas Cowboys and Duke basketball, and who idolized Yankees great Mickey Mantle, would outgrow the still regenerating baseball town of Washington, D.C. 

Harper just always seemed destined for the brighter baseball lights in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago.  But the Yankees seemed an awkward fit with Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, two slugging corner outfielders, already in place.  The Chicago Cubs, employers of Harper’s BFF Kris Bryant, were considered a likely landing spot, but the Cubbies’ bloated payroll prevented serious pursuit.  So Los Angeles then?  The Dodgers were in the mix, having shipped Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp – two pricey outfielders – to Cincinnati.  Washington was always a player too and allegedly offered a 10-year, $300M contract last fall; but neither party ever felt committed to a forever deal.

In the end, Philly won.  I guess they won – these mega-deals rarely work out well (see: Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and the aforementioned Stanton).  Money aside…thirteen years?  Where were you in 2006?  The County Times was two long years from “A View From The Bleachers” appearing in its pages for the first time and changing the course of the paper’s future forever.  For good?  For ill?  Alas, the final determination is still pending…

Harper landing in Philly was quite an adventure.  The length of his free agency was unexpectedly long.  Undoubtedly to Harper’s chagrin, the suiters were too few and dominated by B-listers.  Harper did ultimately get the desired long-term deal and broke the MLB record for biggest contract ever (the previous record was Stanton’s $325M deal), but his average annual salary was below expectations. 

All things considered, the process was confusing.  If reports of Washington’s offer last fall are true, Harper could have remained a Nat for more annually ($30M) and only $30M less overall.  And if Harper really wanted to play for the Phillies, the one team seriously in play throughout, couldn’t he have signed there months ago?  Or were the terms not sweet enough?  Did Harper need to feel like he bled every last dime and every last committed season from all bidders before finally settling for Philly?

These are things we’ll never know.  Regardless, it must have worn on Harper.  A glimpse of the burden may have leaked through when he mistakenly said in his first press conference with the Phillies that he wanted to “bring a title back to D.C.”  Cringe…

I don’t begrudge Harper, the Nationals or any other team that pursued him.  Harper putting pen to paper was a massive pivot point for him and multiple franchises.  Put the silly money and pomp and circumstance aside and you have a relatable human moment - a massive career decision layered with location, opportunity, salary, benefits and family considerations.  Harper opted to leave behind what he built in Washington and to start over in Philadelphia.  It was decision almost certainly reached after great consternation.  In the end, I hope he’s at peace and wish him well as he continues a shared endeavor: the pursuit happiness. 

Harper’s ultimate signing prompted many emotions – frustration, disappointment, excitement, anticipation – but ultimately, the one likely felt most acutely by all vested in this process – Harper, the fans and the teams – is relief.  Now it’s time to just play ball.  Finally.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

A Quarterback for the Doubted

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


By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Last June, Kyler Murray was selected by the Oakland A’s with the ninth overall pick in the 2018 MLB Draft.  He may have been picked higher except for one little wrinkle: After backing up Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield, the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner and first overall pick in the 2018 NFL draft, Murray was slated to be the Sooners’ 2018 starting quarterback. 

This football thing didn’t end up where it seemed headed last summer.  Murray, who played sparingly as a freshman at Texas A&M in 2015, sat out 2016 after transferring to Oklahoma and saw only spot duty in relief of Mayfield in 2017, entered last season as a talented but unknown commodity.  The likely scenario: he would have a nice season while running head coach Lincoln Riley’s potent Sooners offense.  As for the A’s, the only real risk seemed to be an injury on the gridiron.

By season’s end, Murray’s resume included nearly 4,400 yards passing, over 1,000 yards rushing, 54 touchdowns (passing and rushing), a Big 12 championship, a berth in the College Football Playoff and a Heisman Trophy - a “nice” year indeed.  More accurate descriptions include “amazing”, “transformational”, “unbelievable” and “generational” – pick one, they all fit.

Murray’s performance created a dilemma – stick with the A’s and baseball or jump to the NFL.  Murray recently chose the latter and will enter the 2019 NFL Draft.  He is projected as a top-15 pick.  A no-brainer, then?  Hardly.  Murray’s transition to the NFL will involve all the normal challenges as well as the negative perceptions of fault-finders.    

At just 5’10” tall and under 200lbs, Murray lacks prototypical NFL quarterback measurables.  The issue of Murray’s size is further compounded by his athleticism and willingness to scramble; Riley, his former coach, called him Barry Sanders at quarterback.  It’s an alluring skill-set, but as Washington fans know, there is great consequence to a slight franchise quarterback running through NFL defenses.    

It will matter little on draft day.  Murray is the most fascinating prospect in the draft and quality quarterbacks are in short supply; an early first round pick he will be. 

Regardless of Murry’s ultimate destination, I’m already a fan.  Not because I have an affinity for Sooners football or even Murray himself; rather my affection is based solely in the fact that Murray is so unorthodox.  The NFL likes its quarterbacks to be at least 6’2”, have a cannon arm and possess just enough athleticism to extend plays.  Having played only football since age 10 and only quarterback since age 14 is desired.  And why not?  Games are won by big quarterbacks, utilizing precision footwork and throwing mechanics, delivering throws mostly from the pocket. 

That is conventional wisdom. 

Murray can probably do stereotypical quarterback things, but he’ll never be 6’5”, he’ll routinely use his legs and his mechanics will include a dash of baseball flavor, as needed.  Every time he takes a snap in the NFL, coaches will question what thought they knew and fans will doubt the promulgated (and stale and unimaginative) “franchise quarterback” profile.

And I love it.  I love that Murray played multiple sports and that he confronted his body and mind with diverse endeavors.  I love that he will challenge NFL organizations to think differently and to recognize and adapt to the game’s evolution.

Murray’s not the first quarterback to put the NFL’s groupthink on tilt.  Russell Wilson and Patrick Mahomes are others with baseball backgrounds.  Wilson, at 5’11”, shares a similar vertical challenge.  And league-wide mobility at the quarterback position might be at its highest ever.  Still, Murray’s specific profile – his overall size, athleticism and multi-sport background – still qualifies for unicorn status. 

But that’s just the football side of Murray’s story; his NFL journey carries broader relevance.  Murray will play for everyone who has ever been doubted or outright dismissed for being too much of one thing or too little of another.  Be it because of race, gender, age or some other baseless or blatantly unjust qualification, Murray will play for those who didn’t fit a pre-cast mold and succeeded anyway. 
I’m rooting for him.  How could anyone root against him?

Atlanta 2019; Brooklyn 1947

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


By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Another NFL season has ended.  March Madness is over a month away.  The NHL playoffs seem a far off oasis. The NBA hasn’t reached its All-Star break.  Pitchers and catchers have made travel reservations, but none have yet reported to spring training.

Oh baby it’s cold outside…and for sports fans the post-Super Bowl psychological swoon is biting hard.  If only B.B. King or Muddy Waters had of put sports fans’ blues to song. 

Perhaps it’s best they didn’t.  An anthem would validate the unbecoming sympathy grab and distract from what the uncluttered sports calendar is: an invitation to reflect.

And with that…February thoughts from Atlanta, post-Super Bowl LIII... 

The first thing that comes to mind is African American History Month.  And the first name?  Jackie Robinson: the most important player in MLB history and arguably the most important athlete ever.  Robinson would have turned 100 years old on January 31.  In April 1947, he courageously took the field for the Brooklyn Dodgers to become the first African American to play in the major leagues. 

The racist vitriol that Robinson endured – verbal assaults, hate mail and death threats - is shameful.  But he kept playing – with uncompromising dignity and exceptional skill.  Opinions changed and other African American players soon followed – Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Ernie Banks, to name a few.  Eventually (a word too often used to describe the pace of social progress), the Supreme Court found school segregation to be unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education (1954) and the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 ended segregation in public places and made discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin unlawful.  Robinson isn’t the lone impetus behind this progress, but he gave us a strong nudge toward a better America in Brooklyn in 1947.          

I thought about Robinson, and the influence one exceptional person can have, when contemplating the latest Pro Football Hall of Fame class and the Super Bowl participants.  As something of a Hall of Fame induction speech junkie, I’m fascinated by this one common component: a coach, teacher, parent, guardian or spouse, without whose influence said player may not have played a down in the NFL. 

Two stories that stick with me have local connections.  During his induction speech, former Kansas City Chief defensive back and Washington coach Emmitt Thomas talked about his mother’s death when he was eight and credited his grandfather with being the reason he made it – in life and football.  The other is former ‘Skins offensive lineman Russ Grimm.  While attending the University of Pittsburgh, Grimm, then a linebacker, was “encouraged” by head coach Jackie Sherrill to move to offensive line after several players graduated.  Grimm didn’t initially like it, but stayed the course and became the very best player on the most famous offensive line in NFL history – The Hogs.

As for the Super Bowl participants, there are two profound “if my career hadn’t intersected with this person” stories.  Bill Belichick and Tom Brady are both future first ballot Hall of Famers.  Could one have been successful without the other?  Sure, but together they are the greatest coach and quarterback ever. 

The Rams may have something similar brewing.  Three years ago, under then head coach Jeff Fisher, rookie QB Jared Goff was 0-7 as a starter and posted a putrid 63.8 quarterback rating.  He was the next great quarterback bust.  In two seasons under current head coach Sean McVay, Goff’s quarterback rating has been over 100 and he’s been to two consecutive Pro Bowls.     

We all have our extraordinary people, the ones we would lavish with accolades and credit during our own “Hall of Fame induction speeches”.  We also have the opportunity to be that extraordinary person, the one that enables something grand, for others (and to receive credit in their “Hall of Fame speeches”).  That hardly makes us worthy of a Jackie Robinson comparison, a man who influenced a nation and millions of people, but maybe by positively impacting one life and one person and making the world just a little bit better in the most modest way, we keep his spirit alive.

A Washington Institution Crumbles


As published in The County Times (countytimes.somd.net)

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

I have watched football with my dad for as long as I can remember.  My earliest memories of Sundays include scanning the T.V. Guide to see what games would be covered and hoping the D.C. and Baltimore stations fed a strong signal into the funky, arrow-ish looking antenna on our roof. 

Time has certainly improved the viewing experience.  Cable television replaced the rusty antenna and birthed the ESPN era.  High definition television followed.  Now it’s the RedZone channel, a spectacular guided tour of live NFL games.  Ben Franklin once said, “Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy.”  The RedZone channel is too.

Despite the changes, my dad and I have remained steady football consumers.  Our viewing location is different, the television is bigger and the picture is sharper, but it’s still father and son, barking at referees, cussing the Dallas Cowboys and rooting for our home team. 

About that home team: Love of football aside, our deep affection for the ‘Skins of Washington is what has brought my dad and me together on Sundays through all those years.  Our relationship with the burgundy and gold is understandable.  When George Allen took over as head coach in 1971, my dad was just 23-years-old.  I was eight when Joe Gibbs took the reins and 20 when he retired from coaching (the first time) in early 1993.  During this 22-season run, Washington enjoyed 18 winning seasons, 13 playoff appearances, five trips to the Super Bowl, three championships and universal respect throughout the NFL.  Those teams ended up sending 11 people to the Pro Football Hall of Fame – eight players, two coaches and one executive. 

It was the best of times.  The twenty-five-plus years since, a period with just eight winning seasons and two measly playoff wins, haven’t been.  The losing is, in a strange way, tolerable.  It’s the football incompetence, dismissing of the fan base and embarrassing social missteps – all hallmarks of owner Dan Snyder’s “leadership” - that have scarred the team’s faithful.  And the world is watching – according to a recent Wall Street Journal poll, the Washington football team is the fifth most hated American company.  Not just football team…company. 

My dad and I often fill the losing vacuum by discussing the best organizations in the NFL; that’s what you do when yours is mostly inconsequential by Thanksgiving.  We talk about the Steelers, the Seahawks, the Packers and, of course, the Patriots.  But the team we might discuss the most is the New Orleans Saints.    

The Saints signed QB Drew Brees before the 2006 season, an acquisition that altered the course of perennial loser and created a unique love affair between city, team and player.  When you think of New Orleans, the Saints are very much in the discussion with jazz, the cuisine, voodoo and the French Quarter.  And if you’ve ever had the pleasure of being in a jubilant and united Big Easy after a Saints victory, count yourself fortunate.    

That how it used to be in D.C.  The ‘Skins were once a binding force, one that dissolved the often stark differences in a diverse fan base.  They were something to feel good about, something to take pride in.  No more.  Once the most elusive ticket in town, the team now struggles to sell out home games and FedEx Field is routinely overrun with fans from opposing teams.  The team’s name, for anyone with an inkling toward American history, is at least awkward, if not completely unusable.  The Washington pro football team, a former bedrock franchise of the NFL, is now arguably the league’s worst.  The disintegration of a D.C. institution is complete.

It’s hard to type those words.  At this point, with no indication better times are ahead, I feel fortunate to have experienced that incredible run under Coach Gibbs.  And I suppose, in football and in life, the suggestion of this story is to enjoy the best of times and use the memories to sustain you when life deals a losing hand, even if that just means a father and son maintain their relationship by steadfastly watching a gloomy football team. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Marriage Counseling

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


By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

The Pittsburgh Steelers have had but three head coaches - Chuck Noll, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin – since 1969 and have been run by the Rooney family since the franchise’s inception in 1933. 

I’ve used those statistics in this column before, but that doesn’t make them any less amazing.  The three head coaches over five decades is particularly mind boggling, considering the transient nature of the career field.  Professional coaches live out of suitcases in pre-furnished, rented apartments.  Their families don’t immediately uproot to move to their latest employment destination.  They pay monthly storage fees in multiple cities.  Absentee ballot has been their voting method since the Reagan administration.  Papa was a rolling stone; wherever he laid his hat was his home.  Ditto for professional coaches. 

Except, of course, in Pittsburgh.  Except, of course, for the Steelers.

Organizations talk about stability, establishing core values, brand creation and developing a symbiotic relationship with their city, the type that oozes into the pores of locals and, over decades, creates a nationwide fan base.  Some succeed briefly or even for an era; most fail miserably and quickly.  Coaches are then fired.  Executives are run off.  Organizational reboots follow.

Except in Pittsburgh.  Except for the Steelers.

Until now? 

What is going on in western Pennsylvania?  First Le’Veon Bell – one of the top running backs in football - gets into the mother of all contract disputes and sits out this season.  Now Antonio Brown – among the NFL’s best wide receivers – essentially goes AWOL before a pivotal season-ending game and seems determined to finagle his way out of Pittsburgh for the contentment that apparently awaits in some other NFL locale.  QB Ben Roethlisberger is doing damage control, head coach Mike Tomlin seems fatigued by the public drama and Steeler nation is likely befuddled by why Bell and Brown wouldn’t want to join Jerome Bettis and Franco Harris and Lynn Swann and John Stallworth as fellow Steelers Hall of Fame running backs and wide receivers.  The situation is hot mess, so much so that TE Jesse James likened the Steelers…the Pittsburgh Steelers…to the Kardashians.  

For D.C. football fans, this dysfunction, lack of logic and loss of direction is routine.  The Washington football team has been a rudderless, overly dramatic and substance-lacking disaster for at least 20 years – a period coinciding with Daniel Snyder’s ownership.  Kirk Cousins’s exhausting multi-year contract squabble and ultimate exit from D.C. is not identical to Bell’s or Brown’s situation, but it shares similarities.  Like Bell, Cousins felt under-valued and never could reach a long-term agreement; like Brown, his relationship with the organization became irreparable.  Cousins left for greener pastures - and a lot of greenbacks - in Minnesota.  Bell’s a free agent and on his way out of Pittsburgh.  Brown, who remains under contract with Pittsburgh, doesn’t seem far behind.

Business is business, but who’s winning here?  Minnesota, Washington and Pittsburgh all regressed this season.  Cousins’s performance fell far short of his $26M price tag.  Washington’s fix at quarterback – Alex Smith – suffered a horrific injury and may never play again.  Bell didn’t earn a dime.  Brown is laying waste to his Pittsburgh career and reputation.  If Pittsburgh loses both Bell and Brown, the once irreproachable Steelers organization deserves criticism.  And none of them, neither the teams nor the players – are participating in the playoffs this year. 

How all this came to pass is unclear.  The suspects?  Pride, ego and money – in spades.  Maybe Cousins eventually plays up to his contract in Minnesota or Washington finds a better solution at quarterback.  Pittsburgh might be better without the Bell and Brown distractions; a fresh start on a different NFL team may serve both players well.  The bet, though, is that all of the above, soon or on some distant day, will wish they had of worked a little harder to make it work.  Familiarity can breed contempt.  Change can be seductive.  But sometimes staying the course – and the character-building scar tissue, the relationships and the deep satisfaction it can yield - is worth the grind. 

I’ll stop there because this is starting to feel like marriage counseling…and that’s way beyond my qualifications.

A Law Firm Of Inspiration

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


By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Another year in recorded time is nearly in the books.  Unreal.  Are we great again?  Or at least better than we were?  More tolerant?  Appreciative?  How do we feel about our government?  International relations?  National security?  Fundamentally, are we closer to the nation we want to be…or should be?  Does that great concept expressed in our Declaration and codified in our Constitution remain elusive or an end state we are steadily marching towards?

Lots of questions there.  The guess is they produced many different answers.  That’s democracy – messy, passionate and diverse in thought.  At the height of discord, though, there must be mindfulness of our ever-binding ideals and an absolute, unwavering respect for the pillars of our nation – which is a fancy way of saying we’re all on the same team and in pursuit of vastly similar goals.  Some of that important perspective was lost in 2018, I think, individually and certainly at a leadership level.

How to reset then (at least personally)?  Another good question, my loyal readers.  Thumbing through 2018’s “Views”, it seems your friendly neighborhood sports writer was struggling mightily with that daunting question throughout the year.  The easy answer: just always be cognizant of our shared goals and love of country.  But given human tendencies to be short-sighted and impulsive, a little additional inspiration can’t hurt - and I found some from the world of sports, of course, via the “law firm” of Gordon, Gleason and Alexander.

“Gordon” is one Josh Gordon, the former New England Patriot, who announced last week that he was taking a leave of absence from football to focus on his mental health and was subsequently suspended indefinitely by the NFL for violating the terms of his prior reinstatement.  “Gleason” is Steve Gleason, a former member of the New Orleans Saints who was diagnosed with ALS in 2011.  “Alexander” refers to Buffalo Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander who was just announced as the team’s Walter Payton Man of the Year nominee for the second consecutive year.

How to stitch this together into something useful for 2019?  More questions.  Here it goes…
On the surface, Josh Gordon appears to have it all – big, physical and uber-talented.  He’s the physical mold for an NFL wide receiver.  But Gordon has struggled for years with his mental health.  I was hopeful that his trade from Cleveland earlier this year would give him fresh start in New England.  If it was only that easy…

Gleason was recently awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, which is, along with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award.  In his acceptance letter, he noted that his ALS battle has entered its eighth “season”, matching the length of his NFL career.  Gleason also noted another parallel between his football career and life with ALS – the good fortune to have a strong “team” of supporters around him. 

Alexander…where to start with this guy?  An undrafted free agent, Alexander bounced across three teams before finally making his debut with Washington.  He spent time as an offensive lineman, a defensive lineman, a special teams dynamo and, ultimately and in his thirties, a Pro Bowl linebacker (no, that’s not a joke).  Through it all, he’s been an endless source of positivity and do-good-ery, as those back-to-back Walter Payton Man of the Year nominations attest.  Alexander is simply one of the best dudes in professional sports…or the planet. 

Collectively, there is much to be learned and applied from this “law firm” in 2019.  In Gordon, we are reminded that the surface rarely tells the story and that every one of us is struggling with something life has dropped on our doorstep; so be gentle, patient and kind with fellow humans.  In Gleason, we see the power of the human spirit in the face of unimaginable adversity and also the humble admission that no mountain is climbed alone.  And finally, there’s Alexander.  His challenge is simple but perfect for the holiday season: Find a way to give back and, to steal a lyric from Diana Ross, “Make this world a better place, if you can.” 

To you and yours, a happy and healthy 2019.