Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

From NBC Sports:

Tell your readers that they can watch 28 hours of paralympic COMPETITION (4 hrs each night) from Beijing on Universal Sports (available in 30 million homes) and on www.universalsports.com every night this week (FOR FREE) from 7-11 p.m., ET and 4-7 p.m., PT.

What we showed on NBC was a DOCUMENTARY. it was never billed as competition. and, there has never been this extensive of coverage of this event as we have this year on Universal Sports and UniversalSports.com.

Athletic Liberal Guilt

After dying with laughter over Larry Gilmore’s unforgettable piece on the Obama victory, ‘Black Liberal Guilt’, I realized the able-bodied world has the same guilt-ridden feelings towards handicapped athletes. But unlike Gilmore’s oppressed race, my minority is so small and tragic that we’ll never get on the other side of this. You see I am an actual handicapped athlete. I am a paraplegic hand cycler and if I told you my story, you might well up with sympathy and offer to do something incredibly generous. I have been the recipient of hundreds of hours and tens of thousands of dollars of support in my recovery and I appreciate every minute and penny.

But when it comes to actual hand cycling, I’d really love to get beyond all that and see the damn sport. Sadly this rarely happens and NBC’s Paralympics coverage on Sunday was no different. Hell, we crips had our president long before Obama (FDR) and we still won’t get on the far side of the sympathy equation. I don’t even know if I can criticize NBC for what they did, because everything they did was done with a giving spirit and with great intensions.

But enough is enough already. I recall the CBS team that did the Olympics through the 90’s being thoroughly trashed by critics for airing three minutes of background schlock for every minute of actual coverage. On Sunday, NBC went for ten minutes of schlock against at-best 20 seconds of event coverage. And they didn’t even bother to really cover the event – only the result of the person they hand-picked to shoot their footage on. They made no attempt to explain any of the events; they buried the show between two NFL games; and didn’t bother to air it until three months after the closing ceremony. Olympic fever isn’t even a cough at this point so the only people watching were people like me. But I bet it made NBC feel better just for doing something right?

Here’s the tragic part – there were hundreds of hours of actual event coverage shot. And that coverage was fantastic. Real sports covered by real journalists and expert commentators – many of whom also covered the ‘real’ Olympics. Basketball guys talking about jump shots and swimming guys talking about stroke work. Real Sports.

But NBC just didn’t think the viewing public could handle it. This fantastic footage was relegated to unpublicized, oft-interrupted web-cast streaming. Unless you were plugged into a very powerful and consistent connection it was too painful to watch. But if you did manage to see any of that footage it was just as dramatic, just as compelling as all the other Olympic coverage. It’s a bunch of athletes you’ve probably never heard of, putting on the red, white and blue and participating in sports you will probably only watch once every four years. As long as the U.S. is in a gold-medal contest, any Olympic viewer could care less if they understand the nuances of the sport. They’ll sit next to the TV, cheer like hell and jump up and down when somebody crosses the line first or scores more points than the other team.

And after watching a full 200 meter race or a full basketball game you forget anyone of them has any disability at all. They’re just jocks trying to win. Period. In 2010 when Vancouver welcomes the world and NBC decides to cover the Paralympics, do me a favor: Put your schlock on Lifetime and give me the mono-ski downhill race – preferably within 24-hours of its completion.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Is the Best Player in Div I Playing for the Worst Team??

In June of 2007 I had succumbed to the first session of summer school in my life. Growing up in Wisconsin I vowed that I would never spend a minute in a summer classroom when there was so little warm weather to count on.

But after returning to college at the ripe old age of 45, time was of the essence and summer school would hasten my completion of a broadcasting degree at wintery Washington State University. If I was going to have to take a class, ‘The History of Baseball’ was as sunny a subject as I could think of. What sounds like a blow-off class couldn’t be further from the truth. Professor Frank Hill was an expert in American History and a dedicated lover of all things baseball. The class wasn’t so much about baseball, but more on how America has been shaped by baseball. There was plenty of reading, a term-paper and two in-depth essay exams.

Nonetheless, the class attracted its share of WSU athletes who had stayed in Pullman for off-season training. One of the class's difficulties was that it met for 90 minutes every day starting at 7:30 a.m. Early one Monday while I was rubbing the sleep out of my eyes, I caught a chiseled, sweat-pants clad student rubbing the hurt out of his impressive biceps. Having been a college athlete during my days at the University of Illinois, I knew the effects of a morning weight workout when I saw one.

“Are you on a team?” I asked.

A simple enough question, but just as the words came out of my mouth, the entire class gasped in embarrassment for me. I had seen this reaction once before. I was in line in a room outside the Cotton Bowl waiting to get stadium credentials before the 1994 Soccer World Cup. Standing right in front of me was Brazilian Soccer legend, Carlos Alberto. He is arguably one of the most famous people on the planet, just not in the U.S. When he approached the front of the line he just smiled at the volunteer and said, “Here I am.”

The volunteer, a 50-something Texan soccer grandmother scolded him, “Now how the hell am I s’possed to know who you are?” Immediately a FIFA official ran to the situation, found Carlos’s badge, and escorted him to a V.I.P. room.

The person I asked my embarrassing question to was the Cougars' standout receiver, Brandon Gibson. Maybe not one of the most famous people on the planet, but definitely on the short list in Pullman, Washington.

But Gibson almost seemed to be happy talking to someone who didn’t know him. “Yeah,” he said, “I’m on the football team.” At this point I noticed Professor Hill, an avid Cougar supporter, stop fighting with his lesson plan to listen in on me dig myself in deeper.

“What do you play?” I continued. Everyone in the room was dumbfounded at my Cougar naïveté and they sheepishly looked down at their notes.

“I’m a receiver,” he said.

“You guys got early morning weights?” I asked.

“Yup,” Gibson groaned, “5:30 a.m.”

I told him that I, too, had endured years of early workouts and knew what he was going through. We chatted about ugly coaches, cramping muscles and all sorts of things college athletes have in common. The formerly stunned students relaxed and realized Brandon was a human being, not a concept.

For the rest of the summer we traded training woes (I was training for a marathon) and he became not a close friend, but just one of those guys you know from class. Come fall semester, Brandon wasn’t in any of my classes, but I saw him every week; mostly in the end zone of Pac-10 stadiums.

In 2007 while the Cougars were enduring a return to the mediocrity that had defined most of their history, they still managed to score a ton of points – mostly on Alex Brink to Brandon Gibson drives. If Brandon had any drops at all, they came when I wasn’t watching. Brandon Gibson would go anywhere for a ball. He’d extend for a crossing route; jump through double coverage; and even lunge for short passes with most of the defense within a step of him. He caught ‘em all and turned plenty of them into touchdowns.

In the last game on the schedule the Cougars salvaged their disappointing 2007 season with a heroic comeback in the Apple Cup over the hated Washington Huskies. Brandon grabbed his last pass from Brink and rode it into the end zone for a 42-35 redemption song that seemed to make the whole losing season worthwhile. Brandon ended the season leading the Pac 10 in catches and yards while whetting the appetites of pro-scouts across the NFL.

One year later, and suddenly Brandon Gibson is off the map. Having been outscored 350-33 in six Pac-10 games, the Cougars are on pace to be the worst major conference team in NCAA history. Alex Brink graduated taking all the school passing records with him and leaving the Cougar offense with a squad of quarterbacks so inexperienced and banged up that rookie coach Paul Wulff had to hold on-campus tryouts to get an emergency backup.

While Brandon’s 2007 wideout counterpart, Michael Bupus is catching passes and cashing checks just across the state in Seattle, Brandon is in purgatory in Pullman. So-called ‘draft experts’ told him that one more season of quality Pac-10 numbers would vault him to a top-10 pick. But what those experts didn’t see was a program in decline. What they couldn’t have predicted was what would happen when the worst team in the conference suffered a score of injuries to what talent they still had.

So now Brandon Gibson is finishing up what may be, without suffering injury, the most painful season any blue-chip athlete has ever had. Nobody is saying where he’ll go in next Spring’s draft because no sports writers outside of the State of Washington even remember that WSU is still in the conference. When the Cougars venture into a foreign Pac-10 stadium, the casual fan doesn’t know him from a second-string offensive lineman. While he should be one of the most famous players in America, most fans would pass him by in the street – just like I would have before taking Professor Hill’s baseball class.

But if my short conversations with Brandon prove anything to me it’s that this kid is far from a quitter – or even a moper. While his first NFL contract may be considerably less than what it would have been had he chosen ANY other school in the country, Brandon Gibson will prove the fans, scouts and writers wrong.

In five years I see Brandon Gibson pulling up to Martin Stadium in a Bently on his bye-week to celebrate the rejuvenated Cougars climb back into prominence. I just hope Cougar Nation will look back at the turnaround and know that it only came because of guys like Brandon Gibson.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

When You Say Bud!

It’s finally over with the Phillies winning the longest game in major league history 4-3, clinching only their second title in 120 years. But the 2008 World Series won’t be remembered for anything except rain and the typical bungling by Commissioner Bud Selig.

Some 50 hours before its’ completion, Cole Hamels, the eventual WS MVP, started Game 5 with a chilling North Eastern fall soaking looming off in the distance. Hamels was sensational pitching six innings of two-run ball, which during the regular season, would have earned him a rain-shortened victory.

But unbenounced to… well… ANYBODY… Selig had decided that no decisive World Series game should end before nine full innings. While you have to agree with the decision, it was plenty obvious that Selig made up the decision on the spot without telling the broadcast team or even (god forbid) the umpires.

What started out as a persistent drizzle in the third inning turned into a steady (and COLD!) drenching rain by the top of the fifth. Had Selig informed anyone of his decision, the umpires would have suspended the game before the fifth inning instead of letting it be played in a wetlands more suitable for a Baltimore Oriole or a Toronto Blue Jay. The managers were forced to manage the playing conditions instead of the game. The playing field became dangerous and unfair as evidenced by Jimmy Rollins dropping a routine pop-up after it drifted more than 30 feet in a gust.

So Selig, as is his M.O., turned a baseball classic into a television side-show. The most important game of the year and the most important game of the lives of any of the players and managers, turned into a random chance event more resembling the World Series of Poker. When Tampa Bay’s B.J. Upton scored the tying run in the top of the sixth on a run he couldn’t have possibly manufactured under normal conditions, Selig was off the hook for the rain-shortened game and called for the infield tarp.

The broadcast team (and thus the FANS) was kept completely in the dark on Selig’s supposed pre-game decision to guarantee nine innings. Two days later with every sports pundit in America weighing in on what should have been a non-event, the most bizarre baseball broadcast got underway. Fox went on air to broadcast 3 ½ innings that would decide the fate of a sport that had just finished more than 26,000 innings. Had Tampa come back to win the game and take the series back to Florida, the story of ‘The Undeserved Run’ may have been compelling enough to write up in baseball lore. But when their bats died and the overwhelming favorite Phillies threw their gloves in the air, the 2008 World Series was just as soon forgotten. The 5th straight series in which the loser managed at best only one win.

Selig has decided to extend the 2009 Major League Season into November so we can expect more of this junk at the end of next season.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Star is Born

In a 10-2 Philly blowout Sunday Night a most-unlikely Philadelphia sports legend was born, as the more-likely hero brought the Phillies just a game shy of their second World Championship in the post-Rutherford B. Hayes era.

The Phillies picked Joe Blanton off the scrap heap after starting 2008 with a 5-12 record for Oakland. Since coming to Philly, however, he’s won five straight. But none of those wins will cement him in Philadelphia lore like his performance in Game 4. Blanton, after playing almost his entire five-year career in the American League, had a pathetic 2 for 26 record at the plate. But with two out in the bottom of the fifth, Blanton’s bat head ran into an Edwin Jones fastball and plopped it securely in the left field bleachers. It was the first extra base hit of his career and the first World Series home run by a pitcher since Ken Holtzman drove one out for Oakland 34 years ago.

With the usually ill-willed Philly fans firmly in his pocket, Blanton finished his night by striking out two in the top of the sixth to elevate his status in the city of brotherly love from 'footnote' to the 'never-have-to-buy-a-beer-in-this-town-ever-again' level.

But the emerging story in this World Series has been the return of NL MVP Ryan Howard’s gigantic bat. Rarely has the league MVP risen in the World Series to become it’s MVP, but Howard set the stage in the bottom of the 8th when he lambasted a Trever Miller fastball into the mob in the left field bleachers for his second homer of the night. Howard only had 3 RBI in the post season going into Game 2 but has had a timely turn around hitting .429 with 3 HR and 6 RBI.

What has become a most bizarre daily event in this year’s World Series is a horribly blown call by the league’s best umpires. In the bottom of the first, 3B Umpire Tim Welke missed seeing a tag on Philliy’s Jimmy Rollins as he was avoiding a rundown. To the naked eye it was an easy call and replays showed the tag clearly land long before Rollins made it to third. Although Rollins did end up scoring, the blowout erased Welke’s gaf. But in four World Series games, this crew has come up with six head-scratchers that, luckily for them, have had no impact.

But the town is ready for the ghost of Ben Franklin to ring the Liberty Bell as Phillies’ Ace Cole Hammels will take on Game 1 loser Scott Kazmir to try to put an end to the city’s 25-year championship drought.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Who Needs a Centerfielder Anyway?

In one of the more bizarre finishes to a World Series game in recent memory, Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz managed to get a bottom-of-the-ninth bases loaded infield hit to beat the Rays – even though virtually every player on the Tampa Bay roster was positioned on the infield grass.

After blowing a potentially historic start by Jamie Moyer, MLB’s oldest active player, the Phillies managed to push Eric Bruntlett across the plate in the ninth without even getting the ball to leave the infield. Rays pitcher J.P. Howell, who was brilliant in the 8th with a pickoff and two strikeouts, plunked Bruntlett to lead off the inning . Howell, who was eventually tagged with the loss, handed the ball to submariner Grant Balfour. Balfour immediately tossed a wild pitch that was compounded by a Nianar Nivarro throwing error tyring to nab the speedy Bruntlett taking second.

With no out and the winning run on third, Rays manager Joe Maddon didn’t just use some out-of-the box thinking – he lit the box on fire. The aptly named ‘Balfour’ was told to give the next two batters intentional passes loading the bases. Then Maddon pulled out a defense that is usually reserved for beer softball league teams who are one player short. With Balfour still on the mound, Madden brought Center Fielder B.J. Upton into the infield, leaving only Carl Crawford and Ben Zobrist to range the outfield by themselves. Ruiz then bounced a soft grounder towards Rays third baseman Evan Longoria who tried to scoop the ball over the charging Bruntlett. Had Bruntlett not been directly in line with the throw, Longoria could have made a clean catch and throw, but his unorthodox heave flew ten feet over the plate.

Just like that Philly had its first home World Series win in fifteen years which covered up the fourth blatant error by what should be the best umpiring crew in the biz. In the top of the 7th Rays leftfielder Carl Crawford chopped a short grounder that Moyers barely got a glove on. In a diving motion, Moyers shoveled the ball, glove-handed, to first baseman Ryan Howard who barehanded the toss for the out. It was the defensive play of the series except for the fact that first base umpire Tom Hallion blew the obvious call. While it didn’t cost the Phillies the game, Crawford did eventually score, which attributed that out to Moyer’s tally. It led to Moyer’s getting a no-decision in the most important game of his 22-year Major League career. It would have been a perfect closing to his baseball life as Moyer grew up in Philadelphia rooting for the Phillies.

Tomorrow night the city of Philadelphia will host the world as the Eagles have a home game and The Who will be playing in the same sports complex as the World Series. The Rays are sending rookie sensation Andy Sonnenstein to the hill against the Phillies Joe Blanton who managed to have a losing record this season (9-12), a rarity for a World Series starter.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Can a Bruthuh Buy a Hit!

Not even six months ago the idea that the Tampa Bay metro cluster would be doing back flips over their first ever World Series victory would have been laughable. But when David Price, Tampa Bay’s latest volunteer in their ever changing bullpen rotation, struck out NL MVP Ryan Howard in the top of the 9th, the Bay went crazy. Crazy with their historic victory, but also crazy with relief as the Rays dodged an unprecedented impotency streak of one of baseball’s most potent lineups. Howard managed to collect a few hits, but ’08 MVP Jimmy Rollins went for an O-fer as did Chase Utley, the best hitting second baseman in the bigs. But Howards two hits didn’t knock in any runs as the Phillies have gone a WS record 1 for 28 with RISP.

‘Big Game’ James Shields (OK, the only ‘Big Game James’ is Showtime’s James Worthy) managed to leave the game in the middle of the 6th with a lead, spreading out seven hits but giving up no runs to the historically inept Phillies. His Ray teammates did exactly what they were unable to do the night before and manufacture runs. Four of the Tampa Bay runs came not on timely hitting, but outs with RISP. Philly starter Brett Myers gave up three walks and was hurt by all of them.

But as odd as Philly’s untimely hitting was, it wasn’t the strangest part of the game. For the second night in a row 17-year Major League umpire Kerwin Danley, blew easy calls. Danley who missed a critical balk call in the Rays 3-2 loss on Wednesday night, pre-maturely rung up Tampa’s Rocco Baldelli on a check swing, before letting Baldelli or catcher Carlos Reliz appeal the call. Danley was embarrassingly overturned by 1st base umpire Fieldin Culbreth much to the dismay of Philly manager Jerry Manuel. Three innings later, Danley again blew an easy call when Tampa Bay reliever Dan Wheeler hit Rollin’s jersey with a tight fastball. Rollins should have been on first, but instead popped out. While none of Danley’s gafs appear to be game changers, they have all been potentially critical. In a sport where most officials can count the number of bad calls they make every season on one hand, the three in two nights is suspect – especially because of their basic nature. No one is accusing Danley of being on the take; you just wonder if his head is all the way in the game…

The series moves to Philly Saturday where sports most caustic fan base will have a shot at their city’s first title since Doctor J’s sixers won the NBA crown in ’83. Game 3 starters are Tampa Bay’s Matt Garza at 11-9, against the oldest player in the Bigs, Philly’s geriatric, yet effective starter, 16-7 Jamie Moyer.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Dude - You're in the Freaking World Series!

     Pitching to a lineup of complete strangers, Philly’s Cole Hamel threw seven strong to beat a struggling Tampa Bay 3-2 in game one of the 2008 World Series, the first ever played in Tampa’s Tropicana Field. In a rarity since the advent of Interleague play the two teams have absolutely nothing in common. They didn’t play each other this year and only one player, Tampa Bay reliever Trevor Miller, has ever played for the other organization. And Miller threw just 14 innings for the Phillies back in 2000, giving up 13 runs. Most players haven’t even played in the opposite league with the exceptions of Jamie Moyer and Matt Stairs who collectively have played for every Major League manager since Connie Mack.
     So with no historical information to go on the managers are forced to simply go with what got them to the dance. What we got in this atypical World Series between perennial losers was a pretty typical game one. Two rested starters pitched well and two bullpens who were just aching to get out and pitch, gave up nothing.
     The only notable oddity was that Philly stranded 11 runners with NL RBI King Ryan Howard leaving the bulk of those runners on base. The Rays, who usually use speed to manufacture runs, had just two walks, no stolen bases and only one extra base hit besides Carl Crawford’s solo homer in the 4th.
     But arguably Tampa Bay’s biggest asset went missing last night. Their rabid fan base that waited 8 years with an empty stadium and another ten years miring in last place barely raised their eyebrows during the final four innings. Tampa Bay manager Joe Madden missed a golden opportunity to rile up the crowd in the bottom of the sixth when 18-year Major League veteran umpire Kerwin Danley blew an easy balk call. Hamel clearly stepped towards the plate before reversing course and throwing to first base to catch Carlos Pena getting a jump on a steal. Pena was easily thrown out at second while Madden barely raised his voice. Lou Pinella and Earl Weaver would have charged the field and gotten the crowd out of their seats, but Madden barely raised an eyebrow. The Rays were quickly out of the inning and Tropicana Field turned into a giant sarcaughagus. When Madden calmly approached home plate umpire Tim Welke after the inning he spoke as if he was 18 games behind first place, not four wins away from a World Championship.
     No reliever gave up more than a hit with Brad Lidge saving his 50th in a row, not counting his All-Star game loss which ironically was the only blemish in Eric Gagne’s 84-consecutive save streak. Tomorrow the Rays battle back with 14-8 James Shields going against the Phillies surprising post-season hitting star 10-13 Brett Myers.

World Series - If We Must...

      It is with great reluctance that I am watching the 2008 World Series, as both teams yank my chain. First of all the Phillies knocked off my beloved Brew Crew after our first successful playoff run in 26 years. My brother Dan and I were actually in the center field bleachers at County Stadium for Game 5 of the '82 Series, the last time the Crew played in October. Gorman Thomas hit a seventh-inning bases-clearing double to get the old building shaking like the patients up in the Woods VA bleachers behind the right field wall. Since then hit we’ve been wandering the baseball Sinai until this fall when the Phillies left us like Moses sitting outside the promised land.
      The Rays get under my skin because, in their first attempt at a playoff run, they were able to keep their pitching staff healthy into September. The Brew Crew have been slowly climbing back into prominence ever since Bud Selig washed his hands of his calamitous run as a Major League Baseball owner. But our pitching staff has had a September infirmary call with the same regularity as the Canadian goose migration.
      BUT… it is the World freaking Series and no matter what collection of egotistical rhoid-raged man-whores who have taken the field over the past 40 years, I keep watching. As it ends up the game of baseball is so freaking good that even Selig himself couldn’t ruin it. And once you get to the World Series the managers, who spend the season relying on statistics, toss out their hard drives and start watching the games. Every pitch counts; starters become relievers; pitchers become pinch runners; a streaky $40,000 late-season call-up might be the better call than the slumping $17 million MVP candidate.
      And just as sure as those geese will pass over the orange-clad hunters in Lambeau Field, one, if not both, of the catchers in the World Series will be an All-Star. This year it’s the Rays Dioner Navaro, a .295 hitter with a bionic right gun who managed the most unlikely pitching staff to ever take the October field. Nobody outside of Florida has ever heard of this guy and he’s going to be the weapon to deliver the Series to Tampa – even if he bats .150. The Phillies may have three MVP caliber players in their infield in Dwight Howard, Chase Utley and Jimmy Rollins, but in a short series, I’m going with the catcher. The hitters may slump, but a catcher’s brain will not.
      So let the games begin. It’s the born-agains of Central Florida versus the caustic omni-haters of Philadelphia. Baseball Armageddon. Bring it ON!