Friday, November 25, 2016

Without a Doubt, 9-3 Is Improvement for the Huskers

The 40-10 beatdown that Iowa administered to the Huskers to end the regular season was an unpleasant ending to a relatively pleasant Nebraska football season. I knew the offense was going to struggle against the Hawkeyes because of the quarterback situation, but I wasn't prepared for the defense melting down in Ohio State-like fashion.  So I'm not pleased with how this game ended, but I am pleased with how the season went, in the grand scheme of things.

Why? I went into the season with relatively low expectations; I still had doubts about this coaching staff going in.  And while I'm not sold, I am impressed by how this staff adapted and accepted the players they inherited.  And yes, in turn, the players better accepted the coaches.  The defense was significantly better (except in a couple of games), and the offense was better.  And the results were better:  9-3 (with still a chance to win a tenth) beats the heck out of 6-7.  Going from needing an NCAA waiver for a bowl game to a possible New Year's Day bowl game is better.

It's not even debatable.

Some will though. Some just want to be argumentative, while others are just disappointed that the Huskers dropped another egg this month. And then there a few (explitives) who just want to rag on former head coach Bo Pelini.

The Bo-leavers have a valid point; after this season, it's Mike Riley's offense moving forward.  Tommy Armstrong and Ryker Fyfe won't be around after the bowl game, and the quarterback room will be occupied by Mike Riley guys.  But will it be better next year?  I fear not.

Next year's quarterbacks will be Tanner Lee, Patrick O'Brien and probably Tristan Gebbia, assuming he enrolls in January. That's two freshman and a Tulane transfer who put up worse passing numbers at Tulane than Tommy Armstrong did his first two seasons.

Wait, what?  Doesn't Sean Callahan insist that Lee is a NFL draft pick (in a high round, I might add)?

Yes. But the numbers don't lie.

Tanner Lee:  53.5% completions, 3601 yards, 23 touchdowns, 21 interceptions
Tommy Armstrong: 52.9% completion, 3661 yards, 31 touchdowns, 20 interceptions

And the rushing numbers?  Well, there's no comparison:

Tanner Lee:  -287 yards rushing, zero touchdowns
Tommy Armstrong: 907 yards rushing, eight touchdowns

I've never seen Lee play in person, and maybe he'll adapt better to Riley's offense than he played in Tulane's offense. But the hype train reminds me more of the hype that surrounded Sam Keller ten years ago, and Keller at least had a record from Arizona State that partially explained the hype. Lee just has Sean Callahan's tweet as the explanation.

It's presumptive and premature to pencil any of the three quarterbacks into the 2017 lineup. O'Brien will have had close to another 100 or so practices before we see him again, and Gebbia is still in high school. That uncertainty causes me to temper my thoughts for 2017, and thus my appreciation for the 2016 season.

2015 should have taught every Husker fan to appreciate each and every victory, and I certainly appreciated a nice bounceback season, overcoming all sorts of adversity.

No doubt about it.  Nebraska improved quite a bit in 2016.  That's something to appreciate.

Friday, November 04, 2016

Harry, the Chicago Cubs and I

Until Cox Cable rolled into town in 1981, I didn't really have a baseball team. Sure, I went to a handful of Omaha Royals games over the years, and watched the Kansas City Royals battle the Yankees for the pennant in the 70's, but it was really just a casual follow.  But when my parents finally were able to get cable television, all that changed.  Along with Nickelodeon, USA and ESPN, we now had Superstations WGN, WOR and WTBS. Between WOR's partial schedule and Ralph Kiner, I didn't watch much of the Mets.  WTBS coverage of the Atlanta Braves was my initial interest; Braves catcher Bruce Benedict grew up four houses up the street from me.

But as time went on, it was the Chicago Cubs games that caught my fancy. Any summer afternoon, you had a 50-50 chance of finding a Cub game on at 1:20 pm in the afternoon...a dead zone of television unless you liked soap operas. 1984 really solidified it for myself; the Cubs were winning, and since I started classes at UNO, I could still follow the games after my classes got out in the early afternoon. And with the games on the radio locally, I could even listen to them on the drive home.  But 1984 brought me my first heartbreak in the playoffs against the San Diego Padres. The Cubs looked to be heading to the World Series until Lee Smith failed in the deciding game five.  I was working that day, so I sadly had to listen to Harry Caray describe the meltdown on the radio.

Harry Caray and Steve Stone became the voices of my baseball fandom. The Cubs faded for the next few years, but stormed back in 1989, only to get shut down again, this time by Will Clark and the San Francisco Giants.  In the 1990's with college out of the way, I was able to make a couple of pilgrimages to Wrigley, and even though I was now working during those afternoon games, I still was a fan.  Harry passed on, and WGN started to cut back on the number of games they carried, but I still watched when I could.

2003 found the Cubs back in the playoffs, and game six looked like the Cubs were finally going to break through. In the seventh inning, with the game seemingly under control, I took the dog for a walk, figuring that I needed to get that done to enjoy the ninth inning and the post game.

Well, we all know what happened while I was out.  I'd later learn about Alex Gonzalez and Steve Bartman, but I came home to find that the Marlins had somehow put up an eight-spot in the eighth inning...and all that preparation was for naught. Perhaps it was better that I didn't endure that.

Two years ago, WGN decided to completely drop their broadcasts of the Cubs outside the Chicago local area, meaning that the only games I get to watch now are national broadcasts. But the games are back on the radio on 1490 AM - just like they were in 1984. Last season looked like it could be "the year"...but those Stupid Mets broke my heart yet again, just like they did thirty years earlier.

When the Cubs broke out to a .800 start this season, this year looked like THE year. The Cubs ran away with the division, and the only question in September was who the Cubs would face in the playoffs. The Giants and Dodgers each had a pitching ace that the Cubs probably would have liked to avoid, but neither Madison Bumgarner nor Clayton Kershaw could pitch enough innings to tilt the field.

Corey Kluber, on the other hand, almost did. Things looked awfully bleak for the Cubs after Kluber's gem in game 4; a game I didn't really watch much of because of the Husker game.  But the Cubs avoided elimination Sunday night, and gave themselves a chance in Cleveland. I knew that Kluber awaited the Cubs on Wednesday night, should the Cubs make it that far.  They did, and my hope for the Cubs was that Kluber, like Bumgarner and Kershaw, would run out of gas.

And run out of gas he did.  The Cubs shelled him, and it looked like the Cubs were cruising late. And in the eighth, I debated what I was going to do. Do I watch the game on Fox and listen to Joe Buck - or do I go out to the car and listen to Pat Hughes call the ending over the radio.  That's one of the biggest shames of baseball's media contract: only the originating station can carry the local broadcast of the World Series teams, though it is also available on satellite radio. Die-hard fans want to hear the voices that carried them through all 162 regular season games call that final out, not some national guy.

But then Jon Lester gave up an infield hit, and Cubs manager Joe Madden hit the panic button. He went to the bullpen to bring in Aroldis Chapman for the third time in four days. Chapman has been nothing but dependable since joining the Cubs, but after throwing over 60 pitches the last three days, he had nothing left.

Steve Garvey. Will Clark. Rajai Davis?  Seriously? Suddenly, the lead and the dream was gone. Madden kept Chapman in the game in the bottom of the ninth, and it felt like Charlie Brown running up to kick the football from Lucy's hold knowing full well what was going to happen.  But somehow it didn't, and the game went to extra innings.  Then the rain came.

The tarp rolled out, and the radar didn't look good.  I thought about it for a minute and said to myself "I have to get out of this house!"  The dog still hadn't had his walk, so I just grabbed the leash and headed out. The whole time I wondered what was going to happen.  How long could I wait this game out?  Do I just wait until next year, like always?

Sigh.  Depression.

I open the door, and walk into the living room, with the television still on. The rain delay was already over, and just like 13 years before, things changed dramatically while I wasn't watching.  The first pitch I saw was Ben Zobrist drilling a double down the third base line.  The Cubs scored twice in the tenth, and were now just three outs away from the title.

I briefly thought about my prior plans, and quickly rejected them. I was going to watch this damn thing through.  Cleveland scored and had the tie run at second base and the winning run at the plate.  Mind is blown.  It wasn't until Kris Bryant fielded that slow roller that I realized that it was happening.

Yet I couldn't scream.  I couldn't yell.  The rest of the family was asleep in their beds.  I could tweet, but it wasn't satisfying.  No, I had to do something.

So out to the garage I went.  Over the years, I had set aside a supply of fireworks, likely for a huge Nebraska victory.  I was halfway out to the garage in 2009 when Colt McCoy's pass landed incomplete out of bounds, stopped only by the review to gift Texas an extra second to win the game.  So it's been sitting there.  Ready.  Waiting.

It was time.

I grabbed the firing tube, a box of shells and a lighter.  Royals fans woke me up a year ago; I was going to wake them up.  And off it went, in a beautiful display of red sparks and the accompanying boom.

And yelled.

I thought about firing more, but decided against annoying the neighbors further.  I made my point.

So I went back in to watch interviews and the celebration, and then Fox cuts away to commercial and I see this.


As much as anyone else, Harry Caray is probably about as responsible as anybody for my Cub fan-dom. Perfect.

I headed to bed...but couldn't sleep.  Probably only got about 4 hours sleep total before heading to work.  Then what do I see come up on Twitter, courtesy of Kevin Kugler?  A brilliant simulation of Harry calling the Cubs World Series win, 19 years after his passing.

Tears. I've probably watched that video about twenty times over the last day. It still brings tears.  I still keep finding myself wondering if it actually happened, much like I did January 2, 1995 in south Florida when the  Huskers slew Miami in the old Orange Bowl stadium.

Why do we obsess about sports like we do? It's more than entertainment; it's not merely a diversion for two or three hours of fun. No, our sports teams become a part of us.  We live, love and mourn through them.  When it's your team, it's not just a game.  And while I didn't throw one pitch, swing one bat or even try to catch a single ball, I feel a part of it.

I definitely don't consider myself one of those "long-suffering fans".  I've been a fan for 35 years; that's no match for fans like Wayne Williams, who listened to game 7 at his father's grave to fulfill a promise made long before I became a Cub fan.

But I am a fan...and I am still celebrating.  Thank you Cubs...and thank you Harry.  We did it.

The unbelievable is now believable.