FROM THE BLEACHERS

Filled with my love of sports – basketball, football, baseball, hockey, tennis, golf… Anything with a ball and a score and the chance for a buzzer-beater

Game On: The Sport Of Naming Teams

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In honor of last night’s World Series finale and the kick-off of the NBA season this week, a re-post from two years ago about team names – the good, the bad, the curious, the hilarious:

The question at answers.com was logical enough: a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers wondered where all the lakes were in the City of Angels. In Minnesota, it turns out. Before the Lakers came to Tinseltown, they were the Minneapolis Lakers. Makes sense. Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes. When the franchise headed west, it left the lakes behind, but not the name. And for more than 50 years, in the most densely populated urban area in the United States, basketball fans have flocked to see a team with an idyllic, outdoorsy moniker.

Here in New England, our team names present no such hiccup. The Patriots and Revolution connect to our colonial past. The Celtics reflect Boston’s large Irish-American population. Red Sox became an official nickname in 1908, after the club adopted red as its color and featured a red stocking on the front of its players’ jerseys. The original owner of Boston’s professional hockey team wanted a nickname that suggested speed, agility, and cunning. Bruins delivered the hat trick. It also lent itself to brown and yellow uniforms, which just happened to be the colors of the owner’s grocery chain.

The Lakers are not alone in maintaining a nickname despite its disconnect to a new locale:

> The Baltimore Colts were named in honor of the region’s rich history in horse racing. Indianapolis, where the Colts moved, is famous for racing, too, but the focus is on a different type of horsepower.

> British Columbia is home to a large grizzly bear population. Naming an NBA team the Vancouver Grizzlies made sense; keeping the name when the franchise moved to Memphis did not. Favorite son Elvis has left the arena, and there is no risk of a grizzly attack outside.

> The New Orleans Jazz pioneered the use of singular nouns in team names (the Miami Heat, Colorado Avalanche, Orlando Magic, etc., would follow). It’s one of my all-time favorites. But when the franchise moved to Utah, the name became oxymoronic. Utah Jazz? Imagine Thelonious Monk sitting in with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

At the college level, leave it to two New England athletic powerhouses – Berklee College of Music and Rhode Island School of Design – to give us inspired team names. Berklee’s hockey squad – the IceCats – reflects the school’s contemporary music pedigree. (According to berkleegroove.com, “contrary to popular belief, some musicians actually are capable of playing sports.”)

And then there’s RISD’s hockey team. The Nads may strike you as a curious name, until you cheer on the team at the top of your lungs:

GO NADS! GO NADS!

In the universe of team names, the Nads are in a league of their own.

From McCoy Stadium to the Carrier Dome: A Father-Daughter Journey

 

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As published in the Syracuse Post Standard / http://www.syracuse.com, March 31, 2014.

We’re at McCoy Stadium, in 1999, with the Pawtucket Red Sox playing the Toledo Mud Hens. It’s the first time my daughter, Juliana, and I are at a game together. We’re celebrating her fourth birthday.

Julie eats popcorn and ice cream. She has her picture taken with Paws, the mascot for the minor-league Red Sox team. When the crowd starts doing the wave, she laughs and throws her hands in the air. By the sixth inning, she is yawning. And before we make it out of the parking lot, she’s fast asleep.

What was born in Julie that day, and reaffirmed in me, was a love of games. Every August, for fourteen years now, we have returned to McCoy Stadium to celebrate her birthday. We have gone to many other athletic contests, as well – from CYO basketball and high school football to college hoops and Major League Baseball.

At first, I took Julie to games because that’s what my father did with me. Eventually, I did it because being with Julie in the stands brought out an ease in me that I rarely felt elsewhere. The games suspended thoughts of work and money and house projects and everything else on the to-do list. The games gave us each other.

When Julie was looking at colleges, good teams and great school spirit were among her must-haves. I was thrilled when she was accepted at Syracuse University. Yes, it was exciting that she got into the Newhouse School of Public Communications. But my mind went right to the Carrier Dome – now we could go see Syracuse basketball!

I bought two tickets to the North Carolina State game, slated for February 15th. As I drove up the Massachusetts Turnpike on the morning of the game, Julie called to let me know that the start time had been moved from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. – North Carolina State had travel issues because of a snowstorm.

At the Syracuse Sheraton check-in counter, I mentioned the game time change to the receptionist and she pounced. “I hope it messes those kids up,” she said, referring to members of the North Carolina State team. “They didn’t get here until a few minutes ago. I’ll take any advantage we can get.” Her face softened as she handed me my room key: “Enjoy your stay!”

The receptionist’s gamesmanship didn’t surprise me. This was Syracuse, after all. While Julie and I were having lunch, I saw a guy in a shirt that read REAL MEN WEAR ORANGE. It could have also included REAL WOMEN, REAL BOYS, REAL GIRLS, and REAL PETS, for that matter. EVERYONE was rocking Syracuse orange that day, of course – everyone except me. I was wearing a Berklee College of Music pullover. Technical foul.

I mentioned my faux pas to Julie and we concluded that it was a minor transgression. Berklee was not threatening to crack the AP Top 25 Poll anytime soon.

At 6:15, Julie and I made our way to the Carrier Dome. The seats I had bought weren’t great. As we climbed up and up and up to Section 318, Row V, Seats 3 and 4, I thought of Felix Baumgartner’s dive from space. Once seated, we were looking down on what would qualify as nosebleed seats in a smaller venue. And as I watched others make the ascent, some stopping to catch their breath, I wondered if there was a Crouse Hospital medical station nearby.

But when the game began, I was struck by how intimate the Dome felt. Perhaps that’s what happens when 35,000+ disciples react as one – to bad calls (against the Orange), to good calls (for the Orange), to the guy who sank a shot from a recliner during a TV time-out.

It was an ugly game – and close from start to finish. As the clock wound down in the second half, it looked like Syracuse might, after 24 straight wins, lose its first game all season. That cursed Berklee sweatshirt – I was the jinx!

The basketball gods – and two key turnovers by North Carolina State – saved me from such ignominy. Syracuse won 56-55 on a C.J. Fair layup with six seconds left. (Alas, the streak would end four days later with a loss to Boston College.)

After the game, over dinner, Julie told me how much she loved Syracuse – the new friends she had made, the courses she was taking, the sorority she hoped to get into. “I feel like I’m becoming the person I want to be,” she said. That was clear to me – and I marveled at her nascent transformation.

Our first PawSox game seemed far away.

As we left the restaurant, I told Julie I’d walk her back to her dorm. “You don’t have to,” she said, but I insisted – always the dad.

The air was dry and cold outside. My ears stung – I had left my hat in the hotel room. When we reached the corner below the majestic Crouse College building, Julie said she could go the rest of the way on her own. We hugged and I watched, motionless, as she walked into the cold night. When she looked back and saw me standing there, she called out, “Dad, do you know where you are?”

“All set!” I yelled back, lost in thought.

The street signs said I was at the corner of University Place and South Crouse Avenue. But I knew better.

On that night, in that moment, I knew I was somewhere between Holding On and Letting Go.

Photo by Rob Walsh • http://www.robwalshphotoshop.com

As appeared in the Syracuse Post Standard / http://www.syracuse.com on March 31, 2014.

Rooting For Snow At The Super Bowl

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As published in the Providence Journal, January 29, 2014.

Now that the Patriots have been eliminated from the Super Bowl chase, which team am I rooting for? The Broncos? The Seahawks? Neither. I’m pulling for the Farmers’ Almanac.

Long before the days of Doppler radar and storm modeling, almanacs served up weather prognostications based on byzantine mathematical and astronomical formulas. The Farmers’ Almanac is still at it today and, as early as last August, predicted a stormy, snowy Feb. 2 for East Rutherford, N.J., where this year’s Super Bowl will be played.

Go, Farmers’ Almanac! I hope we see Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel on the MetLife Stadium sidelines, hyperventilating about snow accumulations.

Holding the Super Bowl outdoors at a cold climate site is the latest stroke of marketing brilliance for an event that has become a virtual national holiday. It wasn’t always that way.

In its humble debut, the Super Bowl was simply known as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. The Green Bay Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10. The halftime show was two college marching bands. There were only 61,946 spectators in the stands, hardly a sell-out at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Forty-seven years later, the Super Bowl is the most watched annual television program in the United States. The game attracts more than 100 million TV viewers worldwide. This year, 30-second ads cost up to $4.5 million.

NFL marketers built the Super Bowl franchise with great teams — the Steelers and the 49ers, the Cowboys and the Patriots. They built it with halftime shows that had star power and broad appeal. Super Bowl I’s marching bands have been eclipsed by U2, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, and an infamous wardrobe malfunction. And now the NFL has pulled another rabbit out of its helmet: the weather.

By playing the game in the Northeast on the first weekend in February, the NFL has generated incremental buzz. For weeks, in addition to the usual pre-game chatter and blather, blogs and sportswriters and ESPN commentators have asked: “What if it snows?”

The 10-year-old in many of us knows the answer: “Game on!” Because when you’re a kid, there’s nothing like playing football in the snow.

I grew up in the Elmhurst section of Providence, where the houses sit on small lots — not much room for running to daylight. There was an empty lot at the corner of Rankin and Moorland, but when we tried to play there, the owners shooed us away faster than you could say “Pete Rozelle.” So we ended up playing touch football in the street, telephone pole to telephone pole.

Unless it snowed or rained.

When that happened, playing tackle football was irresistible. We would hike up to the fields at La Salle Academy or Mount Pleasant High School, mark the end zones with our coats, and “muckle” (a kid verb denoting violent tackling) each other until our cheeks and fingers were numb . . . and then muckle each other some more.

Tackle football in the elements had such appeal that my best friend and I once flooded his backyard on a sunny autumn day just so we could play in the mud. His parents were not amused.

This coming Sunday, I hope the game is close, the ads are entertaining, and the halftime show grooves.

And should snow fall from the heavens? There will be a lot of kids and former kids, including this one, who think the conditions are ideal.

 

Word Games: The Language Of Sport

I love sports – and the words that games give us.

My daughter asked what “par” means the other day. I told her it’s a golf term that refers to the number of strokes a good player is expected to use to sink his or her ball on any given hole. The more interesting question followed: where does the word come from?

Par is Latin for equal. When you par a hole, you equal the expected score. Use fewer strokes and you’re under par; use more and you’re over par. Par first appeared as a golfing reference in 1898. The figure of speech “par for the course” dates back to 1928.

Love is a tennis term: Federer is up, 40-love. In the tennis sense, love has nothing to do with romance; it means zero. A popular theory is that it’s an anglicization (i.e., Englishification) of the French word l’oeuf, which means “egg”. Of course: an egg’s shape resembles a zero. Leave it to the French to get a food reference into sports parlance – and then abandon it when everyone else follows suit. They now use “zéro” instead. Incroyable!

In baseball, the bleachers are the uncovered seats out beyond the outfield, where sunscreen, binoculars, and cold beer are the order of the day. The term appears in 1889, when these seats were simple board benches that got bleached by the sun.

Southpaw is baseball slang for a left-hander. I like the etymological explanation that the word was coined when baseball diamonds typically had home plate oriented to the west. That meant a pitcher’s left hand (or paw) would be to the south when facing a batter. However, the term is found in earlier references from boxing. So much for pastoral roots.

Umpire is the odd-looking word for an official who arbitrates between two teams in a sporting match. It derives from the French nonper – non “not” + per “equal”. Umpires are not the equals of the players; they always have the last say.

When fans in the bleachers disagree with an umpire, they may call him another name: “bum” or “idiot” or something more colorful and fricative.

Which, on a sunny day at Fenway, is par for the course.

Game On: The Sport Of Naming Teams

The question at answers.com was logical enough: a fan of the Los Angeles Lakers wondered where all the lakes were in the City of Angels. In Minnesota, as it turns out. Before the Lakers came to Tinseltown, they were the Minneapolis Lakers. Makes sense. Minnesota is the Land of 10,000 Lakes. When the franchise headed west, it left the lakes behind, but not the name. And for more than fifty years, in the most densely populated urban area in the United States, basketball fans have flocked to see a team with an idyllic, outdoorsy moniker. Hollywood, land of make-believe.

Here in New England, our team names present no such hiccup. The Patriots and Revolution connect to our colonial past. The Celtics reflect Boston’s large Irish-American population. Red Sox became an official nickname in 1908, after the club adopted red as its color and featured a red stocking on the front of its players’ jerseys. The original owner of Boston’s professional hockey team wanted a nickname that suggested speed, agility, and cunning. Bruins delivered the hat trick. It also lent itself to brown and yellow uniforms, which just happened to be the colors of the owner’s grocery chain.

The Lakers are not alone in maintaining a nickname despite its disconnect to a new locale:

> The Baltimore Colts were named in honor of the region’s rich history in horse racing. Indianapolis, where the Colts moved, is famous for racing, too, but the focus is on horsepower, not thoroughbreds.

> British Columbia is home to a large grizzly bear population. Naming an NBA team the Vancouver Grizzlies made sense; keeping the name when the franchise moved to Memphis did not. Favorite son Elvis has left the arena, and there is no risk of a grizzly attack outside.

> The New Orleans Jazz pioneered the use of singular nouns in team names (the Miami Heat, Colorado Avalanche, Orlando Magic, etc., would follow). It’s one of my all-time favorites. But when the franchise moved to Utah, the name became oxymoronic. Utah Jazz? Imagine Thelonious Monk sitting in with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

At the college level, leave it to two New England athletic powerhouses – Berklee College of Music and Rhode Island School of Design – to give us inspired team names. Berklee’s hockey squad – the IceCats – reflects the school’s contemporary music pedigree. (According to berkleegroove.com, “contrary to popular belief, some musicians actually are capable of playing sports.”)

And then there’s RISD’s hockey team. The Nads may strike you as a curious name, until you cheer on the team at the top of your lungs:

GO NADS! GO NADS!

In the universe of team names, the Nads are in a league of their own.

First Trip To Fenway

I bought the tickets at redsox.com, but didn’t look at the seating chart. It was an afternoon game against Seattle, a chance to see Ichiro. We got to the park early and headed to our seats. Up and up we climbed, into the cavernous right field grandstand. Section 1… Row 18… Seats 1, 2, and 3… The last row and very last three seats in the grandstand. Past a support column, we could see home plate. Barely. But that day, with my two wide-eyed young sons on their first trip to Fenway, we had the best seats in the house.

As appeared in the Providence Journal’s Fenway Park Centennial Special Section on April 11th.

The Madness That March Brings

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Technically, it’s the NCAA Men’s Division 1 Basketball Championship. But we all know it as March Madness, which kicks off in full force on Thursday afternoon. And that sound you hear – click, click, click – is the American workforce tracking the games on computers nationwide. According to one study, March Madness will be responsible for $192 million in lost productivity this year. Just imagine the emails: “Sorry, Kevin, but I have to move our Friday afternoon meeting to next week. Something came up.” Something like #8 Memphis versus #9 St. Louis.

When did March Madness enter the American sports lexicon? The term surfaced in 1939, the year the NCAA tourney debuted. But it didn’t refer to the college tournament. Coined by H.V. Porter, an official with the Illinois High School Association, March Madness described that state’s high school basketball tournament. The phrase didn’t become associated at the collegiate level until the 1980s, popularized by CBS sportscaster Brent Musburger. Not surprisingly, Musburger had worked in Chicago before joining the national network.

The tournament has given us other memorable terms, such as the Final Four and Bracketology, which refers to the science of predicting the field for the tournament. After the first tip-off, though, theater trumps science. Top seeds fall, Cinderellas dance, and the game-by-game drama is exquisite.

Major league baseball has given us 36 Game 7s in World Series history. March Madness offers the drama of 67 Games 7s – do or die – in three weeks.

In the midst of the madness, at some local sports bar in these parts, a basketball junkie will see ghosts and murmur that Providence College should have gone to the national championship game in 1973 to face Wooden and Walton and UCLA. If only Marvin hadn’t gone down with that leg injury in the semi-finals against Memphis State…

Madness, indeed. Enjoy.

How The Super Bowl Became “Super”

And to think it was originally called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?

That was back in 1967, when the Green Bay Packers and Kansas City Chiefs faced off in what we now refer to as Super Bowl I. The Packers won, 35-10. The halftime show featured two college marching bands. And there were only 61,946 spectators in the stands, hardly a sell-out in the Los Angeles Coliseum.

It was the Chiefs’ owner, Lamar Hunt, who first used the term “Super Bowl.” He coined the name in 1966 during merger meetings between the AFL and NFL. In a letter to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, Hunt wrote, “I have kiddingly called it the ‘Super Bowl,’ which obviously can be improved upon.” It wasn’t, and today Super Bowl Sunday is part of the American vernacular. The game attracts more than 100 million TV viewers worldwide.

Hunt got it right with “super,” the Latin adverb and preposition that means “above, over, on the top of.” Probably seemed a bit grandiose for that first game in 1967, only to be further inflated two years later with the introduction of Roman numerals in the name. But in Super Bowl IIIJoe Willie Namath made good on his brash prediction that his Jets would beat the highly favored Colts, sprinkling pixie dust on the event and launching it toward its place today as an unofficial national holiday.

Enjoy the game – go Pats!

In A Word: The Story Behind “Scrimmage”

Football has given us lots of weird, cool words. Take “scrimmage,” for example. During Saturday night’s Patriots-Broncos game, you’ll hear a lot about the “line of scrimmage,” the point at which each play starts. But there are actually two lines of scrimmage: the offensive line of scrimmage and the defensive line of scrimmage. These are the imaginary vertical planes at either tip of the football before it is put in play and parallel to each team’s end zone.

The space in between the two lines of scrimmage is called the “neutral zone,” a gridiron Switzerland. (“Neutral” comes from the Latin “neuter” which is a combination of ne- “not, no” + uter “either.”) No player can line up in the neutral zone at the beginning of a play except the center, who snaps the ball to the quarterback. When he does, the teams engage in a “scrimmage,” which is an alteration of the word “skirmish.” “Skirmish” derives from the Germanic “skirmen,” which means “to protect or defend.” It has come to have the broader meaning of “a minor or preliminary conflict or dispute.”

At www.etymonline.com, we learn that the meaning of “scrimmage” in rugby and U.S. football today dates from 1857, when it described “a confused struggle between players.” Clearly, the people in charge of definitions back then had never seen a Belichick team play.

Go Pats!

What’s In A Name? My “Tebow” Epiphany

Once upon a time, people genuflected – in church, while proposing, when receiving a medal from the Queen of England. Genuflecting is an expression of respect and humility, and one of those words whose meaning is embedded in its Latin DNAgenu “knee” + flectere “to bend.”

Today, people are tebowing – dropping to one knee on sidewalks, in school hallways, and in end zones after successful scrambles. We owe this phenomenon, of course, to Tim Tebow, the earnest quarterback of the Denver Broncos, who genuflects in gratitude after a score. Tebow is a lightning rod – you either love him or hate him. But either way, you have to admit that he has accomplished something remarkable and it goes far beyond the football field. Tebow’s name has become part of the national vocabulary, as in “Hey, look at that guy tebowing over by the water cooler.” If linguistics were a sport, this would be the equivalent of winning the Super Bowl.

Just ask marketing professionals. They drool at the prospect of having a brand name become part of everyday parlance. Google is glad we google, Rollerblade is delighted we rollerblade. With every mention, their brand is inscribed deeper into our consciousness. Once upon a time, Xerox spent a lot of time and money trying to squash the use of “xerox” as a verb, insisting that we use the term “photocopy” instead. We listened, and then went to the copy machine to xerox something. In the game of marketing today, what was once seen as damaging to a brand name is now coveted as a way to become part of the public vernacular.

That tebowing has entered our national lexicon is no small feat. It reflects how organic our language is, evolving every day to describe the ever-surprising world around us. But even more striking is the fact that the word “tebow” suggests an exquisite etymology: te is Latin for “you” and bow comes from the Old English bugan, “to bend, to bow down.” Tim Tebow’s last name literally means “you bow down.”

Just a coincidence? No doubt. But I like to think of it as a gift from the word gods.

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