Saturday, August 29, 2015

Justin Wilson: A Fandom (From Afar)

(Picture from 2015 Carb Night Burger Bash)

An admission right up front: I never met Justin Wilson. That is a somewhat guilty admission, because over the course of the last few days, I've read dozens of accounts of people who either knew the late Justin Wilson, ran into him somewhere or went to seek him out to talk to him face to face. Whatever the case, the accounts have been unanimous: Justin Wilson always had time to everybody. It apparently didn't matter who you were, Justin had a smile for you and was happy to talk to anybody who wanted to talk to him.

While I only managed to see Justin in passing in various paddocks (here's where I tell everybody within eyeshot of this site that a paddock pass is the best possible $50 or so you can spend on a racing weekend) and at a couple of Carb Night Burger Bashes in Indianapolis, I have been a Justin Wilson Fan for years. Many years. I'm certain that I first heard his name in connection with the Formula Palmer Audi series back in the late-'90s, probably through write ups in On Track magazine or on a couple of the budding racing news websites of the time. The details of that initial FPA season are somewhat buried in a back corner of the internet now, but I distinctly remember Justin absolutely rolling his competition in 1998, to the point that it was fairly obvious that he'd be a force as he moved up the European open wheel ladder. His first season in Formula 3000 (the forerunner to today's GP2 series), I remember being a somewhat rough one (again, mostly through accounts in On Track, since there was no TV coverage of F3000 in the US, and YouTube was still years away), but with occasional flashes of speed (his results show two top-6s, both in the first three races, before retirements in five of the last six races). The next year was better, with a couple of podiums and a fifth place in the championship while running for the front line Nordic Racing team. His third year in F3000 had Nordic running distinctive (and beautiful) Coca-Cola colors (at least they looked beautiful in the extremely occasional color shots I saw in On Track), and Justin dominating the championship (he finished off of the podium only twice and scored almost as many points as second place Mark Webber and third place Tomas Enge...combined). This guy was going places, and I couldn't wait to see what he could do in Formula 1, as in my ten years of following racing, I hadn't seen somebody dominate a junior formula quite so thoroughly. And if a guy with that much obvious talent was headed to F1, then I was signing up as a Fan. Better to get in on the ground floor, before everybody in your apartment building would claim that they were fans, too, right (even though the only people in the entire building who watched F1 were probably me and my roommate)?

But this is where Justin's 6' 4" frame got in the way: nobody in F1 wanted to try to wedge the guy into a car. He got a couple tests, but it seemed the teams didn't want to compromise the packaging of their cars for a driver who was some 7-8 inches taller than most drivers in the sport. Justin fell off of my radar a bit in 2002, as the World Series by Nissan was barely covered at all in the places I went for racing news (though the record books also show that he came Stateside that year to share the 6th place overall finishing car, with Christian Vann and Top Gear Stig-to-be Ben Collins). But Justin managed to gain interest from the tiny Minardi team, along with funding from a group of financial backers that he sold shares of himself to. I remember that part distinctly. I was a fan of his at the time, obviously, and heard about his raising money in a way I hadn't heard of before (this was long, long before Kickstarter, remember). I downloaded the PDF file (which took something like 15 minutes on a crappy internet connection) of the investor information packet, in the hopes that I might be able to buy in for a relatively small sum, but the roughly $800 (if memory serves me, though maybe it was $1800 or $8000, for all it mattered...I was basically broke) for a single share was just too much than this two-years-out-of-college guy could scratch up. Bummer.

Justin got his cash together, though. Bad news: the Minardi broke. All the time. And it wasn't very quick, either. Good news: Justin was enough that when Jaguar F1 ditched Antonio Pizzonia for the last five races, they hired Justin away from Minardi. SCORE! And score Justin did, gaining a point for 8th place at the US Grand Prix at Indy (a race I'm proud to say I saw in person). It seemed like Justin was showing his mettle by getting into an unfamiliar car and going nearly as fast as his established team leader (Mark Webber, who remember, he'd dominated in F3000 just two years before).

It wasn't to be, though, as Jag F1 hit rough financial times and had to take the Red Bull-sponsored Christian Klien alongside Webber in 2004. Crud. But, wait! Justin came to the U.S. instead for 2004, and joined Eric Bachelart's small Conquest Racing squad for the Champ Car World Series. COOL! I get to watch him in person (which I did on occasion for the bulk of the next 10 years)! Justin finished 6th on debut at Long Beach and scored seven other top-8 finishes over the course of the year, finishing 11th in points. Nice. Three seasons at the better funded RuSPORT team followed, along with a 3rd, 2nd and 2nd in the points, plus four race wins. All this was during the period of total domination by Sebastien Bourdais and Newman-Haas Racing, who racked up four championships and 28 race wins in that same four year period.

In 2008, Bourdais headed back to Europe to chase his dream of racing in F1, and Newman-Haas promptly signed the obvious next quickest (though saddled with less good equipment at the time) guy: Wilson. This was it! Justin was gonna take the best car on the grid and sweep the championship...and maybe every race! He's finally gonna be a superstar! Except this was about 15 minutes before Champ Car went "BUST" and was absorbed into the IRL, where the Champ Car teams would have to use unfamiliar IRL chassis and engines. In the last race with the Champ Car Panoz DP-01 cars at Long Beach in early '08, Justin qualified comfortably on pole, but the car broke in the race while shadowing early leader Will Power. After that, Newman-Haas mostly struggled with the IRL Dallara-Honda, though Justin drove perfectly at Detroit to win the team's last race. 2008 seems to sum up Justin's career almost perfectly: toil for years, show flashes of brilliance, land in a good spot, rug gets pulled out and only those flashes of brilliance to show for it.

The following six years of 2009 through 2014 were spent with the minnows of the IndyCar world, Dale Coyne Racing and Dreyer and Reinbold Racing (with a return to DCR after two seasons at DRR). Even though that was the case, Justin seemed to drive over the level of the equipment more often than not, scoring wins for Coyne in 2009 (which I talked about on my old site) and 2012 (which came at Texas, which amused my buddy Rick and I to no end, since we always made fun of people for saying Justin was no good on ovals...but what kind of equipment was he running on those ovals?), and a couple podiums at DRR before missing the last part of 2011 with a broken back. Oh, but he did drag a Coyne car to an unreal 6th in the championship in 2013 (best non-Justin Wilson championship finish for a Coyne car in any post-merger IndyCar season: 16th by Alex Lloyd in 2010). Six years in the wilderness, a couple unlikely wins to show for it and no glimpses at championship form (though he did also race at the 24 Hours of Daytona most years, with an overall win with Michael Shank racing in 2012, which we were all pretty jacked about here).

For 2015, Justin decided to leave Coyne and hold out for a ride at a big team. I couldn't blame him one bit for that. While I wished he'd have been in a ride for every round, so that my favorite unsung hero could be around for me to cheer on week in and week out, I had my fingers crossed that he could at least get in a car for a handful of races where he could show his speed. And that's exactly what happened. Michael Andretti came calling, and put him in a car for the Indy Grand Prix (Justin qualified 18th, but missed the top-12 qualifying by just 0.15 seconds after limited testing) and the Indy 500 (Justin qualified 6th, as the fastest Honda driver, then ran in the top-10 for the bulk of the day before a bungled pit strategy gamble dropped him a lap down at the finish). The hopes after that were to get the last five races of the year (with some funding from Honda, who loved Justin's technical feedback enough that they picked him to do some pretty weird stuff for them), while impressing enough to get sponsorship for a full season in 2016. In the meantime, he did Milwaukee (qualified a credible 15th, engine blew in the race), Iowa (a relatively anonymous 18th in qualifying and 17th in the happens), Mid-Ohio (finished a fantastic 2nd behind Graham Rahal after not pressing Graham TOO hard for the lead on a late race restart) and Pocono (qualified 7th and led laps while hanging around in the bottom half of the top-10 for most of the day, seemingly biding his time until a late race charge).

Enough said there. Anyone reading this either knows what happened at Pocono or can go find that info pretty readily. Suffice it to say that the dominant season for a top-line team will never come, though that is far from the worst tragedy involved here. IndyCar has lost an incredible spokesman and ambassador and worst of all, the entire Wilson family has lost their anchor. My heart is broken for all of them, and I can not imagine the unbearable pain they must be going through.

There has never been a downside to rooting for Justin Wilson these many years. Yeah, the frustration of the results that he so greatly deserved that never really came wasn't much fun, but you just never grew tired of actually rooting for him. He was universally beloved by everybody who came in contact with him. Other than one insanely comical shoving match with seemingly-two-feet-shorter Ryan Briscoe at Mid-Ohio in 2010, I don't know if anybody was ever even mad at the guy. Justin was the guy you could count on to drive a race car well in excess of what its pace should have been, but completely cleanly the whole time, basically never even brushing another car, and then that lanky guy would get out of that sub-average car at the end of the race and deliver self-deprecating quotes about how he could have done better. He drove race cars the Right Way and he had the right attitude about it. And as I told my buddy Rick via text message the morning after Justin Wilson's passing, "It always seemed like the universe was put in order when Justin did well."

The universe will forever be a little off kilter from here on out. But it was a true privilege to be a fan. Thanks for everything, Justin.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Complacency Has No Place In Life and Tragedy

Normally when I write for Grab Bag Sports, I’m doing tons of research and analysis to make sure all my facts are right, to find something others don’t see, to point out something common fans are missing out on that might make them think more, make them watch an event differently. I’m not even reviewing this post a second time because I just want to say something without thinking about it all that much.

Some reader may not know but my analytical nature isn’t by random hobby, it’s my life’s calling. My day job consists of being a data, analytics and operational guru. I create workflow systems, integrations and data and analysis on a daily basis. Measuring data, and finding the idiosyncrasies that can be learned and improvements made from. Some people generalize things like “one in a trillion” whereas my world consists of exactness, curiosity and innovation. Understanding actual probability and success rates for decision making.

When Dan Wheldon died in the awful multi-car accident in Las Vegas in 2011, everyone felt distraught, everyone was in shock, how could this happen? Now here we sit just 4 years later and we’re close to having to count recent motorsports fatalities on multiple hands again. How have we gone back to such a string like the early century and late last century?

When Justin Wilson was struck by Sage Karam’s broken nose cone this weekend at Pocono the words “freak accident” have been thrown around so much it is maddening, because the wide angle of statistics and basic historical fact checking says otherwise.

Just last year James Hinchcliffe was struck by a winglet at the GP of Indianapolis, in 2009 we lost Henry Surtees when he was hit by an errant tire, Felipe Massa was hit in the head by a loose spring. James Jakes just missed being hit by a piece last season that practically took out his roll hoop, at St. Pete a fan was hit by a body piece that flew over the catch fence. Don’t ever say that debris is a freak accident. Debris is a regularity of motorsports, especially when the cars are designed to break apart to lessen impact Gs.

Shit, just this very weekend a fox ran across the track earlier in the race at Pocono, squirrels have caused many issues at the Detroit GP, these items and animals are small but when a car is travelling at 150+mph its serious business and not a fluke of nature.

Exposed helmet issues are nothing new: Dan Wheldon was killed when his head hit a fence post., this year Sebastian Bourdais was nearly run over when Ryan Hunter Reay’s cars went over the top of him in NOLA, I’ve seen Marco Andretti on multiple occasions have a car practically on his head/helmet, Christiano Damatta was in intensive care after striking a deer and it hit him directly, Jules Bianchi died after his head impacted a crane cleaning up an accident, this is not “one in a million.“

People need to get out of denial. Just because the roulette table has hit black 10 times in a row and you’re winning, probability tells you it won’t keep going that way. Just because we had a lucky stretch of years of no major incidents, probability doesn’t care and its why motorsports can never stop improving and shoring up all the problems they find no matter how big or small.

All I want to say is to the many fans and media who have come out idiotically saying “this was a freak accident,” “racing is inherently dangerous,” “this is what these guys signed up for,” “you can’t remove all the danger,” “closed cockpits are hard to figure out,” “roll cages wouldn’t work;” is frankly… shut the fuck up.

In life you can never utter the phrase “it’s the way we’ve always done this.” You always look for ways to improve, otherwise you should never expect improvement in life’s quality and returns and you should never ignore probability and just hope and gamble the stats play in your favor. 

Recently, I was begrudgingly turned onto Mixed Martial arts (UFC etc.) by my younger brother who was a wrestler and knew many of these guys growing up at wrestling camps. I’m often torn on watching the UFC in general as a “sport” because the literal purpose of a fight is to injure your opponent enough or tangle their joints painfully enough that they stop fighting back. The sport is literally focused hurting your opponent as bad as you can and yet, as brutal as it is, there have been 0 deaths as long as I’ve been watching and I’ve been watching IndyCar 4 times longer.

There is not a single reason why we leave driver’s heads exposed in race cars other than “we’ve always done it that way.” It is not an aerodynamic improvement, it is simple a problem we’ve not cared to solve. How do we cover the drivers head but still allow them to escape in other scenarios quickly?

It took the traumatic leg and back injuries of Alex Zanardi, Davey Hamilton, Kenny Brack, Pablo Perez and many more for us to finally get our innovation together on side intrusion panels and wheel-climb issues. And even then we needed James Hinchcliffe being skewered by suspension pieces earlier this year to remind us that we weren’t done, we hadn’t perfected side intrusion panels.

Why then are we going to stand complacent on the two biggest issues at the forefront of motorsports safety: catch fencing and open cockpits? We keep moving forward.

Last night I was awoken in the middle of the night. My 2 year old son had a terrible nightmare and he was frantic; he did not want to lay back down or read a story, he was hysterical, and he only wanted one thing, he wanted daddy to hold him and bring him back in “daddy’s bed” because being with daddy and mommy made him feel safe and secure…

After he got in our bed and settled down and went to sleep, I was crushed, because it hit me… because motorsports has deprived Justin Wilson’s daughters of the man who could make them feel safe and secure, the guy who could be their hero. Some would rather take a gamble that an exposed driver’s head and debris is an equation that ends in one in a million. If motorsports bodies and the people in charge want to gamble on fans heroes being killed so often because complacency is easier or cheaper, then fans will be parting ways with open cockpit motorsports because we can’t take this anymore.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Ready for the second half

So it looks like I took a bit of an All-Star Break myself there. I honestly took quite a hit when the Cubs dropped five in a row, including being swept by the Cardinals. But splitting with St. Louis the next week made things a little better, even if the White Sox stole a couple heading into the break.

But now this team is ready to kick off the second half as clear competitors. Even better is the fact that Kyle Schwarber is back with the club, this time ready to play catcher, following his MVP performance in the Futures game.

The trade deadline is quickly approaching, and with so many teams still in contention and the Cubs sitting behind two other teams in their division, it's hard to see the front office paying outrageous prices to swing a trade in hopes of further securing a one-game wild card shot. Still it'd be nice to add a starting pitcher.

I think Schwarber will add the offensive pop the team needs, hopefully even seeing some time in the outfield when Miguel Montero returns later this summer. Meanwhile, Rafael Soriano should arrive soon to help the bullpen, with Carl Edwards perhaps not so far behind him.

Javy Baez could be a key player for the team over the next couple of months, either on the field or possibly as the most valuable trade chip left on the table, if he's made available in trades. I'd honestly enjoy seeing him get another shot in Chicago.

No matter what happens with trades, I'm looking forward to blogging about a Cubs team that is actually in contention for once. I know we had this blog in 2008 when the Cubs last appeared in the postseason, but I wasn't very active in those early days. Certainly by the time I was more involved here and then writing for Yahoo in 2011-12, we were talking about future seasons as early as Opening Day. This is basically a first for me as a blogger, and I'm ready for some fun!

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Media Should Start With Themselves When It Comes to Equal Treatment for Women’s Soccer

Today ESPN’s Julie Foudy came out with an online rant about the shock over Brazil being upset by Australia in the Round of 16 for the Women’s World Cup.

Julie’s rant was not because she was mad about people underestimating Australia or overestimating Brazil, it was because the reality of the situation is Brazil’s high expectations come from its association to its Men’s national team; but while the expectations are equally high, the support/treatment the Women’s team gets by the fans/nation/media is vastly different.

She went beyond Brazil though and called for our globe to push faster to treat Women’s soccer properly and at least closer to equal to the men’s game.

Julie has a genuine beef, and she’s not even the only person to voice that opinion. In the UK, The Guardian’s Graham Ruthven came out today with an article scathing UK fans, corporate (non) supporters, and the BBC for basically ignoring/relegating England’s team and their matches, who play in the Round of 16 today against Norway.

I completely agree with them, the treatment of the Women’s tournament isn’t anything near what is done for the Men’s tournament; heck men’s 1st round qualifying to get in the World Cup almost gets more attention than the women’s actual tournament in most countries.

If things are going to change the most notable place has to be with FIFA, whose president infamously doesn’t even know who the players are and an organization not sending any higher ups to the Women’s tournament. But the change isn’t just for them to show up its for them to restructure their contracts for the TV partners and sponsors. The contracts should be written as package deals with requirements that the TV partners broadcast the men and women on the same channels, no more shoving women’s matches to Fox Sports 2 or BBC Three which the majority of populations don’t even know exist.

As for the sponsors it should be a requirement of 1:1 share, if you run an ad for the men’s game you run an ad for the women’s game. If there’s a billboard with a men’s player during that tournament, then there should be one during the women’s tournament.

Telling FIFA to change is one thing that so little of us have control over. Where Graham Ruthven and Julie Foudy have direct control is over their employers. The Guardian for example didn’t even send a reporter to Canada to cover the tournament, and instead is using Reuters and the AP for the majority of its content.

In fact if you go to The Guardian’s main football/soccer home page, you get big headlines on the Premiere League, Champions League, Europa League quick links and then a small article on the fact that England is playing in the round of 16 today.

That's right, even for the Guardian, who is mad that not enough people cover/watch/support the Women's World Cup enough, even with their own country playing in the Round of 16 today isn’t as important as the fact that West Ham United is beginning to practice. Pot, kettle and all that...

Foudy should ask in a video rant, why ESPN seems hell-bent on segregating the Women’s World Cup to its own far away section of their website, structured completely different (and terribly) from the rest of the sports they cover.

If you go to right from the front page you get a selection of sports and scores in the header, and no matter what I pick (Racing, NFL, MLB, NBA, WNBA, NCAA Basketball etc.) I immediately get a sub-menu with quick links for scores, standings/tables, schedule, etc.

I have a very simple thing I want to do right now: find out when the games are tonight? Who is playing? What the bracket/standings are for the Women's World Cup? But doing so is not so easy for the Women’s World Cup.

You click that from the main menu and you are thrown to the esotericly built ESPN-W a.k.a. ESPN for Women (because nothing says inclusion like segregation and different treatment). Looking at everything above the fold for the “home” of the Women’s World Cup you can’t even find a link for scores, schedule!!! No way to quickly find important details a fan would want.

You’ll see at the very bottom in tiny text “Bracket” and “Schedule” even though the most obvious thing to splash on this screen are the latest scores and the upcoming games. If you scroll down further there’s an obtuse button for “Live Scores, Stats & Data powered by ESPNFC.”

Speaking of ESPNFC, in all fairness its worth mentioning that ESPN treats all soccer different by going to a separate website, but somewhat warranted because unlike the NFL, NHL, NBA etc. there isn’t one central sporting body that everyone follows, theres more soccer/football leagues than you could shake a stick at.

That being said, from the ESPNFC site you can pick any of the major leagues and the first thing you get are the most recent scores, and links on the primary navigation to find out upcoming matches and the current standings.

This is the easiest way to get standings, scores and schedule for the Women's World Cup... but doing so requires you to ignore the main navigation button on the ESPN home page for said Women's World Cup.

For whatever reason the number of clicks to get scores and standings for every other sport ESPN covers = 2; and those buttons are right in the main navigation. For the Women’s World Cup, its 3+ clicks plus the fact that one of those buttons requires you to scroll down below the fold to find, and even then its not simply named “scores, schedule and standings” like a normal person would call it, they call it “scores, stats and data” which sounds like fantasy sports if anything...

We can all agree that the globe has some work to do to recognize Women’s soccer for the great sporting competition it is, but everyone has to do their part, even the media covering it.

Goodbye, Kyle Schwarber. See you soon!

The Cubs went 3-3 last week, following a rain out and a home loss to the Indians with a 3-2 road trip to Cleveland and Minnesota. The team remains seven games over .500 (37-30), Starlin Castro won another game, and top draft pick Ian Happ kicked off his minor league career with a huge weekend. Still, the biggest story of the week was the play of catcher Kyle Schwarber, who joined the Cubs from AA-Tennessee to DH in the five games played in American League parks before being "promoted" to AAA-Iowa today.

While the Cubs front office spends the next month or two finding a way to get Schwarber's bat back into the lineup if and when a playoff chase becomes imminent, I'm hoping to be able to see him here in Nashville when Iowa comes to town in late July. But I think his minor league days may be numbered, and depending on injuries and/or what happens at the trade deadline, Schwarber could be back in Chicago very soon.

Taking another look at left field, it's not like Chris Coghlan is playing terrible baseball. He's hitting .252 with eight home runs, his OBP is up to .332, and his OPS is at .772. But even with a tiny sample size of five starts, Schwarber seems like a sure upgrade, hitting .364 last week with a .391 OBP and a .982 OPS. Factor in his career minor league numbers (.333 avg, .432 OBP, 1.042 OPS), and it may not take long for him to dominate at Iowa like he did in Tennessee. Hopefully he can get some innings in left field while he's there.

As players like Jorge Soler, Mike Olt, Neil Ramirez, and Tommy La Stella get ready to return from injuries, the Cubs may not need to trade away a ton of prospects to get a boost at mid-season. I'd like to see the focus on someone like Ben Zobrist and a good starting pitcher, while Sxhwarber gets ready to return and bring some power.

This week's games against the Dodgers and Cardinals will be a better gauge  of just how much the Cubs need to do to compete in the NL this year. Fans should be hoping for at least four wins, although a 3-4 record this week wouldn't be a disaster. In the meantime, we'll keep an eye on Kyle Schwarber and his AAA debut, waiting for the team to bring him back to Chicago.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Starlin Castro temporarily silences critics

The Cubs had another great week, splitting two games in Detroit while finally getting me that blowout win before taking three of four from the Reds at home. Although Anthony Rizzo is slumping, Kris Bryant is currently enjoying an 11-game hitting streak, and the pitching staff has been great recently.

Still, the undeniable hero of the weekend was Starlin Castro, whose walk-off hits have won the last two games. While I'm sure we'll continue to hear about Castro trade rumors, I'm still hoping the team decides to keep him around. I know about the mental errors and the fact that his numbers are currently down. But I believe he's going to bounce back, possibly starting now after those two big games.

Castro may not ever win an MVP award or even a batting title, but he does have a place in this team and in this lineup. Maybe he eventually settles in the 6th or 7th slot, particularly after Kyle Schwarber arrives. That's fine. Either way, Castro is capable of getting a base hit at any time off of any pitcher, and that is a valuable asset.

Castro entered the league with such high potential that his critics now see him as an underachiever, which is kind of absurd. The only thing that matters to me is whether or not the team can win with him at shortstop. And I sincerely believe the Cubs can win with Castro and that he can contribute to winning teams.

In fact, Castro's numbers would be fine on many past winning teams. Just to pick a year, I went back 30 years to 1985. I pulled the season's best shortstops and the shortstops from the best teams, just to see where Castro's numbers would fit in. As I guessed, he would be somewhere in the middle. He's no Cal Ripken, but he'd be far from the worst.

As the 2015 Cubs get set to host the Cleveland Indians tonight, and Castro hopefully continues to stay hot, here is a look at shortstop stats from 1985 to give us some perspective.

Cal Ripken, Baltimore (AL All-Star and Silver Slugger) - 26 HR, 110 RBI, .282 avg, .347 OBP, .816 OPS

Hubie Brooks, Montreal (NL Silver Slugger) - 13 HR, 100 RBI, .269 avg, .310 OBP, .723 OPS

Tony Fernandez, Toronto (Played in ALCS) - 2 HR, 51 RBI, .289 avg, .340 OBP, .730 OPS

Ozzie Smith, St. Louis (Won NLCS, played in World Series) - 6 HR, 54 RBI, .276 avg, .355 OBP, .716 OPS

Mariano Duncan, Los Angeles (Played in NLCS) - 6 HR, 39 RBI, .244 avg, .293 OBP, .633 OPS

Onix Concepcion, Kansas City (Won World Series) - 2 HR, 20 RBI, .204 avg, .255 OBP, .500 OPS


Starlin Castro, 2014 (last full season) - 14 HR, 65 RBI, .292 avg, .339 OBP, .777 OPS

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Winter Olympics Needs More Sports - We Vote Yukigassen

So the IOC announced today/this weekend that they have officially puled parallel snowboarding from the Winter Olympics. This means Sochi is the only Olympics that will ever have the event since that was the first time for it.

In addition to that they have added events/disciplines in 4 other sports to bring the grand total of medal events for the Winter Olympics to 102, the first time its ever reached the triple digit mark. For reference, the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics had 80 medal events, the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid had 38 medal events; while the Summer Olympics (which has to remove sports because it has so many) had 302 medal events in London 2012.

That last part is what this is really about. The Winter Olympics just pales in comparison to the Summer games. Summer Olympic competition has recently kicked out baseball, softball, polo, windsurfing and even bowling (yes bowling was in the 1988 Olympics). It has a problem making room for old sports that have always wanted in (Rugby and Golf) and has plenty newer sports that deserve to be in (rock climbing, cricket, roller sports).

The problem for the Winter Olympics is that even the 4 new events they added are just variations/disciplines of existing sports. Mixed curling, mixed/team skiing, Snowboard Big Air, and speed skating "mass start." I'm ready to officially dub this GBS' favorite sport of the 2018 Olympics. 30+ people skating around the long track a the same time = awesome:

Big air of course will add excitement and big moments, while mixed team skiing will break up the monotony of 1 person at a time that happens in almost all winter Olympic sports. I'm not sure what co-ed curling adds, but hey GBS will never complain about sports being added to the Olympics, especially when its not a judged event. But even now these 4 additions are still disciplines, and Winter need new sports, not just new events at the same facilities; so here are our submissions to the IOC, and these are REAL submissions, these sports have official sanctions and competitions already around the globe.

#1 Ice Cross (aka Crashed Ice)

Its a newer sport but not newer than many of the other XGames based sports the Olympics has been adding. Its a simple concept to watch and understand and it translates amazingly on TV. Downhill racing on skates while wearing hockey style pads. There's plenty bumping and action in the course and its already got a huge following; not to mention bidding cities could have an amazing time building the courses in historic downtown areas.

#2 Sled Dog Racing

This was actually part of the 1932 Olympics but did not become an official permanent event. It should, its got history in many countries and is regularly contested around the world, including the internationally known marquee event in the Iditarod. Now some people would point to the dogs being the participants rather than the human athlete, and I would find it hard to disagree... but so long as Equestrian is in the Summer Olympics that door is open by the IOC.

Plus could you imagine the cute huskies being part of the opening ceremony?

#3 Yukigassen
A.K.A. Snow Ball Fights. Yukigassen is such a no brainer, everyone around the world understands the basic concept, and more importantly it is an official sanctioned sport with national and regional championships contested annually and a World Championship contested in Japan most recently and has some pretty major sponsorships.

The official sport consists of two 7-person teams in a single match, and an Olympic tournament would be handled bracket style like all other team sports. The first ever official tournament goes back to 1989, close to 3 decades, its not new, and it would be gold on TV as its basically like capture the flag, a concept every young person in the world knows due to multiplayer video games like Call of Duty etc.

What do you think, do you have any sports you'd like to submit for the Winter Olympics?

Cubs Take Three of Four From Nationals

Two weeks ago, the Washington Nationals visited Wrigley Field and took two out three games from Chicago, making the Cubs struggle for a 3-2 victory in the second game before dropping the series in the rubber match. I wrote here about how the Cubs did their best to battle, but that they weren't quite ready to compete with the NL's best just yet.

However, last weekend was a totally different story, and maybe now they are ready to take on teams like Washington, after going to Nationals Park, completely outplaying the Nats, and winning three of the four games. This series was just what the Cubs needed after losing two of three in Miami, and the team is back to five games over .500 heading to Detroit for two games.

I also wrote last week about the possibility of Javier Baez making his return to Chicago's lineup in time to help fill the DH spot the team will have available in several upcoming series, starting tomorrow night against the Tigers. Unfortunately, Baez injured a finger yesterday and will reportedly miss 4-8 weeks. The kid just can't catch a break this year, despite putting up some of the best numbers of his professional career this year at AAA-Iowa (8 HRs, .314 AVG, .922 OPS).

Of course, many are speculating that Kyle Schwarber may get the call from AA-Tennessee, where he is currently hitting .324 with a 1.024 OPS. While I'd love to see Schwarber get the nod, I just don't know if that move is something we could expect to see from Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer.

The Cubs did receive an offensive boost yesterday when outfielder Chris Denorfia returned from the disabled list and collected three hits to bring his season average to .462 through 26 at bats.

But if the Cubs do call someone else up this week for some extra offense in AL parks, there are other options besides Schwarber. Below are three names we could see in a Chicago Cubs uniform soon:

1. Arismendy Alcantara - Alcantara made the team out of spring training, but managed only two hits in 26 at bats. At Iowa he has played 2B, SS, 3B, LF, and CF this year while hitting eight home runs, collecting 11 stolen bases, and having a .354 OBP. Joe Maddon would enjoy Alcantara's versatility, and he may get another shot soon.

2. Christian Villanueva - Villanueva was once considered to be one of the top prospects in the organization and a top-100 prospect in the league. He is only 23 years old (24 this month), despite currently playing in his seventh season. Like Baez, he is posting some of his best stats this year, hitting .285 with a .344 OBP. He has 12 walks and only 21 strike outs and can play both corner infield spots. I'd like to see Villanueva get a chance at some point this year.

3. Matt Szczur - Szczur went back to Iowa yesterday to make room for Denorfia, so he won't be back this week without some type of injury occurring. But he has had some clutch hits for the Cubs this year, and his numbers at Iowa are very good. With a .330 average and a .923 OPS, he'll get back to the majors this summer.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Cubs Begin Road Trip with Series Loss in Miami

When Cubs ace Jon Lester was scheduled to pitch the series rubber match last night in Miami, fans had to like Chicago's chances. Lester pitched great in May, and the Marlins entered the game with a record of 21-32. Unfortunately, Lester allowed four runs in the second inning and was outpitched by Dan Haren. Starting the road trip 1-2, the Cubs now have a tough challenge ahead, stopping in Washington for four games before heading to Detroit for a couple.

Below are three thoughts as the Cubs prepare to face the Nationals.

1. The Cubs need more offensive production from the outfielders. I've been discussing left field all season so far; now, Dexter Fowler is having a little trouble, and Jorge Soler is on the DL. Adjustments need to be considered, and I think the team will do so. Against the Marlins, Soler, Fowler, and Chris Coghlan combined to hit 5-for-25. By comparison, Junior Lake, Mike Baxter, and Matt Szczur combined for six hits in only 13 at bats. I'm not saying those three should be starting every day together, but some kind of changes might need to be made. That being said...

2. When is Javier Baez coming? I think Baez is very close to making his return to Chicago, actually. I wouldn't be surprised if we see him on June 9th in Detroit, if not sooner. Baez has reestablished himself at AAA-Iowa, where he is currently hitting .325 with a .404 OBP and an OPS of .949. Those are some of the best numbers of his career.

Baez played 3B last night for the first time since the 2012 fall league, showing that the Cubs are trying to find a position for him. Kris Bryant's start in LF on Tuesday could be further proof that Baez is coming, and he may get his playing time at 3B.

At this point, if I'm going to watch Coghlan get on base at a .301 clip, then how is watching Javy Baez strike out any worse? And let's not even get started on Jonathan Herrera. (Tommy La Stella, where are you??)

With the DH spot available in Detroit, only the dreaded "service time" issue should be keeping Baez in the minors for more than another few days.

3. So then, how far away is Kyle Schwarber? The Cubs have a chance to win this year, and if the front office makes a full push by trading for a key player (Cole Hamels, Ben Zobrist, etc), then the team should also consider getting Schwarber out of Tennessee ASAP. (Nothing against Tennessee!)  Imagine a lineup with Bryant, Addison Russell, Baez, AND Schwarber. That was a dream at the beginning of this season, and now we could see it later this summer.

Of course, there are other players waiting for a shot as well. Later this week, I'll look at a few players in the Cubs system who may be getting called up sooner or later as the team tries to save as much of Schwarber's service time as possible.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Vintage Base Ball Provides a Trip to the 1800s

On Sunday we went to a completely different world, and we didn't even have to leave Nashville. In fact, we were able to travel to 1864, thanks to the Tennessee Association of Vintage Base Ball, a league full of teams that play the game according to the rules used in the 19th century. Games are played throughout Tennessee, and Sunday's double header was played in downtown Nashville near the Tennessee State Capitol.

The league first started in 2012, and games are presented as reenactments or a living history. Uniforms, equipment, and style of play are all kept as close to the 1860s as possible. The 1864 edition of Beadle’s Dime Base-Ball Player is the league's official rule book, with some minor adjustments.

Spectators will immediately notice some differences between the game on the field and the game we typically watch today, including the following:

  • Pitches are tossed underhanded to the hitter.
  • Balls caught on one bounce are considered fly balls, and the batter is out. However, runners do not need to tag up on fly balls and may continue running the bases.
  • There is no stealing, but runners may take a lead of one "stride." Runners do not have the option of running through first base without being a live runner.
  • Each park has its own ground rules. Where we watched, Bicentennial Capitol Mall State Park, balls hit over the outfield walls, or fly balls hit into the ivy patches in front of the walls, are considered foul balls. (It's bad manners to hit it so far!) Like at Wrigley Field today, ground balls landing in the ivy are doubles.
  • The umpire stands near home plate, but most calls are made by the players, who have to come to an agreement. (We saw a ball land in the ivy, and the batter, assuming it was a foul ball, returned to the plate. The left fielder then called in that it was a double since it actually hit the ground before going into the ivy.)

Other games are played around Tennessee at museums, historic plantations, and other parks. The league, which originally contained only two teams, now has 10 clubs and a schedule that runs from April through September.

If you're not in Nashville, there are more than 400 teams around the country, so check around in your area. We had a lot of fun at the games and will definitely be attending more throughout the season and in future years.

Below are some pictures from our day. (Sorry for the cell phone quality!)

Our view from the first base line as the Stewart's Creek Scouts faced the Franklin Farriers.

Catching a high fly without a glove.
Ringing the bell at home plate after a score.

Shaking hands after the game.

We had a great first game, with the Scouts defeating the Farriers 11-10.

Phoenix of East Nashville warms up to play the next game.

Phoenix of East Nashville and the Nashville Maroons are introduced.

The league's bats are produced by the Smacker Bat Company in Murfreesboro, TN.

Our adopted team's banner.

The players use metal water coolers, and many drink from tin cups.

A Phoenix player selects a bat.

The white handkerchief in the fence signals that there is one out. The umpire places one in the fence for each out. Also, this female catcher was the only sign of diversity that we saw on this day, but the league's site says it is open to all players, "regardless of gender, age, or race."

A beautiful day in Nashville. The Maroons prevailed 10-3.

Chicago Cubs