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Just Off-Camera

"They respect you if you write. The dumber the world gets, the more the words matter." -Dan Jenkins

Sunday, February 29, 2004

Burst This Bubble

Spring is around the corner. There's no question about it, because aside from pitchers and catchers reporting and Punxsutawney Phil not caring whether he sees his shadow, the surest sign of the end of winter has arrived: sportscasters spouting off about "the bubble."

Come mid-February, everyone wants to know the answer to the question, "Who's on the bubble?" I, however, want to know the answer to a different question. Why a bubble?

Where could the expression "bubble" have possible come from? In what way does a bubble represent teams that are on the verge of making the NCAA tournament? A lot of sports metaphors make sense; this one doesn't.

"Five-hole," for example, comes from shooter tutors, which have five holes in them. The corners are numbered 1-4, and the hole between where the goalies' legs would be the fifth hole. Makes sense, right? So does "can of corn," which is an easy fly ball to catch. That comes from old-school grocery stores, where the corn was kept on the top shelf and grocers would knock cans down with a pole. The resulting catch was easy, hence, "can of corn."

Bubble has no obvious connection to the tournament. So it irritates me to no end to hear sportscasters say any of the following:

"Fumbuck State is on the bubble!"

"With that loss, the bubble has burst for the California Institute of Pharmaceutical Technology!"

"It looks like Northern South Dakota A&M State of Yankton will be outside the bubble looking in come tournament time!"

I hate the bubble. It is overused, cliched, trite, you get the idea. The phrase should be placed in a bubble and then stored somewhere safe, where no sportscaster can get to it.

I prefer "dance card." Not used as often, a little classier, and it makes a whole lot more sense than "bubble."

Besides, the Big Dance isn't held in a bubble.


Yes, I mailed in the column today. Sue me. Here's what you have to look forward to as a reward for putting up with me, though.

Eventually, I'll be writing a column on Barry Bonds and the whole steroid issue. I crunched some numbers and found some very interesting correlations between playing weight and HR.

Also, stay tuned for the relaunch of www.justoffcamera.com, when this site moves out of the Geocities world.

Saturday, February 28, 2004

Start NFL Games Later? Brilliant!

Once again proving why football is run better than any of the other major sports, the NFL and the television networks that carry it unveiled some new proposals concerning scheduling, with the goal naturally being to rake in more viewers and consequently more advertising dollars.

Of course, this is good for the fans. If the NFL is looking at moves that will bring in more viewers, and they don't involve changing rules around, only the schedule, then it has to be good. Think about it: What the NFL is saying is that they're going to make it easier for Joe Fan to tune in. Football is already the sport that translates best to TV; making it more accessible to viewers is, as the "people" in the Guinness commercial would say, brilliant!

And yes, beer is one of the reasons some of these proposals are good. The best proposal that was thrown on the table was that Sunday afternoon games would be moved back an hour, so instead of 1 ET and 4 ET starts, games would start at 2 and 5. This is better for two reasons that I can think of right off the top of my head.

Number one, that's an extra hour of tailgating. Secondly, it lets fans sleep in on Sunday morning, and believe me, that's important. Even on the East Coast, I've missed some kickoffs sleeping past 1:00. If you're on the West Coast and you follow an East Coast team (this could apply to me next fall, so this could be good), then you'd have to be up at 10 in the morning on a Sunday. That ain't right. Give me that extra hour of sleep. I want to take full advantage of Saturday night.

Another idea in the air is the thought of moving Monday Night Football to Thursday, or just adding another prime time game on Thursday night. I'd prefer just moving MNF to Thursdays, because it's a lot easier to stay up late on a Thursday than a Monday. It just screws with your week if you're up too late on Monday. Besides, Thursday's a much better night to watch a game at a bar than Monday.

Knowing the NFL's power trip, though, they'd move MNF to Thursday night, and then insist on changing the names of the days so they could keep "Monday Night Football" as the name of the game. Your NFL calendars would read, "S-T-T-W-M-F-S." Maybe it would catch on. Maybe they could just completely rename Thursday. "Thursday" is getting kind of stale, anyway. I'm sure a company would pay for the naming rights. "Comcastday," perhaps?


Not that anyone cared, because it's the Oilers and the Coyotes, people (I like prefacing hockey commentary in this way, because I take a certain measure of personal pride in caring about games as obscure as this one), but Edmonton just flat-out embarrassed the 'Yotes. Brian Boucher, who was the darling of the hockey world for a bizarre shutout streak earlier this season, played terribly, and was relieved by Cornellian Jean-Marc Pelletier, who also played like his mask was on backward.

In fact, when Pelletier entered the game, he was greeted with a chorus of boos. Not sure if those were for him or for Boucher's miserable performance. But it got worse than that.

Home crowds around the NHL are known for cheering sarcastically when an underperforming goalie makes an easy save. This, though, was something even I'd never heard of. Apparently midway through the third period, JMP made a routine stop, prompting the scoreboard operator to flash a "great save" graphic.

That must sting, getting jeered by your own team's employees.


My apologies for going two days without posting a column, but I promise I'll make up for it. How? We're going big-time.

Just Off-Camera is going to get its own domain name in the near future (www.justoffcamera.com, of course). Also, I'll be dropping the hyphen from the name of the site when I make the change, because I've decided it's grammatically incorrect. Bear with the changes that will be coming, and keep spreading the word about the site.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Hair To The Chief

Last night (actually, very early this morning), I was walking out of Building 2, which is where I work on the ESPN campus. Ahead of me, I saw a group of four people walking to a car. I could see that one of them was Steve Lavin, which is no big deal, since he works at ESPN this season. But I also recognized one of the other people he was with: Gene Keady.

How long has Keady been the coach at Purdue? Let's just say that if one of his first teams there had won a national championship, Martin Van Buren would probably have extended a White House invitation to Keady. I assume his visit to ESPN had something to do with the fact that Lavin was once an assistant coach for him with the Boilermakers (What the hell is a Boilermaker, anyway?). But other than that, I had no idea why he was visiting Bristol. Purdue played last weekend in Minnesota. They play next weekend in Wisconsin. So Keady's going way out of his way to come to Connecticut.

There were two things that occurred to me when I saw Keady. First, I realized that I was witnessing the two most recognizable heads of hair in all of college basketball (Dick Vitale doesn't count, since he has no hair). Lavin is of the Pat Riley school of hair care, that is to say, he uses two bottles of Elmer's Glue on his dome each day. A fellow researcher who once was granted the privilege of touching Lavin's slicked-back 'do reported that it was essentially a helmet.

Keady, on the other hand, has something on his head that looks like a cross between what Lavin's hair would look like if it was lighter and slicked sideways instead of back and roadkill. The sight of these two coiffures together was quite impressive. I would bet that if you showed pictures of both men from the foreheads up to a college hoops fan, they could identify the coaches.

The other thing that I realized when I saw Keady was that when you work at ESPN, you never know who's going to drop in. Could be Keady. Could be Buck O'Neil. John Kruk was in the house last week. So was Rick Reilly.

What this made me wonder was whether it's like this at MTV. Do the production assistants there run into Chingy in the hallway? Do they sit down next to Mandy Moore in the MTV cafeteria inadvertently? Would it really be inadvertent? Do they find themselves in elevators with R. Kelly? Are they glad they're in their 20s and too old for him if they do? Sorry, couldn't resist.


Speaking of music, I highly recommend checking out DJ Danger Mouse's Grey Album. It's created using only vocals from Jay-Z's Black Album and samples from the Beatles' White Album. And it's terrific. "99 Problems," in particular, is great - it takes Jigga's rhymes and sets them over guitar riffs from "Helter Skelter." Of course, Danger Mouse didn't get permission to use any of his sounds, so the record companies have ordered him to stop distributing the album. Since he's not selling it, though, it should be interesting to see whether or not he complies. Regardless, the Grey Album has entered the realm of file-sharing, so it will live on no matter what Danger Mouse or the record companies end up doing.

Another musical work worth checking out is Pat McGee Band's EP Drive-By Romance, released yesterday. It's only available digitally, which means to get it, you'll have to go to Napster or iTunes, or one of those sites (or maybe it's already made its way into KaZaA). It features "Beautiful Ways," the first single from their upcoming album. It's an excellent song, and I hope it gets some airplay. Also, the EP has four live tracks from a show in Boston I went to in October. The four live cuts are all good, but "Shine," in particular, is a solid rendition.


A little while ago, I concluded one of my columns with my all-hockey name team. Well, it's time to make a transaction. I'm going to drop Dan LaCouture and add Oilers left winger Jason Chimera in his place. Chimera scored the Oilers' lone goal a couple nights ago, which provided the following Greek mythology lesson on-air on ESPNEWS:

A chimera is "a fire-breathing she-monster usually represented as a composite of a lion, goat, and serpent." So says the American Heritage Dictionary, and so said Steve Bunin and J.W. Stewart after the highlight of Chimera's goal. The only thing missing was an over-the-shoulder picture of the mythological beast to lead into the highlight.

Monday, February 23, 2004

Dissecting The Ramalamahamdam

If you've watched ESPN at all in the last two months, you've seen the promos for Dream Job, their new reality show where people compete to earn a one-year contract as a SportsCenter anchor. Actually, if you haven't watched ESPN at all in the last two months, I'm curious as to why you're at this site reading this column. But that's another story.

Before I get to sharing my thoughts on the premiere of Dream Job, which aired last night, let me just throw a couple things out there that should preface the review.

First, I tried out for Dream Job. This was back in September, before I got my current job at ESPN. I didn't make it past the first round, and I wasn't particularly surprised. I didn't go into the tryouts with any expectations, so I wasn't disappointed. However, I wonder what the later stages of the tryouts were like. It seemed to me like the first cuts were simply to pare down the number of contestants that they seriously looked at, and the show jumped right into the final 12 contestants. I have no idea how they got to those 12.

The other thing that should be mentioned is that whoever wins this competition might very well see his dream job turn into a nightmare. Most, if not all, of the anchors at ESPN don't like the idea of the show. The winner will get airtime, which will cut into their airtime. The established figures like Stu Scott and Dan Patrick don't need to worry, but someone like John Seibel, who does ESPNEWS (and in my opinion is the best anchor ESPNEWS has) obviously doesn't want or need the competition. He's got a right to complain - he put in years of work at smaller stations to build his career, and now some college kid is going to come in and take his job?

That aside, here's what I thought of the show, and we'll break it down like so.

Host: Scott is the host, and unfortunately, he can't be voted off the show. One of the judges, Al Jaffe, hit the nail on the head when he told Scott, "Half the time I don't know what you're talking about." Scott takes his G-rated thugspeak to new lows in this show, and he looks silly. For example, he counted down to one contestant's segment, "Trey, dos, unos." No word on what language that's from.

Judges: I was a little worried about the judges when I first saw them, especially LaVar Arrington, because I figured having him as a judge would kind of be like having a chef criticize the writing of a restaurant critic. However, Arrington made some good comments. Jaffe, whom I mentioned before, is ESPN's VP of Talent, and he's the guy who makes the hiring decisions for anchors who join ESPN the normal way. Kit Hoover, one of the hosts of the ESPN2 show Cold Pizza, is another host, and doesn't really bring much to the table. Finally, rounding out the panel is Tony Kornheiser, who was probably chosen because his sarcasm reminded the producers of Simon Cowell. However, the judges just weren't biting the way the judges on American Idol do. Unfortunately, that's part of the appeal of Idol - and the judges should get meaner.

Format: Each of the first six contestants (the other six will go next week) had to go through two highlights, SportsCenter style. That's how it should be; that's the job they're competing for. However, they also threw in a Taboo-style game in the middle of the show where each contestant took a turn trying to guess names to which the other contestants gave them clues. Unlike Taboo, there were no prohibited words. Even worse, this segment was not part of the judging criteria. It was flat-out worthless. One part I did like, though, was the "parting shot." This was where each contestant, before the judges voted, got to plead their case one last time. Some used it to display some humor and wit, others to promise they'd do better next time. I don't know how much impact the parting shot will have on the decisions, but it might be interesting to see what is said in the contestants' last moments.

Voting: This part of the show was designed terribly. Each of the four judges gets a vote, and the viewers get a vote. That's a problem right there - the viewers should wield all the power. The field has already been trimmed to 12. Another problem is that people vote for who should be cut, not who was the best. I like that American Idol involves voting for contestants, not against them. Dream Job should have taken note. But the worst part of the voting is that the voting results are revealed at the end of the show, so voting is open during the show. Guess what that means? The person who goes first gets the most votes. That was the case last night, even though I thought he was in the top two of the evening and none of the judges agreed with the viewers' choice. I don't know how they'll fix that problem, but they should, because it creates an inherent unfairness.

The picks: From round one, here's how I rank the remaining five contestants, best to worst: The college students (Aaron, Mike, Maggie) were tops, followed by Nick and then Quigs, who will be the next to go. Bonus points to Maggie, who revealed her talent as, "I'm really good at beer pong."

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Time For A Regime Change

Colorado finally stopped screwing around and did what it should have done several weeks ago, when all the allegations about sex parties and rape on its campus by football players began swirling. Better late than never, though, and the university came to its senses and put coach Gary Barnett on administrative leave.

I'd say I didn't think it was possible to handle criminal allegations in a worse way than Barnett has, but then again, we all saw what happened at Baylor last year, so unfortunately, we see that it can be done. While Barnett didn't go the Dave Bliss route and try to orchestrate a cover-up (at least, it doesn't seem like that yet), Barnett is decidedly guilty of being painfully ignorant of what is going on with his program.

You can be just about positive that the first time Barnett learned of these issues was not in the past few months. However, Barnett (and I'm sure many other coaches in his situation, unfortunately) placed no emphasis at all on character and conduct off the field. While winning is important, it isn't a substitute, license, or an excuse for misconduct off the field.

While Colorado took a step in the right direction and placed Barnett on administrative leave, they should have gone two better. First, Barnett should be fired. Second, the next coach must come from outside the program.

Barnett should be fired, and here's why. If a coach knowingly allows his players to participate in the kind of off-field criminal acts that the Buffaloes did, then that's clearly cause for letting him go. Also, if a coach is so unaware of the off-field actions of his players as Barnett claims to be, then he's clearly not in touch with his team and isn't doing a good job as coach. One of these two is true, so there you have it.

If that's not enough to convince you, consider this. Back in 2000, a female kicker on his team, Katie Hnida, was raped by a teammate. It should go without saying that rape is horrible and perhaps the most disrespectful thing you could ever do to another person. And Hnida was raped by a teammate. What kind of coach runs a team where that could happen between teammates? It's reprehensible that the environment for that to happen even existed under Barnett. It was clear that he had to go.

The problems at Colorado date back to before Barnett was even their head coach. Barnett came on board in 1999. Since 1997, there have been seven accusations of rape against Colorado football players (one was withdrawn). So the pattern of behavior isn't all traceable to Barnett's mismanagement of the team; it seems to be somewhat institutional. Therefore, it would only make sense to bring someone from outside the program to replace Barnett as head coach and give the team a fresh start.

What did Colorado do? They named Barnett's assistant head coach to be their interim coach. Not only is Brian Cabral part of Barnett's coaching staff, he's defending Barnett. Cabral is more a part of Colorado football than Barnett is - he'd been a coach with the team for 10 years before Barnett arrived, and he played for the Buffs as well. If you want to change the direction of the program, putting a Colorado lifer in charge isn't going to do it.

Hopefully the bigwigs at Colorado realize this and don't remove the interim tag from Cabral's title. The school needs a new direction, and the only way to do that is to bring in a new coaching staff with a different philosophy of running a football team. It's clear to everyone but those at Colorado that what's been going on in Boulder has only resulted in disaster.


On a lighter note, I present a funny story about a victimless crime. Rapper Pastor Troy, who isn't a particularly prominent star, was arrested in Atlanta on Friday when sherrif's deputies pulled over his yellow pickup truck. The cops found a little less than an ounce of weed in the truck, which isn't really the funny part.

When they started questioning the noted theologist (that's a joke, people), he gave them a fake name. Not smart if you're a celebrity, even a D-list celebrity like Pastor Troy. Sadly, the cops fell for the fake name for a little bit. They only became suspicious when passers-by started calling out "Pastor Troy" to the rapper. Then, when they searched the car, they found his CD with his picture on the cover.

I'm sure his response to that was, "No, officer, that's the other unknown rapper named Pastor Troy."


ESPNEWS Jinx update: Sure enough, Patrick Ramsey lost his job when the Redskins signed Mark Brunell. The lesson? Beware the ESPNEWS studio...

Friday, February 20, 2004


Sean Burke was announced as the Flyers starting goalie last night to a chorus of boos from the Philly crowd, and he sure didn't help his case with Flyers fans during the game.

Burke, who was picked up in a trade from Phoenix along with my man Branko Radivojevic (more on him in a minute) for Mike Comrie, is off to a start worthy of former Cornell football coach Tim Pendergast. In other words, he can't win.

Burke has started his second stint with the Flyers with three straight losses (those two wins over the Rangers don't count, because a good AHL team might be able to take the Rangers with a couple lucky breaks). That comes after rookie Antero Niittymaki went 3-0 in his first three NHL starts, allowing just one goal in each of those games. So naturally, Burke had a tough act to follow. Another strike on him is that he was the goalie when the Flyers got bounced from the '98 playoffs in the first round.

So back to last night's game. Burke let in a pair of goals in the first period - the first wasn't his fault at all - but the crowd was on him from the start, and so when you let in two after 20 minutes, you're not going to get much love. By the end of the game, Burke was getting sarcastic cheers from the crowd every time he played the puck.

I don't think he was deserving of that - his defense gave him no help at all - but I also don't think Burke is going to be the help in net that Bobby Clarke thought he would be when he traded for him. When you face 41 shots in a game, you don't deserve a W, and it's not because of the goalie. In fact, Bruce Springsteen even wrote a song about how brutal 41 shots are.

The Flyers should be giving Niittymaki more of a chance to succeed. After all, he's done nothing but win since they called him up. After a goalie like Jean-Sebastien Giguere comes out of nowhere to win the Conn Smythe last season, there's no reason the Flyers can't give their stud Finn rookie more of a chance to show that he can protect the nets this season, especially after he did such a good job with the little opportunity that he did get.

Back to my man Branko. About midway through the second period, he lines up on the right wing opposite the Bruins' Andy Hilbert. Even before the linesman drops the puck, he turns to the pair and tells them to knock off their jabbing at each other. So when the puck dropped and the two kept facing each other, you knew they were going to throw down. But you didn't know how cool it would be.

They dropped the gloves a good 20 feet from each other, leaving them plenty of time and space to gear up for the fight. And that's just what Branko did. Not only did he lose the gloves, he took off his own helmet and rolled up his sleeves. Is that badass or what? Then, to back up his brash actions, the Brank-man (yes, I just called him that) landed a couple of punches and then threw Hilbert to the ground. Chalk up a victory for Branko.

Now, in all fairness, I should say that Radivojevic wears a half-shield on his helmet, so fighting with that on wouldn't be too fair. I suppose it's only hockey fight etiquette to allow your opponent the opportunity to land a punch between the eyes. But come on, he took off his helmet! That's just cool. And then he backed it up.

The Brank-man is looking like he was the best part of that deal that sent him and Burke to Philly.

Another new Flyer who impressed me last night was Kirby Law. I was hoping he'd fight and win so the PA guys could play that "I Fought The Law And The Law Won" song from the Pepsi commercial, but that didn't happen, unfortunately. Law was called up recently due to the slew of injuries that has beset the Flyers, and this was my first look at him. I thought he played very well, especially on the forecheck. He played on a line with Claude Lapointe and fellow recent callup Boyd Kane, and I thought that line played a lot better than it could have been expected to. Props to Kirby.

Aside from Burke, there was one other thing that disappointed me tonight, and that was the crowd. Yeah, it was listed as a sellout, but I had to wonder how many people were paying attention or knew anything about hockey, because in the first period, they flashed on the scoreboard the Flyers' trade of the day: They picked up Alexei Zhamnov for Jim Vandermeer. And nobody cheered.

That would be a guy who scored 20 goals in each of his first eight years in the NHL, and all the Flyers gave up was a minor league defenseman. I started clapping, and I thought at least the people around me would notice I was clapping for a reason. But I guess not. Dammit, don't make me think the fans in Detroit deserve a Cup more than we do!

Thursday, February 19, 2004

A Bangin' Performance

Matt Rogers, the former Washington offensive lineman who's a contestant on American Idol, took his shot at entering the final 12 contestants a couple of nights ago, and he sang pretty well, but believe me, his performance was not the sports-related American Idol show you wanted to see this week.

Remember William Hung? You might not know him by name, but if you watch TV, you've probably seen him, because his audition for Idol was so atrocious that FOX used it for their commercials - over and over and over. He's the skinny, poorly dressed dude from Hong Kong who sang Ricky Martin's "She Bangs" in an enthusiastic monotone while dancing. Check that, dancing's not the proper word here. What he did while singing could best be described as a cross between Tae-bo and a convulsion.

His sorry audition has ironically turned him into a celebrity of sorts, and a tribute website, www.williamhung.net, has even been set up. He's a student at the University of California, and last night, his school gave him his first chance to perform in front of a live audience.

Cal's men's volleyball team, which is a club program, not varsity, invited Hung to perform "She Bangs" at halftime of their game last night. This apparently was caught on video, and unfortunately I was driving from Bristol to Philly during the performance, so if you happen to catch it on TV somewhere, please, please tape it for me. There is no doubt in my mind that his performance was laugh-out-loud, side-splittingly funny.

No word on whether or not Cal won the game. But you know what, Hung's the real winner here anyway. I'm not sure whether he realizes that his singing and dancing is laughably bad, but his dream is to be a singer, and he's at least getting to fulfill that dream. Besides, if Lil' Jon can score huge hits by screaming about sweat dropping down his balls with no real tune, there's no reason Willie shouldn't get his shot.

Back to Matt Rogers. Two nights ago he led off a group of eight singers, most of who turned in pretty bad performances (although not nearly as bad as Wille Hung). The Rose Bowler performed the song that 2pac sampled for "Do For Love" (like I've said before, my musical knowledge isn't too sharp).The judges didn't give him much love when he went, although given the weakness of the rest of the group, he had a shot at landing in the top two, which would send him to the final group of 12.

Well, he finished second, getting over a quarter of the votes. I really think he didn't expect it, because he looked really surprised, not to mention elated. I have to admit I was rooting for him for my own selfish reasons.

The final group of 12 won't be whittled down for another three weeks, at least. That means there's plenty of time for ESPN to do a little research, make a few calls, get a few interviews, and run a feature on big Matt. And guess who's going to look good by pitching this idea? Yours truly.

Rock on.


Yankees fans really irritate me. They feel as though a yearly World Series title is their birthright, and they're extremely arrogant about their team's success over the past decade. I wish they'd be a little more appreciative of how lucky they are to root for a team that wins each year instead of expecting it. Makes me hope that someday soon the Yanks will return to their futility of the late '80s. But I don't see that happening anytime soon, unfortunately.

However, Red Sox Nation is gaining on the Evil Empire in terms of annoyance with lightning speed. First you had Ben Affleck on the verge of tears at the Daytona 500 as he whined about A-Rod in pinstripes. Then, today, Sox owner John Henry cried foul, saying baseball needs a salary cap because the Yankees have an inherent advantage based upon their deep pockets.

Yes, baseball does need a salary cap. But John Henry is the second to last man who should be clamoring for one. The Red Sox have the second-highest payroll in baseball. His team is the second-biggest culprit in doing what the Yankees do (and admittedly, do well). It's teams like Minnesota, Pittsburgh, and the like who should be upset. Yes, the Marlins won the Series with a fraction of the Yanks' payroll. So think what they'd be like if they'd been able to spend like George Steinbrenner. Maybe it would have been a sweep.

Another thing about Sox fans' whining. Enough with the "curse." I haven't seen my team win in my lifetime either. The Phillies have had seven winning seasons in my lifetime. The Sox have had more than that in just the last nine years. A curse is seeing your team contend once every decade. Shut up and enjoy the postseason. Steinbrenner, as much as I hate to say it, is right. John Henry, Ben Affleck, and Red Sox Nation are just calling sour grapes.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

The Nucleus Of The Horned Frogs (And Other Minutiae)

Raise your hand if you saw Osmosis Jones. OK, that's probably none of you. It was an animated move starring Chris Rock as a white blood cell who was trying to fight off a virus inside Bill Murray's body.

Does Nucleus Smith sound like he could have been Osmosis Jones's sidekick? Well, Nucleus Smith is a very real person. He's a senior guard on the Texas Christian basketball team. You just have to wonder what the guy's mom was thinking with a name like Nucleus. Unfortunately, his bio doesn't give parents' or siblings' names, so I can only guess. Osmosis isn't a bad guess for a brother. Perhaps his parents are Neutron and Proton? Put them together, you get a Nucleus.


Remember the story of the Phillie Phanatic's missing head? Well, it looks like the Phanatic finally is going to get his head on straight. Today, Philadelphia radio station WYSP got a call from a man who said he found the furry head. The guy said he was going to bring the head down to the station and turn it over. This dude, Bernard Bechtel, must be a few yards short of a first down becauese he showed up with the head, and naturally, the cops were waiting.

He's in possession of a notorious stolen object. What is he thinking, just announcing where he'll be with the Phanatic's cranium? So he's been arrested, and we'll see if it was actually him who jacked the head. If it wasn't, it'll be an interesting story as to how he came to acquire said head.


Yahoo! Sports assigns an ID number to each athlete in the major pro sports. This is for purposes of giving each of them a page. For example, Donald Brashear's is 817, and you can get to his page by going to http://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/players/817.

Where am I going with this? The other day, the Sabres' Miroslav Satan scored four goals in a game, so I went to look up some stats on him. Guess what his ID number is?

If you didn't guess 666, which of course is the right number, you need to work on your grasp of the obvious. The real question is, did someone at Yahoo! have a weird sense of humor and assign that number to Satan, or are darker forces at work here?


When stories come across the wire at ESPN, they all are slugged with certain codes. For example, men's college basketball comes in under the slug "BKC." Olympic events are slugged "OLY." We also get stories in Spanish. Those about sports are slugged "DEP," for "deportes." Those about general topics (at least, I think that's what they are, my Spanish isn't too good) are slugged "GEN."

That made it kind of unfortunate when a story from Italy came across the wire in Spanish. The story, which I gathered was about Juan Peron and Evita Peron, was slugged "BC-EUR-GEN ITALIA-PERON SUBASTA."

Heh, heh. Genitalia. Heh, heh.


Remember that commercial that ran all the time last year that pitted an old Michael Jordan against a younger version of himself? It was a really cool concept, bringing a couple of people together who obviously never could compete with each other in real life.

Recently, there's a commercial that rivals that one in coolness. You see a boxer coming out into the ring with "Ali" on the boxer's robe, and you figure it's going to be Muhammad Ali. But it's his daughter, Laila Ali, who's also a professional boxer. Now guess who her opponent is.

Of course, it's a younger version of her dad, and the two start going at it, with Laila landing a shot on pops that makes him look at her with an expression that says, "Wow, where did that one come from?"

The commercial, which is for Adidas, ends with the tagline, "Impossible is nothing." Of course, this fight is impossible, but seeing the two Alis dance around the ring with each other is still pretty damn cool.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

A Legend In The Newsroom

Up until yesterday, I hadn't really been awestruck by anyone I'd seen at ESPN. There's a steady stream of athletes, coaches, and sportscasters walking through the newsroom, and although I thought it was cool to see people like Eric Allen, Michael Irvin, Barry Melrose, and Chris Berman in person, I never got really excited about seeing any of them.

A couple of days ago, though, we got word that Buck O'Neil was coming to ESPN and that he'd be doing an interview on ESPNEWS. For the first time, I really anticipated someone's arrival. If you watched Ken Burns's "Baseball" documentary that aired a while ago, you know who he is. Buck O'Neil was a star of the Negro Leagues and, more than that, he is one of the greatest ambassadors baseball has ever known.

Buck O'Neil is 92 years old and sharp as a tack. He would have turned six years old in Honus Wagner's last season in the majors, but he still remembers seeing him play. That's flat-out unbelievable. The other day I was trying to remember when I went to the NHL All-Star Game when I was 10 - that was only 12 years ago - and the details were more than a little fuzzy.

His stories about playing in the Negro Leagues have given modern baseball historians a fantastic perspective on baseball in the first half of this century. He has worked for MLB teams - he was the first black coach in the majors - and he is currently the chairman of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.

Fortunately, I was working a shift inside the studio today, right by the studio door, so when O'Neil came in, I was probably the first person he saw, and he was as nice as could be, smiling and saying hello.

While he was being interviewed by Brian Kenny (who, from what I could tell, was just as thrilled as I was to see O'Neil), I stopped paying attention to the NHL games that were in progress and listened to what he had to say, because it's not often you're so fortunate to hear someone with O'Neil's experience and perspective speak.

Because the news of the day circled around the Alfonso Soriano trade (apparently he's going to the Rangers for some guy named Rodriguez), a lot of the questions concerned that issue.

I felt a little vindicated to hear O'Neil call Alex Rodriguez the best player in the world, since I've got a long-running argument with one of my former fellow Assistant Sports Editors at the Cornell Daily Sun about who's the best player in baseball. I say A-Rod, he says Barry Bonds. It's nice to know I have nearly a century of baseball knowledge getting my back.

O'Neil was also asked if this was the biggest trade in baseball history. At that, he recalled a blockbuster from years past - 78 years past. Hall Of Famers Frankie Frisch and Rogers Hornsby were traded for each other in 1926. And yes, this trade is bigger than that one, according to O'Neil.

Here's the real kicker - O'Neil said A-Rod compared favorably with Honus Wagner, who many consider to be the greatest shortstop of all-time. How many people in the world have the capacity to judge firsthand something like that? For starters, you'd have to have seen both play, and Wagner retired after the 1917 season. A-Rod wasn't a rookie until 77 years later. Secondly, you'd have to be an excellent judge of talent, and O'Neil qualifies there too, since he's worked as a scout for the Royals. So that would probably make O'Neil the world's most qualified person to make such a comparison.

Hear that? That's the sound of my mind blowing.

The best part about the whole thing, though, was how his visit ended. I wasn't sure whether I should say anything to O'Neil, since I was at work, and I was supposed to be following the afternoon's hockey games. But when the woman with him pulled out a stack of Kansas City Monarchs replica hats and started handing them out around the studio, I couldn't resist.

I went up to him and shook his hand, and told him it was an honor to meet him. At least I think that's what I said; I kind of stumbled over the words. Then I asked him if he would autograph the hat of the team he played for half a century ago, and he did. He also signed hats for Michael Kim and Brian Kenny, the anchors, so I didn't feel so bad after that.

I suppose that hat is worth something, but it's nothing I would want to sell. Buck O'Neil is a baseball legend and someone who deserves to be in the Hall Of Fame, if not for his on-field accomplishments, then for how he has advanced the sport off the field. I'm hanging on to that cap.

He has an autobiography, I Was Right On Time, that I've always thought about reading in the back of my mind. I think now is as good a time as any to finally get myself a copy and find out more about the first person to really impress me at ESPN.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Go Hard Or Go Home

If you've ever competed against me in anything, you know that I'll try to win, every time. I give it my best shot, or I won't compete at all.

"But Alex," you say, "what about that time I was playing you in __________ and you weren't trying too hard?"

Ha! Sucker. If I wasn't trying hard, the occasion fell under one of two categories. One, I was actually trying hard and just acting like I wasn't because I didn't want to seem like a dork for going all out in a meaningless competition, or two, I was trailing by so much that I just stopped trying in order to make it seem like I didn't care in the first place.

I will take all comers in bubble hockey. My brother and my high school hockey coach are the only ones I've ever played whom I'd bet on to beat me. I say this to set up a little anecdote for you.

Last spring, I was fortunate enough to be in Buffalo to see the Cornell hockey team compete in the Frozen Four. Part of the festivities involved a fanfest sort of thing, except it was kind of lame. But they did have bubble hockey, which of course prompted me to go to the table and invite all challengers.

My friends clearly knew better than to mess with the machine that is Alex's Bubble Hockey Skillz. Unfortunately, a kid who was probably about 10 years old naively thought he wanted a piece of this.

To that kid, I say, "Sorry for the smackdown."

I knew it was wrong, but I just scored goal after goal. You know why? Because if I'm going to play, it's going to be to win.

Another example (also from bubble hockey). If I'm beating you badly, I won't take it easy, I'll just handicap myself, like playing with only one hand, or playing left-handed. But I'll still try hard with that one hand.

That brings me to the hockey game (ice, not bubble) I played last night. Let me set the stage here. The team I play for is not bad, but compared to the rest of the league we're in, we're just not up to the level of play. We're 1-5, and that win came on a forfeit. Nevertheless, we still manage to hang with teams for most of the game.

Take tonight, for example. We're down 4-3 in the third, and the other team picks up a goal with about six minutes to go. That's far from being out of reach. But a lot of guys are just out there skating really half-assed, and I know it's not because they're tired, because when the puck comes near them, then they decide to move their legs.

I know it's only a rec league, but come on, if you're going to put on the equipment and the jersey, put out some freakin' effort. We're only down two goals and you're just coasting through the neutral zone. How about a little forecheck?

It got to the point where we went to line up for a faceoff, and we were a player short on the ice. Eight forwards are sitting on the bench, and nobody's jumping up to take the faceoff. Even though I had played D all game, I couldn't take it anymore and I just played the last two minutes of the game at center. Not like anyone was noticing, but I felt like I owed it to something - maybe just the game of hockey - to finish strong. Maybe it's because I saw Miracle recently.


As I've mentioned before, I get all kinds of stories coming across the wire at ESPN, not just sports stories. Sometimes some of them are really hysterical, and I was hoping that would be the case when an item crossed the wire today with the slug "Fuel Fight."

If you've seen Zoolander, you know exactly what I thought this was going to be about. Even better, this came across as the Daytona 500 was getting underway, so I had visions of a couple rival pit crews just going all at it, dousing each other with gasoline as the crowd went nuts.

Pause here to think about that mental image.

Unfortunately, it was about some environmental flap dealing with some gasoline additive. Surprise, surprise, the Bush administration killed some legislation that would take an additive which contaminates water out of gasoline. Too bad the prez, who was in attendance at the Daytona 500, didn't get himself involved in a real fuel fight.

Remember: Just because someone's really, really, really good-looking doesn't mean they too can't not die in a freak gasoline fight accident.

Sunday, February 15, 2004

Shock And Aw, Man...

There's nothing like a spark from the hot stove to bring me back from the late-night mumblings that comprised my last column. This was more than a spark, though. A spark is the Phillies signing Tim Worrell - nice, but certainly not earth-shattering. Yesterday's news falls more under the category of high-voltage shock than spark.

If the reports are true - and they're more likely to be true than similar reports from a month ago - then Alex Rodriguez, the best player in baseball, looks like he'll be suiting up for a team other than the Texas Rangers. Earlier this offseason, it looked like A-Rod was going to be shipped to the Red Sox in an elaborate three or four-team deal. But that trade fell through, primarily because A-Rod's salary was just so monstrous that the parties involved couldn't restructure his contract to make the deal work.

The next act of this production should have been obvious, in hindsight. There's a certain baseball team for which money has never been an object. If the Rangers were so eager to dump A-Rod and the $22 million he's supposed to make this season (not to mention future seasons), shouldn't we have seen this coming?

Of course the Yankees would get involved. Only the Yankees would be willing to take on a salary like A-Rod's. I guess the reason this wasn't already a foregone conclusion was because the Yanks obviously have Derek Jeter at shortstop. But now, with Aaron Boone's injury leaving a hole at third, apparently A-Rod is willing to man the hot corner for the Bombers.

That'll be interesting to see how it plays out. Anyone remember A-Rod's only other stint at third? It was the first inning of Cal Ripken's last All-Star Game, when A-Rod started at third to allow Ripken to take one last start at short. So A-Rod has never been a third baseman for real, but I can't see that being too much of a liability when you have his bat in the lineup. It's a tradeoff I'd make.

The Rangers are reportedly getting Alfonso Soriano and a prospect in return, so the Rangers aren't exactly getting stiffed on this deal, either. I guess because of that I can't be too pissed at the Yankees for this deal - they're killing themselves on baseball's luxury tax, and they're giving up arguably the best second baseman in the league as well.

This doesn't fall under the category of "Yankees moves that piss me off," because that heading is usually reserved for their July acquisitions of pinch hitters who make $8 mil a year or free agent signings that nobody else can afford.

All I have to say here is that I'm glad I'm not a Red Sox fan. They must be really stewed over coming that close to landing A-Rod, only to see him go to their dreaded rivals. This must be how Zack Morris felt when Kelly Kapowski started going out with that Jeff dude on "Saved By The Bell." Who was he, anyway?

Anyway, it's always good for baseball to stir things up with a shocking trade now and then.


Speaking of shocking, I got to watch the Cornell-Penn game on YES last night, live from Cornell's Newman Arena (which really looked like a high school gym on TV). You know those foam, "we're number one" fingers?" Well, I've seen variations with a middle finger extended, or a West Coast gang sign, but some fan in the front row was waving a foam hand with all fingers but the ring extended. Classy impression to display when the basketball team finally gets some air time.

Fortunately for him, nobody was paying attention, because Cornell played some atrocious ball, especially in the first half. Check out these numbers from the first 20 minutes: 4 assists, 12 turnovers, outrebounded 22-13, 8-25 shooting, and 1-6 from 3-point range. Eric Taylor managed no points and six turnovers in eight minutes of action. That fiasco resulted in a 44-20 halftime score, so the Red was out of it from that point on.

They lost the game 79-52, but at least Ka'Ron Barnes played lights out in the second half. I'd call him the best baller in the Ivy League. He's just a solid athlete, and if his supporting cast had given him some help, the Red might have even pulled it out. Barnes had 22 points and 5 of the team's 7 assists on the evening.

The good news from the Cornell sporting world is that the hockey team pulled another win out of the hat, scoring in the third period to beat Yale, 2-1. That's a four-point weekend for the Red, which keeps them in the thick of the race for a first-round bye in the ECAC. The top four teams get one, and currently, Cornell's sitting in a tie for third. Let's go Red!

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Speaking Ernestly

I wish I could find the exact quote, because it's a good one, but for now this will have to do. "When two people love each other, there can be no happy ending." That's from Ernest Hemingway's For Whom The Bell Tolls, an excellent story if you have the chance to read it. By the way, if you know the exact quote, or can track it down, let me know.

As you can probably tell, this column isn't going to be about sports. If you're looking for something like that, check out the past entries.

Ernest was right, but only because that's how it has to be. I suppose you could make up unlikely scenarios and prove him wrong, but that's not really the point here. The truth is, eventually one person must leave the relationship, and that's going to make the other person sad, or both of them upset. If it doesn't, then it all ended badly long before.

Hemingway chooses to see this as a negative. The problem with all of that is that if two people are going to be together for 75 years and then one of them happens to die first, well, that's sad, but it's hardly cause for throwing in the towel on love. A little sadness after a long, rewarding happiness together is certainly worth it, wouldn't you say?

Today is Valentine's Day, right in the middle of what some might consider the worst three-day stretch of the year: Friday the 13th, Valentine's Day, and the first Sunday since August without NFL football.

Valentine's Day is only associated with love because way back in the day, it was seen as the time of year - halfway through the second month of the calendar - that birds would choose mates. Chaucer said so. That's why you're buying flowers and chocolates.

St. Valentine wasn't any more romantic than anyone today, although I suppose it's ironic that we associate him with the word "romance," considering he was martyred by the Romans for refusing to renounce his religion. A noble cause, for sure, but nothing that screams out "love" or "couples."

I'm not here to bash Valentine's Day. Far from it, I think it has its merits, despite its Hallmark-created stir that everyone must have a Valentine and must buy her a card and chocolates and flowers and jewelry. Any reason to celebrate love is a good one.

As for me, I'll celebrate what I can. If a 41-year old at a bar tells me I should be a model, then dammit, that'll work for me. Happy Valentine's Day to me.

On the other hand, if there's nothing for you to celebrate, then screw it. There's plenty to be happy about instead. Of course, there's great sporting events on TV today (Flyers-Rangers comes to mind), but that's not the point. I'm talking about health, friends, family, and other blessings. I'm not much for being thankful for good fortune, but today is as good a day as any to feel that way.

It may not be a likely comparison, but I think The Darkness got the idea more so than Hemingway. They believe in a thing called love. No reason all of us can't, either. Whether you're alone or sharing the day with someone else, the glass is always half full. Enjoy the day for what it brings, and look forward to tomorrow.

I promise the next column will be about sports. My apologies for this cheesiness.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Holy Zhitnik! Branko Radivojevic Rules!

The general consensus among the sports world is that regular season NHL games are boring, devoid of excitement, and that players just play out the games while they wait for the playoffs. To those of you that think that, I'm sorry you missed last night's Rangers-Flyers game.

If every regular season game had the intensity and excitement of this one, people wouldn't be complaining that there's nothing to watch between Super Bowl Sunday and pitchers and catchers.

The game's final score was 2-1, which showed that it's not necessary to hike up scoring to deliver an exciting product. All that's necessary is to increase the number of scoring chances, and there were plenty in this game. The game also had its share of great goaltending, as well as a fight thrown in for good measure.

Sean Burke, making his first start in net since being reacquired by the Flyboys, stopped 26 of the 27 shots he faced, including 12 in the third period when the Rangers ramped up the pressure. Admittedly, one of those saves probably crossed the goal line, but I'm sure he's not complaining.

The real thriller came midway through the third period, though, when the Flyers' two All-Stars, Jeremy Roenick and Keith Primeau, were injured and left the game 42 seconds apart. Primeau went off after an accidental knee-to-knee hit by Bobby Holik, but Roenick's injury was just flat-out gruesome. He took a slap shot to the face, and just went to the ice motionless, bleeding severely. The initial diagnosis: a shattered jaw.

But, as the announcers said, he'll probably be ready to play on Saturday with a cage.

The Flyers showed some real character after the injuries to their leaders. With the game tied 1-1 at the time, they could have rolled over and let the Rangers take the momentum. Instead, what they got was a terrific play by another new Flyer, Branko Radivojevic (more on him in a bit), who broke the puck into the attack zone, took it behind the net, and found Sami Kapanen with a pass. Kapanen then beat a defender before whistling a shot off the post and into the net for the game-winner.

The game wasn't over until literally the last second, though. The Rangers pulled their goalie and had several opportunities in the last minute of action. As the last few seconds ticked off the clock, the puck was in the crease, the Blueshirts were swatting at it, and Burke stoned them yet again. Holik was so frustrated he smashed his stick on the boards after the horn sounded.

The great part about this is that these two teams will go at it again tomorrow in the second half of their home-and-home series. With the game on ABC, you can bet the two teams will be keeping up the intensity, and the NHL is probably praying that it turns into a game that matches last night's as far as excitement.

As for Burke and Radivojevic, they made Bobby Clarke's latest deal look pretty good. They are two-thirds of the package that Phoenix sent over in exchange for Mike Comrie, and I was very impressed by both of them. Burke made some difficult saves in traffic, and Radivojevic's stickhandling and vision set up the game-winning goal.

Radivojevic, by the way, swiftly moved up my list of great names. It's pronounced "rad-eh-VOY-o-vich," and his first name is Branko, pronounced like O.J.'s low-speed getaway vehicle. The name flows, and hopefully so does his game.

So, in honor of my man Branko, here's my all-hockey name team:

Antero Niitymaki, Flyers; Maxime Ouellet, Capitals

Radek Bonk, Senators; Espen Knutsen, Blue Jackets; David Legwand, Predators; John Madden, Devils

Left Wings
Bates Battaglia, Capitals; Alexander Frolov, Kings; Dan LaCouture, Rangers; Alexander Semin, Capitals

Right Wings
Jonathan Cheechoo, Sharks; Branko Radivojevic, Flyers; Miroslav Satan, Sabres; Jordin Tootoo, Predators

Garnet Exelby, Thrashers; Barret Jackman, Blues; Marek Malik, Canucks; Stanislav Neckar, Predators; Radoslav Suchy, Coyotes; Alexei Zhitnik, Sabres

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Ayers Rocked

When I got my job at ESPN back in December, they told me it was only going to be until April. Then, a few weeks ago, they told me they'd keep me around until October. My job isn't what anyone would call secure. But I probably have more job security than, say, and NBA head coach. Did you know that in the entire Eastern Conference, the coach with the longest tenure with his current team is Terry Stotts?

Stotts took over in Atlanta midway through last season, which means that he hasn't even been around for two full seasons. And he's the benchmark of job security in the East.

The latest coach to get the axe is Randy Ayers, who was an assistant with the Sixers for the last few seasons under Larry Brown and took over this summer after Brown resigned. By the way, Brown resigned to take the job with the Pistons, which was left open after they fired Rick Carlisle, who went to take the job with the Pacers... Do you see how NBA coaching works yet?

Ayers actually wasn't even the Sixers' first choice to take the reins. He wasn't the second, third, or fourth choice, either. The Sixers probably went after eight or nine guys before they had to settle for Ayers. It's not like Ayers has had a lot to work with this year - Allen Iverson's been hurt for a lot of the season, and as usual, he doesn't have a solid big man to help him out. But Ayers still had the Sixers at 21-31, which in the awful Eastern Conference is only a game and a half out of a playoff spot. He didn't deserve to lose his job midway through his first season as an NBA head coach.

Unfortunately, the climate in the NBA is that coaches are expendable whether or not they've been given a chance to succeed. Can't win right away? See ya! New Nets coach Lawrence Frank is off to an 8-0 start since taking over for Byron Scott, and it's a good thing for him - lose one game, and suddenly you're on the hot seat.

So how did Ayers's team take the news of his firing? Ho hum.

Glenn Robinson, who in the past few days publicly aired out his issues with Ayers, said that he didn't feel responsible for Ayers's firing. Just thae fact that he would: a) be asked that question, and b) answer it seriously indicates that he at least acknowledges some link between his gripes and Ayers's newfound unemployment.

But the best reaction came from A.I., who was pissed that the Sixers didn't give him the courtesy of letting him know directly.

"To have to find out from my manager early this morning, that's the only frustrating part about the whole thing," declared the Answer. "Besides him being fired."

Oh, right. I guess that kind of sucks, too. But yeah, the really frustrating part is that your manager had to wake you up with the news.

Besides, it's not like we're talking about practice.


In yesterday's column about the great Phanatic Head Caper, I mentioned that there was someone auctioning off something that was described as "not HEAD OF PHILLY PHANATIC." I had a feeling eBay would pull the auction, and sure enough, they did. The guy was selling something, though. It just wasn't the Phanatic's head, which narrows down the possible list of things he was selling to everything else in the universe.


I get more than just sports news coming across the wire at ESPN. Most of the stuff is the standard, depressing news that you see on TV - crime, war, death, etc. But yesterday I got a clip that makes for a hilarious mental image.

40 miles north of Lubbock, Texas (home of Bobby Knight), a 50-year old nursing home patient stole an ambulance. The woman then drove the ambulance to a sheriff's office, got out, went inside, asked for directions to Amarillo, then got back in her new ride and took off. As she pulled out, the dispatcher noticed she was driving an ambulance - right as a police report of a stolen ambulance came across the radio.

As is likely to happen in Texas, this led to a police chase, which included the woman swerving off the road to avoid a sheriff's vehicle that had blocked the way. It ended with four officers approaching the ambulance with their guns drawn (remember, we're talking about a 50-year old woman who lives in a nursing home) and pulling the woman out of the ambulance.

This was all caught on camera, so set your TiVo for future Cops episodes.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

In Search Of Head

That crazy Phillie Phanatic. You never know what kind of stunt he'll pull next. He's always rubbing some bald guy's dome, or putting some kid underneath his jersey. But when entertainers like Janet Jackson start flashing millions of people on live television, you've gotta step up your antics. So the other day, some guy got head from the Phanatic.

Oh, my mistake. I read that wrong. Some guy got the head from the Phanatic. I guess the mascot is still wholesome after all.

Usually when we talk about steals in baseball, it involves bases, or at the worst, Ruben Rivera lifting some Derek Jeter memorabilia from the Yankees clubhouse. This time, though, some guy jacked the head of the Phanatic's costume. Austin Powers, start the headless puns.

Here's how the heist went down. The other day, the Phillies had an auction of Vet Stadium memorabilia at the Wachovia Center. During the proceedings, Tom Burgoyne, the guy inside the costume, took a break, changed out of the costume, left it in an unlocked room, and when he returned, he realized he'd lost his head.

Whoever made off with the green monster's top went unnoticed by security cameras, and he's also in possession of an item worth $3,000 dollars. That's how much that thing will cost to replace. But good luck moving it - it's pretty easy to spot a Phanatic head on eBay.

What has appeared on eBay, however, is this interesting item: "not HEAD OF PHILLY PHANATIC." You can check it out here, at least until 90 days after the auction ends or until eBay takes it down. It is extremely unclear what is actually for sale, but it is apparently not the Phanatic's head. So far the mystery item has received a couple of bids.

The description of the item reads, in part, "Just to be completely clear, this auction is in no way shape or form an auction for the MISSING HEAD OF PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES MASCOT: the PHILLIE PHANATIC. Please don't confuse this auction for other auctions that may be selling the GIANT GREEN and FURRY HEAD of the PHILLIE PHANATIC...

"I also realized that I don't have the HEAD OF THE PHILLIE PHANATIC, but I have plenty of things that aren't the HEAD OF THE PHILLIE PHANATIC ... and I could sell them."

This guy is very emphatically trying to sell ... something. But it is most definitely not the Phanatic's head.

The Phillies have no leads, and are still deciding whether they want to offer a reward for the safe return of la cabeza del Phanatic. Fortunately for them, the Phanatic has a backup costume. But don't expect to see any of the old routines with the Phanatic's "family members" any time soon unless the head is returned.

By the way, only a Major League Baseball team could justify paying $3,000 for head. Even if it is the best head out there.


The Phillies aren't the only ones having head issues. Flyers goalie Jeff Hackett announced his retirement yesterday after missing the last month of games due to vertigo. He'd made a few minor-league rehab starts, but apparently he wasn't feeling great and decided to hang up his skates...if he could only get the room to stop spinning so he could find the hook to hang them on. Just kidding.

Hackett signed a two-year deal with the Flyers as a free agent this summer, but now the Flyers have to look elsewhere to find a goalie, since Robert Esche is out for a few weeks with a sprained knee. So they went out and traded for Sean Burke, who's been splitting time with red-hot former Flyer Brian Boucher this season in Phoenix.

You might remember Burke - he's been with the Flyers before. He went 7-3 for them in a brief stint in the '97-98 season (he also went 1-4 against Buffalo in the playoffs that year in another typical first-round Flyers exit). He is definitely not the long-term answer. He's 37 years old, and his contract only goes through next season.

Then again, Bobby Clarke and the Flyers have never been about long-term answers. The emphasis is always on winning right now, and there has never been a better time for that kind of attitude than this season, since the collective bargaining agreement expires before next season and the NHL might not exist for a while. So it looks like the Flyers will try to ride Burke to the Cup. Hope he knows the way.

Monday, February 09, 2004

The Award For Most Boring Award Show Goes To...

I think most award shows are terrible, but at least they provide comical moments like Tony Bennett standing next to Missy Elliott while she screams, "Y'all give it up for Sarah McLachlan!"

This happened at the Grammys last night. I missed most of the show because I was playing hockey, but at least I'm glad I didn't miss the end. I'm sure everyone around the water cooler will be talking about that great montage of musicians who have died in the past year.

I did catch some of the show though, so here's what I thought of it. I thought the trio of Dave Matthews, Sting, and Vince Gill, backed by Pharrell on drums, was about as eclectic as it gets when it comes to throwing together an opening act. But they did a terrific job on the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There." After they finished up with that song, I hit the ice.

Fortunately, I got back in time to see Missy Elliott's hyped-up intro for Sarah McLachlan. It reminded me of a few years ago, when Busta Rhymes urged an MTV VMA crowd to "get buck-wild for the Brian Setzer Orchestra!" Stuff like that doesn't happen in real life. It takes award show producers to make that happen.

Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne presented the award for best rock duo. This brings up two thoughts on the Osbournes. First of all, hasn't Ozzy's drug-induced-mild-retardation schtick worn thin? And second, if the answer is no, then why didn't the Grammy people give him some lines so he could give the crowd a laugh? Don't trot Ozzy out on stage and then hustle him off without making him do something like sing a few lines of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame."

They also brought out the original Grammy host (I'll give you five dollars if you know his name off the top of your head, because I sure as hell don't), whose sole purpose seemed to be to praise some other bigwig at the Grammys, Pierre Cossette. The camera then went over to Cossette, who was looking like Milton from Office Space minus the mustache, plus a tux. Cossette then wildly gestured for the crowd, which was applauding, to get on its feet, for no other apparent reason than that he wanted a standing O. Well, he got one from a crowd that looked kind of baffled as to why it was standing. By the way, I was lying about giving you five dollars.

Carole King came out to present the Grammy for best song along with Pharrell. Apparently she had no idea who the nominees were before she read the list, because when she got to Eminem's "Lose Yourself," she recited, "J. Bass, M. Mathers - oh, that's Marshall Mathers - and L. Resto." I'm sure J. Bass and L. Resto were thrilled that not only had their first names had been reduced to initials, but nobody, not even the presenter, thought to look up their first names.

The head of the Academy came out as well, as he always does, and unveiled a new plan to curb illegal downloading which is most likely doomed to failure. Along with it came a PSA, which alternated shots of people in a club dancing to Pink's "God Is A DJ" and a girl downloading music in her room. When the girl's download is complete, suddenly the power goes out in the club. The next thing you see is "www.whatsthedownload.com." Not sure whether the ad was more ineffective or confusing. Meanwhile, back in reality, hundreds of kids watching the Grammys thought, "Hey, I like that Pink song. I think I'll go to KaZaA and download it."

That was followed up by an elaborate and cliched futuristic space-themed introduction to an awesome performance of Outkast's "Hey Ya!" Andre 3000 brought on a marching band and everything. There was a wardrobe malfunction during his performance, though - he wore something that looked like a lime-green bath towel that had been through a shredder around his waist, and that was it.

All that made it much more comical when he and Big Boi won the award for album of the year soon after. Outkast brought an entire posse on stage, and while most of them were dressed in snappy suits, Dre's standing there shirtless and wearing a tattered green sheet. He also looked like he'd been hitting the pipe for the entire show prior to his performance.

And then, after Outkast accepted their award, Faith Hill jumped in front of them and bid us all a good night. Huh? No closing monologue for someone? No performer to take us out? It ranked up there with the most anticlimactic finishes ever, somewhere between every Braves postseason appearance and the final episode of "Seinfeld."

Once the Grammys were over, I flipped over to the Pro Bowl, which is one of the few sporting events I'd watch the Grammys over. Looks like I missed some quality football. I caught the last minute and a half. The score: 55-52. Nice to know that no defensive players were selected to the teams.

Sunday, February 08, 2004

J.R. Isn't Mad, But His Skillz Are

The Home Run Derby is a cake walk. It's batting practice. The Slam Dunk Contest is played out. Every move's been done. The NHL SuperSkills competition, on the other hand, is still worth checking out.

For one, there's a variety of challenges, both individual and team-related. You've got the hardest shot, fastest skater, accuracy shooting, breakaway relay, and more. Basketball just has a dunk contest and a 3-point contest. Baseball only goes for home runs.

Even better, the players go all-out to win their events. How many ballplayers pull out of the Home Run Derby each year because they're afraid to mess up their swing? You never see anything like that in hockey. Players are all about ripping 100-mph shots, and a few players even put their helmets on for the fastest skater competition because they knew they'd be going hard enough that a wipeout was a possibility.

This year's skills competition was no different, and it was fun to watch. The hardest shot competition was a good one - three players cracked the century mark: Adrian Aucoin (102.2), Sheldon Souray (102.2), and Pavel Kubina (101.2).

Souray is a great story - he didn't even play in the NHL last season. He was busy having four wrist surgeries, and his future in hockey was in doubt. Now he's leading NHL defensemen in goals scored, he's posted a five-assist game and a hat trick this season, and he tied for the lead at the hardest shot competition. Apparently the doctors gave him a bionic wrist. Souray's got a few things going for him off the ice, as well. A few years ago, he was named the NHL's best-looking player, and he's married to former "Baywatch" actress Angelica Bridges.

But the best story at the skills competition, at least from a Flyers fan's perspective, was that of Jeremy Roenick. Roenick, as you might recall, went through a pretty rough stretch last month, during which he threw a water bottle at referee Blaine Angus and was subsequently suspended.

Today, Roenick, who is one of the only NHL players you could even think of accusing of having an ego, took the mic in front of the Xcel Energy Center crowd and publicly apologized to Angus. A real class move from one of the league's stars. It's nice to see a star athlete issue a genuine apology in this age of "me, me, me" in sports. Shaq and T.O., are you paying attention?

Roenick's apology clearly pleased the hockey gods, because they smiled upon him when he took the ice for the accuracy competition. Roenick, going bottom left, bottom right, top left, top right, picked off all four targets in four shots, becoming the first player to reach perfection in the event since 1996.

One of the reasons I think pro hockey hasn't reached the popularity of football and basketball is that the players are too team-oriented. That's a great thing in terms of sports, but not in terms of selling a league. Love or hate Warren Sapp, Ray Lewis, Shaquille O'Neal, and Allen Iverson, you know them and would recognize them in an instant. But who recognizes Markus Naslund (you know, the guy leading the NHL in points)?

There's Roenick, Hull, and Messier, and outside of those three and a few others, there are no personalities in the NHL. The league really needs more Jeremy Roenick types, and it needs to do a much, much better job of marketing its star players.

Someone just needs to tell the players that. While Ray Lewis dances like he's standing on the third rail during player introductions, the players at the All-Star game are going to look like they want the spotlight to get off them ASAP. At the most, they'll raise their stick to acknowledge the crowd. For the fans' sake, ham it up a little bit, please.

As for the up-and-comers, there were two goals in the YoungStars Game that particularly stood out to me. First, the Oilers' Raffi Torres dropped a sick move on goalie Andrew Raycroft - he raised his right leg wildly, way more than he would if he were actually going to shoot - but Raycroft bit, letting Torres slip a backhander through the five hole. Then, later in the game, the Maple Leafs' Matt Stajan cut back so hard in front of Avs' goalie Philippe Sauve that he covered Sauve in snow as he beat him with a nice forehand.

Granted, the four-on-four format is a little more than conducive to these types of breakaways. But it's still cool to watch.


The last time we visited the ESPNEWS Jinx, it was claiming Oklahoma basketball and setting its sights on Patrick Ramsey. Today, Ramsey's fortunes turned for the worse. The Redskins worked out a deal for veteran QB Mark Brunell, putting Ramsey's once-secure job in jeopardy. The Jinx. It's for real.

Friday, February 06, 2004

...But I'm Sure Jeremy Shockey's Turf Toe Was Quite Painful

One of the first columns I wrote promised a future edition about Rick Nash, and it's time for me to deliver on that promise, because Rick Nash today helped confirm what I've believed for a long time: Hockey players are the best athletes of any major sport, and I mean that in both the physical sense and in a sense of sportsmanship.

Nash, who is 19 and leading the NHL in goals scored this season with 31, has missed the Blue Jackets' last two games with a bruised left foot that he suffered while blocking a shot. Let me tell you something about taking a shot in the foot. It hurts like hell if it gets you in the wrong place, and I'm just talking about 60-mph beer league shots. Nash caught rubber from some big NHL defenseman who can rip a shot up to 100 mph.

Now, in every other league, if you have even a minor injury, you skip the All-Star Game. Think about all the pitchers who bail on the Midsummer Classic because they have a hangnail, or the NBA players who play in their team's games immediately before the break and after the break, but not in the All-Star Game itself.

Not Nash. He's going to make his return to the ice for the All-Star Game instead of waiting until after the break. You know why? Because he's a hockey player.

As of now, there is only one player who was selected to the NHL All-Star Game (which is this Sunday) who is not playing, and that's Scott Stevens. He's got a good reason - post-concussion syndrome - and he hasn't been on the ice for his team in a while, anyway. So he's excused.

Nash deserves credit for recognizing his selection to the game as an honor not to be taken lightly. The game is an exhibition for the fans to see the world's greatest players on the ice together, and it would be incomplete without a rising superstar like Nash.

Nash, by the way, will be the first teenager to play in the All-Star Game in over a decade. Jaromir Jagr and Owen Nolan were still shy of their 20th birthdays when they played in the 1992 game.

Take a moment on Sunday afternoon to appreciate Rick Nash, not only for his immense talent and potential, but also because he's playing in this game in spite of its lack of impact on the standings. The All-Star Game is bigger than that for Nash and for all of the players on the ice, and they continue to demonstrate that hockey players still care more about the sport and the team than they do about the individual.

As Herb Brooks said (or at least, Kurt Russell did), "The name on the front of the jersey is more important than the one on the back."


My new favorite name in sports is Antero Niittymaki, the Flyers' rookie goalie who has been pressed into action due to Jeff Hackett's bout with vertigo, Robert Esche's sprained knee, and Neil Little's mediocrity.

Niittymaki - my boss calls him Teriyaki - has been doing a hell of a job in his first two starts. He's 2-0-0, he's got a 95.1 save percentage, and a 1.00 GAA. And he's from Finland. If I ever meet him, I can talk to him about The Rasmus.


Matt Rogers, the former Washington offensive lineman who sports his Rose Bowl championship ring on American Idol, made it through to the final 32. Now it's out of the judges' hands and up to the public to keep advancing him. Stay tuned...


This has been pointed out to me once before, but seeing it in print is really hysterical. I was flipping through the St. Louis Cardinals media guide today, and the last thing written in Albert Pujols's bio is this nugget:

"...name is pronounced POO-holes."

Heh, heh. I said poo-holes.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Insert "Finnish" Pun Here

When it comes to music, I'm stuck in the past (and by the past I mean the mid-90s). I have a knack for amazing some people by not knowing of popular songs from before 1987, and an almost equally impressive gift for catching on to newer songs about three months too late.

But this time I am so far ahead of the next big thing that by the time it is the current big thing, I just might be sick of it already. If you thought the only good things that come from Finland are Teemu Selanne and Absolut, then you need to check out The Rasmus.

Nobody knows it on this side of the Pond - that's the Atlantic Ocean, not where Selanne played when he was on the Mighty Ducks - but The Rasmus are crazy popular in Europe. The only reason I know of them is because I'm really freakin' cool. Okay, that's not true. Actually, the real reason I've heard of them is that I saw the video for their song "In The Shadows" on MTV Europe when I was in Italy several months ago. The song is good enough that it stuck with me until I got home and downloaded it.

I can't tell whether the name "The Rasmus" is singular or plural, because my command of Finnish has slipped a little lately. But I can tell you that they kick ass.

The four-piece set has been together for a little over nine years now, having started when the members were in high school. They've already been raking in awards at European shows for years now, and their latest album, Dead Letters, is supposedly going to be released in the U.S. sometime this spring.

If you watch any prime-time shows on FOX, you've probably heard "In The Shadows." It's the background music for their recent promos for "Tru Calling," a show whose best feature is probably that song. (I haven't seen the show, but it's just a hunch.)

Their style is kind of like Linkin Park, but dialed back a little, so there's not so much rap-style singing. The songs have good beats, and choruses that are really infectious. Their songs are in English, too, and for a bunch of 20-something Finns, the lyrics aren't too bad. I recommend "Guilty," which was bouncing around in my head for a while after I first heard it.

The Rasmus have exactly the kind of sound that modern rock today goes for, but it's more genuine than say, Nickelback. There's no pained sound to the lead singer's voice. Visit their website (some of the translation is kind of funny, but it is in English) and check out their audio clips, or find their songs on your preferred file-sharing program.

Then, when "In The Shadows" or "In My Life," their other single from their album, hits the airwaves, you can say you got in on the ground floor.


A couple of other things:

A few columns ago, I mentioned that the blow-dryer victim in the Hungry Man commercial looked like Steve from "My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance." Well, it turns out that they are one and the same. It's an actor named Steve Bailey, who, by the way, is married. I wonder what his wife thinks about the show.

In another previous column, I wrote about Matt Rogers, a former Washington offensive lineman who was a contestant on American Idol. The big guy made it to Hollywood and survived the first cut of 30 or so people. Now he just has to satisfy the judges enough to make it to the final 32 before the public begins to decide his fate.

Rogers, who competed in the Rose Bowl, said on the show yesterday that the four-day audition in Hollywood was the toughest thing he ever did, because he has to rely solely on himself, as opposed to football, where there are 10 other guys on your team.

Maybe so, but Justin Guarini isn't going to stop a 275-pound nose tackle from killing quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo. So which is harder, playing offensive guard against the top D-linemen in college football, or singing well enough to reach the final 32 in Idol?

I can't sing, and I definitely can't play O-line, but I do know one thing - the only injuries on American Idol are bruised egos.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Imagine If He Had Criticized Knight's Demeanor...

The best thing about Bobby Knight is that he can take the most ordinary event and blow it completely out of proportion. Think about some of the ridiculous remarks he's made at press conferences, comments that were responses to ordinary questions. Fortunately for the media, there seems to be an endless supply of outbursts. Yesterday, the Bobby Knight incident machine turned out another good one.

The famously volatile Texas Tech coach somehow managed to take extreme offense at a compliment, and this time Knight's temper landed him in a confrontation with the university chancellor.

According to an eyewitness report by the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, here's how the events unfolded:

Chancellor David Smith, who was eating lunch at a restaurant called Market Street, spotted Athletic Director Gerald Myers and complimented Myers on the coach's demeanor, telling Myers that he appreciated the work Myers has done with Knight. Myers told him that Knight happened to be at Market Street as well, and hey, why not go tell Knight in person?

So Smith goes over to Knight at the salad bar to express his appreciation to the coach. Knight sees the compliment as an allusion to his bad behavior in the past, and flies off the handle at the chancellor. He accused Smith of being a liar and insisted that there had been nothing wrong with his demeanor so far this year.

Note to Coach Knight: Throwing down with the chancellor by the salad bar is probably not a good way to exemplify your calm demeanor.

Maybe the thing with Knight is that he hates it when other people are right. If the chancellor thinks Knight's been doing a good job keeping his temper in check, well, dammit, that'll show him.

This whole incident reminded me, in a weird way, of what I think is the greatest comeback in history. The Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen, whose health had been failing him in his later years of life, one day was told by his nurse that she thought he looked better than usual.

"On the contrary," replied Ibsen. He then died.

Snap! Talk about getting the last word in...


Quick, who's the most thugged-out Olympian you can think of? Well, Allen Iverson's going to play for Team USA in the 2004 Athens Games, and he's a good candidate, what with his 'rows, his tattoos, and his sick rhymes (sort of). However, he's got some competition in Eleanor Holm Whalen, who won a pair of gold medals in the 1932 Olympics.

Whalen, who also won 21 U.S. swimming titles, was kicked off the 1936 Olympic team for - get this - drinking champagne and shooting dice. Holla! The playa-hatin' USOC booted her off the team that was competing in the Berlin Games because she was poppin' a little bubbly and playing craps on the ocean liner on the way to the Olympics.

Unfortunately for Whalen, she never competed in another Olympiad. Hopefully, she instead spent her days drinkin' Cris straight out the bottle in the back of the VIP and ridin' a chromed-out Escalade with 22s that don't stop.

This little tidbit came to my attention because, sadly, Whelan died yesterday at the age of 91. No doubt she kept it real to the end, and Iverson and the rest of the thugs in Greece this summer better recognize and pour a little malt liquor on the pavement for the O.O.G. - that's the original Olympic gangsta.


Did anyone catch the highlight of last night's Saint Joe's-Villanova game? It took place during halftime. No, Janet Jackson didn't have another "costume malfunction," as Justin Timberlake described her now-infamous flashing. A Villanova student from the crowd came onto the court and drained a half-court shot. I mean, he nailed it - it got all net.

Then, as the crowd goes nuts, the kid, cool as Bristol in January, calmly jogs toward the other hoop, arms raised in triumph, and then makes the universal "I can't hear you" motion to the crowd. He then walked over to the Saint Joe's cheerleaders and grabbed a pom-pom, T.O. style. A very pissed-off male cheerleader then angrily snatched it right back. Funny stuff. I hope the kid won something awesome for making that shot. Actually, what he really should have won was a spot in the 'Nova lineup - they shot a mediocre 7-20 from three-point range last night and lost to the Hawks, 74-67.

Monday, February 02, 2004

I'd Like To Make A Couple Of Points (And So Would John Fox)

I'll give the teams credit. They turned two weeks of boring hype about two dull styles of football into an exciting second half of football in which a couple of noted ground games and defenses aired out the ball and provided a thrilling finish. And Adam Vinatieri, despite his struggles all game long, once again is the toast of New England with a last-minute Super Bowl-winning field goal.

Goats? That would be you, John Fox and John Kasay.

Fox, down 21-16, went for two early in the fourth quarter in an attempt to bring his team within a field goal. There was way too much time left to try for two. This isn't second-guessing, because I was thinking at the time (and Phil Simms and Greg Gumbel, who called a great game, agreed) that it was a bad idea.

Sure enough, they came up short and remained down five. When the Panthers scored another TD later on, they had no choice but to go for two in order to give themselves a three-point lead. The conversion failed again, and Fox & Co. had a 22-21 lead instead of a 24-21 lead.

The football gods, frowning upon Carolina's poor judgment, then helped the Patriots out. When the Pats scored the go-ahead TD, they made the right call in going for two to extend their lead to seven. Naturally, they made it. That's a three-point swing right there - had all the touchdowns been seven-pointers, it would have been 28-24 at that point. Instead, the Patriots were ahead by seven, 29-22.

So even though the Panthers scored again, they were only able to tie it at 29, instead of taking a 31-28 lead. Bring on Vinatieri, whose game-winner would have instead sent the game into overtime.

The simple math here? Fox dropped three points by going for two too early, and lost himself one Vince Lombardi Trophy.

Kasay, too, didn't help his team's cause. The kicker shanked one out of bounds following his team's game-tying TD, setting the Pats up with great field position. They didn't have far to go to get into Vinatieri's range, and with three timeouts, they did it with ease.

While Fox and Kasay couldn't avoid the consequences of their blunders, there were a few people who dodged some bullets. Vinatieri, for one, went from inexplicably missing two from short range (yes, one was blocked, but it was a low kick) to hitting another Super Bowl-winning kick. He's sealing a reputation as one of the best kickers of all-time because of some of these clutch kicks despite his occasional shakiness.

Troy Brown also should be thankful that the Pats were able to move into Vinatieri's range on that last drive, because he cost his team 10 yards with an offensive pass interference penalty. He, too, did his job in helping make up for that mistake by catching a pass on the very next play.

And finally, I bet the NFL is thankful that the game didn't go into overtime. The last thing the league wants is a Super Bowl that is decided on the first possession of overtime, which wasn't too farfetched the way that game was going. Such a debacle would expose the inherent unfairness of a sudden-death OT with no opportunity for an equalizer.

Some other thoughts on the Super Bowl:

The Patriots weren't missing Lawyer Milloy much during the regular season. But Jake Delhomme - Jake Delhomme, people! - picked apart the Pats secondary in the second half, especially after Rodney Harrison was hurt. I wonder what Milloy was thinking as he watched the Panthers tie the game at 29 with that pass to Ricky Proehl up the middle.

Ah, irony. While over four million people supposedly dropped $20 to see the Lingerie Bowl instead of the MTV-produced halftime show on CBS, there was actually a fleeting moment of toplessness on the official Super Bowl show. Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson, who did an awkward-looking dance to "Rock Your Body," found an interesting way to conclude the show. JT reached over to Janet, and, while singing, "Bet I'll have you nekkid by the end of this song," ripped off a piece of her outfit, exposing her breast to 40 percent of the households in the country. Guess he won that bet.

And finally, there should be a rule: If a city's football team wins a championship, they shouldn't be allowed to whine about other sports for at least three years. Hear that, Red Sox fans? Your Pats just gave you a second title in the last three years. Whining about the curse is like hooking up with the really hot chick and then pining after your high school crush. Just be happy with one, and if you're still suffering, do that in silence.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Apparently, There's Some Game On TV Tonight

I don't know much about it, because all I ever see in the media is coverage of the NHL, but I hear the NFL is playing its championship game today. Super Bowl XXXVIII (which, by the way, is the longest Super Bowl name in terms of Roman Numerals ever, and will hold that title for another 40 years, when LXXVIII matches it) is going down tonight in Houston.

I kid, of course. If you think you're sick of Super Bowl hype from the past two weeks, imagine what it's like when your job involves creating that hype. It's about time the game rolled around already. Since I've been immersed in overanalysis of the big game, though, I consider it a duty and a pleasure to bring you Just Off-Camera's Super Bowl XXXVIII preview.

This game will be low-scoring, which is about as surprising a revelation as telling you that Michael Jackson isn't running on all eight cylinders. Seriously, though, this game will be won and lost on the ground, as both teams try to play a possession game and take as much time off the clock as possible as they run their way toward the end zone.

I'm thinking the Pats will score first (although not on their first possession) on a short pass to Daniel Graham. Then the Panthers will come back with a Stephen Davis TD run.

Then, before the half, Brady will pick up another passing TD, this time to a receiver (Bethel Johnson, maybe? Belichick likes to play musical wideouts, so that one's a crapshoot). Brady will have two touchdown passes by halftime, but he's not going to have great numbers, like I said, the ground game is going to be where most of the yardage is gained.

The Panthers will come back with a field goal to open the second half, and that will be it for the scoring until the Patriots put it out of reach with a late TD run by Kevin Faulk.

Final score: 21-10 Patriots. Although it's an 11-point margin of victory, it'll be a lot closer than that, with the Panthers within one score until the very end.

As for commercials, AOL supposedly dropped $10 mil on producing some crazy stuff. I have a feeling it'll bomb. My guess is that the annual big players will come out with good stuff - Coke, Pepsi, the major beer companies - as well as Subway, which will be running one of those "It's okay, I had Subway" spots.

And if you can get an over-under on the length of Beyonce's national anthem rendition, I'd take the over. She'll drag that sucker out for a good two minutes.