Archive for November, 2006

Back in the day, a model dancing around on the hoods of two Jaguars made perfect sense as the focus of a music video.

(This and a ton of other clips are on the Frank the Tank Channel on YouTube.)

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I’ll eventually get back to writing some full-fledged substantive posts once I have some time, but you’ll at least see a return of Frank the Tank’s Classic Music Video of the Week tomorrow. Until then, enjoy these links:

(1) Does Cubs’ New Star Have a Message from the Tribune? (New York Times) – With daily speculation about the Tribune Company breaking up its media conglomeration, a lot of people seem to believe that the recent spending spree by the Cubs is an indicator that the corporation wants to sell off the team since the club has had a reputation of being tightwads relative to its wealth. However, as Andrew Ross Sorkin (no relation to the TV producer Aaron, who I’ll be addressing separately on a completely different subject below) notes, this is completely counterintuitive in the business world and, specifically, the private equity world that the Tribune is probably heading into, where cutting expenses is paramount. If anything, the increased spending by the Cubs makes it less likely that the Tribune is going to part ways with the franchise (at least in terms of selling it off by itself without coupling it with other assets). My feeling is that while the newspaper operations of the Tribune, which are the source of the earnings pressure, will be split off in some fashion, the synergy of the Cubs, WGN Television, WGN Radio, and the partial stake in Comcast SportsNet Chicago is too lucrative and valuable as a whole to break apart into separate pieces.

(2) Critic Loses Giddiness for NBC’s Show ‘Studio 60′ (Chicago Tribune) - This article encapsulates my love-hate relationship with Aaron Sorkin. When “The West Wing” and “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” have been focused on the insider baseball workings of the respective subjects of politics and the entertainment industry, they have been among the most well-written and fascinating pieces of dramatic television anywhere. However, it seems as though Sorkin just can’t resist the opportunity to hammer the viewers over the head with his personal political views, which regardless of whether one agrees with him, are delivered in such a heavy-handed and preachy manner that he destroys the quality of his shows. Case in point is the example that Maureen Ryan refers to in her article, where Sorkin intimated in a recent “Studio 60″ episode that there are people who can live for 50 or more years in that supposed “backwater town” of Columbus, Ohio (despite the fact that it is home to the largest university in the United States, the state capital of the 7th largest state in the country, and a burgeoning “creative class”, the city’s mere location in the Midwest clearly indicates to Sorkin that its population must be full of rubes) and never hear of Laurel and Hardy. (Note: This could very well be the only time that I will ever defend anything from Ohio on this blog, but it’s deserved on this point.) I’ve gone over before how much I oppose the social conservative agenda, yet comments such as these continue to give credence to the charges that Hollywood is full of liberal elites.

(3) Guard Play Awful; Work To Be Done (Mark Tupper Weblog) - Two years ago, the embarrassment of riches in the Illini backcourt with current NBA-ballers Deron Williams (who’s playing incredibly well this season for the Jazz so far), Luther Head, and Dee Brown catapulted the team to the national championship game. Now, it appears as if though Illinois is going to be shuffling around guards until Demetri McCamey arrives in Champaign next season. Granted, I knew there would be a number of painful evenings with the departures of Dee and James Augustine this year, but being able to watch the new team last night for the first time made me realize that we have a huge deficit in terms of being able to produce on the offensive end of the floor. It’s going to be even tougher this weekend on the road in Phoenix against an Arizona team that I believe can go the distance.

(4) Miracle Drug (Ron Karkovice Fan Club) - The Bulls’ back-to-back games against the Knicks couldn’t have come soon enough with all of the Ben Wallace headband wackiness. Once again, I give thanks to Isiah Thomas, the greatest GM in Bulls history.

(5) Crede Tale All About Cash and Dash (Chicago Tribune) – If the White Sox want to move its pillar at third base in Joe Crede as part of blockbuster package to bail Alex Rodriguez out of New York, that’s one thing. However, Crede for Chone Figgins isn’t going to make my heart flutter.

(6) Bears Road to the Playoffs (Windy City Gridiron) – As the Chicago media has commenced the inevitable frothing at the mouth to yank Rex Grossman for Brian Griese, the larger picture is that the Bears are still in command to secure homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. On a related note, notwithstanding the excellent play so far of Eastern Illinois alum and Jessica Simpson boy-toy Tony Romo (let’s not forget that Rex got off to a similarly hot start this year before NFL teams got enough video of him to pick him apart), my feeling is that the Cowboys are paper tigers on a hot streak that they cannot maintain and aren’t a long-term threat. The one real NFC challenger in my eyes is Seattle with a healthy tandem of Matt Hasselback and Shaun Alexander back in the fold. I don’t want a Seahawks version of last season when the Bears destroyed the Panthers during the regular season only to get subsequently smoked by Steve Smith at Soldier Field in the postseason.

And finally…

(7) Snoop Dogg Arrested, Again (Washington Post) - I thought it was standard operating procedure to carry your piece onto the Tonight Show.

(Image from Fall TV Preview)

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Some links as you recover from your turkey coma, getting back to work, and watching Rex Grossman turn Asante Samuel into his go-to receiver:

(1) Prep Freshman Commits to Illini (Chicago Tribune) - [Insert Kelvin Sampson comment/joke/insult here]

(2) Ohio State Will Play in the National Championship Game (In Basketball) (Big Ten Wonk) – As the ACC-Big Ten Challenge gets underway tonight (with Illinois having its first real test of the season tomorrow against Maryland), here’s Big Ten Wonk’s argument regarding the Buckeyes’ chances of winning it all in basketball this year. Couple that with dominance on the football field and you see that the rich are getting richer.

(3) Shorthand for a Holiday: Ralphie, the BB Gun and the Flagpole (New York Times) - Bumpeses!

(4) Peaceful Swiss Army Tries to Give Lessons In Corporate Warfare (Wall Street Journal) – Free pocket knife included with tuition.

(5) What Was He Thinking? (Chicagoist) – I’m a diehard Bears fan that also currently has Rex Grossman starting on my fantasy team. I really need to find a healthier Sunday afternoon hobby, such as developing a crystal meth habit. Re-commence the quarterback controversy.

(6) I Refuse to Over-Dramatize Headbands With an Over-Dramatic Headline (Blog-a-Bull) – Even with Bad Rex rearing his ugly head yesterday, the Chicago Tribune still managed to devote two full pages and multiple columns in today’s sports section to the Ben Wallace – Scott Skiles “feud” over the Bulls’ headband ban. It’s pretty unbelievable how such a petty rift has been blown up in the media over the past couple of days (for the record, my view is that if a 4-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year needs to wear a headband to grab a rebound, just let him wear the stupid thing, for Pete’s sake), so it’s nice that Blog-a-Bull has taken a step back to put this all into perspective.

(7) The Best of Both Worlds: A Modest Proposal for a College Football Playoff That Keeps the Bowls (Frank the Tank’s Slant) - Okay, so this is just a rerun of one of my old posts, but I’m going to keep bringing this up until the college football world comes up with a more equitable solution of crowning a national champion than figuring out BCS percentage points between USC, Michigan, and Florida.

And finally…

(8) Pharrell Williams In Negotiation To Perform At Princess Diana Tribute (AllHipHop.com) - I’ll just let you chew this one over by yourself.

(UPDATE: Here’s a nice message from Rex on his performance against New England.)

(Image from Chicago Tribune)

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It’s been a wacky week leading up to Turkey Day, with Rupert Murdoch and Fox, of all people, coming to their collective senses for once by deciding that a special and corresponding book where O.J. Simpson goes through a “hypothetical” rendering of how he would have killed Nicole Brown-Simpson and Ronald Goldman is a bad idea, Michael Richards of Cosmo Kramer fame spewing out the N-word on stage over the past weekend and then gets laughed at in the middle of his apology on David Letterman, the Cubs organization opening up its wallet to sign Alfonso Soriano until he’s eligible for Social Security, the Jets attempting an onside kick at the opening of the 2nd half that didn’t work against the Bears, Northwestern attempting an onside kick at the opening of the 2nd half that worked perfectly against Illinois, an Ohio State-Michigan rematch for the national championship being a distinct possibility after a classic game on Saturday (although USC needs to lose one of its last two games, forcing the Wolverines to switch gears and having to cheer for Notre Dame this weekend), and Suri Cruise no longer has parents out of wedlock. Despite of all that, there are still plenty of links out there for your Thanksgiving weekend:

(1) Steve Milton: The Rubber Industry’s New Best Friend (Chicagoist) – At some point in my lifetime, the Guiness Book of World Records went from being a collection of outstanding human achievements such as getting to the top of Mount Everest the fastest or the having the longest long jump in international competition to morph into a freak show that honors the carnie that can cram the most piercings into his belly button. That being said, this rubber band ball is pretty sweet.

(2) Macy’s Brands the Holidays (Wall Street Journal) - The only thing that could be worse than the feeling that I had walking by the old Marshall Field’s on State Street the other day to see a bunch of red Macy’s banners all over the place is the thought of someone putting a huge spaceship in the middle of Soldier Field. Oh wait…

(3) Q and A with Will Carroll (Siberian Baseball) – Minneapolis Red Sox had a great session on the gyroball with a contributor to Baseball Prospectus.

(4) White Sox Top 10 Prospects (South Side Sox) – Speaking of baseball, here’s a summary of the top 10 prospects in the White Sox farm system.

(5) Time To Bring On Tougher Challenges (Mark Tupper Weblog) – The schedule has been pretty easy for Illini basketball so far, but it’s going to kick into high gear with games against Maryland and Arizona last week. Rich McBride looked sharp last night coming off of his suspension for impersonating a Portland Trailblazer.

(6) You’re Beautiful (Linda) – My talented sister had a show at the MFA Gallery at Montclair State (I’m not sure which exit that is in Jersey) this week. In case you were wondering, I received absolutely NONE of the artist genes that run in the family.

(7) Don’t Blame Me If You Freeze Your Ass (Chronically Insane) - Tips from Chronically Insane to keep warm during this holiday season.

(8) Bowing Down to the Golden Calf (Fleece the Pig, Flog the Pony) - Another year, another disasterous Circus Trip for the Bulls. I will never understand why Jerry Reinsdorf and Bill Wirtz don’t use their pull to get Ringling Bros. to come to the United Center during the summer when the building is empty as opposed to the very beginning of both the basketball and hockey seasons.

(9) Bush’s Daughter Robbed in Argentina (Washington Post) – A theft that’s pulled off right in front of a bunch of Secret Service agents? Now that’s something that truly deserves an entry into the Guiness Book of World Records.

Go Bears, Go Illini, Go Bulls, and Happy Thanksgiving!

(UPDATE: For even more entertainment, via a Deadspin tip, Gilbert Arenas has his own blog now and it’s highly recommended reading.)

(Image from New York Times)

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In case you haven’t heard, there’s an important college football game tomorrow other than the Battle for the Sweet Sioux Tomahawk Trophy. Having a #1 vs. #2 matchup in the regular season is rare enough, much less when it involves the greatest rivalry in sports in Michigan-Ohio State. Duke vs. UNC is the only other rivalry that comes close, although since college basketball regular season games don’t carry that much weight, their head-to-head tilts are really more for bragging rights. I’ll grant that the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry is exciting when they meet in the ALCS, but when they’re playing close to 30 times per year when you include spring training games, it’s overkill to make the case that it’s Armageddon everytime that they meet on the field. In contrast, Michigan and Ohio State only play each other once a year on the gridiron in front of stadiums holding over 100,000 specatators with, more often than not, a berth in the Rose Bowl or, in this year’s case, the national championship game on the line. Pound for pound, there’s nothing else better in sports. My favorite moment in history from this rivalry is captured on this YouTube video where the Ohio State players rip down the Michigan banner prior to the legendary 1973 game where the two undefeated teams played to – what else – a 10-10 tie. It was a glorious trash-talking moment decades before such actions became passe.

As an Illinois alum and fan, it’s my duty to hate both the Wolverines and Buckeyes. Between Anthony Thomas’ obvious-fumble-that-wasn’t-called-a-fumble in 2000 and Matt Sylvester’s freak shooting day to spoil the Illini’s perfect basketball regular season in 2005, those two teams have certainly caused me a lot of personal pain in recent years. I’ve said many times before that college rivalries are several steps higher in passion and intensity than any of the pro rivalries. Anyone can wake up one day and proclaim himself or herself to be a Yankee or Red Sox fan, but college fan ranks are usually devoid of substantial numbers of posers. (Key exceptions: the Duke and Notre Dame “subway alums”.)

Despite all of this internal vitriol during the regular season which can’t be duplicated at the pro level, however, there’s also the countervailing notion of conference pride. For instance, there are few things I enjoy more than watching Michigan lose in football, basketball, volleyball, moot court tournaments, electrical engineering challenges, business school case study competitions, etc. Yet, when it comes down to a BCS or NCAA Tournament berth, as long as they aren’t taking a spot away from Illinois, I’d much rather have the Wolverines grab it as opposed to a team from another conference. Part of this, as the late and great Milton Friedman would say, purely due to self-interest. While it behooves the Bears to have all of its NFC North rivals go 0-16 for the year, the perception of your college team is intricately tied to the strength of that team’s conference. Witness what’s happening to Rutgers this year where, if they finish the season undefeated, they probably will not make the national championship game due to the perceived weakness of the Big East. On the other side, Florida will get every benefit of doubt if it comes out as the SEC champion. Whether you’re talking about BCS or RPI rankings, recruiting wars, or the sports punditry, your college team directly benefits from the success of your college rivals. Thus, while there’s no reason for me to ever consider wanting the Packers to win unless a Bears playoff spot would result from it, there are a whole lot of reasons why I would want the all of the Big Ten teams to sweep their non-conference schedules regardless of where the Illini are in the standings.

At a more amorphous level, there’s also this notion of conference pride. The fact that Illinois is a member of the Big Ten is an integral part of the school’s identity and isn’t taken lightly. For me, this has personally become a larger deal since leaving the bubble of Champaign, where the superiority of the Big Ten is never questioned, to come back to Chicago where I work side-by-side with yahoos who swear by SEC football or ACC basketball. It’s nice to counter their quaint misguided biases with the fact that, in terms of fan intensity, the Big Ten always leads the nation in attendance for both basketball and football, and in terms of excellence in competition, our conference is the only one other than the SEC (which has the benefit of having 12 teams as opposed to 11) that regularly places multiple teams in both the BCS bowls and the Final Four. Plus, on the academic side, one only needs to look at the U.S. News rankings to see that the Big Ten from top-to-bottom is whole lot stronger than any of the other BCS conferences.

I might hate Michigan and Ohio State as an everyday matter, but as a celebration of what it means to be a Big Ten alum, I absolutely love their rivalry. No matter who wins tomorrow, the Big Ten is going to come out on top.

(Image from Ohio State University Archives)

(UPDATE: An unbelievably sad turn of events today with the news of the passing of Michigan coaching legend Bo Schembechler.  R.I.P., Bo.)

Although most people remember “Jump” as the preeminent Kriss Kross tune, the “Warm It Up” video is significant on a few levels. First, this particular video was the genesis of the fad of kids wearing their clothes backwards. This trend became so pervasive when I was in junior high that the school district actually had to enact a written policy to ban people from wearing their clothes backwards, which is bona fide proof that I grew up in the ‘hood. However, I’ll have to admit that my old Blackhawks Starter jacket looked pretty bad-ass turned around.

This leads into my second point, which is that this video encapsulates how important it was during those first couple of years of the 1990s to have the right Starter jackets and jerseys. (For more insight on this, Peter Schrager of Fox Sports wrote an fantastic post a couple of months ago on Deadspin regarding his purchase of a New York Giants Starter jacket as a youngster.) The type of Starter wear that you had directly correlated with your social status in school. It would have been simple enough if everyone could just buy a Bulls or Raiders Starter jacket (the coolest teams to have at the time), but at least at Brookwood Junior High School, having the same Starter jacket as someone else was a fashion faux paus on the same level as two girls wearing the exact same dress to prom. My Blackhawks Starter jacket ended up being a solid choice since it represented a hometown team that wasn’t overexposed (or, in today’s case, not exposed at all) while having same color scheme as the Bulls. Plus, the logo supposedly gave me street cred since, as I was informed after my purchase, the markings on the Native American’s forehead look like the Folks gang sign (there really ought to be warning labels for these types of things for ignorant half-Asian/half-white guys such as myself).

Finally, as anyone that remembers this video understands, this was also the first time much of America’s youth was exposed to Chief Illiniwek. The Illini need more recruiting tools like this one.

(This and a ton of other clips are on the Frank the Tank Channel on YouTube.)

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While Chicagoans hold their greatest vitriol for the Packers, we can take solace in the fact that no matter how the Bears perform, we at least get to live in what we consider to be the greatest city in the world as opposed to Green Bay. As I’ve noted before, Chicago has across-the-board pro and college sports rivalries with all of the teams in Detroit, but anyone that’s ever lived in the Windy City would never willingly move to the Motor City. (Granted, any that’s ever lived anywhere would probably not willingly move to Detroit.) There’s really only one town that Chicago is constantly comparing itself to in terms of life in general: New York City. Chicago has always competed with New York in terms of sports, pizza (as a certified pizza connoisseur, I have a deep respect for the thin slice that you can fold over, but there’s nothing that compares to the deep dish), the arts, comedians, writers, mobsters, politicians, financial markets, skyscrapers, rappers, and pretty much everything else.

Since New York holds an unparalleled place in the world’s psyche along with carrying a whole lot more sizzle, though, Chicago has a bit of an inferiority complex with its East Coast rival as displayed in the “Second City” moniker, albeit the harping about New York here is not nearly as acute as the afflictions in Boston and Philadelphia (I’ve seen firsthand how neurotic those people are towards NYC). In the age of geographic alignments of sports leagues and divisions, Chicago-New York matchups don’t take on the gravity or frequency today as they did compared to even only a decade ago, yet there’s still some glamour associated when the two largest sports fan markets in nation meet up on the field, court, or ice. (Don’t waste my time, L.A. “fans”.) Thus, in honor of the Bears’ being in the midst of two consecutive trips to the final resting place of Jimmy Hoffa, here’s a ranking of the Chicago-New York sports rivalries from top to bottom:

(1) Chicago Bulls vs. New York Knicks – Obviously, the first thing that comes to mind are the heated battles in the early-1990s between Michael Jordan’s Bulls and the Pat Riley-led Knicks, who were essentially the Bad Boy Pistons minus basketball skills other than hard fouls. While the Bulls got the best of the Knicks more times than not with several dispositions in the playoffs and Jordan’s “Double Nickel” game at Madison Sqaure Garden from his 1995 comeback (years ago, the late Gene Siskel wrote this nice retrospective on #23′s top performances at MSG) , I’ll still go to my grave believing that the MJ-less Bulls of 1994 would have made it to the NBA Finals that year if not for the egregious phantom foul call by Hue Hollins on Scottie Pippen in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. (Only the 2000 Illinois-Michigan football game could compare in terms of me being violated by an officiating crew – Illini fans know what I’m talking about.) Outside of just those ’90s games, these two NBA franchises are amazingly intertwined in terms of players and coaches with Phil Jackson, Charles Oakley, Bill Cartwright, Jalen Rose, Eddy Curry, Jamal Crawford, Antonio Davis’ crazy wife, and, of course, John Starks (at the time of that signing, Jerry Reinsdorf obviously felt that he didn’t piss off Chicago fans enough by bringing Albert Belle into town) just off of the top of my head. Plus, Isiah Thomas was nice enough to give us the draft pick that turned into Tyrus Thomas along with the chance to grab Greg Oden next year in what could turn out to be the NBA version of the Herschel Walker trade between the Cowboys and Vikings. This rivalry is certainly in a down period with Zeke’s historic ineptitude, but I’m sure that it will rise again in the near future.

(2) Chicago Cubs vs. New York Mets – This was one of the top rivalries in the National League before the divisions were realigned following Major League Baseball’s expansion in the 1990s. The Wrigley Field Bleacher Bums were among the most frequent users of the “Dar-ryl” chant against Darryl Strawberry while the most infamous Cubs moment this side of Steve Bartman was the black cat running in front of Ron Santo at Shea Stadium in 1969, which subsequently led to Chicago’s historic collapse to give the Mets the pennant. In fact, when the Cubs challenged a proposed realignment during the 1980s that would have sent them and the Cardinals to the NL West when there were still only two divisions, the Tribune Company cited the team’s rivalry with the Mets as the main factor. (The fact that West Coast road games would start at 9:30 Central Time on WGN was only a minor consideration, right?) While the two teams have suffered a number of of poor seasons over the past decade, the eventual three-division realignment is what really took a lot of the steam out of this rivalry. Still, there seems to be a bit of mutual disdain between the two clubs and fan bases that isn’t quite there with my White Sox and the Yankees (as I’ll explain later).

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(3) Chicago Bears vs. New York Giants – A classic old-time NFL matchup that, in my opinion, the league ought to be scheduling every year the way they currently have the Colts-Patriots annual tilt or the 49ers-Cowboys games from the past. Seeing that these are marquee teams with national fan bases from the two largest media markets in the NFL, it’s a no-brainer on paper. There’s a substantial amount of history between these two franchises, particularly in the pre-Super Bowl days when the clubs met six separate times for the NFL Championship (which is still the most any two teams have met in the title game including Super Bowls). Of course, the most memorable Bears-Giants moment from my lifetime, however, was the infamous whiffed punt by Sean Lendetta in the 1985 NFC Divisional Playoff Game (if anyone has found footage of this on YouTube, please let me know) that the Bears returned for a touchdown en route to 21-0 shutout.

(A couple of notes on this past Sunday’s Bears-Giants game: (a) Rex Grossman has certainly been on and off, but I don’t believe that it compares to the schizophrenic play of Devin Hester. The Bears punt returner seriously either fumbles/muffs/runs backwards for a loss or takes it all the way back to the house – there’s seriously no in between. I was cursing his performance all game, which he thereupon ran back a missed field goal for that tied for the longest play in NFL history, which is amazingly held by another Bear in Nathan Vasher. Hester’s like the Kirsten Dunst of football; and (b) The way that Eli Manning was shell-shocked to the point where he threw an interception right back to Bears in the series after that Hester touchdown, thereby sealing the game, cannot be much of a comfort to Giants fans. Rex was on the ascent by the end of the third quarter after playing a horrible first half while Eli got progressively worse as the night went on.)

(4) Chicago White Sox vs. New York Yankees – I always like to compare the Yankees with the Michigan Wolverines in terms of rivalries since, just as everyone in the Big Ten considers Michigan to be a huge rival, all of the American League teams circle the New York games on their respective schedules. However, Michigan really only considers Ohio State, Notre Dame, and Michigan State to be rivalry matchups, while the Yankees limit their emotions to the Red Sox and Mets. The point here is that White Sox fans (and I am most definitely one of them) might put a great deal of importance on the games with the Yankees, but I know well enough that this feeling certainly isn’t reciprocated. This was certainly different in the 1950s and 1960s when the Sox and Yankees were perennially battling each other for the AL pennant (with the Sox on the short end every time with the exception of 1959), yet in this age where the two teams rarely play more than six games per year due to the unbalanced scheduling in baseball, it’s unlikely this matchup is going to be much of a rivalry again unless they start meeting in the postseason on a regular basis.

(5) Chicago Blackhawks vs. New York Rangers – I’ll freely admit that I know little past the basics of hockey, but, as I’ve mentioned before in my Modest Proposal to Save the NHL, I do have to take issue with the fact that the NHL has essentially ignored its “Original Six” rivalries ever since they stopped using those wacky names for conferences and divisions. Thus, in the infinite wisdom of league schedulers, the Blackhawks and Rangers played each other only once last year and will play against one another only one time this season. Instead, Hawks fans get to enjoy plenty of tilts with the Columbus Blue Jackets (at least when they aren’t being blacked out on television in Chicago). So, this once great matchup sadly barely registers anywhere anymore.

And finally…

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(6) Chicago Cubs vs. New York Yankees – This isn’t a rivalry at all other than being baseball fans’ (if not everyone’s) universal benchmarks for failure and success and a Fox executive’s wet dream of a postseason matchup, but it’s an opportunity to remind Cubs fans that Babe Ruth’s alleged called shot came at Wrigley Field against the Chicago National League Ball Club in the 1932 World Series. Ahhh… it’s great to be a White Sox fan.

(Images from SportsWall, Cubbies Baseball, Baseball Myths)

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After watching the Illinois football team turn the ball over in 4 straight possesions in their own territory to lead to 4 consecutive Purdue touchdowns on Saturday, the opening of the Illini basketball season couldn’t get here soon enough. As Illinois seeks to avenge the 1987 NCAA Tournament loss to Austin Peay (Dick Vitale famously said prior to that game that he’d stand on his head if Illinois lost, which I believe is one of the sources of his present Dookie bias) tonight at the Assembly Hall, let’s preview the college basketball season.

(1) Illinois – This past offseason hasn’t exactly been a positive one for Illinois basketball fans. Satan’s Spawn, er, Kelvin Sampson stole away Eric Gordon, the nation’s top shooting guard from this year’s high school graduating class. (On another note, Ron Zook just got a commitment from the nation’s top high school wide receiver, so I’m pretty sure Sampson won’t go after him seeing that football is a different sport than basketball, but you never know.) Senior leader Rich McBride was named an honorary member of the Cincinnati Bengals by having some run-ins with the law and will be suspended for the first 4 games of the year. There aren’t any obvious fixes to the gaping holes left by the simultaneous departures of Dee Brown and James Augustine.

Nonetheless, I believe that Illinois is going to have a solid season where the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament is a reasonable goal. There are three main reasons for my confidence. First of all, Bruce Weber, for all of the questioning of his recruiting skills, is still pound-for-pound one of the top in-game coaches in the country. He’s proven time and time again that he can maximize the talent that he has to work with and then some. The second reason is that Brian Randle is going to turn into a more valuable weapon than ever. The power forward has ridiculous athleticism and the success of The Illini will depend upon him stepping up on offense to fill in the gaps left by the absences of Brown and Augustine. Finally, Jamar Smith was already arguably the best shooter in the Big Ten last year as a true freshman. He’s going to get even more opportunities to light it up from behind the arc this season.

Of course, the thought of either Chester Frazier or transfer Trent Meacham taking over the point guard position isn’t exactly comforting at this time while the Illini might need to develop freshman Brian Carlwell quickly as a presence in the post if Shaun Pruitt can’t handle an increased workload. These unknowns make Illinois an extremely difficult team to pin down this season – this club could reasonably range from winning the Big Ten conference to not even making the NCAA Tournament. So, let’s take a look at how Illinois stacks up with the rest of the Big Ten…

(2) Big Ten – Ohio State’s monster incoming freshmen recruiting class led by the guaranteed #1 pick in the 2007 NBA Draft in Greg Oden is the talk of the entire basketball world and is the favorite to top the Big Ten on a lot of boards. However, I’m putting my money on Wisconsin winning the conference this year with the combination of the senior leadership of Alando Tucker and the ability of Bo Ryan to implement a system that seems to be successful every year no matter who is there. The Buckeyes are certainly on the same tier as the Badgers just because of the sheer influx of talent in Columbus, while the Illini and Indiana Hoosiers are on the next tier. Michigan State is in a similar situation as Illinois with some large losses, such as Dee’s old high school teammate Shannon Brown, due to departures for graduation and/or turning pro, but Tom Izzo is as good of a coach as there is in the business. His cross-state rival in Ann Arbor, on the other hand, is due for another year of unmet expectations as a result of the general ineptitude of Tommy Amaker, so be sure to sell Michigan short. Everyone else in the Big Ten ought to be ecstatic for an NIT bid this year.

Big Ten Conference Final Standings Prediction: (1) Wisconsin, (2) Ohio State, (3) Illinois, (4) Indiana, (5) Michigan State, (6) Michigan, (7) Iowa, (8) Minnesota, (9) Penn State, (10) Purdue, (11) Northwestern

(3) DePaul and the Big East – Wilson Chandler. If you didn’t know that name already, you’ll know it for sure if you pay attention to college basketball at all this season. Chandler was one of those young players that jumped out at me last year with his beyond-his-years presence in the post and is going to give the Blue Demons a chance to get back to the NCAA Tournament once again (or at least the Big East Tournament). The real obstacle for DePaul is the rough schedule with a non-conference tilt that includes Kansas, Wake Forest and an appearance in the Maui Classic against Kentucky for sure, not to mention the tough Big East Conference slate and the fact that they just got clobbered by Bradley on Saturday. There’s no doubt that Jerry Wainwright is challenging his relatively young team from the get-go.

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On another note, the new DePaul uniforms are an improvement over the old ones, but I’ll repeat my call for the Blue Demons to go back to their late ’70s/early ’80s-style threads. That would be a perfect way to honor the late Ray Meyer. Anyway, here’s my prediction for the entire Big East, which is still strong but not the top-to-bottom monster that it was last year…

Big East Conference Final Standings Prediction: (1) Pittsburgh, (2) Georgetown, (3) Marquette, (4) UConn, (5) Villanova, (6) DePaul, (7) Syracuse, (8) Louisville, (9) West Virginia, (10) Rutgers, (11) Cincinnati, (12) Notre Dame, (13) Seton Hall, (14) St. John’s, (15) Providence, (16) South Florida

(4) The Rest of the Nation – The conventional wisdom is that Florida, which is returning the entire core of its national championship team from last season, is the favorite to do it all again. However, there is so much stacked against a college team repeating that I’m going to have to go in a different direction. North Carolina has as much talent as anyone, yet I’m just not getting the championship vibe from the Tar Heels and the reinvigorated ACC is going to exhaust that still young team. Kansas is another favorite with my Homewood-Flossmoor brother superstar Julian Wright, but until Bill Self can get out of the first round with James Naismith’s old school, I’m not betting on them.

So, I’m coming out of leftfield and going with Arizona to win it all. They have a high talent level with Marcus Williams and Mustafa Shakur and a coach in Lute Olsen that has won it all before.

As for a Cinderella story, I stand by my statement from last spring that we won’t see another midmajor such as George Mason reach the Final Four for an extremely long time. With the new NBA age minimum now being 19, the power schools are going to be more loaded than they ever. There will surely be some obscure team from nowhere that makes the Sweet Sixteen, but George Mason was the culmination of a trend of parity as opposed to the start of it.

Other BCS Conference Champion Predictions: SEC – Florida, ACC – North Carolina, Big 12 – Kansas, Pac 10 – Arizona

(5) Final Four Predictions – Arizona, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Pittsburgh

(6) National Championship Game Prediction
– Arizona over North Carolina

(Images from FightingIllini.com, DePaulBlueDemons.com)

(UPDATE: As soon as I stated that Brian Randle and Jamar Smith were the keys to the Illini season, they both went down with injuries that could keep them out for 6 weeks.  I apologize to Illinois fans everywhere for this awful hex.)

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When I began this blog nearly one year ago, I anticipated that I would write about politics nearly as much as I do now on sports. I’ve always been an avid follower of the political game and log onto the New York Times and Washington Post websites every morning. What I quickly found out, however, is that every time I started a blog post on politics, I ended up gritting my teeth with with such disdain for today’s political climate to the point where I would almost never finish my thoughts. This is because I feel that neither of the major political parties seem to want someone like me.

Let me start out by explaining my political background. I’ve considered myself to be a Republican since long before the time that I could even cast a vote. However, I’ve always had major disagreements with large portions of the Republican Party platform because my political philosphy is purely libertarian, which is generally considered to be a position of being a fiscal and free market conservative and a social liberal. One might say that would make me a “moderate”, although I generally eschew that term since I admit that my views on fiscal and economic issues are generally in line with Ayn Rand while I could probably be mistaken for Barbara Streisand on the social side. I do believe, however, that politicians as whole need to be more pragmatic and centrist when it comes down to the practical matters of governance and legislation as opposed to being wedded to their respective ideologies. The reason why the Republicans always won out with me despite this internal conflict was that I weighed the fiscal and economic issues greater than the social issues. That’s because I felt and still feel that economic principles are based on pure logic and a government that ignores those principles will have an immediate negative effect on the financial health of the country as a whole. In contrast, I have always believed that social issues are usually hot-button topics that would inflame a lot of emotions in people but have little practical effect on me personally.

Over the past several years, however, the Republicans have increasingly focused on “wedge” social issues to drive voter turnout from evangelicals and like-minded religious conservatives while generally ignoring the libertarian wing of the party. Today, Republicans are now garnered with the reputation of being obsessed with overturning Roe v. Wade, opposing gay marriage, meddling in the family medical decisions regarding people on life-support that have been in comas for years, proposing that building a huge fence on the U.S.-Mexican border is appropriate “immigration reform” even though this economy would largely grind to a halt without such immigrants, and cutting off funds for embryonic stem cell research that could yield cures for degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. At the same time, while the Republicans still largely adhere to the principles of lower taxes and open markets, they have completely abandoned the concept of a smaller government by expanding the size of the federal bureaucracy to levels that would make even FDR blush. All of this was done in the belief that the libertarian wing of the party and similar-thinking independents would hold the line because of the liberal orthodoxy of the Democratics. Frankly, this attitude completely turned me off.

I wish that I could tell you that the Democratic Party went after my type with gusto, but that didn’t happen. Even though the Democrats were able to secure both the U.S. House and Senate by attracting large waves of independent voters that were upset at our situation in Iraq, they have mostly reverted back to the populist rhetoric of the old line liberals as opposed to the centrist policies of Bill Clinton. The sealer for me was when Ned Lamont ended up beating Joe Lieberman in the primary for Connecticut’s Senate seat, where Lieberman was representative of the type of Democrat that I would have gladly voted for in this type of environment. (It turned out that the liberals that foamed at the mouth to oust Lieberman were a bit out of touch with the general electorate as he won his seat back by running as an independent.) At this point in time, the Democratic base is more bent on being a liberal counterweight to the Bush administration as opposed to moving to the center. This is even though Clinton, an avowed centrist, has been the only Democrat to win two terms as President since Franklin D. Roosevelt. The general decision of the Democratic Party leadership to move away from such success since Clinton left office continues to astound me and has prevented me from considering to move over to their side even with my nearly complete dissatisfaction with the Republicans.

What’s amazing is that public opinion polls continuously show that the majority of the people in this country tilt slightly to the right on economic issues and slightly to the left on social issues, which would seem to be a great incentive for one of the parties to seize a libertarian platform. Yet, since libertarians are not easily mobilized or found in large groupings the way social conservatives are in evangelical churches or populists are in labor unions, neither party has spent any time courting my type in an organized manner. Meanwhile, in the rush to separate the country’s population into two simple-minded silos of being either left-wing protesters of the war in Iraq or right-wing Bible thumpers, I did not see a single story in the national media over the past two years about how the libertarian viewpoint, which is largely the independent voter’s viewpoint, has been ignored by the major political parties until this past week in The Economist, which happens to be a British newsmagazine. (On a separate note, The Economist is far superior to the U.S. newsweeklies in nearly every facet of reporting and analysis even on American stories. I highly recommend it if you want serious and in-depth news coverage.) Thus, the very voters that turn almost every election have somehow flown completely under the radar by the powers that be in politics and the media.

An argument that I hear a lot is that I should start supporting a third party candidate (in my case, the actual Libertarian Party), yet I take the view of Eric Zorn, who noted that you need to vote with your head instead of your heart. I don’t believe in the effectiveness of a “protest vote” and, as Zorn pointed out, the notion that a large number of third party votes will “send a message” to the two major political parties has always turned out to be false, such as the utter disregard for Ross Perot’s views by both Republicans and Democrats even though he ran the most successful third party presidential campaign of modern times in 1992. (“Can I finish? Can I finish? Can I fin-ish?”) As a practical matter, I doubt that the Republicans that voted for Perot in 1992 that led to 8 years of Bill Clinton or the Florida Democrats that voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 that led to 8 years of George W. Bush think a “protest vote” is all that good of an idea today. At the same time, I’ve always put the thought of strong third parties in the United States in the “be careful for what you wish for” category. Instead of being centrist parties, third parties are almost always on the fringes of the far right or left sides of the political spectrum. Having fascist and socialist representatives in government, which is not at all uncommon in “progressive” Europe, doesn’t exactly encourage more cooperation in society.

In the end, I still voted for more Republican candidates than not this past Tuesday, although the bitterness of my political philosophy being ignored by both parties is going to continue to linger. Much of the country, however, ended up disagreeing with me by giving all of Congress back to the Democrats and I honestly can’t blame them. If you controlled the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives at the same time and weren’t able to pass any reforms of the Social Security system and immigration policy that were promised in 2004, there was a clear failure of leadership. Obviously, the war in Iraq loomed and continues to loom over everything, but the fact that the Republicans failed on making advances on those domestic issues meant that the quagmire in Iraq couldn’t even be countered with positive achievements elsewhere in the campaign.

The Democrats were the beneficiaries of a “kick the bums out” election this year, but if they want their victory to be more than a 2-year blip, they will still need to follow the gameplan that I wrote for them this past January. In my opinion, they aren’t even close to meeting those standards. The last time that the Republicans were bogged down by an unpopular war and corruption at the highest levels, they were swept out by Democrats in 1976. However, that turned out to be only a short-term diversion as Ronald Reagan rose to power in 1980 and set a conservative national agenda that is still largely in place today. That won’t be changed by the Democrats if their “policy” on the war in Iraq over the next 2 years is to subpoena current and former Bush Administration officials on what they were thinking in March 2003 as opposed to finding a forward-looking solution that allows the U.S. to withdraw its troops in a reasonable timeframe without compromising our broader goals for peace and stability in that country.

On the Republican side, I hope that they finally realize that they cannot build a “permanent majority”, as Bush and Karl Rove have sought to create, on social conservatives and the electoral votes of the South alone. The party can learn a lot from Arnold Schwarzenegger (I always found it ironic that the two most prominent politicians to ever come out of the liberal cauldron of Hollywood are the Terminator and the Gipper), who was elected to another term as Governor of California in a landslide despite it being the bluest state in the nation. (On a related point, after witnessing a Democratic governor get re-elected without barely a fight even though there are Federal investigations galore surrounding him and the Green Party receive 10% of the votes, there is no doubt that my home state of Illinois has voting patterns that are more in line with coastal states such as New York and California than the other states in the Midwest. The Illinois Republican Party needs to be constantly reminded of this whenever it feels the inevitable rumblings from its base to turn back sharply to the right on social issues.) The Republicans definitenly have potential 2008 Presidential candidates that fit the profile of attracting broad support from both sides of the aisle in John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, but the question is whether they can come out of the party’s primary without having to grant the promises to evangelicals that Bush was willing to dole out. A possible positive development of the Republicans suffering huge losses this year, from my standpoint, is that those 2008 primary voters will have to look toward a candidate’s electability in the general election as a prominent factor as opposed to ideological purity, so the likelihood of a more moderate temperant from the party the next time around might be greater.

The upshot of all of this is that I still call myself a Republican, albeit an extremely disaffected one whose decision is currrently based on choosing the lesser of two evils. There are individual Democrats that I admire and support such as Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel (who was the true architect of the Democrats’ takeover of the House as opposed to Howard Dean), yet that party’s leadership and platform overall still has done little to attract people like myself. In the end, I hope that the Republicans can get past the toxic lure of voter turnout from social conservatives with reactionary wedge issues and get back to what a broad majority of Americans really supported the party for over the past four decades, namely a smaller federal government, lower taxes, and strong national defense. That is the only way that the Republicans can win back my heart instead of just my head.

(UPDATE: The Onion summed the election up best here.)

It’s weird to think of “Mo Money Mo Problems” as a “classic” music video, yet it has already been over 9 years since the single hit the charts. In my opinion, this was one of the last great videos before MTV went completely toward the reality show realm (which hasn’t necessarily been a negative development for me – I could watch “Next”, “Parental Control”, and “Date My Mom” on a continuous loop), with Biggie Smalls’ posthumous appearance and the introduction of the Shiny Pants Era of Hip-Hop. Plus, there’s a time capsule-esque quality with the references to the Tiger Woods-Fuzzy Zoeller dispute that was fresh on everyone’s minds at the time. So long fried rice, hello fried chicken!

(This and a ton of other clips are on the Frank the Tank Channel on YouTube.)