Saturday, November 27, 2010

Saturday Mass (Gathering)

In honor of today's Ohio State-Michigan rivalry game, I reflect upon a September trip to Columbus for my alma mater's contest against the Buckeyes...

What's your religion?

If you ask most Ohio residents that question on a fall Saturday, you may likely hear "Buckeye" among the responses. For at least a dozen weekends each year, the Ohio State University football team becomes the center of their universe.

The final Saturday of the summer in Columbus, Ohio proved to be no different. The Ohio University Bobcats made the roughly 75-mile trip northwest from Athens for their contest with Ohio State. The odds were against Ohio: a 1-1 record coming into the game, and they were 30-point underdogs against the #2 nationally-ranked Buckeyes, who entered the game with a 2-0 record. Despite the apparent mismatch, both Ohio and Ohio State fans converged upon Ohio Stadium in force.

The party atmosphere in Columbus is evident hours before kickoff. Over three hours before the game, the highway exit ramps leading to "The Horseshoe" are jammed for roughly a mile. The smoke from barbecues in the many surrounding parking lots waft into the sky on an otherwise cloudless morning. Tents, many in Ohio State's familiar scarlet-and-gray color scheme, have sprung up en masse. On sidewalks near the stadium, vendors sell various wares -- including jerseys, anti-Michigan t-shirts, and "buckeye" necklaces. The nearby bars have entrance lines stretching out the door. A stone's throw away from Ohio Stadium is RiverJam -- a free-to-enter event near the Olentangy River, featuring cover bands and a video screen with pre-game coverage, along with food and drinks for sale. Meanwhile, the Ohio State marching band gives a free pre-game performance at nearby St. John Arena.

The interaction is friendly between Bobcats' and Buckeyes' fans. The Ohio fans come dressed in green-and-white, providing a stark visual contrast to their Ohio State counterparts. Ohio fans know what to expect, although they hope for the best -- a competitive game that proves the prognosticators wrong. They want to beat the Buckeyes, but more realistically, they want to scare them. Moral victories can be important for a football program seeking greater regional and national exposure.

As the noon gametime approaches, it's time to walk to venerable Ohio Stadium. If you need any further religion/football connotations, look no further than The 'Shoe. Constructed in 1922, Ohio Stadium is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is one of the cathedrals of college football. The rotunda entrance -- which reportedly was designed to mimic the dome at Rome's Pantheon -- includes three-dimensional flowers on the ceiling, and stained glass windows -- which include logos and significant moments in Ohio State football history.

Upon approaching the seats, you find that the on-field action actually begins before the game starts. The Ohio State band comes onto the field before the teams make their entrances, performing "Script Ohio," a breathtaking example of human movement and formation. The band spells "Ohio" in cursive lettering, leaving only the dot of the "i" unfinished. When the formation is complete, a drum major and sousaphone player dance onto the field, and the crowd reacts like a touchdown has just been scored. Once the "i" has been dotted, the sousaphone player takes a celebratory bow, while the stadium erupts in approving cheers.

It's now time for the opening kickoff! Ohio will get the ball first -- looking to catch Ohio State off-guard. Such hopes were only a pipe dream on this day, however. On the 2nd play of the game, quarterback Phil Bates threw a pass toward the left sideline, which was deflected and intercepted by the Buckeyes' Tyler Moeller at the Bobcats' 31-yard-line! To win -- or even stand a chance -- Ohio had to play perfect football. Such a start foreshadowed what was in store for the Green-and-White.

After surrendering a 1st down, the Ohio defense stepped up and limited the Buckeyes to a field goal. The Bobcats, despite turning the ball over on their side of the field in the opening minute, only trailed 3-0. There is plenty of time for the team to compose themselves and start all over.

On the ensuing Ohio State kickoff, Bobcat returner Julian Posey -- whose brother, DeVier, plays for the Buckeyes -- received the ball at his own 1-yard-line, and found an opening in the kick coverage. Posey raced down the left sideline, almost untouched, to the opposite end zone for an apparent touchdown! The Ohio fans in attendance were screaming with delight -- but they did not notice the yellow penalty flag on the field. An illegal block in the back was ruled by the officials -- and instead of Ohio potentially taking a 7-3 lead over the #2 team in the country, it was still 3-0. To add insult to injury, the Bobcats were now starting the offensive drive at their own 9-yard-line.

Those two plays -- the interception and the touchdown-nullifying penalty -- set the tone on a warm September afternoon in Columbus. The Ohio State players, coaches and fans were all relieved by the game's early events -- and any chance of a major upset was suddenly in dire jeopardy.

Looking around The 'Shoe, you encounter a mass of humanity. The Bobcats were well-represented by their fans, with Ohio selling its entire visiting team ticket allotment in the closed end of the structure, coupled with other random specks of green appearing throughout the stadium. It could be estimated that about 6,000 to 7,000 Bobcat fans were there. Still, despite the strong showing, Ohio fans were severely outnumbered by those in scarlet-and-gray -- mostly scarlet. The announced attendance was 105,075. For a three-and-a-half hour period, Ohio Stadium could have qualified as the 7th largest city in the entire state!

Following the penalty during the kickoff return, Ohio's drive immediately stalled, resulting in a punt. The Buckeyes' offense then went to work, driving 55 yards in 8 plays, ending with a Terrelle Pryor touchdown pass to running back Brandon Saine. With 5:53 remaining in the 1st quarter, Ohio State led 10-0 -- and as the band played the "Buckeye Battle Cry" following the score, the Ohio coaching staff knew that they were already reaching a critical juncture of the game.

On their next possession, the Bobcats' offense went backwards, losing 11 yards in three downs. Following Ohio's 2nd punt of the game, the Buckeyes immediately moved up the field. Pryor, a junior quarterback whose name has been included in Heisman Trophy talk, led Ohio State into opposition territory. The drive concluded with Pryor scrambling 13 yards into the end zone! There is still 3:11 remaining in the game's opening stanza -- and with Ohio State enjoying a 17-0 lead, it is already shaping up to be a blowout.

The score would remain the same into the 2nd quarter, when the Buckeyes would again drive into Bobcats' territory. Ohio State would settle for Devin Barclay's 2nd field goal of the game, and it was now 20-0.

The budding rout would not end there. Ohio fumbled on the 2nd play of its next possession...and Pryor followed that by finding tight end Jake Stoneburner for another TD pass, making it 27-0. On the next drive, the Bobcats fumbled again! This time, Dan "Boom" Herron capped the Ohio State possession with a 1-yard TD run. Midway through the 2nd quarter, the nation's 2nd-ranked team led 34-0 over a shell-shocked Ohio team. How much worse can it possibly get for the Bobcats?

Almost miraculously, the 1st half would conclude with no more scoring. It was now time for the 105,000+ in attendance to enjoy two of the top marching bands in the country.

Marching bands make the college football experience what it is. Whether it's the fight songs, the in-game pieces, or their performances of contemporary music, the bands play a crucial part in entertaining the fans -- as well as encouraging fan interaction. It is so much different from an NFL game, where music and sound effects are constantly blasted through a stadium's speakers. While the college game is not immune to such theatrics, the bands add a sense of purity to the game that makes it ultimately unique.

Despite its one-sided nature, very few people had exited Ohio Stadium as the 3rd quarter got underway. The Bobcats and Buckeyes exchanged numerous scoreless possessions, which included 2 Ohio turnovers and 1 by Ohio State. After the Bobcats intercepted a Pryor pass near the end zone, the Buckeyes tackled Ohio running back Vince Davidson in his own end zone for a safety! It was now 36-0, Ohio State, with 6:09 left in the 3rd quarter. Ohio then free-kicked to the Buckeyes, and what emerged was a 10-play, 55-yard drive that iced the game once-and-for-all. Herron finished the drive with his 2nd TD run of the game, and as the 3rd quarter drew to a close, Ohio State held a comfortable 43-0 lead.

With the OSU band playing "Hang On, Sloopy" in the background, the Ohio offense attempted to salvage some dignity from this contest. They embarked on a 9-play, 61-yard drive, ending with an 11-yard touchdown pass from Boo Jackson to Terrence McCrae. Ohio was finally on the board! Those in green-and-white who stuck around finally had something to cheer about. The Ohio State shutout bid was broken.

The final 6:14 ticked off the clock without any more scoring, and the remaining OSU fans celebrated a 43-7 victory over their in-state opponent, as the two teams shook hands at midfield. The Ohio State band followed with its alma mater, "Carmen Ohio," while Buckeyes players, coaches and fans participated by singing along.

The Saturday service was now complete, and the remaining attendants filed out of the cathedral known as Ohio Stadium. For several hours, Buckeyes' fans had dedicated themselves to Ohio State football, while thousands more did the same by watching on television, or listening on the radio. They will do the same on at least a dozen other occasions during the course of the season.

In some parts of the country, college football is not just a sport -- it is a way of life. Columbus, Ohio and its surrounding environs is one of those areas. Legendary former coach Woody Hayes is deified by Buckeyes fans everywhere, with some of his quotes serving as commandments for the Ohio State football program. When visiting this area, however, just don't say you're a University of Michigan fan -- or you might be considered an atheist.

The Buckeye State battle begins -- Ohio vs. Ohio State

Friday, November 19, 2010

A Game All Its Own

Originally posted on Facebook -- 11/17/10

Competition feeds us all -- sometimes quite literally.

It's 9 am on Halloween Sunday at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey. In four hours, the New York Jets and Green Bay Packers will be facing off inside New Meadowlands Stadium. Outside in the parking lot, however, one game has already begun -- the tailgating.

When it comes to tailgating, the competition can take on many forms -- against Mother Nature, against those in surrounding parking spots (knowingly or unknowingly), and against yourself. You want to make it a memorable and fun experience -- something that can enhance a team's biggest win in the actual game, or compensate for a disappointing loss.

In Lot 26D, across the street from the Izod Center and a short walk from New Meadowlands Stadium, all five human senses are prominently in use during the morning and early afternoon. Fans will be seen in Jets' and Packers' attire; not to mention Halloween costumes as well. The smell of grills burning and food being cooked will waft its way into our noses. The sounds of celebration will be heard before a much-anticipated NFL game. The cold and brisk wind that is occasionally whipping throughout the parking lot will be felt. Finally, the taste of a satisfying pre-game meal will resonate in our mouths and fill our stomachs.

The wind proved to be the biggest threat to Sunday's festivities. Every time the charcoal would be lit in the grill's cauldron, a gust of wind would blow it out. Man vs. Mother Nature is proving to be a more fierce competition than initially expected. A cat-and-mouse game ensued, with bursts of wind seemingly toying with the grill, while objects -- such as tables and human bodies -- were used to protect the fire from the extinguishing elements. Eventually, Man won -- and the tailgating could properly begin.

Now it's time for the real competitiion to ensue. Whether we admit it or not -- we're a nosy society. We like to people-watch...and it's no different at a football game. Just pull into the parking lot, and immediately, the sights are impossible to ignore. Some bring RV's to the stadium for tailgating; others buy old school buses and turn them into a personal team banner. Some fly flags from the windows of their cars, and others are much more unassuming.

Upon pulling into the parking space, you can feel the eyes of those who are already around you, staring you down and taking mental notes. You can imagine the questions running through their mind: "What team does this person root for?" "What kind of jersey are they wearing, if any?" "What kind of tailgating setup do they have?"

That last question is the most important...because you can't help but look. Everything is up for scrutiny -- the chairs and tables used, whether the grill uses charcoal or propane, how many people are in your party, etc. There is one category that ranks above all, however -- what food and drinks are offered?

Since the Jets and Packers had a 1 pm scheduled start, our tailgating party is broken down into two sessions -- breakfast and lunch. With the grill finally heated up, we can begin with our 1st item on the menu -- pork roll sandwiches! While it may seem odd on the surface, it maintains a New Jersey culinary tradition in a New Jersey sports venue. A round of scrambled eggs and assorted fresh fruit bites follow, and we're stuffed heading into the mid-tailgate break.

How do you occupy the time when you're not eating or having something to drink? Lots and lots of games. Washers, cornhole, tailgate toss -- the possibilities are almost endless. There is also the tried-and-true tradition of simply tossing a football around. You can test your accuracy -- or try to put a dent in some unsuspecting person's vehicle. Fortunately, there were no crimes committed as my friends and I threw the football to each other for about 20 minutes. Then, it's on to the lunch portion of the tailgate.

All of the joyous smells associated with a barbecue are now making their presence felt. As the burgers come into contact with the metallic grill surface, a sizzling sound emerges, and some light, white smoke begins to fill the air. After a few flips, the once pink-and-frozen patties turn a deep, juicy brown. To further titillate the palate, some macaroni salad -- as well as an array of pretzels, potato chips and tortilla chips -- make their way onto the green serving table. Once the grill becomes free, hot dogs are added to the mix. Just for good measure, some Halloween candy was presented for dessert. The feast is on! There were only treats on this day -- no tricks.

At one point, a Packers fan in the parking space next to us strikes up a conversation, and during our discussion of both football and non-football related matters, he compliments our tailgating style. The "competition" -- real or imagined -- is now officially a success. Any time unsolicited praise comes your way, you can't help but feel good.

At 12:30, it became time to clean up and head toward the stadium. Kickoff was a half-hour away, and the walk from the Izod Center to New Meadowlands Stadium can take anywhere between 10-15 minutes. It's a good way to burn off some of the food that we had spent all morning and early-afternoon eating!

Another Jets' tailgate has come-and-gone. Could it have been better? Yes...there were some new menu items that I had meant to break out for lunch, but ran out of time. Still, there is no way I'd rather spend a fall Sunday -- and after a disappointing 9-0 Jets' loss to Green Bay that afternoon, you could argue that the "game" beforehand was more of a highlight than the actual contest itself.

Burgers on the grill during a Jets' pre-game tailgate

When Sports Collide -- Part 3

Originally posted on Facebook -- 10/23/10

It's a saying that is prevalent at every level of baseball -- "Good pitching will stop good hitting."

In Major League Baseball's postseason, offensive contributions are already at a premium when compared to the regular season. Every pitch and its location takes on an additional level of importance, and a couple of inches can make the difference between "precision" or "mistake," "hero" or "goat," "champion" or "also-ran." When an elite pitcher is on the mound, mistakes are usually few and far between. When two elite pitchers are on the mound -- opposing each other -- there is the potential of an epic contest.

Last Saturday night presented such an opportunity. On a chilly October night in south Philadelphia, two of the league's best went head-to-head. Game 1 of the National League Championship Series pitted Tim Lincecum and the San Francisco Giants against Roy Halladay and the Philadelphia Phillies. Two former Cy Young Award winners, two pitchers who had already posted magnificent performances in the NL Division Series, two pitchers who are vastly different in both their appearance and demeanor, were facing off in a potential matchup for the ages.

In Game 1 of the NLDS vs. Atlanta, Lincecum dominated with a complete game, 2-hit shutout -- striking out 14 Braves' hitters along the way. The shaggy-haired Lincecum, listed at 5'11," 172 lbs., has an electric fastball, curveball, changeup and slider. The 26-year-old right-hander has won 56 games during his brief career with the Giants, already having captured two NL Cy Young Awards -- in 2008 and 2009.

Meanwhile, 33-year-old Roy Halladay's career took a different path to the playoffs. His first 12 seasons were spent with the Toronto Blue Jays, where he was named an All-Star six times, and took home the AL Cy Young Award in 2003. Last December, Halladay was traded to the Phillies, where he instantly became the main cog in their rotation. Featuring a heavy sinker, curveball, cutter and changeup, the 6'6," 230 lb. right-handed hurler went 21-10 with a 2.44 ERA for Philadelphia during the regular season. He tossed the 2nd perfect game in Phillies' history, against Florida on May 29th. His last start, however, may have been even more dominant. In Game 1 of the NLDS vs. Cincinnati, Halladay authored the 2nd no-hitter in postseason history.

With all of the hype surrounding this matchup...which pitcher would blink first?

The buzz was apparent as my father and I arrived at Citizens Bank Park. Roughly three hours before the scheduled first pitch, hundreds of fans had already arrived, eager for the gates to open. It was a carnival-like atmosphere, as a cover band dressed in Phillies' jerseys played for those gathered, and a large television screen near the stage showed the ALCS game between the New York Yankees and Texas Rangers. Vendors hawked their postseason wares in makeshift tents outside the stadium.

Inside the ballpark, the excitement was even more palpable. Waves of people, dressed in red-and-white, wandered through Ashburn Alley as batting practice went on for both teams. The random black-and-orange Giants t-shirt or hat in the crowd was magnified by its color contrast. With each passing minute toward gametime, the seating area became swollen with people.

There's something extra special about attending Game 1 of a MLB playoff series. It's like experiencing Opening Day all over again! Both teams' entire rosters -- from the trainers, coaches and manager to the starting lineup -- are announced, one by one. A large flag is unfurled in the outfield for the National Anthem, with every player on the Phillies and Giants lined up along their respective baselines. When the anthem is finished, the teams retreat to their dugouts -- and the tension mounts. In mere moments, the two best teams in the National League in 2010 will begin competing for the pennant -- and a trip to the World Series.

As the Phillies take the field, red fireworks sequentially explode above the roof of Citizens Bank Park. The white "Fightin' Phils" rally towels are waved by the sold-out crowd of 45,929 as the Phillies ace, Roy Halladay, reaches the pitcher's mound.

Both pitchers lived up to the hype in the 1st inning. Halladay retired the first 3 men he faced in order; Lincecum did the same in the bottom half of the inning. Halladay answered with a 1-2-3 frame in the top of the 2nd. Two artists were at work, and the sold-out crowd had the pleasure of watching them paint (corners) early on.

Lincecum ran into potential trouble in the bottom of the 2nd. A leadoff double by Ryan Howard had the Phillies threatening, and the fans on their feet. But the elite pitchers can work their way out of jams, and the young right-hander proved his mettle. A Jayson Werth strikeout, a Jimmy Rollins popout, and Raul Ibanez flyout later, and Lincecum was resting comfortably in the Giants' dugout, with the game still scoreless.

In the top of the 3rd inning, Halladay revealed that he was human, after all. After retiring the leadoff batter, San Francisco outfielder Cody Ross stepped to the plate. As he approached the batter's box, I turned and said to my father, who attended the game with me, "Beware Cody Ross in this series." I did not expect my prophecy to be proven true 3 pitches later. Ross crushed a 417-foot homer to deep left-center field, and the Giants were on the board, holding a 1-0 lead.

The lead was short-lived. On Lincecum's 3rd pitch in the bottom-half of the inning, Phillies catcher Carlos Ruiz hit a fly ball to right field that snuck over the 13-foot-high fence. It was now a 1-1 game, with both aces each making one mistake. The ballpark was alive as Ruiz rounded the bases, and the gigantic "Liberty Bell" behind Ashburn Alley "rung" in celebration.

The teams traded goose eggs in the 4th inning, despite having opportunities to score. Halladay allowed 2 hits, but did not surrender a run. Lincecum walked the leadoff batter, but it would not come back to haunt him. A pitcher's duel was in the making.

In the top of the 5th, Cody Ross came up to bat once again. For the 2nd time in the game, Ross took advantage of a Halladay mistake, and deposited the baseball into the left field seats. While it didn't travel as far as his first home run (385-feet this time), the damage was still done. A raucous Philadelphia crowd was silenced, and the Giants grabbed a 2-1 advantage. Lincecum held up his end in the bottom-half of the inning, and the San Francisco bats were now searching for insurance runs.

The top of the 6th inning began innocently enough, with Halladay retiring the first two batters in order. Rookie catcher Buster Posey then singled. That was followed by left fielder (and former long-time Phillie) Pat Burrell's double, which chased Posey home for a 3-1 lead. In came pinch-runner Nate Schierholtz for Burrell, and shortstop Juan Uribe promptly singled up the middle to score Schierholtz. Suddenly, a shell-shocked Citizens Bank Park crowd saw Halladay as a mere mortal -- and their Phillies now trailed 4-1. To compound matters, Lincecum looked to be on his game.

Despite the deficit and the obstacles that stood in front of them, the Phillies showed their resiliency. After a Chase Utley infield hit, lanky right fielder Jayson Werth stepped into the batter's box. On the 6th pitch of the at-bat, Werth got a pitch to hit, and launched it to right-center field. The ball carried, and carried...and cleared the fence! It was now 4-3, and a subdued Citizens Bank Park suddenly sprung back to life. On this night, both aces were vulnerable -- and it was still anyone's ballgame.

The 7th inning came and went without any scoring, and as the late stages of the game approached, both managers decided to turn things over to the bullpens. Halladay allowed 4 runs, 8 hits, and struck out 7 Giants during his 7 innings of work. Lincecum surrendered 3 runs, 6 hits, and struck out 8 Phillies. Lincecum leaves with the lead -- but would it hold up?

Ryan Madson was tabbed to pitch the 8th inning for Philadelphia. He kept his team within striking distance, thanks to a 1-2-3 inning. Now the pressure was on lefty Giants' reliever Javier Lopez to hold the lead. His assignment? The Phillies' most dangerous left-handed hitters, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Lopez proved up to the task, getting Utley to ground out and Howard to strike out. Without hesitation, San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy handed the ball to his closer, Brian Wilson, who amassed 48 saves and had a sparkling 1.81 ERA during the regular season. After allowing a Werth single, Wilson struck out Jimmy Rollins to end the inning. The Giants were now 3 outs away from taking a 1-game-to-nothing lead in the best-of-7 NLCS.

Closer Brad Lidge was summoned from the Philadelphia bullpen for the top of the 9th inning. Lidge, who is no stranger to walking the tightrope, allowed a single, stolen base, walk, and hit batsman -- but somehow, did not give up a run. Heading to the bottom of the 9th, it was still a 4-3 game.

A still-packed Citizens Bank Park saw fans spinning the rally towels above their heads, urging the Phillies to make a last-minute comeback. After Ibanez struck out to start the inning, Ruiz was hit by a pitch. The potential tying run was now on 1st base. That was as far as the rally would go, however, as Wilson whiffed pinch-hitter Ross Gload and center fielder Shane Victorino to end the game. The Giants celebrated their victory on the infield, shaking hands and trading congratulatory high-fives, as a stunned and depressed crowd headed for the exits.

For those who expected Halladay and Lincecum to toss dual no-hitters, the much-ballyhooed pitching matchup was probably a disappointment. For those who expected an intense, ultra-competitive postseason baseball game, they got exactly what they paid for. The rest of the NLCS awaits.

Attending three vastly different sporting events in six days may seem crazy on the surface. I simply call it, "October."

Ace pitchers Tim Lincecum and Roy Halladay matched up in Game 1 of the NLCS

When Sports Collide -- Part 2

Originally posted on Facebook -- 10/22/10

On Friday, the hockey gods summoned for my first NHL game of the season, as the New Jersey Devils faced off with the Colorado Avalanche.

The Devils were making headlines throughout the summer, as they continually attempted to re-sign free agent Ilya Kovalchuk to a long-term contract. The Devils had acquired the superstar winger in a trade with Atlanta in February, and Kovalchuk responded by averaging a point-per-game for the rest of the season. His play convinced management to make him a franchise centerpiece for the next decade.

Unfortunately for the Devils, there were some bumps in the road. Their first contract with Kovalchuk was rejected by the NHL, as the 17-year, $102-million deal was cited for circumventing salary cap rules. After another month passed with the Russian sniper back on the open market, New Jersey finally secured their investment with a 15-year, $100-million contract. It was just one in a series of off-season moves the Devils made, in an attempt to remain a perennial playoff contender.

The Avalanche, on the other hand, remained under-the-radar this off-season. Once a model for success -- with Stanley Cup victories in 1996 and 2001 -- Colorado is now trying to return to NHL prominence, with a steady influx of young players. Leading the charge is forward Matt Duchene, the #3 overall selection in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. Duchene led all NHL rookies with 24 goals last year, and was a key cog as the Avalanche made a surprising playoff appearance. Colorado management hopes that 2009 was only a small sign of things to come for the franchise.

As the teams prepared for the opening puck drop, Newark's Prudential Center was only about two-thirds full. For years, the Devils have struggled with attendance -- especially early in the season. Couple that with a Yankees playoff game occurring at the same time, and that further exacerbated the issue. The 12,221 who were present for the game, however, were loud and boisterous -- with the overwhelming majority anxious for a Devils' victory.

The Devils came out firing -- peppering Avalanche goalie Craig Anderson with shots. Anderson, a 29-year-old in his 2nd season with Colorado, was up to the task -- stopping 17 New Jersey shots in the 1st period alone! The Avs could only muster 3 shots on goal in the opening stanza, but one of them found the back of the net against future Hall-of-Fame goalie Martin Brodeur. Cody McLeod's wrist shot from the left circle resulted in a power play goal -- and a 1-0 Colorado lead, midway through the 1st period. Not even 30 seconds later, McLeod was ejected for a major boarding penalty against Devils' rookie defenseman Matt Taormina, but the Devils could not take advantage of the ensuing 5-minute power play. The Avs held a 1-0 lead at the 1st intermission.

The ice wasn't as tilted in the middle frame. The two teams almost evenly traded shots on goal, with the Avalanche padding their lead at the 11:48 mark of the 2nd period. A Chris Stewart slap shot from the left circle as skillfully saved by Brodeur, but the rebound was tucked in by T.J. Galiardi. The Avs' forward, who scored 15 goals last season, tallied his 1st of the year for a 2-0 Colorado lead. Fans throughout the Prudential Center were dumbfounded -- the upstart Avalanche, despite a major disadvantage in shots on goal, were getting the best of the Devils.

New Jersey would answer exactly 3 minutes later. With the Devils on the power play, Taormina wound up and took a slap shot from about 10 feet inside the blue line. Anderson couldn't see through the mass of bodies in front of the goal crease, and the puck found its way into the back of the net! The goal horn blasted, the fans stood, clapped and cheered in unison, and Matt Taormina celebrated his 1st National Hockey League goal. The deficit was cut in half - it was now 2-1 Colorado. It would remain that way through the end of the 2nd period.

As the 3rd period got underway, the Devils were desperate for a goal to tie things up. Anderson was up to the task, flawlessly protecting the Avalanche net during the first few minutes. Colorado then received a valuable insurance goal, as Stewart fired a perfectly-placed slap shot from about 30 feet away over Brodeur's shoulder and just inside the goal posts. Once again, the Avs enjoyed a two-goal advantage, 3-1, with 15:29 remaining in the game.

The Devils would not wilt. They continued their assault on Anderson, finally breaking through when Kovalchuk scored his 2nd of the season on a deadly wrist shot. With just over 11 minutes remaining, the score was now 3-2, Colorado. Can the comeback continue?

In all, the Devils outshot the Avalanche 16-7 in the 3rd period, and fired 43 pucks at Anderson during the course of the game. But despite a nearly 2-to-1 advantage in shots on goal, the Devils could not come up with the game-tying tally. Time ran out, and the Avs celebrated a 3-2 victory, mobbing Anderson near his goal crease with congratulatory pats on the helmet.

Devils' fans filed out of the Prudential Center, seeking answers. New Jersey had stumbled to a 1-3-1 start to the season, while Colorado improved their record to 3-1. Did the Devils' offense run into a hot goalie, or are there underlying problems?

Two games, two different sports -- both contests coming down to the wire. With football and hockey already conquered, playoff baseball remained -- featuring a pitching matchup that was billed as one of the best in recent postseason history...

To be continued (again)...

Colorado goalie Craig Anderson makes one of his 41 saves against the Devils

When Sports Collide -- Part 1

Originally posted on Facebook -- 10/20/10

October is my favorite month of the year.

There's that chill in the air that causes you to wear hoodies on a regular basis, and leaves you seeing your breath for the first time. The trees' leaves morph from their normal green color to vibrant shades of red, yellow and orange before floating to the ground. The seasonal food becomes warm and rich, accented with spices. And of course, there's Halloween -- which gives everyone an excuse to dress up in costumes and pig out on candy!

For a sports junkie, however, October offers another lure -- a veritable orgy of game options! The NHL and NBA begin their seasons during this month. The NFL and college football seasons are in full swing. And last, but certainly not least -- postseason baseball makes its presence once again. There is a magical aura that surrounds these events -- whether it's a team's season opener, a big "contender or pretender" statement game, or a final push toward the ultimate goal...a championship.

Last week presented an opportunity to dive headfirst into the plethora of sports that October has to offer. First, the New York Jets hosted the Minnesota Vikings in a Monday Night Football contest. On Friday, the New Jersey Devils took on the Colorado Avalanche at the Prudential Center in Newark. Finishing the week off in style, I attended Game 1 of the National League Championship Series between the Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants on Saturday night. While only one of my favorite teams was involved in these games, it was quite easy to get sucked into the atmosphere of each.

When the Vikings headed into New Meadowlands Stadium for their Week 5 contest against the Jets, there were a number of storylines. The Vikings were coming off a bye week after stumbling to an early 1-2 record, while the Jets were 3-1 and looking to continue living up to their lofty early-season expectations.

There was also the drama surrounding Minnesota quarterback Brett Favre. Not only was the future Hall-of-Famer making his NFL-record 289th consecutive start, but he was also attempting to become the 1st player in NFL history to throw for at least 70,000 yards in his career, and the 1st to amass 500 touchdown passes. Favre was also embroiled in a controversy with a former Jets' employee, in which he allegedly sent inappropriate and racy cell phone photos to a gameday hostess when he was a member of the team in 2008.

Mother Nature literally threatened to dampen the spirits of almost 78,000 in attendance, as lightning strikes and heavy rain in the area delayed the start by over a half-hour. Once the game got underway, both teams appeared out of rhythm -- and then the weather made itself a factor once again. A virtual monsoon pelted both the fans and the field, and the Jets held a rather uneventful 9-0 lead at halftime, thanks to 3 Nick Folk field goals. As the 3rd quarter was about to begin, the storm subsided -- and everyone was in for a 2nd half treat.

Now, I was among the many who wanted Brett Favre to retire from football once-and-for-all during each of the last 2 years. I didn't like what he did to Green Bay and their fans during his 1st "retirement." I didn't like how he backed out of his contract with the Jets by "retiring" again, only to sign with the Vikings. And frankly, I was tired of the "Will he or won't he?" speculation on whether he was playing again this season. Upon entering the stadium Monday night, I wanted to see Favre fail, and fail miserably -- just to drive him one step closer to giving it up for good. The 1st half provided some personal satisfaction, as the 41-year-old QB struggled. A funny thing happened during the 2nd half, however -- I discovered that Favre, despite his flaws and despite all of the controversy that surrounded him, is still fun to watch.

After the Jets got another Folk field goal to take a 12-0 lead midway through the 3rd quarter, Favre went to work. With 2:10 remaining in the 3rd, Favre connected with new acquisition Randy Moss on a 37-yard bomb into the end zone; the 500th TD pass of Favre's distinguished career. The Jets then booted their 5th field goal of the game to make it 15-7 at the end of the 3rd quarter. The Vikings would instantly answer, thanks in part to another classic Favre pass. Under pressure from the Jets' defensive blitz, old #4 hit speedy receiver Percy Harvin over the middle with a throw on the run, and Harvin scampered the rest of the way for a 34-yard touchdown! After the 2-point conversion failed, it was now 15-13. With the exception of a few scattered Vikings' fans, the still-soaked crowd at New Meadowlands Stadium fell deathly silent. Favre was seemingly transporting back to the prime of his career to victimize his former team.

Both teams entered into a stalemate during the next few minutes, with both the Jets' and Vikings' defenses stepping up. Finally, with 4:30 remaining in the game, New York running back Shonn Greene broke through, and scored on a 23-yard run to make it 22-13, Jets! As the fans celebrated, there was still a nagging thought in the back of everyone's minds -- Brett Favre. The Vikings' QB has 29 4th quarter comebacks in his career -- is there another one left?

It sure appeared that way at first. The Vikings drove 60 yards in 1:21, culminating with another Favre TD pass to Harvin. With just over 3 minutes remaining, it was now 22-20 -- plenty of time for Minnesota to make a defensive stop and drive for a game-winning field goal or touchdown.

With the Jets starting their next drive at their own 22-yard-line, they gained one 1st down before being forced to punt at the 2-minute warning. The Vikings -- and Favre -- were about to get the ball. The tension inside New Meadowlands Stadium was almost immeasurable...the dreaded fear of, "Here we go again" at the front of almost everyone's minds.

Only a few had headed for the exits, as the nervous fans attempted to muster up enough noise to distract the Minnesota offense. The Vikings started the drive at their own 16-yard-line -- needing at least 50 yards to get into field goal range.

Favre's 1st pass to Randy Moss fell incomplete. His 2nd pass to Percy Harvin fell harmlessly to the turf as well. It was now 3rd down and 10 -- and the fans' cheers had changed from tentative to boisterous. They sensed the biggest moment of the game. A Jets encroachment penalty made it 3rd-and-5 -- further building the drama. Standing in the shotgun formation, Favre took the snap -- looked to the right -- threw a short pass intended for tight end Visanthe Shiancoe -- and it was picked off by Jets' defensive back Dwight Lowery! Lowery raced into the end zone for a game-clinching touchdown -- as the fans jumped around and screamed at the top of their lungs. It was now 29-20, and the Jets' fans in attendance -- who waited out a weather delay, sat through a moribund 1st half while being pelted by heavy rain, and witnessed one of the most exciting 2nd halves of the NFL season -- could finally go home happy.
All that excitement, and it was only Monday! What would the rest of the week have in store?

To be continued...

Minnesota's Brett Favre throws his 500th career TD pass

Bad Business; Good Times

Originally posted on Facebook -- 10/9/10

I should be rolling in some money right now.

When I bought a partial-season ticket plan for the Philadelphia Phillies last December, I did so mainly as a business investment. At the time, the Phillies had over 40 consecutive sell-out crowds, they still appeared to be the team to beat in the National League East, and the pair of seats offered by the team were in a prime location -- Section 421, Row 4 -- almost directly behind home plate.

Tough to beat this location

My original idea was to attend all of the Mets-Phillies games (there were 3 on that particular ticket plan), go to a couple random games (just because baseball's baseball), and sell the rest. That plan was VERY successful. By the end of the regular season, I had attended 6 games at Citizens Bank Park...and my TOTAL cost for the season tickets was $32. That's right, $32!

When you factor in the "dead money" from the games that I attended, I actually finished the season with a $100 profit. How many times can you say that buying season tickets actually made you money?

The Phillies ended up being a sound business investment

Thankfully, my business intuition was right. I may not know much about money-making ventures like real estate or the stock market, but I like to think that I do know a little bit about sports. The Phillies, after struggling early in the season, made a strong run during the summer to gain control of the NL East. The fans, despite a shaky economy, kept coming out -- selling out every game in the regular season. Some of my friends bought tickets to games; others I sold on StubHub for up to three times their face value!

The Phillies captured another NL East title in 2010

With the Phillies winning their division and heading to the Major League Baseball postseason for a 4th consecutive year, I felt that I was sitting on a potential gold mine. If my regular season investment turned out so fruitfully, how much could playoff tickets sell for?

A funny thing happened along the way, however. I wanted to attend a Phillies' postseason game, just to experience the atmosphere for myself...and I wanted someone special to come with me.

The thought of attending a Phillies' playoff game intrigued me

Ever since my father retired in 2007, he's had more time to enjoy life. In the past, whenever I would ask if he wanted to attend a ballgame with me, he'd always been too run down from the workweek to even give it a second thought. It was certainly understandable...he worked long hours at New York Life, and had a roughly 1 1/2 - 2 hour commute to work everyday. The weekends were a time for him to take care of tasks around the house that he couldn't do otherwise, or just relax and mentally prepare for the upcoming week.

Now, things are different. During the last couple of years, Dad has been able to accompany me to numerous sporting events -- Jets games, Mets games, Minor League Baseball games, and Phillies games. Whenever we've gone together, we've had a great time...and there's something special about a father-son relationship when there's baseball involved. Just watch the end of "Field of Dreams" for an example.

Philadelphia had become a popular destination for baseball games with my father

Dad loves Citizens Bank Park, for both its beauty and functionality. It's relatively convenient to get to, he enjoys the sightlines, the food is great, and there's usually some quality baseball involved. When about a week ago, I asked Dad if he wanted to come to Game 2 of the NL Division Series against the Reds on Friday night, I barely even finished the question before he excitedly said, "Yes!"

My father and I were excited to attend the National League Division Series together

After I asked him to the game, playoff "phever" hit Philadelphia. Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter in Game 1 of the NLDS -- only the 2nd in MLB postseason history -- and ticket prices to subsequent games soared. Had I wanted to, those tickets could have been sold on StubHub for FIVE times their face value! It would have essentially paid for my partial-season tickets in the 2011 season! I was faced with the age-old dilemma -- love or money.

Actually, it wasn't much of a dilemma at all.

Playoff time in Philadelphia

At 4 pm on a beautiful October Friday, my father and I arrived at the massive sports complex in South Philly. Upon passing through the gates, we were both handed white "Fightin' Phils" rally towels by the ushers. It was already a festive atmosphere, 2 hours before the 1st pitch, with thousands of people dressed in red. Dad and I immediately bought NLDS game programs, and then headed to Ashburn Alley for an early dinner. When that was done, we wandered around the sparking ballpark before making our way to the seats.

Rally towels were handed out to everyone in attendance

The game itself threatened to be a disappointment. Reds' 2nd baseman Brandon Phillips hit the 4th pitch of the game over the left field fence, immediately spoiling any thoughts of a 2nd consecutive postseason no-hitter.

Brandon Phillips gave the Reds an early lead with a solo HR

Phillies' starting pitcher Roy Oswalt appeared tentative and out-of-rhythm, with Cincinnati touching him up for 4 runs in 5 innings.

Phillies' starting pitcher Roy Oswalt couldn't find the rhythm on this night

The Reds held a 4-0 lead, the near-record crowd of 46,511 was listless and silent, and the possibility of an opening split in Philadelphia was very much real. As October has proven many times before, however, strange things can happen in postseason baseball games.

In the bottom of the 5th inning, the Phillies began making their move, thanks in huge part to the Reds' shoddy defense. Errors by Phillips and 3rd baseman Scott Rolen kept the inning alive, before Phils' 2nd baseman Chase Utley came through with a 2-out, 2-run single to right field. Suddenly, it was 4-2 -- and Citizens Bank Park was alive.

Chase Utley gets the Phillies on the board with a clutch 5th inning single

The Phillies drew even closer in the 6th, as the Cincinnati bullpen showed signs of weakness. A leadoff walk (which, studies have shown, score 75% of the time), a couple of hit batsmen, and a bases-loaded walk made it a 4-3 game. The Phils had seized the momentum, and the ballpark was ready to explode.

The rally towels were out in force during the Phils' rally

After the Reds went scoreless in the top of the 7th, Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker brought in Cuban phenom pitcher Aroldis Chapman to try and regain control of the game. Throwing at-or-over 100 mph, Chapman caused the crowd to buzz after every fastball.

Aroldis Chapman was burning up the radar gun, but the Phillies were unafraid

What then ensued was some of the strangest baseball I had ever seen. Utley, leading off the inning, was "hit" with a 101-mph fastball -- only it didn't hit him. After a Ryan Howard strikeout, outfielder Jayson Werth hit a slow chopper to 3rd base. Rolen made the play, threw to 2nd base to force Utley out, but the Phillies' baserunner was ruled safe! Replays would show otherwise, but the call stood.

With 1 out and 2 runners on base, shortstop Jimmy Rollins hit a line drive to right field. The Reds' Jay Bruce drifted to his right, stretched out his glove -- and missed the ball! Utley and Werth both scored to give the NL East Champs the lead, and South Philadelphia was in bedlam. The entire ballpark was furiously waving the rally towels, the concrete beneath our feet was shaking, and the roar dispensed from the mouths of 46,000+ was deafening.

The crowd goes wild as the Phillies take the lead

At that point, in the middle of all that craziness, my father and I looked at each other and simply smiled. These are the moments that are priceless, worth so much more than whatever money those tickets could have fetched.

The Phillies tacked on a couple of insurance runs, making it 7-4 at the end of the 7th inning. The bullpen then did its job, and Brad Lidge closed things out to give Philadelphia a commanding 2-games-to-none lead in the best-of-5 Division Series.

The Phillies take a 2-games-to-none lead over Cincinnati

During the drive home, Dad and I were talking about the game and its improbable events...and he added, "Thanks for taking me, that was great." Yes, it was.

Just as an aside, I did sell a pair of Phillies playoff tickets for a profit -- Game 1 of the NLDS; the historic Halladay no-hitter. No one ever said being a businessman was easy.

My father and I at Game 2 of the NLDS


Welcome to "The Experience!" In the coming days and weeks, I hope to post a number of entries based on all the sporting events I attend. My goal is to give the reader a perspective that wouldn't normally been seen or heard while watching a game on TV, or listening to it on the radio. It might be a moment inside the game that catches my attention, an interaction with another fan, or it might be the entire process that accompanies attending the game itself.

In any event, I hope you enjoy it!