Category Archives: Other

Athlete of the Week

I’m not really sure how it started. My family goes upstate to Lake George, New York every summer; for a week in August we spend a large chunk of our time outdoors—swimming, boating, playing golf, tossing a football. Three years ago my two brothers and I decided to turn it into a competition that included six events: golf, swim, run, basketball, tennis, and miniature golf. The winner, based on a points system, would be declared the Athlete of the Week.

Each of us thinks he is the best athlete and there is a manageable age gap (Brian turned 29 last week; I turned 25 last week; Steve will turn 21 in November) so the excitement level was high for the inaugural competition in 2008. We were fortunate to spend nine days at the lake, meaning we wouldn’t have to overdo it on any one day.

Our scoring system was as follows: 5-3-1 for basketball, tennis, the run, and the swim; 3-2-1 for each of the four rounds of golf (and 5-3-1 for the aggregate); and 3-2-1 for each of the night rounds of mini golf.

After four rounds of golf, one round of mini golf, and the swim, Steve was in first with 20 points, Brian had 18, and I had 10. By dominating tennis, as expected, beating both of my brothers in one-on-one basketball, and winning the run comfortably, I tied Brian with 28 points. Steve finished with 25.

Word spread among family and friends about this Athlete of the Week competition (though the only person happy about the tie was my mom) and by the next summer there was considerable hype leading up to our vacation. Because I’m a nerd with too much time on my hands professional journalist, I created a media/fan guide for the event—a 12-page, 2,000 word packet with photos, quotes from the competitors, and Vegas-style odds for each event.

Naturally, I made myself the favorite. This was not just because I thought I was the best athlete in the family, but because I figured I wouldn’t come in last in every round of golf as I’d done the previous year. Despite having dominated my brothers in tennis for years, I guaranteed victory in the run, telling “the media” I could have an off day in tennis but it was impossible to have an off day while running.

A week after my declaration, I saw the bottom of Brian’s running shoes move farther and farther in front of me as I faded down the stretch of the two-mile race. Had I won, I would have been the champion. Instead, Brian was the Athlete of the Week. Apparently, you can have an off day in running. Of course my brothers still remind me of my guarantee.

Earlier this month, despite spotty weather and fewer days at the lake, a competition was still planned. It just wasn’t planned very well. Brian kicked off the annual trash-talking email thread, vowing to claim his fourth straight title (he won last year rather easily). Steve talked about “turning heads” on the basketball court and continuing to dominate on the golf course. His latter statement was true: Steve shot 76-77-80 and won every round. The surprising part was that I came in second each day. Though I had been given the nickname “The Milkshake Man” because the last place finisher had to buy milkshakes for the others after the round, it was Brian who fell apart on the course this year.

Here was a guy who once beat out hundreds of New Yorkers in a putting contest at Grand Central for the opportunity to face New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning. He out-putted Eli that day but couldn’t get a handle on the Queensbury Country Club greens.

Brian did prevail in the swim race, as he’s done every year, and I came in second—no surprises there. With my stronger events coming up, I felt very confident about my chances to win the competition. Unfortunately, it never happened. By the time Brian had to leave, we had done none of the other events.

I have hopes that with better planning the competition can resume next year. It always raises the debate about the definition of athletic. Some people think it’s about running fast and jumping high. Others feel it’s about good coordination. I like to think of it as someone who could step into a competition like Athlete of the Week and perform well in everything.

For example, after learning that Jimmer Fredette was back in his hometown of Glens Falls the same time we were at the lake, we started talking about Jimmer’s chances in Athlete of the Week. At first we assumed he would dominate—we knew he was a three-sport star in high school and that he’d obviously cruise in the run and, you know, basketball. But during our final round of golf, our uncle informed us that he’d seen highlights of a recent celebrity pro-am that included Jimmer and Charles Barkley. Jimmer lost to Sir Charles, who until then I had pegged as the worst golfer on the planet. Suddenly I started reconsidering Jimmer’s chances. Could he play tennis? Could he swim? If Jimmer Fredette were to somehow enter the Athlete of the Week competition, maybe he would not win.

But at the same time I don’t think anyone would say my brothers and I are better athletes than The Jimmer. So I ask you, readers, what do you think? How do you define a great athlete?

Carnival Games

If Boston Celtics sharpshooter Ray Allen walked into a carnival, could he win a teddy bear at the basketball booth? Could gold medal-winning Olympic softball pitcher Jenny Finch toss a change-up into a barrel? Could Jeanette Lee, a.k.a. “The Black Widow,” shoot a cue ball powerfully and accurately enough to knock a small tee out of a small circle? If so, how much money would they have to spend to do it?

These important questions have been on my mind since I attended a local carnival recently and saw these games in action.

Let’s start with the basketball game. It seems simple: five bucks will get you three shots at a basket. The distance is about the same as a foul shot, but the hoop is higher than 10 feet, the ball is inflated more than usual so as to be extra bouncy, and the rim’s diameter is not regulation size.

My girlfriend and I, both capable shooters, attempted a total of about 20 shots and made a total of zero. I didn’t see anyone else make one either. So, what gives? It was hard to get a good look at the rim from the side (or, obviously, from above) but I’m pretty sure it was wide enough to fit a basketball.

So was I just having a poor shooting day? Would Ray Allen have fared better? I didn’t randomly choose Allen as my example, by the way. He is regarded as one of the best pure shooters in the NBA (fifth best free throw percentage of all time), has performed well in pressure situations (hit seven three-pointers in Game 7 of 2008 Finals), and as Jesus Shuttlesworth in He Got Game, lived in Coney Island and likely had a lot of practice with this particular boardwalk game.

Even so, I’d love to see how much of his $170 million in career salary earnings Allen would have to spend before winning a prize.

Carnies are better at cheating than they are at grammar.

The softball toss involves a barrel tilted at a 45-degree angle. The goal is to get the ball to stay in the barrel. This is a tricky game because I have seen many people toss it in—you need a soft, high arc that lands just past the bottom lip—but when a contestant is one conversion away from a throwback jersey you can guarantee that ball is popping out.

Jenny Finch is accustomed to throwing underhand, which is the technique required in this game. However she is known for her exceptional fastball, so maybe she’s not the best choice. Perhaps a Gold Glove second baseman like Ryne Sandberg, who has made that soft toss to start a double play thousands of times, is a better option. Does it matter? No, because the game operator will do something—I’m still not sure what—to prevent the meaningful toss from staying in that barrel.

The billiards game was new to me. Three pool balls are set up in a triangle surrounding a small tee. There is a narrow strip of felt about chest high and the object is to shoot the cue ball into the other balls with enough force to knock the tee outside of a small circle drawn on the felt. After taking a couple of free shots and watching others do the same, I learned that a good shot would do the trick. In other words, it wasn’t that difficult.

The prizes for this game were the best of any at the carnival: knocking the tee out of the circle 10 times would get you an NFL jersey, an iPod Touch, and a Nintendo Wii. AND you would get any money back that you spent on the game. The only way you would not get free stuff is if you quit before you made it to 10!

The quality of prizes (at potentially no cost) of course made me even more skeptical, so I Googled this particular game. I came across a post on carnival cheats on the Professionals Against Confidence Crime website that mentioned the game, and I found my answer. Apparently, if the tee is placed in the small space between the three balls or against the back of the front ball, it is not too difficult to win. But if the tee is touching the back balls, they will absorb the hit from the cue ball and the tee won’t move. I didn’t do too well in physics but it makes some sense to me.

How would The Black Widow do? Like most contestants, she’d succeed until the tee was moved. Then she’d probably figure out a way to hit it past the balls and spin it back, thus negating the carnival operator’s ploy.

As for the rest of us? Stick to Whack-a-Mole.

Sports Betting in Ireland

I spent last week in Ireland on a family vacation. I saw and did a lot of really interesting things, but most of them have no place on a sports blog. My visits to Ladbrokes, a sports wagering outlet, however, do.

Intrigued by these small shops that I spotted everywhere from Dublin to Kinsale, I stopped in on two occasions to place bets on a sport I’ve rarely watched: soccer. Search this blog for “soccer” and you’ll find no results. I don’t hate the sport, don’t claim it’s boring because there’s not much scoring—it’s simply not for me. I’m not even a pseudo soccer fan who pretends to care every four years during the World Cup.

Of course that didn’t stop me from placing five euro on Manchester United to beat Chelsea in their match last week.

Here is what I considered before making the wager: (1) it seemed to be the feature match of the day and I was told it would be on TV; (2) I had heard of Manchester United before; (3) Man U was an underdog; (4) the teller told me she liked Man U in this match. Now, one could argue No. 4 should have been a reason not to bet on Man U, but I figured the tellers stand nothing to gain if I were to lose.

In a cab on the way to the Kilmainham Jail (great tour, by the way), I asked the driver what he thought about my bet. “At 11 to 4? That’s a great wager. Those two clubs are about even, I’d say.” My confidence was soaring as I got validation from a second local. Later, at a pub, just before the start of the game, a fellow Guinness drinker told me he also felt the game was a toss up. “Will probably end in a draw,” he said. No, I didn’t want a draw (tie), because unlike other sports, a tie does not mean all bettors get their money back. Instead, the sportsbooks give you the option to bet that the game will end in a draw.

The game started while I was still in the pub and ended sometime during my dinner hours later. Manchester United won 1-0. It wasn’t until the next day, when I saw the newspapers, that I realized how big the victory was.

A couple of days later, I pushed my luck and bet on another underdog, though this time I took a “double chance,” meaning I’d win if my team won or tied. The team I bet on was called the Metz, and that is the only reason I bet on them. Sure enough, they played to a 0-0 draw and I won again. This was the first time in several years that the Metz have not let me down.

Obviously it’s a small sample size but I was 2-0, 100 percent, betting on a sport I know nothing about.

Contrast that to my annual performance in NCAA Tournament pools, in which I hardly ever finish near the top of the standings despite watching several college basketball games a week and studying the bracket for hours in the days leading up to the Tourney.

My older brother ran a pool this year that had nearly 100 participants. Had Kentucky beat Connecticut in the Final Four, his girlfriend, Donna, who watched maybe two games all season, would have won. Instead my good friend, Jason, won. He had Michigan, Syracuse, and Notre Dame going far simply because he knows people who attended those schools. But he somehow picked UConn to win it all and therefore claimed the top prize. I’m not knocking these people; I’m envious and a bit confused, just as soccer fans reading this must be surprised of my betting success in Ireland.

While I figured Kentucky was too inexperienced to make such a deep Tourney run and UConn was out of gas after its Big East tournament gauntlet, Jason and Donna likely didn’t consider these factors. Just as I didn’t consider—because I didn’t know—that Manchester United hadn’t won at Chelsea’s stadium since 2002.

As they say, ignorance is bliss. And sometimes rich.