You’re so Favre, I bet you think this post is about you

At first I didn’t post on the Brett Favre saga becuase I didn’t want to be late the party. Now it appears that this is going to drag on for months yet, and by writing now I can still squeeze a few paragraphs into the first 10% of all the words that will end up being written.

Frankly, the story is barely newsworthy in terms of being shocking; you’d have to be FEMA not to have seen this one coming. Aside from the annual off-season “maybe I’ll retire, maybe I won’t” strokefest, this latest move is vintage Favre for anyone who’s followed #4’s on-the-field exploits.

“Triple-coverage? What triple-coverage? I’m Brett Favre – I can put the ball in a Junebug’s back pocket!” Whooosh. “Dang!” Similarly, while “miscalculation” might be hard for Brett to say, it isn’t a foreign concept to him. “Retirement papers? I didn’t file no retirement papers! I’m Brett Favre – they’ve got to take me back!”

The moves made by both the Packers and Favre have been just as predictable.

Farve: “I maybe, possibly, might want to come back, but you didn’t hear it from me.”

Packers GM Ted Thompson: “Naah, naah, naah, not listening! I’m on vacation! I’m rearranging my sock drawer! Brett who?”

Favre: “It’s all just rumors taken out of context, I don’t know how Chris Mortenson could have intercepted my text messages.”

Thompson: “Of course we’d welcome Brett back, as long as he’ll wear a helmet really made from cheese and confess that he was the one that killed Dan Devine’s dog. There might be a problem, though, because we’re all sold out of #4 jerseys and I told the staff not to order any more. He might have to wear #78, which also happens to be the number of times we’ve been down this road with Brett in the past.”

Favre: “Help! Help! I’m being repressed! Come see the nonsense inherent in the system! Want to see me cry again?”

The posturing by both sides is just as transparent. The Packers will act as if they’d gladly take Favre back as their back-up quarterback, knowing there’s no way in hell Brett will accept that, while Favre will say he’ll come back knowing that there’s no way in hell Thompson wants the nightmare of Favre in uniform on the bench while a young quarterback takes his lumps. The team could conceivably punish him by trading him to a non-contender, but that is nearly as empty a threat as bringing him back as a bench-warmer. What non-contending team would trade for Favre and his salary, especially knowing that Brett won’t want to be there. Even potentially contending teams will be hesitant to give up much, especially if it means Favre having to learn a new offense. You should also keep in mind how much Favre has whined about having enough talent on the team in recent years; even if the Packers can find a trade partner (which they have the technical capability to do), Favre will pout his way out of that situation as well, probably forcing another trade that will make the Packers’ moves blow up in their face. In the Packers’ favor is that trades take time and that’s something that Favre and most teams don’t have if he’s going to go somewhere new and be ready by the start of the season.

Ultimately the Packers and Favre know he has the leverage and can force his release just by continuing to be the pain-in-the-butt prima donna he already is. Thompson also knows that the Vikings would be a prime landing space for Favre given that the team is merely an established quarterback away from being a serious Super Bowl contender, and that Favre would relish the opportunity to play the Pack twice in the coming year. There’s not much Thompson can do to prevent it, except muddy the waters by proactively accusing the Vikings of tampering, especially since Vikings offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell was Favre’s former quarterback coach. I don’t know what hard evidence Thompson could have to support his claim unless he’s got the power to subpeona phone records. Perhaps it was this transcript from a tape that was mysteriously found in the pocket of Bill Belichek’s hoodie:

DB: Hey, Brett, it’s your ol’ buddy, Darrell.

BF: Who?

DB: Darrell Bevell, your old quarterbacks coach.

BF: I had a quarterbacks coach? Who knew? I think I knew a guy named Darrell who caddied for me for awhile.

DB: Ha-ha, always the kidder. I’m just calling you up like good buddies do, to talk about huntin’ and fishin’ and such.

BF: Do tell.

DB: Of course! I wouldn’t dream of having you tampered with, unless of course it was by Jared Allen; man, can that boy hunt! You know, we should get together. I think you’d like our West Coast off-, I mean, you ought to check out the west coast of Lake Minnetonka. Good fishing out there. Super, in fact.

BF: Hey, thanks, Darnell…

DB: It’s Darrell.

BF: Oh, yeah, Darrell. The thing is, I don’t know if I’m going to have any time. Michael Strahan has also retired, and him and me got a contract offer from FOX to go around the country re-enactin’ the time I fell down so Michael could set the single-season sack record.

DB: I remember you like bowling. We’ve got a good group of, um, bowlers over here. You know Kevin and Pat, and we got that kid we call, “All Day.” Next time we get together I’d be happy to give you a ring. Uh, hello?

BF: Sorry, Merrill, I accidentally dropped my phone. I had this itch I was trying to scratch.

Tune into ESPN tomorrow (and the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that) for the latest developments.

The violence inherent in our systems

Tonight my thoughts are turning to violence.

No, not that I desire to wreak any such thing on anyone, it’s just that there seems to be so much of it in the air. I mean, you’ve got Ben talking about being in tune with his Spidey-senses and calculating the most destructive way out of the scenario if the Girl Scouts in front of him on the street turn out to be a ninja hit squad in disguise (must be the weight-lifting and all the red meat he’s eating); you’ve got Gino talking about he and his sister standing back to back to teach some rowdies a lesson; and you’ve got KingDavid in turn reminiscing over getting his own adolescent male ya-yas out and ending up in the principal’s office.

I’m not dismayed or appalled. In fact, it all reminds me of a lesson my father taught me when he said, “You don’t have to win, but you do have to fight.”

And then I laugh as I remember the time somebody, and I can’t remember who, thought it was a good idea to give my brother and I boxing gloves for Christmas when I was in my early teens. These weren’t the big, pillowy 16-oz. gloves, either, where you had a better chance of suffocating from a punch in the face as being knocked out. No, these were 8-oz. demolition specials of bright red leather, packing a little padding and quite a wallop over the knuckles. I’m sure they were probably banned from toy stores about the same time as Jarts.

In those days we lived in a neighborhood full of boys and we marked the passing seasons by the games we played. Football in the fall, basketball all winter long (shoveling the snow off the asphalt driveways and turning our hands black in the dribbling), baseball or some mischief in the summer. One summer day of boredom and too many boys we remembered the gloves. Tired of whacking one another around, my brother and I brought them out for the group. It was actually pretty structured. We marked out the corners of the “ring” with lawn chairs in our back yard and matched opponents up by age and weight class. I was far from being the most graceful or athletic but I had a simple yet effective style: absorb the incoming shots as I waded into range and then, Whammo! The matches usually didn’t last very long.

One of the younger boys, a wiry and athletic sort who was one of the fastest runners in the neighborhood, and also the biggest trash talker, was offended by my pugilistic style, or lack thereof. His name was Albert. He may have preferred just “Al” or “Bert” but he was the type where we just had to hang the full name on him. Anyway, his own matches in his “weight class” were marked by fancy footwork and flashy flurries, and he’d roll his eyes at me from the sidelines and talk about the “sweet science” as I’d stagger another opponent. He kept talking about how useless I’d be against someone who knew what they were doing. I suggested that, perhaps, he was thinking of himself? He said that, well, as a matter of fact, yes.

“Oh, come off it, Albert. I’ve got two years and 25 pounds on you.”

“But you’re slow. You’d never touch me.”

And so it was on. Albert laced up and started circling, jumping in and out, throwing leather into my shoulders, or glancing off the top of my head. I turned as well, tracking him like the turret of a battleship surrounded by torpedo planes. A couple of my left jabs came back empty, touching only his laughter. He came in again, and this time I timed it and decided to see how the right hand might fare. Fairly well, actually, as my straight overhand going out met his forehead square as it was coming in. I could almost hear for myself the pinball bells that started ringing inside his head. His forward progress immediately reversed and he was flat on his back, somewhere in the middle of next week. And he wasn’t moving.

Ho. Ly. Crap.

Nothing to do for it in that case but to invoke the Diety, or in this case, my mom. Actually, both of my parents were home at the time and my brother ran in and brought them out, no doubt trying to gasp out the hyperventilated words, “boxing”, “Albert”, “dead”, and “It wasn’t my fault.” They came out briskly and with concern as Albert started to regain what little sense he had before he challenged me. I thought we were all going to get yelled at, but instead my parents were very concerned and solicitous of young Albert, touching his head, patting his shoulders, asking if he was all right, even bringing him a cold glass of lemonade. I’m sure they were thinking thoughts like, “We are going to be so sued,” and “I’m going to bury those boxing gloves, preferably with my kid still in them.”

Albert revived, and the last thing he wanted to do was let his parents know what happened. Actually, as far as he was concerned, the fewer people who learned what had happened the better. I like to think that it somehow made him a bit wiser, though he continued to be pretty much the same obnoxious kid as our sports seasons continued to turn. Maybe, just maybe though, it was a lesson that took a little time to reach the surface.

It was a valuable part of my education, I know that. Those scrambling episodes in boyhood gave me some useful and — in the grand scheme — not too painful lessons. I learned that life sometimes comes at you pretty fast, and that you’re going to have to take some shots, but if you keep your feet and keep moving in you’re eventually going to get your chance.

And when you do — Whammo!

Ah, Spring

It so happens that I have recently become a VIP to The Wilds Golf Club, earning me and a guest an invitation to play in their special VIP outing. Now it gets your attention to be told that you are a VIP, but what really perked my interest was that the golf would be free, and that they were going to feed me as well.

In addition, the invitation came a few weeks ago when Minnesota was still clutched in the icy grip of a relentless winter, so the thought of spring and the opportunity to play free golf at a very nice club on April 28 was impossible to decline.

Then April 28 dawned this morning with Minnesota still clutched in the icy grip of a relentless winter.

“High today of 42 degrees, with winds 10 to 15 mph out of the north, present temperature 32,” said the guy on the radio this morning. I can’t even begin to spell the sound I made when I heard that, but FREE GOLF is FREE GOLF, no matter what it costs so I layered up, eschewed my typical broad-brimmed straw hat in favor of a woolen cabby, grabbed my clubs and a handful of Heat-Pak pocket warmers and set off for Prior Lake.

Arriving at The Wilds I changed into my golf shoes, first shaking the sand out of them from the three days of golf I endured in Arizona back in March. (I was striking the ball well for the most part those days, but had trouble getting the ball to stop in the green places where I wanted it to stop. After rolling into about my 90th sandtrap my partner commiserated, saying, “It’s target golf.” I muttered something about having a WalMart game.)

Arizona was literally and metaphorically miles away as I leaned into the wind walking toward the driving range to “warm up” — all the while hoping that I wouldn’t have the opportunity to accidentally touch my tongue to the steel shafts of my irons. I had on thick socks (inside my golf shoes), long pants, a golf shirt, a long-sleeved, high-collared golf sweater, a mid-weight jacket, a golf glove and my leather winter gloves. I distributed heat-paks to the rest of my foursome and put one pak in my right coat pocket. That felt so good. In these conditions it’s also important to keep your balls warm, so I considered unzipping my golf bag and putting a pak in the golf ball pocket. One good thing, I realized, about playing in weather like today is that I wouldn’t have to expose my fingers unnecessarily to pluck grass and toss it into the air to determine wind direction; today I merely needed to look up and make note of which direction the snow flurries were heading.

With such extra protection and unexpected advantages we actually weren’t too uncomfortable, though as we stood on one tee-box exposed to the wind whipping across Mystic Lake I suddenly heard Gordon Lightfoot in my head singing about the gales of November. Given the conditions, we actually played better than I would have expected even if the weather had been ideal. We were playing a Scramble and our group managed a very respectable 3-under for the 18 with only one bogey. We also finished in a very brisk 4 hours, mainly because we certainly weren’t spending a lot of time lining up putts. Not bad at all.

I wish I could say it was due to superior ball striking, but the reality was that while the weather may have been against us, fortune was with us for the most part. The shot of the day came when we faced a 140 yard shot, to a green below our feet, from a downhill lie in the short rough. My usual playing partner led off and skulled an 8-iron that skidded down the slope, disappeared into a gully between us and the green…and then reappeared a few moments later climbing up out of the gully and onto the green before staggering, exhausted, to a stop six feet from the flag. It was a canny shot that expertly took the wind out of play. We happily converted for another birdie.

Now that I’m back safe at home and feeling has returned to my fingertips as I type, I am eager to play again and I can’t wait for summer. I hear it’s going to be on a Thursday this year!

The sporting chance

This weekend was the first one since the Super Bowl where I had the opportunity or inclination to park my butt in front of the TV to watch some sports. My butt didn’t necessarily stay there, though.

Friday night, for example, I didn’t turn the set on until pretty late in the evening. I did some quick channel-surfing and came across the Big Ten channel with six minutes left in the Gophers-Indiana game in the Big Ten Men’s Tournament. I hadn’t watched much of the Gophs this season, but I knew the names of the players and that senior center Spencer Tollackson was out of the game with a sprained ankle. Given the team’s history in recent years and the fact they were missing their big man, I was surprised to see that the Gophers were leading. Not-so-surprisingly, they went into epileptic chicken mode, letting the Hoosiers hang around and eventually take the lead with 1.5 seconds left. The way they put Indiana at the foul-line twice with less than five seconds left was shocking only if you hadn’t once watched the football team mishandle a punt snap a couple of years ago to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the closing seconds of a conference game.

Friday night, anyway, I had noticed that freshman shooting specialist and ESPY-winner (for famously hitting a last-second, game-winning shot from the seat of his pants in high school) Blake Hoffarber wasn’t in the game. Not having followed the team closely I didn’t know if it was because of other deficiencies in his game, but when Tubby Smith called timeout and sent Hoffarber in with less than two seconds left I figured there was no way you could ask the kid to come off the bench cold and take a shot to win the game. Absurd. So there I was, sprawled on the couch as the long throw-in crossed mid-court and went into a tangle of arms and bodies, only to deflect into Hoffarber’s hands with just enough time for him to turn and shot-put a left-handed shot at the rim — where it disappeared along with the breath of every Hoosier fan in the Fieldhouse. As for myself, I found myself totally and automatically levitated from the couch while a loud “D’oh!” was yanked uncontrollably from my lips. It was a magical and exciting moment and I had witnessed it with my own eyes!

Then this afternoon I turned on Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill Invitational shortly after Tiger Woods had separated himself from the other leaders on the front nine. I stuck with the event through the afternoon as Tiger looked as if he was going to run away with it until he inexplicably took a page from my game and three-putted from six feet on number 10. The rest of the tournament was tense as several people stayed in contention until finally a relatively unknown pro forged a tie with the Great One and headed for the scorer’s tent as Tiger prepared to assault Bay Hill’s challenging finishing hole, ultimately leaving himself with a 25-foot downhill slider of a putt to win the tournament. This time I was on the edge of the couch, both feet on the floor, elbows on knees, leaning forward toward the set as the putt started on its long, slow, curving patch before dropping into the cup in much the same way my briefcase hits the floor when I come home from a long day’s work.

Rather than levitating, however, I flopped backwards, hands on my forehead at what I’d just seen, nearly unnerved by the fact that someone like Tiger Woods now strides the earth.

For all the excesses and scandals in pro and “amateur” sports these days that can leave you jaded, it’s great to not only remember but experience the sheer drama and unscripted displays of skill and will that ultimately make our games so compelling.

Going out in a blaze of luck

As I noted last week, I was playing in the championship game for my fantasy football league, and that following the game I would be retiring from this pastime.

My toughest lineup decision going into the game was whether to start LenDale White or Brandon Jacobs to complement Ryan Grant (and who would ever have imagined that sentence back on draft night in August?). The fact that I was in the championship game itself could almost qualify for “News of the Weird” since my first three draft picks (picking 9th in a 10-man league) had been Travis Henry, Steve Smith and Jacobs; people who follow the fantasy game will know that this was not an auspicious beginning considering the way season played out. I felt a certain sentimentality toward Jacobs because I had predicted such great things for him at the beginning of the year, but I thought I detected a true death stink over the Giants team and feared he might go down the tubes with his squad, so I started White. And then Jacobs scored 18 points in our scoring format, sitting on my bench. This type of thing is one of the interesting agonies of playing this game and, perhaps, one of the quandaries I will not miss.

I thought it would be an ironic farewell to the game if I lost, but it turned out that my opponents (a two-owner team) were “enjoying” those interesting agonies in spades, as nearly every lineup move they made — based on solid reason and intuition (and pretty much the same moves I would have made)— blew up in their faces. My seven starters, even without Jacobs, scored 59 points. Their six “bench” players totaled 61, while their starters managed just 29.

I could say, “I love it when a plan comes together,” but it’s more of a sense of relief than sweet victory. I retire now with back-to-back championships under my belt, some satisfaction, and a healthy curiousity as to what comes next.

The end of an era

I started playing Fantasy Football in 1984, back when Cliff Charpentier’s fantasy season preview was the Bible of preparation, even though it was little more than a compilation of players ranked by the previous season’s statistics. We tried to track our scores from tantalizing snippets on the evening news and had to run outside early Monday morning to grab the newspaper in order to check the box-scores by hand to find out if we’d won or lost. Walter Payton was my first-ever first-round draft pick and I finished out of the money that year.

Things have changed a lot since then. Fantasy Football is a billion dollar business and every channel with a football game but Fox runs continuous individual player stat lines across the bottom of the screen to help you keep track. Not that it’s necessary, because there are multiple services and websites that keep score in real time and I merely have to look over my shoulder at my computer screen to check the score of my fantasy game while I’m watching a real game. Oh, and for the third time in the last four years, my team is playing in my league’s Fantasy Bowl this weekend (as I write this I’m already down 12-0 since my opponent had Ben Roethlisberger playing Thursday night).

Win or lose, this is also going to be my last game.

It’s not that I’ve grown bored with my success or with the game. For the last 23 years I’ve been in at least one league every year, and often as the Commissioner. To some extent it’s been a year-round hobby as I’ve tried to stay on top of off-season moves and their implications and overall it’s been an interesting and often passionate pastime. I’ve always enjoyed the combination of luck and skill required to build a winning record: the pre-draft preparation and hunches on who were going to be the best players in the coming year, the way the best-laid plans could be thrown out the window by capricious injuries, and how you had to hustle to come up with alternate plans and players as a result. This year, however, it has all been more of a chore for me than entertainment.

To some extent it may be due to those nagging distractions called “life” getting in the way. My personal life has had a fair amount of tumult since last spring that left me with relatively little free time to dwell on football, and little inclination to do so when I could have. I think the biggest issue, however, has become the carnage on the field.

As I said, luck and injuries were a wild card in every season and something you simply expected (hoping that it wouldn’t happen to your team) and accepted as part of the randomness that made the game entertaining. Somewhere along the line, however, it started to work on me that these injuries weren’t just an inconvenience I had to work around, but something tangible, painful and even devastating to the real person involved. Not that the existence of fantasy football contributed to these injuries in any way, but it started to bother me that this was my “entertainment.”

Strangely enough, the turning point wasn’t a football injury. Last summer when pro wrestler Chris Benoit killed his family and himself there was a lot written about the wrestling culture and steroids and about how many wrestlers had died young or had serious personal problems. There was a lot of media hand-wringing about who was to blame — the promoters, the personality types drawn to being wrestlers, the lifestyle, etc. No one seemed to touch on what seemed to me to be the obvious: if people weren’t paying out big money to watch the shows, go to the events and buy the merchandise then there wouldn’t be the incentive for the performers to try to make a name and physique for themselves, travel 300 days a year and resort to drugs to buid themselves up and to ease or mask the pain and debilitations that came from being a human torpedo. As I self-righteously scoffed at wrestling fans for being enablers I had a chilling revelation of my own fandom.

No, it isn’t fantasy football that’s driving young men to seek fame and fortune in exchange for their bodies in the NFL (speaking as one who gave up a knee playing the game for free), but my attitude has shifted and I don’t know if will ever go back. I still enjoy watching the game and the big hits, but I can feel myself pulling back.

I made my “retirement” announcement to my league at the end of our regular season, before our play-offs, so the rest of the owners can start thinking about finding a replacement Commissioner now, when the season is at it’s peak, and not in the dog days of summer. I received a very gratifying email from one of the owners thanking me for the entertainment value I brought to the league (via weekly game summaries) and asking me to reconsider. In the message he said my passion and commitment would be missed and couldn’t be duplicated. I told him that I thought the passion and commitment may very well be duplicated by someone else — I just knew that I couldn’t duplicate it any longer, and that was the surest sign that it was time to hang it up.

It’s been a bit odd going through these final weeks as I’ve advanced through the play-offs. I’ve caught myself filing away mental notes about players for next year out of habit before realizing, wryly, there won’t be a next year. Oh well, wish me luck this weekend! I’ve got a 12-point deficit to make up and a decision to make of which two players to start between Ryan Grant, LenDale White and Brandon Jacobs, all while praying for good weather in New England so Randy Moss can catch three touchdown passes.

Other than that, it’s back to reality.

Of hot stoves and warm good-byes

Torii Hunter is gone and Johan Santana’s bags, while they aren’t packed, have been brought up from the basement. As a Twins fan I should be sad but, while I’ll miss the lads, I think the Twins are doing the right thing. The market is speaking and you don’t have to be clairvoyant to get the message. The Twins have no business paying the kind of money these players can command – not now, and not even three years from now when the new stadium opens.

This is not a case of large market vs. small market. At least, not in any way that implies there’s a kind of balance between the number of teams on each side of that equation. This is huge market vs. everyone else and there are only a couple of teams that can handle the kind of dollars we’re talking about. Without going to Forbes magazine, or looking up TV contracts, I’d hazard that less than a handful of teams have the revenue to pay top dollar and beyond that has been established for the elite players.

Think of it, before last season the Red Sox paid some $52 million to Dice-K’s Japanese League team just to get the young man out of his contract; after that they still had to pay him another $50 mil or so. There were teams last year who’s entire payroll didn’t approach $50 million. I’d like to think someone in Massachusetts rubbed his neck pretty hard before writing those checks, but the Red Sox did win the World Series. Ask their accountants, not me, if it was worth it.

And ask the Yankees front office now if they’d wished they’d gone a little higher in the bidding.

Bring the pain(t)

“If you haven’t hunted man, you haven’t hunted.”
— Jesse Ventura

I breathed in deeply, imagining I could catch the invigorating smell of napalm in the morning. All I got was dank musk of the forest floor, the scent of plastic and the stench of someone else’s sweat from the borrowed helmet. And besides, it was late afternoon. My very own sweat was running into my eyes while swatches of sunlight and shadow cut across my vision as I scanned slowly through the leaves and branches that masked my position. Moving only my head, the light glared off of the pits and scratches in my visor and made the shadows seem even deeper as my eyes probed, alert for any sign of danger or opportunity, for any movement of branch or leaf not consistent with the slight breeze tickling through the oppressive valley. I cradled the gun in my arms and flexed my firing hand to keep it from cramping. I knew someone was out there. Someone who wanted to hurt me.

“But not if I see you first,” I thought.

Earlier in the day I had set out on a recon mission, moving along the trail in unfamiliar territory as my footfalls competed with my heart beat to see which could pound louder in my ears. The trail was clear. The trail was easy. “The trail is death,” I thought to myself. “The trail is the way the fat, stupid animals go and the strong, clever animals wait out of sight beside it and take the easy pickings.”

Picking your way through the branches and brambles, with the cockleburs clotting on your clothing, is hard. Life is hard. Learn to move through the forest and you might live. It’s a game really, like a snipe hunt. Except it’s not snipe, it’s snipers, and they really are out there. Is that sweat trickling along my spine or is it the prickly sensation of an unseen gun barrel drawing down on my back?

The first time I was shot wasn’t so bad, really. Everything was fine until the moment of sudden impact. “What? Me? Now? So soon?” flashed across my mind, but there was no denying the thick, viscous liquid that came dripping down my visor. I had reached up with my hand, brought it away wet and slick, the goo the consistency of a bird dropping. And it was yellow. Dammit, it must have been Ben who got me, and I was dead — at least until that round of Paintball was finished, anyway. Then I could seek my revenge. That opportunity had come about an hour later when I had Ben pinned down behind a curved metal barrier. I was to his left at an extreme angle that barely allowed me to see him, but enough so I could pump round after round past the edge of the barricade, so close to him that a deep breath on his part would have ended it, yet he held his breath and his unlikely position, unable to return fire. I fired three more quick shots to keep him still and then rose slightly to move to my right to get a finishing angle. Then came the all too familiar whack on my skull as the ball exploded on my scalp, a jet of orange paint shooting through my hair, dispensed by a shooter from across the field. Another important lesson learned: use your head, or someone else will…for target practice!

The Orange Badge of Courage. The paintball struck just above the curve of the hairline.

This time, however, I can make no mistakes. I am the left flank of the line, the end. I am Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine at Little Round Top. If I fall, if they get by me, the bad guys roll into our rear, capture the flag and it’s over. My eyes continue to scan the area in front of me. About 30 yards away is a wooden barricade, set between some trees, surrounded by brush. I have already swept it several times. This time a black paint hopper and barrel are sticking up above the edge of the barrier. That wasn’t there before! I bring up my gun, let out my breath slightly and wait. As the head inevitably comes up over the wall I pour about half a gallon of paint into the area; had I the time and the inclination I could have tattooed my initials into the wood. Instead I focus on keeping the unknown head down so he can’t get an aimed shot off at me. More paintballs are coming at me from my right now, but the angle isn’t good and the brush around me too thick to permit a serious threat. I fire some suppressing rounds in that general direction while keeping my eye on the original target, hoping he will take the opportunity to show himself. He does; I add another coat to the primer already laid down. I’m aware of activity to my right, but from my side of the lines, then some shooting moving away from me and then the cry — “The game is over!”

While things had heated up by me, Kevin had grabbed the flag and gone forward, sweeping up the right flank and planting it in the enemy base while my two shooters focused on me. One of these was the Mall Diva. A third sniper, Tiger Lilly, meanwhile, had been waiting on the edge of the action, also focusing on me. “Ooh, Dad, if you had only come forward three more feet I would have had you,” she said. “Yeah,” I thought to myself, “and if fish had feet they’d be mice.”

Maybe next time, kid.

Cinderella stories

I’m playing in a certain golf tournament tomorrow with fellow MOB bloggers and some Comment Trolls. The summer-long hype and trash talk leading up to this event has been intense and it might seem fitting for me at this point to regale you with tales of my greatest rounds and most spectacular shots. I don’t want to put myself in the running for the Spotty, however, and I’m afraid that if I did it also might induce King to move the betting line in the wrong direction.

Instead of telling you of the Bunyanesque drives that split the fairway like lightning bolts, or pin-rattling five-irons, or those wedge shots that landed on the green like a butterfly with sore feet I thought I’d regale those of you still reading with some of my less than stellar (but no less memorable) moments and galactic blunders that have caused me to adopt the nickname “O.B. Juan”.

And no, I’m not counting the time my clubs were stolen before I even got to the first tee.

Here’s a story that might explain a lot: my wife and I were playing with another couple that are friends of ours and on one hole my approach shot to the green was long and to the left, going behind a stand of small spruce that bordered a road. The other guy was maybe 40 yards in front of the green and while he figured out his approach shot I made my way behind the trees to see if my shot had stayed in play or gone into the road. After a few minutes I found my ball and stepped out from behind a six-foot evergreen to see if I had a line to the flag. Unfortunately that was right at the time my friend literally “skulled” a wedge, sending his ball on cruise missile trajectory that neatly bisected my eyebrows. Fortunately I was wearing a new, crushable straw hat that absorbed much of the impact, though I was left with 14 dimple-shaped blood drops in a round formation on my forehead. I had my revenge, though: the rest of the day every time my friend lined up a putt I’d say something like, “Why is it suddenly getting so dark?” or “Grandpa, is that you?”

My commentary around the greens has been a problem other times, too. Once I was playing in a 4-man scramble where my team was trailing the leaders by one stroke with two holes to play. We had a 25-foot putt for birdie that we all looked over carefully before our first guy stepped up to try the putt. He eyed the line carefully, and in a dead serious tone said, “I am aiming six inches left of the hole.” There was something about the tension and the way his voice sounded that reminded me of one of those movies where someone has to defuse a bomb. I suddenly heard myself saying, in the same tone of voice as my friend, “I am cutting the blue wire.” The putter froze, and it was deathly silent for about two seconds. Then his forearms started to shake, and then his whole body and then we all started laughing so hard we had tears coming out of our eyes. The worst part was that none of us could stand over the putt without starting to laugh all over again. It was the kind of laughter like you try to suppress when you hear a fart in church, and we were just about as successful. We barely made par that hole and we still couldn’t compose ourselves on the final hole and we ended up losing the tournament by one stroke. I thought the guys were going to kill me.

I guess the all-time worst episode was when I was playing on a course near San Diego with my dad, my brother and my uncle. One hole featured an unusual bunker that was actually a hill on the side facing the fairway, with sand on the back side. Naturally I had to push my tee-shot left and into this bunker, finding myself in the sand with an uphill lie, trying to get over a wall higher than myself with no view to the fairway. I tried to hit out and over the wall, but the ball caught the lip and rolled back down behind where I started. This actually gave me more room and a better angle to try to get a wedge to the fairway, so I tried it again. No luck. In fact, worse luck, as the ball came back and rested in one of my footprints. This time I turned and aimed back toward the tee, punching the ball back to the fairway, quite disgusted with the whole affair. I grabbed the rake and smoothed my numerous footprints, then climbed out of the bunker and tossed the rake out ahead of me in disgust. It landed perfectly on the curvature of the tines and bounced back directly at me, airborne as if launched from springs … and heading right for a delicate part of my anatomy. I twisted away, and the handle of the rake caught the hem of my khaki shorts. The combination of the tines then re-establishing contact with the ground while I turned my body resulted in the right leg of my shorts being torn from hem to belt loop. Keep in mind, all of this time I was out of sight from the rest of my four-some who were up ahead and could only see the occasional bursts of sand as I tried to extricate myself. When I finally came staggering around the side of the hill, the now-exposed inner pocket of my shorts flapping in the California sun they thought I must have been attacked by a wild animal. “Breezy” described the rest of my round, if not my attitude.

Man, I can’t wait for tomorrow.

Tonight on ESPN

I have this picture in my mind of Barry Bonds frantically peddling a racing bike through the French Alps as he’s chased by pit bulls, all while an NBA referee uses his cellphone to check the scores before deciding whether to call traveling or not.

There are so many crash and burns going on in sports right now you’d have to be a NASCAR fan to keep track of them all. This year in the Tour De France the yellow jersey isn’t given to the leader, but to the guy who collects the urine samples.

At least there the teams have the decency to shove their disgraced cheaters over a cliff. In San Francisco Giants fans embrace Barry Bonds — or they would if they could get their arms around head, that is. I’ve had my differences with MLB Commissioner Selig over the years (though I thought his son-in-law was a real nice guy when he was with the Twins and I worked for the Sports Commission), but I give Bud credit for not wanting to be anywhere near the stadium when Bonds breaks the record.

The only reason I would go would be for the chance to catch the record-breaking ball — so I could call a press conference the next day, use a big ol’ hypodermic needle to inject the ball with gasoline and then set it on fire. (Sure, I’d miss out on a lot of money, but on the plus side I’d never have to buy myself a drink for the rest of my life). I know, you can’t “prove” that Bonds is a juicer (though his post-career endorsement options may be limited to Hamilton Beach and the Waring Company) but who are you going to believe — Barry, or your own lying eyes?

I remember 30-some years ago when Hank Aaron was closing in on Babe Ruth’s record and how much hate mail he received from folks who didn’t like the idea of a black man breaking the mark. Those fears seem even more ridiculous today when a cheater is about to do it.

As for Michael Vick, I have no doubt the Feds put a lot of heat on his lower-level associates in order to bag him and I think he’s (justifiably) in serious trouble and in for serious jail-time…unless he now becomes the key to blowing the whole dog-fighting sub-culture in professional sports wide open by naming names. Somehow I just don’t think he’s the only young athlete with a lot of time and money on his hands and a taste for violence and gambling. I remember an article in Sports Illustrated a couple of years ago that focused on how a number of NFL players loved raising pitbulls. It was all positive on how much they loved these dogs, but now you’ve got to wonder.

If there’s anyone who’s got to be sweating about tips of icebergs, however, it’s Daniel Stern and the NBA. In a game who’s rules have always seemed rather whimsically officiated, the reactions I’ve seen to the fact that a referee will be indicted for fixing games has been less, “You stink!” and more, “Ya think?” No worries, though, Mr. Stern; Pro Wrestling is still packing them in and they’ve got the trifecta: steroids, mad dogs and pre-determined outcomes!