Football (aka Soccer) Returns to Fenway

Something was definitely amiss at Fenway Park Wednesday night. Sure, the fans were all there (over 32,000). The architecture was the same as it always was: the Green Monster looming over left field, the Budweiser sign illuminating right, Fiske and Pesky marking the corners. The songs were the same too: “Dirty Water,” “Shipping Up to Boston,” and “Sweet Caroline.” There was even a wave that spread across the stadium. But something didn’t feel right. Instead of the traditional reds and blues of Red Sox jerseys, the seats were a sea of green and white. “Shipping Up to Boston” played before anything started, not near the end. It was joined by a lesser known Irish folk song, “Fields of Athenry,” also made famous by the Dropkick Murphys, but not typically sung on Landsdowne Street. People chanted, but “Let’s go Red Sox” was oddly replaced by “Let’s go Celtics,” as if Causeway Street had migrated. And oh yeah, the outfield had been turned into a soccer pitch. Football at Fenway was taking place, an international friendly soccer match between Celtic F.C. of the Scottish Premier League and Sporting Clube de Portugal of the Liga Sagres. It was the first time soccer had been played at Fenway park in over 40 years, and the fans poured in and cheered as if they had been waiting for it to come back.

The Game: Slow Start, Great Finish

It was jarring to watch a game played at Fenway where play moved laterally across the outfield instead of radially from home-plate. Perhaps the players were equally jarred by the strange setting, as both sides looked jittery through the first half. Passes went astray. Players clustered and cluttered the field, showing none of the grace and using none of the space we had come to expect after watching the World Cup. No one scored through the first half, and midway through the second half people started to wonder if the first football match at Fenway in 40 years would end in a 0-0 draw. Sporting outplayed Celtic slightly, mounting a few more attacks and getting off a shot or two more on goal, but neither side looked dominant. However, the play began to shift towards the Sporting goal in the second half, as the Bhoys’ subs began to outplay the Lions’. The crowd, mainly supporting Celtic due to the team’s Irish Catholic roots, began to get hungrier and hungrier for a goal. Then in the 71st minute, they got what they wanted. Forward Georgios Samaras beat his defender to the left side of Sporting’s goal, then passed the ball back towards the center. As he cut back to take a shot, he was cut down by the defender and awarded a penalty kick. He buried it in the right corner of the net, putting Celtic up 1-0.

The final 20 minutes of the game looked to be Sporting’s offense vs. Celtic’s defense, and for awhile it seemed like the defense was winning. Then, in the 81st minute, Sporting tied the game. After midfielder Diogo Salomão headed the ball off Celtic’s goalpost, forward Hélder Postiga put a second header into the back of the net. After 70 minutes of nothing, two goals had happened in 10 minutes. The final 10 minutes played without incident (if you don’t count the fan who ran onto the field, was promptly tackled by security, then escorted out), and the game went into penalty kicks, per the rules of the game. The official final score was Celtic 1, Sporting 1, with penalty kicks used to decide a winner only. Both teams made their first five penalty kicks, so the shootout went into sudden death. Sporting’s sixth kicker, forward Liedson da Silva Muniz, skied the ball over the top of Celtic’s goal. Celtic forward Paul McGowan then nailed his penalty kick to put the game away and give Celtic the Fenway Football Challenge Trophy, much to the delight of most of the stadium.

A Return to Olden Days

No soccer had been played at Fenway Park since the first and only season of the Boston Beacons in 1968. This was actually the second time Celtic FC had played at Fenway Park. The first game was a 1-0 loss to a soccer team called, ironically, the New York Yankees, and it took place in 1931. So in some ways this game was a culmination of a Boston soccer tradition that spans nearly 80 years. And after viewing the game, and in spite of limited interest in the New England Revolution, it is clear that there is still a major interest in soccer in Boston. With a city bristling with both Irish and Portuguese, fans flocked to this game. They sang, they chanted, they cheered. There was no casual applause, no disinterested crowd pretending to care. This was fandom, as true and as pure as you would find at any Red Sox or Celtics game. Between the record-breaking TV viewership of the World Cup and the overwhelming success of Football at Fenway, it’s impossible to look at Boston and not see a deep love for soccer. It’s worldliness takes fans back to the days of their ancestors, to the days when most of the families who would eventually wind up here lived in cities like Dublin, Glasgow and Lisbon.

Fenway’s Image

Some might wonder whether bringing soccer to Fenway somehow damages its image as a baseball stadium. But this is not even the first time this has happened. Soccer has been played in Boston since the 1920s. It’s interest has always sat in the back of Bostonian minds, waiting for opportunities to express itself. Wednesday night was one such opportunity, and Boston made the most of it.

It is also not as if baseball is the sole activity of Fenway Park. Concerts are a yearly occurrence, as they are in stadiums across the country (think the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965). And this past winter saw the Winter Classic, the first hockey game to be played at Fenway Park. This doesn’t damage Fenway’s image or reputation: it enhances it. Boston is called “America’s Most Beloved Ballpark.” To be beloved by your city, you have to appeal to as many aspects of your its culture as possible. Boston’s interest in baseball is undeniable. Its music scene is just as strong. And its love of hockey goes back almost as long as it does for baseball. Football at Fenway brought out another facet of our city: our love for soccer. Perhaps if the Revolution played in Boston proper instead of out in Foxboro (or if the MLS wasn’t such a joke league worldwide) the team would have a more devoted fan-base. This game magnified our city, made it a shade more complex and a tad more unique. And that uniqueness was reflected in the place where all of Boston merges, just like the merging of the streets in nearby Kenmore Square: Fenway Park. In short, we should do this more often.

A Year of Bloggery

It was about a year ago that I began this blog. My goals were simple: develop a somewhat consistent style of sports reporting, and analyzing and build up a series of writing samples for grad schools to look at. I had no illusions that this blog would go anywhere further than a small readership base, so I made no attempts to glitz it up. The appearance is simplistic, there are no pictures or videos. This is an exercise primarily, and those are just extremities. As I got into several schools I applied to, I guess I succeeded at least at the latter goal. As for consistency, that’s a harder issue to tackle. I’ve re-read most of my blog entries in the last few days, and while there’s definitely a format I’ve developed, it’s beginning to worry me. I want to be a beat reporter, so being able to tell the same or similar stories is certainly a useful skill. However, I worry that in developing this style I’ve sacrificed creativity of writing and topic choice. Large chunks of my writing have been devoted to either baseball or basketball, especially these days. There may be the occasional report on a sports book I’ve read or the World Cup, but those articles are few and far between. I fear that my ability to write has become too focused, my interests not diversified enough. What if I wind up covering hockey in my next job? What am I going to do then?

Now, part of me realizes that I can only cover what is available to me. I’m not a reporter yet. I don’t have a press pass. I don’t write for a real paper or website. And baseball is the only thing on right now (minus the Tour de France, and there’s no way I’m covering that). So I take what is given to me. But out of respect to my readers (or maybe just reader) I feel like maybe I should be doing more. I fear that my writing has gotten stale just a year after beginning it.

This is not to say I haven’t been proud of some of the pieces I’ve created. Recapping the Wisconsin football game I actually attended was great, as was my coverage of the Boston Derby Dames. And my upcoming article on BLOWW (Boston League of Women Wrestlers) should be very comprehensive and interesting. But in looking back on my writing, it’s hard to say that anything has improved. My grammar is a little better, editing takes a little less time, and I’ve done a half-decent job of shortening sentences and cutting out unnecessary words. But these are minor improvements at best. I still feel like virtually the same writer I was before I started this process. So the question becomes: should I continue? I’ll be in grad school soon, where I’m sure my writing style will be dissected, critiqued, and corrected. I may look back at this whole project and see it as a waste of time, a reminder of a time when my skills were just not up to snuff.

But I also have long since realized I’m a far harsher critic of my own work than anyone else is. Oftentimes this goes to the point of absurdity. It is very easy to lose track of the positives in all the negatives. So I put it to you, dear readers (or reader): what’s changed? Do any of you find value in this blog, or am I just blathering to myself?

Bullpen Impressive, but Sox Unable to Overcome 6-Run Rangers First Inning

The Boston Red Sox began the second half of their season Thursday night against the first-place Texas Rangers at Fenway Park, sending knuckleballer Tim Wakefield to the hill. Wakefield had struggled of late, going 1-3 in has last four decisions and sporting an ERA over 5.00 (5.22 coming into the game). The Rangers countered with right-hander Tommy Hunter, who came into the game 5-0 with an ERA 2.39. The Red Sox were hoping for a strong outing from Wakefield to get the post-All-Star Game season off on the right note. Unfortunately, Wakefield could not deliver.

After striking out the lead-off batter in the first, Wakefield gave up consecutive singles to put men on first and third with just one out. He then gave up an RBI single to Vladimir Guerrero (3-5, 2 runs scored, RBI), an RBI double to Josh Hamilton (3-4, all doubles, 1 RBI, 1 run scored), a 2-run single to Nelson Cruz (3-5, 3 RBIs, run scored), and finally a 2-run home run to Bengie Molina. Just like that, the Rangers were up 6-0 just one out into the game. Wakefield retired the next five batters he faced, including a perfect second inning, but the damage had already been done. In the third inning, with men on first and third and none out, Wakefield gave up another RBI double to Nelson Cruz to make it 7-0. After that he was done. Four Red Sox bullpen pitchers played for the final seven innings of the game.

As for the offense, the seven-run deficit was simply too much to overcome, and Tommy Hunter was pitching well on top of it. Solo home runs by J.D. Drew in the fourth and Bill Hall in the seventh helped mitigate the damage, but the Red Sox could not do nearly enough to come back from such a large deficit. Only three times were the Red Sox able to get multiple men on base, and all three times the runners were stranded without scoring. Despite just striking out six through the game, Texas’s pitchers were able to dominate the Boston’s diminished lineup. Boston almost mounted a ninth-inning rally, but with two men on and one out both Ryan Shealy and Marco Scutaro struck out, ending the threat and the game. The final score: Rangers 7, Red Sox 2. Hunter picked up the win and Wakefield suffered the loss.

The Red Sox at the Plate

Of the six hits Boston managed, four came at the hands of J.D. Drew and Bill Hall. Both hit solo home runs en route to going 2-4 on the night. Bill Hall also made a tremendous diving catch in the fifth to rob Bengie Molina of extra bases and turned a nifty double-play in the sixth, beating the runner to third base and then making a strong throw across the diamond to nail the runner heading to first. He was the star of the night for the Red Sox and has stepped up tremendously given the extra play time he has received. The only other offensive player of note was Daniel Nava, who reached base three times on a single and two walks. The rest of Boston’s hitters all combined to manage one hit. The top four hitters of the lineup were completely useless, going 0-17. The Red Sox were 0-5 with runners in scoring position, left eight men on base, and managed no extra base hits beyond the two home runs. The Rangers pitching staff was in top form tonight, and the Red Sox could do nothing with them.

The Red Sox on the Mound

First the bad: Tim Wakefield. In just two innings of work he gave up seven earned runs on eight hits while striking out just two. The knuckleball is a tricky pitch to throw, and when it’s flat it’s the most hittable pitch in the game. Thursday night it was the flattest I’ve ever seen it, and Wakefield got crushed. This season has not been a strong one for Wakefield. He has just three wins and his ERA is over 5.00 (5.65). Perhaps he is finally reaching the end of his career, no longer able to throw his signature pitch with enough movement to make it dangerous.

Now the good: the bullpen! In seven innings of work, four Red Sox pitchers combined to allow just four hits and four walks. They did not allow a run. Of special note tonight were Robert Manuel and Scott Atchison. Manuel was called in in the third inning with men on second and third and no outs. A ground out to third, a shallow fly out to left, and a strikeout later, and Manuel was out of the inning without allowing an inherited runner to score. Overall, he went 2.2 innings, giving up two hits and a walk while striking out one. He successfully slowed the Rangers offense down and at least gave the Red Sox a CHANCE to get back in the game. Atchison, meanwhile, pitched three shutout innings, allowing just one hit while recording a strikeout. Manuel and Atchison combined to save the Boston bullpen from overuse. Now its more elite pitchers will be rested and ready for the next game. While Wakefield’s performance was atrocious, the bullpen (and not the good pitchers in the bullpen) finally showed it can keep Boston in games without making deficits worse. If we can get performances like this out of Manuel and Atchison on a regular basis, the Red Sox will finally have a bullpen strong enough to complement its offense and starting rotation.

Moving On

OK, this was a bad way to start the second half of the season. There’s no denying that. However, there are definitely some positives we can take away from this game. The bullpen, once thought of as the weakest link on the Red Sox, showed it still has some life left in it. Bill Hall continued to play magnificently both offensively and defensively, this time at third base. And J.D. Drew proved he is still alive. There are definitely things that can be built upon from this game. But the starting pitching and the offense need to pick it up. Both have been decimated by injury, yes. But everyone left is still a professional, and they must be able to produce. As starters return from injury the team will get stronger. However, if the Red Sox cannot win with the pitchers and hitters they currently have, they may find themselves out of playoff contention by the time they get healthy.

The Streak is Over: Brian McCann leads National League to First All-Star Game Victory Since 1996

The 81st Midsummer Classic took place Tuesday evening at Angel Stadium of Anaheim. At stake was home field advantage for the World Series. Coming into this All-Star Game, the American League was unbeaten in 13 match-ups (including a tie in 2002), but the National League had the overall better record at 40-38 (2 ties).  Starting for the National League was the Colorado Rockies’ Ubaldo Jimenez, who ended the first half of the season with a 15-1 record and a 2.20 ERA. Opposing him for the American League was the Tampa Bay Rays’ David Price, who had a record of 12-4 and a 2.42 ERA. Of the six Red Sox players to make the All-Star game, three were eligible to play (though none were starters): pitcher Jon Lester, third baseman Adrian Beltre, and designated hitter David Ortiz, who last night won the Home Run Derby. Boston’s other three All-Stars were pitcher Clay Buchholz, second baseman Dustin Pedroia, and catcher Victor Martinez, all of whom were on the DL coming into the All-Star Game.

The AL Scores First

In the first half of the All-Star Game it was all about the pitching, as neither team was able to score. The American League had runners at first and third with one out in the bottom of the first, but Jimenez induced a double-play to get out of the inning. The National League found themselves in the same situation in the top of the fifth, but the Detroit Tigers’ Justin Verlander struck out the Milwaukee Brewers’ Corey Hart and induced the Atlanta Braves’ Brian McCann to fly out to right to end the threat. The Los Angeles Dodgers’ Hong-Chih Kuo came out to start the bottom of the fifth, and promptly walked the Rays’ Evan Longoria. The Minnesota Twins’ Joe Mauer then hit a come-backer to Kuo, who thew the ball over the head of the NL first baseman, allowing Longoria to get to third and Mauer to second on the error. The New York Yankees’ Robinson Cano then drove Longoria in on a sacrifice fly to give the AL its first run.

Back comes the NL

The lead held up through the sixth, but then the Yankees’ Phil Hughes came on to start the top of the seventh for the AL. He picked up the first out on one pitch, but then gave up a single to the Cincinatti Reds’ Scott Rolen. Rolen went to third on a single by St. Louis Cardinal’s Matt Holliday. Hughes was then lifted for the Chicago White Sox’s Matt Thornton. Thornton got the Arizona Diamondback’s Chris Young to foul out, but then he walked the Chicago Cubs’ Marlon Byrd, loading the bases. On came Brian McCann, who hit doubled to right, clearing the bases and driving in three runs. The National League came out of the top of the seventh up 3-1.

Missed Late Opportunities for the AL

The AL tried to mount a comeback in the bottom of the seventh against the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright. The Toronto Blue Jays’ John Buck doubled and the Texas Rangers’ Ian Kinsler walked to put two men on with one out. Wainwright calmed down, however, and got the Blue Jays’ Vernon Wells to ground into a fielder’s choice. He then struck out the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim’s Torii Hunter to end the threat. Nothing of note happened in the eighth inning (both sides pitched perfect innings), then in the top of the ninth Tigers’ closer Jose Valverde struck out the side.

The NL brought on the Dodgers’ Jonathan Broxton to close out the AL in the bottom of the ninth. The Red Sox’s David Ortiz singled to start the inning, but then his teammate Adrian Beltre struck out. John Buck then hit a flare to right, but Ortiz was hung up between first and second, unsure if NL outfielder Marlon Byrd would catch it or not. Playing it off the hop, Byrd threw Ortiz out at second for the second out. Ian Kinsler then flew out to end the game. The final score: National League 3, American League 1. The Washington Nationals’ Matt Capps, who pitched one third of an inning, striking out David Ortiz to end the sixth, picked up the win. Phil Hughes, who also went one third of an inning, giving up two hits and two earned runs, picked up the loss. The save went to Jonathan Broxton. It was the National League’s first All-Star Game win since 1996. Brian McCann was named MVP of the All-Star Game, going 1-2 with three RBIs, all of which came on his key double in the seventh inning, which put the NL up for good.

The Red Sox at the Midsummer Classic

David Ortiz went 1-2 and did get on base to start the ninth. However, his lack of speed got the better of him as he was thrown out after being unable to read Buck’s hit to right. Adrian Beltre went 0-1, his one at-bat resulting in a strikeout in the ninth. Jon Lester pitched a perfect sixth inning. All in all, there was one good performance, one mediocre, and one bad one from the Red Sox at the All-Star Game.

What’s it All Mean?

This has been the year of the pitcher, no  doubt about it. There have been two perfect games, two more no-hitters, and a one-hitter that should’ve been a perfect game. Of these, three came from National League pitchers and two from American League pitchers. And of those five pitchers, two from the NL pitched in this game and none from the AL did. The conclusion: the National League has the better pitchers, and they brought them. The National League gave up zero earned runs during this game, allowing just six hits while striking out eight and walking three. In a season where pitching rules, the NL out-pitched the AL, plain and simple. Because the fans choose the starting position players but the players, coaches, and managers choose the pitchers, it can be argued that the best pitchers are chosen but the best hitters aren’t necessarily. This gave the NL a distinct advantage, as the AL may not have had its best weapons at its disposal to counter the dominant NL pitching staff. The result: home field advantage for the National League in the World Series. Whether this will matter remains to be seen, as the American League won in Interleague play, 134-118. But the fact remains that Tuesday night the pitching was on display for the National League, and whoever comes out of the AL to face the NL in the World Series will have some big guns to go up against. Let’s hope they’re ready.

Who Will Win the World Cup?

I’ll admit it: I’ve become a soccer fan. Maybe not a hardcore one. Probably not one who’ll watch an MLS game or follow the English Premier League. But I’m definitely a fan now. I can see the excitement in the game, the tension, the beauty. I’ve caught many of the World Cup games this year and enjoyed them all. And now we have the finals. The Netherlands and Spain. One game to play for the right to say you’re the best soccer team in the world. One chance to become legendary. And in 24 hours, we’ll have a championship. But who will it be?

This is an excellent match-up for the finals. There are many striking similarities between the two teams and their playing styles. Both are pass-heavy teams that rely on ball control and possession, preferring to keep the ball moving laterally, setting up scoring opportunity in drips and drabs. Then when the time comes, both teams strike. Each team features a Golden Boot (most goals) candidate- David Villa of Spain and Wesley Sneijder of the Netherlands, each with 5 goals. In all likelihood, the team that wins the World Cup will most likely feature the Golden Boot recipient as well, which would be appropriate. Forward Dirk Kuyt of Holland also leads the tournament in assists with 3. David Villa, meanwhile, is the Spanish assists leader for Spain, meaning he can recognize scoring opportunities for others and doesn’t play selfishly. Goalkeeping favors the Dutch slightly, with Maarten Stekelenberg edging Iker Casillas by 3 (15-12). Stekelenberg is in the top 10 amongst World Cup goalies; Casillas is in the top 20.

Honestly, I see this game playing out one of two ways, and it all comes down to ball possession. If Spain does what it can do, passing and passing so that the Netherlands can rarely even mount an offensive strike, then the game may end 1-0 in Spain’s favor (as it has in the last two rounds). However, the Dutch are a slightly better shooting team, with their secondary goal scorer, Arjen Robben, leading secondary Spanish scorer Xavi by a goal (2-1). The Dutch offense is a little more dynamic, so if they can get control of the ball and mount some attacks, they could score multiple goals because they have multiple options. If the Dutch are able to go on the attack, I see them winning something like 3-1.

But it’s hard to choose between the two. Both teams are so similar. My choice goes with the Dutch. They have a few things working in their favor. First off, they are undefeated up until this point. Second, I think beating Brazil gave them more momentum than any Spanish victory has up until this point. Third, they have an advantage at goalie. Stekelenberg is slightly better than Casillas, and that might make the difference. Spain can control the ball, but I question if they can score enough goals to win it all. The Dutch lead the Spanish by five total goals (12-7), whereas the Spanish lead the Dutch in goals conceded by three (5-2). Do the math, and that means if both teams play to their strengths the Dutch should win by two goals.

The Netherlands have never won the World Cup before. Spain has never even reached the finals. Expect both to play as hard as they possibly can, but they may translate into a very slow game. With each team’s ability to control the ball, pass accurately, and control the clock, there may be very few scoring opportunities for either side. But frankly, I’m pulling for the Oranje. I think the party in Amsterdam will be epic, far greater than anything Madrid could hope to achieve. And again, I feel they have an advantage at goalie and on offense. Look for them to push early to try and get the first goal. If Spain scores first, they may just clock control the game away and the Dutch may never get a chance to equalize. But if the Netherlands can score first, Spain will have to play with more aggression than we’ve seen from them all tournament. It all depends on the first goal.

Book Review: “Friday Night Lights,” by H.G. Bissinger

Friday Night Lights is H.G. Bissinger’s chronicle of the Permian Panther (located in Odessa, Texas) 1988 season and quest for the state championship. It begins with the preseason and moves all of the way to the playoffs (I won’t give away how far they get). It was later made into a movie starring Billy Bob Thorton and directed by Bissinger’s cousin Peter Berg. It was also adapted (loosely) into an NBC drama that has gone on to critical acclaim but little viewership.

Friday Night Lights is perhaps the most comprehensive work of sports journalism I have ever read. Bissinger leaves no stone unturned (he devotes an entire chapter to the courtroom drama surrounding Gary Edwards, corner back and running back for the Dallas-Carter Cowboys, the last team the Panthers play, and his questionable grade in Algebra II). Focusing on five primary players- quarterback Mike Winchell, fullback Boobie Miles, tight end Brian Chavez, linebacker Ivory Christian, and tailback Don Billingsley- Bissinger provides a wonderfully in-depth analysis of the relationship between the town of Odessa and its high school football squad and the effect such a relationship has on those who play the game. But he goes deeper than that. If there is a story to tell, Bissinger finds it and tells it. Not only does he introduce each character, their origins, their goals, their dreams, their strengths, their weaknesses, but in most cases he goes at least a generation back, discussing how each character’s family wound up in Odessa and the relationship they have with their athlete sons. He tells the entire history of Odessa, from inception to the modern day. He creates a town that is deeply committed to high school football, but at great cost. Racism runs rampant though the town, as no one has qualms about using the n-word and black athletes are viewed as interchangeable parts that can be used until they’re used up and then replaced (the story of Boobie Miles and junior Chris Comer illustrates this). The education system is pathetic, as most of the budget goes to the football program (the head coach makes more than the principal), test scores are well below average, and few teachers even try to relate to their students anymore. And the town is economically stagnant, purely reliant on a dying American oil industry. While Bissinger doesn’t condemn Odessa for this, he in no way shies away from the dark side of the city.

Not to be outdone by his research abilities are his descriptions of the games themselves. A gifted storyteller, he describes each game with detail and emotion. As the team struggles or succeeds, the reader feels the emotions of the players and coaches. When the Panthers win, we soar. When the Panthers fail, we sob along with the players (and they sob a lot in this novel, for one reason or another). My one critique of this book is that there is so much background that sometimes it feels like it takes forever to get to the next game. But because Bissinger’s focus is not on the season itself but rather the town, this is to be expected.

Friday Night Lights is not a happy story. The pressure the players feel takes an incredible toll on them, and many of them crack under the pressure of it. Not to give away the ending, but there is a reason none of these players are house-hold names: none of them go the pros. Most of them either fail at the college level or never even bother to try. Bissinger’s point may be that all of this is wrong. It’s too much football, not enough schooling. It hurts the students far more than it helps them. And it builds up such a short period of their lives (just their senior year) that afterwards can’t be anything but disappointing.

Comparison with the Film

The television program is so loosely based off the book that I don’t feel a comparison is necessary. The series could’ve had another name and taken place at another school (it does- Dillon- although both teams call themselves the Panthers).

As for the film, Wikipedia has a solid enough description of the technical differences between the book and the movie. However, there are larger differences that need to be discussed. The first is their treatment of quarterback Mike Winchell. The movie portrays him as nervous, weak, filled with heart but not necessarily talent. It also portrays him as scared to leave Odessa. In reality, Winchell harbored dreams much of his life of playing for the University of Texas and leaving Odessa. He also had a brilliant season in 1988, breaking several school records. And while in the movie he performs incredibly well in the last game, in reality he actually had his worst game of the season, thanks in part to the rainy conditions of the University of Texas stadium (in the movie it takes place at the Houston AstroDome, an indoor facility). As the character I most related to, I felt the movie treated Winchell unfairly, presenting him as a caricature of his real self, not properly reflective of his attitude, dreams, or abilities. This happens to all of the characters (Billingsley, in particular, was not as bad a fumbler as the movie portrays and had a less-strained relationship with his father), but Winchell gets it the worst.

My other critique of the film is that it may have missed the point of Bissinger’s novel. Yes, it captures the pressure of the season very well, with many comments about how you work incredibly hard for so long for something that’s so fleeting. But in doing so it avoids the larger issues that Bissinger presents in his novel. And the aftermath of the movie suggests that they went on to have happy lives. Many of them in reality did not. The final scene of the film is Winchell throwing a ball to a group of eight-year-olds playing football, then turning around smiling. The symbolism here is that even as he graduates, Permian football will continue, and that’s a positive. I’m not so sure Bissinger would agree. The novel suggests that breaking the cycle might be in the best interest of the town, as a refocusing on education might improve the town more than any football championship ever could. Perpetuating this obsession only holds the town back, dooming it to continued racial segregation and economic stagnation. The film is exciting, but is nowhere near as poignant as the novel is. I recommend the book for sports fan and sports journalist alike, but don’t go into the film expecting a documentary.

Youkilis Exits Game Early as Red Sox Fall in Tampa

The Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays continued their three-game series at Tropicana Field Tuesday night. The Rays had won the first meeting of the series, erasing a four-run deficit and then holding the Red Sox scoreless for six innings thanks to phenomenal pitching from the bullpen. Tuesday’s match-up featured the second career starter for Boston’s Felix Doubront, who had won his first start against the Los Angeles Dodgers. He faced off against Tampa Bay’s Jeff Niemann, who had lost his previous two home starts but came into the game 6-2 overall with an ERA under 3.00.

The Rays were the first team to score in this game, when John Jaso singled in the bottom of the third inning. A Doubront wild pitch advanced him to second, and he was promptly driven in by a Jason Bartlett single. When the Red Sox next came up to bat in the fourth, Kevin Youkilis stepped out of the batter’s box and went to one knee, grabbing his right ankle. Believing it to be just cramps, the trainer immediately came out. Unfortunately, Youkilis wound up leaving the game with what has only been described as “right ankle pain” (x-rays would later turn up negative). He was replaced by Niuman Romero, a recent call-up from Triple-A Pawtucket. Later in the inning, J.D. Drew would reach on a throwing error by Rays third-baseman Evan Longoria (playing somewhat out of the position due to the shift the Rays employ against Drew). He would score to tie the game on a single by Daniel Nava.

The Rays retook the lead in the fifth on a triple by Sean Rodriguez and a Jaso RBI groundout, then scored an insurance run the eighth on a home run by Carl Crawford off Hideki Okajima, whose ERA now sits at 6.00. The Red Sox made it interesting in the ninth, with Eric Patterson hitting an RBI triple. But with two men on and two outs, Niuman Romero grounded out, ending the game. The final score: Tampa Bay 3, Boston 2. Niemann picked up the win, Doubront the loss, and Rafael Soriano the save (his 23rd).

Red Sox at the Plate

Two Red Sox had multiple-hit nights: Marco Scutaro and Daniel Nava. Both went 2-4 for the night, with Scutaro adding a walk and Nava driving in a run. The problem with the offense lay in the middle part of the lineup. Without Youkilis behind him, David Ortiz, who had doubled in the first inning (his only at-bat with Youkilis behind him), was intentionally walked three times, all in key situations. And in all three situations, including the ninth with the tying run on third base, Niuman Romero could not come up with a hit. Losing Youkilis effectively silenced the power of the Boston 3-4 hitters, and it made it impossible to drive in runs. The team left eleven men on base and were outhit by Tampa Bay seven to six.

Red Sox on the Mound

For his second start ever, Felix Doubront pitched remarkably well. His curveball was especially effective tonight. In 5.2 innings of work, he gave up five hits, two earned runs, and four walks while striking out three. He did a good enough job of keeping the Red Sox in the game, but the offense never picked him up. The bullpen pitched decently, especially Scott Atchinson (1.1 perfect innings of work, including a fly-out to get out of a bases-loaded situation in the sixth and a strikeout in the seventh), but Okajima’s home run to Crawford proved to be the winning run. So once again, the loss really lies at the feet of the bullpen. There’s barely anything left of the All-Star Okajima from 2007, and the Red Sox were really relying on him to provide a bridge to their more elite pitchers and to help out against lefties. Unfortunately he hasn’t done it. The Red Sox need bullpen help, and they need it soon.

Really? Youkilis Too?

Forget the “injury bug.” This is the injury swarm. By the end of this game, less than half of the Red Sox on the field were on the Opening Day roster. Just when the Red Sox were turning things around, injury after injury started occurring. It’s discouraging and frustrating, both to fans and players, because nothing can be done. You just have to wait these injuries out and hope the Red Sox don’t fall too far behind in the standings in the meanwhile. But it was very discouraging to see Romero struggle so badly in key situations for the Red Sox. It does not appear that he is ready to be a professional ball player yet, although he has started just two games. The minor leaguers have to step up for the Red Sox now as more and more major leaguers go down. Hopefully Youkilis returns soon, but given Boston’s luck this season, that may not be the case. If that happens, Romero will get many more chances to redeem himself. Hopefully he can.

Book Review: “Into Thin Air,” by Jon Karakauer – A Harrowing Adventure at the Top of the World

Into Thin Air is Jon Krakauer’s personal account of the May 1996 Mt. Everest disaster that claimed a dozen lives from a number of different expeditions. Krakauer, a writer for Outside Magazine at the time, tells the entire story, beginning with the origin of his mountain-climbing career and the history of Mount Everest, continuing through to the development and composition of the various expeditions. Step by step he sets up the climb itself, comprehensively setting the stage. He does a fantastic job building suspense, casually mentioning a slight hiccup here, a minor problem there, all the while building towards the disaster itself. He follows this up with a fairly emotional breakdown of the aftermath of the disaster, in particular how it affected him personally. He concludes with a discussion of the controversies that arose surrounding the account, in particular the way it conflicted with mountaineering guide Anatoli Boukreev’s version of what happened, as documented in The Climb, which came out around the same time.

While this story starts very slowly, it picks up with blistering speed. Once the teams arrive at Base Camp and little things start to go wrong, you can sense that disaster is looming. As the climbs begin, the suspense builds. It’s made clear from the beginning that not everyone will make it back alive (statistically, 25% of all Everest climbers die in the attempt), and as the situation worsens, you begin to wonder who exactly will perish on the mountain. The story is gripping, emotional, and at times deeply personal (Krakauer believes to this day that at least a few of the deaths were primarily his fault, either due to negligence or his status as a journalist- a powerful message to all us would-be journalists). Krakauer does an excellent job bringing the reader into the world of commercial mountaineering, where organizations run the gamut from incredibly organized to dangerously unplanned. Groups of all shapes and sizes took on the mountain in May 1996, and the conflux of groups led to way too many people spending way too much time on the freezing, oxygen-thin mountain. You come away from the book with a grim understanding of just how dangerous mountaineering can be, especially when in you’re in the hands of an inexperienced or incompetent leader. Into Thin Air is nothing if not comprehensive. Krakauer gives you the whole story, in as much detail as he can, and he does his best to avoid personal speculation when he doesn’t have all the facts.

This is not to say the book is not without it’s faults. The first is that it’s not written for those who are not in the know for mountaineering. He is not afraid to use technical climbing terms or obscure geographic/topological descriptions of Everest. While he explains some of them, he could do a better job. Even at the end of the novel, I felt like I had neither a complete understanding of how one ascends Everest or exactly what the various parts of Everest look like. It seems to be composed of a variety of sections that are all markedly different, but I remain a little confused. A map would’ve been nice. Additionally, Krakauer certainly doesn’t sell you on mountain climbing. It may be impossible to pave an activity in a good light when twelve people (and these are some very good climbers who don’t make it) die doing it, but Krakauer doesn’t even try. This may not be his job, however. He wasn’t hired by an adventure company to advertise the product; he was hired by a magazine to tell an honest story. And at that he succeeds, even if the story is tragic.

The other major problem with this story is that it quickly becomes impossible to keep track of all the characters. The book begins with a Dramatis Personae like in a play, and there are a lot of people. Krakauer does a great job of giving each person a backstory, a motivation, and a characterization. But there are just too many to keep track of. When some of them start to die, you’re left with the feeling of “Oh, he died. That’s so sad. Who was he?” Interestingly, this may compare with Krakauer’s personal experiences with mortality while on Mt. Everest. He describes the first dead body he crosses as shocking, immobilizing. The second one he sees barely fazes him. Perhaps we are meant to interpret the deaths on the mountain similarly. Each death, while sad, becomes a little less meaningful. By the end the deaths are so common that you begin to wonder why anyone does this at all.

Overall, this is a fantastic story. Krakauer balances history with personal opinion and fact. It is well-researched from start to finish. The second half flies by, and Krakauer builds tension like a great dramatic writer. You feel the exhaustion and the sickness and the pain along with the characters. By the end, you’re as glad to have survived the reading as Krakauer was to survive the climb itself, but you feel as worn out as he does. His emotions transfer across the pages. Anyone with even a passing interest in rock climbing should tackle this at some point. For the rest of us, you just have to strap in and hang on for the ride.