THE AUTHOR

Ian Casselberry is a freelance writer, currently based in Asheville, NC. He is an editor at The Comeback and Awful Announcing

Previously, he has been a contributing writer for Yahoo! Sports' Big League Stew, MLive.com and SB Nation. In addition, he was a lead baseball writer for Bleacher Report. 

You can also find him on Twitter and Facebook, where he craves your attention.

He still plans to write that novel someday. 

("Pearls Before Swine" © 2005 Stephan Pastis)
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Entries in sports (12)

Monday
Dec232013

No, Mom — The Lions will not be going to the playoffs

If there's a bright side to the Detroit Lions' 23-20 overtime loss to the New York Giants on Sunday, it's that Lions fans can go into the holidays without having to think about this team and its implosion of a season.

We can all just leave this team behind as we go into the New Year like all of the other bad, stressful stuff we want to shed from our lives and forget. There's no need to even fantasize about the possibility of the Lions making a run in the playoffs because they knocked themselves out of the postseason by losing five of their past six games. 

And it will probably be six of their last seven after next week against the Vikings. Why bother winning? There's nothing left to play for. If the Lions couldn't play at their best when a playoff bid looked like a near-certainty, what kind of effort can they be expected to show when the season is effectively over and the only question left to answer is when head coach Jim Schwartz will be fired? 

There's already plenty written — with more surely to come — from media and bloggers who cover the team on a daily basis about Schwartz's job status. He almost certainly will be dismissed for squandering a playoff spot while coaching a terribly undisciplined team that just doesn't play very smart football each week.

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I don't have much to add to that, other than to voice my agreement. I haven't written about the Lions all year, so I don't know how much credibility my opinions on the matter have. I'm just a fan like the rest of you reading this. I'm no kind of authority, I haven't spent months, weeks, days and hours studying and analyzing every angle of this team. 

But I will say this: The Lions are beginning to crush my mother's spirit. If Schwartz and his team are on the verge of losing her support, there's not much hope for sympathy from anyone else. 

I'm not sure when exactly my mother became a diehard Lions fan, but her devotion developed over the past 14 or 15 years. As I wrote a couple of years ago for SB Nation Detroit, I think it started when I used to pick her up from work at the University of Michigan hospital and I'd often be listening to the end of a Lions game while waiting for her in the car. There were many times when she came to the car and saw me pounding the steering wheel with my fist or resting my forehead on it in exasperation. 

Since my father passed away eight years ago, my mother's fandom has only intensified. My guess is that she started following football because of me and my father, but she adopted the Lions as her team while my father was more of a Michigan football fan. 

I think Mom was more disappointed than I was when I told her she wouldn't be able to watch every Lions game when we moved to North Carolina. (There was a brief discussion about getting DirecTV and NFL Sunday Ticket, but the idea of having something different from cable frightened her. It was enough of an adjustment to a DVR and HD television.) 

When the Lions were a playoff team in 2011, it meant Mom got to watch her team more often on national television. She understood that the regression to a 4-12 team in 2012 meant Detroit would be on TV less. At least she didn't have to watch the Lions lose. 

But this year was the one that hurt my mother. It surely didn't help that I told her the Lions would rebound, that the roster had too much talent to have a second consecutive terrible season. They had one of the best quarterbacks and the best wide receiver in the NFL. They had a strong defensive line and underrated corps of linebackers, and finally added some quality defensive backs (something the coaching staff and front office previously didn't seem to believe was a necessity). 

Mom was a believer. She even set me straight on Reggie Bush. I wasn't crazy about the Lions signing him because I didn't think he was a durable running back. Even if Mom was more familiar with Bush because he dated Kim Kardashian, she said I was wrong. Bush was a fast and exciting player. Hey, Mom was right — even if I could nitpick about his fumbles. Maybe she should start a Lions blog. 

Why am I writing so much about my mother here? Honestly, she doesn't even understand everything happening on the field. But I feel like she makes me a better sportswriter by reminding me that not everyone who watches is a diehard football geek. That can't be presumed. Sometimes, things have to be explained, rather than just relying on jargon or platitudes.

My mother reminds me what it's like to be a fan. She doesn't read everything about the Lions. She doesn't claim to have watched every snap Ndamukong Suh played in a game. She doesn't bitch about every play on Twitter or dismiss each loss as "same ol' Lions." But she cares about her Lions. To me, there's something pure about the way she watches football and follows the team. 

Maybe most fans are like that, and I just spend too much time among bloggers and diehards on social media, who can just suck the joy from watching sports by bitching about everything relentlessly. 

What I'm worried about is that this Lions season and the increasing level of disappointment suffered over the past six weeks might be on the verge of turning my mother into the kind of fan that isn't fun to watch a game or follow a team with. She's never going to be an angry sports-talk radio caller, internet commenter or Twitterer. But she might be on her way to becoming that disheartened, jaded fan when it comes to the Lions. 

Last week, after watching the Lions play the Ravens on Monday Night Football, Mom noted how many good players the team had and asked why they couldn't win more. And there it was. It finally clicked for her. I was both proud of her and sad for her at the same time. 

During the past two seasons, she's gotten upset with me when I suggest Schwartz has to be fired and makes me feel guilty for suggesting that anyone lose his job, even as a NFL coach. But now that it's clear that the Lions won't make the playoffs — after I'd been telling Mom for weeks that their chances looked good — she's done with Schwartz too. She's skeptical that the Lions can hire a better coach, but she agrees that a change needs to be made. 

That's what this team has done. They've broken my mother.

I can live with the Lions not winning a Super Bowl. I've been fortunate enough to see nearly every team I love — Michigan football and basketball, the Tigers, Pistons and Red Wings — win a championship. I can't really complain. But the Lions do make me — and all of their other fans — feel like rooting for them is futile, like the franchise might be cursed. 

I don't want to see my mother lose her optimism. I don't want to see her give up on the Lions. If that happens, I might have to finally follow through on my intention to find another NFL team to support. 

Monday
Apr292013

Saluting Jason Collins for being the first, and surely not the last

By now, you've probably heard that NBA player Jason Collins became the first athlete in one of the four major pro sports to come out as a gay man. The full story is in this week's Sports Illustrated as the cover story, but the article is available online now. 

This probably won't surprise anyone who knows me, but I applaud Collins for being the first to put himself out there. Someone had to be the first man to take a chance in the macho world of sports, risking alienation and persecution. 

(Collins also made sure to mention that he was black, which I thought was a bit curious. Amanda Rykoff pointed out to me on Facebook that there's even more of a stigma regarding being gay in black culture. This column by Rob Smith at Salon explains how meaningful that is.) 

While I hesitate to use the word "hero" in such cases, this is certainly a courageous stand. Is that overstating the case? Perhaps a little bit, given that Collins has received support from former and current NBA players on Twitter since this went public.

But the tendency is to assume that what's seen on Twitter is a reflection of the culture at large. The Twitterverse is but a small slice of our society and there are still major portions of this country's population that just won't accept a gay man.

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Though I should've known better, I was reminded of this a year ago when an amendment to ban same-sex marriage in North Carolina passed decisively. I knew that I lived in a progressive outpost surrounded by Southern conservative culture, so my view was skewed. I wasn't surprised that the amendment passed, but felt naive that I believed a different result was possible. 

My mother asked me why this was such a big deal, and I wanted to give her a hug because I know how far she's come on these sorts of issues.

But I think most of us — especially those who follow sports — understand how narrow-minded the climate can be in locker rooms, with men showering and dressing alongside one another. 

Maybe this would be perceived as an even bigger story had it been a superstar player who came out as gay, rather than a role player nearing the end of his career.

(Collins is a free agent, and it will be intriguing to see if this affects his ability to get a new contract or if he's even used as a publicity stunt.)

That's always been a secret hope, I suppose. If a star says he's gay, how many would really voice opposition or fear as long as he performs on the field? The same standard should hold true for Collins, of course. 

There is a development to this that troubles me, however. It's not that someone would voice opposing views — especially if they're blanketed in ignorance. That's to be expected. As I said above, this is a polarizing issue. 

But it does bother me when someone expresses a view against homosexuality and is immediately thrashed as an "idiot" or "moron." Those sorts of insults are being thrown at ESPN NBA reporter Chris Broussard, who said on the air that he believed homosexuality was a sin.

Here are Broussard's full remarks, via ThinkProgress:

Personally, I don’t believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle or an openly, like premarital sex between heterosexuals. If you’re openly living that type of lifestyle, then the Bible says you know them by their fruits. It says that, you know, that’s a sin. If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, whatever it maybe, I believe that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ. So I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I don’t think the bible would characterize them as a Christian.

Yes, I utterly and completely disagree with those comments. But Broussard is entitled to his opinions and views, regardless of how repugnant and divisive some of us believe them to be.

Should he have been allowed to say those things on ESPN when he's a reporter covering the NBA and just expressed a clear bias? That's something worth discussing at another time. (Kate Aurthur has a good piece at BuzzFeed on that subject.) 

What immediately struck me about Broussard's remarks is how closely they resembled the beliefs of someone in my family with whom I had a debate about homosexuality and gay marriage a couple of years ago. (To me, it still feels like last week.) 

When I heard this person say "it's a sin," I just knew we wouldn't be getting anywhere. Looking at the world that way is just so different from how I view it that I knew there wouldn't be any middle ground between us. To this day, that makes me sad, disappointed and outraged. 

In his eyes, it wasn't that he disagreed with or was repulsed by that lifestyle. (Although remarks he's made in the past lead me to believe that.) It's that the Bible told him it was a sin. To me, that sounds cowardly, like hiding behind something he didn't have the guts to express himself. Nonetheless, it is something he believes.

Do I want to call him ignorant and a homophobe for feeling that way? Sure. But is that any better than him saying someone made him uncomfortable for "crossing his legs like a woman," that "it seemed kinda gay"? Maybe it is, but I'd like to think I'm more enlightened. 

Yet that's the sort of mindset Collins faces and will continue to face, along with so many other gay people in this country.

That's why coming out on a public stage was so brave of him. He'll be called a sinner, along with insults far worse, far more degrading and infuriating. However, he's willing to take that abuse because it's that important to him. Because he wants to pave the way for others to walk through the door he opened. 

I was surprised to see Collins as the lead story on ABC World News Tonight. But that shows how big a deal this really is. Eventually, of course, it won't be a big deal and we'll wonder what all the hubbub was about.

Not now, however. This matters. And Collins deserves major praise for making it so. 

Saturday
Apr062013

Wolverine supporting the Wolverines

Wolverine cheering for the Michigan Wolverines as they take on Syracuse in the NCAA tournament's Final Four tonight is almost too much joy for me to handle. Worlds colliding gloriously!

Here's the tweet from Wolverine himself, Hugh Jackman:

Go Blue!

Thursday
Jan102013

Hey, where's the New York Times sports page?

Who knew The New York Times could be so cheeky?

Leaving the front page of the sports section blank to reflect no players being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame for 2013 was a brilliant visual commentary.

Of course, prohibiting its writers for voting on awards and honors such as the Hall of Fame allows a better position to cast judgment. 

You can see the NYT’s full front sports page at USA Today. Or you could go to a newsstand and pick one up for yourself. 

Do you think anyone saw that page and thought their paper wasn't printed properly? I wonder if anyone tried to return their copy or go back and see if they could get a properly printed NYT?

I can easily imagine dealing with that customer when I worked at Borders or Barnes and Noble. "I didn't get a full paper!"

Monday
Oct082012

Pat Neshek's poignant playoff appearance

It's long overdue to blow the dust off this blog and put some fresh content here again.

Unfortunately, the full-time gig at Bleacher Report takes up all of my writing time. I could—and would love to—take more time to write here, but I'm tapped out by the end of the day and want to just stare at a TV, read something unrelated to baseball or just sleep.

I'm certainly hoping that will change once the playoffs end by November. 

In the meantime, here's a post I wrote that I wasn't sure fit into our MLB postseason coverage at B/R (though I published it there anyway), but felt the need to write. I didn't get it done before Game 2 of the Tigers-Athletics series on Sunday, but with Monday being a day off in the series, I thought I could post it here. 

If you've stuck with me, thank you. I hope to keep some stuff coming here in the weeks and months to come.

Most of my time as a sports blogger has been spent writing about the Detroit Tigers. During that time, there were few relievers I feared pitching against Detroit more than Pat Neshek in 2006 and 2007.

In five appearances vs. the Tigers in 2006, Neshek allowed one run over 6.1 innings for a 1.42 ERA. He struck out 10 batters while walking none. Overall, Neshek had a 2.19 ERA in 32 appearances with a rate of 12.9 strikeouts per nine innings.

In 2007, Neshek emerged as one of the best relievers in MLB. He compiled a 2.94 ERA in 74 appearances, striking out 74 batters in 70.1 innings. Against the Tigers, he pitched nine times, allowing three runs with 10 strikeouts in nine innings.

But nothing Neshek did in the first two years of his career—against the Tigers or MLB at large—was as impressive as what he did while pitching in Game 1 of the ALDS for the Oakland Athletics on Saturday (Oct. 6).

You very likely know the story by now of what Neshek and his wife went through last week.

Less than 24 hours after giving birth to their first child—one of the most special moments in the life of any couple—Pat and Stephanee Neshek lost their newborn son. No cause of death was known, no explanation given for the Nesheks' happiest moment soon being followed by the most tragic.

The world must have made very little sense to Neshek on Wednesday. Presumably, that's why he was back with his teammates and ready to pitch for the A's on Saturday in Game 1 of their ALDS against the Tigers. Both Neshek and his wife needed something to make sense again, something to hang on to when the world must have seemed indescribably cruel.

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In the previous paragraph, I said Neshek was "ready to pitch" for the A's. That's impossible to know, of course. He probably wasn't ready to pitch. Who could be ready to do anything in light of experiencing such a tragedy?

I can only imagine Neshek sometimes felt like the world needed to stop for him and acknowledge what he'd been through. Or perhaps he needed the world around him to just keep going on as usual so he could try to find a semblance of normalcy just three days after nothing could have felt normal for him.

Anyone who saw Neshek warming up during the seventh inning of Saturday's game likely felt something for him, a twinge of sympathy or a jolt of empathy. How could Neshek possibly pitch after what he's been through?

It wasn't a question of whether or not Neshek should pitch. He should do whatever he wanted or needed to do to cope with the loss of his son. It was a question of whether or not anyone could do the same thing if confronted with such circumstances.

I suppose I shouldn't attempt to speak for everyone, however. I'm speaking for myself. That's what was going through my mind. That's why my stomach seized when I saw Neshek on my television screen. I'm presuming many of you had similar feelings.

Neshek came in for the A's with one out and two runners on in the seventh inning. The Tigers had a 3-1 lead and could have padded that lead with a base hit. Oakland manager Bob Melvin wasn't just putting Neshek into the game during a meaningless situation (if there's such a thing during a playoff game) to let him settle in and clear his mind.

As he revealed after the game, however, Neshek's mind was anything but clear. Really, how could it be?

"It was definitely tough down there," Neshek said, as quoted by USA Today's Bob Nightengale. "I was thinking about him the whole time.

"It sounds so cliché, but it felt like he was looking down on me, helping me."

Neshek got Oakland out of its seventh-inning jam, getting Omar Infante and Austin Jackson out on eight pitches. He did exactly what he was supposed to do, what he's done all season, as his 1.37 ERA in 24 appearances demonstrates: He kept the A's in the game.

For at least a moment, maybe the world made some sense again for Neshek and his wife. He tapped the special patch on his right arm that the team wore on its jerseys in tribute to his son. I can't imagine there's anyone who watched that moment and wasn't affected somehow.

Maybe you thought about what Neshek had endured. Perhaps you looked at your child and imagined what it would have been like to lose him or her. Maybe you thought about loss you've experienced in your own life.

Again, I can't speak for you. I'm speaking for myself here.

In that moment, I thought about the baby niece that's become such a significant part of my life over the past 20 months. I thought about my sister and how such a tragedy would have affected her.

I remembered losing my father and sitting in a dark room with my family the day after it happened, much like Neshek described doing with his wife in the hours after they lost their baby. I remembered how family and friends have never been more important.Almost involuntarily, I clapped for Neshek in my living room—even though he was pitching against the team I grew up watching, the team I've covered as a sportswriter for years.

It was one of the most courageous pitching performances I've ever seen as a sports fan. No matter what happens, Neshek has already made this ALDS between the Tigers and Athletics extremely memorable.

Thursday
Oct272011

Reading stack: Thursday's links

Anthony Bourdain is coming to Asheville next Saturday for a lecture and Q&A. I've been a fan of his since "Kitchen Confidential" came out and "No Reservations" is still must-watch TV for me. So I got my tickets as soon as they went on sale. (There's also a foodie VIP event afterwards. I'm sure the food will be great, and it would be cool to get a book signed, but it sounds more like a "scene to be seen" kind of event.)

Asheville's best food writer, Mackensy Lunford (a local Bourdain, really), interviews him in anticipation of his visit. As always, his candor makes for great conversation about the food business, what his life has become, the socio-economic debates over food, and a shot at Paula Deen. [Mountain Xpress]

"Pardon the Interruption" has been on the air for 10 years? It's not the must-watch for me that it used to be, either because my life and daily schedule has changed or maybe I'm not as ravenous a sports fan anymore, but it's always been one of my favorite shows. That's largely because I've always enjoyed Tony Kornheiser as a writer, radio host and TV personality.

I was certainly excited when the show was first announced, reading Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon go at it in "The Chat House" every Monday at washingtonpost.com. But the reason "PTI" has endured is probably because of its fast-paced format, a perfect way to catch up on the day in sports in 30 minutes. And the rundown sidebar on the screen lets you know if the show will discuss something you want to hear. If not, come back in two minutes.

That format — along with smart conversation and a refusal to take itself too seriously has been highly influential. You can see it being copied on a number of shows, whether they deal with sports, politics, or pop culture. Here's an interview with "PTI" executive producer Erik Rydholm. [Washington Post]

More "PTI": Here's a podcast interview with producer Matt Kelliher (also a regular on Kornheiser's radio show to review the topics of the day), who talks about some of the show's signature touches, such as the "nuggets" which peek back into the show for "off-camera" conversations during commercial breaks. [ESPN Front Row]

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Wednesday
Dec022009

One of Bobby Bowden's Finer Moments?

With the news that Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden will retire after 34 years on the job (44 years as a head coach overall), and at the age of 80, I quickly thought of one of the many scenes from We Are Marshall that gets me every time.

Bowden was the coach of West Virginia in 1970, when Marshall University was trying to rebuild its football program after nearly all of the team's players and coaches were killed in an airplane crash. When Marshall's new coaches wanted to run the same sort of offense WVU was known for, Bowden allowed them access to playbooks and game films. WVU also wore tributes to Marshall on their helmets.

I'd like to think football coaches would do that sort of thing today (they'd likely pay tribute on their helmets), but given the level of secrecy and competitiveness in big-time college football, I'm not so sure many would show the same compassion.

But what I liked most about Bowden is that the guy seemed to have fun coaching football. I know it's serious work, with a punishing schedule, but is it really as life-or-death as so many coaches make it seem? (Of course, Bowden probably wasn't doing much actual coaching in recent years, letting his assistants do the grinding work, so maybe that's why he seemed so "dadgum" jolly.)

Still, Florida State has been one of the powerhouse programs as long as I've been a college football fan. When the Seminoles came to Ann Arbor to play Michigan back in 1991, that was a big deal. (So was the Desmond Howard-Terrell Buckley match-up.) I can't quite believe they've fallen into mediocrity. (I was referring to Florida State, not Michigan, but I guess that applies to both schools now.)

Obviously, that's the main reason Bowden is "retiring." It's too bad he didn't step aside before being nudged out the door.

By the way, if Florida State and West Virginia can play each other in the Gator Bowl for Bowden's final game, that would be a wonderful ending. Hopefully, that can happen.

Thursday
Oct292009

There is Some Joy in Mudville

A few years ago, I got to write a magazine article about the clubhouse assistant whose job it was to rub the baseballs down with mud for the Detroit Tigers.  Some people don't know that mud is used to take some of the sheen off the baseballs and make them easier to grip.  This used to be the umpires' job, but they hated doing it, so teams began having their own guys get their hands (and the baseballs) dirty.

It's not just any old mud that's used to rub down the baseballs, either.  It's a special sort of mud that comes in a jar, called Delaware Mud.  Or to be even more specific, Lena Blackburne Rubbing Mud.

Why do I bring this up?  Because CNN ran a story on the man who harvests this mud, shovels a bunch of it into barrels, strains and cures it, puts it into jars, and ships it off to every team.  Each team requires only two 32 oz. jars per season.  Very little goes on each ball.  Maybe about a dime-sized dot.  But it's plenty to give the baseball a grip.  And you can definitely tell the difference. 

There's definitely a technique to rubbing the baseballs down, as you'll see in the video.  And when you have to go through five or six-dozen balls, you get fast at it, taking off the gloss in about two or three turns.  (At least four players or coaches passed by while we were in the hallway and said, "Ask him about rubbing my balls," "Yeah, he rubs those balls real good," or some variation of the two.) 

I was allowed to try it a couple of times (which a certain $18 million right fielder eyed suspiciously) and didn't get it right.  I got too much mud on the ball, especially on the seams.  "Yeah, the pitcher would definitely toss that one back," I was told.

Okay, enough about me.  Here's the video:

(via Motown Sports)

And what the heck, I'll include the article I wrote, after the jump.  (Along with the bad photo I took.)  The publication in question no longer exists (folding more than two years ago), so I'm sure there's no issue with reprinting it now.

 

The old adage "It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it" doesn't quite apply to Scott Konczal.  One of his jobs is, in fact, dirty, but he's more than willing to do it.  Before a major league baseball game, the new balls have to be rubbed down with mud to take off the sheen that makes them slick and slippery.  Such a task used to be handled by the umpires, but has since been passed along to team employees.  That's where Konczal and his jar of Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud come in. 

From his seat outside the Tigers' clubhouse, Konczal takes approximately an hour to rub down 72 baseballs.  And when he opens the new box of balls, you see why this job is necessary.  The baseballs are too white and shiny, too pristine to be played with.  They slip right out of your fingers.  They need to be broken in. 

The rubbing mud is thin, smooth, almost creamy in its consistency.  Is it really from the Delaware River, as the jar claims?  Konczal says yes.  How does he know?

"Because Ernie Harwell said so."

All that's necessary to get the ball game-ready is a dip into the jar.  Not too much, just a half-dollar-sized dollop on the ball.  Roll it around on your palms and fingers, coating the surface evenly, making sure there's not any excess or grit in the seams.  Seconds later, the sphere in your hand looks more familiar.  Ever so slightly dinged with brown, and much easier to grip.  Play ball. 

The instructions on the jar call for a slightly different rubbing (or "massaging") method.  "If I did it their way," Konczal says, "I'd be here for hours." Considering he's been doing this for 10 years, it's safe to say his way works just fine. 

"Scott does a great job," says Tigers pitcher Jeremy Bonderman.  "He's a good guy." 

The Tigers wouldn't have anyone else performing this crucial task.  Another pair of hands rubbing down their baseballs is eyed with extreme suspicion.  You know how ballplayers are with their superstitions.