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Introducing Oliver Goss

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When Adam Scott was navigating the back nine at Augusta National on his way to winning the 2013 Masters tournament, 19-year-old Australian amateur golfer Oliver Goss was sitting in his dorm room at the University of Tennessee, glued to his television set. Nothing was going to prevent him from watching the first ever Australian pull on a green jacket, not even his school grades.

“I had an assignment for one of my classes that was due the next day, but I could not stop watching him play those last holes,” he told Masters.com.

This year, Goss, who is currently the world’s 12th-ranked amateur golfer, will have a very different view of Augusta, when he tees off at his first Masters tournament.

“I am going to be so nervous and so excited at the same time,” Goss told The Weekend Australian in March. “Who knows where that ball is going to go on the first hole?”

Raised in Perth, Western Australia, Goss moved to the United States in January, 2013 to attend the University of Tennessee. He arrived on campus as the highest ranked player the university had ever recruited, boasting a résumé that included a second place finish in the stroke play portion of the 2012 Australian Amateur Championships and as the winner of the 2012 Western Australian Open.

Qualification for the 2014 Masters came by way of finishing runner-up in last year’s U.S. Amateur Championship and he didn’t waste any time in getting to know Augusta National, playing his first round of the fabled course just a few months later.

“It was dead quiet, without all the people and the scoreboards, and I could not get over how peaceful and still it was,” he said, reflecting on the experience.

That tranquility will dissipate this weekend, when the young Australian arrives at Augusta a few days early to prepare for the biggest tournament of his fledging career.

“I’ll play and practice those two days, but then I will tone things down a bit so I can come out firing on Thursday when the tournament starts. I hear stories all the time about guys being so excited to be playing in the Masters that they wear themselves out during the week. But I want to be sure that I am not too tired when it is time to compete.”

Growing up playing at the Royal Fremantle Golf Club, Goss idolized fellow Australian Adam Scott, and modeled his game on the current world number two. As evidenced by the clip below, which shows the similarity of both of their golf swings, Goss has done an impressive job emulating his childhood hero.

By arriving at Augusta early, Goss is holding out hope of spending some time with Scott in an effort to soak up some valuable course knowledge. The two first met back in 2012, when Goss was grouped with Scott and 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell for the first two rounds of the Australian Masters.

“I haven’t nailed anything down yet, but I hope I can organize a practice round with Adam. That would be a real thrill, especially with him being the defending champion,” he said.

Goss will turn 20 on the Saturday of the Masters tournament, but he won’t be alone for his birthday. Golf Australia has arranged a residence for him in Augusta that is large enough to accommodate his coaches, parents and girlfriend Jessie, who is a fellow student at Tennessee.

“And maybe an auntie, too,” Goss quipped. “It will be great having everyone around, and being able to share the experience with them all.”

Since 1952, the lowest scoring amateur to make the cut has been awarded the Silver Cup. Past winners include Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods, but Goss is being realistic about his expectations.

“I basically want to go there and have as much fun as I can and learn as much from the experience,” he said. “If I play well that’s great. If I don’t that’s not a big deal. It’s the Masters. I will hopefully have some more opportunities in the future.”

Considering his career trajectory to date, those opportunities will come sooner rather than later.

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09:44 pm, from the brain of alex benton
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Adam Scott to Bring a Taste of Australia to Augusta

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Editor’s note: This article first appeared on ESPNAussiesAbroad.com.

Not only will Adam Scott be defending his Masters title when he returns to Augusta National Golf Club this April, but as the reigning champion, he will also be tasked with hosting the most exclusive dinner in professional golf.

The Champions Dinner takes place on the Tuesday evening of tournament week and is attended by former Masters winners who gather in their green jackets and regale each other with tall tales and off-colour jokes. Those seeking an invitation to dine with Augusta royalty are obligated to meet only one requirement: win the Masters.

The history of the Champions Dinner dates back to 1952, when Ben Hogan wrote a short letter to club chairman Clifford Roberts, inviting him to a stag dinner for all of the previous champions. That night, with nine of the past 11 champions in attendance, The Masters Club was born, and the dinner quickly evolved into an annual tradition.

"My only stipulation," Hogan wrote, "is that you wear your green coat."

The defending Masters champion is bestowed the privilege of selecting the menu, which is typically used as an opportunity to showcase some of the delicacies of their native country. Unsurprisingly, this has led to some particularly interesting outcomes over the years.

Dressed in a tartan kilt, Sandy Lyle famously served up traditional Scottish fare in 1989 that had attendees clambering for Augusta’s regular clubhouse menu. It turns out that haggis, which is made from sheep’s innards and encased in the animal’s stomach, is not a popular choice amongst golfers. “I had a steak that night after I found out what haggis was,” said 1971 Masters champion Charles Coody.

In 1998, a 22-year-old Tiger Woods wasn’t swayed by the white tablecloth setting, serving cheeseburgers, French fries and milkshakes, which resulted in a ringing endorsement from the club chairman at the time, Jack Stephens: “Cheeseburgers and milkshakes go good with wine,” he said.

2009 champion Angel Cabrera showed no remorse for vegetarians, treating attendees to an “Argentine asado,” a five-course banquet of meat that included pork, beef ribs and blood sausage. Not all attendees were fond of the blood sausage, however, prompting Jack Nicklaus to quip, “I hope he enjoys it.”

Traditionally held in the second-floor library of the clubhouse on a long rectangular table, Charl Schwartzel attempted to buck the trend in 2012 by proposing a traditional South African “braai” underneath the iconic oak tree near the first tee. Not only that, but Schwartzel also offered to slip on an apron over his green jacket and grill the meat himself.

The powers that be ultimately nixed the idea, but Schwarztel still served a barbecue menu that included grilled filet mignon, lamb chops and boerewors sausages with monkey gland sauce. Schwartzel reassured his fellow champions that contrary to the name, “There’s no monkey and there’s no gland.”

In keeping with tradition, the 2014 Champions Dinner will be a gastronomic showcase of the defending champions homeland, and Adam Scott recently disclosed the pièce de résistance of his Australian-centric menu.

"I can reveal Mum’s Pavlova dessert will be on the menu, and while I am not giving too many secrets away, hopefully it will be enjoyed by all," Scott said.

"[It will be] her recipe," he explained. "She might be nervous with Arnie and Jack in the other room."

The rest of the menu will remain a mystery until the Tuesday night before the tournament, but Scott has already noted a few key omissions.

"I am not going to go so clichéd Aussie and serve meat pies and sausage rolls or Kangaroo and crocodile, but I am going to serve something that hopefully everyone can enjoy, but certainly with an Australian theme to everything.”

Another Australian delicacy will also be a notable absentee from the final menu.

"I don’t think I can serve Arnold Palmer Vegemite on toast," Scott said with a laugh, when asked about Australia’s famous salty spread.

One item that will be tough to leave off the menu, however, will be Moreton Bay bugs, which Scott revealed last year to be of his favourite foods. And while he hasn’t confirmed or denied their inclusion, he hinted recently that The Masters Club might get a taste of the lobster-like shellfish.

"That would be a pretty good guess," he said with a wry smile.

Yet, no matter how good Scott’s choices turn out to be, it will be almost impossible to avoid the good-natured ribbing that takes place around the dinner table. In golf’s most exclusive fraternity nothing is sacred, and the champion’s menu selection is always a lively topic of debate.

"Over the years," former chairman Clifford Roberts once noted, "no one has been immune to the banter."

For Adam Scott, that’s unlikely to change this year.

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10:46 pm, from the brain of alex benton
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Grant Balfour Right at Home in Tampa Bay

Editor’s note: This article first appeared on ESPNAussiesAbroad.com.

Grant Balfour never wanted to leave Tampa Bay.

During his first stint in Florida from 2007-2010 he met his wife Angie and the two built a house in the coastal town of Clearwater. They were comfortable there and started a family, but like many of Balfour’s 2010 Rays teammates, he hit free agency and ultimately signed with the Oakland Athletics when the Rays couldn’t match the offer.

In December last year Balfour became a free agent once again and the Baltimore Orioles agreed to sign him to a 2-year, $15 million contract. But less than a week later the O’s walked away from the deal because the club wasn’t satisfied with the results of his physical. That opened the door for a return to Tampa Bay, who locked him in to a two-year, $12 million deal, reinstating an integral piece of their 2008 and 2010 division-winning squads. More importantly for Balfour, it provided him with the opportunity to move home where his wife and two daughters, Raegan and Rielyn, continued to live.

Growing up in the suburbs of Sydney, Grant Balfour never harboured dreams of playing professional baseball. He idolized cricket, soccer and rugby players, and fervently supported the Balmain Tigers, the team his father David played for. It wasn’t until his father set up a T-ball league that Balfour had his first taste of the foreign sport. When his father became the General Manager of the Sydney Blue Sox in the ABL, Balfour began to meet major league players who would come down to Australia in the offseason on loan from the Toronto Blue Jays. It was during that time that he first began to think about baseball as a viable career choice.

Signed by the Minnesota Twins in 1997 as a 19-year-old free agent, Balfour worked his way through the Twins minor league system, ultimately making his major league debut on July 22, 2001. By 2004, he had become a regular contributor for the Twins, posting a 4.35 ERA in 36 relief appearances and capped off the season by throwing two scoreless innings against the New York Yankees in Game 4 of the AL Division Series. His final two outs were Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.

Balfour’s future looked extremely bright, but that was all about to change. In May of 2005 he underwent Tommy John surgery on his elbow, and just four months later, he went under the knife again to repair a torn rotator cuff and a torn labrum. Many thought he might never pitch again, and with his career suddenly in jeopardy, the Twins decided not tender his contract.

Hoping that he would be fully recovered by the middle of the 2006 season, the Cincinnati Reds stepped in and signed Balfour to a one-year deal that guaranteed him $340,000. When he did return, however, he could only muster nine innings for three different minor league affiliates, the highest being in the Class A Florida State League. By October, Cincinnati had placed him on waivers.

Balfour’s long road back to the majors then took him to Milwaukee. After performing well at Double-A Huntsville, he was soon moved up to Triple-A Nashville. Throughout 32 minor league appearances, he posted an impressive 1.87 ERA, and in June of 2007, nearly 3 years after playing his last major league game, he took the mound for the Milwaukee Brewers against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Balfour’s time as a Brewer didn’t last long though. After only two appearances and a very unflattering 20.25 ERA, Milwaukee traded Balfour to Tampa Bay for right-hander Seth McClung. The Brewers, who had acquired fellow reliever Scott Linebrink in a trade with San Diego two days earlier, needed the roster space, and Balfour, who was out of minor league options, was shipped to make way.

"It didn’t really go as planned," Balfour said at the time.

Arriving in Tampa Bay, Balfour joined the worst bullpen in the league, which provided him with ample opportunity to prove that he could become a meaningful contributor after recovering from his surgeries. Pitching as a middle reliever, Balfour posted a 6.14 ERA in 22 appearances, showing just enough to avoid arbitration and secured a $500,000 contract for the 2008 season.

Despite an impressive preseason, the Rays opted to go with fellow right-hander Scott Dohmann, and Balfour missed a spot on the opening day roster. Designated for assignment, he began the 2008 season at Triple-A Durham. Instantly, he took out his frustration on the helpless Triple-A hitters. In 15 appearances, Balfour gave up only one run, going 1-0 with a 0.38 ERA, whilst striking out 39 and walking just 10 in 23 2/3 innings.

Now fully recovered, Balfour was turning his anger into results on the mound, and in late May he was recalled to the majors.

With his chest puffed out and a considerable chip residing firmly on his shoulder, the new Grant Balfour walked with a different swagger when he returned to the Rays’ 25-man roster. His career to date had not gone to plan and at 30 years old he was finally in a position to show the baseball world what he was capable of. Brash, loud and angry, Balfour brooded on the mound, talked to himself incessantly, and peppered his self-dialogue with expletives.

His penchant for profanities worked.

Using his new curse-ridden self-motivation technique, the results were remarkable. Balfour rocketed to stardom with a 6-2 record, a 1.54 ERA, four saves and 82 strikeouts in 58 1/3 innings. Despite not playing in the first 50 games, he was arguably one of the best relievers in major league baseball in 2008, and helped the Rays achieve the biggest decrease in ERA from one year to the next of any team in 85 years, and their first ever World Series appearance.

Since then, Balfour has been a menace out of the bullpen.

After moving to Oakland via free agency in 2011, Balfour became the A’s full time closer in 2012 and immediately embraced the high-pressure role of being the last man standing. A section of crazed Grant Balfour fans quickly developed in the right-field bleachers; throwing their heads back and forth when he entered from the bullpen as Metallica’s “One” blasted through the Coliseum speakers. “Balfour Rage” rapidly became a league-wide phenomenon.

As Oakland’s ninth-inning man, Balfour posted a 2.56 ERA in 140 appearances, racking up 62 saves in 67 chances and helped the A’s to a pair of division titles. In July last year, he broke Dennis Eckersley’s Oakland Athletics franchise record, saving 44 consecutive games, and a week later flew overnight from Oakland to New York to pitch in his first All-Star Game after a late call-up to replace his injured teammate, Bartolo Colon.

In 2014, Balfour will return to the place where he resurrected his career. “I’ll be totally honest, I never wanted to leave [Tampa],” Balfour told reporters at his introductory press conference in January. “I love the area and I love playing for the Rays. My family is here, and I love staying at home.”

It’s a fitting narrative for a man whose career feels like it has happened in reverse. At 36 years old, he’s getting better with age, and is achieving career milestones that at one time seemed inconceivable.

Back in a Rays uniform, Balfour prowls the bullpen, hyped-up on Extra Strength 5-Hour Energy, waiting for his opportunity to be called up to close out games. Nine years have past since injuries almost derailed his career, and the All-Star closer is now more focused than ever.

"I want to win a World Series,” Balfour said matter-of-factly. "We got really close here in 2008 and I’m really hoping that here, in the next few years, that I can win one."

With the bullpen that they’ve assembled, anchored by the fiery Australian with the acid tongue, Tampa Bay are in a position to do just that.­­­­­

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10:35 pm, from the brain of alex benton[3 notes]
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The Evolution of the NBA D-League

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Tucked in the Northeastern corner of Pennsylvania, with a population of a little under 6,000, is a small town called Moosic. Once home to a popular amusement park for 101 years, the town has reinvented itself through recent developments that have added an open-air shopping center and a new $13-million multiplex movie theater. But the main attraction in Moosic takes place between April and September, when the local Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, the Triple-A affiliate of the New York Yankees, ply their craft at PNC Field.

People from neighbouring towns converge on Moosic to watch the RailRiders, who over the past three seasons have averaged a just over 1,000 fans per game. Every so often each season, however, that changes, when a circus that would not have been out of place at the old amusement park rolls into town. Last July, on a warm summers night, that circus came in the form of New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter, who was returning to the baseball field after suffering a fractured ankle in April.

Instead of immediately being slotted back into the starting line-up at Yankee Stadium, Jeter was assigned to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to shake off a heavy amount of rust. In his first game back, he played five innings at shortstop and went 0-2 at the plate. PNC Field was, unsurprisingly, completely sold out. He would go on to play three more games for the RailRiders in the coming days, before returning to the Bronx to make his Major League season debut. This is not an uncommon occurrence. Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, Brett Gardner and Joba Chamberlin have all done stints at PNC Field whilst recovering from injuries in recent years.

The minor-league affiliate system in baseball provides organizations with the opportunity to not only ensure that their multi-million dollar investments can rehab productively and get themselves into game shape, but by also serving as a tool to develop young prospects with the goal of grooming them into Major League players.

In 2005, NBA commissioner David Stern announced that basketball’s equivalent of the baseball minor-league system, the NBA Development League (D-League), was expanding from six to 10 teams for the 2005-06 season.

"We hope the D-League can be for us what minor-league baseball is for the majors," Stern said.

In addition to expanding the D-League, Stern also pushed to raise the NBA’s minimum age from 18 to 20. This was a major point of contention in the negotiation of the 2005 NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, and was one that Billy Hunter, then executive director of the National Basketball Players Association, heavily opposed.

The influx of high schoolers to the NBA was steadily rising, and Stern feared that this was happening for all the wrong reasons. He publicly campaigned for the age limit to be raised to 20, fearing that too many young people from urban areas saw the NBA as their ticket to fame and fortune.

"I really believe it would make the most sense in the context of a higher entry age, together with a certain number of years a young player could be assigned to a developmental league," Stern said.

Jermaine O’Neal was one of the more vocal opponents of this change, calling Stern a racist, but ultimately the union compromised and agreed to an age limit of 19. The greater purpose of the NBA Development League, however, was overlooked, and Stern’s vision of a true NBA minor-league system didn’t see its full potential.

Nevertheless, the D-League continued to grow, and in the most recent NBA Collective Bargaining Agreement, signed on December 8, 2011, several provisions were included that were designed to positively impact the future of the league. Six years after David Stern’s proclamation about the future of the D-League and his vision of a baseball-like system, NBA D-League President Dan Reed echoed similar sentiments.

“The new CBA will deepen the level of integration between NBA D-League and NBA teams, and marks the next stage of our league’s evolution as the official minor league for the NBA,” Reed said.

Unlike Stern’s parallel comments in 2005, Reed had more cause for optimism. Namely the part of the agreement that states that teams can assign veteran players to its NBA Development League affiliate with their consent.

In the past, a team was permitted to assign a player to the D-League only during their first two seasons in the NBA, and they could only be assigned up to three times per season. With the most recent changes, a player can now be assigned in their first three seasons in the NBA, and there is no limit to the number of times that they can be assigned. This, and the provision that veterans are allowed to be assigned with their consent, are major steps in the right direction for the D-League.

The D-League now consists of 17 teams, 14 of which are either affiliated or owned by an NBA team. Yet, despite this, teams still show a hesitancy to designate veterans to the ‘minors’ who are coming off a significant layoff. Players assigned to the D-League continue to get paid their full NBA salary, so the impedance should be there to regain some much needed in-game form in the D-League before returning to the NBA and competing at the top level, especially after a long term injury. But so far, this hasn’t happened.

Additionally, the presence of a high-profile NBA starter on a D-League team would provide organizations with additional ticket sales and in-game revenues, this being especially important as concession stands at these arenas are operated by local vendors.

Much was made last week of Rajon Rondo’s stint as a member of the Maine Red Claws. Rondo, coming off a torn ACL, hadn’t played a game of competitive basketball since January, 2013. So the idea that he would get some much-needed minutes with the Celtics’ D-League affiliate team didn’t seem too far-fetched. If Derek Jeter, captain of the New York Yankees, can spend a week in Moosic getting into game-shape and regaining his feel for competition, then why was it so improbable that one of the best point guards in the NBA do the same?

“That’s what [the D-League is] for,” Rondo told reporters, when asked about going down to the D-League. “I’d probably be the first guy to do that, but it doesn’t make a difference. I want to make sure I’m healthy and I handle it the right way. I don’t want my first [game-like action] to be with the Celtics. I haven’t had a preseason. I haven’t had a training camp. Right now, this is pretty much my training camp.”

Less than two hours later, after a closed workout with Red Claws in the Celtics’ Waltham practice facility, he was recalled by the Celtics. His first game back testing his surgically repaired knee was against the Los Angeles Lakers last Friday night.

There is plenty of logic to Rondo’s comments, although many will argue that people have paid hard-earned money for NBA season tickets and deserve to see the best players on the court. But when players who are coming off a major injury use those first few games back to regain form and fitness, then it can hardly be claimed that people are seeing the best quality basketball.

In his two games since returning, Rondo is 7-19 from the field, and has turned the ball over 4 times in 40 minutes of action. He looks visibly rusty, exactly like a guy who hasn’t played competitive basketball in 12 months. Would a stint in the D-League have helped him and the Celtics? Quite possibly.

Go to the D-League website, and it will tell you that the NBA Development League is the official minor league of the NBA. But the reality is that it is still a way off Stern’s vision of a “true minor-league system.” Ultimately it will take a commitment from the organizations, and the players, for this to ring true. For now, it is still merely a place for NBA teams to develop young prospects and undrafted free agents, and provide under-performing players with minutes not afforded on the main roster. And although it remains an invaluable tool for marketing basketball at a grass roots level in small cities, the D-League could be even more invaluable for NBA teams who use it to its full capacity.

The recent rule changes in the Collective Bargaining Agreement provide NBA teams with more flexibility around assigning players, and in time we should see more and more marquee talents entertain the idea of a short stint in the NBA minor league.

As Rajon Rondo said, that’s what the D-League is there for.

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06:51 pm, from the brain of alex benton
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A New Dawn for Arsenal

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As we speak, Arsenal are in hot pursuit of a Uruguayan striker who would shore up their attack and provide some much needed firepower in front of goal. But this is no ordinary player. This player, despite all of his talents on the football pitch, served an eight-match suspension in 2011 for racial abuse, and is now currently in the midst of 10-game suspension for biting an opponent.

Considering his less than immaculate track record, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that this might represent a perfect ‘buy low’ opportunity for Arsenal, something worth bearing in mind when you take a peek at their frugal past.

Yet, despite Luis Suarez’s indifferent reputation and penchant for human flesh, Liverpool has valued him at £50 million, and don’t seem in the mood for negotiating. Nevertheless, after eight trophy-less years, Arsenal are desperate, and are now positioning to make a revised offer for Suarez in a deal that would shatter the previous club transfer fee record of £15 million when Andrei Arshavin arrived at the Emirates in February of 2009.

£40 million plus £1. That was the most recent bid, which triggered a clause in the Uruguayan’s contract and allowed Arsenal to discuss terms with the striker. How did we get here though? This is most certainly out of character for a club built on a “socialist model,” as Arsène Wenger so colorfully depicted back in January.

Arsenal have long preached that clubs who spend beyond their means will eventually risk ultimate demise because of the unassailable debts they acquire. Wenger, who has a degree in economics from the University of Strasbourg, takes great pride shrewd signings and the the grooming of younger players, treating them more like stock options than professional athletes: buying low and then selling high. Kolo Touré, Patrick Viera, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry. World-class players who all came to Arsenal at unbeatable prices, and, in 2004, were part of Arsenal’s unbeatable team. Wenger, for a time, seemingly had it all figured out. He was the maharishi of identifying undervalued players and exploited this to his advantage.

By the time Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in July of 2003, however, teams were already catching on to Wenger’s astute methods and soon his competitive advantage had been abridged. Subsequently, Wenger, a long-time spokesperson for the UEFA Financial Fair Play policy–scheduled to take full effect in 2018–was none too pleased with the influx of outside money, accusing Chelsea of “economic doping, because their resources were artificial.”

But when the global recession hit in the winter of 2008, Arsenal, having enforced a policy of only spending what they had, saw themselves in a position of power. Many predicted that major football clubs like Chelsea would rue their overspending, and some went as far as forecasting foreclosures under the weight of masses of unpaid debt. Arsenal, perfectly positioned to reap the benefits of a crumbling market, were ready to swoop in and buy players at a discounted rate.

"Football is not untouchable,” Wenger said. “We live by people going to the stadiums and from [sponsors] advertising to people who buy products. All our income could be a little bit under threat in the next few months."

But that day never came. The football market never crashed and people attended more games than ever, distracting themselves from the complications of everyday life. As evidenced by the 3.8% growth in Premier League attendance this past season, they are continuing to do so.

Still, Arsenal remained patient, never wavering from their “socialist model.” In fact, they tightened their purse stings in order to pay back the £430 million borrowed to build Emirates stadium. Arsenal’s chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, continued to reiterate the club’s self-sustaining model, claiming Arsenal “can and will forge its own path to success.” But fans remained disgruntled with this tactic, seeing too many of its best players being prised away by clubs with fatter wallets. Between 2007-2012, the sale of the club’s star players was responsible for £178 million (or over 90%) of the £195 million total profit.

Since 2003, when buying and selling players, Arsenal has recorded net proceeds of -£17 million, while Chelsea and Manchester City both have over £500 million. In the same period, Aston Villa, Tottenham, Manchester United and Liverpool have all spent over £119 million. Arsenal, it seems, has taken greater pride in strengthening their balance sheet, as opposed to the playing squad.

But the burden of the Emirates stadium “mortgage” is slowly lifting, and Arsenal are looking to become more involved in the transfer market once again. “The debt that we’re left with is what I would call ‘healthy debt’ – it’s long term, low rates and very affordable for the club,” Gazidis said in 2011.

Furthermore, Gazidis spoke recently of improved commercial deals that would see an “escalation in our financial firepower.”

“It is a big summer,” he said in June. “We have been working very, very hard to gain the kind of financial capability we need as a football club to be at the very top end of the game.”

Mikel Arteta said recently that it’s “about time” Arsenal got aggressive in the transfer market and a figure of £70 million was understood to have been set aside for Wenger should he wish to land a marquee signing. So, after years of parsimony, the Arsenal faithful have watched and waited for their club to acquire one of the big fish. Yet, to this date, apart from acquiring 20-year-old Yaya Sanogo on a free transfer from French side AJ Auxerre, Arsenal has not spent a cent.

Herein lies the predicament that Arsenal, and their fans, now face. It has been eight long years (and counting) since the club last hoisted silverware and the dust on the trophy cabinet has grown too thick to ignore. Armed with money in a sellers market, they are forced to look at players like Luis Suarez to fill their needs and satisfy their fans thirst to make a splash.

Long have Arsenal supporters dreamed of the day that the financially conservative club would open up their checkbook. And yes, there is surely an abundance who would love to see Suarez ply his trade in a Gunners shirt at the Emirates. But, weighing down the other side of the scales, are those who face quite a vexing dilemma: That cheering for a proved racist, one who has a history of biting other players, doesn’t really fit the Latin inscription that once adorned the clubs’ crest: Victoria Concordia Crescit,"victory comes from harmony."

Luis Suarez is a mercurial talent, there is no doubt about that, but he walks with the burden of a black cloud hanging over his character like the London winter sky. Is this what Arsenal fans truly want their club to be seen as? Spending to win, by any means necessary, giving no regard to the character of the players they sign or the number of zeros on the price tag?

Whether or not they sign Suarez remains to be seen. What does seem more clear, however, is that Arsenal are finally willing to entertain the idea of spending big. And when this happens, no longer will Arsenal fans be able to hide behind the argument that they are somehow above the overspending that is omnipresent in top-level football. They must come to terms with the fact that their values and moral beliefs, the ones that previously set them apart from the Chelsea’s and the Manchester City’s, will be somewhat diminished. And if it’s Suarez, at that price, well, possibly obliterated.

Like it or not, Wenger has always made logical decisions and has stood by his system, often to a fault. But this transfer window feels different. Gazidis has set himself up with his bold statements, and now there is an expectation that the club must do something, even if it means taking on a player with questionable character.

So, here we are. £40 million plus £1. Arsenal fans have one indelible motif and it reads like a holy proclamation of North London. In Arsène We Trust. Now, more than ever before, they should hope that this rings true.

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02:59 pm, from the brain of alex benton
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Searching for a Cinderella: The FA Cup for Baseball

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Once, when reminiscing of the time he took part in an inter-house ‘sudden death’ football competition as a schoolboy in north-west London, Charles Adcock, facial follicles proudly embowering his upper lip, spawned an idea.

So, using the power granted to him as the Honorary Secretary of England’s governing body of football, he proposed a tournament – the Challenge Cup — ‘for which all clubs belonging to The Association should be invited to compete.’ His proposition was met with a favourable response and a few months later, at a subsequent meeting, the idea was approved. Martin, Hall & Co. crafted a trophy for a measly £20 and fifteen clubs signed-on for the inaugural tournament.

Today, 141 years later, over 750 clubs compete in Adcock’s little event, now known simply as the FA Cup — the oldest domestic football Cup competition in the world. In addition to the 92 teams from the top four divisions, the tournament is open to the semi-pro and amateur clubs that make up the lower grades of English football, all of which have the opportunity to advance to the latter parts of the tournament where the top tier teams (and potential cash windfalls) are waiting.

There is a huge sense of domestic pride about the FA Cup. No greater evidence of this is the fact that the tournament was named as a ‘cultural icon of England’ by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport next to things such as Stonehenge, the Double Decker bus, and a Cup of Tea.

Undoubtedly, there is something inherently magical about it. This mythology is drawn from the fact that, at its essence, every football team in England has the opportunity to win. Each supporter base, no matter how small or cash-strapped their club might be, can harbour the hope that it is their beloved team which might slay the dragon, causing an upset that generates back page news and grants them their 15 minutes.

It is a tournament that gives a part-time plumber from Sheffield, or a local cabinetmaker from Norwich, the opportunity to win his way to Wembley Stadium, one of the most famous football pitches in England. And, in the process, earn him the right to step foot on the hallowed turf with men who earn the equivalent of a small country’s Gross Domestic Product.

The tournament, which runs from August through to May the following year, also offers football fans a respite from the monotony of a long season. A team, which may be treading water in the most vanilla place on the league table – “mid-table,” “no-man’s-land,” or worse still, “Fulham” — is given newfound hope that their squad could still achieve greatness on the national stage. In a season that stretches over nine months and 38 league games, this injection of fan interest cannot be emphasized enough.

Which is why, in a sport that plays 162 (!) regular season games over six exhausting months, an FA Cup-style knockout tournament could be exactly what Major League Baseball needs.

It could be argued that outside of the playoffs and the World Series, the most exciting moment of the MLB season is Opening Day. Thomas Boswell penned the book, Why Time Begins on Opening Day, chronicling the day when the President throws out the first pitch and the crowd hushes as it awaits the first call of, “Play ball!” It is a day ingrained in the American psyche, where fathers take sons to watch their new-look team embark on the long journey to baseball immortality. The record of each team is 0-0, the purest of all standings. It is an even playing field.

Ultimately, it is a day of hope.

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That hope, which is so rampant as the Star Spangled Banner crackles through the ballpark speakers on Opening Day, lasts long into the summer for some fortunate fanbases. But for many, it’s as fleeting as a first pitch fastball. By May, the writing is often on the wall for many teams, fans already coming to the unpleasant realization that this year their team just doesn’t have it. Come July, as the MLB All-Star Game approaches, these fans have turned their attention to NFL training camp, reinvesting their time into studying up on the new hot Quarterback their football team has drafted, rather than watching their baseball team wallow at the bottom of their division… with 80 games to go in the season.

An in-season tournament offers them hope, no matter what the regular season standings say.

Clubs and supporters from the top of the baseball pyramid aren’t the only ones who may benefit from a change in routine.

For many, life in the minor leagues is a demanding pursuit. Long bus trips to remote destinations seem to occur all too frequently. Comfort Inn beds, if they’re lucky, are cold and lumpy. The menu at the local Applebee’s, a plethora of exciting choices at first glance, begins to look all too familiar about three weeks into the season. And, for most, this will be the pinnacle of their baseball career. Some will work their way up the baseball pecking order and on to a major league roster. But for most, their stories will be of life on the road and the obscure places they’ve visited. As Peter Applebome observes in his 2007 New York Times piece about the life of a minor league ball player: their team bus, the one constant in their season, is the closest thing to a home.

In a country where the sporting audience is constantly craving a new David to cheer for against Goliath, the mere chance that a team of kids from the minor leagues might live out their dream of playing against Derek Jeter at Yankee Stadium is too good to pass up.

Imagine for a second that the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs make a Cinderella run to the final (think Barnsley, flirting with League Championship relegation, going on an improbable run in the 2007/08 FA Cup, defeating Liverpool and Chelsea on the way to the semi-finals) and meeting the New York Yankees, whilst the Boston Red Sox players cheer on their young compatriots from behind the dugout. Besides Yankees fans, who wouldn’t be rooting for the underdog Portland Sea Dogs?

History would suggest that, like the FA Cup, two MLB teams would ultimately meet in the final. But, like mid-table Football League Championship teams Millwall (2003/04) and Cardiff City (2007/08) making it to the FA Cup final in recent years, there are always surprises. 

Using the same system that is applied in the FA Cup – and, to keep it simple, using the same prize money structure — the tournament could conceivably play out like this:

Extra Preliminary Round (18 New Entries) – Winners (9) $1,200

Top three teams (based on record from the year prior) from the Independent Minor Leagues (those that are not affiliated with Major League Baseball), excluding Independent Winter Leagues.

(American Association – 3 teams, Atlantic League of Professional Baseball – 3 teams, North American League – 3 teams, Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball – 3 teams, Frontier League – 3 teams, Pecos League — 3 teams)

Preliminary Round (115 New Entries) – Winners (62) $2,400

Class A (Short Season), Rookie Leagues (Advanced), Rookie Leagues and Fall Leagues

(New York - Penn League – 14 teams, Northwest League – 8 teams, Appalachian League – 10 teams, Pioneer League – 8 teams, Arizona League – 11 teams, Dominican Summer League – 34 teams, Gulf Coast League – 9 teams, Venezuelan Summer League – 9 teams, Arizona Fall League – 6 teams) 

First Round Qualifying (60 New Entries) – Winners (56) $4,750

Class A, Class A Advanced

(Midwest League – 16 teams, South Atlantic League – 14 teams, California League – 10 teams, Carolina League – 8 teams, Florida State League – 12 teams)

Second Round Qualifying – Winners (28) $7,200 

Third Round Qualifying – Winners (14) $12,000

First Round Proper (30 New Entries) – Winners (22) $28,500

Double-A (Eastern League – 12 teams, Southern League – 10 teams, Texas League – 8 teams)

Second Round Proper (46 New Entries) – Winners (34) - $43,000

Triple-A (International League – 14 teams, Pacific Coast League – 16 teams, Mexican League – 16 teams)

Third Round Proper (30 New Entries) – Winners (32) – $107,000

Major League Baseball (MLB – 30 teams)

Fourth Round Proper – Winners (16) – $143,000  

Fifth Round Proper – Winners (8) – $285,000

Sixth Round Proper – Winners (4) - $570,000

Semi-Finals – Winners (2) - $1,500,000, Runners-up (2) - $750,000 

Final – Winner (1) $3,000,000, Runner-up (1) - $1,500,000

In 2011, Joe Posnanski wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated on the “154-game solution.” Posnanski argues, to great affect, that many in the baseball fraternity feel that the baseball season is too long. He also acknowledges that baseball, more than any other sport, bows to history and as such has the most trepadation to change. Yet, a shorter season – namely 154 games – is not change. It’s baseball history:

Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues in a 154-game season. Ted Williams hit .400 in a 154-game season. The Giants won the ‘51 pennant after a 154-game season. (O.K., 157, including the playoff with Brooklyn.) Lefty Grove won 31 in a 154-game season. This is baseball’s heritage. Sure, owners would bark because of lost revenue. But it’s just eight games, and a little ticket scarcity probably wouldn’t hurt at the gate. You wish the people running baseball would consider something other than today’s profits.

With a shorter regular season and the insertion of an FA Cup-style knockout tournament, maybe the owners wouldn’t lose this revenue? Besides, it’s not as if baseball is struggling. In 2012, MLB posted its 10th consecutive year of record revenue, with $7.5 billion.

Additionally, a television deal would need to be struck for the exclusive rights to the tournament, and with new player FOX Sports 1 on the scene, the price would be driven sky-high. Major League Baseball teams, inserted into the tournament in the Third Round Proper, would play a maximum of 6 additional games (assuming they make the final) - still less than the current 162 game regular season number. Lower grade teams, struggling to make ends meet day-to-day, would receive cash bonuses for qualifying wins, allowing them new funds to buy equipment and uniforms.

Such a tournament, one that would increase awareness of grassroots baseball and promote participation of the game, can’t be a bad thing. If it gets talking heads bloviating on ESPN, then even better. And, ultimately, if it provides the spark baseball yearns for during the dog days of summer when the drawn-out season is seemingly stuck on autopilot, then that may be the most important accomplishment of all.

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05:12 pm, from the brain of alex benton
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Tebow’s Time Will Come Again

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What’s been lost in all of the Tebow hoopla and ESPN’s around-the-clock Carrie Mathison-like surveillance on him, is that the quarterback has started only 16 games in his NFL career, the equivalent of one full regular season. Of those 16 games, Tebow has won nine, including an improbable 2011 stretch from October 23 to December 11, when he led a hapless 1-4 Denver Broncos team to seven wins in eight games (many in vintage Tebow fashion), backing them into the playoffs and pulling off a miracle overtime victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a finish straight out of the Friday Night Lights game-winning touchdown playbook.

A small sample size? No doubt. But in those games, he left an indelible impression on the NFL and polarized all who watched him play. Onlookers witnessed countless phenomena’s on the football field, yet still there were doubters. Oh, there were so many doubters. Hours of cable airtime was filled with talking heads barking relentlessly, dismissing his achievements. How could this possibly have happened? Since there was no rational way to explain it, detractors took to more quantifiable measures, nitpicking Tebow’s sub-par statistics.

ESPN’s new quarterback metric, Total QBR, designed to incorporate the contexts and details of quarterback throws and what they mean for team wins, rated Tebow 31st in the league with a score of 29.9 (out of a possible 100). As ESPN explains, an average QB would be at 50. Not even a newly developed ratings system, which accounts for Tebow-friendly things like “Clutch Index,” could fully appreciated his unlikely triumphs.

AdvancedNFLStats.com, a website curated by Brian Burke dedicated to calculating “what makes teams win” through statistical analysis, had similar findings. Tebow’s 2011 Success Rate (the proportion of plays in which a player was directly involved that would typically be considered successful) was only 38.9%, placing him 36th out of the 39 quarterbacks who qualified. In comparison, Tom Brady led the league with a Success Rate percentage of 57.1.

FootballOutsiders.com, innovators in NFL advanced metrics and partners with ESPN.com, also struggled to explain the Tebow Miracle. His 2011 DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, was -22.7%, ranking him 37th in the league amongst the 47 quarterbacks who threw a minimum 100 passes. The DVOA number represents value, per play, over and average quarterback in the same game situations. Put simply, if you believe these numbers; the Denver Broncos would have been better off with 36 other players under centre than they were with Tebow.

But wins are more important to an NFL front office than fancy statistics, right? Aren’t they what sell tickets, move merchandise (Tebow had the second best selling NFL jersey in 2011), and bring in lucrative TV dollars from nationally televised playoff games? Apparently not.

One man perpetually unconvinced with Tebow’s onfield exploits, was precisely the man who Tebow needed to convince the most. Broncos’ Executive Vice President of Football Operations, John Elway, himself a two-time Super Bowl winning play-caller, coveted a more “traditional quarterback” despite Tebow’s improbable run. Tebow clearly didn’t fit the traditional mold. So in July, when the Indianapolis Colts announced they were cutting injured four-time MVP Peyton Manning — rather than playing him the $28 million bonus he was owed — Elway had his target. Tebow was no longer in the Broncos’ plans.

Plan B,” Elway responded when asked about what would happen if they didn’t secure Manning’s signature. “We don’t have a Plan B. We’re going with Plan A.”

For Elway, it couldn’t have worked out better. Manning is turning in his best season since his 2009 MVP campaign and has helped the Broncos wrap up the AFC West title already. For Tebow, traded by Elway to the New York Jets for two late-round draft picks, things could be better.

But they also could also be a lot worse. I mean, he could be playing.

Gaudy New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan has fervidly stood by Mark Sanchez, despite continued poor performances by the fourth-year quarterback. Sanchez, who won four road playoff games in his first two seasons, has failed make any significant progress since his sophomore season. In fact, he looks to be regressing and it culminated with a 10-21, 97 yard, 3INT game on Sunday which saw him benched in place of Greg McElroy, a 2011 seventh-round pick out of Alabama.

Tebow, who has seldom been used this season, was sidelined with injured ribs, so it’s peculiar as to why Ryan chose this game to finally bench Sanchez. But perhaps it’s in Tebow’s best interest that the cloak of mystery continues to hang over him. 

In ten games this season, Tebow has attempted seven passes, completing six of them. He also bulked up in the offseason to assist the Jets in getting back to their ‘ground-and-pound’ run-heavy offense, yet has only rushed the ball 29 times, accumulating a modest 87 yards. Not crazy numbers by any stretch of the imagination.

Tebow’s frustrations are obvious, but the Jets decision to trade for him this past offseason was widely seen as an attention-grabbing move at the time. Opinions haven’t changed much, with the common belief that this is simply another attempt by the franchise to steal the back page headlines from the Super Bowl Champions they share a stadium with. Never one to mince words, outspoken Hall of Famer Joe Namath summed up what many people were thinking at the time. “I just think it’s a publicity stunt,” Namath said. “I really think it’s wrong.”

Whether it’s right or wrong, the Jets fans want to see him on the field more. But for those pining for Tebow Time in New York, they shouldn’t hold their breath. Sanchez, who was inexplicably signed to a $40.5 million extension in March — bringing his total deal to five-years, $58.25 million — is guaranteed $8.25 million in salary in 2013 with no buyout clause, making him almost impossible to trade or release. Rex Ryan and General Manager Mike Tannenbaum are committed to Sanchez, and, barring injury, that means that Tebow will continue to hold a clipboard for the foreseeable future.

But, in the strangest of ways, perhaps Tebow’s lack of playing time this season is the best thing that could have happened to him. Instead of being traded to a lowly team with a quarterback vacancy where his limited abilities would have been exposed, possibly fatally, Tebow is now in a position where people are beginning to overrate him again. Time is a funny thing. It makes you forget. Gone are the advanced metrics from the forefront of our minds — QBR, SRP, DVOA -– and back is the Power of Tebow. A living, walking miracle who can heal people with the touch of his hand, yet looks completely incompetent when holding a football with it.

Tebow may be the most televised backup in the history of the league, casting a forlorn figure on the sidelines for the most part this season. But in each game he sits, the more NFL fans miss him. In a lost season that has seen him used more as a decoy on special teams, we have been cleansed of the ugliness of some of his performances at quarterback last season, and now we just yearn for the magic to return.

The worse that things get for the Jets — and they don’t get much worse than what happened against New England on Thanksgiving — the better things are for Tebow. The unflattering advanced metrics are slowly being washed away by the waves of “Te-bow, Te-bow” reverberating around MetLife Stadium. Whether they continue to reverberate in the 2013 season remains to be seen. For now, the Jets are a sinking ship, and Tebow should be thankful that Rex Ryan hasn’t asked him to part the sea of football mediocrity.

His miracles, you see, would be of better use elsewhere.

In recent times, the Jacksonville Jaguars have struggled to fill EverBank Field, falling as low as 30th in the NFL in attendance in 2009 and currently sitting 22nd this season. Not too long ago the franchise was linked with a move to Los Angeles, a city starved of professional football since 1995 and one that is scheduled to build a $1.2 billion stadium next year, despite the league not yet guaranteeing it a team.

But a recent sale to Illinois-based businessman Shahid Kahn squashed those rumors, with the new owner committing to keep the Jaguars in the state of Florida and signing a deal to play home games in London over the next four years. Kahn seems to like Florida, recently buying a house in the sunshine state and in February admitting his fondness of another local product. One that played quarterback for the University of Florida.

In an interview on Jacksonville radio station WOKV, when asked about what he would have done in the 2010 NFL Draft had he owned the team back then, his answer was simple:

“100 percent I would have [drafted Tim Tebow],” Khan said. “Absolutely.”

The Jaguars were close to landing Tebow again in March this year, offering to pay back Denver $3 million (compared with the $2.53 million offered by the Jets) and dealing their fourth round draft pick (more valuable than the two later round picks the Jets were offering based on the draft “value chart”), before the transaction fell through and the Jets got the deal done.

Chad Henne, called upon by the Jaguars to start at quarterback after incumbent Blaine Gabbert was placed on the season-ending Injured Reserve, has delivered some inspired performances since he was given his opportunity. But for Jacksonville to make significant inroads on the national stage, they must call on the man who attended Nease High School in Ponte Vedra Beach, just 23 miles south of EverBank Field.

The first Jaguars game Shahid Kahn ever attended was on September 12, 2010, when the Denver Broncos came into town. A rookie quarterback sat patiently on the bench, waiting to be called upon. His two carries for 2 yards were insignificant in the effect that they had on the result of the game, but not for the 63,636 fans in attendance.

“There were a lot more Tebow jerseys in the Jaguars stands than the teal jerseys for any player,” Kahn said, reflecting on his first Jacksonville Jaguars experience. 

For the future of his newly purchased franchise, it make sense for Kahn to hitch his wagon to Tebow’s star. Maybe Tebow won’t turn the lowly Jaguars around completely, but even without the the additional W’s in the win/loss column, the franchise will come out victorious. Increased attendance figures, inflated jersey sales, and perhaps most importantly, national relevancy, all come as part of the Tebow package. And for a franchise with an NFL-worst record of 2-10, anything remotely resembling a win should be considered.

Tim Tebow already has one statue erected in his honor, standing just outside the gates of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville. Time will tell whether another is built elsewhere, but it’s safe to say it won’t be outside MetLife Stadium.

So, for now, Tebow will bide his time. We will forget what we choose, remember those flashes of brilliance, and await next chapter of the Book of Tebow. For this season need never have been written. 

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07:31 pm, from the brain of alex benton[2 notes]
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A Golden Opportunity

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As NBA prophets attempt to cast light on the shadowy 2012/13 NBA Championship, one storyline continues to surface as a viable way to derail that dream. This past August, eleven NBA players (and one rookie) took home the United States’ thirteenth gold medal from an Olympic Games Men’s Basketball tournament. Six of those players (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh from the Miami Heat and Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder) finished playing in the NBA Finals just 13 days before the Olympic training camp began in Las Vegas. Their first practice game followed seven days later, against the Dominican Republic on July 12.

Unlike 2008, however, when players were coming off a full 82 game season, members of the 2012 Olympic team had the “advantage” of only having played 66 regular season games (plus playoffs) before beginning their quest for gold in London. Still, despite the lack of 100-gamers (Kobe Bryant played 103 games in 2007/08 before the Beijing Olympics), the off-season schedule remained primarily the same. Whilst the rest of the league was taking a much needed break — recovering from a heavily condensed shortened season — some of these players were back on the court less than two weeks after confetti fell from the rafters at the American Airlines Arena in Miami.

So when we look into the NBA crystal ball and begin to prognosticate about who will be receiving the Larry O’Brien trophy from David Stern for the final time, what should we make of these Olympians? Will their lack of off-season rest affect their production this upcoming season? Are injuries more likely to occur, as players have more mileage on their legs and less break in between seasons? Or will representing their country and bringing home a gold medal inspire them to greater heights?

To properly gauge the impact that an Olympic Games has, it’s worth looking back at the key members of the 2008 Team USA and examining how they responded the following year.

Dwyane Wade

2007/08 – Miami Heat (15-67, Worst record in NBA)

2008/09 – Miami Heat (43-39, Fifth in Eastern Conference)

After offseason surgery on his left knee in 2007 sidelined him for six months, Wade returned to the court in November, but struggled to stay healthy. The Heat shut him down in March 2008 and he underwent OssaTron treatment (shock wave therapy) to assist in the recovery of his ailing knee. It seemed to work, as Wade led Team USA in points for the tournament (128), averaging 16 per game. Shooting a remarkable 67% from the field, Wade was instrumental in Team USA’s quest for gold, and he parlayed that into the 2008/09 NBA season, putting up career-best numbers in points, steals, assists, and blocks. He led the league in points per game (30.2), field goal attempts (1739), field goals made (854), and was second only to Olympic teammate LeBron James in John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) at 30.46. He also finished third in M.V.P. voting, made the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive Second Team. But probably the most remarkable season note for the oft-injured Wade, however, was that he played 79 games (still a career high), voluntarily sitting out the final two games of the regular season to rest for the upcoming playoffs.

LeBron James

2007/08 – Cleveland (45-37, 4th in Eastern Conference)

2008/09 – Cleveland (66-16, Best record in NBA)

In the season prior to the Olympics, LeBron led the league in scoring and it’s easy to see why. Flanked with a sub-par (and that’s putting it kindly) supporting cast of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Sasha Pavlovic, Larry Hughes and Daniel Gibson, James was force to shoulder most of the load offensively. Third in the league in minutes per game (40.4), LeBron dragged the Cavaliers to the Eastern Conference Semi Finals, eventually going down to the Boston Celtics in seven games. LeBron’s heavy workload continued in Beijing, leading Team USA in minutes per game (24.8). His production continued to grow on the international stage, averaging 15.5 points (shooting at a very efficient 60.2% clip), collecting 5.3 rebounds per game, and dishing off 3.8 assists. What happened next wasn’t an Olympic regress, but a gargantuan leap forward. Despite logging less minutes (and thus averaging less than his 07/08 numbers in every category apart from rebounds), James played 81 regular season games (75 the season prior), saw his ‘Per 36 Minutes’ averages shoot-up in all categories, and registered a league best 31.76 PER. What resulted was his first M.V.P. award, All-NBA First Team selection, All-Defensive Team selection, and five Eastern Conference Player of the Month awards. Not a bad Olympic hangover cure.

Kobe Bryant

2007/08 – LA Lakers (57-25, Best record in Western Conference)

2008/09 – LA Lakers (65-17, Best record in Western Conference)

103. That was how many total games Kobe played in the 2007/08 season, as he lead the Lakers back to the NBA Finals, coming up just short to the Boston Celtics in six hard-fought games. On Team USA in Beijing, Bryant was coming off an M.V.P. season (despite his numbers being down on previous seasons and notwithstanding one of the great point guard seasons of all time from Chris Paul), and played like he wanted to ensure everybody else knew it. He took the most shots (104) and most three pointers (53), shooting the ball at 46%, sub-par compared with the other starters. Yet despite his massive workload the previous season and in addition clocking the second-most minutes on Team USA in Beijing, Bryant would not miss a game in 2008/09. Instead, he outdid himself, playing a career-high 105 games (including playoffs and finals), leading the league in “clutch stats, and guiding the Los Angeles Lakers to the 2008/2009 NBA Championship over the Orlando Magic.

Dwight Howard

2007/08 – Orlando – (52-30, Third in Eastern Conference)

2008/09 – Orlando – (59-23, Third in Eastern Conference)

Heading into the Olympics Dwight Howard was coming off a breakout season, posting some immense defensive numbers, and gaining his first All-NBA First Team selection. Continuing his ascendance in Beijing, Howard started all eight games for Team USA, averaging 16.1 minutes court time and shooting the ball at an amazing 74.5% from the field. Against Dirk Nowitzki and Germany, Howard unleashed 22 points, 10 rebounds and 2 steals in a 49-point demolition. Howard returned to the NBA in 2008/09 invigorated and posted career-best numbers in blocks (2.9), whilst also leading the league in rebounds for the second year running. He was rewarded for his achievements with NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors and his second straight All-NBA First Team selection. Missing only three games all season, Howard finished fourth in PER (25.4).

Chris Paul

2007/2008 – New Orleans Hornets (56-26, Second in Western Conference)

2008/2009 – New Orleans Hornets (49-33, Seventh in Western Conference)

You could make a case that Chris Paul deserved the 2007/08 M.V.P. award. It wasn’t just his amazing statistics (21.1ppg, 11.6ppg, 4.0reb, 2.7stl), but how he carried an average New Orleans Hornets team to the second seed in a loaded Western Conference. Throw in the mindboggling numbers of 22-13-4 with 50-82-41 percentages after the All-Star break and there is still no rational explanation as to why Kobe Bryant received 82 first place votes to Paul’s 28. Don’t forget, Kobe was bad-mouthing his teammates before the season started and demanding a trade! Then the Grizzlies gift-wrapped the Lakers Pau Gasol and everybody (especially Kobe) seemed to forget how close he was to becoming a Clipper.

So it makes sense that Paul was playing with a chip on his shoulder when he landed in Beijing. Coming off the bench and playing 21.9 minutes per game (third only to starters Dwyane Wade and LeBron James), Paul led Team USA in assists (33), and was second in steals (18).

His 2008/09 NBA numbers were, amazingly, better than the previous season. Playing a career-high 38.5 minutes per game, Paul put up career-best numbers in field goal percentage (.503), rebounds (5.5), steals (2.8) and points (22.8) and again led the league in assists. Additionally, Paul made the All-Defensive First Team, the All-NBA Second Team and was third (behind Wade and James) with a 30.0 PER.

Chris Bosh

2007/08 – Toronto Raptors (41-41, Sixth in Eastern Conference)

2008/09 – Toronto Raptors (33-49, Thirteenth in Eastern Conference)

Bosh came into the Beijing Olympics having missed 15 games in the 2007/08, first with a strained groin and then later in the season with right knee pain. He returned in time for the playoffs, but his efforts weren’t enough to get the Raptors past the Orlando Magic in Eastern Conference First Round. For Team USA, Bosh was a sharpshooter off the bench, nailing 77% from the floor and raking in a team-high 6.1 rebounds per game.

Bosh returned for the 2008/2009 season and played 77 games (his most since 04/05), and despite the Raptors missing the playoffs, put up better regular season numbers in multiple categories including points (22.7) and rebounds (10.0).

It’s impossible to know how different players will react to the shorter offseason and increased workload. Players like James Harden (23 years old), Russell Westbrook (23), Kevin Durant (24) and Kevin Love (24) have the benefit of younger legs, as LeBron did four years ago. But while Harden seems to be revelling in his new role as the go-to scorer on the Houston Rockets, Love broke his right hand doing knuckle push-ups and will miss the first six weeks of the season.

The bigger question that remains though, is how Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will adapt to life without the bearded lefty with the sweet stroke? Without Harden to anchor the second unit, Durant and Westbrook will be relied on for more minutes and equally more offense. Bigger numbers, perhaps, but will it translate into wins?

The key contributors in 2008 not only took their personal games to the next level after getting their first taste of Olympic gold, but their teams benefited with vastly superior records. Time will tell whether Olympic first-timers like Westbrook and Durant will have the same success, but if history is anything to go by, look out league.

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11:44 pm, from the brain of alex benton[1 note]
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Blade Runner


"I’m not disabled, I just don’t have any legs" – Oscar Pistorius

Every Olympic Games has a moment.

Jesse Owens dominating the 1936 Games in Berlin, as Adolf Hitler watched on from his observation box. Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowing their heads, their black-gloved hands raised high in a gesture of black power in Mexico City in ’68. Munich in 1972, forever remembered for the terrorist killing of Israeli athletes, but also for Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals. Greg Louganis in Seoul ‘88, who misjudged a reverse 2 1/2 somersault pike and hit his head on the board, only to recover and win gold in the 10-metre platform. Derek Raymond snapping his hamstring in the 400-metres final in Barcelona and his father Jim, fighting off security, running onto the track to help his son finish. Cathy Freeman, a symbol of reconciliation and an icon of national unity, winning gold in the 400-metres in Sydney. And in 2008 it was Usain Bolt in the 100-metres, shoelace untied, restoring splendor to the tarnished blue riband event.

Years from now, when we reflect on the London Olympics, you can rest assured that one moment will stand tall. Not on two legs, however, but on carbon-fibre prostheses. For this moment, we have never seen before.

In September of 2004, in front of a near-empty Athens Olympic Stadium, a 17-year-old Oscar Pistorius crouched over the starting blocks, waiting for the start of the 200-metres T44 semi-final. Soon he would be known worldwide as the ‘Blade Runner,’ have a multi-million dollar endorsement deal with Nike and be named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people. But eight years ago, he was a virtually unknown South African double-amputee, competing against similarly disabled athletes.

He had only taken up competitive running nine months earlier out of necessity, as part of a rehab assignment for a rugby injury. In fact, he had little knowledge of what the Paralympics even were. But, there he was, competing on the biggest stage there is for somebody with his incapacitation.

His inexperience was on full display this particular afternoon, as he completely missed the start. It was almost comical. As his opponents leapt off the blocks and accelerated into stride, Pistorius simply looked up from his starting position and watched them sprint away into the distance. In a moment of sheer panic, he began to run. He was dead last.

Then, it happened. In 23.43 remarkable seconds, the young South African double-amputee caught up and overtook the other five competitors, broke the world record and shot to stardom. He was about to change everything. Soon, the entire world would know his name, and the sport of athletics would never be the same again.

Born without fibulas in either leg, Pistorius’ parents took the advice of dozens of doctors and had both legs amputated below the knee when he was just 11 months old. By 13 months, Pistorius had his first pair of prosthetic legs. By 17 months, he was walking.

In primary school, Pistorius played cricket and soccer. In high school, he took up boxing and joined the rugby team. He was handy water polo player and in his spare time rode motocross bikes and regularly water-skied. But it wasn’t until a rugby injury forced him to take up running, that he began to explore the possibilities of athletics as a career.

To assist him with his training, Pistorius flew to the United States where he was outfitted with custom sports prostheses called Flex-Foot Cheetahs. Invented by fellow double-amputee Van Phillips in 1996 and inspired by the J-shape of a cheetah’s hind leg, the design enables the prosthesis to store kinetic energy produced by the athlete. The curve compresses and bends upon impact, then releases the energy as it straightens, allowing the athlete to lunge forward.

The Cheetahs were centre stage at the 2007 South Africa national championships, where Pistorius ran a time of 46.56 in the 400-metres, finishing second. But this was not a race against other disabled athletes. In this race he finished second against able-bodied runners. He had arrived.

But, just when it looked possible that Pistorius might be marching at the Beijing Olympics for South Africa, the International Association of Athletics Federations (I.A.A.F.) introduced a new amendment to their rule clarifying the difference between athletes receiving assistance or an unfair advantage (I.A.A.F. Rule 144.2). Initially targeted towards a particular running shoe that had come under investigation because of their technological spring innovations, the I.A.A.F.’s response was to outlaw “any technical device that uses springs, wheels or any other element that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.”

As a result, the I.A.A.F. deemed that the Flex-Foot Cheetahs were also a competitive advantage, and Pistorius was banned from competing against able-bodied athletes, effective immediately.

Late in 2007, Pistorius travelled to Cologne, Germany, where he spent time at the German Sport University undergoing a series of tests. The I.A.A.F. assigned Dr. Peter Brueggemann, a Professor of Biomechanics, to Pistorius’ case. The results from his study found that that while the Cheetah returns about 91 percent of the energy expended with each stride, the human ankle returns merely 88 percent.

In January of 2008, armed with Dr. Brueggemann’s findings, the I.A.A.F. ruled Pistorius ineligible to participate in any sanctioned able-bodied competitions (including the Olympics), because his prostheses were deemed “technical aids” that gave him a clear advantage.

Enter, Jeffery L. Kessler.

With a client list that includes the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL Players Associations, and having built his reputation on handling complex antitrust and sports law cases, Kessler was hired by Pistorius to fight the I.A.A.F. ruling.

Kessler described it as, “Maybe the most important case ever for the rights of disabled athletes.” He went on to say, “There are many, many disabled athletes that use the exact same device that Oscar uses. Oscar’s the only one who is approaching Olympic qualification. And, what that tells us is that it’s not a device that makes Oscar fast. It’s Oscar. And that’s what makes this ruling so unfair.”

Kessler arranged for Pistorius to travel to Rice University in Houston, where he undertook further tests.

The findings of the new tests were then taken to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (C.A.S.) in Lausanne, Switzerland — an international group set up to settle disputes in sports – where the professors from Rice University argued that if the Cheetahs did provided Pistorius a mechanical advantage, it would be very likely that they provided an energetic or physiological advantage. As Professor Rodger Kram explained, “Since there is no energetic advantage, it infers that the prostheses do not provide a mechanical advantage either.”

Kram went on to argue that, “The methodology of the German study that involved measuring Oscar’s oxygen consumption while running was flawed.”

“When we had a chance to properly measure Oscar we found that while he is quite economical in oxygen consumption compared to your average Joe, his values are well within what would be expected for a high-caliber athlete,” Kram concluded.

Revised tests showed that the Cheetahs have an elastic energy return of 92 percent, whereas biological tendons offer between 93 percent and 95 precent. In addition to these findings, the drawbacks of the Cheetahs clearly outweigh the advantages. Pistorius struggles with starting, because he can’t crouch down into the blocks. He has trouble negotiating turns, and his traction is sufficiently reduced on wet tracks.

In May of 2008, the C.A.S. ruled that there wasn’t enough scientific evidence to prove the I.A.A.F.’s case, and Pistorius was cleared to compete against able-bodied sprinters once again.

The months he spend fighting the ban severely hindered his training and in July of 2008 the 21-year-old Pistorius missed out on Olympic qualification by 0.77 seconds, despite posting a personal best time.

In 2011, he became the first amputee to win a non-disabled World Championship track medal as part of South Africa’s 4 x 400-metre relay team that claimed silver.

Then, this year, he would have his shot at redemption.

Despite already posting an acceptable time in a domestic competition, South Africa’s Olympic-qualifying guidelines demanded that he run 45.30 or better at an international meet before Saturday, June 2. And so began his qualifying tour. He travelled to Europe, across to the United States and then finally back to Africa, trying to run an “A” standard time that would guarantee his selection on the South African Olympic team. After trying in earnest and failing, his final opportunity came at the African championships in Benin, one day before the cut-off date. But, despite claiming the silver medal, he could only clock 45.52. 0.22 seconds shy of the qualifying time.

Days later though, the South African Athletics Association announced that despite falling short of their qualifying standards, Oscar Pistorius would march at the London Olympics for South Africa and was selected in both the 4 x 400-metre relay team and the 400-metre individual event.

Even if we try to avoid it, Pistorius’ presence at the Olympics will make us question how we perceive disability. As Pistorius puts it himself, “I enjoy challenging the way people think. When they see somebody with a disability, they always focus on the disability. That perception is something I want to alter.”

His achievements have blurred the line between able-bodied and disabled, and it has made it difficult to understand what is right and what is wrong when it comes to technical advancements in sport. Pistorius’ repeated defiance that he is not “disabled,” muddies the water even further.

While his participation will be an inspiration, it will also cast a shadow of uncertainty about the future of athletics. Detractors will say that limits should be placed on technology that gives humans an advantage over their competitors. But what exactly is that advantage? Arguments will be made that the Olympics should be the purest form of competition, and that the Flex-Foot Cheetahs that Pistorius uses don’t abide by this ethos. And, if given the opportunity to use this state-of-the art technology, where do we draw the line if these athletes are able to run faster and jump higher?

We must remember, however, that this is not a drugs story. This in not an able-bodied athlete deliberately trying to gain an advantage over the other athletes. Just think about it for a second. A runner, with no legs, who’s so good that people says he’s the one with an advantage.

In the coming fortnight, these questions and many more will be raised. Answers will be harder to come by. Instead, we should just sit back and enjoy what an accomplishment this is by the 25-year-old South African. If we can’t celebrate Oscar Pistorius, a man with no legs, running against the world’s fastest abled-bodies athletes, then what is the purpose of the Olympic Movement anyway?

For years, he has taken on the sport’s governing bodies and has silenced his loudest critics the only way he knows how: On the track. So whatever happens inside the Olympic Stadium in a little over a weeks time, just know, Oscar Pistorius has already won.

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02:49 am, from the brain of alex benton[11 notes]
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The Manchester Way

In 1968, the year that Manchester City Football Club last won England’s top-flight competition, The Guardian wrote: “Tell it not in Trafford Park, publish it not in the streets of Stretford. Manchester City, winners 4-3 in a magnificent match against Newcastle United on Saturday at St James’s Park, replaced Manchester United as title holders in the First Division.” It had been 31 long years since City won its inaugural First Division title. Victory brought with it new promise to an eternally pessimistic supporter base that greater things were still to come, and provided a timely reminder that there were two first-rate teams in the metropolitan borough of Greater Manchester – not just the one that wore a red uniform.

On that day, 44 years ago, Manchester City and Manchester United were tied on points going into the final game of the season. Manchester United, as they did on Sunday, faced Sunderland knowing that even in victory, they may ultimately encounter defeat. Manchester City, leading on goal difference, would be crowned champions with a win.

As it turned out, their result didn’t matter. A start-studded Manchester United team, led by the likes of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best, went down 1-2 to lowly Sunderland. Manchester City, in a heart-stopping encounter at St James’s Park, prevailed 4-3 against Newcastle United and claimed the title.

See, like it or not, the sky blue half of Manchester will always be juxtaposed with their more successful neighbours. Even with their victory on Sunday - in the most dramatic fashion conceivable - there was something oddly familiar about what transpired. Like it was something we’d see before. Subsequently, it felt appropriate that City would be crowned Barclays Premier League champions in a fashion that has become synonymous with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United sides over the past few decades. Scoring in the depths of injury time, when the nadir seemed inescapable.

Delving into the back catalogue of United’s late game heroics, one game in particular stands out above all others. A finish so dramatic and so beyond belief, that if Manchester City were to replicate any of United’s famous wins; it would have to be this one.

And of course, City would have to go one better on Sunday. How else were they were going to exercise 44 years of football demons? 44 years of being Manchester United’s whipping boy?

Simple. By doing what Manchester United does best: Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, exactly like they did in the 1999 UEFA Champions League final, a time when Manchester City was wallowing on the third tier of English football. A mere four days after 1999 UEFA Champions League final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich, Manchester City took the field against Gillingham in the 1999 Football League Second Division play-off final at Wembley Stadium. It was one of the lowest periods in the clubs’ history.

At around 10:30pm on Wednesday, 26 May 1999, UEFA General Secretary Gerhard Aigner had just completed his final task at Camp Nou before the conclusion of the UEFA Champions League final. Having held a 1-0 lead for 85-minutes and with the game ticking over into injury time, Aigner carefully tied Bayern Munich coloured ribbons to the winners’ trophy in preparation for the victory ceremony. The Bundesliga champions were about to win European club football’s most prestigious (and lucrative) tournament for the fourth time. As the final knot was being pulled tight, an aide rushed in with an urgent message. Something miraculous had happened. Change the colours to Manchester United immediately! Aigner’s reaction summed up the perplexity of the situation. “Are you crazy?” he said, absolutely dumbfounded.

Whilst that was happening, UEFA President Lennart Johansson was making his way from a seat in the upper levels of Camp Nou, down to the pitch to prepare for the trophy and medal presentation. He too was met with a great surprise.

“The lift took a half-minute to arrive, then you had to go through a long hall, through several rooms and through the dressing room area and because we were inside we never heard a thing. I then saw out onto the pitch and I was confused. I thought, it cannot be, the winners are crying and the losers are dancing.”

The image of one of those ‘losers’ is etched into European football folklore. Samuel Kuffour, the 23-year-old Ghanaian defender for Bayern Munich, dropped to his knees as Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s short-range volley rippled the roof of the net, and burst into tears. When the television cameras found him, he was beating the turf in a fit of rage. How could this have happened? Three minutes ago, they were European champions.

Even the man who has seen it all, had never seen anything like this.

“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Football. Bloody hell”, remarked soon to be knighted Alex Ferguson after the game.

Football. Sport. Bloody hell. Almost 13 years later, these same sentiments reverberated around the world. Manchester had just pulled off the most unlikely of victories yet again, scoring twice in injury time. Only this time, it wasn’t United that had accomplished the extraordinary.

When Edin Džeko finished a delightful David Silva cross with a powerful header to level the scores at 2-2 on Sunday, the digital clock at Etihad Stadium registered 91 minutes and 16 seconds. It seems fitting then, that when Teddy Sherringham swiped a poorly timed Ryan Giggs shot past German colossus Oliver Kahn to level the scores in 1999, the clock at Camp Nou was disparate by a mere 38 seconds.

And when Sergio Aguero received the subsequent pass of a one-two with Mario Balotelli, rounded Taye Taïwo, kept his balance despite having his foot stepped on, and buried the winner past Queens Park Rangers keeper Patrick Kenny, the clock displayed 93 minutes and 20 seconds. 13 years earlier, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s winner against Bayern Munich materialized 63 seconds earlier.

They say imitation is the ultimate form off flattery. City, endlessly compared with their crosstown adversaries, forever came up short in expectations and results. On Sunday, they pulled a Manchester United in the most Manchester United kind of way, and in the process struck a brutal blow upon the leviathan in red.

After years of trying to be nothing like the team they share a city with, they have now become their doppelgänger. And although they dare not admit it, the similarities between the two sides are now more than ever. Monday morning spelled a new era in Manchester and City are now on track to becoming what they have always despised.

Just as successful. Just as hated.

Maybe, after all these years of heartache, this is what was missing all along.

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02:10 am, from the brain of alex benton
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The Rain That Saved the Red Sox Season?

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They honestly weren’t going to play it, were they? Not now. Not after the bloodbath that had just covered the wall of the Green Monster.

For years now, Neil Diamond’s 1969 classic, “Sweet Caroline,” has crackled through the Fenway Park speakers. It’s an odd tradition that dates back to the mid-nineties when a former Red Sox control room employee played the song as a show of affection for his newborn daughter, Caroline.

When Amy Tobey took over as Fenway Park music programmer in 1998, the song began to get more airplay, but only when the Red Sox were ahead. Tobey considered the song a good luck charm and would insert the track anywhere between the seventh and ninth inning. Eventually, the crowd caught on, and by the time bespectacled billionaire John Henry took over operations on Yawkey Way in 2002, the song was an eighth inning staple.

The pièce de résistance was added in 2004 by Tobey’s successor, Megan Kaiser, who, as Red Sox advertising manager and game day music programmer, began turning the volume down during the part when the crowd sings, “So good! So good! So good!” following Diamond’s line, “Good times never seemed so good.”

Imagine the irony then, when eight years later a packed Fenway Park were forced to chant, “So good! So good! So good!” after witnessing a Red Sox capitulation of epic proportions, against the hated rival New York Yankees no less. Tradition is tradition, it seems, with no exception. And so, on cue, “Sweet Caroline” played in all its glory.

The Red Sox were leading by nine runs at one point. Felix Doubront pitched six quality innings, struck out seven, and hit the showers with a healthy 9-1 lead. Then the Yankees scored fifteen runs. Unanswered. Including back-to-back seven-run innings. In two forgettable innings for the hapless Red Sox bullpen, 18 Yankees runners reached base, five of them without even having to put bat on ball. Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira both homered, leading the Yankees on the biggest rally after a nine-run deficit since 1950, when they trailed the Red Sox by the same margin all those years ago.

These weren’t good times for the Red Sox, as Diamond sings in “Sweet Caroline.” In fact, you could argue that these were the worst. Rock bottom, perhaps?

"I think we’ve hit bottom," Bobby Valentine said in his postgame press conference. "If this isn’t bottom, we need to find some new ends of the earth."

Valentine does have a way with words, even if they make no sense at all. The Red Sox record now stood at 4-10, dead last in the American League East, on a five-game losing streak that showed no signs of stopping.

Then, something happened. The heavens opened and a savage storm swept across Massachusetts. The ESPN ticker awoke and the following statement scrolled along the bottom of people’s screens: Tonight’s Yankees-Red Sox game has been postponed due to heavy rain in the Boston area.

At around 3:00pm on April 22, five hours before the first pitch was scheduled to be thrown, the game was called off. For the Yankees, the postponement offered a head start on their road trip to Texas. For the Red Sox, a welcome respite and the opportunity to hit the reset button. There was no point reflecting on what had just transpired. Baseball players are programmed to have short memories. They had to look forward. One game at a time.

So, whilst the rest of the city was watching the Bruins extend their Stanley Cup playoff series with the Washington Capitals to seven games, the Red Sox tiptoed out of town, unbeknownst to all, ready to start their season. For real this time.

Baseball is a game all about momentum. A week ago, Boston had none. In fact, they seemed to have their 2012 season jammed in reverse. It’s funny what a little rain can do to wash away the stench of losing.

There was something serendipitous about that storm. If there was one team in Major League Baseball that needed a random act of sodden meteorology, it was this Boston Red Sox team, on this day. Since the washout, a rejuvenated Red Sox team is 5-0 and has piled on a remarkable 44 runs. The invigorated batters are sporting a lively .975 OPS and striking the ball consistently at an average of .342 (compared to .788 OPS and .276 BA in the first 14 games). Even the beleaguered pitchers seem to have woken their arms from a particularly long spring hibernation. In the past five games, the combined ERA of the pitching staff is a respectable 3.60, substantially better than when it was resting just below seven.

It’s too early to know whether it will last. The ebbs and flows of baseball could easily mean the Red Sox are back where they started a week from now. But until then, this past week has offered the Fenway faithful a glimpse of what they hoped they would get from the 2012 Bobby Valentine-led Boston Red Sox. A high-powered offense that is capable of scoring runs and a competent pitching staff that would do just enough not to blow it.

"They’ve bounced back before," Valentine said after the 15-9 catastrophe on April 21. "This is a psychological situation. You’ve got to be tough. I think we’re a tough team. We’ll find out."

So far, since the rain soaked Boston one week ago, they’re proving just how tough they are.

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08:31 am, from the brain of alex benton[1 note]
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Behind the Gates of Augusta National Golf Club

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Like Skull and Bones, the Yale University secret society whose members include some of the most powerful men of the 20th century, the Augusta National Golf Club is a male-only organization that prides itself on exclusivity and the enforcement of strict rules. Now, maybe these rules aren’t adhered to with the austerity of Skull and Bones (“Bonesmen” are forbidden to reveal what goes on within their inner sanctum, the windowless building on the Yale campus aptly named ‘The Tomb’), but Augusta National still goes to great lengths to protect what goes on behind their front gates on Washington Road.

The members list is kept at roughly 300, with the number of new members partially determined by how many members leave (why would you?) or die. There is a small waiting list, but for the rest, don’t hold your breath that you’ll be cruising up and down Magnolia Lane anytime soon. To become a member, you need not apply. Somebody whom is already a member of the Club must nominate you. And ultimately, the final decision as to whether you’re accepted rests with Club Chairman Billy Payne.

Considering nobody can apply, how do you know when to dust off the putter? Well, if you’re very lucky (translation: rich and influential), you’ll simply get “the call.” Just don’t expect a call if you’re a woman. Augusta National hasn’t had a female member since, well … ever. Now, that might change if they offer current C.E.O. of longtime corporate sponsor IBM, Virginia Rometty, a membership (the past four male IBM C.E.O.’s have been members of the exclusive club). But as it stands today, the tally still rests at zero. It also took until 1990 for Augusta to allow an African-American member. Let’s face it, Augusta National isn’t exactly a progressive kind of place – it’s a private club, and insists on emphasizing this fact. Oh, and by the way, don’t drop hints that you’d like a membership either. You’ll just look desperate and nobody likes a groveler. A guy named Bill Gates did this for years and was repeatedly denied membership (before finally being let in, in 2002).

In saying that, you don’t need to be a member to visit the Club during Masters week. For 51 weeks a year, Augusta National Golf Club remains closed for the exclusive use by its members and their guests. But, for 7 days in April, it swings open it’s big green gates (everything at Augusta is green, by the way) and lets the world in for a peek.

Just don’t go booking your flights to Georgia prematurely. Getting your hands on a ticket is like winning the lottery (or, alternatively, having to pay the equivalent of a lottery winning). Passed down from generation to generation, Masters ‘badges’ are one of sport’s most coveted tickets and Augusta National hasn’t sold them to the public for 47 years. That is, until this year. For the 2012 tournament, Augusta National made a limited number of badges available through a ballot on Masters.com. How limited, they do not say, but one would presume that the numbers would have been extremely tight.

So, you’re lucky enough acquire yourself a badge. Well done! Now, secure your annual leave, book your accommodation in a modest 2-star hotel up the road, and pack your mini binoculars.

The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive on Monday morning of Masters week is that parking, located just across the street, is free. Yes, you read that correctly. 100% free on a ‘first come, first serve’ basis. Not only is this one of the premier sporting events in the world, it’s also one of the most affordable. More on that later.

At 7:00am, the first patrons (Augusta makes it known that it prefers to call spectators, “patrons”) make their way through the initial security checkpoint. Kindly greeting everybody is a warning: “No cell phones, pagers, or electronic devices are permitted on club grounds,” and that “violations will lead to permanent loss of credentials.” To ensure that everybody will adhere to these stern caveats, the Club has installed an airport-style security metal detector, just to be safe.

Navigate your way through security and you’re in! But not too fast, gates to the golf course don’t open until 8:00am. Most use this interim time to stock up on Masters’ paraphernalia at the nearby souvenir shop, whilst others strategize the most effective way to get to Amen Corner (Hint: First locate the main scoreboard, then cross the 1st and 9th fairways, cut through the wide open pastures, duck around the 17th tee next to the stone fountain, across the 15th fairway, through the woods towards 14, across the fairway, over the pine needles, and past the lone Magnolia tree).

At 8:00am on the dot, a loud siren bellows from a distance and the green gates of Augusta National Golf Club swing open. Masters week begins for another year. This year will mark the 76th edition of the Masters Tournament, and, once again, will be the first Major of the year.

A wave of bodies will flood through the gates and instantly fragment as people dart towards different corners of the property. The first tee is a popular choice, as is the 18th, whilst others will choose to venture to the far southeast corner to find their favourite patch of Bermuda grass.

Before you head off to find your regular spot near Rae’s Creek, however, just remember a few simple rules:

No photos (Cameras are allowed on the grounds from Monday through Wednesday, but not during the Tournament rounds. If you do manage to smuggle in your iPhone, don’t even think about taking a snap of the meticulously manicured greens. In fact, don’t even try even if you’re a player. Ian Poulter & Graeme McDowell did in 2011 and both were reprimanded.)

No running (It would be uncouth to run to the best viewing spot at Amen Corner. If you even break into a canter, it’s grounds for dismissal.)

No unattended guests (Outside of Tournament week, member must “physically accompany” their guests at all times. Do not lose them.)

No backwards hats (Sorry, guy, unless you consider white-jumpsuits-that-make-you-look-like-a-painter trendy, Augusta National isn’t really a fashion-forward place. Ricky Fowler tried the backwards cap thing once, apparently so that people could “see his face.” It didn’t turn out that well for him.)

No fishing (Well, at least not these days. Monte Burke for Forbes.com wrote, “Dwight Eisenhower, who was apparently not too worried about getting his membership revoked, used to fish for bass and bream in the ponds of Augusta’s Par 3 course.”  Man, President’s can get away with anything.)

No autographs (Sorry kids, put the Sharpies away, not during Tournament rounds.)

Phew, let’s hope you remember all of them. Maybe keep a copy of these rules in your bum bag (Also known as ‘fanny packs’, these handy traveller carry all’s are a prerequisite of most of the Masters patrons).

Another unique thing you’ll notice out on the course — especially for a premier sporting event that’s broadcast to more than 200 countries — is the lack of advertising signage. There is nothing of the sort. That’s right, no gratuitous fairway signs staked into the ground. No sponsors’ flags flapping around above the tee box. No Kia Cerato on offer as a Hole-In-One incentive at the Par 3 12th.

On Monday and Tuesday, you’ll have the pleasure of watching the first two practice rounds. Pre-tournament visits to the Club are commonplace amongst competitors, with each outing allowing them to garner new knowledge of the fabled course. The contours of the greens, the distances of the fairways, the depth of the pine needles. All information that can prove invaluable during the tournament. Most competitors have arranged practice round partners long before Masters week begins, with experienced veterans often teaming-up with Masters’ first-timers for these rounds (which are usually limited to 9 holes).

On Tuesday, the well-informed patrons will ensure that they arrive early and head straight to the 170-yard Par 3 16th, with hopes of securing a premium viewing spot left of the tee. It is here, after the players take their tee shots, that the Pros often surrender to chants of “Skip it!” from the crowd and take part in what has now become a lighthearted Tuesday tradition.

The willing participants, much to the delight of onlookers, place a ball a few feet in front of the tee box, roughly ten yards back from the edge of the pond. There, they attempt to skip the ball over the water, up the bank and onto the green. Not an easy task, but it can be done – often to great effect. Successfully navigate the ball over the water hazard and receive a raucous cheer from the gallery. Come up short, and receive lighthearted jeers.

On Tuesday three years ago, the 2000 Masters Champion, Vijay Singh, went one further. His ball skimmed over the water four times, rolled up the 10-foot embankment and on to the green. This initially drew modest applause from the gallery. That was until the ball continued to roll closer to the hole and people began to rise off their fold-out stools, preempting what was about to transpire. And, what would you know; it dropped in, sending the crowd into raptures!

If your find yourself peckish at any stage throughout the week, look no further than one of Augusta National’s finer delicacies - the famous pimento cheese sandwich. A staple of the Masters Tournament for decades, this odd concoction is as synonymous with Augusta National as strawberries and cream are with Wimbledon.

Pimento cheese recipes vary throughout America’s South, with the original Augusta National recipe closely guarded. Wright Thompson, senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, offered his grandmother’s pimento cheese recipe in his Masters’ blog from 2011:

Grate extra sharp cheddar cheese coarsely. Add small jars of pimentos, one and a half teaspoon of Worcestershire, two teaspoons of grated onion, and one whole clove of garlic. Use enough mayonnaise to achieve the right consistency (it should be easily spreadable but not runny). Add salt and pepper to taste.

It’s a Southern thing, obviously. An acquired taste, for sure. But you can’t go to Augusta National without stopping by a concession stand and ordering one. Or two. Why? Because everything at Augusta is so damn affordable! Unlike other major sporting events, most of which involve taking out a second mortgage on your home in order to afford an overpriced warm beer in a ‘limited edition’ souvenir cup, the rich guys that run the Masters don’t need your money - they’ve got plenty of that already! As such, the food and beverages are priced accordingly. A pimento cheese sandwich, carefully wrapped in waxy green (expect another colour?) paper, is loose change at $1.50. A cold beer to quench your mid-round thirst is only $3. A chocolate bar? Just one dollar.

The menu at Tuesday night’s Champions Dinner, however, is slightly more refined. Suggested by Ben Hogan in 1952 to foster camaraderie during Masters week, the dinner is now an annual tradition. In a brief 78-word letter to Augusta National Golf Club co-founder Clifford Roberts, Hogan had but one proviso.

“My only stipulation,” he wrote, “is that you wear your green coat.

And thus, ‘The Masters Club’ was born. Want to join? Simple. The only entry requirement is that you win the Masters. Then, each year, you’ll receive an invitation to dinner on the Tuesday of Masters week to chinwag with fellow past champions, a few select dignitaries, and generally drown in each other’s self admiration.

You’ll also have the privilege of enjoying food off a menu chosen by the reigning champion. And, if that’s not enough, they’ll be footing the bill! But be warned, the most recent champion often uses the dinner as an opportunity to showcase some of the finer delicacies from their homeland. Like when 1988 champion, Scotsman Sandy Lyle, served haggis on his menu. If haggis isn’t for your taste palette, there’s always a pimento cheese sandwich within close proximity.

Members of ‘The Master Club’ should make sure they bring a large appetite this year. 2011 champion, South African Charl Schwartzel, who “doesn’t like formal dinners,” is planning what South African’s call a “braai.” In English, it’s simply known as a BBQ, and Schwartzel has placed a request with the Augusta powers that be for a surprise chef to prepare this carnivorous feast. Himself! Billy Payne’s initial response was obviously, “We’ll have to come back to you on that”, with Schwartzel adding, “I think it took them quite by surprise, maybe expecting something a little more different or more the way they always do it.”

So, it remains to be seen whether Head Chef Schwartzel will be behind the grill on the lawn outside the Clubhouse on Tuesday night, or whether Billy Payne assigns an Augusta-certified cook. Regardless, he’s sourced the lamb chops and specially ordered the South African “Boerewors” sausages. It promises to be quite a feast.

On Wednesday, players take to Augusta’s little course for the Masters Tournament Par 3 Contest. Nestled in the northeast corner of the Augusta National property, the 1,060-yard course consists of nine holes and surrounds DeSoto Springs Pond and Ike’s Pond. First played in 1960, the contest has featured 73 holes-in-ones, 18 sudden-death play-offs, and has a course record of 20, shared by Art Wall (1965) and Gay Brewer (1973).

Mostly, the contest is an informal affair. The calm before Thursday’s storm, it features past champions and Honorary Invitees. Some players’ young children even act as caddies for the afternoon, whilst others just play around in the bunkers which take on the look of giant kindergarten sandpits.

It must be noted for potential Masters Champions: Just don’t win the thing. It’s a well-publicized fact that no Par 3 Contest winner has gone on to win the Masters that same week.

Over the next four days, a little thing called the Masters Golf Tournament takes place. 109 players are invited to take part, though several past champions won’t play. Thus, the actual lineup this year is expected to be 97, with one more spot in the field available to the winner of the Houston Open. After 36 holes, the top 44 and ties will progress to the weekend, plus all players within 10 strokes of the lead. Players who make the cut will eventually cover 29,740 yards over the four days, aim to shoot the lowest score under par (288) and, eventually, somebody will pick up the winners cheque (which was a modest $1.44 million in 2011). Simple. Oh, and they’ll get some fancy new threads to boot.

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Yes, as is tradition, the winner of the Masters Tournament will be presented a green sports coat with the Augusta National Golf Club emblem emblazoned on the chest. The origin of the green jacket dates back to 1937, when members began wearing the smart-casual attire during Masters week so that patrons could identify whom to ask for information. In 1947, the Club began awarding the winner of the tournament a jacket of their own, with Sam Snead becoming the first honorary member.

Of course, just because you win it, doesn’t mean it’s yours to keep. The original green jackets remain property of the Golf Club and are required back before the beginning of the next Masters Tournament. Most players make the most of this 12-month loan period, the most recent being 2011 champion, Charl Schwartzel.

It traveled with me the whole of last year. Basically every single function that we went to, I wore it. I have no idea. I played 36 tournaments last year. I must have worn it more than 20, 25 times at some functions,” Schwartzel told Masters.com.

Think you look good in green, don’t worry; you’ll be given a tailored replica to keep. Plus, every time you return to Augusta, your original green jacket will be hung on display in the Champions Locker Room. Manage to win a few times, and you may find that your have a few different sizes to choose from. Three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo owns three, all in different sizes (44 long, 46 long, and 48 long), and is always curious to see which one still fits when he stops by for a visit.

"The special thing is, you come back here, you peek into your locker, just to double check, and you try them on again," Faldo told Masters.com.

The question remains though, how to they ensure that the man at the top of the leaderboard on Sunday evening is awarded a snug-fitting jacket?

Firstly, before the tournament starts, players must fill out a registration form called the “Player Credential Application.” On the back, at the very bottom, are five words: “Coat/Jacket Size of Player.” If you’re serious about winning, you’ll know your measurements by heart. If not, you better have your tailor on speed dial.

Secondly, stowed safely away in a closet somewhere on the Augusta National property, are an array of green jackets in all different shapes and sizes. Instantly, you’d imagine that these would have to be kept in Eisenhower Cabin, which was built according to Secret Service security guidelines for Augusta member Dwight Eisenhower after he was elected President of the United States. What’s stored in Eisenhower Cabin, one would assume, are Augusta’s most valuable possessions, protected by retina scanners and a double keycard entry mechanism (presumably upgraded to meet 2012 Secret Service specs). Would it be a stretch to imagine that the most valuable item of all is tucked away, behind those doors, hanging there quietly? Apparently so.

Instead, the trusty Golf Shop is the safe house for golf’s most iconic symbol of victory. As the leaders round Amen Corner on Sunday, Jim James, the Senior Director of Club and Hospitality Operations, is entrusted with the task of collecting half a dozen jackets in various sizes to ensure that a perfectly-fitted jacket is waiting for the winning golfer at the 18th. He takes them to his office, before moving them to Butler Cabin where he hangs them in a closet located in the basement studio where CBS has set up for the presentation. When the winner arrives, James kindly confirms the jacket size.

At the rear of Butler Cabin is an entrance that leads directly down to the basement. After sinking the winning putt, or, as Jack Nicklaus did in 1986, watching the final few holes on television from the comfort of nearby Jones Cabin, the winning player will make their way to Butler Cabin, which is nestled next to the putting green and 10th tee and neighbors the Augusta Par 3 Course.

The first room they’ll enter will be the Wilmington Room. They’ll then pass a sink, fleetingly glance at themselves in a hanging mirror, make a couple of last second grooming adjustments, before taking the 10 steps onto the TV set and into people’s lounge rooms around the world.

The kitschy fit-out of the venue — stone fireplace, mahogany furniture, extravagant floral arrangements — is matched by the unpredictable and awkward nature of the induction ceremony. The winner, fresh off the course, makes stilted conversation with those in attendance, before being presented with their green jacket (which, despite Jim James’ best efforts, continues to look ill-fitting, year after year), before heading back out to the putting green to do it all again in front of a packed crowd as the sun sets on Augusta for another year.

The select few who’ll be overseeing the unusual private winners induction ceremony this year will be Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion and 2012 wardrobe assistant, Augusta National and Masters Tournament Chairman Billy Payne and CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz. It’s one of sports most peculiar rituals, but when you think about everything that makes Augusta what it is, it makes perfect sense.

It’s just another reminder, like it or not, that Augusta is in charge.

At the conclusion of the second green jacket ceremony, Jim Nantz will bid farewell to television viewers and the cameras will fade to black, Masters theme music deftly playing in the background. The cloak of darkness will again fall over Augusta National Golf Course. Tomorrow it will once again be shut off to the outside world.

Off camera, the winner will then be ordered to fetch bones and yell, “OOGA BOOGA!” as part of the Augusta National Golf Club member’s initiation. Or is that Skull and Bones?

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12:48 am, from the brain of alex benton
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