Bear Down and Get Some Runs, best-of: March 17, 2005

March 17, 2005

Illinois-North Carolina, 2005

Fed up with the specter of steroids in baseball, Bud Selig has finally brought in suspected players for questioning in an attempt to figure out exactly what is going on. Oh, wait a second, that’s not Bud Selig. That’s Congress! Hooray! Congress is here!

Led by chairman Tom Davis and Arizona senator John McCain, the House Committee on Government Reform began holding testimony at a Congressional hearing today. Among the subpoened were Sammy, Mac, Rafael Palmeiro, Frank, Curt Schilling, and the author himself, Jose Canseco. And no, I did not forget to mention Barry Bonds. He was not subpoened. Of course not. That’s like attempting to find out what happened in the Tate/LaBianca murders by bringing in the entire Manson family while letting Charles stay home. And yes, that’s probably a bit too harsh (a bit?), but come on. I won’t say that Bonds is guilty—there’s no proof, he’s never failed a drug test, and I don’t see how you can be guilty of steroid use when it wasn’t illegal in baseball until 2003—but if you’re going to round up a group of players to rap steroids, shouldn’t Bonds be involved?

The whole thing is a sad sight. Canseco speaks first, giving his condolences to those who have been affected by steroid use. Sosa suddenly forgets how to speak English, going solely through an interpretor. Palmeiro denies steroid use, pointing at the committee members as he says: “Let me start by telling you this: I have never used steroids, period.” Schilling blasts Canseco for trying to sell copies of his book Juiced, and Frank appears via satellite, also denying any steroid use.

But the most painful of all is Mark McGwire, who is tearful throughout. He starts by saying that the whole thing is a Catch-22: “If a player answers no, he simply will not be believed. If he says yes, he faces endless scorn.” He then answers nearly every question with some form of the statement that will probably end up haunting and defining him for the rest of his days: “I’m not here to talk about the past.” Musch is with us over at Annie’s house, and while the girls are taking—(it always amazes me how quickly two girls can become friends, as well as how two girls who are “friends” can bad-mouth each other)—Musch and I are watching, flipping back and forth between this and the start of the NCAA tournament, which ultimately wins our focus. A sad day for baseball…

…but a great day for basketball fans, because here we go! The start of the dance.

Are there a better four consecutive days in all of sports than the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament? What a great weekend. From Thursday to Sunday, 64 teams play 48 games of basketball, and every game is important. They’re not all important in the way that Bears-Packers is important, but because of the tournament’s unpredictability, each team plays with a passion and urgency that is unsurpassed in sport, and that means that a basketball fan can turn on any game at any time and be immediately drawn into the action.

The tourney has always been fun, ever since I was old enough to follow it. And while I still fill out my brackets and still love watching college basketball and still get pumped for the tourney, I don’t go as insanely loco for March Madness as I used to. As it turns out, the high school atmosphere lends itself quite nicely to the chaos of the tourney’s first weekend.

It all starts Sunday night, with the announcement of the brackets. Ah, Selection Sunday. Definitely one of the upsides to the new age of sports, brought on by the proliferation of around-the-clock sports coverage in both the television and online forms. The decision-making process that leads to the brackets is, dare I say, similar to the selection of a new Pope. I read one time about the selection of Pope John Paul II…what a cool process! They gather this group together called the College of Cardinals that forms a secret conclave in the Vatican, where they chill out for a few weeks while narrowing down the candidates. After the names have been collected, the Cardinals vote. Meanwhile, people fill St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, waiting anxiously to hear the announcement. The people are informed via smoke signal. If no winner has been selected after the vote, the Cardinals burn the ballots and mix the ashes with a chemical that turns the smoke black. When a new pope has been selected, they burn the ballots alone, producing a white smoke.

This is, more or less, how the Selection Committee announces the brackets.

OK, so that’s a bit of a stretch. Papal selection is much more important and much less frequent than the annual bracket selections. But still, the brackets feel that important. The big conference tournaments usually end about an hour or so before the brackets are announced, which means that even though much has already been decided before the completion of these games, it is widely known that the Committee is in the process of finalizing the selections. There is a strong feeling that something important is Being Decided, that it is going on Right Now, and this mix of importance, secrecy, and immediacy makes for an exciting build up before the actual announcements. We then tune into CBS for the Selection Show, in which Greg Gumbel, Jim Nantz, Billy Packer and the rest of the (boring, stale, obnoxiously professional) gang announce the seeds. These announcements are always intercut with live shots of teams reacting to their seed and draw, with teams either pumped to be in, pissed to be out, or happy to be in but pissed to be playing Duke.

Once the brackets are out, the next fifteen hours are crucial, because anyone running a March Madness pool must have the brackets and scoring sheets ready for school Monday morning so they can pass them out as soon as school starts to ensure good numbers. The biggest pools are generally run by seniors, though my buddy Jon Happ and I ran a big one when we were juniors.

Running a high school gambling ring is a risky hustle. It’s easy to get a group of friends together for an NFL pool or for fantasy football, but you can’t really get it on a big enough level for a big nearly risk-free payoff, and you don’t have the flexibility and size to skim. Plus, ripping off your friends is no fun. But when your pool is padded with a bunch of people you’re not really friends with, March Madness is a gold mine.

The keys to a successful March Madness pool are promotion and timeliness. Without numbers, a pool is useless, so students have to be signed on for yours. It’s like getting people to vote for your candidate; first you have to get them to commit, then you have to get them to vote. It’s a two-part process. Fortunately, people seem much more enthusiastic about March Madness pools than they do about voting. Brackets are announced Sunday night. Copies of the brackets and scoring sheets have to be ready Monday morning. No sheets of either go out without an entry fee, and once you’ve got their money, and it is their responsibility to get you the completed sheet before the tournament starts on Thursday morning.

This may all sound pretty easy and obvious, but even the easy and the obvious tasks can be screwed up. There was a senior who did a huge pool during my sophomore year. Happ and I went halfseys on a sheet, but when we got it we were shocked to see all of the mistakes this guy had made. First off, we didn’t get the sheet from him. We got it from a friend of a friend of a friend. These things were just going around. And the entry fee was due upon completion rather than upon hand-out, which meant that lots and lots of sheets were going out, even to people who were on the fence. There was no such thing as “on the fence” in our pool, because you were already five bucks in the hole when you got the sheet, and it was up to you to get it back in time to cash in on your fiver. Not so here…and the high volume of sheets going out would not have been such a huge problem if the bozo in charge hadn’t LISTED HIS NAME on every goddamn one.[6]

As it turned out, Happ and I finished second, which meant we were going to split about 500 bucks, but unfortunately for us the whole thing went down in a blaze of ineptitude. Some idiot freshman, who had presumably received a sheet via the grapevine, strolled into the advisor chair’s office[7] in the middle of the tournament because he wanted to know how he could find the bozo. The administration quickly put the ki-bash on the whole operation, apparently laying down an ultimatum that either the pool be called off or a gambling infraction would be put on his permanent record and sent to his colleges of choice. Or maybe it was that he’d be expelled. Or not allowed to walk at graduation. There were a few rumors going around, but all I really knew was that Happ and I did not collect on our second place prize money, nor did we get our five bucks back. A shame.

The whole thing was pretty ridiculous, of course, since everybody knew that the teachers had their own pool going. It wasn’t even secret. Every year at New Trier I had at least one teacher—usually a female math teacher, for some reason (not sure why)—ask me to make her picks for her. I had a sports show on the radio station all four years that was pretty popular (in the realm of high school radio, that is), and I did the “Sports Brain Teaser” in the newspaper my junior and senior year, so it was pretty well known that I was a sports nut. I usually tried to negotiate some kind system of bonuses, whereas if I were to get, say, all four Final Four teams right I’d receive a bump in my grade. I only got one teacher to bite on that deal, and unfortunately I hit three out of four. So the teachers were just as guilty as the students. What can you do?

Well, Bozo the Greek did end up going to college, and during our junior year Happ and I cleaned up. Happ and I were in-school friends, meaning we’d met in classes and were friends in-school, but we hung out with different groups outside of school. This worked entirely in our favor, of course, because it meant that we had a much larger base pool of students to draw from. Our graduating class was a shade under a thousand, so with two guys in different social circles we roped about 200 Trevians into our pool. I also supplied about twenty Evanston kids—my best friends, and some of their in-school friends—as well as my brother and some of his friends. The following year, two other kids in our grade were having a pool, and the four of us put ours together to produce an epic senior year March Madness pool of somewhere over 500. It was pretty cool…

…and here’s where the hustle comes in, because only the people in charge actually know how many people are in the pool. Whenever there’s gambling in high school, it’s always assumed that the people in charge are skimming a bit off the top; after all, our risk, our reward. And when you’ve put together a pool that encompasses nearly an eighth of the school’s population, you’re entitled to a nice chunk. On top of that, anybody in charge gets to put in a sheet for free, so there’s also a chance that you’ll win some low-risk money.

Of course, even without the gambling, the NCAA Tournament is still a terrific time. The first four days of the tournament comprise the first two rounds in which 48 games are played overall, and all 48 are spaced out evenly over the course of the four days. One of the best aspects of the tourney is that the way they space the games out. For the first round, played Thursday and Friday, there are usually four main time slots in which games are played: (approximately) 10 AM, 1 AM, 6 PM, 9 PM. Sixteen games are played on Thursday, and another sixteen are played Friday. Each one of those time blocks gets four games, and the tip times for those four games are spaced out by about five minutes. CBS will only show one game in your television market in each time block, but whenever one ends they switch over to another. That means that you can see, in rapid fire, the endings of four games in a row…and since March Madness games are consistently among the most competitive in sports, you get to see the ends of three or four good to great hoops games in a row. My dad always says that if you could only watch the last two minutes of a basketball game you’d still get your money’s worth; March Madness puts that theory to work.

By Sunday night you’re down to sixteen teams, and of course the next day at school is all about comparing brackets to see if anyone had Tennessee-Chattanooga making it to the Sweet Sixteen. The round of sixteen is played over Thursday and Friday, and then four games for the Elite Eight over Saturday and Sunday. Then the Final Four is set, and we wait a week for the National Semifinal game before Monday night’s championship.

All told, March Madness is one of the great American sporting “events,” and it is an event from Game 1 to Game 63. It’s wonderful dry, but to quote Marty McFly: “What’s wrong with making a few bucks on the side?”

Photo credit.

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