Thursday, May 30, 2013

Mind Over Muscle - B-E-E

They're broadcasting it on ESPN, so I feel as if I'm entitled to talk about a topic that isn't exactly a physical sport, but a massive sport of the mind. There are some tantalizing memories behind the topic, but some don't realize how intense it can be on the human body. Ladies and gentlemen, pull out your dictionaries. We're gonna study.

You are probably wondering why I'm even talking about something that isn't considered an official sport. Believe me, if you haven't experienced something like this, you probably don't understand completely. You see, I've been there. It's intense. Spelling words is no easy task. That's kind of obvious, considering that most people will type a word into Google just to see if the word is correct.

That's right, my friends. It's Bee Season.

Just as there are competitions for chess, knowledge of geography, and heck, let's throw poker into that mix too, spelling bees have been around in schools and in major competitions around the country for decades. For those who aren't exactly physically coordinated for a sport, this (along with music) is something that students could take up and master. While one doesn't train the body, the brain is the main focus of this action. A different kind of training is involved, and it involves the choices of study and the kind of diet that you choose. That's right, I said diet. To get the optimal usage of the brain, the correct diet is needed, such as proteins and omega-3's, and plenty of sleep. Other means of training include reading dictionaries and foreign-themed encyclopedias. If you have watched a spelling bee before, words and terms can be all over the place. For example, words can be from Hebrew, to Greek, to island origins, and they can even have an unknown language of origin. If you have seen the word before, there's a chance that you can survive and make it through the round. If not, there are always strategies that are available to the speller.

Don't worry, just as in a usual sport, an effective strategy is key to uphold memory and knowledge of words and cases. Mnemonic devices are an obvious example of strategy. Also, during the National Bee, a two-minute limit is given for each speller to complete a word. Even when the speller is completely familiar with the word, the speller may ask questions such as the definition of the word, the etymology, the part of speech, and if the word can be placed in a sentence in order to bide time and get the letters together. Time can be used like that until the final 30 seconds, in which the speller must be required to spell the word. Sometimes, when the speller may be confused by a word, these questions asked may actually lead them to using the correct root or suffix in their spelling.

As an adult, this competition makes me feel like a total know-nothing about life. Although I have participated in a few spelling bees (and won one or two, thank you), these young kids are so far advanced in studies and in their knowledge of speech and words and I'm in absolute awe of it all. Although I, as a writer, am incredibly anal when it comes to grammar and proper spelling, these kids take it to the next level and use advanced words in everyday conversation. Everyday. Conversation. Most of us like to keep it real and simple, but through constant study and numerous forms of memorization, the spellers use the language effectively and confidently.

The question asked now is why I have decided to write about this topic. Like I have said previously, most young children aren't inclined to play physical sports. However, that doesn't mean it's the end of the line for any form of competition. Nailing the opposition with knowledge is formidable and quite a feat, considering how linguistics and the ability to communicate with people is a great asset to hold in a business-driven world. Sports teach discipline, and events such as this teach perseverance and increases knowledge and patience in learning a craft. Spelling is a sport for the mind. Working the brain hurts, you know! It's incredibly fun to watch, and I love to pull for these kids when they spell those really scary-looking words. You also catch yourself feeling awful when they miss a word by an incorrect vowel or a missed double-consonant. Jacques Bailly is also incredibly fun to listen to. I don't know about you, but this is a good brain-teaser of a mental sport, and you have to admit that the kids have some wit and you love to watch them spell.

I love to spell words. Call me crazy. My brain has a six-pack, thank you very much.


Saturday, May 25, 2013

The First Time You...

On social media, people post old pictures with the hashtag #ThrowbackThursday or #FlashbackFriday. This is also Memorial Day weekend in the United States, where we remember those who had served the country. Some of those people have contributed to our first time in a great pastime.

My neighborhood holds an annual Memorial Day Parade. Each year, children from the local recreation center sports teams march in a group. When I was younger, I used to do the same thing when I played softball. That activity was usually the kickoff for the season to start. When I watch the kids march, I tend to remember what it was like when I had first started playing rec sports. Aside from the fact that I wish that I was that age again (just for a few weeks...), a lot of memories come back on Memorial Day.

I remember my first times.

From learning the sport to going to play with a team for the first time, things may often be memorable. For example, aside from remembering that I was the only girl on my tee-ball team, I can remember small things, like standing around and watching the boys throw their gloves at each other and ripping grass. Those were good times. I can't remember exact details, but memories of later seasons when I was older are much memorable. Some of those memories were great (CYO days in grade school--Ohhhh yes), while some of them were absolutely ugly. One of the things we need to keep in mind is that memories are formed from a young age either through routine or from families/friends telling us the story multiple times and possibly twisting it for our displeasure. Unless it was the first time you scored a goal or if your pants fell down on the field, you might not remember much from the pee-wee days. Something like the girl thing I mentioned is more memorable because was kind of obvious that I was the only girl. They also stole my hat a lot.

I digress.

When you play a sport for the first time, there's a bit of freedom that comes with all of it. We may not exactly realize this while we're in the moment, but when we played sports, there is a bit of euphoria because you're out on the field running around. There may have been the off-chance that we sucked at what we did, but our parents/families were out there cheering for us and trying to encourage us to do the best we could. We may not have been the most graceful things out on the field, but it felt good to be with friends and family. WE HAD FUN. Even though our families have picture to remember our triumphs and failures, we have the life experiences and the plethora of stories to tell our friends on how awful we were sometimes. It's funny, but I talk more about my lousier memories while playing sports when I was little. Ask me about how we won tournaments in soccer, I may not talk about that right away. On the other hand, I will be more than happy to tell you about how a girl on the other team fell and dislocated her kneecap and screamed bloody murder during one of those tournaments.

It's also a lot easier to remember things when you have a teammate that went through these things with you to remember other aspects of a particular game or a particular someone that annoyed you--you know, the typical catty things. It may also take up a few good hours of ice-breaking when you meet new people. Plus, they may actually share the same kinds of memories with you too, and that was always fun. When I first met my best friend Caite [Hi, Caite!] we talked about how we were both soccer goalies and the different times we had. She played in an older age group, but we were familiar with the same teams and the various fields and environments we had to play through. Picture this, you guys: a soccer field on cinders--in pouring rain and whipping winds. Yes, I may have experienced trench warfare at 14, and I am proud of it.

All of these things...they all start with an aspiration and a little push from the people that want you to succeed further than they had ever hoped and dreamed.

CHUBBY. Yes, that's me.
The family could just see the bat I'm holding and they could start telling you stories.
When it comes to playing a sport for the first time, I can remember that quite easily. However, when it comes to attending your first sporting event, there's a chance that you may not remember the event; rather, you could probably only see the event through photos. This is a practice that not everyone would agree with, considering that you're taking a baby out into the elements and he/she might not always be completely protected from said elements. I have my own opinions about taking babies to sporting events (especially if they're outdoors), but to each his own.

In my own personal experiences, I personally cannot remember the first ballgame I ever went to. If pictures were ever taken, they have gone off to photography heaven. However, I do remember one that could have been my first. It was Phillies Photo Day at Veterans Stadium. [I may have mentioned this game before on the blog. Prepare for Broken Record Mode.] It was 1997, and it was Scott Rolen's rookie year. I remember this family next to us with these weird-looking disposable cameras, and he responded: "What is that?" Weird, I know. I also remember getting my picture with Curt Schilling with my younger brother. Again, I couldn't tell you where that photo went. That makes me kind of upset. Aside from baseball, I had also attended a few hockey games with my grade school and soccer games with my various teams. One of the biggest memories was from a minor-league hockey game when the Phantoms were still in Philadelphia. It was a morning game where all of these schools attended, and it was advised to the players to keep the fighting at a minimum since it was a younger audience. Long story short, there was a fight three minutes into the game. We liked that.

When you are at a certain age, you can enjoy certain things about a game, especially when there are other people your age at the game with you. I can remember more things about games I was enjoying with teammates than with family (no offense, you guys). There are reasons behind it that could be more obvious than the clear sky itself, so I don't think I would have to lay them out for you. The same reasoning stands when it comes to playing the sport too. When you're old enough to comprehend something, it's just much more enjoyable. It also helps to have other sides of the story to help you remember even more details of an event.

When you're out enjoying the weekend with your family, you may play some games. Enjoy those moments. They create memories, just like the ones you created for your family and yourself when you made that first step in the first time you experienced your country's pastimes.


Friday, May 17, 2013

Baskets of CHEER

You know, whenever my mother, sister, and I would go to events with family that had raffle tickets for baskets, we would always have the worst luck in winning any baskets of cheer. I also had the worst luck in eighth grade when I wrecked my lower back catching a girl while doing a basket mount in cheerleading. There, I made the title of the post relevant.

(I hope you screamed these letters)


Sure, Lil' Jon and Stone Cold Steve Austin never did this stuff, but they screamed it enough to be proud of it. That's what some ladies (and some gentlemen) do in this sporting compliment. It's called Cheerleading. Back in the day, they used to stand on the sidelines and hold up giant letters and megaphones during sporting events. They may still do that today, but the inclusion of gymnastics and insistence on eye-candy has made this once-simple club an extreme sport of sorts. In fact, this has moved up the ranks in becoming one of the most dangerous extra-curricular activities an individual can take part in. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, it beats martial arts and football. While injury may not be as frequent as the two sports I have mentioned, the injuries suffered doing various cheerleading routines can certainly be more devastating. Spotters and other people surrounding the acrobatics are absolutely necessary, but things can still go awry when gymnastics are involved or when there are mid-air acrobatics. Cheerleading may not exactly be a sport to some people, but it has certainly become a staple at many sporting events such as basketball, rugby, and American football.

Let's take a look at the world of CHEER. It isn't always about keeping your joints locked and your teeth beaming, you know.

Get ready to shake your head: the original cheering squad was all-male. That's right. Women had nothing to do with this practice. Then again, this practice started in the mid-to-late 1800's, when women had next to no rights in the United States. As time progressed, cheerleading became more of a female-dominated practice. Proper dress in the olden days looked similar to what you would see high school and college bands wear today. It had later changed to sweaters and long skirts (long pants for men), and forms of gymnastics began to be adopted by squads around the World War II-era. Although there are athletics and gymnastics involved in cheerleading, there has been one thing that has never changed: the spirit. Oh Lordy, the spirit is here to stay. The one thing that makes cheerleading a form of religion to cheerleaders is their pride and their spirit to whom they cheer. From an outsider's view, it's absolutely disgusting and almost puppet-like. If you ever watched the film Bring It On or any of the other spawned (and awful) sequels, you will probably understand, but only slightly. Has anyone ever heard of a spirit stick? I'm not even going to get into it. I would have to start talking about rituals and various holy practices.

A common stereotype that has accompanied the world of cheer over the past several decades is that the common cheerleader looks like a porcelain doll. Most people believe that a girl must be skinny with perfect skin and hair. If you want to go even further...a perfect smile paired with a high-pitched voice and has dated every guy imaginable. These stereotypes have been bludgeoned into many heads of Americans, and recently, once cheerleader has been targeted due to "not fitting in." Kelsey Williams, a cheerleader for the Oklahoma City Thunder NBA team, had been targeted by a critic who claimed that she was "too chunky" for the job.

Here's the picture that started it all:
Photo from New York Daily News
Now, I'm not a male, but I see nothing wrong with this. The last time I checked, all women come in different shapes and sizes. She looks perfectly healthy, and she obviously loves what she does. Aside from cheering, she, along with the other members of the squad, do humanitarian work to represent the Thunder organization. Not only is she willing to "shake her thing" for team spirit, she's also an inspiration to young girls and basketball fans in the charity work that she does. If you have an issue that she has a thicker body than most cheerleaders you will see in sports, you may be a little prejudiced. It is rather unfortunate that there is a predisposed idea of what a typical cheerleader (male or female) must look like. If you have the spirit, the inspiration, and the skill, who honestly cares where the person is in the looks department? Humanity can be confusing at times. There is the thought that cheerleaders are "eye candy" that keep the men in their seats during the games, but not every sport (and every team in a league that has cheerleaders) has them. That thought cannot be an excuse. For now, the cheerleader stereotype lives on.
[Aside: Williams is pretty. If she's "fat," then I must be morbidly obese.]

Like I have mentioned previously, cheerleading has become rather extreme over the past 125 years. Starting with basic locomotive noises (I'm not joking, you guys), to harmonic singsong, to catchy chants, the usage of acrobatics comes in to fire up crowds and spread the spirit and cheer.  This all comes with a price. Whenever you do something that involves heights and shifting your center of gravity at a fast pace, you're at a major risk of injury. Back and neck injuries can be very common for fliers and patrons that grace the tops of pyramids and mounts. Strains and muscular injuries can also be a risk for those sporting quick spurts of flexibility and those who must spot fliers. In countless cheerleading competitions around the country, you will see routines packed to the top with girls flying every which way. Practice makes perfect, but those freak accidents still happen. You can even see freak occurrences at professional events. It's never pretty, either. Focus and lack of fear is needed to prevent any injury. Nerves get in the way, but in a high-risk world of cheer, you either stay focused and spirited or break your back. [Really.]

I did basic cheerleading for less than a year (and you think "What? YOU?!" and start laughing hysterically at me) but it was certainly an interesting experience. It's a fun mix of endurance and theatrics. As a musical theater practitioner, something like this was right up my alley. With that said, cheerleading is definitely not for everybody. It takes dedication, skill, time, and a heck of a lot of focus. There are its quirks and its occasional "chink in the armor," but it has certainly become a necessity in sports and a pure religion for the practitioners and the families involved in it. Cheering culture can begin when the girl (or boy) is at a very young age and can become as obsessive as a college football following. Again, this isn't for everybody. This isn't your grandmother's cheerleading culture. Something like this is taken very seriously, and at times it absolutely has to. With risks of injuries and risks of hurting others, you're either in it or you're out. Some don't consider it a sport--and I somewhat agree with this--instead it is seen as a compliment to the sport. The reason being is that the crowd can be a definite factor for momentum, and cheering can add that extra boost of yelling (or testosterone) to the atmosphere. See? It's not as perky and as air-headed as you would think. Cheering is actually good.

Let's HEAR IT for some SPIR-IT! Woo!
(insert cartwheel)


Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Dangerous Drives

I almost titled this post "BOOM! Headshots!" but that wouldn't have been right of me. What happened Tuesday night was incredibly scary and I wouldn't want to make any kind of joke about it.

Tuesday night, Tampa Bay Rays' hitter Desmond Jennings hit a screaming liner in the second inning with a 3-1 count, striking Toronto Blue Jays' pitcher J.A. Happ directly in the side of the head. While it wasn't intentional, this is the second time since last September in which a pitcher sustained a line drive to the head, and it's still horrific to watch. Current Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Brandon McCarthy took a shot from a liner off of Erick Aybar's bat in September 2012, sustaining an epidural haematoma, a skull fracture, and a brain contusion. While McCarthy walked off the field on his own, Happ wasn't so fortunate, as he was stretchered off the field. Although McCarthy seems to be in top form now, the event that occurred was enough to make anyone nervous about whether he would return to baseball.

When something like this happens, I can't resist in searching for footage and watching it. It eventually leads to me screaming my head off because of how frightening the play is. From the sound of the hit to the aftermath, it's something you wouldn't even wish on your worst enemy. When a freak accident occurs like that in baseball, there is a hush that falls over the league as everyone waits for the prognosis of the player in peril. Another person that feels the fire from the incident is the man who hit the ball--in this case, Desmond Jennings. All he could do was stand from afar and watch everything unfold. It wasn't intentional, he wasn't out to hurt anyone, and because he did a natural act that found its way to injure the pitcher on the mound, that's a massive punch in the stomach. If I were him, I don't know if I could keep playing the rest of the game after that.

(UPDATE: J.A. Happ is reportedly in stable condition at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, FL. He has sustained a head contusion and a laceration the ear. He could be released from the hospital today. High hopes!)

A few hours after the incident occurred, I talked to Andrew about this on the phone. He asked me a question that really made me think: "What if he died? Would the hitter be charged with a crime?" It's an interesting question, indeed. Would a player, if he happened to hit a line drive or throw a pitch that hit a player in the head and kill him, be charged with something?

Only one baseball player has ever died after being hit in the head by a ball, so there really hasn't been any instances or references to do any kind of homework on this topic. Ray Chapman, a Cleveland shortstop, was hit in the head by a fastball delivered by Carl Mays in 1920. Note: This happened long before batting helmets were ever enforced for use in-game. After Chapman's death, Mays's action was deemed as accidental by a New York District Attorney, and no charges were filed. However, this led to the banning of the infamous spitball in Major League Baseball.

To give an answer to the question, if something like this were to happen today, it would most likely be deemed an accidental kill and no charges would be filed. However, there could be a can of worms opened as there may be a chance that the family of the deceased player could press charges or sue Major League Baseball for lack of player safety or something to that extent. Regardless of reason, it would be a stretch and a hassle, and there would most likely be a settlement at the end of it all.

A bigger question that popped up in my own head was: "What if--Heaven forbid--someone actually does die? What would baseball do in response to this?" It's a morbid thing to think about, but you can't help but let it cross your mind when a player takes a ball to the head. When it comes to a hitter, you can adjust and look to protect the head by adding more protection in the helmet. We saw this when Mets' third baseman David Wright took a fastball to the head in 2009. Sure, he looked like Marvin the Martian to some people, but you can never be too safe while you're in the batter's box. However, when it comes to a pitcher's safety, you can't really do a whole bunch to protect him. He's in a danger zone and he pretty much knows that he is. It's rather unlikely that Major League Baseball would enforce the use of the batting practice L-screen during the game itself.
Unfortunately, this would obstruct the field of play and it would really restrict a hitter's chance of getting a base hit up the middle, and it would actually restrict a fielder's chance of a double play. I would also find this annoying if I were a pitcher. In my opinion, there would be a fat chance of this being used during the game. The ensuing measures will have to take a lot of thought by the commissioner of Major League Baseball if this unfortunate event leads in death. In fact, nothing might not ever be done since the chances of a pitcher getting hit in the head with a line drive is incredibly slim. It may be acknowledged, and padding may be encouraged in standard caps, but that would be the only thing I can think of actually happening.

For now, it's best to keep J.A. Happ in our thoughts as these next couple of hours will give us a timetable as to when he will begin the road to recovery. It's rough to see anyone suffer through this, especially when injuries and safety in sports are hot topics at this time, and an incident like this doesn't necessarily help matters. When you play a sport, you are always putting your body on the line, regardless of where you stand on the field. In Happ's case, he is in one of the most dangerous positions in baseball. Playing a sport takes courage, and scars from any sort of injury are proof of bravery and survival. I'm an advocate of player safety just as much as the next person, but the positions of pitcher and batter are unavoidable cases; caution is always being thrown into the wind every time you step into the box or on the hill. You always have to hope for the best case to happen whether it can be good or bad.


Sunday, May 5, 2013

AZ's Slant on Sunday - The Ultimate Slugfest

The one thing I remember about my Dad when I was younger was how he would sit in his rocking chair and watch Friday Night Fights. As time progressed, my older brother got him into MMA and he became interested in that. This would have been something interesting to talk with him about, that's for sure.

Saturday night was declared Fight Night in Las Vegas as Floyd "Money" Mayweather Jr. took on Robert "the Ghost" Guerrero. After being away from the ring for a year, many had expected the fight to be extremely exciting due to the spice and fire from Guerrero. After 12 rounds, loads of strategy, and hard offense, Mayweather won by unanimous decision and increased his fight record to 44-0. Many people had noted how Mayweather had played a safe, defensive fight and used strategy and an extra cheerleading boost from his father at ringside. Whatever it was, it certainly worked.

One major thing I had noticed was that because it was a major title fight involving two of the best boxers of today and that there was a backstory behind both fighters, estimates on total pay-per-view buys and viewership is expected to be extremely high. These factors rehash a theory that I have stored up in the noggin' for quite a long time: Over the past several years, the world of Mixed Martial Arts has been outselling and outclassing the boxing universe due to points such as frequent main-event carding and the overall amount of household names involved in the product.

Without a doubt, the biggest MMA business around is UFC, headed by president Dana White. In its 20 years of existence, it has been known as a source of display for different fighting arts, a source of controversy due to lack of rules in the beginning (some guys wore sneakers...dead serious), and its surge in the mid-00's through reality television and breakthrough to mainstream media audiences. Because of the atmosphere and degree of action contained in an MMA event, it became extremely popular in a short time. While it hasn't exactly been measured to a huge extent, MMA has become more of a household name as far as consistency in the United States than boxing.

With Floyd Mayweather Jr.'s successful title defense on Saturday night, could this be the beginning of the rebirth of mainstream boxing in North America?

I'm not a huge fan of neither boxing nor MMA. Off of the top of my head, I can only name four active major boxers: Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao, Sergio Martinez, and Bernard Hopkins. However, I can tell you a lot more names involved in UFC. There are four major boxing organizations in the world, and numerous events are held all over the world. The big difference between these guys and UFC is that not many of these events are televised and most knowledge of events are spread through word-of-mouth or through popular boxing outlets. Recently, ESPN 2 has revived Friday Night Fights on their programming, and different boxers from around the world are getting more mainstream exposure to boxing fans old and new. This can be a massive victory for boxing, as it is shown more frequently to audiences and can be considered "not dead" to the uninformed.

In the same vein as the frequency of seeing televised events and knowing who is fighting who, there is a well-publicized pay-per-view event that occurs every month. There are also well-promoted televised events (with thanks to FOX Sports) that occur every so often between these PPV events. You don't really hear about any major boxing events unless if it's a major title bout--which don't often occur as frequently due to the possibility of boxing matches occurring outside of North America--or if it's a storied fight featuring well-known and marketable names (in this recent case, Mayweather).

With these facts set straight, it's time to face the overall verdict of this bout between Boxing and MMA--this is a business and corporate-driven world, and MMA-giant UFC is currently in the driver seat.
The boxing business is still based strictly on sport and basic media attention. In today's media-driven society, UFC incorporates all media outlets like a sports business normally does and makes the best out of it. Heck, you will see UFC action figurines in stores before you will ever see a figure for a boxing icon--unless if it's memorabilia or something. The boxing industry is still very old school in the sense of using social media and promotions; while it still has it's glamour and glitz during the event itself, they still use the older approach to attract fans and outside viewers.

While this case may be different for people outside of the United States and Canada, boxing can't truly be considered a "dead sport," as it still holds firm as an Olympic sport and is still extremely popular in South American and in some regions of Europe and Asia. However, if you're looking for an undisputed champion in winning over the North American hearts, you have to give the title to MMA. Since UFC has become a massive conglomerate, they have won this region in the business sector and gaining sponsorship and viewership. However, boxing culture is still king in the Eastern Hemisphere and in South America. I'm not partial to either of them, but it's a dog-eat-dog world, and these two Kings of Fighters will be duking it out for a long while. It's all about culture, legacy, and honor, and both of these schools have a slough of both. It should be a nice, long fight to the finish.