2011 – The Summer of Soccer in the U.S.

There might not be a tougher subject to write about than soccer.  Americans writing about the game essentially have two paths to choose before they begin typing.  I can choose to cater to the soccer enthusiast by using Euro-slang and being sarcastic and hyperbolically critical of everything (Women’s World Cup this summer … psshh, who wants to watch a bunch of birds having a kickabout, but I will say Heather Mitts is well fit.  Am I right, lads?). 

Or I can choose to dumb down my commentary to the point where it passes being engaging to casual readers and becomes insultingly condescending, much like Fox’s coverage of the UEFA Champions League Final with the NFL crew breaking down the game like they were broadcasting the first soccer match ever viewed by human eyes.  Although I will say it was charming to hear Curt Menefee send it down “to the pitch” and it was a nice touch to have legendary English goalkeeper David Seaman providing his insight.  Oh wait, that was legendary American goalkeeper Brad Friedel?  I couldn’t tell the difference, they had the exact same accent.  Well I guess we now know which path I’ve chosen …

Fear not, fringe fans of soccer who tune in once every four years during the World Cup, perhaps even by accident or just to have some small talk topics in your back pocket for the office.  I’m not going to chide you for not appreciating the “beautiful game”.  I’m not going to speak down to you, and I’m not going to even try to convert you into a fan.  It’s okay with me that you don’t like soccer.  I get it.  I equate soccer to Indie rock … some of it is the most inventive and interesting music out there, and some of it is completely un-listenable.  My favorite band ever is Superchunk, but I’m not going to be that guy who has some deep cut off of “Come Pick Me Up” blasting when I turn on my car so I can easily transition into a conversation about how much cooler I am than you are because you don’t get it.  This isn’t going to be that kind of piece about soccer.  I’m going to try to split the difference here.

Having said that, I will point out that soccer’s place in our sporting society is growing more rapidly than expected.  Participation has never been an issue in America … there are over 3 million registered youth soccer players (US Youth Soccer Association) between the ages of 5 and 19.  That’s more card-carrying members than the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts, and as many participants as Little League and Pop Warner combined.  In addition, there are nearly 400,000 adults who are either USYS licensed coaches or referees.  Adidas USA sold 6.5 million national-team replica jerseys during the 2010 World Cup.  Oh by the way, Nike outfits our National Team, so those numbers largely reflect sales of Mexico, Argentina, Spain, Germany and other popular “non-USA” jerseys.  More importantly, American networks are broadcasting more live, high-definition professional matches from European leagues than ever, with the English Premier League becoming a regular on ESPN and the UEFA Champions League being split up between Fox and ESPN.  In this non-World Cup summer, it’s fair to say that soccer is taking center stage in America over the next few months.

World Football Challenge

The brilliant idea that is the “World Football Challenge” returns to the US this summer after taking a year off to make room for the World Cup.  It’s an odd event of sorts because the MLS participants are still in the middle of their league season while the European and Mexican clubs are in pre-season.  Still, some of the most important soccer clubs in the world will be playing in the US again this summer, which is never a bad thing at all.  The inaugural event in 2009 brought nearly 1,000,000 fans to stadiums across the United States with each match being broadcast in full by ESPN.  In the midst of an increasingly intense battle for American dollars, the best clubs in the world return again for 2011 as Manchester United, Manchester City, Club America, Real Madrid, CD Guadalajara and European Champion FC Barcelona have all signed on for the event.  The Challenge will consist of 11 matches in 11 cities with two showstoppers as the “must watch” matches of the tournament:  July 16th’s matchup between Real Madrid vs. LA Galaxy and the Champions League Final rematch between Manchester United and FC Barcelona on July 30th in Washington, DC.

CONCACAF Gold Cup

The Gold Cup is the biggest event within CONCACAF, or the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, and features the top national teams under the confederation’s jurisdiction.  This year’s edition brings with it an important carrot on the end of the rope for would-be champions as the winner of the event will advance to the FIFA Confederations Cup, which is an international competition of all of the champions of each geographic confederation.  By virtue of a 2-1 victory over Mexico in 2007, the US team advanced to the 2009 Confederations Cup where the Americans reached their first international 2nd place finish ever by beating Spain 2-0 in the semifinals before blowing a 2-0 halftime lead against Brazil and losing 3-2 in the final.  In the last installation of the Gold Cup, Mexico destroyed the US by a score of 5-0, but since there was no Confederations Cup qualification on the line, the result didn’t matter and ultimately nobody cared, Mexico.  This year is for real again, however, and each nation will be sending their absolute best to try to bring home the Cup. 

But aside from the obvious immediate impact of the Gold Cup, the 2011 tournament serves as fork-in-the-road signage for the US national team as we begin to prepare for the 2014 World Cup (if there is still a FIFA in 2014, that is).  The arrival of the next international challenge for our boys in red (or are we wearing blue this year, Nike?) will bring countless opportunities for all of us to re-live this … the most important sports moment in American athletics history.  No, I didn’t mean to link to a video of the Miracle on Ice.  First of all, I wasn’t old enough to remember it, so it doesn’t count.  But there are so many factors that make Donovan’s goal in the 91st minute against Algeria transcend all other sports moments in USA history. 

First, it’s Team USA.  Nothing unites our country more than a defining moment by USA in international competition in a team sport.  Second, it was the right player.  Heaven forbid Landon Donovan gets a slight touch on the ball before Edson Buddle pokes it home from the back post.  Even if Clint Dempsey sneaks it under the keeper instead of providing the all-important rebound, you lose the impact.  Forget that Dempsey is a far more important player to the US than Donovan in the grand scheme of things.  He’s beloved in England because of his classic goals for Fulham, not because of his exploits with the US National Team.  Landon Donovan IS soccer in the United States.  It HAD to be his goal.  Third, and though I will always show much respect for the “Do you believe in miracles?” call as probably the greatest sports call in broadcasting history, Ian Darke did pretty freaking well for himself with his reaction to the goal.  It won’t surpass Al Michael’s famous catch-phrase, but “Go, go, USA” are three words will always give me chills when I think back to that moment.  What impressed me the most about Darke’s performance was his decision to shut up and let the pictures speak for themselves, only deciding to speak up again when John Harkes tried to provide some analysis but was too emotional to get his words out. 

Lastly, and this is why it leaves behind that great upset in Lake Placid, it happened in 2010, not in 1980.  Prior to Landon’s goal, any ‘Shot Heard ‘Round the World’ … well, you just had to take their word for it.  But with this goal, you had this, and this, and this, and this.  And of course, this too.  Sports fans all over the world, in one moment, connected in real-time by technology.  When Disney cashes in down the road in 20 years by making a movie about this moment, I won’t have to explain to my son (who was a year old at the time) what it was like when Landon scored.  I can just have him access those videos using the microscopic computer implanted in his brain and he’ll know first-hand what it felt like. 

While that scene will be played over, and over, and over, leading into each broadcast, it sets the stage for what I feel is the most critical period for the growth of US soccer on the international stage.  It’s like saying, “Ok, USA.  You have our attention.  Now what?”  Let’s start with the coach …

Many of us who follow US soccer are somewhat surprised Bob Bradley is still our coach.  Though the overall reaction to the US losing in the Round of 16 was that our showing was acceptable, it stung to see how the tournament opened up completely for the US.  That, coupled with the opportunity to cash in on the attention that Landon’s goal earned the team, led many to believe that the US could attract a big-named coach to lead our national program.  While our federation flirted with some high-profile candidates, in the end, Bradley’s contract was extended.  As with any contract, the commitment is subject to change without notice, and you have to think that this year’s Gold Cup is a key piece of Bradley’s evaluation.  This is a tournament that the US SHOULD win, but the perception seems to map our rival Mexico on an upward trend while our outlook seems to remain stagnant with no signs of that next superstar in the youth ranks. 

Speaking of “that next superstar”, Freddy Adu is back.  Adu became a household name at the “age of 16” (in Danny Almonte years) as the next Pele.  He struggled to find his place on our senior national team as he was no longer able to leverage what set him apart in the youth ranks … his quickness, his ball mastery and footwork, and his ability to vote, drive, and buy beer.  His highlight for US Soccer came in the 2007 U20 World Cup where he captained the US team into the quarterfinals.  Following that deep tournament run, Adu’s progression stalled as his teammate Michael Bradley’s took off, and it began to seem as if Adu would never fight his way towards fulfilling his initial promise.  It is safe to say that the 2011 Gold Cup is Adu’s last chance.  Hopefully he’ll do better with his lance chance than DeMarcus Beasley did with his at the World Cup. 

Although I wish I could also claim a “put up or shut up” ultimatum for Jozy Altidore, the team selection for the Gold Cup has communicated that he is literally the only striker in our country.  In short, his job is safe.  But it will be interesting to see if we have anyone else who can put the ball in the back of the net.  Charlie Davies is still on the mend, so he’s going to miss his second straight international tournament.  To use layman’s terms to describe guys like Robbie Findley, Brian Ching, Edson Buddle and other experiments to run with Jozy … they suck.  This tournament is a huge opportunity for youngster Juan Agudelo to become that all-important second (LOL, I mean first) goal scoring threat.  For the US to be seen as a player moving forward to the 2014 World Cup, there must be a forward with star power.  Mexico has Chicharito.  It remains to be seen if we have an answer.  We sure as hell don’t have an answer defensively.

To take a strong first step towards qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, the US will need to answer four basic questions between the opening kick against Spain this weekend and the final whistle of the Gold Cup … can we identify and play to our strengths using smart tactics and careful preparation, can we maintain organization defensively to avoid giving up those head-scratching scoring chances we seem to allow each time out, can we keep enough possession to apply legitimate pressure to our opponents, can we find that guy who can consistently score during the run of play?  At least we don’t have a lot of holes to fill over the next three years.

All in all, I just hope our boys fare better in their attempt to win the Gold Cup than I did in my attempt to avoid writing like a grumpy soccer fan.  Oh well, at least there’s plenty of footie on the tele.

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UNC Football ‘Atmosphere of Suspicion’

Full disclosure:  I hate UNC football.  I cheer against UNC basketball, but I respect the hell out of them.  I don’t like Roy Williams, but it stems from being very good at what he does.  My blood boils when I think of UNC football.  I’m saying this because I am about to attempt to write an objective piece about UNC football, and I know at some point I’m going to fall short because of an angry word choice or by giving a brief glimpse of disapproving tone.  But I’m going to try, so stay with me here. 

I’m not going to presume that Quentin Coples received any improper benefits by having any portion of his trip paid for by an agent, a runner, or any third-party that exists in the grey area between friend and salesman.  That’s up for the NCAA to investigate, and it’s up to UNC to defend.  The facts surrounding the now year-long saga between the NCAA and UNC football are still hazy as well.  Some will argue that it’s because there are no facts to show any wrongdoing by anyone in Tarheel blue, and some will argue that there are no facts because UNC “cleaned off their DNA” (an explanation made famous by UNC alum Mike Nifong when he addressed the media and the NCCU law school during the Duke Lacrosse investigation).  Whatever the reason, the general public, including the mainstream media, still isn’t sure what is or was going on at UNC that led to this extensive “review”. 

The NCAA challenges coaches to create “an atmosphere of compliance” within their programs.  While the statement itself is laughably vague and ambiguous, it does speak to the coach’s responsibility to show that they’ve created an environment that provides enough of an understanding of right and wrong.  Players may still step into the realm of the wrong from time to time, but it’s not due to an absence of fear of consequence.  On the other hand, it seems as if Butch Davis has accomplished creating the opposite … an atmosphere of suspicion.  The choices that are made in Chapel Hill are extremely puzzling and show a complete lack of self-awareness. 

For a school that is so image-conscious, it’s hard to imagine how they would allow all of these questions to be asked in the first place.  From Marvin Austin showing up for his photo-op at the UNC/LSU game to Quentin Coples posing for pictures at a draft party with alcohol, agents, and the former Tarheels who started this mess all in attendance.  From the communication from the UNC Administration to Butch Davis instructing him to express outrage to the over-the-top reluctance to turn over phone records and parking tickets.  To quote another Nifongian classic: “People who are innocent of a crime do not need lawyers”  (Yes, he really said that). 

The perception that UNC is acting like a guilty party has brought criticisms of the intelligence of the football players involved.  The rogue actions of Marvin Austin and Greg Little brought down the innocent program, and now the rogue decision of Coples to be at this party just shows that these kids made bad decisions occasionally.  Right?  I’m guessing anyone who believes this either never played football, or they played football for UNC.

Here’s the thing about football … it’s the ultimate team sport.  A successful football play depends on 11 guys successfully working in unison by executing a plan that was hashed out months before, communicated, studied, trained, quizzed, practiced, analyzed, and practiced again … a thousand times over.  There is no “rogue” in football.  If you played the game, how many times did your quarterback scramble for 15 yards and a first down only to be yelled at by the coaching staff to run the play they called because he had a receiver open for an 18 yard deep in?  How many stairs did you run after practice because your teammate turned the wrong way on a route in practice, and how many extra stairs did you run after trying to convince the coaches it wasn’t your fault that your teammate made a mistake?  When you see the results of a decision made by a football player, you’re seeing a decision-making process that was learned from the head of that football team.  To question the intelligence of Marvin Austin, Greg Little, and now Quentin Coples, is to underestimate the arrogance of Butch Davis. 

UNC football may not be in the wrong.  It’s entirely plausible that this was all one big misunderstanding.  This time.

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The Athlete & Social Media: Coaches are Missing the Point

The latest edition of the CJ Leslie saga at North Carolina State finds our protagonist weighing in with his opinion of John Amaechi’s sexual orientation as an athlete through his Twitter account.  Leslie opined, “I’m no anti gay but I would rather not have a gay in the locker room”, which was a statement visible to his thousands of followers including coaches, teammates, fans, fans of rival teams, and members of the media.  I’m not even going to touch the subject of homophobia or hate-speak, but I will say that statements beginning with “I’m no anti-____, but …” usually will mean that you’re about to say something anti-_____.  The not-so-clever use of this disclaimer shows that Leslie is at least somewhat self-aware, which is about the only positive to come out of this entire incident.

This statement, of course, comes on the heels of fellow athlete Rashard Mendenhall’s unfortunate tweets reacting to the death of Osama Bin Laden.  Mendenhall later explained his “good intentions” to point out his discomfort with humans openly celebrating the death of another human, but his message was certainly muddled by saying we only knew “one side of the story” when it came to Bin Laden, and that he had doubts of his involvement in the destruction of the World Trade Center buildings on September 11th.  Mendenhall has been roasted in the media for his choice of words, and has felt the heat with loss of income as sponsors have since dumped them from their rosters.

Immediately discussions began in both cases about athletes and their use of social media.  Athletes, as with all celebrities, are insanely popular on Twitter with staggering counts of followers.  Unlike other celebrities, athletes are not famous for their ability to communicate as compared to actors, writers, musicians, etc.  This puts athletes at a disadvantage in an outlet such as Twitter where the lone draw to the medium is the ability to read what others are thinking about.  But why does that disadvantage exist at all? 

The overwhelming consensus as a “fix” to this problem is to ban athletes from social media.  Just this season, we’ve seen evidence that several ACC schools, most notably the University of North Carolina, have “encouraged” their athletes to go silent on Twitter.  In the case of UNC, this restriction was communicated to student-athletes following the breaking of the Tarheel football scandal where star defensive lineman Marvin Austin tweeted pictures implicating himself and teammates in the receipt of illegal benefits.  In the wake of these allegations, teammate Devon Ramsay thought it would be a good idea to tweet “My whole team gettin money I just call it gang green”, a lyric from a Big Sean song.

Banning athletes from Twitter is not only robbing them of an opportunity to market themselves to fans in a way that Chad Ochocinco or Nolan Smith or Kendall Marshall have perfected, it’s simply putting a temporary band-aid on a solitary symptom of the underlying issue.  Athletes have made stupid mistakes before Twitter existed … Wake Forest quarterback Riley Skinner joined other athletes such as Greg Oden in posting nude pictures of himself online, a mistake that still follows him around during his professional career.  If Twitter is taken away, there will be another outlet that pops up for athletes to make more mistakes as well.  Trying to stay in front of technology is one of the most short-sighted strategies that I can think of as a solution for any issue.  It’s not even analogous to putting a finger in a leaky dam, it’s like attempting to stop a tidal wave by standing in front of it to block it.

Digging a bit deeper into this strategy, it becomes even more short-sighted to the point of negligence.  Coaches banning Twitter until the season ends, or until a player graduates, goes to solidify that these coaches are ONLY concerned with the actions of their players for as long as they’re on their watch.  In the case of Mendenhall, if he’s taught to make better decisions about what opinions he speaks publicly and which ones he keeps to himself, he’s not in a position to cost himself millions from a series of emotional tweets.  Those figures in his younger life who would have had the power to take away Twitter, or whichever vehicle for communication was comparable during that time, could have better used that time to teach him how to use these tools to his advantage.

Additionally, does NC State think they’re not going to get a black eye from CJ Leslie if that tweet is sent a year or two from now when Leslie is in the NBA?  He will always be a representative of NC State University and the Wolfpack basketball program.  When he’s a rookie, Mark Gottfried isn’t going to be able to ban him from Twitter.  But Leslie can do equal damage to the Wolfpack program then as he can now.  With Leslie, he CLEARLY has trouble seeing the double-standard that exists for athletes.  Right or wrong, it exists.  We all know it exists.  If I’d written this Valentine’s poem for my Creative Writing class at NC State, I might have gotten a couple of laughs and a room full of eye rolls.  When Leslie writes it, it’s being purchased by Deadspin to be published to an enormous audience.  I’m surprised NC State didn’t react by banning Leslie from submitting assignments in class … how would that be any different from banning him from Twitter?

I’m not a Division I athlete, but I am a parent.  I’m quickly learning that limiting my kid’s access to trouble teaches him to find more inventive ways to find trouble elsewhere.  Increasing my son’s access to the consequences of finding trouble is teaching him to find inventive ways to avoid trouble to begin with.

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Pictoral Look at ACC Coaching Evolution

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Bloggers Needed for Champions League of Blogging

Do you write a blog and want to increase your presence on Twitter?  Are you a force on Twitter and want to jump into the world of blogging?  Are you an attention whore who measures your worth as a human being by the number of followers you have, or by the number of unique page views you get? 

If you can answer “yes” to any of the above, or at least a “maybe”, or even if you hesitated for a second before saying “no”, I’m calling you out.  You’re invited to compete in the first ever Champions League of Blogging.  The format is to be determined based on the number of people who join in, but the concept is simple … the best writer will be crowned champion of blogging and will have eternal bragging rights over all competition.  All writers, however, will have the opportunity to earn new readers and new followers in order to expand your reach as a writer.  Hopefully a win for all involved … writers and readers alike. 

Bloggers will be pitted against each other in head-to-head writing contests on a topic provided to them, complete with word limits and deadlines.  I’m still going back and forth between having a “celebrity panel” of judges determine the winner, or reader voting, or a combination of the two.  I don’t want it to be a popularity contest, and I want writers to have the opportunity to earn new readers so I’d like to avoid having readers blindly vote for their favorite blogger.  I’m still working out the format in my head, but it basically all depends on the number of writers I get.  I think 12 to 16 would be the perfect number, but have ideas to work with more or less than that amount.

Hopefully writers and readers will find this fun and useful in the dreaded period of time between the end of the basketball/hockey season and the start of (hopefully) football season.  It’s going to be a Twitter based competition, so if you’re a writer, send me a mention to @thedevilwolf.  You also must have a blog, so if you want to be involved, start one up.  This is a great way for new writers to get in the game.  The topics, obviously, will revolve around sports.

If you feel like you qualify as a “celebrity” and want to be a judge, let me know as well.

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‘Coach K’ One Step Away from Soccer History

Tonight, Coach K will put his 37-game home winning streak on the line in the most important game any team in the entire country will play this season.  He’ll rely on smooth, efficient and creative offense with a heavy dose of hard-nosed, in your face defense.  He’ll look to his best players to carry on the manta of “team first” by recognizing their place within something much greater than themselves.  His pre-game talk will remind his players of the standards they’ve set for each other, and they’ll play hard from start to finish, never taking a play off in-between.  Sound familiar, Duke fans?  I’m not talking about Krzyzewski, however.  I’m talking about the head coach of Major League Soccer’s Real Salt Lake, former Duke star Jason Kreis.

RSL takes on Mexican super-club Monterrey in the 2nd leg of the CONCACAF Champions League finals tonight in Salt Lake City at 10:00PM, and will be televised nationally on Fox Soccer Channel.  In the first leg, the teams drew even at 2-2, which means that RSL’s two away goals would win the cup with a win tonight, or a 0-0 or 1-1 draw.  Should Real Salt Lake win, they would become the third MLS team to ever win the CONCACAF Champions League in its 49 year history, but would be the first team from the often overlooked American professional league to advance to the FIFA Club World Cup to take on the likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid, Inter Milan, and other giants of professional football.  In short, an RSL win gives Major League Soccer a huge credibility boost throughout the world.  In turn, Jason Kreis is carving out a name for himself in the football world as well.

Kreis took over Real Salt Lake in 2007 and immediately found himself in last place.  Just three short seasons later, his team won the MLS Championship.  He’s done it with an infusion of talent, but most of all, he’s done it with an attractive, attacking style of play more often found in South America, and he’s done it with good, old-fashioned hard work and teamwork.  Playmaker Javier Morales recently told Sports Illustrated, “We have a style that I would call mixed between American and Latin, a new style.  We work very hard in the American way, and we have a Latin game where we try to take care of the ball.”  Hard work, execution.  Reminds you of another great Duke coach, doesn’t it?

His unique approach to signing players is also turning some heads as Kreis will not sign a player without meeting with him personally before-hand.  Grant Wahl recently discussed Kreis’ obsession with being able to look into a player’s eyes, an obsession shared by Krzyzewski as well.  Kreis told Wahl, “What is most important to me with these guys is meeting them.  All that stuff stands out when you watch a DVD, but you have no idea what kind of person he is. Seeing his DVD was maybe 65 percent, but talking to him and looking in his eyes fills that other 35 percent. It might have been the other way around.”

Duke fans are very familiar with Coach K’s philosophy of five fingers acting as a fist, being a part of something greater than yourself.  Similarly, Kreis has instilled the same philosophy within his club.  As Wahl wrote, “Kreis’s motto is simple: The Team Is The Star. Salt Lake’s roster isn’t top-heavy with a couple of overpaid players. Instead it uses the successful e pluribus unum formula that made Houston and New England so successful in MLS during the mid-2000s. “I don’t think every professional athlete in the world could buy into our philosophy as a club,” Kreis says. “Professional sports lead to big egos. We don’t have room or time for that.””

The Duke approach is not for everyone, and it’s difficult to find those who are able to fully understand, appreciate, and embrace the specialized mentality that’s required to succeed in an environment like Duke, or for Duke athletics to succeed on the national level it strives to reach each season in each sport.  Much like Krzyzewski has leaned on those he trusts the most, his former players, to serve as his support system, Kreis has had the benefit of working with his former Duke teammate, Real Salt Lake’s general manager Garth Lagerwey.   “We trust each other,” Lagerwey says. “That allows us to disagree and even argue at times and still reach a consensus [on players] that’s pretty thoroughly vetted by two guys looking at it from different angles.”

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I Used to Love Her

“I met this girl when I was 10 years old, and what I loved most, she had so much soul” – Common (I Used to Love H.E.R.)

I had a pretty strict bed time back then, but you all remember how that first love was and how nothing would keep you from spending every second you could squeeze out of the day to be with that special person.  We’d talk for hours at night after my “lights out” curfew.  Well, she did most of the talking.  But I’d just lay there in bed listening to her go on about all of the crazy things she’d seen in big cities like Boston and New York and Houston and even California.  I’d never been to any of those places, but the way she talked about them I felt like I was right there.  I was hooked on her right away.

I introduced her to my friends that year, and they hit it off immediately.  Every weekend we’d meet at my friend’s house and walk to the park in his neighborhood where we’d just spend hours together there, not caring if it was hot or raining, or even if it started getting to dark for us to see.  Even when she wasn’t around, my friends and I would talk about her constantly.  We were obsessed, but we were just typical boys.  No one expected us to act differently.

A couple of years later, her life changed drastically for the better when she got a deal to be on national television.  I won’t go into her TV career, but I’m confident in saying that every single person reading this post watched her on TV.  She was insanely popular; America’s sweetheart.  She was the kind of girl who was comfortable and beautiful wearing blue jeans and playing around in the dirt with her friends, but when she dressed up, it was like looking into the face of an angel.  I’ll never forget the first time I saw her that way in person.  She was out in San Francisco, a place that I’d dreamed of visiting since the first time I’d heard her talk about California.  My dad was headed there for a conference and surprised me for my 16th birthday with tickets for my mom and I to join him on the trip and to go see her. 

We were in the car on the way to meet up with her, and I remember feeling butterflies in my stomach.  It was odd because I’d spent so much time with her the past few years, and no matter the setting, she was still going to be the same girl that I fell in love with as a kid.  Then I saw her.  She had on this amazing green dress, and when I say green, it’s doing that color a disservice.  Imagine the deepest, most vivid green you’ve ever seen in your life, and magnify that shade by a thousand.  Like if you mixed the green of spring trees against the blue sky with the eery green of the ocean underneath dark storm clouds.  Her skin was the kind of glowing tan that you only see in movies, and she wore a white ribbon that was almost blindingly bright against the rest of her.  I admit it, my eyes started watering.  It’s a feeling that words can’t possibly describe other than to say I’m sure some of you are nodding in agreement as you read this thinking of your own memories. 

We lost touch when I graduated high school.  I just felt like we were in different places at the time.  She was the kind of girl who would want to spend a lazy afternoon together on the couch to get out of the summer heat or maybe go sit in the park and have a couple of beers with friends.  During that time, I was much more fast-paced and into the nightlife with bright lights and loud music.  Like most Americans, I was into instant satisfaction and had a short attention span.  She, on the other hand, liked to take things slow and enjoy life.  She’s a romantic.  I am not.

A few years back, we started spending time together again here and there.  She’d changed for the better, or so I thought.  She’d lost a lot of friends the same way she lost me, but she started getting my attention in a different way.  I used to love how pure and natural she was, but that just got boring after a while.  Now, she was dressing a little edgier, living a little more dangerously.  And I’ll be perfectly honest, I loved it.  Yeah, looking back at that time, I was probably kind of a pig for buying into all of her “enhancements”, but I definitely did.  The thing is, my feelings weren’t as strong anymore.  Sure, I went to see her a few times, and I’d watch her whenever she was on TV, but it just wasn’t the same.  She ended up getting in a lot of trouble and tried to go back to the way she was before, but it just seemed stale to me.  I didn’t know who she was anymore.

I went years without seeing her, or really even thinking about her.  Last Fall, I was out at a bar with some of my old friends and she just happened to be on the TV in front of our table.  “Isn’t that your girl?”, a buddy asked.  “Used to be,” I said.  But as the night went on, I found myself not able to look away from her again.  It was like all those old memories were coming back and seemed like old times.  Sitting around with my friends, sharing stories about our times with her.  I never made it out to California to see her, but I definitely made an effort to stay up late and watch her on TV.  I started following her on Twitter, even told my two year old all about her.  I wished I could have been with her, watching her chase her dreams again.  I kept watching, every chance I got I’d be in front of a TV somewhere to see her and to cheer her on.  It felt good seeing her experience all the things I’d always thought we’d experience together.  I always wondered if she knew I was watching; wondered if she ever thought about me anymore. 

On November 1st last year, I got my answer.  My wife and kids had gone to bed hours before.  It was a big night for my friend, and I wanted to make sure I was there for her.  Like we’d done years before as children, we just talked to each other.  Sure, the technology was a little different now than it was in those days, and I could actually see her now.  I didn’t have to rely on her ability to tell a great story, it was as if she was right there in room with me, even though she was in Texas that night.  She was as beautiful as ever.  Graceful.  Poised.  But beneath all of that, I could see back to the little girl I fell in love with back when we were kids.  We shared a toast together before I headed off to bed, she had champagne while I had a beer. 

“I’m coming back in April,” she said.  “Will you be there?”

I’m not one to make promises that I’ll likely break, and to be honest, I was still wary of all of those years we were apart.  “We’ll see how things go,” I said.  “Give me some time.” 

I didn’t see her this April, but it’s my own fault completely.  I just have too many other things going on in my life to have room for an old friend.  But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss her.  I doubt I’ll ever re-gain the feelings that I once had for her, but when you love something so strongly, they’ll always be a part of you, no matter what. 

Deep down, I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for baseball.

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