Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Why I Travel

I've been travelling all my life. Travelling as a kid, someone born into a family who's parents are always exploring. I made my first trip to Europe when I was 7, the start of an annual tradition each Easter to go to Europe that lasted until my 10th birthday. That was just the beginning.

I've visited Europe countless more times, but now South America twice, Africa twice, and Asia a few more. I went on a three-month Odyssey instead of playing out the string of a final semester Senior year when I could have taken 1-2 classes and bopped off.

Every time a trip ends, I start planning the next one. Whether they be short weekend jaunts, or extended week-long treks to some mystical foreign land. I am loathe to sit back and enjoy the last one, wanting to set my sights on the next time I can escape the normal world and immerse myself in something new.

I've thought about this near obsession a lot recently. First, I have to admit a few advantages I've had. First, I have a job that allows me to travel a lot, with a scheme allowing for weekend trips fairly often where the biggest expense (the flight) can be somewhat taken care of. I also am lucky enough to not have a family to take care of, or burdensome student loans, or even rent to a large extent, to worry about. My travel budget is higher than it should be given my salary and standing. But even then, I can't think of a better way to pay my 'rent' than in travel.

There is something exciting about going somewhere new, about experiencing a new world. Something I've been able to pick up even in the traveling I have to do for work, to random outposts of America (or Canada, or Mexico) is how different these areas are. They have a different energy, a different way of living. Some of my favorite trips are quick weekends or even the 2-3 days I spend in a city, getting to focus in on what that place is about.

One of the main issues of my travels is so often when I leave a place, I really want to go back, but understand in my heart how impractical that is - there are so many more places to see. This doesn't apply to every place. For sure, Cape Town has carved a lasting enough place in my heart to where I keep wanting to go back, but then there's also Madrid, the place I've ranked as my #1 favorite international city, a ranking I've only tested twice.

The first time I seriouisly traveled alone was in 2010, going to Madrid for three days before heading up to London to meet my sister who was studying there at the time. In 2010, Tripadvisor wasn't really a thing. I  had a smart-phone, but without any international data plan. I had no idea how I was able to get quite a bit out of those three days. Since then, staring with my three month odyssey, vacation planning has become such an integral part of the trip. I have a standard format that I use now, an Excel-based file that lists what I intend to do or see each AM, PM, Evening, Night and each meal. I don't always keep to it. I've often had multiple things listed. It is a living and breathing document even during the trip. But it helps keep me sane.

Sure, some may say this studious, punctilious way of planning trips takes away some of the actual fun. And to that end, I have never gone blindly into some foreign place, armed with a backpack containing two changes of clothes, and dove head-first into a new place. But to me that allows you to miss what makes each place special.

Traveling is my job, I work at my regular place of employ in the meantime. There are probably many like me - including again my Dad. It all really starts from him. From the literal sense as he was the one who paid for my first umpteen trips abroad, instilling in myself (and my sister) a love of traveling that has and will last a lifetime. But also becacuse if anyone is more addicted to thrill of new experiences, new countires, new cultures, new places, it is him.

Starting in 2005, my parents discovered they could take trips without their two kids, with my sister being old enough to "take care of us". Since then, they've gone on trip after trip in a truly dizzying pace, to the point where a 5-day trip to Porto literally gets forgotten. I hope to achieve that one day.

I won't stop travelling. It is a way to escape, in a sense, and at times I do fear that is what is driving this never-ending wanderlust tendency. But on the other hand, I've lived in the same metro area my home life, whether it be in the suburbs of Plainsboro or the urban sprawl of New York. There is so much our own country has to offer, let alone the other 196 countries (per Sporcle's count) has to offer. And I still have over 140 to go.

The risk in traveling so much is you avoid reality at times, the bills, the housework, the mundane tasks that drives actual life, but the return on turning your mind away from such banaltiy is the experience of a lifetime, every time. I don't think I've ever not enjoyed a trip somewhere. Sure, some places are better than others, but there is no place better than being away from home, experiencing something new for the first time.

I won't ever stop traveling. Maybe if I have 2-4 kids, and the expenditure becomes too much, sure, but until then it won't stop. There are so many places, from, basically, the whole Mountain Time Zone, to so many places in South America or Africa. There are so many corners of this beautiful world that I haven't yet experienced, set foot in, bathed in the culture and the wonder of new. And thankfully there are many years, and many opportunities, to do so.

Monday, May 21, 2018

What Do I Think About Vegas

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We are living in a world where an expansion team is playing for a title in their first season. This is not a joke. They didn't pilfer the best players. They didn't sign some high priced free agents. They are flukes in the biggest way, a 500-1 long-shot.

Of course, that same team got 108 points, were wire-to-wire one of teh best teams in the league, had a +44 goal differential, the best home record in the NHL. They were squarely slightly above average across a host of "fancy stats." When you get a 109 point team steamrolling its way to a Conference Title against two lesser teams and another team just four points better, its surprising to see that level of dominance, but not exactly a fluke.

Squaring these two versions of the Golden Knights incredible season is one of the tougher tasks in sports. The Knights shouldn't be hear, but when we actually look at the rosters, stripped of the idea that other teams gave up on them, they aren't all too bad. They have a bunch of 2nd and 3rd liners, second and third pairing defensemen, and a goalie who can play as well as any when healthy. They may not have the roster of a Stanley Cup Champion, but if you took this exact roster, put them on Carolina before the season, no one would have been surprised if they snuck into the playoffs.

But this isn't that. They are an expansion team, and generally expansion teams have been disasters over the years, some of teh worst teams in teh history of the sport. For some reason, despite the expansion draft rules being more liberal than usual, people expected that. Here's my main test for why I actually think you could dhave predicted the Knights to be decent (key word: decent, not great) before the season: most hardcore NHL fans had probably heard of most of their players before teh season started. That just wasn;t true of previous expansion teams.

Whether you think the rise of the Knights is deserved or not, we have to admit it is a great story that is great for hockey. They have shown hockey can work in Vegas, pro sports can work. They have a real fanbase, not an arena full of traveling fans and gamblers getting comped tickets. From the start of the season, they had a special home atmosphere, great crowds, as loud as any. This has only ramped up in the playoffs, with amazingly, intricate pregame plays, little Medieval Times skits on ice, that somehow work perfectly in Vegas. The NHL got a nice first mover advantage coming into Vegas, and have hit a home run,

From teh time they dominated the LA Kings, sweeping them limiting the Kings to three goals in teh four games, we should have seen this as possible. It is surprising how easily they turned aside the Jets, but again not so expected if we take the Knights as the team they were, not the team many, if not all, thought they would be.

The Knights may win a Cup in their inaugaral season. Yes, it is true their fans don't "deserve" it in teh sense of not having suffered, not having faced the pains and misery of, say, the Capitals fans, or even the Jets fans, who have lived through seeing a team stripped away from them. But really, who cares? There is no "deserved" in sports. Sure, it is nice when long suffering fans get their due, but you can also say in a sport that has seen quite a few franchises struggle, at times putting the viability of the league at risk or at least under question, it may be good to have their newest fanbase get invested early.

There are so many incredible aspects to the rise of the Knights, from the silly trades that created this team, most notably the Panthers giving up two members of their top line. The Knights also gave us the rebirth of Marc Andre Fleury, of coach Garrard Gallant who was literally kicked off the team bus in Florida when being fired. It also is a great way to snipe back at the numerous media members that derided the fact Vegas was getting a team in the first place. So much criticism was levied on the NHL, and they've proven everyone wrong.

True great sport Cinderella stories are so rare. We had one even greater two years ago when Leicester City won the Premier League. But this might be the most incredible story in US major sports, at least in my lifetime, but again, when you strip away the noise coming into the start of the year, the Knights have proven themselves over and over again this year.

And to that end, I say we stop worrying what this says about the NHL, about if the expansion draft was rigged to create a monster (it wasn't), if anyone could have predicted this (again, predicting they would be a bubble team would not have been farfetched). Let's just bask in how great hockey has been in Vegas, that we get at least two more drawn out pre-game plays. We'll worry if this is sustanable later, or if the future Seattle team can replicate this success, but for now, just enjoy it; enjoy watching a team of cast-offs, a team of "C" to "B" players make work in the world's best playoff tournament.

Monday, May 14, 2018

My Top 12 US & Canada Cities

This is list was spurred because during this past weekend when I met 7 childhood friends for a bachelor party in Montreal, I was asked where Montreal would rank on my list of favorite cities if it was eligible. In truth, quite high! But then I got thinking, there are some great cities in the USA and Canada if we expand it. Maybe not the 40 I've listed for the non-US/Canada world, but a fair good amount. I did want to rank them, but there are two huge caveats; first is the surprisingly long list of US touchstones I either haven't visited or visited many years ago; second the cities that I've lived in, or visited too often to really be able to accurately judge.

Not eligible becuase I live too close / can't speak to as a tourist attraction: New York City (obviously would be really high), The entire rest of the Northeast Corridor (Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Washington), Jacksonville, Houston, Grand Rapids, Horsham, (those last two are just there for fun - random client locations, obviously had no chance to be on this list unless I went 200 deep).

Other cities that I understand are quite good but have never visited to date, or visited long enough ago I don't really remember it: Seattle, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, St. Louis, New Orleans, Las Vegas, Charlotte, Memphis, Albuquerque, Boise, Honolulu, etc.

12.) Atlanta (2017)

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I went to Atlanta once, on a bachelor party of a family friend. It was a great time, and sure it may be hard to separate the city from the bachelor party-ness of it all (a good one is about as good a long weekend as possible), but the city itself seemed like a better, not as hot, Dallas. Really nice restaurants featuring southern cooking. We ventured out to a couple nice suburbs for meals as well. Of course, there are a few aspects of the city that make it a particularly apt Bachelor Party spot - some that are basically cultural mileposts. Won't say more. The only thing keeping it from being higher is the lack of historical importance and natural beauty; most of the cities on the list have one or the other.

11.) Orlando (1998, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2009, 2016)

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Removing Disney and Universal, Orlando wouldn't be anywhere close to this. I have visited Orlando a couple times without really touching either park system and found it decent, with good shopping and decent restuarants/bars. But we can't just ignore that those two monster park systems, in Disney's case, a literal city. Those parks to have some magic to them, changing enough each half decade to not get fully old (haven't really visited any since 2009). Disney is quite a bit magical, and despite the cost, the crowds, it is one of the world's best destinations.

10.) Austin (2002, 2016)

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May seem low, but that more speaks to the strengths of the cities above it, which include truly unique factors, great restaurant & beer cultures, and/or historical relevance. Austin has some of these things, if not all, but not at the high degree of some of the others. The best aspects probably are the barbecue and live music, but there's other cities that do each, if not both in one case, at a reasonably good level as well, without the added heat and sprawl. Either way, Austin is a fantastic city, but is starting to get slightly too popular and slightly overcrowded to add to the fact that American does indeed have a lot of great cities.

9.) Calgary (2005)

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The first time I did my International Cities list, I had Goa (admittedly, a state, not a city) ranked at #6 (out of 25). I realize that was dumb, but I had a great experience, a semi-idyllic trip. This very well could be the same thing, given my last trip was so long ago. There is a few standout features for Calgary. First is its proximity to Banff National Park (90 minutes away), a stunning Natural Park that puts most US-based ones to shame. Second is their meat, from Reindeer to Beef. Third comes from what I've read, which is an surprisingly excellent music & drinks scene that has grown rapidly in this outpost - obviously something I would not have experienced last time. I do want to make another trip to assess this initial view, but given Banff is included in Calgary's oeuvre for me, it will be hard to fall too much further than this.

8.) San Francisco (1999, 2008, 2014, 2017)

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San Francisco actually somewhat proves my point about Calgary maybe needing another go. Had I not spent a long weekend there in November, it would likely be higher, but there is a couple glaring issues I found this time around, mainly the almost unimaginable homeless problem driven mostly by opiods and drugs. There are streets deep inside SF's main area that are basically unwalkable. It disfigures what is a great city outside of that, with incredible food, a world-class art and drinks culture, good museums, great sightlines and parks, and so much more. The only other negative to me might be the price, which is somewhat unescapable. Either way, San Francisco has a few black marks on it that hurt it from being a truly brilliant city..

7.) Portland (2017)

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I went to Portland three weeks before I went to San Francisco in 2017, and found it quite a bit better. They are similar in some ways, but Portland is cheaper, with the same asian influences. Also in Portland's favor is a truly astounding craft beer culture, and great food all around, from Pok Pok's wings, to incredible biscuit sandwhiches. You also get some beautiful, remote, scenery in teh 1-2 hour perimiter of the city, from the Mt. Hood region to the East and the Tillamook Forest to the West. It's a truly beautiful city with a great sense of what it is; one of the few cities in America that define everything that a unique American city should have.

6.) Chicago (1998, 2001, 2005, 2015)

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I need to go to Chicago again, because while I did go for three days in 2015, that wasn't a long enough trip to formulate a changed opinion. My memories of Chicago are more from childhood, where I remember it being somewhat a perfect American city. They have arguably the best collection of museums of any American city. They have a beach. They have incredible sports to witness, including a cathedral that is Wrigley Field. I'm sure they have food and great bars and all the rest as well. The largest four cities in the country for as long as I can remember have been NYC, LA, Chicago and Houston (just city, not metro area), and Chicago seems the least like a true sprawling Metropolis.

5.) San Diego (1999, 2017)

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We all get the jokes about San Diego, the perfect weather, the laissaz faire attitude that made a whole community do a shrug emoji when they lost their football team. The perfect nature of the city. All of it. It is all true, because we are all just jealous that a city with a perfect year-round climate was made and we don't all live there. I went in March, it was 70 each day and sunny. The city has history, with old churches and military history like the aircraft carrier musuem. It has great food - including multiple great restaurants lining the Gaslamp district. There is a great beer culture highlighted by two of the most successful craft breweries in the US in Ballast Point and Stone. And of course there are some great hiking trails and parks and sports. The city is a perfect place to live, but it isn't too bad to visit either.

4.) Toronto (2008, 2016, 2017)

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I almost put The Six in the groups of cities that I can't rank as I did a project in a suburb for four months, close enough to go into the city many times, but I liked it too much to keep it out. Toronto is great, easily the best (NY excluded) mega-tropolis I've been to in the US. The positives in Toronto are endless, from the CN Tower, to the Island, to the bevy of incredible food options, and neighborhoods from Downtown, to the Distellery District, to Yorkville, to so many others. The food is great. The beer is great. The bars are great. The city is large but never has the traffic or urban sprawl problems that other huge USA cities have to deal with. Toronto also has a great comedy and music since (Drake aside), and has as much culture of its US counterparts. It's a lot larger than people realize, and still has all the cultural charms of the secondary cities, A rare combination.

3.) Nashville (2016, 2017)

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Live music has many homes within the US, but I would argue none touches Nashville, from mainstream spots like the Grand Ole Opry or Bluebird Cafe, to the many great spots that litter Broadway on both sides, to even the others that espouse Rock and Blues. Nashville owns all cities I've been to when looking at music. Of course, that isn't where Nashville's positives ends. There are great restaurants, from BBQ to hot chicken, to a truly special burger place in Pharmacy Burger. The cities' increasingly built up outskirts push the number of restaurants and bars even further higher, The city, nestled nicely in the Appalachian plateau's even rarely gets too hot. What a great slice of Americana.

2.) Denver (2015, 2017)

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Honestly, Denver and Nashville are almost tied in my book, easily my favorite US cities that I've visited. Denver has the same cultural niceties of Nashville - incredible restaurants, great bars, a great low-key vibe. Nashville has the music, Denver has the incredible sceney with Rocky Mountain National Park, and stunning view after stunning view, an hour away. The Rocky Mountains truly are a staggering sight that Denver probably gets undue credit for, the major city with the closest ties to America's great mountains. The city has a great feeling inside, a growing city that has so much room to expand I can't foresee it ever getting too crowded. Denver is a special, somewhat untouched place that I truly need to go back to.

1.) Montreal (many, many, many times)

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Yes, I've been to Montreal a lot, mostly during its annual Jazz Festival it hosts in the Place des Artes area - a tremendously run festival visited by millions. But even outside the festival, Montreal is an amazing city. It has sites, from Mont Royal to the various churches and buildings, to the Old Town,. It has incredible food, from French Canadian staples to world known Smoked Meat. It has a great bar culture, with some great breweries. It has live music even when you remove the Jazz Festival. It has great parks and open streets and little crowding, and crepes, and everything else. Having such a seemingly foreign city, where French reigns supreme, so close to home is fantastic, and i'm blessed to be able to visit it somewhat-annually.

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Conference Finals Picks

Was at a bachelor party in Montreal so forgot to actually post these:

Eastern Conference: (A1) Tampa Bay  over  (M1) Washington Capitals in 6

Western Conference: (C2) Winnipeg Jets  over  (P1) Vegas Golden Knights in 7

Monday, May 7, 2018

On the Caps and never tearing it apart

I've been a hardcore sports fan for about 15 years or so. Things that happened 10 years ago seem like recent in my mind, but were a good decade ago. 10 years is forever in the sports world. A lot of teams fully change over their rosters. 10 years ago, the Washington Capitals made the playoffs for the first time in the Alex Ovechkin era.

10 years later, Ovechkin is still there (and still great, leading the NHL in goals). So is Nicklas Backstrom. So is John Carlson. A few others have been mainstays since at least 2012 - Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jay Bragle, Braden Holtby. The Capitals avoided many opportunities to tear down teh core, to give up in the face of painful playoff defeat after defeat. They didn't. 10 years later, they finally made a Conference Final, they finally beat the Penguins.

Now, before I start getting too poetic about patience for the Capitals paying off, there is a better than 50% chance they lose in the round to come, to a healthy, awesome Tampa team that just brushed aside a 112-point Boston team like a small gnat flying to close to the sun. But still, this is a historic night, more than anything because it will keep the Capitals from doing anything rash this offseason.

The Capitals list of playoff failures reads like a litany of escalating horrors. In the early, Bruce Boudrea era, they lost in seven to the Flyers in 2008. They lost to the Penguins in 7 in 2009 - getting blown out in Game 7 at home. In 2010, they were dominant, a 300-goal scoring team (the last team to do it), and lost because Jaroslav Halak stood on his head (he beat the Penguins in 7 in the next round). In 2011, they got swept by Tampa Bay, a Tampa team nowhere near as good as the one they are about to face.

That was three head coaches ago.

A seven game loss in 2012 to the Rangers followed, but if anything that was a sign of progress. They had beaten the defending Champion Bruins in 7 in the first round. In 2013, they lost to the Rangers in 7. In 2015, they lost to the Rangers in 7. That lead to the firing of Adam Oates, and the final chapter, the final push.

The last two years, the Capitals were the best team in the NHL in the regular season each year. 120 points in 2015-16, 118 points in 2016-17, with better underlying stats. Each year, they lost to Pittsburgh in the second round. Each year the Penguins, with their Brady to Ovechkin's Manning, their Messi to Ovechkin's Ronaldo, won the Cup. In '15-'16, they traded for TJ Oshie, a seemingly all-in move. In 2016-17, they traded for Kevin Shattenkirk, a truly all-in move. Everyone said it at the time, that they have pushed every chip in with a number of impending UFAs (including Shattenkirk). Of course, the year after, it all finally worked.

Teams have for so long been told to give up, to tear it down, to accept failure and change course to try to best it. A few times, teams decided not to take the advice, and after everyone assumed their day had passed, it finally happened for them. The 2011 Mavericks are probably the greatest example. A 50-win team from 2000 onwards, they never bested the Spurs or Lakers or Suns, except the one time they did all of that and got Dwayne Waded. They finally somehow put it all together in 2011 and stunned the Heatles. They are the NBA's textbook example of not tearing apart - something the Raptors may hold their hat on as they are about to be swept by teh Cavaliers during their greatest season of their franchise's history.

In hockey, we saw it two years ago, with the Sharks, a team that in their modern form first broke out with a trip to the Conference Finals in 2004, making the Stanley Cup Finals in 2016, a good six years after getting the top seed in the East, a good two years after blowing a 3-0 series lead to the LA Kings. They didn't win the title, but for their Ovie in Joe Thornton, making it was good enough.

The Capitals may be the best example yet. For yeras, people wanted someone to be traded, someone to be shipped away, something to change. The few times they tried to change, it was disastrous. They notably tried to change their style after the Halak-ing, going with a more defensive-heavy style that made Alex Ovechkin into a morose genius trapped in a system that didn't care for his abilities.

They tried bringing in hired hands. They tried getting big physical 4th liners. They tried it all, and it never worked. They at least found a goalie in 2012 with Braden Holtby, but even then Holtby had a habit of giving up exactly two goals a game, seemingly never pitching a shutout when needed most.

None of that matters now. They did it. They took down the Penguins. They did so despite blowing a 2-0 Game 1 lead in the 3rd period - including giving up the winner to Sidney Crosby. No, they pitched their own comebacks in Game 3, won by Alex Ovechkin, always a far better playoff performer than given credit for, and Game 5. They closed out the series in OT.

Ironically, if any team could give the Capitals inspiration, it is the one who they finally bested. Before two years ago, the Penguins were the Capitals, albeit with a Cup - but for Crosby just the one Cup wasn't really good enough. The Penguins also had notable embarrassing flameouts since their 2009 Cup win. The 2010 loss to Montreal & Halak, the 2012 loss to the Flyers where they all collectively lost their minds and Fleury went to hell. And the worst was to come.

In 2013, the Bruins humiliated them in a sweep in the Conference Finals. In 2014, they blew a 3-1 lead to the Rangers. In 2015, they lost in 5 to the Rangers - a clear team in decline. And then viola, they win two straight Cups and Crosby and Co. solidified their playoff bonafides for life.

We don't know where this season will end for the Capitals. Likely, it will end without a Cup, whether it is to a dominant Lightning team, or one of the three great teams still alive out West. But even then they shouldn't tear it apart. Despite many teams in hockey being able to sustain many years of competitiveness, the relative order of those teams is highly variable, the Capitals being a slightly down 103 point team this year doesn't preclude them from being a dominant 115 point team next year. There is always another shot, and if the Capitals proved anything this time around, it is that they can be different, they can play up in the playoffs, and that there is no risk, no shame in trying it one more time.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Real Madrid and Suffering

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Like with so many other post-game conferences, the key word out of Zinedine Zidane's mouth after the game, repeated multiple times, was 'suffer'. Real Madrid as they have so many times to date, had to suffer again, dramatically staving away a desperate Bayern Munich team, down to the very last second, as a the final kick of the game just eluded a lunging Thomas Muller. Madrid did it, making a 3rd consecutive Champions League Final, a game away from winning three in a row. Until last year, no one had won two in a row. Still, though, people are trying to minimize just how special this is, because of how many times Madrid had to 'suffer', but that is just the reason why they are special in the first place.

The top teams don't suffer often, usually they are the ones who force others to suffer, and we laud those other teams when it happens. We laud Chelsea for bravely going into the Camp Nou in 2012 and beating Barcelona despite Barcelona having oodles of chances and Messi missing a penalty. We should laud them. Just like we should laud Real Madrid for doing the same against Bayern Munich, for taking their chances when presented, for seamlessly playing out an away win at the Allianz with a winger playing left back in Lucas Vazquez. For Karim Benzema pushing aside jeers that have faced him all season to score two huge goals.

This Madrid three year run has been strange. Two years ago, they truly suffered on their way to the title, maybe the least impressive large club to ever do it. They lost 0-2 in the first leg of the Quarterfinals against Wolfsburg, needed a Cristiano miracle hat-trick to save them. They beat a good but not great Man City team 1-0 in the semifinals over two dour legs. They needed penalties to beat Atletico Madrid in the final.

Last year was different. They won all their ties. They struggled a bit against Bayern Munich in the quarterfinals, but missed as many chances as Bayern did across 180 even minutes, and ran away 3-0 in the 30 minutes of extra time. They raced Atletico Madrid, and smashed Juventus 4-1 in the final. That was a truly great Champion.

This year is a weird dichotomy, getting the insults of 'not deserving to win' like the 2016 unit despite having one of the hardest run to the Final we've seen. They beat France Champion PSG 6-2 across two legs. Then beat the likely Italian champions and easy German champions, winning both of the away legs. It's so interesting actually. Madrid is setting history despite holding on and barely winning. They are the first team ever to win the away leg in each of their knockout ties, and they did it fairly impressively each time. They held off barely against Juventus and Bayern Munich.

On the whole, we can find fault in their quality of play. We can say Bayern outplayed them but wasted chance after chance. We can say they nearly blew it against Juventus. We can say all of that, but at the end we have to call them as resilient, a team that fights in a way other high-priced, high-fame superteams just do not. They never have a truly awful game, like Barca did this year to Roma, or last year to Juve. They never give up. They track back - Ronaldo was a monster in that effort. They've done this without really signing any big-name players the last few years. Zidane has setadfastly said he has a team that is good enough; that he doesn't need new players, and they've paid him back.

Real Madrid had a terrible year in La Liga by their standards (though by expected goals they have performed about as good as Barca, just not as clinical in scoring - the one claim everyone has tagged on Madrid's opponents in the Champions League). But they have the Champions League, their competition. They've mastered this competition by being able to play the underdog, the sufferer, and when you combine that with a team good enough to play the dominant force, you get something special.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Nostalgia Diaries, Pt. 12: 2005 NLCS, Game 5-6

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It was the worst of times. It was the best of times. I'll try not to be as cliched again going forward.

The Houston Astros, before they moved to the AL, before they tanked, before they came out of the tank with a loaded tema that would win the World Series, were a little lunch-pail and hard-hats team, destined to take on the evil Cardinals, the closest thing to the NL version of the Yankees. The Astros back then were everything, pitching, defense, craziness. It was a fascinating season, 2005 was, culminating in the second straight NLCS against the Cardinals. The Astros were the Wild Card team each time, surviving crazy odds each time to get there - a 56-60 start in 2004 followed by a 36-10 spring to the finish, and a 15-30 start in 2005 followed by a 74-43 end. But even if their credentials were iffy, they were the second best NL team. The matchup against St. Louis was destined.

In 2004, right ripped our hearts out. It was a fascinating series filled with ridiculous offense, few real pitching performances, Game 5 excepted, when Brandon Backe and Woody Williams engaged in a pitchers duel, finally ended by a Jeff Kent three run home run to take a 3-2 lead in the series. The Astros then blew Game 6, with Jim Edmonds hitting a titanic walk-off into the nth deck of that cookie cutter piece of shit Busch Stadium. In Game 7, the Astros took an early lead - Craig Biggio hit a leadoff home run, before the Cardinals made their rally on Roger Clemens, ending with a Scott Rolen home run. That Cardinals team, regardless of the Red Sox sweeping the floor with them in the World Series, were scary; 105 wins scary; the most wins of any team since the 2001 Mariners (still until today) scary.

In 2005, they were 101 wins scary, but the Astros were Clemens with a 1.83 ERA, Pettitte with a 2.39 ERA, and Oswalt with a 2.83 ERA scary. It was a great battle, and it culminated in two games that endeared me to the Astros, and to the whims of beautiful baseball for life.

Both games were watched from my basement, staying up dangerously close to what had become a loosely enforced 'bed-time'. The TV in my basement was tiny, was not HD, had no DVR. I had to sit through a million different Chevy commercials. I had to sit through inning after inning needing Joe Buck and Tim McCarver to inform me on what is going on because it was too hard to see for myself. My basement is a hollow place. unfinished with exposed cement and wood. But for so many nights it was my place, my home inside my home, where I watched so many sporting moments. Few connected or remained with me like the end of the Astros pennant winning run.

Prior to Game 5, the Astros lost Game 1 with Clemens, before Oswalt pitched a gem in Busch stadium. They won Game 3, and then won Game 4 behind an audacious double-play to end the game with runners on first and third. Literally, when the ball was hit as a slow grounder to short-stop Adam Everett, Joe Buck said 'they're not going to be able to turn two', right before they did turn two. That all led to Game 5.

The Astros Game 5 was their chance to clinch in Houston, in front of a truly raucous Minute Maid Park. It has become cliche, especially after the shenanigans pulled by the Seahawks, extolling the loudness of a stadium has become passe, but truly Minute Maid Park was ridiculous in those days. It was at its most ridiculous when Lance Berkman hit a Crawford Boxes special to take a 4-2 lead in the 7th inning. It was truly a line drive the other way, a ridiculous home run, one that would be well placed in the World Series of Home Runs twelve years later.

From that point, we counted down the outs, and more importantly, counted down the batters before Albert Pujols would have to bat again.

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I don't think I've ever feared an opposing player more than Pujols. The way he stood in the box, bat metronomically going up and down in perfect motion. It seemed like there was no way to get him out, no way to actually win against him. No Astros fan wanted any part of him, and entering the 9th  inning, two men had to reach base for him to bat, the exact amount of people needed on base to have him hit a home run so loud, so well struck, so majestic, it shut up the most raucous crowd ever.

Two days later, I knew it was over, able to relax my hands and relieve my fingernails, when in the first inning, Roy Oswalt made Albert Pujols fall down swinging at a 'challenge-me' fastball up and in. The first inning was over. The Cardinals were over. Busch Stadium was no more. I've never felt more confident when my personal favorite player managed to make the robot of death in Pujols look amateurish.

The real nostalgia here is that 46 hout period in between Pujols home run to silence a city, and his strikeout to wake it back up. Nervousness in sports is natural, but it wasn't really present in my life until those two days. I had invested a lot in the Astros 2005 season. Obviously, the scars of 2004, my first year really following them day-to-day, was a fresh wound, made deeper by Carlos Beltran holding the Astros hostage before snaking his way to the Mets. Making it worse was the fact Lance Berkman tore his ACL in November, 2004, and only made it back in May. But that team battled.

It was Morgan Ensberg making a career out of nothing. It was the ridiculous season by Clemens, that 1.83 ERA still seeming unreal. It was Pettitte's equally great year. It was Willy Taveras, Beltran's 'replacement' become a speed demon. 15-30 start aside, that was a fascinating, fun team. And nothing meant more to me than seeing them make a World Series.

Game 6 was a whirlwind, I remember little apart from the Pujols strikeout, and Roy Oswalt dealing. My only other real memory was after one inning, after Oswalt shut down the Cardinals again, FOX cut to commercial playing Tom Petty's 'Won't Back Down'. It was perfect - not that I knew Tom Petty at the time; pretty sure I went straight to Kazaa or LimeWire or whatever was the Napster-du-jour in 2005 and downloaded it. That song was a perfect choice. This was the Astros time.

I was so nervous before that game, but so calm during, and so joyous after. Not only did they win, Roy Oswalt, that small, fiery, Mississippi-boy, was named NLCS MVP, an award that also gifted him a giant tractor from Astros owner Drayton McLane. Bagwell and Biggio finally made a World Series. The State of Texas finally made a World Series. It was perfect, even if at so many times it felt so far away.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs - 2nd Round Picks

Ok, that first round wasn't great. A lot of blowout games. Only four series got to a Game 6, and only one got to a Game 7, which saw that effing Boston team rip the hearts out of Toronto again. That all said, the first round fun died so all of us could enjoy what looks to be a great second round. Only one lower seed team won, the Sharks. We have what looks like four great series on paper.

Metro Division Title

(M1) Washington Capitals  vs.  (M2) Pittsburgh Penguins

State of the Teams: Well, well, well, we got round 3. It almost seems pre-ordained. The rest of the Metro helped out this year by not being as good as last year. The Caps got their first round scare, just like they did the last two years. The Penguins got there easily - just like the last two years. Anyway, for the first time, the Caps probably don't have expecatations. They are healthy, they are under the radar somewhat - not the President's Winner, just an ordinary good team. Might be nice to have a good Nicklas Backstrom in the playoffs for once as well. The Penguins? Well, they're here, ut they shouldn't have needed such lengths to beat the Flyers. The usuals were all great, but the defense was a disaster, and Matt Murray had by far the worst playoff series of his career. This will be a step up. the Capitals may be many things, but a defensive sieve like Philly is not one of them.

The Matchup: Call me simplistic, but I do think the series comes down to which of the two usually great goalies finds their game. Braden Holtby in theory came in and saved the day, but he too let in more soft goals than usual. I touched on Murray above. The teams themselves are fairly well matched, with the Pens offensive depth matched by the solid D of the Caps. The Capitals PP is great as always, and having a Backstrom with a pulse is a nice help this time. The Penguins penalty kill has to really step it up. We can say the Pens have the mental edge, but I do sense a more carefree attitude with this Capitals team, not having the pressure of a President's Trophy, and many pundits actually buying in that this year is their year.

The Pick: Call me crazy, call me stupid, I like the Caps. It has to happen this way, right? The year after they pulled all their chips in. Capitals in 7

Atlantic Division Title

(A1) Tampa Bay Lightning  vs.  (A2) Boston Bruins

State of the Teams: The Lightning were the league's best team of the first half. Then struggled for a few months, including their previously Vezina-capable goalie going to shit. The Bruins were not hte team of the second half (that was Nashville), but they were the East's version. They ended the season one point apart. That one point was game #81 for both teams, one that might end up really telling - the Lightning hammered Boston, held onto the division, and seem to have catapulted from that moment. Vasilevsky found his form. The top guys all were great. JT Miller has been incredible on tha tline. Victor Hedman hasn't even broken out offensively yet - though he was incredible on defense. Alternatively, the Bruins nearly blew a 3-1 series lead, and Tukka Rask seemed eminently beatable. For all the momentum the Bruins gained in the second half, two weeks of playoffs, including a nice extended break for Tampa, seemed to reverse it all.

The Matchup: The Bruins were arguably the surprise of the league, rising from wild card fodder to a dominant team, but the glass slipper seemed to come off late in the year as they blew the Atlantic Division, and then nearly lost to Toronto. They also just don't match up well. Their lack of team speed will be sorely exposed, and while they have a slight size advantage, the Lightning have done well to bulk up - having Thor Himself in Hedman helps. The Lightning cleaned up a lot of their defensive issues, and have mutiple active lines they can throw at the Bruins depth that usually gives Boston an edge - not here.

The Pick: I would like to pick Tampa in 5 - first of all, far enjoy their game to Boston, but the Bruins are too good to go away that easily. Still, the Lightning seemed to correct their ills late in the season, and if Vasilevsky continues the strong play this seems rather easy. Lightning in 6

Central Division Title

(C1) Nashville Predators  vs.  (C2) Winnipeg Jets

The State of the Teams: This is the matchup every hockey purist has been waiting for. Two excellent teams two fun teams; two great crowds; two great atmospheres. i want this series to go 11 games. I don't want either to lose. I'll join the chorus of people claiming this is the real Western Conference Finals. I want all of it. The Jets were great in the first round, and got their feet wet in the process. Laine was great, as always, but the real revelation was how much their defense controlled the pace. The Preds were actually a little disappointing, getting more issues from Colorado than what was called for. That said, the defense is still amazing, the offense is still incredibly deep - though it would be good if Kyle Turris steps up. ''

The Matchup: Again, hard to really break this down. Both teams are great. Winnipeg's offense is slightly better. Nashville's D and goalie are slightly better - though Rinne has a habit of "tiring" late in the season. The Jets power play is incredible, and the Panthers took a few too many penalties in the first round, so that scares me, I do think though that defense does more often than not win out here, and the incredible puck possession of Nashville's D can do wonders against a team that doesn't push as much as normal.

The Pick: I'm going to pick this to go seven - only partially because I want it to go seven. Nashville I think is slightly better, slightly more safe at back and in net (hard to fully trust Holleybuck - no matter how good he's been this year). Predators in 7

Pacific Division Title

(P1) Vegas Golden Knights  vs.  (P3) San Jose Sharks

The State of the Teams: Oh, Golden Knights. How is this still happening? Actually, it is happening because that team is fairly good. They can roll four lines, have six adequate D-men, if no true star, and a healthy, locked-in Marc Andre Fleury. Honestly, they are a very good team. For the Sharks, it truly is commendable how well they've done to pivot away from the Thornton / Marleau era, and doing it by not just giving the reins to Couture and Pavelski - instead bringing in guys like Evander Kane, who was great. The blue-line has always been nice, and if they get Thornton back they can really start cooking.

The Matchup: Speed often wins in the playoffs, but there is no real difference here. The Sharks have more 'experience', but then again they too are a fairly young team. I give an edge to the Sharks because I just can't imagine an expansion team making hockey's final four in their first season, but there's really no specific reason to think they can't do it. Call it trust. Call it East Coast bias with me not really having a good opinion on either team. I just think the biggest edge the Knights had in the first round was overall speed which will not be a real edge against San Jose.

The Pick: Sharks in 6

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Rafa on Clay

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10 years ago, Rafael Nadal won his 4th French Open, and did so in a run that was almost comical in its ease. He beat three-time slam quarterfinalist Jarkko Nieminen 6-1 6-3 6-1 in the third round. Then two-time slam Semifinalist Fernando Verdasco 6-1 6-0 6-2 in the round of 16. He then schooled four time slam quarterfinalist Nicolas Almagro 6-1 6-1 6-1 in the quarters. Finally, he got "pushed" in the semis by a man named Novak Djokovic 6-4 6-2 7-6. he ended his campaign humiliating Roger Federer 6-1 6-0 6-3. He ran away with the French Open. At that point, we all realized he was truly the best Clay Court player ever. The only question would be would his grinding, matador style burn him too quickly, and that chances were he would burn out at some point.

10 years later, Rafael Nadal is #1 in the world, and not only that, he's set do make a mockery of the clay court season again. He won his 11th Monaco Masters series title, winning all 10 sets he's played (he's won 38 striaght sets on clay - including all 21 he played in last year's French Open). The closest anyone got to him was 6-4. He embarrased multiple top players. He;s set to do the same at Barcelona - he's going for his 11th title there too. He'll likely add a trifecta of 11th titles in six weeks at the French Open. There is no real end in sight.

Rafael Nadal on clay is not real. The most incredible part is that he was the best clay court player we've ever seen twelve years ago, changed a lot of his game, and is still the best clay court player, if not an even better one. A lot has been mentioned about his transition to being more of an all court player, one that has afforded him six slams on non-clay surfaces (and seven more finals). He hits harder, plays more offensive, doesn't gallop around the court like some horse or jackrabbit, running down balls and attempting impossible shots. Doesn't matter. He's still humorously better than anyone else on clay.

It is so incredible that he is still doing this when he is about to turn 32. The one failing of Rafa in his prime was always that the way he played would inevitably lead to an early demise. And to some degree that happened. Following his 2014 French Open win, he spent a good two years either injured and missing, or hurt and a shell of his former self. He openly struggled with confidence, dropping five-setters left and right against worse players. He lost easily to Novak Djokovic at the 2015 French Open. Hard to remember that ever happened - in large part to what's become of both players.

Nadal is not only better now than he was three years ago, he's the last one left (robot Federer aside), He always seeemed more elderly than the one year that separates him with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, but given the latter two's injury concerns, and Rafa turning aside 'next-gen' players like small speed-bumps in his path, its weird to think of Nadal as the older one.

There has never been a marriage of surface to player like this. Forget the 11 wins at Monaco, or the 10 at Barcelona and the French Open; or the fact that he's had five different instances of winning 30+ straight sets on clay, three times winning the French without dropping a set. Even if you expand past tennis, it is hard to find a case in a major sport of a player so thoroughly dominating one aspect of the sport - the closest in recent years seems to be Cristiano in the Champions League, but we can have that comparison if CR7 is doing this in 2025.

At some point this will end. Though you do get the sense Rafa can do a reverse Federer and only play the Clay Season and succeed until he's 38. When he does, we'll probably lose all perspective on what a clay court specialist is like. We'll never know again, because Rafa has completely skewed that perception.

Watching Nadal on clay has been one of the sports joys of my life. The way he effortlessly slides on that surface. The way he does the impossible. The way he's used every inch of Court Philippe Chatrier to hit passing shots. The way he still seems enthralled with it all. These are his courts - literally in the case of the Barcelona tournament that named their main court after Nadal last year. This is his time. For someone who publicly admitted struggling with confidence, he suffers no shortage on clay recently, having joy in his preoardained romps.

Writing this may come back to haunt me. It will only take one bad day, or one tweak of a hip or wrist (like the one that knocked him out of the 2016 French open after dominating the first few rounds) to end his run at the French Open. But it is more about Nadal still doing this ten years later, still managing to own clay thirteen years into his career as a Top-2 player. Still at #1, and still at home on the red dirt.

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Nostalgia Diaries, Pt. 11 - The 2014 NBA Playoffs 1st Round (all of it)

If there is one downside to the rise of the Warriors (other than Kevin Durant going there), it is the end of the parity era of the NBA. The last great year of the NBA playoffs, aside from a few select series (the 2016 Western Conference Finals & NBA Finals, mainly), was 2014, when we had one of the great two week periods of basketball we've ever received, and I was seated deep in Queretaro, Mexico, to enjoy it all.

I still remember the day I was told I had to venture down to Mexico for a project. To be fair, I wasn't told; I was asked, with a full expectation that I was supposed to say yes. It was a pretty good posting for someone less than a year into the job, to go on a short term assignment in a foreign country for an office that was just beginning to grow. It was exciting. For someone who picked the job I did largely because I could travel, this is not onyl what I signed up for but what I wanted. Still, Mexico, with all its uncertainty, was not a destination I would have volunteered for.

Little did I know, Queretaro was a perfect little town, the posting offered me the opportunity to meet some incredible people, eat some incredible food, find a new favorite drink, and go to Mexico City a few times. Oh, and to watch some incredible basketball on some jacked-up semi-legal streaming service. I mean, that is what I signed up for.

The service was called XMBC, a weird streaming & hosting service that housed tons of 'channels' airing movies and shows on demand, and of course a few live TV options. This was before the days of Reddit's NBA Streams sub, or other services that were more above board. There were a few normal streaming sites I used when in college without cable services, but most of those had already started down the path of being infected with computer aids with endless ads. My second cousin had sold me on XMBC, something of a streaming all-in-one platform. Their sports streams were iffy at best. Each game had 4-5 links, one of which would be good. The WiFi alternated between spotty and perfect at the Hotel Real de Minas in the heart of Santiago de Quereatro. It was an interesting setting that would house my nightly routine.

A quick recap of what the NBA was like a scant four years ago, the postseason tournament that would end with the San Antonio Spurs unleashing three of the most perfect games of basketball than can be played. But a couple months before that basketball nirvana, the Spurs struggled through a 7-game series to put away the Mavericks. That series had everything, close games, patented Spurs blowouts, game winning shots by Vince Carter - a feat that seemed ridiculous given his age FOUR YEARS AGO. Including that Spurs series, there were five different series that went the full seven games. Three of them out West, with the one exception being the Blazers beating the Harden-led Rockets, a series that ended with a Dame Lillard series-winner as time expired in Game 6. It was madness. That whole first round was.

This was a time when the Thunder were in all their glory, but more than that the Grit 'N' Grind Grizzlies were too, and they played a fascinating 7-game series, somewhat marred by suspension to Zach Randolph keeping him out of Game 7. The Clippers and Warriors played a seven game series, the last time the Warriors would be anything other than prohibitive favorites - and it played out against the backdrop of the Donald Sterling scandal. It was a great time to be alive as an NBA fan. The styles were varied. No team had Rockets-ized and shot 40+ threes You had big post teams like the Blazers and Grizzlies, great passing teams like teh Warriors and Clippers, and whatever the hell the Thunder called their dual iso offense. It was magic.

It was nice that the Western Conference Playoffs were so fantastic, as being in Central Time Zone, the games were perfectly timed, starting anywhere between 8 and 9:30 local time, ending latest at 12:30. I used to watch them during dinner and after - the during being mostly the Eastern Conference (far less fun, with the two series that went the distance being the top-seed Pacers struggling against the Hawks, and the Nets beating the Raptors in their last moment of relevance). After used to be back at the Hotel Real de Minas, my home for two months, in their courtyard near the pool at the bar. I took my place at a table in a comfy chair, and ordered Alfonso XIII's while I fired up XMBC.

What is an Alfonso XIII (Trece)? It's a mixture of Kahlua, Evaporated Milk and Brandy, with one or two ice cubes. They were refreshing as hell. I swilled those down - telling the bartender to make it lighter than normal, as I was dug into my chair until the battery forced me back to my room. It was an ideal setting, the thin, cool Queretaro air making the evenings rather sweet.

The games made it even better - to be honest, I was watching the NHL playoffs at this time as well. Somehow, the internet at times was strong enough to do it simultaneously. But while the NHL playoffs were featuring the Sharks blowing a 0-3 lead to the Kings, the NBA playoffs featured close game after close game. The level of play was unreal. The competitiveness of the games was insane.

The Thunder and Grizzlies played a seven game war that featured four straight OT games in Games 2 through 5. The series was somewhat sullied by Zach Randolph's (deserved) suspension for punching Steven Adams forcing him to miss Game 7, but those four straight OT games, including final margins of 3, 3 and 1 on the last three, were enough to remember forever.

The Clippers Warriors series may be overshadowed by teh Sterling issue, or it being the last moments where the Warriors were mere mortals, coached by Mark Jackson, but it featured games that ended with margins of 4, 2, 1 and 5 - the last being a 126-121 Game 7 win that I can still remember to this day, a game filled with peerless execution by the Clippers during probably their best season in the CP3-Blake era.

Finally, the only West series not to go the full seven might have been the best, as it featured another three OT games in its six games, going the extra five in Game 1 (2 point Portland win), Game 3 (5 point Rockets win) and Game 4 (3 point Portland win). Of course, the series would end in the best game, with Dame Lillard hitting a series winning three as time expired to win Game 6 by one point, taking the Blazers to the second round.

The level of play was fantastic all around, about as good as those damn Alfonso XIII's. It may seem like my lasting memory from this project is the fact I got semi-buzzed nightly drinking a milk-based cocktail watching streamed basketball. Fear not, my real memories from Queretaro are the restaurants, including a Mexican Churascaria right next door, or the other really nice restaurant across the road. The other memories are the perfect little town center; the trips to Mexico City, which included a 2.5 hour bus-ride on the most comfortable bus I've ever been in. The fact I could also watch basketball semi-legally a country away was just an added bonus.

About Me

I am a man who will go by the moniker dmstorm22, or StormyD, but not really StormyD. I'll talk about sports, mainly football, sometimes TV, sometimes other random things, sometimes even bring out some lists (a lot, lot, lot of lists). Enjoy.