Joe Shlabotnik

I love underdogs in sports.

Hell, I even rooted for both the 1988 and 2021 Baltimore Orioles to just win a game when they eventually ended respective losing streaks of 21 and 19 games…even though if they had kept right on losing in either one of those seasons they could have possibly broken the record of the longest losing streak in major league baseball’s modern era…23 games by the Philadelphia Phillies.

I don’t like to see teams get embarrassed because as a fan I know full well what that feels like. I am a product of my environment, living in the suburbs of Philadelphia. All of our professional teams have a long, inglorious history of being quite far removed from championship glory.  Our current ledger looks like this:

Phillies – World Series Champions in 1980 and 2008. (131 seasons)

Eagles – Super Bowl Champions in 2017. NFL Champions in 1948, 1949, and 1960. (89 seasons)

Flyers – Stanley Cup Champions in 1973-74 and 1974-75. (54 seasons)

76ers – NBA Finals Champions in 1954-55 (as the Syracuse Nationals), 1966-67, and 1982-83. (73 seasons)

Which may be why I love Joe Shlabotnik. It’s usually this time of year – in the baseball dog days of August – when I most often think about Joe. For those who have not previously heard of Joe, he is a fictional baseball player featured in Charles M. Schulz’s classic Peanuts comic strip. He was Charlie Brown’s all-time favorite baseball player.

Charlie Brown worked endlessly to hunt down any and all memorabilia associated with Joe Shlabotnik. He once bought 500 one-card packs of baseball cards to try and get one card of Joe’s. While he wasn’t successful, his pal Lucy van Pelt bought only one pack and what-do-you-know…she was the proud owner of a Joe Shlabotnik baseball card. Unfortunately, Lucy then steadfastly refused to trade Joe’s card to Charlie Brown, even though she had no idea who Joe was. Once Charlie Brown exhausted himself trying to entice her to give up Joe’s card…she eventually decided he wasn’t quite as cute as first thought…and tossed the card into the trash.

Charlie Brown also once was under the impression he had a Joe Shlabotnik autographed baseball…which in fact turned out to be a forgery. But, it isn’t just Charlie Brown’s futility trying to get Joe Shlabotnik memorabilia that makes Joe an underdog for us all to root for. It is the “legendary” career of Joe Shlabotnik:

  1. Joe was demoted to the minor leagues after hitting .004 over an entire season. The one hit was a bloop single…with his team comfortably ahead.
  2. Joe once promised to hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning. He instead popped out…but circled the bases anyway.
  3. Joe had a knack for making routine fly balls into spectacular catches. He also had a talent for throwing out runners who had fallen between first and second base.
  4. Joe eventually retired as an active player and took a job managing the Waffletown Syrups. He was fired after one game when he called for a squeeze play…with no one on base.

Charlie Brown never got to meet Joe Shlabotnik. He bought tickets to a sports banquet where fans could dine with their favorite athletes…but Joe was the only athlete who didn’t show up. It turned out Joe had marked the wrong event, city AND date on his calendar. Joe was also invited to attend a testimonial dinner for Charlie Brown. He got lost on the way there.

Ironically, this might be one of the best pro sports years we’ve had in a while. The Phillies are competing down the stretch for a wild-card berth. The Eagles should be in the hunt for the post-season. The Sixers should be a lock for their post-season. The Flyers…they will likely have a season similar to the ones Joe Shlabotnik experienced. Not. Good.

In any case, thank you for allowing me to acknowledge Joe as one of my favorite characters in sports. When it feels like the pro athletes representing Philadelphia are performing poorly, I will think of Joe and realize they aren’t that bad.

 

Picture Courtesy United Feature Syndicate

Living In The Moment

I was cleaning off some excess grass from the lawn mower in the front yard a couple days ago when I saw a man and his dog walking on the other side of the street…headed in my direction. They were too far away to say hello, and I was headed back into the garage anyway to get some iced tea I had there.

It had been like mowing on the sun…should have just hired the landscaping crew who came to the door earlier (see above).

While I was in the garage cooling off, as this duo got closer I could hear the man singing to himself (or the dog?). He did not have ear buds or any player device – just him, his dog, and his song.  He was definitely enjoying his walk…this moment. However, his dog was periodically stopping to smell whatever dogs smell off to the sides of sidewalks. What struck me was how the man was singing his tune louder while the dog was walking ahead, but his song’s volume…and its progress…dropped off significantly every time the dog stopped.

I am confident in the brutal heat of the midday sun this man had forecasted to get back home sooner than later, but his dog clearly was operating on a different arrival schedule. I found it amusing how the loudness and pace of his song coincided with the forward movement of his dog. Yet, the man was so patient in ensuring the dog was safe at all times while “off-course,” and didn’t think to continue with either his desired decibel level or lyrical style until his dog was back in line and moving ahead.

I am positive I would never have noticed any of this if I hadn’t been actively trying to be in that moment. Over the last few years, I’m betting you have seen many self-help recommendations for all of us to try to live in the moment. Soak in as much of each day’s blessings as possible when we can find them…be aware of all of the sights, sounds, smells.

It has become a pet project of mine to consciously slow down, breathe, and try to appreciate special moments when I come across them. I don’t want to be as consumed with what is next on the to-do list, or worrying about what might or might not happen in the days ahead. For me, I have written my own healthy prescription to find, acknowledge and appreciate positive moments I come across daily.

Most definitely there are times we can’t possibly live within moments. Life comes at us with velocity, curves, and detours…quite unexpectedly at times. In those circumstances we have to look a bit ahead, look forward. Not just for ourselves, but sometimes for the benefit of others as well.

It was like the dog owner was doing just that, making sure both of them stayed together…living in their moment.

 

Picture Courtesy Universal Studios

Not A Dry Ice In The House

I once asked my wife to come up with a list of all the really dumb, idiotic, and stupid things I’ve done since she first met me.

That went on for a while.

For your amusement…a brief history of poor decision-making (in no particular order of stupidity):

The Tire

We got up one morning to find a car tire which was a little bit low on air. I eventually located the head of a small nail on the very edge of the tread. I insisted to my wife I could easily remove the nail, and the tire would be just fine until I could drive our vehicle to the shop. She protested, but to no avail.

A half-hour later, the spare tire had been installed and the now-completely-flat tire was resting in the trunk as I headed off for repairs.

The Ladder

I had the day off from work, but my wife did not. I really wanted to take a look at our gutter drains in one location to see if I could clean out some leaves before the next round of steady rain rolled in. I was confident there was some type of blockage up there. My wife insisted we should put it off until the end of the day so she could steady the ladder for me. I said I’d be just fine…not to worry…and off she went to work.

Later that morning, I exited the ladder from about a height of seventeen feet. Somehow, I was not injured. No, I didn’t tell her it happened when she got home…hell, I didn’t tell her for two years.

The Deck

We have lawn underneath our patio that requires mowing with a push mower. I needed to lower my head about a foot to avoid smacking it against the patio’s base. I insisted to my wife I’d always remember to avoid hitting my head with each pass.

At no point did I ever think I was going to black out, but it did leave a mark for a while…both times…OK, the two times she knows about.

The Cars

We had a horrible ice and snow storm one January. Our two automobiles were encased like fossils in the Ice Age. The morning the weather broke, I told my wife to stay warm inside while I ventured out in the tundra to clear them off. To expedite things, I used a snow brush from one of the cars to crack the ice off. Because it was quite cold, I decided to use the end of the scraper itself on the ice, not the brush.

Several friends felt we could go to insurance adjusters once we had our next hail storm, and they’d insure us for the dents on the hoods and trunks. Years later, the trade-in values reflected this morning in question.

The Codeine

I got so sick one day that by nightfall, my temperature was a robust 102. Fortunately, the doctor had evening hours that day and I was prescribed codeine syrup. I told my wife I was well aware of its effects, and if I had to get up in the middle of the night to use the facilities not to worry. I could certainly decide if I was OK to go to the bathroom.

She found me on the bathroom floor. She said she heard a thump – “did you fall?” I have tried to convince her ever since that night I simply got tired and decided to lay down. She remains to this day completely unconvinced.

The Movie

My wife wanted absolutely no parts of a movie called “Mortdecai.” She begged me to wait for it – if we had to see it at all – to come out on cable and didn’t want to spend any time and money on it at the theatre. I insisted we could both benefit from seeing what was promised to be a funny film.

We now have a name for the look my wife gives me when she’s thoroughly disgusted with me. It is known simply as the “Mortdecai Look.”

The Sticker

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania requires owners of vehicles to renew their registrations annually. This used to involve – after payment – sending a sticker to owners to affix to the license plate in question. One day I arrived home first, and got the mail. The sticker had arrived and I decided I could manage the simple task of making our car legal for the twelve months ahead.

We found out just how serious the Commonwealth was regarding making sure their stickers stayed put…as we tried in vain to remove the newly-arrived sticker…which I had put on the wrong car. Pennsylvania has since eliminated the sticker aspect of registration renewal, but there is no truth to the rumor my actions helped lead to discontinuing the sticker requirement.

The Face

We had a Zero Turning Radius mower. When we bought it, the advice was given to us not to operate it in wet conditions, especially on uneven terrain. After a light rain one afternoon, I insisted to my wife it would be OK to mow. Not agreeing with the decision, she grudgingly came outside to do some gardening.

When she got to the large rose bush I had skidded into at the edge of our driveway, I tried my level best to assure her I was OK…even though my face felt like half the skin was gone. She gave me a once-over from head to toe…and calmly stated, “You’ll be fine.” Two years later, she admitted she thought those cuts would never heal.

The Rose Bushes

We had a couple other, smaller rose bushes that resided happily side by side for years thanks to my wife’s loving care. She was working weekdays at the time. I was not. Fall was nearing conclusion, and the rose bushes needed their annual trim (a technique I later learned was called “deadheading”). She took great pains to train me on exactly what needed to be done, but still didn’t feel confident in letting me fly solo. I defended myself vigorously, assuring her the rose bushes were in good hands.

After arriving home and reviewing my work, she didn’t talk to me for a couple of days. Surprisingly, the rose bushes were not dead. I might as well have been.

The Dry Ice

My wife’s parents sent us a gift from Omaha Steaks one Christmas. We had never gotten anything from the company before, but were impressed how frozen the food was considering how far it had travelled. After we got everything out of the big styrofoam cooler, all that remained was a large packet of dry ice. I noticed the label said “Do Not Touch.” Moments later, when my wife said she wanted to keep the cooler, I reached in and attempted to take out the packet.

Medical professionals compare injuries like I sustained as similar to burns, and often require medical attention. Fortunately, I was able to peel both of my hands off the dry ice. My wife told me to get it out of the house so I wouldn’t injure myself further, suggesting maybe I put gloves on this time around.

If anybody can identify with these or similar incidents, please outline your experiences in the comments. It’s always nice to know you’re not the only one who has made a poor decision…or ten…in life.

 

Picture Courtesy iStock

Robust August

Seeing a rabbit in the front yard this morning…not unusual.

Seeing a rabbit in the front yard with geese marching down the street…this is unusual. The geese spend most of their day at the golf course next to our development. I can only assume air traffic control told them to land on an auxiliary runway…our street.

August has finally arrived. With it, the welcome return of all the Fall and Winter sports I love. I’m definitely Team Fall/Winter, so this month is the gateway to the time of year I enjoy the most.

And regular readers know no matter what month it is I love watching shows…here’s the line-up for August. Let me know if anything looks familiar or intriguing:

CURRENT REWATCHES (Started in July…)

On Syfy Channel…

Warehouse 13 (2009-2014) – Great cast (Eddie McClintock, Joanne Kelly, Saul Rubinek, Allison Scagliotti, Aaron Ashmore) and a very impressive list of guest stars. The network caught lightning in a bottle with this series, which they decided to rerun in its entirety starting last month.

The premise: Two Secret Service Agents are reassigned to a mysterious warehouse located in the middle of South Dakota that holds every artifact, relic, and object collected and stored by the U.S. Government.

The rewatch takeaway: It has been great seeing Warehouse 13 again, so much so if someone asked me for a viewing recommendation on a series which is no longer airing, this would be right up there.

The moment worth a mention: At the end of the first hour of a two-part Season 3 finale, there is a scene so hard-hitting and emotional it usually tops anyone’s list of memorable moments from this series. This scene also features a slower, stripped-down, piano-driven masterpiece of the Kate Bush song “Running Up That Hill,” which recently played a big part in Stranger Things Season 4. I am not exaggerating in saying the scene is one of the very best I’ve ever experienced on television. And if you admire that song, please do give the version by Track and Field a listen.

On Comet Channel…

The X-Files (1993-2002; 2016-2018) – David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson’s chemistry shined brightly in this series, which a lot of folks have on their All-Time Greatest TV Show lists.

The premise: Two FBI Special Agents investigate unexplained events and government conspiracies alike.

The rewatch takeaway: In general, the show holds up really well over all this time when it comes to the stand-alone, “monster-of-the-week” episodes. They feature some of the best acting, writing, and editing you’ll see. However, the recurring, overarching plots regarding government conspiracy and paranoia interrupts the momentum our dynamic duo creates when digging into the paranormal, the supernatural…the weirdness. Every time the “Cigarette Smoking Man” came on-screen, I didn’t feel engaged. I also grew weary of him when it first aired.

The moment worth a mention: Season 5, Episode 12’s “Bad Blood.” Duchovny’s Fox Mulder kills what he thought was a vampire, but turns out to be a young man flashing some false teeth. The differences in how he and Anderson’s Dana Scully recall and remember what went down in their separate reports to their boss are wildly different…and quite humorous. This series features several other episodes which are welcome, funny breaks.

On Comet Channel…

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) – Sarah Michelle Gellar and her “Scooby” gang became pop culture icons for many teenagers and young adults during their run. Like The X-Files, this show appears on some All-Time Greatest TV Show lists.

The premise: Destined to slaying otherworldly invaders of Sunnydale CA, Gellar’s Buffy enlists her Watcher and friends in trying to keep their town from being taken over by a wide variety of dark forces.

The rewatch takeaway: While the sets, special effects and make-up of the various creatures look silly at times, the whip-smart dialogue, camaraderie, and friendship of the characters – as well as outstanding acting – makes this a very satisfying rewatch.

The moment worth a mention: The 10th episode of Season 4, “Hush.” One of the most fascinating, unique episodes in television history. Over half of the episode’s running time features no dialogue. And with most of the episode having no spoken words, the show was actually nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series. Even if you don’t know a blessed thing about the Buffyverse, if you ever get the chance to watch “Hush” do it.

RETURNING SHOWS

On Syfy Channel…

Resident Alien (2021-Current) – New episodes in Season 2 return on August 10th. It has become a breakout hit for Syfy due to solid writing and a great cast of characters, led by veteran actor Alan Tudyk. The concept is simple and straight-forward…an alien’s original mission was to kill everyone on Earth…but now he’s the Earth’s only hope for survival. Tudyk’s portrayal of an alien trying to not look out of place in a small town in Colorado includes some of the best physical comedy you’ll see. It’s a show that has me smiling throughout.

ONGOING SHOWS

On HBO…

Westworld (2016-Current) – Season 4 has a couple of episodes left in it. This year has been a wild ride. One week I love it, one week I hate it…and that’s how the WHOLE series has been for me since Season 1 ended.

On Paramount +…

Evil (2019-Current) – Season 3 has a couple of episodes left in it. Regular readers here know how special I think this one is.

On Amazon Prime…

Paper Girls (2022) – Season 1 episodes just dropped a few days ago, and based on reviews that mentioned a faint resemblance to Stranger Things, I took a look. I still have three episodes to watch, but it has been a very pleasant late-summer surprise. It is set in the 80’s, and it has kids on bikes fighting sci-fi elements, but that’s about it for the similarities to Stranger Things. It starts out with four girls delivering newspapers in the early AM hours after Halloween in 1988, when they accidentally become caught up in a time-traveler war and their lives are changed forever.

NEW SHOWS

On Netflix…

The Sandman (2022) – Season 1 episodes debut August 5th. This series was in product development hell forever but this show – based on one of the most decorated comics of all time – is ready to roll now. I know next to nothing about it other than, 1) how very highly the comic is revered, 2) how creator Neil Gaiman waited a really, really long time before he found folks who could best translate his source material to TV and, 3) my very favorite Doctor Who companion is in it – Jenna Coleman. I’m going to give this one a go.

On Disney +…

She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (2022) – Season 1 episodes debut August 17th. Readers know Marvel is on very thin ice with me, but I’m going to go ahead and give this one a go also. The Hulk himself (Mark Ruffalo) is in it…so we’ll see.

Conditionally Yours, Kyler Murray

For purposes of this post…let’s say after three years as a Purchasing Agent, you have just been promoted to the title of Purchasing Manager for your company. The company is a global organization consisting of many employees, and also has many suppliers providing you material as cheaply as you can possibly negotiate it for. In fact, all of your employees know deep down the financial success of your firm often comes down to just how well the Purchasing Manager and his team have negotiated costs with all of its suppliers on a regular, consistent basis.

The announcement of your promotion comes via a press release, sent not only to all your employees, but to all the suppliers as well. In it, there is also mention of a contract clause you agreed to which says as part of earning your new salary, you will commit to studying strategies of being a successful negotiator at least four hours a week outside of the company’s regular business hours. Furthermore, the addendum goes on to say you have agreed to the stipulation that your studying cannot be done while playing video games, watching television, or browsing the Internet.

Well, that would be humiliating, wouldn’t it? For you…and your company.

I present one Kyler Murray, who recently signed a five-year contract extension to continue as the quarterback of the Arizona Cardinals. The new deal is valued at $230.5 million, with about $105 million guaranteed at signing.

Kyler’s status was the talk of the NFL when he deleted all references to the Cardinals on his social media back in February after the team’s awful playoff performance against the eventual Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams. With Murray entering the final year of his contract, his agent insinuated the Cardinals may not be that serious about winning, and that his client would now seek a new deal giving him the stability he wanted going forward.

Meanwhile, word leaked out that Arizona might have some concerns Murray was going to be their long-term solution at quarterback, worried about his total commitment to the sport, as well as his alleged lack of leadership.

After winning the Heisman Trophy while at Oklahoma, Kyler was the #1 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, and in his three seasons with the Cardinals was named to the Pro Bowl twice, while also improving his passer rating from season to season. However, Arizona has only made the playoffs once with Murray calling the shots…that awkward, ugly loss to the Rams last season. His body language during that game didn’t look very leader-like…and it was also reported Murray refused to go back onto the field to take the final snaps of that contest.

Several days ago, while both Murray and the team were basking in the glow of that contract extension, word leaked out regarding an almost unheard of addendum added to his contract…which I’ll paraphrase below based on media reports:

Murray will need to earn “credit” for studying film to prepare for each of the team’s games. Time in mandatory team meetings does not count, and he will study in good faith…which means he can’t be playing video games, watching television, or browsing the Internet.

It is certainly not unusual for teams to put adders in contracts dealing with weight or other tangibles, but we may have gone down a whole new road here on a clause speaking towards intangibles such as effort, attention to detail, and concentration. The clause is simply titled “Independent Study Addendum.”

Playing quarterback in the NFL is hard. There are only so many athletes who can do it really, really well. When you have invested a #1 overall pick, it’s admittedly hard for Arizona to walk away from Murray right now based on that fact alone. He’s performed fairly well in his three seasons, but the question is if he hasn’t been continuously trying to improve himself and his team…and you believe he does not have a leadership mentality…how do you let him keep the keys and drive the bus?

He could have played major league baseball if he so chose. Kyler is a tremendous athlete. I openly questioned his height (5-10) as he entered the pros but with his arm, and the ability to elude defenders and take off in any direction, I was open to the possibility he’d develop into a good if not great quarterback. Based on what I’ve seen so far, I am hopeful he can still become a star in the NFL. I’m rooting for him to succeed.

Murray turns 25 on August 7th. Looking back when I was that age, I didn’t always focus on the job at hand. No way. I was undisciplined at times. If you throw in all the entitlement Kyler has likely enjoyed throughout his high school and college experiences, I think we can see where he’d think he knows everything about life – and football – already.

He told the New York Times two years ago, “I’m not one of those guys that’s going to sit there and kill myself watching film. I don’t sit there for 24 hours and break down this team or that team and watch every game because, in my head, I see so much.”

I don’t know how the Cardinals plan to enforce this addendum to Murray’s contract, or if they’d get laughed out of court if they tried to hold back his pay. I do know this. If you are paying someone this kind of money, who because of their position is also likely the face of your franchise, you don’t do something so incredibly stupid as to put any of this in writing.

It remains to be seen if Arizona has also done something so incredibly stupid by extending Kyler Murray’s employment.

Curses on occasion can be intriguing…as long as you aren’t the cursed. Last January, before that playoff game with the Rams, the Cardinals’ Head Coach Kliff Kingsbury (who certainly is culpable in Murray’s apparent lack of maturity) made mention of the Pottsville (PA) Maroons. “I’m sure they’re very lovely people in Pottsville. I hope that they will rescind the curse very soon.”

That curse involves what fans of the Maroons claim is stolen property – the 1925 NFL Championship – which the then-Chicago Cardinals were gifted. Pottsville played an exhibition game against some Notre Dame players following the Maroons’ victory at Chicago, which was very much against the wishes of NFL Commissioner Joseph Carr. The title of NFL Champion was then stripped from Pottsville and awarded to the Cardinals.

Those Chicago Cardinals did win a more legitimate NFL title in 1947, but since then the franchise hasn’t won another. It’s been 75 years.

If Kyler Murray can pull off an NFL Championship after all of this contract nonsense, it will be unconditionally money well spent.

 

Picture Courtesy Athlon Sports

The Concrete Jungle

One of the great things about regularly visiting WordPress is you get to see some amazing posts featuring beautiful, spectacular photography of all types of trees, plants, flowers, and greenery.

This is NOT one of those posts.

I instead welcome you to a brief tour of some living things at our spot in the concrete jungle known as suburban Philadelphia.

First up, the ficus. This tree was a gift from my wife’s mother ten years ago. We had never taken possession of a ficus before and with our well-known, family reputation of being serial killers of anything green, this also started out like it would be DOA. We put a couple of Christmas ornaments on it the year we got it to dress it up a bit, figuring we’d surely put it out of its misery after the New Year…

However, post-Holidays we changed our minds and instead tried to provide enough food and encouragement to correct its downward trajectory. Today it looks like this…

It has even been cut back a couple of times. Regular readers of this space will note Snowy McSnowface off to the left. It also is doing well during its first summer here…no doubt getting encouragement from the ficus.

Second, the pepper plant. This gift was given to us by my mother eight years ago. Again, no familiarity. It started out slowly, but morphed over time to periodically produce many mini-peppers. We dry the seeds and repurpose them into the plant just to watch it take off again…

Third, the evergreen. We bought this tree for ourselves ten years ago after having carved out some planting space between two holly bushes in the front of the house. We decorated it for Christmas that first year. Here’s how it looked then…

And here is how it looks today…

Finally, last Christmas (in addition to the afore-mentioned Snowy) we bought a poinsettia plant. We have a long, shameful history of epic fails when it comes to this species, but we figured we’d work diligently post-Holidays to keep it alive and nurse it towards another Christmas. So far, so good…

Thanks for taking this tour of our “jungle.” I never thought we’d achieve green thumb status…but we’re thumbs up for these modest success stories.

 

Picture Courtesy iStock

Premier League 2022-23: Soccer’s Calling

My love of soccer goes back to a time when my high school hadn’t even yet sponsored it as a varsity sport. That was likely because soccer was still in the process of trying to get any kind of foothold at all in the United States on the professional level. I wound up playing goal one season for our school’s club team, playing other schools who had yet to formally sponsor soccer squads.

In that season, I learned a pretty cool life lesson during one match when I spectacularly stopped a penalty shot…only to relax a bit, not control the rebound, and the other squad scored a goal anyway. Lesson learned – never take anything for granted and don’t celebrate too soon. Well, maybe that was two life lessons…

My interest in what the rest of Planet Earth calls football did not start more recently with the popular TV series Ted Lasso, as I suspect was the case for some Americans…although I think that’s an excellent show and anything that helps people in the States connect with soccer is great.

By the way, did you know the genesis of Ted Lasso came about when star Jason Sudeikis did a couple of sketch-length commercials for the Premier League’s broadcast coverage in the US? The basis for the series about an American football coach using his skill set to embark on a career as an English club soccer coach came about from two promos Sudeikis did. By the way, I think NBC Sports does a really fine job covering the PL. Watching matches on Saturday and Sunday mornings has become a tradition for a lot of folks in the States, with many gathering at their favorite watering holes to enjoy the action with fellow fans.

As for how the Premier League may shake out in its upcoming season, the pre-season rankings below are from analytics site FiveThirtyEight. They use a number of metrics to determine each squad’s soccer power rating (SPI), and then refines them throughout the season as results accumulate. With the kickoff of the new campaign less than two weeks away, here is how they have each of the 20 clubs ranked:

Manchester City (92.3)

Liverpool (90.5)

Chelsea (85.7)

Tottenham Hotspur (81.9)

Arsenal (78.5)

Manchester United (75.2)

Aston Villa (74.1)

Brighton & Hove Albion (73.7)

Crystal Palace (71.4)

Leicester City (71.2)

West Ham United (70.6)

Brentford (68.6)

Newcastle United (68.6)

Wolverhampton Wanderers (67.7)

Everton (63.8)

Leeds United (62.2)

Southampton (61.3)

Fulham (58.7)

Bournemouth (57.9)

Nottingham Forest (57.3)

The site ultimately feels defending champ Manchester City has a 46% probability to win the league, with Liverpool given a 30% chance and Chelsea 11%. Last season, a thrilling final day of the campaign saw Manchester City score three goals in under six minutes to snatch victory from Aston Villa and claim their fourth championship in five seasons. They finished a lone one point ahead of second-place Liverpool. Chelsea was third, Tottenham Hotspur fourth, Arsenal fifth, and Manchester United sixth.

So…in comparing last season’s results to those pre-season rankings it looks like nothing is expected to change in terms of the squads at the top. More on that in a moment. Of course, there is always the question of Premier League relegation, which is I feel one of the coolest aspects of many soccer leagues. It often presents as much drama as who all may be fighting it out for first. For those unfamiliar with relegation, the teams that finish in the bottom three positions in the Premier League standings each season leave the league and are relegated one level/tier down to what is known as the EFL Championship. The EFL Championship in turn promotes three teams up to the PL for the following campaign. Burnley, Watford, and Norwich City were the Premier League clubs sent down last season…replaced this year by Fulham, Bournemouth, and Nottingham Forest. There is always a fair amount of stress among the lesser squads each year with the potential to be relegated. Residence in the Premier League each season provides a cash windfall for its participants.

There has always been debate about whether or not dynasties are good for a sport. In the Premier League, there certainly are the haves and have-nots based on cash to spend, the quality of their facilities, historical prestige, etc. It’s no accident the same teams that finished at the top of last season are the ones favored at the top this year. Manchester City certainly is in dynasty-mode right now with those four titles in the past five seasons. Yet, I still recall the incredible run of Leicester City in the 2015-16 campaign, considered by many to be one of the greatest team sporting stories of all time. Rated at 5000-1 to win the Premier League at the beginning of that year, they did just that. Indeed, it is unlikely a club will pull of a miracle like Leicester City did that season, but it is great fun each year watching lesser squads sometimes give the big boys all they can handle in a match…potentially denying them what they thought going in would be an easy victory and three points in the standings.

What I like most about the Premier League is the passion of the fans. They are devoted to their clubs, and it is fantastic to see the joy in their faces when their squads do well. These clubs have been at it for a long time now, and the love they have for their teams has been passed down from generation to generation.

Other PL likes…I am ok with ties, which probably puts me in a very small minority. I know it may sound strange, but I honestly never had a problem with ties in either the NFL or NHL regular seasons before they moved to overtime periods. In the Premier League, where there is an acknowledged uneven amount of resources among the membership, I like the fact those have-nots have the ability to forge a tie and take away something against the favorites. I also think it is neat the PL, like many other leagues in world soccer, has no post-season. The season IS the season. A true champion, not diluted by an over-abundance of playoff teams like we allow in American sports. I find that refreshing. Each August, fans of the Premier League heed the call back to their club’s pitch knowing every match means so much.

One additional note about the Premier League for this season. There will be an unusual interruption to the schedule in November-December as players are allowed to compete for their national teams at the World Cup in Qatar. If interested, you’ll be able to find information online about how Qatar was selected to host this championship in the first place, as well as troubling reports of poor safety conditions there while construction of stadiums and facilities was going on. The positioning of this World Cup in Qatar also means not just the Premier League, but leagues around the world, have to suspend their seasons. To have the Cup played at its usual time, in the middle of the calendar year, would have been the equivalent of playing soccer on the sun. The whole planet seems to be heating up these days, but Qatar always features scorching summertime temps, so the decision was made to move the World Cup to the fall. Hopefully, all players who compete there come out of the competition in good health and ready to resume their seasons.

The most powerful, most watched soccer league in the world begins its new season on August 5th.

 

Picture Courtesy iStock

Top Guns At The Box Office

Some box office history was made today as Tom Cruise’s Top Gun: Maverick passed The Avengers to become the ninth-highest grossing movie in domestic box office history. According to Variety, movie business experts believe before this film finally lands it can fly by a couple more movies on the list, Jurassic World and Titanic.

It has been a long time since I took a look at the top domestic gross box office list, as well as any list which attempts to take inflation into account to better represent how many folks actually came out and supported movies over all the years which we’ve been blessed with cinema entertainment options.

Below are two current domestic gross box office lists which I think are fun to take a glance at…

Courtesy Of Filmsite

All-Time Domestic Gross Box Office (Unadjusted for Inflation)

  1. Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens (2015)
  2. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
  3. Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021)
  4. Avatar (2009)
  5. Black Panther (2018)
  6. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
  7. Titanic (1997)
  8. Jurassic World (2015)
  9. Top Gun: Maverick (2022)
  10. The Avengers (2012)
  11. Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi (2017)
  12. Incredibles 2 (2018)
  13. The Lion King (2019)
  14. The Dark Knight (2008)
  15. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
  16. Star Wars IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
  17. Beauty and the Beast (2017)
  18. Finding Dory (2016)
  19. Frozen II (2019)
  20. Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

All-Time Domestic Gross Box Office (Adjusted for Inflation)

  1. Gone With the Wind (1939)
  2. Star Wars IV: A New Hope (1977)
  3. The Sound of Music (1965)
  4. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
  5. Titanic (1997)
  6. The Ten Commandments (1956)
  7. Jaws (1975)
  8. Doctor Zhivago (1965)
  9. The Exorcist (1973)
  10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)
  11. Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens (2015)
  12. 101 Dalmatians (1961)
  13. Star Wars V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
  14. Ben-Hur (1959)
  15. Avatar (2009)
  16. Avengers: Endgame (2019)
  17. Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
  18. Jurassic Park (1993)
  19. Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
  20. The Lion King (1994)

I am not an analytics guy but I’m smart enough to know trying to accurately compare and compile all-time box office gets a bit tricky. Nonetheless, here’s my takeaways on both of these lists:

Avatar – Look, I’m ashamed to admit somehow I missed seeing this on the big screen, but after watching it a couple of times on the small screen…I just don’t get how this movie was this beloved. Please educate me if you feel differently. That being said, I will go see the sequel at the theatre when it opens up in mid-December.

Incredibles 2 – I was incredulous this film did that much business. Like Avatar, I didn’t get the appeal. The first Incredibles was just ok for me.

Jaws – I remember sitting in the theatre watching it on its first weekend and saying to myself…I think a few more people are going to see this. I remain impressed with where it resides all-time. When I went back to see it again a few weeks later…I remember being in an awfully long line. People love sharks…at a distance, of course.

The Star Wars Franchise – What can you say? These films have resonated with moviegoers throughout the decades. I am curious to see how future films do considering the additional Star Wars streaming content that has come out recently covering different eras. I have enjoyed the recent theatrical releases, but I don’t know if we really need any more movies. However, these lists mean they’re going to keep on making them.

Top Gun: Maverick – In addition to raking in even more money before it’s done, I don’t see any way the movie doesn’t get nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. I’m betting other folks share my view, judging by its box office success.

 

Picture Courtesy iStock

Is There Good In Evil?

I have recently been hesitant to make TV recommendations in what is supposedly our current “golden era” of television. The fact is there are so many good, quality shows out there I suspect some folks occasionally wind up feeling a bit frustrated because they know they’ll never be able to watch everything of interest. I know in my case there is a lot of sensational TV I’ll flat-out never get to, but I’m resigned to that fate.

I recently came across an article titled “Please Stop Forcing Your Favorite TV Show On Me.” It expresses a couple of theories regarding human behavior which I see merit in, behavior which presents at an early age:

Nobody wants to be told to do something.

If you tell somebody not to get involved with something, they’ll likely try to.

So, for heaven’s sake please do not watch Evil, a series which just got renewed for a fourth season on Paramount +. Currently in Season 3, new episodes of Evil drop on Sundays.

My wife and I started watching from the very first episode in September 2019 when it debuted on CBS. Thirteen episodes later, my wife wasn’t quite sure how she felt about watching it going forward. I definitely wanted to see what was next, especially when it was announced later the show was shifting from CBS over to Paramount +. The creators of the show, Robert & Michelle King (The Good Wife, The Good Fight), were now being given a much bigger canvas to paint upon. The broadcast censorship reins were taken off, and their characters could now live more realistic lives when it comes to having no subject being off limits, foul language, expressions of physical intimacy…as well as depicting more…pure…evil.

The show’s premise is simple enough. Three diverse personalities come together to form a “dream team” of sorts investigating extraordinary events. The goal – to determine if there is a rational, scientific explanation behind these events…or not. A prospective priest wrestling with his career path, a cynical psychologist juggling work while serving as both parents for her children, and a no-nonsense contractor who offers an “Earthly” reason for all he encounters.

That decision to move to a streaming service and engage with the full velocity of the Kings’ creative storytelling skill set has paid off. I am sure you’ve also heard this line from friends and relatives about their favorite TV series. “There is nothing like it on television right now.”

As far as I know, there is NOTHING like Evil on TV right now.

God vs. Satan is fought on cerebral and hand-to-hand levels alike. This show questions and challenges beliefs in religion, relationships…and reality. Twists and turns exist along the way. Some sudden shocks and jump scares, but other frights proceed at a slow burn. Yet, there are guardrails built into the scripts which ensure a balance between at least two…but often three…viewpoints and reasoning on whether events, possessions, demons, miracles, etc. have explanations that are faith-based, science-based…or somewhere “in between.”

Several critics have compared it to The X-Files series from the 90’s. I think that’s fine if you’re trying to give people familiar with that show a general idea of what is going on in this one, but I believe there are more layers to the characters in Evil…as well as more protagonists.

I don’t know if you put any stock at all in the Rotten Tomatoes site, but critics there currently have Season 1 rated at 92%, Season 2 at 95%…and Season 3 at 100%. The numbers are trending upwards, and that tracks for me.

Season 1 does start very slowly, and there is some real weirdness which will have you questioning your decision to even give it a go. If you do start watching Evil, do give it time to produce a return on your investment. Get to Season 2.

The writing, editing, score, and direction are all top-shelf. The cast is stellar: Mike Colter (The Good Wife, Luke Cage), Katja Herbers (The Leftovers, Westworld), Aasif Mandvi (The Proposal, Million Dollar Arm), Michael Emerson (Lost, Person Of Interest), Christine Lahti (Chicago Hope), Kurt Fuller (Psych), and Andrea Martin (My Big Fat Greek Wedding).

Colter, Herbers, and Mandvi come together to investigate and navigate all kinds of crazy. Within an episode you have your case-of-the-week (like…how much does a soul actually weigh?), but there are also character storylines with no quick, one-episode conclusion which continue to develop.

Emerson’s portrayal of forensic psychologist Leland Townsend is a candidate for the most vile, evil villain on any current series. Yet, this show provides its fair share of laughs…especially with a family whose well-meaning kids have a habit of all talking at the same time.

As it turns out…I am suggesting you give Evil a look. If the timing or circumstances aren’t right, write it down for future consideration. Keep it in mind. There’s an awful lot of good…in Evil.

 

Picture Courtesy Paramount +

Chaos Isn’t A Pit. Chaos Is A Ladder.

That title is a quote from the HBO series Game Of Thrones. I was reminded of it the other day when someone used it as their reply in a comments section of an article about the current health of college football.

Many fans have been lamenting the fact yet another conference realignment move is now being made. Schools have been switching allegiance from one conference to the other for years now, but the recent decision by California schools USC and UCLA to have their athletic teams participate in the Big Ten Conference has many followers feeling this is the end of college football. They claim college football is dead.

It is.

But…who knows what the sport’s landscape will eventually look like? We are talking about a viewing activity second in popularity only to the National Football League. It’s morphing into something else…what else, who knows?

When collegiate athletic conferences were first organized many moons ago they were for the most part geographical in nature, allowing for regional rivalries to be created or enhanced, as well as to reduce team travel requirements. This also allowed fans to see their teams play home and away in certain instances.

But then TV came along. And with it, the arms race of college football was spawned where television simply couldn’t get enough of college football… and many schools spared absolutely no expense to get on television.

And that’s why we can’t have nice things like traditional college football. Television.

A quote from Drew Hamm of SBNation:

“College football going away from being a fiercely regional sport will eventually kill all that is fun and different about it. The path to becoming NFL Lite is paved with gold for TV execs, the coffers of major athletic departments and the various other power brokers in college sports who do not care what they break in their quest for one more dollar.”

For me, college football certainly was more fun and different when it was regional. My high school’s athletic teams were in a conference and always had annual rivalries with nearby towns. You looked forward each year to hosting and/or visiting your opponents, knowing fans would be with you no matter where you were playing. That’s similar to the college football we all grew up with.

Now, mega-conferences like the Big Ten and the SEC generate their universities massive revenues from television rights fees. This increased exposure on TV helps schools attract athletes and students alike, as well as motivate their alumni to donate more cash. In many instances, football-generated money pays for every other sport these universities sponsor for their students. With these changes in conference allegiance as schools try to align with the best television partners they can, some traditional rivalries have remained…but stakes have been lowered…others eliminated completely. Not just in football, but in all sports.

TV executives have decreed football – all college sports for that matter – do not need ties to geography or history or tradition. When it comes to college football, schools do need to have viewership. Lots of viewers. Some college football teams don’t have as strong a following, and their university athletic departments will wind up in a pit of schools not invited to participate in the newly-configured, upper echelon of college football.

College football is dead, but only for the version a lot of us grew up with. It wasn’t a mega-business then. It is now. Money changes everything. For two California universities to switch allegiances to a conference whose members are in the Midwest and Eastern part of the US, it is a chaotic time for some fans.

From this chaos, the ladder television provides extends upwards towards even more money and exposure.

We need to see who all makes it to the top, and what may be available for those not invited to climb. Then, we can better assess the health of college football.

 

Picture Courtesy iStock