This is what Cinderella looks like in September

[SB Nation]

jammers

In Boston a few weeks back, I met a librarian who, like me, hails from Indiana. Actually, she hailed from Terre Haute, and like everyone else who’s lived there she had a Larry Bird story. Her dad used to work at Indiana State University, in the bookstore, and one day in the mid ’70s a young, peach-fuzzed Bird ducked through the door and bought his first batch of school books. That’s it — that’s the whole story. “But my dad still tells it all the time,” the librarian said.

Today I’ve got a nearly 5,000-word feature up at SB Nation. It previews the upcoming season for Indiana State’s basketball team. (In short, they’re going to surprise some people and maybe even make some noise in March.) But it also examines the larger dynamic of what it means to root for — or coach for, or play for — a school whose defining moment happened decades ago and who must now build for success in four-year cycles.

One point I make in my feature is that we need to stop thinking of the Gonzagas and Xaviers of the world as “Cinderellas.” After all, those programs  spend more money on basketball than many high-major schools. Certainly, they spend more money than Indiana State. The hoops-first schools do so by dropping or deemphasizing football, and one thing I couldn’t fit into my story is that Indiana State hasn’t done this. In fact, the Sycamores AD has doubled down on the school’s Division II program. The university’s latest ten-year plan sets the goal of constructing a new stadium downtown — a place that will ultimately be the campus symbol and post-card view. “Football’s kind of the crown jewel of the athletic part of that ten-year plan,” one school official told me. But to me, that seems misguided. Indiana offers so much tradition and in-state talent for basketball, and I wonder whether the Sycamores would be better off pouring those resources into creating a top-notch mid-major basketball program.

For now, though, they’ll have to settle for being a top-notch team this year. Read about it in my feature. A lot of their success flows from Jake Odum, a local kid who made his name starring for an obscure AAU team known as the Terre Haute Jammers. That picture up top is of the Jammers a few years back. Odum is on the front row, kneeling right next to the trophy.

Is Bob Castellini the best owner in baseball?

[New York Times]

In yesterday’s New York Times, I made the case that, yes, the Reds’ boss  is the best in the baseball — and certainly the best in the Reds’ recent history. There’s some fun stuff in there about Marge Schott and Carl Lindner, but the main point is what a difference Castellini has made.

If you’re interested in more on Cincinnati sports, check out my features on the Reds’ efforts to draw more fans and on their enigmatic All-Star, Aroldis Chapman. Or check out my feature on the Bengals’ stadium fiasco — a good reminder that, even during the Schott era, the worst owner in Ohio was Mike Brown.

Xavier’s next great team

[Cincinnati CityBeat]

As part of their cover package on the NCAAs, Cincinnati CityBeat asked me to write about Xavier’s lost season. The Musketeers didn’t just whiff on the NCAAs — they whiffed on the NIT, too. But as I argue in my story, Xavier’s future, for next season and for the next decade, looks bright.

If you’re interested in more on Xavier, check out a long profile I wrote of head coach Chris Mack last year (with more info here and here).

And in the small chance you’re interested in still more Xavier, check out Shannon Russell’s excellent interview with Mack. You’ll see that he’s the most honest coach in Cincinnati sports and, in my opinion, a big reason why Xavier’s in great shape.

A profile of Vito Montelli

[New York Times]

In today’s New York Times, I’ve got a long profile of Vito Montelli, who coached the boys’ basketball team at St. Joseph High School for 50 years — and to 11 Connecticut state championships.

Montelli’s a great character, and you should also check out the photos by my friend Chris Capozziello. But one of the things that drew me to this story was a chance to think about a larger question: why high school sports aren’t as big in New England as they are elsewhere in the country. We had to cut a lot of that material, and I hope to write about it again in the future. But I will say that while New England high school athletics occur on a smaller scale, there are pockets of passion and commitment.

One of those is at the gym in Ridgefield, Connecticut, where I watched Montelli’s successor, Chris Watts, coach (and win) his first game. Ridgefield is not a traditional state power, but a couple years ago it hired a new athletic director and coach named Carl Charles. Charles used to be an assistant under Montelli, and he’s built up a solid program — and a serious home-court advantage.

Like most Connecticut high schools, Ridgefield has a small gym — there wasn’t enough room for the St. Joe’s cheerleaders, which meant they sat behind the bench — but at least a quarter of the seats were devoted to the Tigers’ Lair, the school’s college-quality student section. The Tigers’ Lair boasts a Twitter feed, a collection of inventive cheers (when Watts walked out, they chanted “Vito Montelli”), and one of those custom Big Heads signs for Kurt Steidl, the senior star who is heading to the University of Vermont on a scholarship. Now, I’ve been to a lot of high school basketball games, including a bunch in basketball-crazy Indiana, but Ridgefield and the Tiger’s Lair had one of the best atmospheres I’ve ever seen. It was a fun game for a lot of reasons. (In the fourth quarter, Montelli, who was sitting next to the cheerleaders, motioned a St. Joe’s assistant over: “Let Chris know he has two fouls he can give.”) But most of all, it was fun because of some great basketball — Watts didn’t need any help, as he masterfully coached St. Joe’s to a 48-42 win — and because of some crazy fans. In fact, I’d stack those fans up against those from anywhere in the country.

A profile of Aroldis Chapman (plus an annotated bibliography!)

[Cincinnati Magazine]

Just in time for spring training, you can read my long profile of Aroldis Chapman in the March issue of Cincinnati Magazine. While the Reds did not cooperate with the story, I still talked to a ton of people. I may have even figured Chapman out — or at least realized that no one’s going to figure him out. He’s got a strange pattern of isolating himself, whether that means living far from the ballpark; avoiding friendships with teammates; or spending thousands of dollars at chintzy tourist dives, instead of at the Miami Heat-approved bars you might expect.

Then there’s the speeding ticket(s), the stripper(s), and the extremely serious $24-million lawsuit Chapman’s facing. To learn more about all of it, read my story here. And when you’re finished, check out the annotated bibliography I’ve put together — because Chapman’s the kind of subject who demands further study.

  • Aroldis Chapman, ESPN attraction: As I mention in my profile, ESPN (and the very talented Jorge Arangure Jr.) covered Aroldis in depth right after his defection: an ESPN.com story, an ESPN The Magazine story, and a TV segment. I relied extensively on these stories, but you’ll find tons more in them. For instance: “‘Pujols?’ [Chapman] says. ‘Who is that?’ When asked which big leaguers he’s heard of, Chapman names David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez,Alfonso Soriano, Alex Rodriguez — and there’s one other. ‘What’s the name of that Yankees shortstop?’ he says.”
  • Aroldis Chapman, sabermetrician: The other reporter who did great work on Chapman’s early days is Melissa Segura at Sports Illustrated. Check out one of her stories here, in which Chapman, way back in 2009, addresses starting versus closing: “Chapman expresses reluctance to move to the bullpen, though he worked as a closer for part of the 2006-07 National Series season. ‘It went OK, but I like being a starter better,’ he says. ‘The difference in starting the game is that you can impact the game greatly. You can pitch a lot of innings. As a closer, you only get one or two innings. You pitch more frequently, but I don’t have a lot of interest in being a closer.'”
  • Aroldis Chapman, reluctant interview: Once Chapman signed with the Reds, he stopped talking as deeply and openly as he did to Arangure and Segura. It’s hard to tell whether this comes from Chapman or the Reds (or both). But the reporter who’s consistently gotten the best quotes — a reporter who, unlike the Reds’ two or three beat reporters, speaks Spanish — is Jorge L. Ortiz. See here and here and here, among others. That last link also has an interesting quotation from Walt Jocketty: “When Dr. (Timothy) Kremchek did the physical and did the MRI of the shoulder and the elbow, he said it was unbelievable how pristine it was.” That’s interesting because the Reds have DL’ed or benched Chapman several times for shoulder problems — or “shoulder” problems. A couple sources I talked to suggested that those DL trips were more the result of mental issues than physical ones.
  • Aroldis Chapman, automobile enthusiast: Any Reds fan knows that Chapman owns several sweet cars, but I’m not sure people realize how into those cars he is. Check out this detailed story in Rides Magazine on the $40,000-plus Chapman’s spent customizing his not-too-shabby-from-the-factory Lamborghini Murcielago. Or contemplate the fact that Chapman has found time to upgrade his license plates with each record-setting pitch: his vanity plates have alluded to velocities of 102, 103, 104, and 105 MPH. Or marvel at his multimillion dollar home with its five-car garage. Or, best of all: watch this simultaneously amazing and terrifying video of him zooming around downton Cincinnati.
  • Aroldis Chapman, dubious record holder: Chapman’s most recent vanity plate is “MR 106,” but as Jeff Passan points out in his excellent Yahoo! story, it’s unlikely that the 106 MPH pitch actually hit 106 MPH.
  • Aroldis Chapman, troubled soul?: If you want to know more about Chapman’s off-field issues, check out Cincinnati CityBeat‘s comprehensive cover story from last summer.
  • Aroldis Chapman, control artist: I analyze Chapman’s remarkable 2012 at some length — especially his newfound control. For more on that, check out this terrific FanGraphs interview with catcher Ryan Hanigan: “It was simpler for him as a closer. I was like, ‘Look man, throw as many strikes as you can.’ You have to really understand what your check points are in your delivery, because if you get just a little out of whack with your mechanics, you’re going to be wild. He knows that, and really got it down to where he could stay consistent. He knew what to do when he was starting to miss. He knew why and how to fix it. But that’s not as hard when you have to throw 15-18 pitches. When you have to throw 100, it’s a different ballgame in terms of keeping your body in control.”

Eric Davis and The Hall of Nearly Great

[Gelf Magazine / The Gallery at LPR]

I never got around to linking to last month’s new ebook The Hall of Nearly Great, which collects a bunch of chapters on baseball players who don’t quite rate as Hall of Famers. I wrote one of the chapters, on Eric Davis, and now I’m doing a group reading relating to the ebook tomorrow night in New York.

You can find details for the reading (and my short interview about the Davis chapter and my Deadspin series on the Bluefish) at Gelf Magazine. And here’s a link to The Hall of Nearly Great, which is well worth your $12 and your time.

 

A profile of the Venezuelan catcher Luis Rodriguez

[Deadspin]

At Deadspin, you can read my second dispatch about the Atlantic League and independent baseball — this time a profile of a catcher who’s in his twentieth season as a minor leaguer. (Here’s a link to the first Atlantic League dispatch, from earlier this year.)

The catcher’s name is Luis Rodriguez, and he ended up having quite a story to tell. One part I couldn’t really fit in — and a part that further proves how talented Rodriguez is, how easy it is to imagine a scenario where he played a few years in the big leagues — is his time in winter ball.

Early in my first interview with Rodriguez, I asked some silly question about whether or not baseball was still fun for him. “You go play winter ball in Venezuela,” he replied, “and you won’t talk about fun. You know how much money your team loses when you lose. You play winter ball and you face Johan Santana, you face Felix Hernandez. It’s a job.” Rodriguez returned to this idea of baseball as a job again and again in our conversations. I think it came partly from his hard-working father and partly from winter ball. Either way, when baseball is your job — your profession — you do it for as long as you can. Fun doesn’t factor in.

That isn’t to say Rodriguez didn’t enjoy winter ball. He began playing in 1991 and worked his way up to the top league and a starting job with the Caracas Leones. One year the Leones boasted big league regulars — Alex Gonzalez, Bobby Abreu, Marco Scutaro, and more — at almost every position. “It’s like a big league stadium in Caracas,” Rodriguez remembered. “When we went to the finals, it was Yankees-Boston.”

Rodriguez ended up winning several rings with the Leones. “I know what champagne tastes like,” he told me. He stopped playing winter ball three years ago because his body wasn’t recovering as fast as it used to. “But I’ve been talking about going back this winter,” he added. In fact, whenever he does retire — and good luck getting him to commit to an answer on that — he thinks it might be nice to do it in Venezuela, in the winter leagues: “I could retire in front of my players, in front of my family, and in front of my fans.”