The Book of Mike

"This is no junior college. This is the notorious University of Miami.” -- Marlins starter Dontrelle Willis, after getting knocked around for six runs in 2 1/3 innings by the Canes.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Life as a Cardinals' Fan: As Told by Charlie Brown and Lucy

Just as I had started to move on with my life and accept that the Cardinals lost the Super Bowl, in last-minute, heart-breaking fashion at the "hands" of admitted drug dealer and rabbit killer from Ohio State (who, despite his un-Disney past, managed to get a parade down Disney's Main Street in his honor), the Cardinals as we knew them began to fall apart.

Here's an animated interpretation of what's transpired between the Cardinals and their fans since the end of the Super Bowl:

Charlie Brown plays the role of the loyal, but constantly burned Cardinals fan.

Lucy plays the Arizona Cardinals, specifically their front office.

The "signed document" represents the implied contract between the Cardinals and their fans. In real life this is represented by the Cardinals new stadium, their better record (of late) in the draft, and recent dedication to actually fielding a competitive team.

What is not seen in the interpretative short is what happens as Charlie Brown approaches the football held by Lucy. Here's a run down:

1. Free agent Karlos Dansby says the team has not approached him about a new contract. That was earlier in the week. Since then the two sides have talked. Dansby says he'd like to stay with the team, but wants to see what happens with Kurt Warner, Anquan Boldin, Edgerrin James, and others before making a decision.
2. Kurt Warner says his decision to return to the Cardinals or to retire hinges on what happens with the team, including offensive coordinator Todd Haley.
3. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley is hired by the Kansas City Chiefs as their new head coach (good for him).
4. Anquan Boldin says his relationship with the Cardinals is irreperably damaged. It seems like he's on his way out of town.
5. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast has been relieved of his duties (this is good news for the team, but it's more turnover).

The apocalyptic scene at the end of the film likely represents the fate that awaits the Arizona Cardinals as they likely return to being the team they've been so frequently.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Mike's Super Bowl XLIII Experience: Part 3

I already wrote over 2,000 words about the Super Bowl and I haven't even touched on the game itself. Super Bowl XLIII is most likely (in terms of games of importance to me) the most memorable sporting event of my life (past or future).

I will go to my grave with memories of this game. Some are truly glorious (Fitzgerald's second touchdown in particular). Others will likely haunt me permanently (like Harrison's 100-yard interception return for a game changing touchdown).

If you'd rather skip my ramblings, but you'd still like a Cardinals fan's take on the game, go here and read Will's writeup. It's perfect.

My take on it will not be as concise. If you want the short version, here's my best shot at it:

After the Cardinals narrowed the deficit to 20-16 with a safety, Laura turned to me and said, "I don't know if I can be a Cardinals fan. This is too stressful." And she was 100% right. Super Bowl XLIII summed up a lifetime of being a Cardinals fan, all in one game. Being a Cardinals fan starts with having hope, then having your hopes quickly dashed. But somehow they find a way to re-ignite your hope (usually increasing it to a point higher than where it was before). In the end, they crush you; a little piece of you dies inside each time the Cardinals let you down again after they pick you back up.

The Cardinals did that in Super Bowl XLIII. Twice. Once in each half.

Prior to the game there was hope and excitement, although the experts were likely to tell you there was no cause for it. Then the game started and the Cardinals sputtered. They were dominated in the first quarter and didn't look like themselves. Suddenly there was a burst of hope in the second quarter. Things looked much better... until the unthinkable happened - a sure touchdown which would result in a halftime lead turned into the longest play in Super Bowl history, and a lead for the Steelers.

Now it's halftime and we've already gone through the hope, the dashing of hope, the re-ignition of hope, and the crushing. During the long halftime intermission, it was tough to envision what to expect.

But the Cardinals were receiving the ball to start the 3rd quarter. And their offense had been excellent coming out of the lockerroom of late. But as the second half began the Cardinals continued to sputter. So our hopes were already being dashed. At this point one could only think a blowout was inevitable. But then the Cardinals sparked hope again by striking back: the comeback was glorious. A touchdown drive. A goal line stand times two. A sputtered drive followed by a perfect punt and a safety. Then the back breaking touchdown... except that it didn't break the Steelers' back. Instead they came back. And we were left crushed... again. Twice in one game.

So that's the short version of my take on the Super Bowl. Here is an abbreviated list on some of the things that will haunt me for the rest of my life about this game:
  • The coin toss. Yes, I'm going there. While I love Coach Whisenhunt, I didn't like the decision to defer. The Cardinals should have received the kick and come out aggressively on offense.

  • The challenge of the TD call on the Steelers first drive was huge. That the Steelers kicked a field goal instead of going for it on 4th was equally huge. That short sequence could have decided the outcome of the game.
  • Starting out on offense by establishing the run. This failed so it's easy to second guess. But I think a team should lead with its strength, especially in a game of this magnitude. Force the Steelers to show they can slow down your passing game. Ultimately they proved that they couldn't. What would have happened if the Cards had thrown aggressively all game?
  • Dominque Rodgers-Cromartie made an amazing play in the first half to recover on a deep route and break up a pass. That was a huge play. It was a sure touchdown otherwise. Had it been, it would have been that much more difficult for the Cardinals to get back in the game
  • On one Steelers drive in the second half the Cardinals were called for (at least) two questionable penalties: DRC was called for a facemask (which video evidence apparently disputes). That cost the Cards fifteen yards and a first down. There was also a roughing the passer penalty, which was equally huge and drive sustaining. Had either of those calls not been made, the game could have been different.
  • The Cardinals self destructed on a drive early in the second quarter. Much of the drive devolved after Edgerrin James was flagged for a chop block. If there's no flag or Edge blocks differently, maybe things are different.
  • James Harrison's pick-six has to be talked about. It was an unbelievable play. As he ran it back I kept waiting for him to be tackled. It was a comedy of errors, but no one ever scores on a play like that. But he made it. What if he hadn't? What if the Cardinals had called a different play? If the Cardinals had put Boldin in one corner, Fitzgerald in the other, and Ben Patrick under the goal post, couldn't they have thrown a jump ball to one of them? Any other outcome would have had less impact on the game's final result.
  • In the 4th quarter the Cardinals had a tremendous goal line stand. Because of a penalty on Adrian Wilson (running into the holder, unintentionally apparently) the Steelers had two sets of downs to punch it in from inside the five. If you gave the Steelers six more plays to score a touchdown, I have a hard time imagining the Cardinals (or any other defense) stopping them. But in the one time they played those six downs, the Cardinals did stop them. It was unreal. Had that turned out differently, the Steelers may have sewn up the game then and there.

  • After a failed 4th quarter drive when the Cardinals were coming back, Ben Graham punted (from inside the Cardinals 40) and pinned the Steelers inside their 1. It was a tremendous punt out of a punter who had been inconsistent. There were a multitude of other outcomes there. The Cards could have gone for it on 4th down. The Cards could have attempted a field goal. Had they punted and gotten a touchback, the game would have been different. But they were fortunate enough to pin the Steelers deep and then force a safety. What happened made it possible for the Cardinals to continue their comeback. Nearly anything else would have killed their effort.

  • Overall, the officiating was awful. I don't think better officiating would have necessarily changed the outcome of the game. But I think it's fair to say the game would have been different. James Harrison was flagged for 15-yards when an official saw him punch Aaron Francisco. Why wasn't Harrison ejected? Bertrand Berry punched a Steeler. People in the stands saw it without replay. Why wasn't Berry penalized and/or ejected? To a large extent the officials let the players play. That's how it should be in the Super Bowl. But there was a great deal of inconsistency that affected both sides.

  • Larry Fitzgerald's 64-yard touchdown reception was the most memorable play I have ever seen in a sporting event. From my vantage point in the end zone I could see the play develop. Before the snap I watched Boldin and Fitzgerald because they were bunched up. As the ball was snapped I saw Fitzgerald find open space and a thought flashed through my mind quickly: ohmygodfitzisopenifwarnergetshimtheballit'satouchdown. Let me slow that down for you: "Oh my God, Fitz is open! If Warner gets him the ball it's a touchdown." Kurt Warner saw what I saw and got Larry the ball. Fitzgerald ran past the Steelers and scored. (As an aside, it was telling to see all-world super star Troy Polamalu quit on the play, which at the time appeared to give away the Steelers lead for good.) While the touchdown was great, one can't help but wonder what would have happened if that play hadn't gone for a touchdown. If the Cardinals had managed to score on a more methodical drive, they might have taken enough time off the clock to keep Pittsburgh from scoring. But it didn't happen that way.

  • Poor kick off returns throughout the game cost the Cardinals field position. It wasn't that the Steelers were particularly good at stopping returns. Rather JJ Arrington muffed one kick off and let another skip past him through the end zone. With better field position the Cardinals might have been able to mount better drives.

  • Darnell Dockett and Chike Okeafor lived in the Steelers backfield throughout the game. If the Steelers managed to block either man with some regularity, the Steelers offense may have been even more productive.

  • Santonio Holmes should have been penalized for using the ball as a prop. That's a 15-yard penalty on the kickoff, meaning the last kickoff of the game would have taken place from the 20 -- effectively taking 15 yards off of the Cardinals final drive. The call wasn't made. I heard the NFL's VP of Officials talk about the call on the radio. His explanation made sense; he said that the officials only have so long to wait to make the call. Right as the official left to go watch the extra point, Holmes started to use the ball as a prop. It was an unusual circumstance because they were letting Holmes keep the ball (as an obvious souvenir). Still, the call needed to be made. It's been made plenty of times throughout the season.

Would any of those things have changed the outcome of the game? Maybe. Maybe not. Cumulatively it's amazing to think that all of those things broke the way they did to deliver the finish we ultimately received. That's the luck of the draw in some sense. It's what you get when you have a one game championship.

It was a lot of fun. I'm glad I was there. It was the most memorable sporting experience of my life. I'll always think of what might have been. I'll always remember Larry Fitzgerald's run to the end zone to put the Cardinals ahead with barely 2 minutes remaining in the Super Bowl.

I'm not disappointed. This year's Cardinals gave us the greatest season they've had in my lifetime. And they nearly won the Super Bowl. It was a lot of fun.

Mike's Super Bowl XLIII Experience: Part 2

Two things I forgot in the last post: seat cushions and post game t-shirt sales.

I've seen Super Bowl seat cushions from time to time and I always wondered about them. Sometimes people have them at a Marlins game or a Canes game. Well, we got them. Everyone at the Super Bowl gets a soft, souvenir seat cushion to take home. I guess that's why the face value of the tickets is $800.

After the game we walked past a guy selling Steelers Super Bowl champions shirts. Since we happened to be walking with a group of Cardinals fans, someone asked "do you have any for the other team?" The guy said that he did and that he'd sell them to us for $10 each. They were knockoffs though. Had they been real, I probably would have bought one or two. Then I could cry every time I looked at it.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Mike's Super Bowl XLIII Experience: Part 1

On Sunday I attended my very first Super Bowl (as you know if you've been reading the recent entries). While the Cardinals lost, it was a heck of an experience. Before the details start to get fuzzy for me, I thought I should write down the highlights. So that's what this is. At first I thought I could bang it all out in one sitting, but there's a lot. This is the first part. It doesn't deal with any of the on-the-field stuff. Just the experience of getting to and from the stadium and what it was like for me aside from the game.

While I haven't been to too many major sporting events, I think I've been to my fair share. I've been to the World Series, the BCS Championship game, other bowl games that were de-facto championship games, the NLCS (in 1987, 1997, and 2003), the NLDS, and plenty of playoff games (NFL and mostly NBA). But none of those compare to the Super Bowl.

Laura and I left for the stadium around 1:15. Yes, more than 5 hours before kick off. And we did this under the assumption that we wouldn't be able to tailgate in our assigned parking lot.

Traffic on the way to the stadium wasn't bad. We made our way smoothly. What was odd were the road closures and freeway exits. Signs were posted on the freeway indicating which exit to take (depending on the color code for your assigned parking lot). Fortunately this was all indicated on our parking pass. Still, it was odd to see standard street signs covered up (apparently to hide the actual location of Raymond James Stadium).

All told we probably had to go 7 – 10 extra miles to arrive at our assigned parking lot. Once we arrived we found that we could have tailgated if we had wanted (but we didn't have any supplies, since we were informed that we couldn't). We didn't though as the lot was crawling with Steelers fans.

Also, despite being told that parking would be limited to fans with game tickets, we found no check point for that. This was the lone hole in security that we saw during the day.

So we left the car and headed towards the stadium, hoping to visit the NFL Experience again, as we optimistically hoped that the store would be restocked with Cardinals gear.

Approaching the stadium was no easy task. The four streets that surround the perimeter of the stadium (and/or its parking lots) were blocked. There were fences and concrete barracades everywhere. Surprisingly, fans were not allowed to walk down the blocked off streets. Instead we were only allowed to cross at designated barriers. This made for very lengthy walks to and from the stadium (not to worry though – NFL VIPs, like Mike Singletary – who we saw, received escorts in golf carts; I'm not sure what happened to folks in wheelchairs or who were otherwise disabled).

Eventually we made it near the stadium (near the pirate ship end) and received conflicting information as to whether we could walk through the stadium to the NFL Experience. Since we weren't sure, we figured we'd walk around the stadium and enter through the NFL Experience.

I'd talk about the state of the port-a-potties we encountered, but that would make me throw up in my mouth... a lot. It was disgusting. You'd think that they could bring in nicer set ups like you see at golf tournaments and tennis tournaments. I know that's a little frou-frou, but this is a high priced event and there are long lines everywhere. They could provide decent bathroom facilities. End of rant on that...

Back to the journey to the stadium: by this point we'd already been approached by half a dozen "Christians" who were either talking over a loudspeaker, handing us pamphlets or cards, or who wanted to talk to us about something. Some folks even sent their children up to us to try to hand us propaganda. I've seen this sort of thing at other events, but nothing was at the level of the Super Bowl. I felt bad for the kids, they seemed to be brain washed – and they were clearly forced by their parents to approach us.

Side note: I took the bait from one of these folks and took a business sized "trivia" card from one of these folks. He claimed the questions were of Cardinals trivia. They were – at least the first four questions. The fifth said, "What do the Arizona Cardinals, you, and everyone else have in common?" The answer was, of course, death. From there it went into a lengthy religious script…

On a funnier note, one random guy standing in the street "congratulated" Laura and I on being fans of the first baseball team to reach the Super Bowl. That cracked me up for whatever reason. Maybe it was because the guy could have been genuine.

To reach the NFL Experience we had to walk around literally half of the stadium. For most of the walk we were on the far side (relative to the stadium) of Dale Mabry, which is a main thorough fare in Tampa. Take whatever the most recognizable, highly trafficked street is in your area (other than a freeway) and imagine it as Dale Mabry. Now shut it down for a day and a half. That's what was happening in Tampa on Super Sunday.

Eventually we reached the line for the NFL Experience. While you had to have a ticket to the game to enter the NFL Experience on game day, the line was still exceptionally long. To get into the NFL Experience you had to go through the full security check (which thankfully we didn't have to go through again to get into the game as we stayed in the secure area at this point).

The queue for security was difficult to describe. It was a long winding maze that took a long time to get through (I wish I had timed it). While a large truck was brought in with a video board that was playing a live feed of NFL network, you could only see it half the time you were in line. The rest of the time you were forced to tune out the preachers and to avoid taking their handouts.

Eventually we walked inside of a fenced area, but the queue continued. Now there were large dumpsters around us. Apparently it was time to dispose of our water bottles, food, and other contraband. Keep in mind that contraband includes camera cases, bags, and purses larger than a certain size. Fortunately we were aware of the restrictions. Many folks apparently weren't. There were hundreds of nice camera cases, bags, and purses discarded in the pre-security check area. Had someone been willing to walk an armful back to their car, they could have made a small fortune by reselling the items later (probably enough to pay for their tickets). We saw Coach purses, Nikon camera bags, and dozens of other high quality things.

To no surprise, the NFL somehow managed to get people to discard these things in an area where folks without a ticket couldn't get. I doubt the security folks working the area had the opportunity to claim the discarded goods (to take home or to sell). Instead my (cynical) guess is that the NFL takes the merchandise and donates it or sells it on their own for a profit.

After discarding things, it's on to the security check. Men and women are separated and patted down. There seemed to be profiling going on here (which worked to our benefit, I suppose). Laura's patter-downer noticed something "hard" in Laura's sweatshirt… when Laura said it was a hat and scarf she was allowed to pass through (without showing the hat or scarf). After that we were allowed to meet back up and go through the metal detectors together. This was pretty much like at the airport, except that we were able to keep our shoes on. I somehow set off the metal detector, but they let me through without further investigation (I'm still not sure if that made me feel safe or not).

Finally we were through to the point where someone was prepared to scan our tickets. Now the moment of truth hit me: had we bought counterfeit tickets? While the guy we bought from looked like a reputable ticket broker, there was no way to be sure. And the ticket pick-up process was an experience in itself (probably worthy of it's own story on another day). We wouldn't know until the guy scanned our tickets… fortunately there was no surprise. We were in.

So here we are, hours before kick off still (we left plenty of time just so that we wouldn't be late). The process was by no means fast, but it didn't take as much time as we'd feared either.

We had time for a bite to eat, so we went to one of the stands near the video boards at the NFL Experience. Amazingly, they didn't have things like hot dogs and corn dogs ready. Why set up booths and let thousands of people inside and not have food to sell? Were they hoping to sell food on Monday, after everyone left town?

Anyway, we settled on something to share. A sandwhich, soda, and bag of chips set us back $21. Nice. And the soda was warm.

From there we went to the NFL Experience store. When we visited the day before (taking in the whole NFL Experience with friends) we were disappointed in the available selection of Cardinals gear. While Seahawks and Falcons gear was readily available, there was hardly any Cardinals gear – Super Bowl or otherwise.

That was unfortunate, as I was prepared to spend practically every dollar I have to get anything in red with Cardinals on it.

That was Saturday. Like with all things on Sunday, we started with hope. And we were rewarded… kind of. There were a few new things – like jerseys. The men's jerseys were the Cardinals road jerseys (white with red sleeves). No Super Bowl patches on them (which was correct – since the Cards Super Bowl jerseys were red). I thought it was odd that there were only four jerseys (Warner, Fitzgerald, and Boldin were givens) and that the fourth one was Tim Hightower. I really like Tim Hightower and I think he has a great future ahead of him, but I was surprised to see his jersey.

Laura considered a women's jersey, but they were white on white (on red anywhere other than the numbers and letters – which were in the correct font). They pretty much looked like practice jerseys. There were a few hats, but they were all crappy. So we passed.

We walked through the NFL Experience a little bit and took some pictures. We saw Dan Patrick in the NBC booth and took a last look at the Lombardi trophy (or a facsimile of it – I'm really not sure). After meandering a little more, we started to make our way to the stadium.

As we did that, we realized it was getting chilly and we weren't sure that we'd be warm enough after the sun went down. So we started scoping out souvenir stands. While there wasn't much Cardinals merchandise to be had, there were NFC Champs blankets at nearly every souvenir stand. I guess I have to give the NFL credit for knowing that Cardinals fans don't do well when the weather gets even slightly cool. So we scooped up a blanket for $65. All things considered, that was a relative bargain.

After that we went to grab a bite to eat. That was when we ran into MC Hammer. Seriously. This was before his commercial for Cash4Gold (or whatever) aired. Hammer was a really nice guy. He took a picture with Laura and talked to us for a minute.

At this point it had been well over two hours since we left the car and it was an hour and a half or so (maybe a little bit more) until kick off. So were nowhere near the game having started and I've already written over 1,700 words. Concise I am not.

So let's skip ahead to the pre-game stuff. I was overwhelmed by Faith Hill's rendition of "God Bless America" and Jennifer Hudson's singing of the national anthem. Finding out later that both were lipsyncing was a huge disappointment. As soon as Hudson finished, the (unannounced, but expected, but forgotten at the moment because the song was so good) flyover took place. The Thunderbirds were very cool (and we walked down the ramp with them after the game).

During the game Kim Kardashian's mom stood in front of our seats and taped a segment for Enetertainment Tonight (or some program like that). Kim's sister was there too (the one that doesn't look like a horse). They were both nice (Laura had a conversation with both of them, of course, and took a picture).

Meeting MC Hammer and some of the Kardashians was interesting to me. Before the game Laura and I wondered what the crowd would be like. Given how many celebrities and athletes seem to be in town pre-Super Bowl, I figured we'd run into some famous people. They can't all sit in luxury boxes. So we met three celebrities (pseudo celebrities at least). If we'd walked around the concourse a little more my guess is that we would have seen a few more.

Getting back to our car was not a problem, although the religious freaks were waiting for us -- with their microphones still blaring. I should have asked those religious freaks if Larry Fitzgerald was god or a god and if so why he didn't have his team win the game. People tried to say things like that to these zealots, but they would respond with something like, "You sir are filled with spirits -- and not the Holy Spirit -- sober up and come back to talk to me..." Which was pretty funny and disturbing at the same time.

Once we got to the car though, it was a mess. We pulled out of our space, started to merge into traffic, and then... stopped... for almost two hours. By the time we started moving there was no traffic on the roads, so we got back to the place we were staying pretty fast. But it was a mess. I've never seen anything like it.

So that's the recap of my gameday non-game Super Bowl experience. While it's long, believe it or not I left out a lot of the fun.

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