02 January 2008

California Dreamin' - On Such A Winter's Day

It wasnt some premeditated, offbeat idea to christen this baseball blog with a basketball entry, but it is now my wanton intent to follow up that brassy breach of decorum with a football post, for no other reason than we went to the Rose Bowl Tuesday. If a lacrosse or badminton article ensues, baseball purists may report this to:

Assignment Editor
Diamondhacks
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Phoenix AZ

Pasadena and the Parade

As a billion of you are no doubt aware, the 2008 Rose Bowl wasnt much of a game, so on to the granddaddy of pregame hoopla. Our family alit at Bob Hope airstrip early gameday morning, in hopes of catching the Tournament of Roses Parade, and thanks to a polite Armenian with black hair, big sad eyes and a leather jacket, we did. Why, for a mere $50, he chivalrously opened and closed his chariot door for my speechless wife - and taxied us just up the street to Pasadena - at no additional charge!

Those seeking out world class floats, free of obstructions or grandstand fees, are advised to camp out overnight, be seven feet tall, or bring stepladders, as local stragglers do. Fiesta Bowl Parades, a pleasure in their own right, are nothing like this - our crossstreet off Colorado Blvd was effectively impassable due to the throng and twenty deep at intersections.

The floats (pictured) were as advertised, enormous and beautiful. Grand Marshall Emeril Lagasse was enormous - and Portuguese. A band from Akashita High School in Japan duckwalked their way through John Phillip Souza's "Stars n Stripes Forever" (aka "a duck may be somebody's mother..."). There were bands from Hawaii, El Salvador and Switzerland, and equestrians from Peru. We saw a Native American chief, as tall as a skyscraper, and the highest Los Angeles Dodger since Steve Howe. My favorite, though, was the Beijing 2008 entry, not so much for the lovely float and it's trailing attendants clad in colorful silks, but for the discernable exhaust billowing from the rear of the float. It wasnt a put on, like huge plumes on 9/11, but you could clearly see smoke rising from the chassis. Pay no attention to that emission behind the curtain (of Chrysanthemums)!!

Lest this turn into a parade post (that was ostensibly a football post on a baseball blog), let me wrap up by saying my favorite part of the parade was the spectators. First, folks who make an effort to attend a parade at 8 in the morning are, I have generally found, pretty nice people. They're not drunk, families mostly, keeping warm with coffee, blankets and friendly conversation, until the sun's rays and floats both eke past buildings to light up grateful faces. Second, the crowd comprised all ages and was, like LA, incredibly diverse ethnically. Everyone's a minority here, with many more interracial couples than in Phoenix, or perhaps anywhere else in the country. On the lowest visual level, nearest the ground, one sees wheelchairs and stooped over elderly, often white. Higher up, at eye level, is this teeming salad bowl of young adults from six continents, and on their shoulders sit the genuine melting pot - their mixed race offspring with ubiquitous, coffee toned skin. As the famous floats passed horizontally, a shadow parade rose vertically on the sidelines, chronicling our national complexion in sedimentary layers, hinting at our mutual future.

After the parades, we strolled west down Colorado Blvd in the direction of a shuttle bus to the big game. There was garbage - mostly paper, confetti and empty coffee cups - strewn over both curbs for miles. Even with the camping out, the sheer quantity of trash surprised me, until my wife explained that receptacles were removed to help secure the homeland. We walked in the middle of the boulevard, still closed to traffic, and passed at least a dozen placarded evangelicals wielding megaphones, shouting at anyone and everyone to repent. They were mostly white guys with bad skin and crazy eyes, the first of whom hung so close on the ass of the parade you'd swear they were on the official program:


48. Arcadia HS band
49. Cerritos Equestrian Team
50. Strident Proselytizers w/ Megaphones.

Colorado Blvd is part of historic Route 66, and some art deco can be glimpsed beneath sixty or seventy years of soot and grime, but it has been largely displaced by big boxes like Macy's and government buildings and the odd Asian lingerie shop.

The Stadium and Pregame

Near Fair Oaks, we veered off the main drag - with thirty thousand like minded fans - towards the morphing shuttle line. The service boasted hundreds of buses and our human line moved fairly quickly, but we still stood there half an hour due to the number of people. It seemed longer because our family had the misfortune to queue up next to a party of drunken idiots, who were consistently profane and not even sporadically entertaining. I dont consider alcoholics at sporting events a big problem, and I dont consider idiots at sporting events a big problem, but drunken idiots at sporting events are starting to get on my nerves. Innate dullness and a baseline absence of charm are unavoidable within large crowds, but when mixed with beery lack of inhibition, becomes a toxic cocktail served upon the civilized sporting public. If this were a white supremacist tractor pull or a Hole concert, I'd likely grin and bear it, but it seems to me that if one's paying $200 a seat for a once in a lifetime immersion in The Granddaddy of Bowl Games - and gets trapped next to a pedestrian, alcoholic F-bomb squad - one ought to be able to trade in such tasteless neighbors for a wittier drunk, like Peter O'Toole. A detachable stub on the end of your game ticket would work - redeemable for one Peter O'Toole. Mildly amusing sots like Dudley Moore and Paula Poundstone could work the lesser bowls.

The grounds at Arroyo Seco sit in a green belt glen surrounded by elevated residential neighborhoods, through which our pregame and postgame buses badly scraped their undercarriages on the hilly streets - frankly, the dips didnt look steep at all; these city buses have less clearance than Cheech & Chong's fiberweed van. The concrete bowl was poured in 1922, to seat 57000 fans and has expanded twice to it's current capacity of just under a zillion. Most of the seats dont have seatbacks and the aisles between sections are narrow and fairly far apart. There are no food vendors inside the bowl - you purchase chow on the circular concourse outside and tightrope your way back to your seat - if you dare. My kid liked the $6 brisket sandwich with beans - cheaper than at a Diamondbacks game.

From the oval asphalt concourse, we entered portal 24 , which was fun in a retro way. The long, enclosed ramp gradually descends into the bowels of the creaky bowl, abruptly ending in a very steep bank of concrete steps up to the field portal. Wheelchairs? Ha! Who cares about stinkin' wheelchairs?! After this climb and descent into the bowl, we sat in Row #9. It was about the twentieth row from the grass, and considering there's no running track in-between like at the LA Coliseum, we felt close to the action. On either side of us were Ohio State fans, who had bought tickets early, on faith, and got caught holding the BCS bag. The stands appeared to be about 45% Illini orange, 35-40% USC Maroon and 15-20% sartorially uncommitted.

The world famous USC marching band played, posed and primped nearby. It's a big band with 18 tubas and they sound fine, however, lesser bands must sound reasonably proficient aping the same two or three songs over and over and over again. At least the band from Urbana reached for "Stairway to Heaven", although noisy antics from some Trojan band members exiting the halftime field rendered delicate Illini movements inaudible. The preppies in Oakley's and centurion helmets appeared to be poorly utilized on this day and honestly, rather self aggrandizing and dull. The eleven USC song girls were attractive in a customary, white sort of way.

Before Navy SEALS parachuted onto the field, a spotting craft dropped rags or socks from several thousand feet to gauge the wind. At first, some in the crowd thought the rags were people but as the spinning rags descended it became clear they were just rags. All the rags landed on the field, remarkable given the elevation from which they were dropped and that no human intelligence guides their breezy descent. Call me Un-American, but after that, the highly trained SEALS didnt exactly knock my socks off.

The Game

The talent gap and disparity in team speed was evident very early in the game. USC's backs consistently reached the corner on sweeps, Illinois backs were routinely turned back for losses. Trojan receivers were open all night, whether Booty hit them or not, which he usually did. Booty's sleight of hand impressed. He had a ton of time, but deserves credit for some of that. He looked like a senior quarterback.

Most pundits point to the Illini fumble in the SC end zone early in the third quarter as the game's pivotal moment, with the score 21-10. I agree, to a point - an Illinois recovery (and TD) there would make it 21-17 with bigtime orange mo. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Even if Rashard Mendenhall was the best player on the field (debatable), the five or six next best all wore maroon and gold. USC moved the ball in big chunks the entire game (633 total yds), and the final 32 point margin seemed more a function of a structural mismatch than of bad luck or bounces. USC put the ball on the ground, Booty was intercepted, he missed one wide open guy for a TD, other receivers dropped passes, the long snapper threw one over the punter's head, and they were called for thirteen infractions. And they still scored 49 points. I'm gently suggesting to Illinois faithful that however tempting it is to claim your team could've played better, understand that USC could've played a much crisper game themselves. And that might've been very ugly. No shame in Champaign; you accomplished alot this season. You just got outclassed by a considerably deeper, more talented team.

Well, outclassed is a poor choice of words. Pete Carroll is a superlative recruiter and an innovative coach, but when it comes to class, let's be honest, USC hasnt outclassed anyone since his arrival in south central. Tuesday, his dominant team was flagged for a dizzying array of showboating and unsportsmanlike penalities, including one that could have resulted in a player ejection: when an Illinois receiver was windmilled to the ground by his facemask, after the receiver was well out of bounds. It's nothing new. Reggie Bush, perhaps the sport's biggest talent in a decade, often felt the need to mock inferior opponents with ostentatious preening prior to actually reaching the end zone.

Pete Carroll

In truth, I have mixed feelings about Carroll. He's an intelligent maverick, and his teams appear to have a lot of fun (in addition to success). Stodgy college football could use more independent thinkers. But like the Oklahoma and Miami outlaw dynasties before them, Carroll's teams willfully - and increasingly it seems - disregard basic tenets of sportsmanship. Despite his perfunctory protests to the contrary, it's pretty clear Carroll views a wide range of showboating as comfortably within the bounds of whatever paradigm he's constructed at SC. He could nip it in an instant if he really wanted to, but this may actually be a fairly important part of what he's trying to say to the world - part of who Pete Carroll is. He's made a terrific living bending guidelines and living by his own rules. Rightly or wrongly, I think he sees himself as a better coach than anyone else, and quietly revels in having ghetto proxies act out his thinly veiled disdain for convention.

After the game, in response to a question about whether SC should've been in the championship game, Pete said his team "took everything" that was "given" to them, implying that his team maybe didnt get a fair shake with the BCS. Well, look. USC was "given" the Stanford game, right? Did SC "take" that? Did SC "take" Oregon? No. The fact is USC has one of the two or three most talented teams in nation ( most would say the most talented), but lacked the early self discipline to warrant a championship berth this year. That's not to say SC isnt playing better than anyone else right now - they very likely are - but that's not how national football champions are selected - that's not the rules of the "game", no matter how Pete tries to misconstrue it. We hear similar drivel from SC crybabies every other year. We heard it in 2002 - and in 2003. We heard it in 2006, until SC criminally underestimated UCLA on their way to their ninth "mythical" championship in seven years, or so it seems.

Epilogue

We left the Rose Bowl after three quarters, so were spared the sight of USC dutifully running up the score, to combat imagined slights from the BCS and to help fill the emotional void in the lives of a sizable minority of SC's fan base. Most SC fans are, of course, unobjectionable, like fans of any other team - but teams that are very good year after year often attract a front running element, devoid of sportsmanship, whose sole attachment is to the structural dominance rather than anything intrinsic about the school, team or even the sport. Yankee Stadium is full of these insecure losers, eager to glom onto something, anything, more successful and meaningful than their empty lives. USC games are no different. On our way out, a "diehard" on the aisle several rows up, sarcastically asked my son and I why we were leaving so early, even though neither of us wore a stitch of Illinois orange. We ignored him, just like we ignored the imposing jackasses waiting for the shuttle, who it should be noted, repeatedly identified themselves as USC fans.

By nightfall, the parade trash still hadnt been picked up on Colorado Blvd. We hailed a taxi and arrived back at Bob Hope Airport two hours before our scheduled flight, which was delayed an additional three hours due to a mechanical problem. I finished a NYT Sunday crossword puzzle and acrostic and then called my mother and asked if she knew any good Bob Hope jokes. Being under 90, she didn't. Seating in the cramped terminal was very limited. We sat, the three of us, on the floor near Gate A9, directly under a lime green wall ad that was surprisingly warm to the touch, until we thought it might give us cancer and crawled to a new patch of unbelievably hard carpet. Other captive passengers, broken of spirit if not of bone, defiantly sat in "available" wheelchairs until our plane finally arrived. We touched down at Sky Harbor at 1:30AM and sans luggage were in bed by two. We had seen the Rose Bowl and one of the world's great parades, and lots of little things in between. All that was missing was a decent football game - and someone like Peter O'Toole.

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