Saturday, March 29, 2008

Break Out The Snow Shoes; It's Baseball Season!

I kid you not when I say there will be baseball in Michigan today!

Of course, the preceding 10 games I had been scheduled for from March 19th to today have all been snowed out. For the second-consecutive March, winter's icy grip has grabbed our collegiate programs and throttled the season to a sudden halt. This is the latest start to any season I've been blessed to work since 2000.

Today's game was to be played in Olivet, Michigan between the Comets of Olivet College and Tri-State University. Then old man winter dumped four inches of snow on us Thursday night. Friday I got an e-mail notification through the Arbiter that this MIAA doubleheader would go down to Angola, Indiana. Friday night those plans were halted -- Tri-State is unplayable, too.

Back to Olivet we go for a 2 p.m. first pitch, which ought to be about 40 degrees but dry. Perfect!

This is what college baseball entails in the Great Lakes for any hopeful players, coaches and officials. My first Division-I game was a 33-degree snowflaker at Eastern Michigan University about seven years ago that was so miserable, I stopped trying to write the changes on the lineup card because I didn't have any feeling in my hands. I've heard more than my share of players and parents at the prep level tell me that they should be going to this college or this program, that their coach isn't promoting them enough, so on and so forth.

You have to be a pretty good ballplayer in high school to be able to play Division III baseball. In Division II, each team has four or five kids that would be on a Division-I roster if there had been a spot for them. It's was already that competitive when the NCAA mandated baseball scholarships be equalized, meaning coaches can't pare up their scholarships differently to each, individual player. If a coach signs you, he's got to be certain you're the real deal.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Integrity, Effort Matters Every Single Day

What we do, as sports officials, matters. How we go about our business and the respect we show to coaches and players goes a long way. In an industry that says you're supposed to be invisible, it seems we're seen for a lot of other things other than balls and strikes.

A young man approached me in a gym last Friday night with the question, "Do you umpire baseball?" When I answered yes he told me he had seen me three or four different times in the gym and finally remembered where he knew me from -- working NAIA baseball at the now-closed Orchard Lake St. Mary's College. Ironically, he remembered me from a game that was anything but memorable for anyone involved. It was a typical March snowflaker in Michigan. 34 degrees, intermittent snowflakes and a fierce wind whipping off the lake. Sun? Try battleship gray for 12 straight hours.

A day so miserable for baseball even the Tigers would have cancelled. A day I couldn't keep the ball-strike count to save my life, my hands so frozen I couldn't control my indicator. I couldn't concentrate on what I was doing I was so cold. Naturally, the St. Mary's coach was irate, and justifiably so. It was just a long day at the yard -- period -- and I was struggling. Yet this young man remembered me from working a ballgame on the most forgettable day of baseball imaginable. It was humbling to realize what we do matters on even the worst of days.

It's important to go about your job without fanfare as an official. Truthfully, it's what you want as an umpire. No whackers or bangers -- that's a close play at the bag. And definitely no boogers -- that's making a controversial call you don't need to make. If nothing notable happens in the game you work? Great! If something occurs that requires you to get after it, then do so and then go back to the business at hand. But everything counts, and that's what humbled me by this young man's statements. He could have not taken the time to introduce himself and make conversation. The fact he did so with some grace tells me I did it right on a day I wasn't right at all.

It all matters. The way we accept humility on days we make mistakes. The way we carry ourselves off the field. A lot of guys in our industry want to tell others how great they are. They get this game, work this conference or had the state finals this many times.

Do you know what I work? JV college football. NAIA basketball. Division Three, Junior College and NAIA baseball. I work high school in all three sports, too. The important thing is I treat the games I work the same as I would treat a game in the Mid-American Conference, Big Ten or wherever. I give the same effort, courtesy and professionalism to every game.

What we do and how we do it matters, no matter what level and no matter who's watching. It's been a long, humbling road towards that lesson for me.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Kilpatrick's Wife & Children Become Mayor's Collateral Damage

If you live in Michigan, you might know that 82 years ago today, in 1917, the Colts of Detroit's Northwestern High, still located on West Grand Boulevard due east of Grand River, won the first Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) basketball title.

But that's not what anyone and everyone in 'The Mitten' is talking about today. No, an entire state is talking about this historic day, this March 24th of 2008. For the first time in Detroit's long history, a sitting mayor has been charged with a felony. The sitting mayor is Kwame Kilpatrick and he got the book thrown at him, with eight counts in a 12-count indictment, announced today and viewed with the same rapt attention as the orange crop report in the popular 80's movie Trading Places, starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd.

But that's not the tragedy of today. During my segment on Parker & The Man, heard daily on Detroit's News-Talk station, WCHB 1200 AM, it's not that Kwame Kilpatrick will contest the charges, though I honestly don't see what there is to contest. No, what floors me is how little regard he actually has for his wife and his children. Kilpatrick has thrown his immediates into the path of the tornado with reckless abandon. If you do business with the Kilpatrick's City of Detroit from this point forward, this is who you've gotten into bed with.

Kilpatrick has balked at nearly every opportunity to walk away with some grace or dignity. The gloves came off today, and Kilpatrick's painted himself into a corner. He'll fight this battle -- one he could win or lose -- with something else at stake. His future. As he fights these charges, he'll sorely lack the political clout needed to garner support, especially that of the financial nature, to win a re-election. Therefore, should he lose a court battle on these charges, he could have no job while facing jail time, leaving his wife and children to fend for themselves.

I could care less if Kilpatrick ends up innocent or guilty, because I didn't elect the man and I don't have to replace the man. But Kwame Kilpatrick is no man. A real man would not -- under any circumstances -- endanger the safety or well-being of his wife or children, and especially not like this.

Kilpatrick could have exited stage right with some dignity in tact. There was room for saving face before today. He would have still had enough clout to earn a handsome job in the private sector, avoided a lot the problems he currently faces and had a chance to salvage a still-promising career.

Now? He's hoping Christine Beatty doesn't hire a new, uncompromised lawyer. He's hoping she is loyal and doesn't flip, although she has the most to gain and the least to lose from doing just that.

And he's wishing we'd talk about Northwestern High state title of 1917, too.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Believe It: A Dondero Oak Helped Topple Duke

If you watched last night's late games of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, you watched Belmont come oh-so-close to outing mighty Duke. Unless you graduated from the Durham, North Carolina school or picked the Dukies to win it all in your bracket, you were rooting for Belmont.

But it made me think of something else. I recalled an afternoon 12 years ago, when Eastern Michigan University ran the Dukies off the floor at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, and an Oakland County alum was there in the first person. Theron Wilson, Eastern Michigan swingman, was from the most feared high school team in Oakland County from 1989-1991.

Royal Oak Dondero.

Surprised? How loaded was Dondero? Wilson was 6'10", a ferocious shot blocker and dunker. Ben Bancroft went on to become a four-year swingman at Albion College and an All-MIAA selection, too. Former Detroit Tiger pitcher Jason Beverlin was a power forward for those Oak teams. During the 1990-91 season, Dondero was ranked within the Top 10 in the statewide Associated Press poll, matching a mark the Oaks had achived only once before, exactly 10 years earlier. Bob Herm, longtime boys' coach at Southfield Lathrup High and current Clawson High AD, told me a handful of years ago of those Dondero teams: "They were the only reason we didn't win the league -- it was an impossible task to beat those Dondero teams."

Fast forward to '96. After being tied 26-all at the half, Eastern's Eagles ran Duke off the floor in a 75-60 win. Wilson blocked a handful of shots, altered countless others, triggered the back-to-back fast breaks that broke the Blue Devils and punctuate Eastern's win to the national stage with a monstrous, two-handed dunk captured by an Associated Press photographer and published worldwide.

Eastern became the first team since 1955 to knock Duke out in the first-round. That evening, on the same floor, Princeton's Tigers would use a back-door cut, bounce pass and a lay-up in the final seconds to stun defending champion UCLA.

You can watch the movie Hoosiers but you won't find a better day to watch basketball in Indiana.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Imagine a high school game that has a rhythm, pace and flow. The game and it's score ebb back and forth, the competition washing over parents and fans, entrancing us with a natural, narrative drama.

Imagine it because currently, in high school basketball, it doesn't exist. The game stops and starts too frequently. Fouls pile up, violations clog the pace and games have all the rhythm of a fourth-grade rock band. It's harsh, I know, but true. I referee this stuff and if you think it frustrates you as a fan or coach watching us call foul after foul, and stopping the game to enforce violations, trust me when I say this: It drives us officials mad, too. We struggle with what to pass on and what to enforce. By the time the teams, coaches and officials have an understanding of what kind of game we'll see, the horn blows. It's the second quarter, our 15th stoppage of play in eight minutes. That's a whistle every 35 seconds.

It's time for high school basketball to take a serious look at going to a two-halves format, replacing the current but outdated four-quarter, 32-minute game. The prep game has outgrown this configuration. At most games, by the time a flow and rhythm develop, it's just seconds from the first quarter horn. I enjoyed the opportunity to watch and listen to Fox Sports Net - Detroit's broadcast of the Michigan High School Athletic Association's boys' basketball finals this past Saturday. The idea of replacing quarters with halves continually jumped out at me and, as speaking a fan, former player and current official of the prep game, the time has come to move forward on this idea. I liken halves to the way FSN's Greg Kelser eats potato chips in the Palace press room: One at a time with an easy, continuous flow. Sorry Greg, I know I promised I'd never let your secret slip, but it's an analogy that works.

First, the pace of the game has changed. Players are stronger, more athletic and have year-round training options to prepare for high school basketball. Player don't trade in football pads in droves for the gym shoes because most player specialize. Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) clubs offer athletes preparation on a year-round basis. Weight training, coaching options, specialty camps and high school summer programs have cultivated a player and style to the game that can no longer be accommodated by the four short quarters. Truthfully, we don't need to hide within four quarters -- let's let these horses run!

It's time to switch to, at a minimum, a 16-minute half. In metro Detroit officials want, and justly deserve, a raise. It's merited, but I also think we should give coaches and administrators a good bang for the buck -- let's go to an 18-minute half. Wouldn't an extra four minutes mean a coach needs to use a deeper bench? It would mean a kid currently buried who on the bench might have a chance to play. It would mean less griping about fouls on star players from coaches. There's no excuses in an 18-minute half. If you can't stay out of foul trouble, you'll be on the bench.

Most importantly, it would mean high schools games could have an actual flow to them. Wouldn't that be nice? It's frustrating to see the amount of physical contact in the game today, constant whistles for fouls and violations that change plays. If you watch the game in any capacity, have you ever looked at the scoreboard to realize after the first eight minutes, the fouls are 6 to 3 and there's been another six violations for over-and-back, traveling, five seconds/closely guarded and a pair of out-of-bounds calls in one quarter? And we wonder why the scores in some games don't break 80 or 90 points? That's 15 stoppages followed by another 120-second break. It's an agonizing pace, one that could be avoided with a half that doesn't stop a good run for a quarter.

I'm not calling for a radical overhaul. The prep game doesn't shot clocks, television replay, half-circles for charges and a mind-numbing amount of technological advancements towards major college basketball. We need a return to basketball that includes what we all want to see: Running, jumping, passing, shooting and scoring. What we have now is an endless cacophony of whistles because high school basketball has too many self-induced stoppages.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

2007-08: The Season That Never Ended

Most coaches, players, officials and fans of prep basketball will say, to a man or woman, the end of the season is bittersweet. The sore legs, long nights and endless amount of games gets old but the end of the season brings hope, spirit and the occasional miracle when the tournaments begin. The win-or-go-home battles renew the batteries of everyone involved.

But not this year. Not in Michigan, anyway. The season switch, fought to the bitter end by the associated high schools, came and went. Did doom and gloom envelop the state, region or, for that matter, Oakland County? No. The games went on, the season played out and by the end of this weekend, all the high school champions in both girls' and boys' basketball will be crowned.

Yet I haven't found anyone closely-associated with prep basketball that calls the season a positive change. Most girls' coaches and players lamented the change they were forced to accept. One public school in Detroit played just 15 girls' games this season and that included the district opener, a first-round loss. Maybe weather played a factor in that total, or maybe constraints dictated by an outdated facility with multiple uses meant less games. It's no secret that Detroit's public schools aren't operating with lots of loose cash to build new gyms with, but 15 games is a full 25% fewer than allowed by the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA).

Speaking as a working official, the season for me and many other officials had no rhythm to it. Under the previous seasonal configuration, we worked basketball on Tuesdays and Thursday, and many of us worked football on Friday and Saturdays in the fall. In winter, it was a Tuesday-Friday rotation. This year saw games played on any and all nights of the week for no rhyme or reason. One afternoon I worked as an emergency fill-in at a highly-competitive boys' game at Detroit Pershing High before working West Bloomfield's ladies as they hosted Troy's young Colts in the evening. The next morning I opened The Oakland Press to find my girls' game was the only girls' game in the entire three-county region.

Many officials who work basketball also work football, baseball or both additional sports. When football ended, basketball practice was in full swing. Many of us had just finished washing and putting away our white football knickers when we pulled on black slacks and matching shoes. Now basketball is ending and in 15 days, baseball starts trying to play games. That's simply not enough downtime and a case of prep sorts burnout, the likes we haven't ever seen in Oakland County, much less the entire state of Michigan.

Yet the skies aren't so gloomy after all. High school baseball is on the horizon, and soon we'll be recalling the all-Oakland County, Division-I state championship classic from a year ago that Lake Orion won over Farmington in their final at-bat. We'll have a few traditional Catholic League powers in Orchard Lake St. Mary's, Catholic Central and Brother Rice to contend for a possible title. Maybe the Farmington contingent will be back in the fray, and what's to say of Troy and Troy Athens, who play an annual game at Comerica Park, which still doesn't seem like the ole' ballpark. Heck, maybe we'll even let the 'Miracle Maples' of Birmingham Seaholm's 1988 championship enjoy a reunion -- it was 20 years ago the Maples rattled off four-consecutive wins starting in the regional final to win the Class A title. I guess we'll have to mention Royal Oak Kimball's four Class A state title game appearances in 10 years, too.

But if you still wish it was the start and not the end to basketball season, don't fret: We're only about 270 days away from yet another stirring Pontiac Central - Pontiac Northern tilt on the hardwood pines.

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Rhodes, Jones Knew How To Build A Rivalry

When I was seven years old, I watched Coach Steve Rhodes bring legendary shooting forward Bruce Flowers (pictured to the left/courtesy The Daily Tribune) and the Berkley Bears to Royal Oak Kimball to meet Coach Chuck Jones and the Knights for a District Championship game on a Friday night. Berkley wore their home whites and Kimball wore their road blues, as if that changed the fact it was a Kimball home game. All four sections of the Kimball's court-length bleachers were filled and the floor crammed 10 people deep ringing the court, easily a crowd of 6,000 or more. Kimball and Berkley were already league rivals by decree of mutually-agreed hatred for one another. Berkley owned Kimball in hoops; Kimball was, for many years, the area's 800-pound gorilla in football.

To beat your rival at their own game was the goal of each school. In the mid-1970's, this could have been a Friday night at any Detroit-area school before society 'professionalized' our prep sports. In the game I referenced above, Berkley was shooting the front-end of a one-and-one with less than two seconds left. The official opposite the table went up with his hand to trigger the clock on a missed attempt, which it was, but forgot to drop his hand when it was touched. The clock operator, a Kimball teacher, coach and administrator named Ron Foster, waited and waited until finally starting the clock without the official's signal.

This honest mistake enabled Kimball's Kevin Friesen to get a shot off that rimmed in and out at the buzzer. He might not have ever been able to attempt the buzzer-beating heave if a) the official remembered to drop his hand, and b) the timekeeper had ignored the referee and started the clock when the ball was touched. Had the shot gone down and Kimball upset the mighty Bears, there would have been a grudge carried by Berkley that would have never been forgotten.

This is the alpha and omega of a rivalry. A team's been wronged and there needs to be payback. We've already witnessed a bit of drama and controversy in Oakland County in this year's playoffs. Clarkston's girls fell victim of a comeback on the opening night of the playoffs that might have been aided an official score book dispute that, by rule, was not allowed to be reversed, overturned or penalized. Without indisputable truth, it might not even be an error but simply a dispute that never became fact.

Tonight Oakland County high schools play host to three outstanding boys' quarterfinals. Detroit City plays Auburn Hills Oakland Christian at West Bloomfield. Romulus and Orchard Lake St. Mary's will tangle at Milford High and in a matchup of historic rivals, not to mention outstanding nicknames, Pershing's Doughboys will meet Finney's Highlanders at Ferndale. For as long as I can remember, the Ferndale quarter is a must-see game on a near-annual basis.
As if that's not enough, just 12 miles from the north border of the county, Clarkston takes another shot at getting to the MHSAA's semifinals when it plays top-ranked Saginaw High at Davison.
I can't say which schools win or lose tonight, but one fact is certain, as close to guaranteed this side of death and taxes. A rivalry will emerge. It's just waiting to be born, renewed or stoked a little more tonight. We need more high school rivalries, not less, and with a trip to Michigan State University and the MHSAA boys' semifinal at stake, there's going to be plenty of motivation on each side.
~ T.C. Cameron is the author of Metro Detroit's High School Football Rivalries, and is working on a follow-up title, Metro Detroit's High School Basketball Rivalries!