Someone asked me how my blog and newspaper column came to be titled "Bleachers Brew". It's like this, it's an amalgam of sorts of two things: The bleachers area in the stadium/arena where I used to sit when I would watch baseball, football, and basketball games and Miles Davis' great jazz album Bitches Brew. That's how it got culled together. I originally planned on calling it "The View from the Big Chair" that is a nod to Tears For Fear's second album, Songs from the Big Chair. So there.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Solar Sports

In the early hours after December 25, 2005, a fire swept the squatter colony underneath the Katipunan flyover area that bridges Escopa in Quezon City and Monte Vista in Marikina. Hours after firemen put out the blaze, I was over there helping distribute relief goods when a surreal scene floored me. On one side people were crying and salvaging what was left of what little they had in this world. On the other side were people unmindful of the carnage mere meters away and tuned to their televisions. They were watching the Christmas Day NBA game.

Two American expatriates who manage a call center down here in the Philippines attended the Super Bowl XL tail gate party at the Adidas Sportskamp last February. The brothers were also present for the World Cup games at Gweilos in Eastwood in Libis. And most recently they were at the FIBA World Basketball Championships viewing parties at the National Sports Grill in Makati.

One of the Philippine Basketball Association’s greatest point guards ever and is currently an assistant coach for a pro team makes it a point to watch Sports Desk every night before he sleeps. According to him, it’s a great time to catch on up on all the day’s sports action.

Solar Sports, that maverick of a local sports cable channel is now on its 5th year of programming and continues to be a huge part of everyday Pinoy viewing fare. The cable channel giant cut its eye teeth by showing NBA games every single day of the week and by telecasting boxing matches by almost every fighter worth his salt today. It has shown and is showing many a program such as the Ryder Cup, Major League Baseball, and NASCAR among many others that wouldn’t be shown here as easily.

Just as Solar has pissed off people who have thought that it was jumping on the football bandwagon by acquiring the FIFA World Cup and by putting the games on pay per view (if so, then the World Cup and the recently acquired Spanish La Liga must be pretty darn expensive fads). It has even caused some a columnist to take the cable company to task for not airing the 1st World Cup of Pool (when in fact, the company that produced the events had no live feed capability to send it over). For showing old UFC fights (well, Solar admits this but it will soon catch up to the latest editions of the ever-growing mixed martial arts program) In fact, a rival station that is setting up its own sports channel recently gifted the representatives of its teams laptop computers to stay with them rather than jump over to Solar.

It helps that its company is staffed with ex-varsity football, basketball, and baseball players. Frisbee players and budding golfers. Sportscasters and sports nuts. It’s a must that you like sports here, says one of its top honchos, otherwise how will you do a good job. Another quips, it’s certainly a perk that you get to watch sports during working hours and talk about them during yosi breaks.

It’s a sports fan’s dream when you play pick-up hoops with NBA players and shoot pool with our cue internationalists. What’s that? Someone wants to add that it’s a hot-blooded boy’s dream to work with Reema Chanco.

For all the jock talk, its people take immense pride in bringing to local television the best of the world’s sporting events. The recent Southeast Asian Games showed that there is life outside basketball. Although it’s a task and a half to develop sports outside hoops, its people relish the opportunity to be a part of the development and growth of football, mixed martials arts, and boxing.

Today, Monday, September 25, Solar Sports will be launching to its friends in the media, advertising and corporate world the new directions of its sports channels at the ballroom of the New World Marriot Hotel in Greenbelt, Makati. By the first week of October, Solar Sports and Sports Plus will merge to form a super sports channel. A host of new programs like La Liga, Extreme Championship Wrestling, and K1 (mixed martials arts that features practitioners of taekwondo, karate, aikido, and ju-jitsu among others do battle for a title) will be added to the mixed of NFL, grand slam tennis action, boxing, volleyball, billiards, and poker action to name a few. The channel will also be featuring a lot of local productions such as Undisputed (a boxing show hosted by Ronnie Ricketts), Hoop Nation, the channel’s sole remaining basketball link hosted by Alex Compton), and In the Zone (featuring Patricia Hizon, Robbie Puno, and Jude Turcuato). They will also be gearing up for the last of the Manny Pacquiao and Erik Morales fights this coming November and for the Asian Games in Doha, Qatar this December.

Hold on! Back it up. Sole remaining basketball link? Yup. All the basketball content be it the NBA or FIBA will move over to its new sister channel, Basketball TV. It is basketball 24/7 and it also features the Euroleagues, PAC-10 (Pacific 10 featuring UCLA, Arizona, USC etc.), ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference featuring the University of North Carolina, Duke, North Carolina State etc.) and NCAA action. Also making its television debut is the upcoming local Collegiate Champions League featuring the best of the local UAAP, NCAA, and other collegiate leagues from around the country.

When we told Solar Sports indefatigable COO Peter Chanliong that it seems a whole lot, he laughed out loud and said, “That’s just until the end of the year. We’re just getting started.”

Monday, September 18, 2006

For the Heart of a City

To paraphrase Sterling Silliphant’s famous opening line from The Naked City, the police television series that paved the way for many of todays grim and gritty shows, “There are 12 million stories in New York, and this is one of them…”

Fall is fast approaching. It means winter is on the way. But before the east coast denizens pull out their cold weather gear from their shrink wraps, there’s one more thing that needs settling… baseball’s play-offs where both the Yankees and the Mets are in the hunt for a berth in October. It’s the Fall Classic -- the World Series, baby. It could be a Subway Series Redux.

No fight, no match is perhaps more passionate, intense or contentious than a battle for neighborhood turf and bragging rights. New York is home to 11 professional sports teams (including four teams who currently play in New Jersey; though one of them, the Nets will move to Brooklyn in 2009), but the one team that can perhaps lay claim to the title of New York’s team is the Yankees.

And perhaps the most riveting story is the Yankees-Mets rivalry because fans of the Queens-based Mets don’t care about the Boston Red Sox but look more to the Atlanta Braves and ultimately the Yankees as true rivals. Maybe Mayor Bloomberg’s government, the construction of the Reflecting Absence Memorial at Ground Zero, and the never-ending rush hour traffic are the stories that possibly occupy more New Yorkers’ lips and minds. But the inter-league games and if the baseball gods are willing, a second Subway Series between the Yankees and the Mets are in many ways a white hot topic nowadays.

Of the 26 Yankee World Series titles, four were won by slaying the New York Giants (who eventually moved to San Francisco) while another seven were at the expense of their crosstown rivals -- first the Brooklyn Dodgers (who are now in LA) and today, the New York Mets. The lords of Flatbush, the Dodgers, did beat the Bronx Bombers once in 1955 behind Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, and Carl Furillo but that was how many generations ago? When the Mets joined the majors in the 60’s, they were for the most part laughable tabloid foils. But titles in 1969 and 1986 and a resurgence in recent years have made this city a two-team town.

Today both teams are locked in a tight race for the best record in baseball. The Mets are slightly ahead with a 90-56 record. The Yankees’ late season resurgence has put them behind at 89-57 (with the Red Sox in town for a four-game series). Even in merchandise, the two teams have been locked in a tight race for hard-earned dollars. For the first time in a decade, the hot selling jersey isn’t that of the Yankees’ Derek Jeter. The distinction belongs to the Mets’ David Wright. David Wright who? The Mets’ slugging third baseman is suddenly the city’s most eligible bachelor and he’s making women’s hearts not only flutter but in Modell’s, help the Mets rake in 60% of all baseball merch sales. I guess nobody wants to buy the Yanks’ mercenary of the year in power-hitting Bobby Abreau’s pinstripes figuring he probably won’t be with the team next year.

A recent poll in the city showed 46% of New Yorkers rooting for the Yankees while 37% pulling for the Mets. That’s not so bad considering only 28% of the city cheered for the team from Flushing, Queens during the 2000 Subway Series. But the signs have been changing. Casual baseball fans have said that they are tired of the Yankees who with their penchant for spending under George Steinbrenner have been successful year in and out. The Mets, they said, haven’t won in awhile and possess that good guy image the people want to root for (never mind that they too have one of the most expensive rosters in baseball). Said one immigrant from the Netherlands, “Even in Europe, all you see are Yankee caps. I want to root for the underdog.”

I used to take the 4 train from Lexington right up to 161st St corner River Avenue. and scream along with the other Yankee die-hards as the train ascended into the fading twilight in the Bronx. I had my pinstripes and New Era baseball cap on and my Italian hotdog and Diet Pepsi that cost me 10 bucks. I loved and soaked in the atmosphere of the stadium as only a kid can. During inter-league games, I’d hop on the 7 and get off at Shea and lose myself in the orange and blue crush. At Burger Heaven on the East 86th, I’d hear no end of the Mets’ dominance in 2004. Friendly ribbing but of the kind that sets you off. But I totally loved it!

In last Monday Night’s World Wrestling Entertainment’s RAW, during the three-man tag team match of John Cena, Carlito, and Jeff Hardy against the dastardly triumvirate of Edge, Randy Orton, and Johnny Nitro, the fans at Madison Square Garden broke out into cheers and chants for the home team. Er, which home team? Half the Gah-den chanted “Let’s go Yankees!” while the other half replied in unison “Let’s go Mets!”

There are 12 million stories in the greatest city in the world. Post 9-11, this is the most riveting.

Monday, September 11, 2006

A UAAP Showdown of a different kind

The UAAP Basketball season is winding down to its exciting finish and conspicuously absent is De La Salle University, a perennial Final Four placer. The school’s varsity teams have been suspended for a year’s play because of alleged infractions incurred by two members of its men’s basketball team, but to date, there has been no official statement or closure about the case.

The whole suspension of the La Salle athletic program from UAAP play stemmed from the discovery of the ineligibility of Tim Gatchalian III and Mark Lester Benitez both who were said to have used spurious PEP Test results to gain admission into DLSU without even passing high school at Jose Rizal University. La Salle offered to do their own internal investigation and voluntarily returned their 2004 basketball trophy as proof of their willingness to fix the problem. DLSU’s investigation pointed to former team manager Manny Salgado and team official Awoo Lacson as the culprits behind the recruiting controversy that drew vehement denials from both men. Benitez and Gatchalian were taken off not only from the team but from DLSU. The UAAP board deemed it not to be enough and suspended the school’s team from competing in the UAAP in Season 69, drawing a surprising combative response from DLSU who hinted at taking the matter to court.

A report was completed by the UAAP board as of April 17, 2006, but the contents of the investigation were never made public. Why the hush hush? Are the contents too explosive to reveal?

A report obtained by this paper reveals how disgraced ex-Green Archer Mark Lester Benitez was asked to strike off the record certain big-ups from the school or its basketball/booster program by someone from the school’s administration. Marcelino Benitez, the father of Mark was also interviewed by the UAAP fact-finding committee to whom he made known his surprise that DLSU’s official transcript of their interviews was missing some of their comments that implicated the basketball program boosters. The report quotes the elder Benitez as saying that, “Parang pinasulat niya (the school official) ako ng kung ano yung mag ilabas ko about kung… hindi na ako magbabanggit about kay (NAMES DELETED HERE) kasi matataas daw yun… mahirap kalabanin.

The elder Benitez likewise saved text messages (that was presented to the fact-finding committee as evidence) from a team official who feared that “Patay tayo kung umamin si Mark na hindi siya nag second (PEP) test.” Both Benitez and Gatchalian took a first PEP Test which they didn’t pass. Both said in their testimony that they were surprised when they were presented with PEP Test certificates by team officials that qualified them for enrollment at DLSU.

The younger Benitez and the team’s former manager Manny Salgado also testified that that there is a special entrance exam for athletes who enter the university.

The UAAP Fact-Finding Committee requested for a copy of DLSU’s transcript of its investigation. Dr. Carmelita I. Quebengco, DLSU Executive Vice President, personally promised the school’s full cooperation but upon their lawyer’s advice, didn’t furnish the board with the transcript of the proceedings. To date, both the UAAP board and DLSU have not met to discuss the report and its eventual ruling. What gives? Will things just be swept under the rug?

According to a UAAP board member who chose to remain anonymous, La Salle’s unwillingness to meet up could possibly mean that they have accepted the board’s decision to suspend their participation in all UAAP competition for the year. Furthermore, according to the source, the suspension of La Salle’s athletes doesn’t count in their players’ eligibility years. Isn’t it if a basketball player from a UAAP team is suspended for fighting or some other infraction then that automatically disqualified him from MVP voting? So why doesn’t this suspension count in terms of playing years?

After reading the report, there are still many unanswered questions. DLSU received two copies of the report and the transcripts. Now maybe they have done further investigations since some of their top boosters and officials have been named in the report in one way or another. Then again maybe they have not. In fact, we have learned that one of those named in the report is being eyed to replace DLSU’s current representative to the UAAP board. It’s sad that collegiate athletics once deemed the last bastion of pure unadulterated play has suffered from greed, corruption, and exploitation. It was said that a school’s athletes competed for love of the sport and their school. Maybe for some, winning is everything. But at what cost?

In his last statement to the UAAP board, Marcelino Benitez lamented the misfortune that has befallen his family and his son. With his son’s basketball career and life in tatters, the father parted with a lump on his throat, “Kung alam ko lang mangyayari iyon, hindi ko na pinag-aral yung anak ko…

Cliffhanger of a sentence? Well, so was the UAAP board’s investigation.

You all just have to ask them for the rest of the transcript.

Monday, September 4, 2006

It’s All Greek to Me

About a month before the 2004 Summer Olympics, in one of the most surprising and stirring runs by any team in football, an unfancied Greek team rudely ushered out teams like defending champion France and a high-scoring Czech Republic side en route to an improbable UEFA Euro Finals seat against host Portugal. Prior to this tournament, Greece never won a game in Euro competition and against a strong Portuguese team with Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Figo, it seemed that despite upsetting the hosts in the first round with a 2-1 win their luck would run out. Not against a resurgent Portugal and in front of a home crowd at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon that smelled victory. Instead, the Greeks played a suffocating defensive and a physical game that threw the host team out of rhythm. When Angelos Charisteas headed in a corner shot in the 57th minute, it was good enough to give them their first ever football championship on July 4th, 2004.

I was living in New York City at that time and it was day-long celebration. Aside from the nation-wide celebration of America’s 228th birthday, predominantly Greek-American Astoria, Queens exploded with scenes of frenzied partying. Streets and houses were decked with Greek colors. Motorists honked their cars and residents danced in the streets while shouting “Ellas! Ellas!”

It seemed that partying would extend itself for more than another month as Greece hosted the 2004 Summer Olympics. When the International Olympic Committee awarded the centennial summer games to Atlanta in 1996, the Greek nation went into an uproar of protest. If there was any place where the games should have been held, it should have been back to its birthplace. Greece finally got its second opportunity to host the games eight years later, but the pre-games preparations saw Greece roundly criticized being behind schedule in the constructions of facilities, poor security measures, strikes by hotel and construction staff, and the deaths of 14 constructions workers.

The Games thankfully opened on time and without any further hitches. The widely praised and wonderful opening ceremony began one of the most unforgettable games in recent memory. The Greeks used their 2004 UEFA football title and 15th place finish (out of 301 countries) in the Athens Olympics as a springboard into another incredible run.

Almost a year later, Greece beat Germany this time to win the 2005 FIBA Euro Basketball Championship setting off another long and frenzied celebration. That momentous win in Belgrade, the site of the basketball championships was commemorated by the Greek government with a stamp.

Despite their win, the Greek squad of coach Panagiotis Yannakis went into Saitama, Japan not one of the favorites to win FIBA Gold. Maybe that was because they didn’t have any NBA players on their team.

When they won last year’s Euro basketball finals, guard Nikos Zisis tearfully cried, “We still can't understand what we've achieved. Right now, we know that thousands of people are celebrating in Athens. We’ve made an unbelievable journey. Imagine, Greece has been without a basketball medal for 16 years and now this…

Zisos can very well reprise what he said today. Only this time, after being lost for the rest of the FIBA tournament after suffering broken bones in the face in the game against Brasil, it was his backcourt mate Theodoros Papaloukas doing the talking heading into the semis match against the USA, “Having Zisos on the bench; we’ll have more motivation to play.

And with Zisos on the sidelines cheering his teammates on, Greece is still on their way into another magical ride into sporting immortality. They’ve beat Lithuania, Australia, Brasil and the USA; all stocked with NBA players. Their dismantling of the USA will go down in history as another historic win for this country of 11 million. But for now, behind their legendary coach, Panagiotis Yannakis (who played on that Greek team that beat a Soviet team led by Sarunas Marcuilionis, Arvydas Sabonis, Alexander Volkov and Rimas Kurtiniatis in overtime 103-101for its first-ever Euro Basketball title in 1987), the number eighth-ranked basketball country in the world is continuing to write its own history whatever the outcome of the 2006 FIBA Championship game against Spain.

And why not, after four incredible sporting runs dating back to the 2004 UEFA Euro Football Finals, these astounding and classic victories are the stuff of modern day Greek legends. And somehow I think it sounds just right.