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, July 31, 2006

The (dis)parity of pure play

The last time I saw Pido Jarencio in the UAAP was in 1985. He walked towards the Blue Eagles’ bench with a minute left in the game. By then UST was comfortably ahead of Ateneo who just saw their dreams of a Cinderella-like finish go up in smoke (Jarencio torched Ateneo for 30+ points). Ateneo fielded a unit mostly composed of freshmen (the ’85 Junior Champs moved up to the collegiate ranks); though they were tough and competitive, but were still pretty green for Seniors hoops. Jarencio shook the hands of his crestfallen foes and said not to worry for their time would come (and it did for they were back-to-back champs in ’87 & ‘88).

Here he is again, although in a coach’s capacity, leading the rejuvenated Tigers back into contention. And they’re playing his brand of run-and-gun ball. He’s got a young and exciting team that will only get better as they gain more experience.

The streets of Manila are where one can hope to find good bargains. The Benedictine Fathers had the good fortune of finding one back in the day when they lured away a skinny kid from National University to matriculate eventually in San Beda. His name? Caloy Loyzaga. NU’s misfortune isn’t exactly the stuff of the Curse of the Bambino since they won the UAAP title in 1955, but since Skip Guinto graduated they’ve for the most part been hopelessly inept (save for a few years when they had Danny Ildefonso and Lordy Tugade and in 2002 when they made the semis). But had they kept Loyzaga, think of all the couldas, wouldas, and mighthaves. Here are the Bulldogs again -- slugging it out in this year of parity in the UAAP Men’s Basketball Tournament. And they’re beating some highly fancied teams at that.The Adamson Falcons know a bit about bad karma. Since they were suspended for Marlou Aquino’s bogus grades, their team has been hexed. The nadir coming with a pair of back-to-back winless seasons (and another bordered on a third). The rudder-less team that counts the sons of many former pro greats in its current line-up has oft been described as undisciplined and selfish. Here they are again with former pro coach Leo Austria at the helm and their game has earned them back a measure of respect.The saying about it being lonely at the top is something the FEU Tamaraws wouldn’t mind right now. Instead they’re at the bottom with everyone avoiding them like they had the plague. After 18 men’s basketball titles (including two in the last three years) – they’re tied with UE for the most number of league crowns. Here they are in unfamiliar territory and flirting with history of the dubious kind – if they don’t watch out, they could be the first defending champs team to miss the Final Four. The Ateneo Blue Eagles as of this writing are on top. They weren’t even considered to be among the top three teams to compete for the championship. The loss of three key players and having a team filled with question marks were enough to relegate them to dark horse status which is fine with them. Less pressure, right?Here they are again pacing the league and despite not having played the perfect game yet.The presence alone of Joe Lipa on UP’s bench is a story unto itself. His name is synonymous with winning. He’s old school smart and his witticisms and barbarisms make for great watering hole stories. He also hopes that lightning will strike twice as it’s the 20th anniversary of Maroon Pride and the 1986 team that is forever etched into school lore.Here they are currently under .500 but you know Da Nose is going to squeeze every ounce of talent out of his wards who are expected to compete for a final four berth.The UE Red Warriors last made it to the finals when they had Bong Ravena and Jolly Escobar. They’ve fielded some pretty terrific teams the past five years but never made it to the championship round. Here they are again a solid favorite to win their 19th title. Yet in their last two outings, they lost one badly and were nearly upset in another. All of a sudden the road to the championship isn’t smooth riding as basketball observers thought it would be.Welcome to Season 69 of the UAAP. Along with the NCAA, they are last bastion of hoops where it’s played purely for the love of the game and school pride. I love it that there are less sponsors whose commercial glut took the fun right out of the game (last I checked, it was hoops I went to watch, not some teeny bopper circus). Studio 23 should jack up its prices to the sponsors who left this year and hope to comeback next year. No DLSU? Sure we miss them but the league existed and thrived and was enjoyable long before they joined. For years the bane of the UAAP was year-in-and-out you could predict with unerring accuracy who would make the semis and win the oversized plaque that passes for a trophy. Now things are topsy turvy, plenty exciting, high-scoring and we’ve been treated this early to upsets and sub-plots galore! (Dis)parity in the league? You gotta love this game.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Round 2

He had that cred coming out of the amateurs: 2 UAAP titles with La Salle, a celebrated National Team stint, and one of the last pure Pinoy players before the 90’s Fil-foreigner explosion to be designated a franchise player.

He won Rookie of the Year with Sta. Lucia and posted great stats. And that’s where it began to go downhill for him. It was said that he only cared for his stats and his money. It was said that for a man of his height and power, he played soft. It didn’t help that when he was eventually traded away from Sta. Lucia, his team finally bagged the elusive crown. It was the same story at Ginebra – they only won after he was traded away to Purefoods (and not after an embarrassing drug suspension that tarnished his rep all the more). No way is a team going to win a title with Jun Limpot in the line-up, many cruelly joked.

Friday night, with the seconds ticking oh-so close to Purefoods’ 7th PBA title, Ryan Gregorio accorded the ultimate respect to the old warhorse by putting him in the game’s last moments. Limpot’s freethrow was the series’ last basket and when the buzzer sounded, as the confetti and balloons fell so did his tears. His teammates even hoisted him for the victory ride before their coach!

He didn’t have that cred coming out of the amateurs. Sure he helped Ateneo to a title in ’02. Sure he played on a title-winning PBL team. But he wasn’t even the main man (it was Rico Villanueva, Rich Alvarez or Jun Simon). After being anointed King Eagle, an unfortunate ACL injury cruelly ended his college playing days. Nowadays it is not uncommon for players to comeback from ACLs. What is uncommon is coming back and playing at a high level. Maybe even better than he was before.

He was drafted #14 and in the second round. That he was drafted at all was a surprise to many who thought he wasn’t good enough or needed more seasoning in the PBL. But he turned into one of Yeng Giao’s prized super-subs. Displaying deadly all-around form and with the poise-f a grizzled vet, Larry Fonacier has helped Red Bull to its 3rd title in the Fiesta Conference and a runner-up finish to Limpot’s Chunkee Giants in the just-concluded All Filipino Cup. With the odds stacked against his team, Fonacier conspired with college teammate Villanueva to send the series to a sixth game with some clutch plays. Something he has done all-year long playing simple, no-nonsense fundamental basketball. For that he was accorded this year’s Rookie of the Year -- the lowest drafted player to turn the trick since Gerry Esplana did it with Presto in 1990.

Two players with divergent roads to the pros. But both seeking redemption. Life’s Round One may knock you around for a loop. Throw you a curve ball when you’re expecting a fastball down the middle. But the point is, you get right back up swinging and plugging away.

Round Two? Ah, you just read two of the best feel good pro basketball stories of the year.

Wednesday, July 5, 2006

Klinsmann May Have the Last Laugh

One can sense that German Coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who is a man of few words, is itching to say something. Especially after his fellow Germans derisively called him “Klinsi-grinsi” – a term that portrayed him as a clueless blonde German expatriate in sunny La La Land.

“Veni. Vidi. Vici.” Julius Caesar’s terse statement to the Roman senate after defeating King Pharmaces in the Battle of Zela (a place today located in Turkey) comes to mind.

But if victory is won on July 9 – should Germany make it all the way, this son of a Stuttgart baker may very well utter “Ich bin Berliner!” sans the donut jokes.

As the German national team celebrated after defeating Argentina 4-2 in penalty kicks, Franz Beckenbauer, Klinsmann’s coach when their side won the cup in 1990, smiled from the stands. One of his former ward’s strongest critics in the DBF (Deutsche Bund Fusbal their equivalent of our own PFF), Beckenbauer has scored his former striker’s tactics since taking over the national team. Strangely, some of the German great’s attacks (prior to the start of the Cup Finals) was over the change from the traditional and defensive 3-5-2 formation to the more offensive 4-4-2 diamond this team currently employs.

Fortunately, the new attack mode has allowed for more scoring chances and the most goals scored in the tourney thus far making Beckenbauer’s attacks sound like the musings of an older generation that isn’t attuned to the 21st century.“Try not to become a man of success but a man of value,” once said his fellow Württemberg, Stuttgart native and Noel-winning physicist, Albert Einstein. And Klinsmann could very well be quoting him in a Zen-like manner.

The finals have brought out a wave of German nationalism not seen in a long time. The fact that US Football in the wake of its disastrous cup appearance has made overtures about Klinsmann’s availability (he currently resides in California with his American wife Debbie and their two children) means the man is doing something right.The Germans head into their semi-finals match against the Azzuri clear favorites now to win their third World Cup more so now that early favorites Argentina and Brazil are out. Their offense is humming and their formerly derided defense has been rock solid. His timely substitutions such as putting in David Odonkor and selecting Jens Lehmann over former goal-keeping stud Oliver Kahn now look like masterstrokes. With one more win, the Germans will be playing for the title in Berlin. And Jurgen Klinsmann may be just the second player after Beckenbauer to both play and coach in a World Cup title team.

“Ich bin Berliner?”
Nein. Klinsmann may just settle for an easy grin.

Monday, July 3, 2006

Images that are Everything

Those early images were of a roughly-hewn diamond. When Andre Agassi broke into professional tennis, he had those rock star locks and a celebrity girlfriend (and later wife) in Brooke Shields. He wore brightly-colored garb and displayed antics reminiscent of Jimbo and Mac Nasty that brought flair to an otherwise staid game.

He was irreverent. He pooh-poohed the All-England club for two years because he refused to conform to the all-white uniforms the tournament requires one to wear. On a powerful US Davis Cup team that had Pete Sampras and Jim Courier, Andre stole a page from team captain John McEnroe as he breathed fire and belched brimstone to rally the US victory against Switzerland.

Andre Agassi was no flash-in-the-pan. By the mid-90s, he had won three of the four Grand Slam events and his storied rivalry with erstwhile teammate Sampras electrified tennis. Yet for all his on-court accomplishments, his off-court goings-on seemed as much to define him. During the 1995 Australian Open, his newly-shaven plate received as much press as his victory over Pistol Pete. The nagging injuries caused tennis observers to write him off and a crumbling marriage that eventually took its toll on this son of a former Iranian Olympian was tabloid fodder.

In 1998, Agassi reinvented himself and rededicated himself to the game. Whipping himself into shape, he made a quantum leap from being ranked #141 in the world to #6 by year’s end. A triumph at Roland Garros the following year shot him into history books as the only male tennis player in history to win in all four Grand Slams and an Olympic Gold medal. Coincidentally, his second wife, Steffi Graf is the only female player in tennis history to have done the same (can’t ask for a more perfect match now, can you?).

The turn-around would become even more remarkable as he would go on to win four more Grand Slam titles and a host of others in the years since that would cement his place as one of tennis’ all-time greats. But during a tepid press conference that preceded this Australian Open, two sentences changes made the setting more significant and set off a wave of nostalgia:

"It's been a long road this year for me, and for a lot of reasons. It's great to be here. This Wimbledon will be my last, and the U.S. Open will be my last tournament."

It was 20 years ago when Andre Kirk Agassian turned pro. He has lasted longer than anyone has expected. His contemporaries have all retired. But by no means is he a pushover for younger foes. He has gamely battled today’s stars and if weren’t for an assortment of ankle and back injuries (aside from age), he probably would have beaten them.

The diamond has now been expertly carved. He is now an elder statesman of the game. His maturity and sincere love for the game are evident for the entire world to see. His induction speech of his wife Steffi at the International Tennis Hall of Fame left nary a dry eye in the house.

Three minutes within Agassi’s stepping off the podium during the Australian Open Press conference, new clay court sensation Rafael Nadal (who has oft been described as a new version of Andre) could only gush about his idol. What your best image of Andre, Rafa?

“A legend.” And that says everything.

(Three rounds into this Wimbledon Championships, Nadal ended Agassi’s run at Wimbledon with a 7-6 (5), 6-2, 6-4 victory)