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, October 23, 2006

Laying the Smackdown

Were you one of those who stayed up till 10:30pm (while hiding from your disapproving parents) to watch pro wrestling on IBC-13? Were you one of those who borrowed tapes of Wrestlemania, the Royal Rumble, and the Survivor Series and who would watch it till the tape was eaten up by your VCR? Were you one to scrounge the PDPI magazine stalls (before the advent of Book Sale) for Pro Wrestling Illustrated just for any morsel of info about your fave wrestlers?

I was one and to this day, it is an eternal happy thought of the rite of adolescence as much as sports and girls were. Only now I’m an adult and still enjoy it as much as my kids.

Pro wrestlers were my comic book heroes made flesh and blood. They were larger than life, lived large like rock stars, and had all the babes. Not bad for someone in tights and spandex. I loved the Hart Foundation and practiced the sharpshooter on my brother (yeah, I know you’re not supposed to try this at home but still...). I stomped around the house like the Bushwhackers. I grappled the clothesline like the Ultimate Warrior, and posed like the immortal Hulk Hogan. Yep, they sure were fun days (although my parents did wonder if I was a little strange and was the result of my overactive imagination).

My dad... taught me sports but decried my love for pro wrestling. Too fake. Too overly dramatic. Too much acting he said. At least they’re better actors than those who appeared in adult films, I replied in defense. No doubt my rebuttal raised his eyebrow that nearly reached his hairline (in a harbinger of the Rock’s People’s Eyebrow that was to come more than a decade later).

What makes pro wrestling interesting and fun to watch isn’t just the ring skills but the storylines that went along with them. Were you one of those who couldn’t wait for the impending implosion of the volatile tag team of Randy “the Macho Man” Savage and Hulk Hogan? Who was (that Victoria Principal look-alike) Ms. Elizabeth going to side with? Like wow. It was just as compelling as the next Tanduay-Ginebra skirmish.

The first ever pro wrestling match that I watched live was Wrestlemania XX at Madison Square Garden. Yup. It cost me as much as that pricey ticket to the Curiosa Tour at Randall’s Island but it was well worth it. In the days preceding Wrestlemania, the Nature Boy Rick Flair, the Undertaker, and Kane made an appearance at Toy’s R Us in Times Square and the line just snaked all the way towards 49th Street. Staring at the Undertaker seemed to be alright as he was almost as tall of those buildings and the neon signs of Broadway. One time I worked half day just to get the autographs and my pix taken with Torrie Wilson and Sable who were on the cover of a premiere men’s magazine (I was with a Latino friend of mine who does adult movies hahaha) only to find my boss in line as well. In fact, when they’d put those World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) DVDs on sale at the Hudson Mall in Jersey City (10 bucks a pop and that is mondo cheap), I had to contend with those oafs who pushed their way towards the Sale rack as if DVDs were going out of style that I nearly gave one of them a suplex off the cash register (Well, I thought about it ala Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes fame).

Professional wrestling’s popularity has boomed through the stratosphere and has left no one unturned. The catch phrases of DX, the Rock, and Stone Cold Steve Austin have become a part of the lingo of a new generation. I’d repeat some of them here except that this is... ahem, a business newspaper’s sports section not some frat house party. Long after Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant (ever see the Prince’s Bride?) seemed to have a monopoly on Hollywood, Kevin Nash (the Punisher), the Rock (countless movies now), Bill Goldberg (Universal Soldier), Triple H (Blade Trinity), and now John Cena (the upcoming movie titled the Marine) have invaded the big screen.

After last Saturday’s Smackdown at the Araneta Coliseum (the crowd during the Raw Tour was infinitely better), I was buying food for my kids at KFC in Shopwise when I inadvertently read the text of the lady in front of me --- Panalo si Batista. DQ kasi pumasok si Finlay at (William) Regal. Wow. Last time I checked, people texted the final scores of games; box scores even. Hey, it’s San Beda vs. UE for the National Championship, you know?

The merchandise and tickets I purchased from that night set me back several thousand quid, but to see my kids enjoy themselves for a couple of hours was worth it. The night before there were trucks and trucks of soldiers in full battle gear along EDSA and near the road leading down to Monte Vista where I live had a checkpoint (during the RAW Tour last time around, the metropolis was on coup alert). Whether this had any connection with the political stand-off in Makati I have no idea but the fact that the Smackdown Tour got my mind off the never-ending political foibles of this country was also worth it.

On our way to the car, we came across a man with s un-burned face who looked well into his forties and was noisily talking on his mobile phone:
Man: Uuwi ako ng Bacolod sa Monday. (pause) Sayang nga. Wala si Rey Mysterio. At panalo si Batista.

He must have been one of those who stayed up late at night to watch wrestling on IBC-13 while hiding from his parents.

Monday, October 16, 2006

CCL: They Might Be Giants

For the longest time, US college basketball was way more popular than the NBA. It took the entrance of the star forward from the Indiana State Sycamores and the Michigan State Spartans in the 1979-80 season to revive interest in the pro game. The NBA has since grown from the drug-addled stupor of the 70’s to a prefab global brand but US college hoops remains wildly popular and more so when March Madness (the 64-team NCAA tourney) begins. In fact, the madness in the NCAA’s virtual win-or-go-home format isn’t mere hype… it’s a way of life.

Domestically, in the mind of Johnny Q. Public, the soupcon of alphabet college leagues is dominated by the UAAP and the local version of the NCAA as the very best in the land. Never mind that in the south there are just as many talented or even better teams plying their trade in near anonymity.

All that is about to change.

The Collegiate Champions League (CCL) is on its fourth straight year (and first with the new format). It pits the best teams of the UAAP, NCAA, NCRAA, NAASCU, UCAA, CSAFI, NOPSCEA, and DCAA in a Sweet Sixteen affair to declare the one true national champion. For the first time in years, it’s the actual Team A (or the school’s best line-ups) that are fielded in the competition. It’s also the first year that wild card berths were awarded. And it’s the first time the media was brought in to the mix by seeding the teams by voting.

The crowds have turned out and the games have been tremendously exciting yet there is still the perception that it’s just the CCL. As Solar Sports’ VP for Sports Marketing Jude Turcuato opines that the CCL cannot compete with 60 and 80 years of tradition. What it can do is create the tournament where the one true National Champion is declared. The plan to change people’s perceptions isn’t going to be accomplished overnight. It’s a three-year plan to make it just as popular as the other leagues if not the most popular.

For the millions of followers of the US NCAA’s, there are two questions that come to mind when the tourney begins: 1) Who will be this year’s National Champion and 2) Which highly-fancied teams will be upset by some virtual unknowns? Teams like Valparaiso, Gonzaga, and George Mason don’t have the TV time and media attention of traditional powers like Duke, UConn, or Kentucky to name a few. But they’ve made their own stirring runs in the standings and into American national consciousness. In fact, Gonzaga, previously known in trivia games as all-time NBA great John Stockton’s alma mater, has since the late 90s become a mainstay in the tourney bringing it much national attention and an influx of dollars by tournament fees, royalties, and generous alumni. Its student population has increased and its players (including last year’s NCAA player of the Year Adam Morrison) are no longer unknowns.

This year’s CCL has begun to replicate the excitement of the US NCAA’s. So far, there have been some pretty close matches: University of the East vs. Emilio Aguinaldo College (64-60), San Beda College vs. National University (74-72), and University of Santo Tomas vs. Jose Rizal University (63-65).

As for those looking for Cinderella finishes, there’s the University of Visayas as coached by former pro player al Solis knocking out the Adamson Falcons in Bogs Adornado’s Head Coaching debut 70-67, and the tourney’s giant-killer… JRU.

JRU marched into newly-crowned UAAP champion the UST Growling Tigers’ home floor in EspaƱa and not only knocked them around black-and-blue but celebrated on the Tigers’ floor after a highly improbable 65-63 win. The Heavy Bombers bombed out of the last NCAA campaign with a 4-10 record and availed of the three wild card berths for the CCL. They haven’t only turned heads but they’ve played terrific defense. JRU held UST to 0-18 field goal shooting the 4th quarter of their match (UST’s only points were two freebies from the lane by Dylan Ababou) while coming back from a double-digit deficit to win.

Last Saturday, October 14, the Heavy Bombers struck again by blindsiding NCAA foe Letran 64-58. Letran, proud owners of 16 NCAA titles with a seven-game win skein against the Shaw Boulevard-based squad dating back to 2003 was suckered out of their slick pound-it-inside game and was forced to take 21 three-point attempts (as opposed to JRU’s 15 attempts). Now what makes this point interesting is that the three-pointer is JRU’s primary weapon. JRU’s stingy defense forced the Knights into 34% field goal shooting as Floyd Dedicatoria (who finished 2nd to SBC’s Sam Ekwe in NCAA MVP voting) and JM Wilson took it right into the heart of Letran’s defense to continue the Heavy Bombers’ Cinderella run into this tournament.

That same day, the #8 seed Mapua on the other hand beat the #1 seed Ateneo De Manila 70-66 in the last game of Macky Escalona, JC Intal, and Doug Kramer in Ateneo’s dress blues.

The Final Four cast has been set. It’s San Beda vs. JRU and Mapua vs. UE. Each and every one of them have their own stories heading into the October 19 match-up. And the way this CCL is shaping up, they might be giants of the collegiate basketball scene.

Monday, October 9, 2006

October

I used to have great memories of October. In grade school, there was the Feast of the Guardian Angels and that meant there was a carnival on the school grounds and that we had no classes (more so later in college as we had those badly needed sembreaks). There was the October medal that we wore as a sign of our devotion to Our Lady. October also meant that Halloween was around the corner and we could go trick or treating. Back in our history class, we studied about Red October and the Cuban Missile Crisis (that took place on… you guessed right, this month). It’s also the title of U2’s second and only lame duck album who’s only contribution to their canon is the rousing “Gloria.” When I lived in America, it also meant that there was Colombus Day (although the only Italian in me was my predilection towards the Sopranos, Joe DiMaggio, pizza at Ray’s in Greenwich Village, and Juventus). While living in Princeton, New Jersey, I would walk around the campus late in the afternoon and watch the crystalline sheen on the buildings and window panes as the fast-fading sunlight bore the hint of another winter chill to come.

But October also meant the end to two sporting events that I have followed for the longest time. There was the UAAP Finals and the World Series. I’m still reeling and somewhat broken over the Blue Eagles’ loss in the just concluded Finals with UST Growling Tigers. I’ve written about it (in
www.ateneo.edu) as a means for catharsis for those feeling blue. I’m hardly over the emotional letdown of collegiate basketball when there’s going to be no Fall Classic for me. It’s dour as dour can be as my beloved New York Yankees have been eliminated in the Divisional Series by the Detroit Tigers. Aura and mystique have definitely left the building for the Yankees. Hmm. There must be a conspiracy here as my two favorite teams have been eliminated by Tigers. Is this a sign that I must ditch my Aeropostale for Le Tigre?

October is a time for me to partake in the rituals that my father and my uncles underwent as they were spoiled by players like Ed Ocampo, Felix Flores, and Steve Watson who carved out their deeds on the hardcourt. I had my share too back in my college days when Jun Reyes and Danny Francisco led Ateneo to back-to-back titles in the late 80’s and later on as an alumnus in the stands when Enrico Villanueva and company led the Blue Eagles back to the throne after 14 long years.

October is also my chance now that I’m grown and can afford to make my then-almost weekly pilgrimage to that cathedral in the Bronx called Yankee Stadium. I grew up reading of Pinstripe Pride in the pages of the Sporting News’ almanac. The Bronx Bombers and the Murderer’s Row I was mesmerized when reading those precious and large Life magazines that my grandparents saved for me (I have the original issues that dealt with the assassination of JFK and Apollo 11) where my vision of greatness was #7 Mickey Mantle who swung mightily and majestically even when he struck out.

One of my best Octobers ever was seeing Aaron Boone smack that dinger all the way into the left field of the Stadium to send the Yankees into the World Series (where they eventually lost to the Florida Marlins) in 2003. It was freezing that night but when my friends and I (along with thousands of others) spilled onto 161 Street in a late night street party. We were so pumped up that we nearly walked all the way back to Manhattan (we only got as far as two blocks then we realized that it was utter madness to do so and hopped on the 4 train instead).

People have asked me about my love for baseball which they perceive to be a boring sport. The action they say, is few and far in between. Baseball, they derisively say, induces more yawns than runs in a ballgame that can last anywhere from three hours to the wee hours of the morn. Perhaps aside from basketball and American football, no other sport is more meticulous, scientific, and calculating. Baseball is one of the last bastions of tradition not invaded by the pitfalls of self-expression and thug-a-nomics. And the only other sport just as celebrated in prose and song is basketball.

So the Blue Eagles and the Yankees have been defeated and I’m left to reminisce and wax sentimental about this time of the year that has given me plenty of memories. It’s hard being a sports fan when your team isn’t winning.

For me, these Octobers mean no more sembreaks (as I have been long since out of school) and the trick or treating is now done my kids. I no longer watch the Sopranos and now that I’m back home, Ray’s in Greenwich has been supplanted by Aria in Boracay as my fave in cuccina Italianna. Instead of the magical and somber weather right out of an Ernest Hemingway novel, we’ve got the alternating rain and havoc of typhoon season and the searing humidity of global warming gone bad. The one constant now in this month is the sporting events that have been both heart-stopping and heartbreaking.

Well at least December and Christmas are just around the corner. I could use a little Holiday cheer.

Monday, October 2, 2006

If You Build Them, They Will Come

When it comes to the development of other sports in the country, many point their fingers towards too much emphasis on basketball. Why not football when it might be more suited to the Filipino physique (an erroneous theory if there was ever one)? Why not give emphasis on the other “Bs” like boxing, billiards, bowling, and baseball? Why not tennis after Felix Barrientos and company showed the way all those years ago?

There are too many reasons for us to dissect, but in the space of this column let’s talk about one… the lack of a sporting scene that you could actually feel and see.

Unless you live near a court, a field, or a country club, then you would not know that there’s a thriving sporting scene locally (unless you think of the endless bickering and politicking of local officials as high profile sports). The most obvious one is the Ateneo-La Salle rivalry but that only blooms during the UAAP season. And most recently, if you’d take the MRT coming from the south, you would have noticed the billboard near the corner of EDSA and Ortigas with a note of good luck to the San Beda Red Lions, but other than that nada.

If you plane into JFK and you’re right above Long Island, if you’re by the window, then look out below and you’ll see baseball diamonds, basketball courts, and football fields both of the American pigskin and of the roundball kind. If you take the 99S bus from Port Authority, after you leave Weehawken and go into Hoboken, you’d see a sign that says “Hoboken. The Birthplace of Frank Sinatra and baseball.” Here, once you enter the city limits of somewheresville, it the face of the local trapo who announced his/her latest project (when it is only their job and the taxpayers’ money).

If you were at Hong Kong during the recent World Cup then you will have noticed that the moment your plane touched down at Chek Lak Kop International Airport that World Cup fever has infected Britain’s former crown colony.

If you’ve been to Canada then you’ll immediately know you’re in hockey country.

Here… there’s nothing unless you go to the schools or the barangays. Even then, it’s mostly basketball. Okay, there’s nothing wrong with being a basketball country. Heck, in Canada and Finland, its hockey. In the Latin American countries, next to drugs and rubber, their biggest exports are baseball players. In Oz, its rugby. Not every country on God’s green earth plays the beautiful game. In India, it’s cricket. Let’s face it, we’re a basketball country first and everything else second, third and take a number and get in line. The sooner we accept that it’s a fact, jack -- then the better it is for all. But that doesn’t mean that other sports don’t have the right to be just as big or even bigger. Or that we can dream about performing well even sports that don’t seem natural to a tropical country like ours.

Remember the Jamaican Bobsled team that was turned into a feel-good movie by Disney? Well, that wasn’t just eye Candy for all you feel-good movie folks out there. Sure, Jamaica is reggae, dredds, voodoo, track and field, and bobsledding. But after their initial novel debut yet stirring run in Calgary in 1988, they placed much better than the USA, Russia, France, and Italy the following Winter Olympiad where their two-man team also beat the Swiss. And though they missed the Turin Olympics, they’re still very much a competitive force.

Other countries don’t all have the facilities for other sports but that doesn’t stop them from developing their sports programs. Ever see the beach football scene in Copacabana, Brasil? In Kreuzberg, Germany, you will find football played in cement courts that seem better suited to basketball games. In San Jose, Costa Rica, pitches are vast tracks of open land where sticks and stones are used to mark goal posts.

Our government, our local officials, our NSAs, and our neighborhood communities should all get in the act. I know… one thing at a time. The playing field is what matters. The equipment… that will come. In post-Depression America, many poor people played baseball by using balled-up socks for balls and sticks for bats. It’s not much, but it sure breeds a love for the game. Ditto with football. All-Universe great Pele used to play with the same balled-up socks and whatnot just to play. The other day, while on my way home, I saw some street kids playing football along Katipunan Extension corner Santolan (heading into Libis). Now of course, while I like their interest, maybe they should choose a more appropriate venue.

Sports is more than a physical exercise for people. It’s a great rallying point for national pride. It’s a way out of poverty for many. It’s an entry point into the middle class for some. It’s a great alternative to drugs. And it’s a great way to announce ourselves on the world stage.

With all due respect to all those who affected by typhoon Milenyo, the only good thing that came out of it was it cleared our thoroughfares of advertising eyesores. I’d much rather see a billboard that gives a send-off to our athletes in the upcoming Asian Games or even announcing that the collegiate football season is on nigh than more even generic clothing ads.

We’ve stirred the sports scene some with our countrymen’s exploits in ice hockey, equestrienne sports, mountain climbing, and car racing among others. I think it’s great, but it’s nowhere near enough. To those who could do something about the lack of a lively sporting scene, it’s more than about making noise (not of the showbiz kind that one channel likes to attach to its sporting events). To paraphrase that immortal line from the movie Fields of Dreams, if you build these playing fields, they will come.

We’re waiting.