Originally written on Oregon Sports News  |  Last updated 11/19/14

The Olympics have begun, and a number of local athletes are in London representing the US. Galen Rupp is a legitimate threat in the 10,000 meter run, an event that hasn’t seen an American on the medal stand since Billy Mills in 1964. The skinny kid from Central Catholic has grown up to be a world-class distance runner with a legitimate shot at a medal.

Ashton Eaton is the current record-holder and favorite to win the gold in the men’s decathlon. Not bad for a kid from rural eastern Oregon. He could restore the decathlon to the prominence it enjoyed when Bruce Jenner won gold in Montreal in 1976. He’s not likely to marry a Kardashian, which is a good thing…for his fiancée, UO grad and Canadian Olympian heptathlete Brianne Theisen.

The local athlete who’ll leave London with a very special memory regardless of how well she competes is Beaverton’s Mariel Zagunis, a 27-year-old fencer. Competing in her third Olympics, Zagunis was chosen by her teammates to carry the American flag during the Opening Ceremonies. If you watched her leading the US team into the stadium, you saw her wearing a smile that probably still hasn’t off.

Bend’s Chris Horner, a 40-year-old cyclist who’s competed in several editions of the Tour de France, had a rough go of it in the men’s road race. Horner endured a flat tire and went through two bikes. Despite all that, he managed to finish only 49 seconds behind gold medalist Alexander Vinokourov of Kazakhstan. Not bad for a race that stretched over 249.5 km (154.69 miles) and almost six hours. Horner helped US teammate Taylor Phinney to a fourth-place finish…and seemed to relish every minute of it. I suppose when you’re 40 and still competing with kids half your age, any day on a bike is a good one.

Former University of Portland star Megan Rapinoe scored a goal to help the US women’s soccer team defeat Colombia 3-0. The game was marred by an incident in which Colombia’s Lady Andrade sucker punched Abby Wambach. Fortunately, the victory the only revenge Wambach needed against the trash-talking Colombians.

With the Olympics just getting started, there will be several local athletes making names for themselves. While that process unfolds, let’s revisit some of the events of the past week in the local world of sports, shall we?

Come to the Dark Side…we have cookies!!

So I go to catch a Mariners-Yankees game on TV, and who do I see wearing a Yankees uniform in right field at Safeco Field but…Ichiro Suzuki???

It was the sort of truly surreal “WTF??” moment that rarely happens in sports. Players get traded all the time, but when you show up at the ballpark and discover you’ve been traded to the team you’re playing that night…? Seeing Ichiro in a Yankees uniform was beyond odd. To see him doing it at Safeco Field AGAINST the Mariners, for whom he’d been playing for 11+ years? He came to the ballpark a Mariner and took the field wearing Yankees road grey. It just felt wrong, but there it was. Sometimes, sports really are stranger than fiction.

Ichiro played right field and batted eighth for a Yankees lineup far more talented than the home team. Nothing about the evening felt familiar or right. When Ichiro came up for his first at bat in the third inning, it was as if Luke Skywalker had gone over to the Dark Side and was taking signals from third-base coach Darth Vader. Then Ichiro singled off Kevin Millwood and went on to help the Yankees win, making the evening even more challenging to process.

We learned later that Ichiro had requested a trade during the All-Star break. Being moved to the Yankees probably came as no shock to him. It was probably a relief all the way around. Ichiro played on a Mariners team that made it to the AL Championship Series in his rookie season.  Since then, most years found the Mariners all but mathematically eliminated from the pennant race by July 4th. As a member of the Yankees, Ichiro finally has a legitimate shot at a World Series title. With the lineup the Bronx Bombers roll out every game, Ichiro’s primary value will be his defense. In Seattle, his diminished offensive production was a serious issue, because the Mariners lacked production up and down the lineup. In New York, the lineup is stocked with proven performers, which will mean less pressure on him.

Ichiro’s departure is just another sad denouement in the ongoing Mariners saga. Alex Rodriguez left Seattle, as did Ken Griffey, Jr., Raúl Ibañez, Mark Langston, and numerous other stars. That Ichiro was traded wasn’t the surprise; that he went to the Dark Side Yankees was. The Mariners seem destined to function as a farm team for teams in larger media markets. This will continue until the Lords of Baseball change the economics of the game. Until then, teams like Seattle, Kansas City, and Minnesota will wallow in the second tier of Major League Baseball. Their role will be to fill out the schedules for teams with legitimate championship aspirations…because the Rangers, Red Sox, Angels, and Yankees can’t spend 162 games playing one another.

Dude, where’s my car??

It’s easy to pick on Ndamukung Suh from afar. He’s certainly made some disturbingly poor choices in his first couple years in the NFL. Stomping on opposing players is generally frowned upon, even in a violence-friendly workplace like the NFL.

Suh lost control of a car in downtown Portland last winter, crashing into a light pole, drinking fountain, and a tree. It was a bad day all around, but things just got worse for Suh. One of the passengers in the 1970 Chevy coupe he was driving that night is suing him for $1 million.

Off the football field Suh’s done some good things in the community. Like a lot of young men in his position, he seems to have difficulty adjusting to life in the spotlight. He’s learning on the fly about living in a world in which his every move, action, and utterance can and will be scrutinized and parsed to the nth degree. How many of us would have wanted to be subjected to that kind of media attention at 22?

Suh hasn’t exactly done himself any favors with his on-field conduct and demeanor. Professional football (what George Will once called, “Violence punctuated by committee meetings”) is a world with a dual- and often conflicting- reality. Violence and aggression are demanded and rewarded. Players know that the line between wearing a uniform and driving a beer truck is a thin one. Controlled violence and aggression are the norm. It’s difficult for some players to turn that violence and aggression on and off quickly and seamlessly. Expecting a young man to be an animal one moment and a gentleman the next is at best challenging, at worst horribly unrealistic.

Suh’s still young. Odds are that he’ll grow and mature into his role and learn to be a beast between the lines and lamb outside. He’ll make his mama proud. He’ll make millions, and we’ll look back on his first couple of years in the NFL as an aberration.

Merritt and Gavin’s (not so) Excellent Adventure

The headline in yesterday’s Oregonian said it all-

Mess with goats, get the horns

Timbers fans were hoping that Saturday night’s game against Chivas USA would right the ship. The lads were back home at Jeld-Wen Field, where they’ve scored 17 of this season’s 19 goals. The hope was that the energy would erase the bitter taste of the 5-0 road loss to FC Dallas.

The Timbers outplayed Chivas for the full 90, but soccer is all about finishing. Once again the Timbers struggled to put away seemingly easy chances. As in so many games this season, one bad mistake- this one by Goalkeeper Troy Perkins- led to the second-half goal that gave the Goats a 1-0 win.

With the season more than half over, it’s time to make a suggestion to fans and the media. How about we all stop talking about the playoffs? No, I’m not about throwing in the towel and mailing in the rest of the season, but can we be realistic? With a shaky defense and inept offense, the Timbers are a threat only to themselves. There are some bright spots, but this is only Portland’s second MLS season. How about we recognize and accept the reality that the Timbers aren’t a very good team?

The Timbers are a classic case of overpromising and under-delivering. Last season, the expectation was that the Timbers would make the playoffs. They played over their skill level and fell just short. In the off-season, the “played over their skill level” part was forgotten. That meant that the 2012 season began with unrealistic expectations. Portland is not a playoff-caliber team. Not yesterday. Not today. Not this season. The sooner everyone makes peace with that, the more fun we’ll all have.

If Merritt Paulson and the media had set realistic expectations- being more competitive, improved play on the road, etc.- the perception of the Timbers would be very different.

Everyone wants a winner, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with success. The problem with sports is that each winner creates a corresponding loser. The Timbers are still a team trying to find their way against more established and talented teams. Not unexpectedly, they’re coming up short more often than not. Consistency and dominance aren’t normally characteristics of a second-year franchise.

Can we dial it back a bit and accept the Timbers for what they are? No, we shouldn’t accept a team that quits as it did in Dallas. We do, however, need to remind ourselves from time to time that success doesn’t happen overnight. Instead of whining and remonstrating over what the Timbers aren’t, let’s adopt a healthier perspective. Overcooked expectations only poison the water for everyone.

There will come a time when we’ll be able to hold the Timbers to a higher standard. No one- fans, players, ownership, or the media- should meekly acquiesce to long-term mediocrity. I’m not certain the second year of an MLS franchise is the time for that.

Yep…firing John Spencer sure improved things on the pitch, eh??

Join me next week, when I’ll most likely be wondering what would happen if Mariners fans held their team to the same standards Timbers fans hold the object of their obsession.

And I’ll have cookies….


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