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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Young U.S. Skiers See Bright Future in Strong Finishes

Vincenzo Pinto/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Bode Miller in the giant slalom on Sunday in Alta Badia, Italy. Five American skiers finished in the top 10 of Saturday’s downhill.


The celebration among teammates stretched late into the night and early morning, eventually giving way to the easy sleep that comes with success.

Once he awoke Sunday morning, T. J. Lanning of Park City, Utah, made a point of looking at photographs from the previous day on the Internet, just to make sure he was not dreaming. The confusion was understandable.

Before Saturday’s downhill in Val Gardena, Italy, five American men had never finished among the top 10 in a World Cup race.

“Obviously, it was a historical day, an emotional day,” Lanning said during a telephone interview late Sunday night. “To see that many U.S. Ski Team jackets standing up there together, it was amazing. You usually see that many Austrian jackets.”

Austria, Alpine’s reigning superpower, was not left out of the picture — Michael Walchhofer won the downhill on the classic Saslong track in 1 minute 50.57 seconds — but the moment belonged to North America.

Bode Miller of Franconia, N.H., the defending World Cup overall champion, was 38-hundredths of a second behind Walchhofer to lead the American onslaught. Two Canadians, Manuel Osborne-Paradis and Erik Guay, finished third and fifth. All seven American starters finished in the top 30 to claim coveted World Cup points, another first.

The most surprising result came from 23-year-old Erik Fisher of Middleton, Idaho, a supposed afterthought as the 52nd racer to start. Fisher missed nearly all of last season while recovering from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament. But he skied one of the most aggressive lines of the day to slide into seventh place, his first career top-10 result.

Marco Sullivan of Tahoe City, Calif., was fourth; Steven Nyman of Provo, Utah, was ninth; and Lanning wound up 10th.

Saturday’s results were preceded by a personal-best fifth-place finish by Sullivan in Friday’s super-G and followed by a fourth-place result by Ted Ligety of Park City, Utah, in Sunday’s giant slalom in nearby Alta Badia. (Miller and Andrew Weibrecht of Lake Placid, N.Y., were the only two American skiers to race Saturday and Sunday, and they spent Saturday night traveling to Alta Badia.)

The results seemed to show that the young United States men’s team has come into its own nearly a year before the 2010 Vancouver Games. There certainly were questions of who would fill the void after the record-breaking speed specialist Daron Rahlves, a 12-time World Cup winner, retired from Alpine’s elite circuit after the 2006 season. Miller opted to race independently that same off-season. Miller won his second overall crown last season.

“What you’re seeing is a group of guys who have come together,” said Sasha Rearick, the Alpine coach for the United States men. “It’s not just one guy. The whole group wants to fill that void.”

There were hints of as much two years ago, when Miller won the early December downhill in Beaver Creek, Colo., and three other American skiers — Nyman, Scott Macartney and Sullivan — followed him into the top 10.

Ski racing can be a particularly cruel sport, as evidenced by the travails of Lanning, Fisher and Macartney, of Kirkland, Wash., who finished 15th in Saturday’s downhill.

While teammates like Sullivan, Nyman and Ligety were making headway on the World Cup circuit the last three years, Lanning, 24, was just trying to stay healthy after being sidelined for the majority of that time with knee, back and ankle injuries. He said his result Saturday showed what he was capable of when at full strength.

Macartney is also rounding into the form that earned him two World Cup podium finishes before a brutal crash in January at the famed Hahnenkamm in Kitzbühel, Austria, briefly put him in a coma.

Macartney, 30, is the oldest of the six United States ski team racers who earned World Cup points over the weekend. Rearick said World Cup racers, especially those who specialize in the speed events, usually did not hit their peaks until their late 20s. That only bodes well for a group that is committed to making one another better every day.

“About four years ago, this group came together and said, ‘We want to create a positive environment, one that is supportive of each other, but is also challenging,’ ” Rearick said. “We’re in a really unique situation. We compete in a sport that 90 percent of the time, we’re in Europe. The rest of the time, we’re in South America or New Zealand. We’re on the road, living in hotels. It’s extremely important to have that tight, cohesive group. It’s a tight family.”

And right now, given its recent success, that family is certainly enjoying its time together.

“You have to have fun with this,” Lanning said. “It’s work, but it’s more fun than it is work. When you work as hard as we did this past off-season, when you see these results coming early in the season, it’s just so much fun. We want to keep the momentum going.”

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5 Sports Franchises That Folded

Scott Allen
by Scott Allen

It’s not uncommon for a sports franchise to move to another city. Before this season, for example, the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics became the Oklahoma City Thunder. But it’s rare for a franchise to pack it in and fold entirely. Here are some examples of teams who called it quits.

1. Cleveland Spiders (folded in 1899)

400px-Cleveland_Spiders.jpgEstablished in 1887, the Spiders were a respectable team for most of their existence before falling victim to their owner’s brash stupidity. Unhappy with what he perceived as lousy attendance in Cleveland, Frank Robison purchased a second National League team, the St. Louis Perfectos, in 1899. Robison then transferred most of Cleveland’s stars, including Cy Young, to St. Louis. The moves essentially turned Cleveland, which was coming off a fifth-place finish, into a minor league team. The result was predictable.

Cleveland finished a historically awful 20-134, 84 games behind first-place Brooklyn and 35 games behind the next worst team, Washington. Attendance was so bad at the Spiders’ home games – an average of 179 fans per game at League Park – that teams refused to travel to Cleveland. As a result, the Spiders played the final 36 games of the season on the road and lost all but one of them. The Spiders were one of four teams contracted from the National League after the 1899 season. A team based in Cleveland joined the American League, which was a minor league at the time, in 1900.

2. Montreal Wanderers (folded in 1918)

montreal-wanderers.jpgThe Wanderers were founded in 1903, won five Stanley Cups by 1910, and, despite facing financial trouble, joined the NHL for its inaugural season in 1917. The Wanderers won their first NHL game, but competing with the Canadiens for the attention of Montrealers, the fan turnout was poor. With only 12 players, the Wanderers lost their next three games by a combined score of 29-7 and owner Sam Lichtenhein threatened to withdraw the team from the league if he couldn’t sign reinforcements. Help eventually arrived in the form of players from other leagues, but personnel issues, it turned out, would be the least of the Wanderers’ problems.

On January 2, 1918, Montreal’s 20-year old home rink, Montreal Arena, burned down. The team disbanded immediately. While their time in the league was short-lived, the Wanderers managed to make a bit of history that didn’t involve its arena being reduced to ashes. Wanderers forward Dave Ritchie is credited with scoring the NHL’s first goal.

3. Chicago Tigers (folded in 1920)

According to some accounts, the Tigers folded after their only season in the American Professional Football Association to fulfill a promise they made to Chris O’Brien, the owner of the cross-town rival Chicago Cardinals. O’Brien didn’t think the Windy City was big enough for two teams, so he suggested the Tigers scott1.jpgand Cardinals make a wager on their second meeting of the 1920 season: the loser would agree to drop out of the league. The teams had played to a scoreless tie in their previous meeting, but the Cardinals won the battle for city exclusivity, 6-3. John “Paddy” Driscoll (pictured) scored the game’s only touchdown on a 40-yard run.

Some football historians question the validity of the story, as O’Brien seemed to welcome George Halas’ request to move the league’s Decatur Staleys to Chicago the following season. The Staleys became the Chicago Bears in 1922 and the Bears eventually drove O’Brien and the Cardinals out of Chicago. The Tigers’ greatest legacy remains helping start the tradition of playing football on Thanksgiving, when they lost to the Staleys on November 25, 1920.

4. Baltimore Bullets (folded in 1954)

The Bullets, who began play in the American Basketball League, joined the NBA in 1949. They became the last and longest-tenured team to disband from the NBA in 1954, after starting the season 3-11. Former Wyoming standout Ken Sailors (who popularized the jump shot), head coach Clair Bee (who led Long bullets.jpgIsland University to two undefeated seasons), and player/coach Buddy Jeannette were three of the more notable figures in the franchise’s brief history.

When the Bullets disbanded, all but four of Baltimore’s players were picked up by other NBA teams. One of the four players who were left unexpectedly unemployed was the late Al McGuire, who was hired as an assistant coach at Dartmouth the next year. McGuire would go on to win a national championship as a head coach at Marquette and enjoyed a successful broadcasting career before losing his battle with cancer in 2001. Unlike the Comets, the Bullets were never the class of the NBA. They compiled a 112-244 record before – to borrow one of McGuire’s memorable phrases – the carnival gates were closed on the franchise.

5. Houston Comets (folded in 2008)

The WNBA’s Houston Comets disbanded earlier this month after the league decided it wouldn’t be able to complete the sale of the once-proud franchise to a new ownership group by the start of the 2009 season. Houston’s players were reallocated among the league’s 13 remaining teams through a dispersal draft. The Comets won the first four WNBA titles from 1997-2000 with stars Tina Thompson, Cynthia Cooper, and Sheryl Swoopes, but attendance waned in recent years as the team missed the playoffs in three of its last five seasons.

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Ladies tees? Long-drive champ used to be man

by James Achenbach,

MESQUITE, Nev. - It has been a bizarre year in golf, highlighted by a player with a broken leg winning the U.S. Open. Hard to believe, but it was the only major championship of the year captured by an American.
At the recent RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship here at Mesquite Regional Park, the year grew even stranger.

The new women's world champion in the event is a 55-year-old bartender who used to be a man.

Although golf is a sport largely without controversy, the reign of long-drive queen Lana Lawless, who lives in Palm Springs, Calif., is expected to be neither tranquil nor uneventful.

Women's long-drive champion Lana Lawless used to be a SWAT officer. She also used to be a man. (Courtesy of Banggolf / Special to

For starters, there is her startling honesty. "This is who I am. This is my life," she said firmly. "That other person, that 245-pound SWAT cop I used to be, he's gone. He's not coming back."

Lawless mostly was a curiosity until the night of Oct. 22, when she upset the competitor widely acclaimed as the longest hitter in women's golf — 21-year-old Phillis Meti of Auckland, New Zealand.

"I beat her because of the wind," conceded Lawless, whose longest drive into a 40-mph headwind traveled 254 yards — 4 yards longer than Meti's best. "She hits it higher than I do, and that wind just knocked her ball out of the sky. If it had been downwind, she would have hit it 500 yards (Meti bombed a 349-yard drive in a qualifying round)."

The image of a policeman-turned-woman does not sit easily with many participants in a sport driven by power, muscle and speed.

"I am shocked more women are not complaining about this," three-time world champion Sean "The Beast" Fister said. "It's not an apples-to- apples deal. Men and women are different."

Added former women's world champion Lee Brandon: "In 2005, the USGA approved transgender involvement in competition, so I don't see how we can dispute this. However, if a woman has the knees, hands and feet of a man, she has genetic real estate that is more gifted."

Lawless had her supporters, including 2007 men's champ Mike Dobbyn, who observed, "When I watch her, I don't see any advantage. She hits it like an LDA (Long Drivers of America) woman."

The rules governing transgender golf competition are precise and numerous. For Lawless, they included mandatory doctor reports, lab results within normal female limits and onsite testing.

"I am a woman," insisted Lawless, who adopted her new name from classic-movie star Lana Turner but declines to discuss her previous name. "I've lost muscle mass. I don't have big guns (biceps). They give you a drug that stops you from producing testosterone. Your muscles atrophy. In about seven months, I went from 245 pounds to 175 pounds. I've gained back a little bit, but I feel like I don't have any power.

"Sure, I used to be a man. For 18 years, I was a cop for the city of Rialto, one of the most violent cities in Southern California. I worked the gang unit. I had a very tough and mean exterior. People didn't want to mess with me.

"I had a hard exterior, but I was compassionate inside. I always let the gay guys go; they had enough drama in their lives."

According to Lawless, there were "cop friends who said, 'Put 1,000 guys in a line, and you'd have been the last one picked (as a transgender candidate).' I was a very convincing cop."

As a man, Lawless had been married but fathered no children. "I was hiding in the straight world," she said, "but Lana was always in there, and I wanted her to live. I had started to go to L.A. to the clubs, playing dress-up on the weekends, but I wanted to be a normal girl."

Being a "normal girl'' came with a price — despite medical insurance, she has spent $79,000 so far. Another sacrifice was golf, which she figured would never again be part of her life.

For 21 years, the big, burly cop played golf at a private club, got down to a plus-1 handicap and even won the club championship. But, after gender-reassignment surgery in Trinidad, Colo., there was no golf in her life and no old friends, either. "Other than my family, I have no friends from my previous life," she said.

After watching the 2006 ESPN broadcast of the RE/MAX World Long Drive Championship, she was drawn back into golf. She picked up a stock 45- inch Cobra driver and slammed a 295-yard drive in a regional competition.

Then the proverbial ball started rolling. She began working with instructor Les Taylor. She switched to a longer 48-inch driver with the help of Chris Fu, chief operating officer of Bang Golf, a component seller and long-drive specialty company in El Monte, Calif.

In 2007, her first year at the world championship, she lost in the semifinals to bodybuilder Sheila Kelliher, the eventual champion.

Returning this year with the nickname "Heartbreaker" sewn into her headcovers, Lawless claimed the world title with a BangStorm driver that had 5.5 degrees of loft. Her longest drive of the week was 335 yards.

Her parents remain her biggest cheerleaders. Her mother introduces her as "my daughter." But Lawless worries about "people who don't want to open their minds. I've had mothers stop and point me out to their children. That's cruel, but I've learned to deal with it."

One thing is certain about the future: She will not hide.

"In Palm Springs," she said, "I'm like celebrity central. Hey, I carry myself well, I'm well-spoken, I'm funny as hell. I fit in with a world that is expanding its acceptance."

It remains to be seen whether the world of long driving will extend its wholehearted acceptance, but she owns a world championship, and nobody can wrestle that away.

After winning the 2008 crown, she smiled graciously but did not brag or boast. She seemed to talk more about Meti, the talented New Zealander who lost in the final, than she did of herself.

As a sensitive women, Lawless knows what it's like to lose. After falling 1 yard short in the 2007 semifinals and being eliminated, she had cried.

Cried herself a river, just like the girl she always wanted to be.

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Arkansas coach punts traditional game plan

Jeff Fedotin

Kevin Kelley decided to flip football convention on its head after Pulaski (Ark.) Academy's second game of the 2007 season.

Never a fan of taking his offense off the field, the coach became miffed when his Bruins punted away to Pine Bluff (Ark.) Dollarway High only to see Pulaski allow an 80-yard touchdown on the return.

Associated Press
The "never punt" philosophy paid off as Pulaski celebrated a state title
"That was stupid," Kelley said. "We should've gone for it."

As a result, his 2008 team did not punt during 14 games. Such an unorthodox strategy may seem like lunacy, but it was successful: Pulaski won the 5A state title on Dec. 6.

Kelley's team only punted twice in 2007 − once as an act of sportsmanship to prevent running up the score − and never after that Dollarway game.

Kelley has reasons to go for it.

Keeping the offense on the field on fourth down allows for more creative play-calling. Third-and-long does not have to be a passing down. The Little Rock school can run the ball, throw a screen pass or use any number of formations. Defenses do not know whether to use a nickel or dime defense. And Pulaski's offense has less pressure on third down.

"We don't really worry too much about it," quarterback Spencer Keith said. "We just get as many yards as we can. We don't have to go for the first down."

If Pulaski converts on fourth down, it creates a momentum change similar to a turnover. Other high school coaches have told Kelley they would rather see his team punt.

The Bruins even avoid punting when the defense has stopped them inside their own 10-yard line.

"You can just tell people are in the stands thinking, 'You're an idiot,' " Kelley said.

Kelley supports this rationale with numbers analysis.

If Pulaski has a fourth-and-8 at its own 5-yard line, Kelley said his explosive offense likely will convert a first down at least 50 percent of the time. If it fails to convert, statistical data from the college level shows that an opponent acquiring the ball inside the 10-yard line scores a touchdown 90 percent of the time. If Pulaski punts away (i.e., a 40-yard punt with a 10-yard return) the other team will start with the ball on the 38-yard line and score a touchdown 77 percent of the time. The difference is only 13 percent.

An innovative and statistics-minded coach, Kelley had tinkered with eschewing the punting game since winning his first state championship in 2003. He became further emboldened after reading several studies, including "Do Firms Maximize? Evidence from Pro Football," by University of California-Berkeley economics professor David Romer. Kelley also examined ZEUS, a computer program developed by Chuck Bower, who has a doctorate in astrophysics, and Frank Frigo, a game theory expert, to model and predict football outcomes.

The Pulaski coach has adopted an unusual approach to kickoffs as well. About 75 percent of the time, he uses an onside kick instead of a standard kickoff. To illustrate why, Kelley again relies on numbers.

If his team does not recover the onside kick, the opponent likely will field the kick around its own 47-yard line. On a typical kickoff, the other team usually starts around the 33-yard line.

"You're only giving up 14 yards," Kelley said. "And you get a chance to get the ball."

Pulaski features seven different kinds of onside kicks, including bunching eight players on one side of the field and three on the other; faking the kick with one kicker while another player shifts over to kick to a vacated spot in coverage; clustering all 11 players before spreading out just as the ball is kicked; bouncing a hard kick off the turf for a jump ball and launching a "helicopter kick" by kicking a ball placed on the ground against the tee. The latter strategy causes the ball to spin like a helicopter's propeller and move like a curveball.

"Much like the punting situation, [the onside kick] becomes something the other team has to work on a lot during the week," Kelley said. "That's taking time from their preparation against your offense or defense. So it all works towards the common goal."

For Kelley's objective of winning games with a risky but aggressive offense, Pulaski had the perfect quarterback. Keith, who has received major interest from Louisiana Tech, Arkansas State and several Ivy League schools, could make defenses pay for not stopping the Bruins on fourth down. And if the other team scores off a short field because of a missed fourth-down opportunity, the unflappable passer could compensate by scoring points in a hurry.

Kelley called him the most athletic quarterback he has ever coached, and Keith set the state record with 5,308 passing yards this season. He also possesses the requisite accuracy for an offense that threw on about 45 of its 75 plays a game and averaged 570 total yards.

You can just tell people are in the stands thinking, 'You're an idiot.'
— Kevin Kelley, coach of Pulaski Academy

"It's a really fun offense," Keith said. "I wouldn't change it for anything."

A possible pre-med or pre-engineering student who scored a 30 on the ACT, Keith has the intelligence to master an intricate scheme, which features pre- and post-snap reads with receivers making adjustments based on coverage.

With Keith and several other impact players returning from his 2007 team, Kelley said he knew his team had the potential for a state title this year. When the media asked for his pick of the No. 1 team in Arkansas before the season, Kelley chose Pulaski and consequently received some heat.

"It was just confidence in my guys," he said. "I thought this might be one of the better teams we've ever had."

His prediction proved to be on the mark. Although Pulaski lost its first game of the season, 46-29, to West Helena, it reeled off 13 consecutive wins and avenged that Week 1 defeat with a 35-32 state title victory against the Cougars.

During the offseason Kelley will begin investigating different football strategies. He also plans to further study the punting game by analyzing specific instances where punting may prove statistically superior.

After Kelley searches through data, Pulaski may tweak its approach next year. His 2009 team could punt on occasion, or he may develop a new tactic that defies the norms of football but gives his team an edge.

"Just because something's always been done that way," Kelley said, "doesn't mean it should continue to be done that way."

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AP Sources: Teixeira agrees to $180M Yankees deal

In this Sept. 30, 2008 file photo, Los Angeles Angels first baseman Mark AP – In this Sept. 30, 2008 file photo, Los Angeles Angels first baseman Mark Teixeira looks on during baseball …

NEW YORK – The New York Yankees reeled in another prime free agent, reaching a preliminary agreement Tuesday with first baseman Mark Teixeira for $180 million over eight years.

Two people familiar with the negotiations disclosed the agreement, which is subject to a physical. They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the deal was not yet final.

Teixeira's deal raises the Yankees' offseason spending spree to $423.5 million. Just last Thursday, the Yankees completed agreements with two highly prized pitchers, giving CC Sabathia a $161 million, seven-year contract and A.J. Burnett an $82.5 million, five-year deal.

Preparing to move into their pricey new ballpark, the Yankees will hold the four largest contracts in the sport as they try to win the World Series for the first time since 2000. Third baseman Alex Rodriguez has baseball's highest deal at $275 million over 10 years, and shortstop Derek Jeter is second at $189 million over 10 years.

Teixeira's agreement came just one day after the Yankees received a $26.9 million luxury tax bill for 2008, when their streak of 13 consecutive playoff appearances ended. But with the revenue from their new stadium, where tickets are priced at up to $2,500 per game, their appetite for free agents wasn't diminished.

Just 28, Teixeira is the type of hitter the Yankees hope will revive an offense that dropped from a major league-leading 968 runs in 2007 to 789 last season. The switch-hitter batted a combined .308 with 33 homers and 121 RBIs for the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Angels, who acquired him July 29. He has reached 30 homers and 105 RBIs in five consecutive seasons.

Teixeira gets a $5 million signing bonus, $20 million in each of the first two seasons, and $22.5 million in each of the final six years. He has a full no-trade clause.

Boston Red Sox executives met with Teixeira and agent Scott Boras last week and were told they were being outbid. Teixeira, who is from Maryland, also had discussed signing with the Baltimore Orioles.

"We would have loved to have had the player, who appealed to us because of the special circumstances of where he's from and where we are. We diverted from our plan to try to get him," said Orioles president of baseball operations Andy MacPhail. "But at the end of the day, it was just too much to pay for one player. It would handicap our ability to go forward."

The Washington Nationals also held talks. General manager Jim Bowden said his team's owners "demonstrated their commitment to win, when they stepped up in negotiations ... at the highest level."

"We are disappointed we weren't able to sign him," Bowden wrote in an e-mail to the AP, "and will now turn our attention to several other opportunities to improve our major league club this offseason."

The Angels made an eight-year offer during the winter meetings but withdrew it last weekend.

Teixeira will replace a void in the Yankees lineup created by the departures of first baseman Jason Giambi and right fielder Bobby Abreu, who became free agents. It also creates a logjam for New York, which acquired first baseman Nick Swisher last month in a trade with the Chicago White Sox.

Although Swisher also can play the outfield, the Yankees have a multitude of options there, including Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui, Melky Cabrera, Brett Gardner and Xavier Nady. Matsui currently is likely to be the designated hitter much of the time.

For all Teixeira's positives, he gives the Yankees another slow-footed player who in 2010 will become the team's third starting infielder in his 30s. But the 2005 All-Star is a two-time Gold Glove winner who should improve New York's defense.

His agreement raises the Yankees' commitment for next year to approximately $185 million for 16 players on its 40-man roster. New York also hopes to re-sign left-hander Andy Pettitte for about $10 million and has three players eligible for arbitration: Nady, Cabrera and reliever Brian Bruney.

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