Award-winning Sunday

Boy, has it been a crazy busy couple of weeks. The next couple aren’t exactly free with high-school basketball playoffs starting up today, but saw a couple of things that struck me from Sunday’s sports action that seemed worthy of mention. And since the Oscars were last night, I’ll give them the appropriate honors. Just no staues or goodie bags; can’t afford them on a reporter’s salary.

So let’s start handing out some virtual hardware:

  • Best Attempt to Sabotage the Team You Cheer For: The male Louisville cheerleader who, after a dunk gave the Cardinals a five-point lead with 0.5 seconds left, came onto the court, grabbed the basketball and heaved it into the air. That drew a technical foul, which gave Pitt two foul shots and the ball — and with it one last shot at tying the game. Lucky for him Pitt’s desperation heave after the two made foul shots was off, but I still don’t think he’ll hear many cheers from those who recognize him in the near future.
  • Worst Thing to Happen to a Pro Sunday: Mika Koivuniemi had the U.S. Open Bowling Championship all but wrapped up.

    Mika Koivunemi collapses after missing a 10-pin spare to lose the U.S. Open at Carolier Lanes in North Brunswick, N.J. Sunday.

    Sure, Norm Duke had done everything he had to in order to stay alive, throwing four strikes in a row to finish, forcing Koivuniemi to need a spare and an eight-count to win. He could’ve won with his first shot, but didn’t get the carry the 10-pin. He then got his spare shot too far out, and it slid into the gutter just before reaching the 10. He collapsed onto the floor, and Duke sat stunned after just being handed the title. It took Duke nearly a full minute to collect himself and go claim the trophy that was his against all odds for the second time in four years. Koivuniemi was one of the hottest bowlers the entire week, and rolled a 299 just last month while winning the Tournament of Champions. While happy to accept the trophy afterward, Duke said, “I know how this hurts. I don’t wish this pain on anybody.”

  • Best Hall of Fame Outfielder and Song Subject to Pass: Duke Snider. The Dodgers’ legendary slugger, immortalized in song as the third option among center fielders with Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle by Terry Cashman, was 84. He didn’t put up the same numbers as the Say Hey Kid or the Mick, but he was the heart and soul of teams in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, and was second in MVP voting to teammate Roy Campanella when the Dodgers won it all in 1955. He deserves his place in history, and is one less great to treasure.
  • Best Imitation of Someone Two Inches Taller Than Himself: Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, who measured in at the NFL Combine at 6-foot-3, which isn’t the 6-5 he’d been listed at while playing for the national champion Tigers. Whoops. It probably won’t affect his draft status much, I just thought it was funny.
  • Best Latest Example of ESPN’s Desperation for Features: Sunday night’s piece on … jousting. Yes, jousting. I don’t care that the guys in the finals could run me through on a horse and beat me up off of one, this was maybe the most ridiculous thing I’ve seen on this network since it used to run Magic: The Gathering tournaments on the deuce.

OK, I’m all done, and we’re not running late like every Oscars telecast. I’d like to thank my agent and my publicist. Good night.

Hitting new highs … and lows

The college baseball season begins today, and there’s plenty to talk about.

The new aluminum bats the NCAA has imposed on the sport are supposed to be safer than ever, and some say will reduce home runs in the sport by half after their use in fall baseball. Speed-up rules similar to but not as drastic as those used in South Jersey’s Diamond Classic high school tournament have been instituted as well.

But on this night, many eyes will be focused on southern Florida as Florida International University junior Garrett Wittels resumes his quest for college baseball immortality. He likely already has some measure of it, but thanks to his offseason he may have altered for what he’ll be remembered.

Wittels had at least one hit in the last 56 games the Golden Panthers played last year, ending the season just two shy of Robin Ventura’s record 58-game hitting streak with Oklahoma State in 1989. FIU opens its season tonight at home against Southeastern Louisiana. And just FYI, the all-division college hitting-streak record is 60 games, by Damian Costantino at Division III Salve Regina (R.I.).

Wittels became something of a national sensation as the streak grew last year, with ESPN giving daily updates and following the team all the way through its ouster in an NCAA regional. According to one source tonight’s game is supposed to be nationally televised, though I couldn’t find it in my cable guide.

But the tenor of the chase took on a  much different tone after Wittels and two friends were arrested in the Bahamas just before Christmas on rape charges after two 17-year-old girls followed them from the hotel bar to a room for a party. The three were released on $10,000 bond and have an April 18 hearing.

Innocent until proven guilty is one of the hallmarks of our justice system, and Wittels and his entire family are adamant that he is not guilty of doing anything wrong beyond using bad judgment. “I put myself in a bad situation,” he was quoted as saying. But is the streak so important that his resumption of the chase can’t wait until this cloud is no longer hanging over his head?

Part of what made the streak so exciting last year is that Wittels was only a sophomore, meaning he has two years of college left, plenty of time to get this situation cleared up and resume his quest free of other distractions. His prospects in this year’s Major League Draft are uncertain — he hit .417 last year but didn’t walk much or hit for a lot of power — so he could definitely be with the Golden Panthers for two more seasons.

With the hearing coming up in April, he could continue working out and if he was cleared of the charges then simply resume the season at that point. Though Wittels’ father insisted that the incident had nothing to do with FIU because it was off campus and during winter break, the school’s student code of conduct indicates that offenses including those alleged to have been committed by Wittels are punishable whether they took place on or off campus.

Despite the fact that many schools suspend student-athletes who are arrested — including FIU with a trio of football players in 2004 — the school cleared Wittels Wednesday to play in the season opener. The decision was announced at a press conference at which Wittels was present, but before which media members were cautioned not to ask him about the case.

“Every single night I put my head on the pillow, I know what went on that night and I have no trouble sleeping at all,” Wittels has said. That’s fine, but his ultimate guilt or innocence is now in the hands of the judicial system and it probably wasn’t the smartest thing to say with the outcome still in doubt.

So let’s say he hits in all three games against Southeastern Louisiana this weekend, extending his streak to 59 games and breaking Ventura’s mark. Will there be a celebration? Maybe for Wittels and the FIU baseball team, but the looming charges will make it a lot harder for many to celebrate the achievement.

And if he is stymied by the pitching of the Lions, who set a school record with 40 wins last year? Then the arrest and impending hearing was a distraction, no matter how much he insists they won’t be.

So it appears that this is a no-win situation, making it more puzzling that all parties would insist on throwing him out there now. But the decision has been made, and everyone will have to live with the consequences. I honestly hope he is innocent of the charges against him, and we can just enjoy the game. I just wish we could wait until we knew more, so I would have a better idea of how to react.

Golf clap

There’s likely no sport as rooted in its origins and tied to the past as golf. Recent events that could only occur in the 21st century are forcing changes that are likely long overdue.

Twice already in this young season, golfers have been disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard. The scorecard itself wasn’t really the issue at hand, but it’s the penalty that the PGA had to enforce after infractions were spotted — by sharp-eyed television viewers who contacted the appropriate tour officials to turn them in.

Padraig Harrington was disqualified after a 7-under par opening round at the European Tour’s HSBC Championship almost three weeks ago after a close-up and slow-motion instant replay showed he touched his ball slightly while marking it on the green and it did not return to its original spot after moving. Someone watching on TV e-mailed the tour to alert officials.

That came a week after Camilo Villegas was bounced for a bad scorecard from the PGA’s Hyundai Tournament of Champions after unknowingly committing a two-stroke penalty of swatting away loose debris near him when his chip shot to the 15th green failed to get there and, for the second time, rolled down a steep hill back to the waiting Villegas.

The former incident disturbed me more after finding out that someone watching on the Golf Channel spotted the mistake and spent some time trying to contact the PGA through its website and even Twitter. He ultimately got his message to a golf official through a friend of his — in the media. Very few things would get me involved in a story, and this definitely doesn’t qualify in my book.

Nonetheless, both incidents led to disqualifications because the players had no idea they were committing an infraction, finished their rounds and signed their scorecards, and then were penalized after the fact thanks to TV viewers and had the “incorrect scorecard” rule invoked.

Fundamentally I think instant replay in sports is simply something that will come to pass across the board, and is already used in several instances. It’s a technology that wasn’t available before that enables the game in question to have the most equitable outcome by assisting game officials to make sure the call is right.

But does this apply to thousands, hundreds of thousands or even millions of viewers at home having the ability to affect the outcome of sporting events just because they’re almost anally acquainted with the rules of the game? Apparently for now.

The good news is that at least the Powers That Be in the golfing world sense that some aspect of the current situation has to be changed, even if it’s not necessarily the most pertinent. Rules makers with both the Royal & Ancient Golf Club and the United States Golf Association are looking into possibly changing the rules so that if a TV watcher wants to blow the whistle on an unsuspecting golfer it won’t automatically means a disqualification because of his or her scorecard.

“If you couldn’t have known that you had incurred a penalty, disqualification does seem inequitable,” R&A chief executive Peter Dawson said. “And, because we are getting more and more of these incidents, that penalty is coming more and more into focus.

“We still think there should be a penalty for getting your score wrong. But, as I said, we think disqualification is too severe.”

From this and other comments from officials, it seems clear that viewers may still continue to have the power to affect the outcome of golf events. The possibility of incurring a multiple-stroke penalty, but still being able to complete the tournament, seems the most likely scenario. Harrington and others have acknowledged that they’re happy to know people are watching at all.

“I’m comfortable with the whole idea that there’s people there watching, and I believe when I’m on the golf course I’m not going to do anything untoward,” Harrington said. “I hope that this many people watch The European Tour. I hope there’s 100 million people watching me play and checking me out. It’s good for the game.”

Whether or not those fans calling in to rat you out for something you didn’t even know you did is good for the game is up for debate. But at least if they keep doing it, it won’t automatically mean disqualification for any player, no matter how minor the infraction.