King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Italy wins the World Cup as French legend Zidane is sent off. Let's do the same to the penalty-kick shootout. Plus: The Twins' side-arming blogger.


Salon Staff
July 10, 2006 8:00PM (UTC)

I wish the World Cup were still going on.

I don't mean I wish there were more games. I mean I wish the final between France and Italy were still going on, in the 2,053rd minute of extra time, exhausted players dragging themselves up and down the field until, finally, someone summons that last ounce of energy to make the steal, the pass or the run that leads to the golden goal.

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As fantastic as the 2006 World Cup was -- and it was, from start to finish, with tiny underdog nations and haughty Old World powers both pulling upsets and the scandal-plagued Italians forgetting the troubles back home and winning their first title since '82 -- a penalty-kick shootout is just no way to end such a thing.

Even the NHL, which rarely gets anything right, gets this right. The hockey league introduced a penalty-shot shootout to decide tie games in the regular season, but in the playoffs, teams have to keep playing in overtime until somebody scores. Theoretically, it could go on forever.

And wouldn't that have been something, France and Italy playing on into infinity, France down a man after captain Zinedine Zidane, an all-time great player, ended his international career in disgrace by head-butting Italian rival Marco Materazzi in the chest during the second 15-minute extra period, drawing a red card in what he'd said would be his final game.

The shootout was certainly exciting, in that tense, heart-pounding way that any such contest can be. Will Fast Eddie make that shot in the corner pocket and beat the fat man? The shaking hands, the sweat.

But come on. The world's biggest sporting event decided by a skills contest? The comparison to a hockey shootout isn't the most apt. It's really more like a free-throw shooting contest, with the likelihood of a miss even more slim.

Yes, there was a certain tension involved in wondering whether Fabio Grosso would boot home the game-winner with Italy's fifth penalty kick or whether this kick would be the exceedingly rare one that didn't go in. And there was certainly excitement when he did knock it in, setting off a wild, kind of weirdly choreographed-at-times celebration among the Italians.

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But there would have been much more tension -- building and building -- as a scoreless overtime went on and on. Yeah, there might have been some boring soccer, if you consider a few hours of sweaty palms and tight throats boring, but if you think the Italians were happy and relieved after that penalty-kick win, imagine them after a genuine goal, achieved by playing, you know, actual soccer for a few hours.

I couldn't have enjoyed the World Cup more than I did. It's the first one I've ever watched start to finish, the first since I decided to let soccer work its charms on me a few years ago. I don't want to sign off on it by complaining.

It was a great tournament and a great final game, including the dramatic story of Zidane's inexplicable, inexcusable final act. It would take a Tolstoy to do justice to that tale, if he weren't already busy writing the story of the Los Angeles Angels cutting pitcher Jeff Weaver to make room on the roster for his little brother, Jered.

I just hope FIFA fixes that one rule by 2010, when I'll be excited to watch the next World Cup, scheduled for South Africa, and once again ready to foolishly predict that Mexico will shock the world.

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Life in the majors: Are these the right clothes? [PERMALINK]

Want to know what it's like to play in the big leagues? Root for Pat Neshek to stick for a while with the Minnesota Twins.

Neshek is a side-arming right-hander who was called up from Triple-A Rochester Thursday, and he writes about his baseball experiences on his Web site, patneshek.com. It's a wonderfully unvarnished look at life in the minor leagues -- and, now, the majors.

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"My flight was at 5pm and I felt like time was moving so quickly," Neshek writes about the day he got the phone call from Rochester Red Wings manager Stan Cliburn telling him the Twins, his hometown team, had called him up and to hurry up and catch a flight to Dallas, where the Twins were playing the Texas Rangers.

"I got back to the apartment a little bit after and [girlfriend] Stephanee and I had to decide what to do. Should she drive back to MN and catch a flight the next day or catch a flight out of Rochester. Right then and there my mom called and asked what she should do about a flight. I had no idea; you always see parents at the game when a guy makes his debut so I figured the teams just hooked the player's families up."

You occasionally hear or read ballplayers describing what it's like to get that call. It's such an intense moment, the culmination of so much dreaming and hoping and work, that even the fairly eloquent are reduced to platitudes about how it's the culmination of so much dreaming. And most ballplayers aren't very eloquent. And most of those who are eloquent aren't inclined to share this kind of thing.

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You never hear about the problem of what to do with the car when you're called up from a minor league city you hope not to return to for a while. Or the logistics of getting Mom and Dad to your big-league debut.

In a later posting Neshek describes his first day in the majors, Friday. "I really didn't know what to do all day before I went to the field," he writes. "All I was told was to catch up with another teammate because I was yet to get my MLB player pass to get into the stadium."

He describes killing time at the hotel, a jangle of nerves as he watched TV with Stephanee. "Thoughts kept running through my head like how am I going to get to the field, am I wearing the right type of clothes and what should I be doing right now," he writes.

He eventually made it to the ballpark, was greeted by manager Ron Gardenhire -- who told him to be ready to pitch that night -- and his teammates, then made his way to the field, where some fans who knew him from his Web site cheered him.

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As predicted, Gardenhire got him up in the bullpen in the fifth inning. "The one difference with the balls from AAA balls is the leather," Neshek writes. "MLB balls are a lot finer quality leather and a little tougher to get a good grip on." He was called to go into the game to start the seventh.

"My first couple warm-up pitches felt great," he writes. "I really didn't notice the fans like I thought I would. My hat pretty much covered up the entire upper deck and I had tunnel vision."

Neshek has an unusual delivery and, unlike most side-armers, can throw reasonably hard. He struck out 87 batters in 60 innings this year as a closer at Triple-A, which was only a slight improvement on the numbers he posted in his first three professional seasons in the lower minors, and before that at Butler University.

The first batter he faced, Kevin Mench, looked like he was seeing an alien emerge from a flying saucer as he struggled to foul off a pitch or two. Neshek devotes a page of his Web site to "The Delivery," describing the usual reaction by someone seeing it for the first time as "Whaaaaatttt?"

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So of course Mench eventually whacked a pitch into center field for a single. Welcome to the big leagues, kid, where a funky delivery alone isn't going to cut it. Neshek settled down, though, and retired the side.

"Between innings in the 8th I was warming up and threw my 4th warm-up pitch when Home plate Umpire Doug Eddings came up to me and asked if I was ready yet," Neshek writes. "I told him I needed two more pitches, then caught myself and said 'oops, yes I'm ready' and had [catcher Joe] Mauer fire it down to 2nd. One thing you don't want to do being a rookie is piss off the umpire and I'm glad I caught myself.

"By the way Eddings has a very good cut fastball. Every time he threw a ball back to me it moved a good foot on me with velo and I had a tough time catching it."

Neshek, 25, pitched a second shutout inning, and was later presented both lineup cards and the ball he used to get his first strikeout, all of which were stamped with the official MLB seal of authenticity.

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The pitcher is an enthusiastic signer and collector of autographs, devoting much of his site to what he calls the graphing scene. That's kind of interesting in itself, coming from the rare point of view of an autograph giver.

But I hope he finds a way to get left-handed hitters out in the majors -- always a huge challenge for side-winding righties -- so he can keep telling us about the little details of big-league life:

"After BP was over I was informed that I inherited the Orange Spongebob Squarepants backpack/rollaway bag from Willie Eyre. From this day on I have to fill up the bag with beverages and goodies and wheel the bag out to the bullpen. The only time I will be [relieved] of this duty is if another bullpen member with no MLB experience comes up."

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Table Talk chat [PERMALINK]

The next monthly Table Talk chat will be Wednesday at 1 p.m. EDT. Join me in this column's thread for at least an hour, and maybe more, of talk about whatever you want to talk about.

After this one the chat will be on the first Wednesday of the month. I know I said that last month too. To paraphrase boxing promoter Bob Arum: Last month I was lying. This month I'm telling the truth.

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