Category Archives: Sports

My experience covering the Stanley Cup Final

The calm before the storm before Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center.

The calm before the storm before Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final at SAP Center.

By: Eric He

June 18, 2016

It didn’t really hit me until hours after Game 6 ended, when I got in my car in the mostly empty parking lot outside SAP Center and revved up the engine: the San Jose Sharks, the team that I grew up rooting for, that had made me suffer through years of playoff choke jobs, was actually in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their 25-year history. And not only was I there to witness it, but I also had access to the locker room, press conferences, ice level — essentially, backstage access to hockey’s premier event.

There are many things I dreamed of doing before I turned 20. Covering a Stanley Cup Final was not even remotely on that list. I mean, the only team I had access to was the Sharks. I had better odds of winning a lottery ticket.

Two years ago, I landed a position as a Sharks’ beat writer with SFBay.ca that got me in the press box for home games. While it was a great experience covering a professional team, it also happened to be same year they missed the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Interest in the team waned, attendance at SAP Center was slumping, and the team just was playing awful hockey at home. The night they were mathematically knocked out of the playoffs was also the final home game of the season. I wrote a very depressing recap after a 5-1 clubbing, followed it up a week later with a harsh editorial that’s funny to read now, and left for college without covering so much as a playoff game.

I didn’t really follow the Sharks as closely during the regular season. They had lost a lot of trust and interest. Fans were fed up, and even when they snuck into the playoffs, nothing much was expected of them. They finished third in the division and matched up with the Kings in the first round, and to be frank, anything short of another first round debacle might have surpassed expectations.

For me, I was just happy to get out of the dorm on a Thursday night. I covered Game 1 at Staples Center and they won that. I went back two days later and they won Game 2 as well.

Staples Center is, quite literally, lit tonight. #SJSharks #LAKings

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They ended up winning in five games, shocking the away crowd with a searing 6-3 win. My favorite part of that series was being in the Sharks’ locker room after Game 1 and in the middle of a media scrum around Martin Jones when Sharks’ majority owner Hasso Plattner strolled in, clapping loudly, and praising Brent Burns. I wrote about that here and snapped this shot of the happy German man enjoying pizza with Burns:

While making quick work of the Kings was impressive, I couldn’t really drum up a whole lot of enthusiasm. They would have to do a lot more to make up of the past two years of misery and the past 25 years of postseason mediocrity.

They faced the Predators in the second round, and the semester wrapped up just in time for me  to make Game 7 at the Shark Tank.

The stage is set for Game 7 #SJSharks #Predators

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I was fully prepared a loss. I think years of first supporting and now covering the Sharks has me accustomed to them choking in the biggest moments. But, to everyone’s surprise, they dominated in a 5-0 win.

When I look back at when I actually thought this team would be different, this was the game. I had an inkling in Game 1 in the first round when they were unfazed by an opening goal by the Kings and pulled out a clutch win late in the third period. But this win sealed it. They were confident and poised, unlike any of the meek Sharks’ playoff teams of the past.

Still, I was fully aware the Sharks were 0-3 in their history in the conference finals and had dropped seven of their last eight games in that round. They rarely make it this deep in the playoffs, and even when they do, it ends in woefully short fashion, with every crazy-ass bounce going against them:

But this team would be different. With the series tied 1-1, they won Game 3 but lost Game 4, both of which I had the pleasure of covering.

They wound up wrapping up the series in six games — Game 6 of the conference finals was the only clinching game I didn’t attend — and earned a spot in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in franchise history.

 

It impactful not just for the team but for some of the players, including Joe Thornton, who had been in the league since the year I was born and had yet to make an appearance in the championship. His amazing response to a question about whether he was surprised at his production this late in his career in the press conference after the Game 3 win (“No, I know I’m a great player.”) was the crux of my feature on one of hockey’s active legends.

As I mentioned, I didn’t really have a “holy shit” moment until after the Final ended. Though I fully understood I had somehow short-circuited my way to doing something a majority of sportswriters wait a lot longer to accomplish, I really never thought of it as anything more than just covering a game, like I’ve done countless times in the past.

I went out to practice two days before Game 1 against the Penguins and noted that the Sharks would need to match — if not exceed — Pittsburgh’s speed to win the series.

Promptly, the Sharks allowed the Penguins to swim circles around them in Games 1 and 2 on the road and the came back home down 2-0. 

Again, I didn’t think about it at the time, but as I look back, Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final — the first Stanley Cup Final game ever in San Jose — was one of the best experiences of my life, both journalistically and as a sports enthusiast in general, much less an avid follower of Sharks hockey.

The Shark Tank looks ready to host a Stanley Cup Final game #SJSharks #Penguins

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I arrived at 9 a.m., eight hours before puck drop, in time to catch the optional morning skate and the coaches’ pre-game press conferences in front of the media — and Holy Media, there was a ton of them. National media, international media, even local media who didn’t give a hoot about the Sharks — or hockey, for that matter — all season long until they had to.

The NHL took over SAP Center and installed a place a giant media work area at ice level. I didn’t take a pic of it when it got full, but trust me, all of these rows were eventually packed:

For the Final, the NHL actually took physical seats in the arena and turned them into an auxiliary press area, which provided a much more decent view than sitting in the actual press box high above the rafters (fun note: when SAP Center was built, they forgot about the press box. Walking across catwalks suspended high above the arena is never fun).

As fans streamed into the area, I walked around outside and got some quotes from fans on their thoughts heading into the biggest home game in franchise history (when I heard things from older fans like “I’ve been waiting since high school” for this day or “I remember when the Sharks used to play in the Cow Palace,” I suddenly realized how small my suffering was in comparison).

Outside SAP Center, a rally started a couple of hours before puck drop, and there was a steady stream of fans coming in early.

But a majority of fans were nervous about the game, as they should have been. The Sharks were down 2-0. A win would place them back in the series. A loss would have effectively ended the party after it had barely started.

And man, did the fans want to make this a series. I have never heard the Shark Tank that loud in my life, and the pre-game light show they put on was so, so cool to witness from up above.

Go crazy tonight, San Jose. You deserve it. #SJSharks #Penguins #stanleycupfinals

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When Joel Ward scored in the third period to tie the game 2-2, the crowd erupted like I’ve never seen before.

But quickly, the tension re-entered the building as the final half of the third period was scoreless, but not before the Penguins put on an offensive barrage at the end that had everyone gasping for breath.

Overtime was not much better. The nervousness and uneasiness in the building was palpable as the teams traded dynamite scoring chances. There’s nothing better in sports than overtime in the NHL playoffs, because it’s sudden death. Once there’s a goal, the game’s over just like that, which makes every bounce, shift, pass and shot potentially game-altering.

For nearly 13 minutes, it went on like that. It felt like 13 hours. Until Joonas Donskoi, a relatively unknown rookie from Finland, took the puck around the net and just winged it past Penguins’ goaltender Matt Murray, delivering the greatest sports moment I’ve seen live to date:

It allowed me to write what I think was my best piece from this playoff run, a feature on the quiet, unassuming Donskoi who simply put his head down and worked his butt off to just make the team. His press conference was hilarious in that he could not have looked less excited to have scored the biggest goal in franchise history.

His mentality, though, is one that I greatly respect and wish more athletes followed: put the work in, get the results, and do it again without complaining. The Sharks, in this postseason, obviously found themselves a franchise goaltender in Martin Jones, but they also have a hell of a young talent in Donskoi.

That would be the zenith of the playoff run, though. They dropped Game 4 and fell behind 3-1 in the series, though they did win Game 5 to force a sixth game — and give me my full money’s worth, being able to attend three games in the Final.

The Sharks said all the right things the day before during practice, but to be honest, they never stood a chance to the Penguins. The Sharks once again played from behind all night in Game 6, with Jones making spectacular saves to keep it at a one-goal deficit.

The crowd really, really wanted a late game-tying goal.

But it wasn’t to be, as the Penguins scored on an empty net to win the Cup, giving me the bittersweet opportunity to file a championship-clinching recap.

It’s strange to be in a team’s locker room after they just lost the championship. As the Sharks tried to make sense of the fact that their season was over, I could hear the Penguins celebrating and rejoicing. That just had to be extra salt pouring into the wound.

So that brings me all the way back to leaving SAP Center for the final time this season, the “holy shit” moment that I finally had. I think I was just simply amazed. Amazed that after 25 years of the worst kind of torture a team could possibly give to a fanbase, the Sharks finally solved the puzzle and made a Stanley Cup Final — only to lose. They waited 25 years, finally got their chance, and lost. That’s what kills me, wondering if this was just another prolonged way to give the fanbase more suffering.

But mostly, I was amazed that I was there, not only to witness but to document their attempt at history. Three years ago, I covered my first game, a sparsely-attended, horribly-played high school football game. Never did I imagine that in three years’ time, I would be covering the biggest event in all of hockey, witnessing historic moments instead of watching on TV and telling stories about the quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup instead of reading them. I thought about the wild two-and-a-half month span of the playoff run in which covering games went from “a great way to get out of the dorm on Thursday night” to an experience that will last a lifetime.

The only thing missing was a story about the Sharks fully exorcising their playoff demons and winning the whole damn thing for once — but, hey, we can always do this again next year with a different result … right?

Clippers survive scare from Wizards in Blake Griffin’s return

Blake Griffin was quiet in his return, but the Clippers gutted out a win over the Wizards. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Blake Griffin was quiet in his return, but the Clippers gutted out a win over the Wizards. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Clippers survived a scare from the Washington Wizards on Sunday afternoon at Staples Center, winning 114-109 in Blake Griffin’s return to the lineup.

Griffin, who scored 6 points on 2-of-7 shooting in 25 minutes of action, felt a little bit rusty but was confident he would return to full strength soon.

“My conditioning was a little better than I had thought, actually,” Griffin said. “My rhythm was pretty bad, but like I said, I’ll take a couple of games and hopefully over the course of the next four or five games, I can kind of shake that off.”

The Clippers took a 12-point lead late in the fourth thanks several 3-pointers by Jamal Crawford. But the Wizards, on a barrage of long-distance shots themselves, closed the gap to just three after a 3-pointer by John Wall. But Chris Paul knocked down a clutch three with the shot clock winding down to give the Clippers a 6-point advantage with 22 seconds to play, putting the game away.

Despite the late rally by the Wizards, the Clippers’ experience helped lead to their resiliency in the end.

“I think because most of us have been together for a while now, we take a lot of pride in late game execution,” Paul said. “We have been on both sides of those games, losing games and winning games. We are really trying to pay attention to late game execution.”

Chris Paul speaks to the media after the win over the Wizards.

Chris Paul speaks to the media after the win over the Wizards.

Paul had a game-high 27 points to go along with 12 assists. J.J. Reddick added 18 points and DeAndre Jordan had 12 points and 12 rebounds.

The Wizards opened the second half on a 10-0 run to cut the Clippers’ double-digit lead down to one. But the Clippers answered after a timeout, scoring eight straight points of their own. Reddick dropped a 3-pointer in transition and Paul knocked down a jumper after a crossover to put the Clippers ahead 68-59 midway through the third quarter. They led by 11 entering the fourth.

“We won the game against a team that had the win,” head coach Doc Rivers. “I will take the good execution and the bad execution [at the end of the game] and be fine with it.”

The Clippers jumped out to a double-digit lead after the first quarter as Paul and Reddick both started out hot. Reddick scored 8 straight points for the Clippers in the first quarter to help them pull away. Griffin’s first points came shortly thereafter on a fitting alley-oop finish off a lob by Paul.

Blake Griffin skies for a dunk, his first points since coming back from injury. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Blake Griffin skies for a dunk, his first points since coming back from injury. (Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)

Griffin was admittedly a little tentative, skying above the rim for the first time in months.

“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Please don’t throw it too high,’” Griffin said. “Normally I am ready to go for those, but sprinting full court and then having to jump had me a little worried, but getting out in transition again felt good.”

They were Griffin’s only points of the half, however, as the big man was limited to 11 minutes of action. Paul and Reddick both had 13 at halftime to lead the way for the Clippers, with Reddick’s 3-pointer giving the Clippers a 17-point lead midway through the second quarter.

Jordan finished a pair of alley-oop jams himself in the second quarter, but landed awkwardly on his right ankle after the second one and headed into the locker room. He returned to the game in the second half.

The Clippers took a 60-49 lead into halftime, shooting 58 percent from the field. The Wizards recorded 13 offensive rebounds to two for the Clippers, but Washington shot just 37 percent in the first half.

Griffin has missed the last three months and hasn’t played since Christmas when he suffered a torn left quadriceps tendon. Then, in January, Griffin broke his hand in a fight with the team’s equipment manager. In Griffin’s absence, the Clippers went 30-15 and currently sit at fourth in the Western Conference.

Rivers is confident in Griffin’s mentality.

“I am glad [Blake] is hard on himself, it is what makes him Blake,” Rivers said. “Blake is going to be Blake. Players know who they are. When they do not play well or play to their standards, they get frustrated and they get over it. The great ones tend to get frustrated and then are fine the next day – I think that is Blake.”

With six games left on the schedule, Griffin has little time to get re-acquainted with the Clippers, and vice-versa.

“I was definitely frustrated with myself, even though I know I am not at 100 percent right now,” Griffin said of his quiet offensive performance. “It is going to be a trying process, but I am definitely used to that.”

This post was originally published on TG Sports. 

NCAA women’s basketball: No. 14 UCLA completes comeback against Washington

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By: Eric He

February 14, 2016

LOS ANGELES — The thrill of making a large comeback only to fall just short has happened time and time again to the Bruins. On Sunday, they finally turned the tables.

The No. 14 UCLA women came from 17 points down to defeat Washington 63-59 at Pauley Pavilion, the largest deficit the program has overcome in 10 years.

Kelsey Plum, the nation’s second leading scorer, had a chance to tie the game in the dying seconds, but her layup rolled off the rim after she drove past defenders to the basket. With a two-point lead and possession, the Bruins hung on for the close win.

The Bruins trailed by one entering the fourth quarter, but never trailed after taking the lead at the six-minute mark, when Kari Korver knocked down a three-pointer from the left corner with a quick release to give UCLA a 52-51 lead. On the ensuing possession, Korver set up Monique Billings who made a nice up-and-under move to score down low and swing the momentum in the Bruins’ favor.

Korver said head coach Cori Close sensed she was due for a big shot: “Coach told me, ‘It’s your time, Korver.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, it is,’ and I was happy to knock it down.”

Close was pleased with her team’s effort and tenacity in fighting back.

“I loved the perseverance and steadiness that this team has showed all year long,” Close said. “Every time we’ve gone down early, we’ve found ways to steadily chipped away. Up until today, we haven’t been able to finish the drill on one of those big comebacks. It’s really big for us to finish that off.”

Jordin Canada led the way with 16 points, while Billings had the way with a double-double – 13 points and 13 rebounds – her sixth of the season. Nirra Fields chipped in 13 points as well.

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The first quarter was not very pretty for the Bruins, as Plum put her stamp on the game early, putting up 17 first quarter points to outscore the Bruins by herself. She fueled 11-2 and 9-0 runs in the frame as the Huskies led 26-13 after one quarter. Plum shot 7-of-10 from the field in the first quarter alone, including a three-point play that gave Washington a 26-9 advantage.

The Bruins, meanwhile, started the game cold, missing eight consecutive shots at one point and trailed by as many as 17 in the first.

But after a poor first quarter, UCLA woke up in the second, outscoring Washington 22-10 to get back in the game. Fields drilled back-to-back three-pointers from the same spot to pull the Bruins within five. That was part of an 11-0 run that cut the Huskies’ lead to just three. A nice pump fake and driving layup by Fields late in the half sent UCLA into the locker room trailing 36-35.

“We got punched in the first half, but we had to punch back,” Billings said. “That’s what we did.”

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The third quarter featured plenty of back-and-forth action, but both teams struggled offensively. A gradual 8-0 run by UCLA put them ahead 47-44, but a three-pointer by Plum tied the game back up again. Washington led 48-47 heading into the fourth.

Plum, after exploding early on, was somewhat subdued in the second half. She did finish with a game-high 32 points, but the Bruins were able to hold her in check in the latter stage by playing zone and making her adjust to their tempo.

“You’re never going to stop Kelsey Plum by yourself,” Close said. “It’s just not going to happen. We played their tempo in the first quarter. Once we got our tempo going, we made her play at our tempo.”

The Bruins will now prepare for a road trip to Oregon where they will take on the Ducks and Beavers on Feb. 19 and 21, respectively.

This post was originally published on T.G. Sports. 

NCAA Women’s basketball: No. 14 UCLA grinds out win over Washington State

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By: Eric He

Feb. 12, 2016

LOS ANGELES — UCLA women’s basketball coach Cori Close did not mince words during her halftime sideline interview broadcast to the Pauley Pavilion crowd on Friday against Washington State. “I’m sorry fans, that was awful,” she said, criticizing her team’s lack of intensity before storming away to the locker room.

The No. 14-ranked Bruins (18-6, 10-3) actually led by four at halftime and would go on to beat the Cougars (12-12, 3-10) handily, 73-61, but the way Close described it, they might as well have lost that game.

“This was not a good night for us,” Close said. “We didn’t play with the kind of concentration and consistent effort together that we normally do. That was not the team I’ve seen all year. We’ve got to take responsibility, look in the mirror, and figure out why that took place.”

UCLA shot just 26.5 percent from the field in the first half and managed just 31 points, but picked it up by shooting at a 51.9 percent clip in the second half.

The Bruins put the game away early in the fourth quarter, extending a five-point lead to 15 with an 13-0 run after the Cougars had opened the frame with a three-pointer by Taylor Edmonson to make it a two-point game. The Bruins connected on five straight field goals, and a jumper by Monique Billings that rimmed in extended their lead to 69-54 with just under five minutes to play in the game.

As UCLA piled up the score, Washington State went on a scoring drought that lasted over five minutes and committed seven turnovers in a four-minute stretch.

Billings led the way with 16 points and nine rebounds, dominating the second half.

“There was a segment in the second half when I thought Monique was controlling the game,” Close said. “She was controlling the ball on the defensive end with blocked shots. She was getting rebounds, running the floor, setting great screens, and hitting her inside shots and jump shots. She was the player on the floor that needed to touch the ball early and often.”

Billings is third on the team in scoring, averaging 12.7 points per game.

“I just wanted to bring energy for the team,” she said. “We felt flat [and] we just needed energy.”

She was set up time and time again by Jordin Canada, who had a strong all-around around game with 11 points, eight assists, and four rebounds. This is the 51st consecutive game in which the guard has recorded two or more assists.

“As a point guard, you’ve got to know who’s hot, who to get the ball to,” Canada said. “[Monique] is consistently running and talking to me on every single play. I knew I had to get her the ball. I knew she was hot. I just played off her energy.”

Along with Billings and Canada, Kari Korver, who had 12 points, and Nirra Fields, who finished with 10, were the other Bruins to score in double-figures. It was enough to offset a valiant effort by a Washington State squad on the road, riding a six-game losing streak and holding a 7-51 all-time record against UCLA.

With Washington State down 42-36 midway through the third quarter, Pinelopi Pavlopoulou went on an 8-0 run by herself, hitting consecutive three-pointers that gave the Cougars their first advantage of the night at 44-42.

UCLA answered, though, with nine straight points with Kennedy Burke nailing a three to regain the lead for the Bruins. With the game tied 51-51 late in the third after a corner three-pointer by the Cougars’ Borislava Hristova, Billings hit a jumper plus the foul. The Bruins scored the final five points of the half to take a 56-51 advantage into the fourth.

When asked if she thought her team was going through mid-season fatigue, Close didn’t use it as an excuse.

“I absolutely think we’re tired,” she said. “But I just think that’s the nature of it. This is when you have to make the choice to do things mentally. Everybody’s mentally tired, emotionally tired. So what? Nobody really cares. Everybody’s in the same boat, everybody plays the same amount.”

The Bruins jumped ahead to an early 10-4 lead after a steal and layup by Canada. She then assisted on UCLA’s next two buckets, dishing to Korver for three and Billings for a layup to put the Bruins up 15-6.

With a six-point lead heading into the second quarter, the Bruins went on a 9-2 run to open up the score. But their 25-12 advantage was whittled down quickly by Washington State, which responded with an 8-0 spurt that included back-to-back threes by Taylor Edmonson and Mariah Cooks, and both of them would convert again before the half concluded.

In the meantime, UCLA missed 12 of its last 14 field goal attempts to end the first half, shooting under 30 percent overall, but still led 31-27 heading into the locker room.

Close concurred that this was not the prettiest of games, but lauded her team’s tenacity to grind through the mistakes.

“I like the toughness of our team,” Close said. “They hate to lose. We’ve responded every time in competitive environments. That was just an ugly game all around. It wasn’t our best. I can promise our fans [that] we will come back ready and focused on Sunday.”

The Bruins have a quick turnaround as they will face No. 24 Washington on Sunday at 11 A.M. at home.

This post was originally published on T.G. Sports. 

One-on-one interview with Jake Olson, USC’s blind long snapper

Sep 19, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans blind long snapper Jake Olson (61) snaps the ball before the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 19, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Southern California Trojans blind long snapper Jake Olson (61) snaps the ball before the game against the Stanford Cardinal at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

By: Eric He

Nov. 25, 2015

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but I’m finally getting around to it with some freetime over Thanksgiving.

Last month, I conducted a lengthy interview with Jake Olson, a blind freshman at USC who made the football team a long-snapper. The story ran in the Daily Trojan on Oct. 8 and can be read here

Olson’s story is certainly an inspiration, and I hope the article provided that sense. There was, however, a lot of his quotes that were not included due to space.

Below is the transcription of the 20+ minute interview I did with Olson as we sat in the patio of Heritage Hall on the USC campus with his guide dog, Quebec, resting by his side.

Q: So I want to start off with your childhood and kind of go from there. Can you describe how you grew up? I know you lost your left eye to cancer when you were…

Olson: Yeah, so when I was eight months old, I was diagnosed with a rare form of eye cancer called retinoblastoma. And when the doctors found it, they found it late. Retinoblastoma is a tumor in the retina of the eye that’s a blastoma tumor, meaning that it’s very fast growing and it’s aggressive. And so the fear really starts in that it’s so fast growing that it’s already in the retina of the eye and can easily move to the optic nerve and to the brain and at that point, there’s nothing you can do.

And so, to an extent in my left eye, there was nothing they could do to the cancer that had already taken over my eye. And so they were only left with the option to enucleate it.

So they took my left eye, and they were able to save my right eye. And then from really that point on, they did 12 [surgeries]…you know it came back like eight times and you start to fight with chemotherapy, laser, radiation, chirotherapy, and all sorts of street medicine. Finally at the age of 12, the cancer came back too many times that the doctor said, “You know what, it’s really become immune to everything. You know, we’ve exhausted all our options.”

And again the fear is that it would move to the brain. And so without any real options to kill the cancer, they said that the best option is just to remove that eye as well.

Q: So how did that feel when…you obviously lived a large eleven to twelve years with eyesight…and you know, then suddenly it’s all gone?

Olson: And that was the thing. Being able to see for twelve years, which I’m grateful for…you know I’m always grateful that I was able to see God’s creation. But I didn’t realize how much as humans we use our eyes. You know it’s like you text with your eyes, you walk with your eyes, you do homework…whatever you do besides sleep, you do with your eyes.

And so I knew that. So to think of a life outside…to think, “Okay, I’m not gonna have my eyes to do these things,” you know it was scary and overwhelming because I was like, “Okay, how am I going to walk? How am I going to know where I’m going? How am I going to text? How am I going to eat? How am I going to do all these easy things?”

You really have to relearn how to do them. And so it was scary and overwhelming. And you had the anger that came with the reality of going blind, so it was a tough time. But you know, overall the thing was that I…you know for twelve years I was facing cancer, and there was a lot of disappointment in the return. And I virtually had to go through it with treatments and all that. So you know obviously going blind was my biggest adversity in my life, but the same principles that I had been applying to my life up till that point, I stuck with them. You just got to keep focus on the positives and you know have the mentality of not letting it stop you and look past it and everything around that.

Q: Right. So I know you fell in love with USC. When you had to do a second surgery to remove your eye, they called you and they had you come over for practice and games. How did that get set up? Did you get in touch with them somehow?

Olson: Yeah, so when we found out that I was about to lose my right eye, it was weird how my story came to Coach [Pete] Caroll. A lot of people we knew had connections to the team or people who work here, and somehow it reached Coach Caroll. And when he heard about it, he just invited me up.

For me it was just me thinking I was going to practice, which was awesome just as a 12-year-old. Little did I know he had me show up at pre-practice meetings and introduced me to the team and have me meet everyone and then go to practice and have dinner afterwards. And he’d been inviting me up, travelling with the team in the hotels, in the locker rooms, and buses…and it was just all of it together. And it really was something special. The grace he showed me I will always be in debt to him because of that.

It really made me part of the team, and I felt like how I feel now and just the camaraderie and the brotherhood and the support you get with being on the football team…that’s how I felt, and in that time of my life when I was going to confront going blind, it really meant a lot to have that love there.

Q: So you grew up in this area, so you became a USC fan then?

Olson: Yeah, so I lived in Huntington Beach. So with LA not having an NFL team and USC dominance in Caroll’s era, it was hard not to be a USC fan. It was hard not to look at them like they were the cat’s meow. I definitely grew up a huge USC fan.

Q: So talk a little bit about how you got involved with playing sports despite your disability. So you tried out for your high school football team as a long snapper. How did you come to that decision? 

A: Well I played middle school flag football and even after I went blind in seventh grade, I continued to play flag football in my eighth grade. But again it was kind of eight-on-eight flag football. Nothing too physical or taxing or anything.

When I got into high school, I went to high school at Orange Lutheran, and so we face the toughest competition in the United States. And football became this very serious deal with big kids and was just something I felt was not safe and was really something that I could not contribute to the team in any way.

In my freshman-sophmore year, I didn’t play. Seeing the football team and how much fun they had made me really miss it, and I really wanted t get back on the field. And so I heard of the long snapping position, and I talked to the coach and he said, “Okay, just learn it.” And so I practiced all summer long.

And sure enough, three months of practicing every day…going onto my junior year, we all met in August and I was able to show my team I was the best long snapper. I got a spot on varsity  in both my junior and senior years. It was cool to see the practice pay off, but it was also being on the field and knowing I was contributing.

Q: Did you struggle at first?

Olson: Yeah I did. When I first started [laughs] I couldn’t snap the ball. Yeah, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. But you know, like I said, it took two or three months of really practicing hard to really kind of start seeing some progress. And by the time the season starts, you can always see I was pretty good. And as time goes on, you just practice more and more and more.

Q: So I want to get into golf. You also play golf, is that right?

Olson: Yes

Q: Your aspirations are to make it to the PGA tour. How did you get into golf?

A: Well I got into golf as a little kid. I always played with my dad. My dad is a really good golfer, and we would always go out there and play. And it was around the same time I was going blind that I really wanted to kind of make a profession out of golf.

So it was difficult when I went blind at first. It was really hard to be…I was actually a little kid who was actually decently playing golf and then I went to a kid couldn’t hit the ball anymore, you know. And so it took a lot of practice. A lot of practice. It was one of the more frustrating things to get my golfing down.

But you know what, it started coming back over the summer. In the last couple of years, I’ve been playing better golf than I could ever have imagined. It’s been really fun to see that grow, and unfortunately it’s a give and take. I’m up here practicing football right now, so I don’t have the same amount of time for golf. But for sure someday I’m going to keep up and practice hard. And after college I could put my mind back to it and see where I can get. But I know just from where I’ve been that it’s something that’s very possible. There’s no limitations of how far I can get my golf game as of not having sight.

Q: So being on the football team, it must be surreal for you.

Olson: Yeah, it’s a very fun thing. I’m on the team that I admired for so many years.

Q: And so when you made the team, I know there were some issues with the NCAA and scholarship. But when you made the team and you walked down to your first practice, how did you feel?

Olson: It felt great. I felt ready more than anything. I practiced hard to show the coach of the team what I could do. So when I had my opportunity to finally go out there and start practicing, I was ready. But at the same time it was so exhilarating. I was so excited. I couldn’t believe what I was wearing. It was just like the Cardinal Gold and the helmet on. So yeah, it was absolutely crazy, but it was a dream come true, and you never take for granted the reality of putting on the uniform and pads and walking out on the Howard-Jones Field. The first day and the last day, it’s going to be the same feeling of, “This is a blessing.”

Q: And I read about your first live snapping practice. Describe that.

Olson: Yeah, it was great. It was fun. The coach called me in. I felt ready. It was just something I did thousands of times. So it was not letting the situation get in your head…”Okay this is what you’ve done a ton of times. Just do the same thing you always do.”

Q: Did your teammates celebrate?

Olson: Yeah, we made the field goal and it was a cool moment for everyone out there. It was very cool and we had a lot more of those, so it was awesome.

Q: What’s the key to a good long snap?

Olson: The key to a good long snap…grip on the ball is key. You want to make sure your hands are where they need to be on the ball. And then really it take a lot to get it down. The key to a good long snap is the spiral. You want to, just like the quarterback throws a spiral to the receiver — the long snap is the same thing. The long snapper is wanting to have that spiral back to his punter through his holder. The spiral’s going back there. It’s quick and it’s efficient. And so that was the longest thing that took me — and any long snapper — is when they’re beginning to learn how a long snap is to gain that spiral.

And once the spiral comes, and then you’ve got distance control. And then you can start working on speed or whatever. But it’s the spiral that’s the best just because it’s feel and practice. There’s certain things you do that can create a spiral. You can take someone out there and show them all the correct things to do, but it’s just something that your body kind of unconsciously learns.

Q: So if you don’t mind, can you take me through a day in the life of Jake Olsen? What rityllenges do you face?

Olson: [laughs] Yeah. The challenges…I do have Quebec here, he’s my eye dog. Getting to class, you have to really focus on where you’re going. It’s not like a walk in the park where you look up and you can see where you are. You really got to keep focus on what direction you’re walking, your surroundings, your bearings…and you know that’s always difficult and sometimes you do get lost and you have to figure it out.

Q: Have you gotten lost?

Olson: Yeah, for sure! In that first week, man? This place is so big. I didn’t know where the hell I was going.

But you know what, when you do homework on the computer, sometimes there can be glitches if something is not accessible to voice activated systems, you ask for help and that gets kind of annoying.

So I don’t know. Being blind…the thing is, I’ll never say that you cannot do anything, but I will say that it does take an extra step of thinking and being creative in ways to find how to do it. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It’s just a little difficult to just do normal things like walk or do homework or figure out which toothpaste is on your toothbrush. Whatever it is, there’s things that, it’s like, “Is that okay?  How do I figure out how to do this?” And once you do it, it’s just not as easy as seeing it.

Q: Are there positive things about being blind? Are you able to appreciate certain things more?

Olson: Yeah. I think a big positive thing is that sight can really deceive you at times. With people or food or whatever it is. Not being able to see…it’s really allowed me to see people for who they are. I really think that’s a cool thing. I’m never deceived by how people look. If you ask me, it really isn’t about how someone looks [laughs]. It’s really cool.

I don’t know if it’s necessarily being blind, but just the things you learn from adversity…just learning to push through things and not letting adversity stop you. That’s been a huge positive and you can transfer that into the other aspects of life.

Q: And you’ve done a lot of charity work, speaking engagements…you’ve written books, is that right? Can you talk about that a little bit?

Olson: Yeah, well for the speaking engagements, I love…it’s kind of weird actually. When the first story aired in 2009, I got a speaker request and they just kept coming and keep coming. It’s just something that’s built up, and I just love going out there and speaking with people, sharing my story and inspiring them.

My foundation Outside Faith. I created that because with technology and homework, that’s what’s really allowed me to succeed with school and to be in normal classrooms and just kind of do things like anyone else would. And I realized how important and essential that technology is.

So my foundation raises money to get other blind kids that technology as well. And then my books…I wrote a smaller book, I just chose a book when I was eight years old, that’s always kind of fun to go back and read. And that’s actually been distributed more than I thought it’d be.

But then my latest book that came out in 2014. I co-wrote it with Dr. McKay Christensen who’s a president of a company and a has a Ph.D. in psychology, and I spoke to his company and he contacted me wanting to write a book with me. We kind of collected our ideas of 10 reasons and ways on how to live your life.

And it’s cool because it’s formatted in a way that there’s just a bunch of principles in there that can apply to any circumstance. Just getting through adversity and how to live a happier life. It uses my story as a prime example and there are other examples in there. It’s a very inspiring book, and that’s what I’m about. Just helping people and inspiring them.

Q: So what advice would you give to other kids growing up blind? I know you’ve had a tremendous amount of success.

Olson: Growing up blind or going through any adversity, first you have to come to that realization that everyone does that life sucks. There are going to be things in life that just end up unfair and life is not forgiving. It’s going hit you. It’s going to hit you hard. But the thing is, you’ve got to know that. You’ve got to get the mindset that you’re not gonna let it stop you.

You’ve got to get the mindset that no matter what comes your way, that you have a potential, that you have hope, and it’s up to you to find that. The only thing that’s going to stop you from getting to your true potential is you. And so find a will. Find a way to get things done and get to where you want to be. And whatever obstacle that comes, just say, “Okay, that’s my obstacle, but I’m not gonna let it stop me.” Find a way. It’s a mindset. It’s something you’ve got to come up with.

And that’s my advice. Really believe in yourself. Believe in your potential. Don’t let things stop you. Find a way to get around it. To get through it. And trust me, when you do, it’s gonna be so satisfying.

Q: So what inspires you to keep going? What inspires you to get up in the morning?

Olson: My faith, number one. That really inspires me, knowing that God’s got a plan for my life and that He’s always got me. That helps me a lot and gives me the peace and hope I need. But also just a good support system with family and friends. Knowing I’m not alone and then just knowing that…it goes back and forth. I inspire people; people tell me how much I inspire them. But in turn that inspires me because I know that I’m making an impact. And so that’s what helps me keep going, just knowing that I’m making an impact in people’s lives and people draw inspiration from me.

Q: And who are your inspirations? Who do you credit for helping you?

Olson: Coach Caroll is a huge one. He would tell me to always compete. That’s a good question. I’d definitely say my parents. Coach Caroll, my parents…I don’t know, other inspirational stories. I always have a heart for people who are in the service. A lot of them have great inspiring stories, and they’ve come through a lot, so that always inspiring.

Q: Do you have any siblings?

Olson: I have a twin sister. She goes here actually.

Q: That’s very nice. Will you get a chance to get in a game this season?

Olson: I don’t know. I’m not worried about it at all. My job and my mindset right now is to go out there and get better every day. And prove to people that I can be that guy who can go out there in a game and snap. And whenever they feel that I’m ready, I trust that coach will put me in.

I’ve got four years here, so wherever it comes…if I get a few games, I’m just going to compete and practice. I don’t want any special treatment. I just want to be competing and climb up the ladder and see how far I can get.

Q: How are your teammates treating you, welcoming you?

Olson: Great. They treat me just like any guy, which I love. But at the same time, they are attentive to whatever needs I need in order to perform. So it’s been a great mix of them being there for me and treating me like a normal guy.

Q: How do you imagine the Coliseum is like when you’re a player?

Olson: Well the cool thing is that being down on the field before, I do have that vision. But I always picture myself as a kid up there looking down at the players in uniform and admiring them. And so when I’m in uniform down there, I can only imagine…I’m one of those guys now, which is a crazy thing to think about.

Q: Lastly, what’s next for you?

Olson: You know, I’m just working hard at everything I can. School, football, golf…whatever it is. It’s paid off. And God opens doors so I’m just letting Him take the lead. And right now it’s long-snapping and school.

Do I want to achieve things? Do I want to start? Yeah, but you know I’m just gonna try. As long as I give it my all, God will have my back and I’m not really too concerned by that.

Q: What are you majoring in?

Olson: Business

Q: And that’s something you’d like to pursue after school?

Olson: Yeah for sure. I’d like that.

Q: Great. Anything else you want us to know?

Olson: Nope, just fight on.

Jim Harbaugh: The Modern Day Billy Martin

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By: Eric He

July 21, 2015

I’ve finally had time this summer to read a few books for pleasure, and I’m currently about a third of the way through Bill Pennington’s biography of Billy Martin — Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius, released in April of this year.

It’s a fascinating and comprehensive inside look at the life of the late Martin, one of the most colorful and innovative men to have donned a baseball uniform. I’m only on page 179 of 544, and I’ve read about more adventures in Martin’s young life than I’ll have in my lifetime — the mischievous acts, the drinking, the fights on and off the field.

But one such incident that sticks out to me is his firing from the Minnesota Twins in 1969 in his first ever professional managing gig, and how similar it is to Jim Harbaugh’s ousting from the San Francisco 49ers this year.

Both turned subpar teams into legitimate contenders. Both came up just short in their endeavor to win a championship. Both were fiery, aggressive, and unabashed, not afraid to cross with ownership and do things their way. And as a result, both were fired by meddlesome owners despite their indubitable success.

As Pennington writes, then-Twins owner Calvin Griffith felt he was “sitting on a keg of dynamite” when he hired Martin prior to the 1969 season (Pennington 160). After Martin played his final season in 1961 with the Twins, he remained with the team as a scout, then a third base coach, and then managed their Triple A team in Denver. Griffith, who was already wary of Martin’s temper, had little choice but to promote the up-and-coming manager to the big leagues.

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A statue of former Twins owner Calvin Griffith stands outside Target Field. By Heather Greene from Minneapolis, US (Calvin Griffith bronzed) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Like how Harbaugh turned a 6-10 49ers squad into a 13-3 division winner the next season, Martin took a 79-83 Twins team that finished in seventh place and won 97 games with them, enough to take the division and make the inaugural ALCS.

And Martin’s methods seemed similar to that of Harbaugh’s — spontaneous and driving some people crazy, yet effective.

Said Graig Nettles, one of the players on Martin’s Triple A club: “Everyone on the team hated him. I couldn’t stand him. You’d come into the dugout and he’d be yelling at you in front of everyone, just screaming, ‘Why didn’t you take the extra base? Didn’t you notice that the right fielder has a weak arm? You went to college, why didn’t you use your brain out there?'” (158).

And Harbaugh, apparently, wore out his welcome with the 49ers and treated his players “like college kids.”

Martin took risks, calling triple steals and squeeze plays.

“Billy had such balls as a manager,” Charlie Silvera, one of Martin’s assistants, told Pennington (165). “He would squeeze bunt with a five-run lead, he didn’t care.”

Hmm…taking unnecessary gambles with huge leads. Reminds me of this:

But then there were the antics that irked Griffith, his owner, much like Harbaugh unnerved Jed York.

This wasn’t on the level of Harbaugh questioning York’s manhood, but it’s still first class trolling. Griffith insisted that Martin visit him a few times a week in his office to keep him up-to-date with the team. Griffith asked Martin to arrive anytime except his daily nap time between 5:00 and 5:30 p.m. So of course, Martin knocked on Griffith’s door between 5:00 and 5:30 so often that Griffith just canceled the meetings.

Then, there were the fisticuffs.

Prior to his stint as a manager, Martin was the Twins’ third base coach in 1966. On one road trip, while checking into a hotel at two in the morning, Martin threw a right-handed punch at traveling secretary Howard Fox after Fox kept Martin waiting too long for his room keys, an incident that Griffith “never forgot” (155).

And in Martin’s lone season as manager, he one-upped himself by punching out one of his own players, pitcher Dave Boswell, in an alleyway outside a bar following a disagreement over Boswell not running his laps. Although it was national news even back in 1969, imagine how big of a controversy it would stir in today’s age of social media: a manager at a bar with his players, punching one of them repeatedly in the stomach and then in the face so hard that it gave Martin a swollen and cut right hand.

Dave  Boswell was the recipient of a Billy  Martin beatdown. Here is in spring training, face still intact. (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)

Dave Boswell was the recipient of a Billy Martin beatdown. Here is in spring training, face still intact. (Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images)

These were incidents, that, regardless of Martin’s on-field success, his owner could not forgive. And much like Harbaugh, it cost Martin his job.

The Twins were swept by the Orioles in the ALCS, but Martin had rejuvenated baseball in Minneapolis. The fans loved him, attendance was up, and the future was bright. There was a method to Martin’s madness, and if you asked any fan, there was no question the team should have brought back Martin after his one-year, $50,000 contract expired.

But Griffith ultimately decided the on-field success was not worth the pain in the ass that Martin was to deal with. It left the fans shocked, the media in full-blown critique mode, and even three different state legislators petitioned Griffith to rethink the decision. Fans called in crying to the team’s office, and attendance fell with some claiming they would never go to another Twins game.

If that sounds excessive, imagine if the 49ers had fired Harbaugh after just one season in which he turned around a franchise that had floundered for eight seasons under three different head coaches — well, it’s not as if firing him after reaching three NFC championship games in four years was any better.

While Harbaugh never punched anyone out (that we know of, I wouldn’t be shocked if he did something of that nature behind the scenes) or threatened to kill his assistants Tom Cable-style, the parallels between him and Martin are clear. Both were brought in to turn around struggling franchises, and both did exactly that — but under their rules, which irked their respective naive owners.

Martin went on to manage for five other teams in the next two decades, finishing with 1,253 victories, a .553 winning percentage, and a World Series title with the Yankees in 1977. After Martin departed, the Twins would win their division just once in the next 16 years, finishing above .500 in just four seasons.

As for Harbaugh, he’s one of the highest-paid coaches in football at the University of Michigan, and it wouldn’t be shocking if he does big things at Ann Arbor. Meanwhile, the 49ers hired Jim Tomsula (who?), had about half the team retire, and have 9-1 odds at winning their division (much less the Super Bowl), the worst in the NFC West.

Coincidence? I think not.

I’ll end with Pennington’s transcript of a conversation Martin had with Griffith following the ALCS defeat in which Griffith was lukewarm on giving Martin a raise and a two-year contract, featuring the 1969 equivalent of a mic drop (175):

Martin: “Did I do everything I said I was going to do?”

Griffith: “Yes.”

Martin: “Did I make them hustle?”

Griffith: “Yes.”

Martin: “Did they win?”

Griffith: “Yes.”

Billy left the room.

Bill Pennington’s Billy Martin: Baseball’s Flawed Genius is available on Amazon.

Follow Eric He on Twitter at @erichesports. Feel free to leave comments below. 

AT&T Park Still Beautiful as Ever

By: Eric He

April 4, 2015

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SAN FRANCISCO — Whenever I visit AT&T Park, I am always in awe of its beauty. They don’t get every stadium right here in the Bay Area (see: Candlestick Park, Levi’s Stadium), but I’m not sure if they could have designed AT&T Park any more perfect.

The location — right along the San Francisco Bay — is the biggest perk. The view is impeccable, and I love how the design allows for fans to walk along the waterfront and peer across the bay at Oakland.

It’s been 15 years since the park was built, and today, it still looks as good as new. Moreover, I fail to see a day when such a picturesque view will get old like the Candlestick Park wind gusts.

I was there on Thursday night for an exhibition game between the Giants and A’s and wrote an A’s gamer for Sports Radio Service, the full text of which runs below:

Read to the end to see more shots of AT&T Park and a video of an idiot streaker who ran onto the field (is that enough incentive)? 

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The games don’t count, but the Oakland A’s will certainly take the wins.

The good times kept rolling on Thursday for the A’s as they beat the Giants 8-2 at AT&T Park in an exhibition game.

It was the A’s eighth straight win, improving their MLB-best record to 22-9-2.

Oakland jumped ahead with three runs in the second inning off Giants’ starter Jake Peavy.

Brett Lawrie opened with a three-bagger, hitting one into the right field gap in Triple’s Alley, and Stephen Vogt knocked him in with a sacrifice fly. Cal-product and new starting shortstop Marcus Semien followed with a home run just to the right of the left-field foul pole.

Then came the hit of the night, courtesy of Sam Fuld, who circled the bases on a triple and an error with two out in the second. Fuld smacked one high off the right field wall and the ball was mishandled in the outfield by Angel Pagan, allowing Fuld to score to make it 3-0 A’s.

Veteran southpaw Scott Kazmir got the start for the A’s in his final tune-up before the regular season and he threw six strong innings, allowing one run on four hits. He pitched out of trouble in the second and third innings, stranding a runner at second in both instances.

Kazmir’s lone blemish was a solo home run by Angel Pagan in the fourth inning that got the Giants on the board.

The A’s added more runs in the fourth inning. Back-to-back walks to lead off the inning followed by a double along the chalk down the right field line by Billy Burns gave the A’s a 4-0 lead. With one out, Craig Gentry knocked in another run with a single.

That hit knocked Peavy out of the game after 3.1 innings and 79 pitches.

But the A’s weren’t done scoring. They would take a 7-0 lead by inning’s end off new Giants’ pitcher Steven Okert on a sacrifice fly by Ben Zobrist, scoring Burns, followed by a hard single by Billy Butler that knocked in Gentry.

Butler later launched a homer in the ninth inning to close out a productive offensive evening for the A’s.

Crisp out

The A’s lineup consisted of a majority of their starters, but with one notable exception: Coco Crisp. The everyday outfielder and leadoff hitter will miss 6-8 weeks, requiring surgery to remove a bone spur in his right elbow.

Crisp will join Josh Reddick on the disabled list to start the season. Reddick has a strained right oblique and will miss at least the first five games of the regular season.

The injuries most likely solidify a roster spot for Billy Burns, who has been tearing it up this spring for the A’s. His 29 hits entering Thursday was tied for the Major League lead.

Burns went 2-for-5 against the Giants, upping his average to a blistering .397.

Melvin announces starting rotation

Bob Melvin announced the A’s starting rotation before tonight’s game, and it will consist of Sonny Gray, Jesse Hahn, Kazmir, Kendall Graveman and Drew Pomeranz. Hahn and Graveman are newcomers to the team this season. Hahn was acquired from the Padres in the Derek Norris trade and Graveman came over from the Blue Jays for Josh Donaldson.

Graveman, who had limited big league experience last season, surprised this spring recording a 0.42 ERA in Cactus League play.

Left out of the rotation is Jesse Chavez, who had a break out season last year with the A’s but will now be relegated to a bullpen role.

Switch pitcher

Switch hitters are aplenty in the majors these days, but what about switch pitchers? Meet Pat Venditte, who pitched the ninth inning on Thursday night. Venditte can indeed pitch both left-handed and right-handed, and the non-roster invitee has appeared in 11 games for the A’s this spring, holding the opponent scoreless in eight of those outings.

Friday night was not one of those outings, however, as he gave up a homer to Brandon Belt. He settled down, though, switching sides to retire the side in order and close out the win.

Other Notes

Coming into Thursday, the A’s led the majors in runs (190), doubles (86) and sacrifice flies (15). … The pitching hasn’t been too shabby either, ranking second in the Cactus League in strikeouts (241) and third in ERA (3.77) entering the night. … The A’s are 13-2 in their last 15 spring games against the Giants. … Evan Scribner and Fernando Abad each pitched a scoreless inning in relief. Abad escaped a bases-loaded jam with one out unscathed in the eighth. … The first regular season game will be Monday, April 6 as the Rangers visit the Coliseum.

Originally published on Sports Radio Service. 

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Few more shots of the exterior of AT&T Park:

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And as promised, the streaker:

I only caught the tail end of his venture on video, but the idiot ran straight across center field toward second base. He lifted up his shirt just as security got to him so thankfully we didn’t see any more of his skin.

Some close-ups courtesy of Bob Stanton of USA Today Sports:

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