Coach's Corner

Attending his son's graduation at UC-Santa Cruz, Coach is struck by a sudden infatuation with alternative sports: college baseball, horse racing, hockey, even World Cup soccer.

I spent the weekend in Santa Cruz, Calif., maybe for the last time. Adam graduated from college -- on time and with honors(!), both circumstances I'd have considered wildly unlikely a few years back, when on a gray, drizzly, cold morning I left him with a handshake and a hug, on the chaotic quadrangle of UCSC.

At 10am, four years later on the same quad, the scene couldn't have been more different. The outdoor graduation ceremony was held under a clear, cool, Northern California sky. A perfect day. Today the grassy quad isn't busy with anxious parents (lugging TVs, refrigerators, and stereo systems up the three flights of stairs), but filled with smiling, dressed-up, proud parents still embarrassing their kids with video cameras and recording devices of all sorts.

The kids themselves had undergone a remarkable physical metamorphosis. Adam, considered a rebel outcast at conservative Westlake High, appeared downright preppy that day compared to his freshman classmates: The number of hair colors, body piercings, and down-to-the-ankle grunge shorts was unnerving, at least to me. Today the insecure teenagers had morphed into relatively clean-cut, smiling young adults, who, despite their it's-no-big-deal attitude, were obviously proud (and probably just as surprised as their parents) at what they'd accomplished.

UCSC, set within a deep redwood forest -- where signs warning about encounters with mountain lions are common -- has a reputation as an almost alternative version of the California school system. The seaside city, with day-to-day traffic snarls that make MoPac at 5:30 seem like a bucolic drive through the French countryside, reflects a different world-view than say, Fresno.

Four years ago I played golf at Pasatiempo Golf Club, on the outskirts of Santa Cruz. Pasatiempo's a spectacular public layout, built in 1928 by Alister MacKenzie, the same man who designed Augusta National. The pristine fairways and greens are bordered with towering Eucalyptus, Redwood, and Douglas Fir trees. I've never been back because the course about killed me. But, I figured, that was then. I'm a much better golfer now. Wrong. Pasatiempo is the hardest course I've ever played ... and that's from the white tees. If you ever get the chance to play there, remember this one piece of advice. I hit a few putts on their practice green and decided it was pointless. No real greens could be like this -- with wild invisible breaks, roller coaster downhill slides, mountainous up-hillers, and 100-yards distances. Wasted practice. Well, forget the driving range. All the greens are exactly like that! My scorecard was littered with four-putts.

But then, the entire week seemed to be consumed with alternative sports. Before I left home I was assaulted with a barrage of comments from people who want me to care about UT baseball. But here's the problem: the pure visceral experience of the park -- sights, sounds, smells -- are a compelling reason to go to a baseball game. I couldn't stand the surgically sterile Disch-Falk Field even when it was state-of-the-art new, 28 years ago. Then there's the metal pinging bats. And the DH. And the turf. Bad, tasteless stuff.

On to the ultimate American alternative sport: the World Cup. I'm not anti-World Cup. In fact, I've watched three complete games already, though I watch it in Spanish because I like the announcer's cadence and wild enthusiasm ... not that I understand a word he says. But I can hardly understand the Irish guy on ESPN anyway, and when I do, what do I care about midfield traps? I don't. Kick a ball in a big net. I get that.

To my great disappointment the NBA Finals have become an alternative sport. America concurs, as the Nets-Lakers matchup will become the lowest-rated in history. The American sports fan is wise. The Nets appear to be the weakest club to ever represent a conference; may as well watch soccer. I hoped New Jersey could compete, but that was wishful thinking. Consider: The best in the East only won 50 games, and the Lakers are a great team, and I don't use the word carelessly. What do you have? An alternative channel switch to the Belmont Stakes ... a fundamentally desperate move on my part. Nothing against the former King of Sports, but seeing a horse break down and be put to death on the track is the saddest thing I've ever watched ... and it almost happened Saturday to War Emblem.

There's a competitive Stanley Cup Finals, but for God's sake, it's June and approaching 100 degrees ... even in Detroit! My spirit's willing, but come on guys, end this thing a month or two earlier.

Which brings us back to the quadrangle. I saw a student conferred a degree in cellular, molecular, and developmental biology, with a minor in politics! I watched another get a degree with a double major of astrophysics and art history! Amazing. I thought of the Wizard of Oz, the elderly magician conferring degrees of Heart, Courage, and Brains to his new friends. A simpler time, don't you think?

I don't know what molecular biology or astrophysics are, to be honest. But watching the proud parents beam and cheer, well, I didn't rush back to the hotel to catch the second half of the basketball game.

The reception "on the meadow" was way more fun.

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