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Published: 3/22/2011

Writer loses home field advantage

BY BEN KONOP
SPECIAL TO THE BLADE

KISSIMMEE, Fla. --  A recently published Freakonomics–like quantitative analysis of sports debunks a lot of myths.

“Scorecasting,” co-authored by a University of Chicago economist, uses reams of data to show that there is little rationale for the common football practice of punting on fourth down.

The notion that players actually get a hot hand in basketball? That's false.

The one myth, however, that withstands the authors' rigorous scrutiny is the home field advantage. It exists. And it is powerful. Teams that go on the road are at a distinct disadvantage.

I was thinking about this finding as I drove down Highway 4 to Kissimmee, Fla., the spring training home of the Houston Astros, and the site of my first away game as a quasi-journalist. Could it be more difficult to write as well as play  on the road?

When my GPS first led me to the Osceola County Jail, rather then the Osceola County Stadium (where the game was being played), I started to wonder.

When the Astros media relations representative handed me a useless “No Clubhouse Access” media pass, while pronouncing my name “Kahnooop,” with a menacing chuckle, I started to lightly sweat.

Once in the press box, I was greeted with a malfunctioning wi-fi connection. The choice of beverages in the box was limited, and, oddly, featured Mello Yello. Had I stepped back into 1982 as well?

I powered up my internetless computer, wrote a few paragraphs, and then looked for the spell-check feature. I couldn’t find it. I was officially rattled on my first road outing.

Seeking comfort in the press lunch room, I was greeted by a menu of soggy mixed vegetables, below average spaghetti, a poor man’s version of crazy bread, and no dessert! Now I was thrown way off my game.

I needed help. I was desperate for guidance. My only hope was that the Tigers players, who played their way up to the big leagues by presumably overcoming this type of adversity on the road, would straighten me out.

So I defied the “no clubhouse” mandate on my half-baked press pass, and snuck in a side door to the Detroit locker room.

“Either you adjust to the road, or you fail,” ominously warned veteran third sacker Brandon Inge. I think he could see the panic growing on my face.

“Eat more protein and fruit,” advised relief pitcher/nutritionist Robbie Weinhardt. Nice thought Robbie, but no dice. The spartan lunch spread was a loser.

“Go about writing on the road the same way as if you were in your comfort zone,” advised centerfielder Austin Jackson. Very Zen, but hard to implement by a Jew on deadline.

“Feed off the negative energy,” offered  the friendly outfielder Casper Wells. OK, now we were getting somewhere.

“Channel the adversity into a positive,” Inge astutely chimed in.

Starting to slowly regain my swagger, I approached Phil Coke, Monday’s starting pitcher. Apparently, it’s bad form to throw offbeat questions at a generally surly starting pitcher about an hour before he takes the mound.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation:

Me: Phil do you have any advice for a fledging journalist writing on the road for the first time?

Coke: Don’t ask any stupid questions so you don’t piss anybody off.

Me: That’s interesting.

Coke: And don’t piss anybody off who is bigger than you. (Tale of the tape: Coke 6’2’’, 210lbs; Konop 5’9’’, 160lbs soaking wet.)

Me: Fair point.

Coke: Especially one who was trained as a prison guard by ex-marines.

Me: Duly noted.

After exchanging a few more pleasantries and not-so-thinly veiled threats (I think I may have, perhaps a bit foolishly, snuck one in there on my behalf), I started to shuffle out of the locker room, another victim of the road.

But wait. The fat lady had not sung.

Max St. Pierre, the cheerful third-string Tiger catcher was blocking my path.

“Where you from?” inquired St. Pierre.

“The Toledo Blade,” I said, my spirit seemingly sapped.

His face brightened. “I like the Toledo Blade. They write some good stories,” proclaimed Pierre.

A couple of his fellow players had now gathered. After a brief group confab, centering on my plight as a rookie and my connection to Toledo, Pierre pronounced, to no one in particular,  “I like this guy," presumably referring to me.

And then he instructed me to “stop smiling so much,” which his teammates got a kick out of.

Ah, the joys of writing on the road.



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