Tuesday, July 15, 2008

DG's Quick Hits- July 15, 2007

  • Let me begin by starting with the biggest news in archaeology- or, I should say, “archaeology”, because the document is pretty sketchy- the Hazon Gabriel, or “Gabriel’s Revelation”. It’s a stone tablet with 87 lines written in ink and dubbed a “Dead Sea Scroll on Stone” and has actually been known to us for a few years now but gained prominence this week because professor Israel Knohl apparently translated the document to reveal apparent parallels to Jesus Christ. Knohl believes the previously un-translated lines 80-81 have the Angel Gabriel command an unknown “Prince of Princes” to “live again” in three days, which he says is smoking gun evidence for his own theory that resurrection stories existed in Judaism before Jesus did (confirmation bias, no?). News agencies- who obviously haven’t read the document- picked it up and contended it was decidedly Christian, never mind that the document talks more about a valiant fallen warrior with a fire-and-brimstone approach that is decidedly un-Jesus like. Furthermore, we don’t even know where the document came from- Ada Yardeni, the first scholar to write about the document, picked it up from a collector who stated he bought it from a Jordanian antiquities dealer (so who knows where the thing really came from or even if it’s real). Of course, that’s not the worst part about the whole hullabaloo- the worst part is that this document is incredibly insignificant. Christians are going to shout about how this confirms that Jesus fulfilled prophecies while those who believe Jesus was a myth contend this is further fuel to the fire given there’s just another document for the myth-writers to copy from (resurrection stories are plentiful before Jesus, even in Judaism). Meanwhile, I’m just shaking my head at the nonsense over a document giddy scholars with an agenda clearly are failing to “check” simply because it has religious significance. If that doesn’t detail what’s wrong with Biblical Archaeology as a field, I don’t know what does.
  • I was planning on writing a huge analysis of the Hazon Gabriel only to realize that I wasn’t going to say anything that hadn’t already been said on the blogosphere. I will say that my first thought when I heard of the Hazon Gabriel is the James Ossuary, another document without provenance or even significance that gets more than its due because it’s a religious document. Now, you may recall that the Ossuary- which apparently has the words “James the son of Joseph the brother of Jesus”- is almost universally proclaimed as a forgery while the Hazon is generally accepted as real, but the Ossuary does share the critical trait that even if it was real it is insignificant. All three names were common at the time, plus there’s not a single document that ties the Ossuary with James the Just (such as a letter that details a pilgrimage to James’ tomb, something that would have happened to such an important figure). As another scholar once put it, the Ossuary might as well have read “Tom the son of Dick the brother of Harry”. Names mean nothing unless there’s a bridge to the important character and the Ossuary does not do that. The fact that it’s fake makes it even more dubious, but it didn’t need to get that far for it to be insignificant- just like the Hazon Gabriel.
  • Switching gears is the saga involving the “is-he-or-is-he-not” retired Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre. Favre told FOX News earlier today that he had jumped the gun on retirement and that the Packers had “held him hostage” in forcing him to make a decision earlier than he had to. He also contended that the team expressed its desire to “move on” (in formally making Aaron Rogers, Favre’s young backup, their starter) and should allow Favre to do the same, but Green Bay is unwilling to release Favre and potentially see him start for the Minnesota Vikings or Chicago Bears, both of whom have quarterback issues. It is clear that the Packers hold all the cards, since if Favre applies for reinstatement he must return to the Packers’ active roster where he is signed through next season. It is difficult to pinpoint just who is right in this story, since Favre’s wrangling isn’t fair to Rogers (who’s waited long enough for his well-deserved shot) or the Packers (whose plans shouldn’t be held hostage by one player); but at the same time Favre’s pedigree and legacy calls for a happy exit, even if it’s with another team, and the Packers should not stand in the way of that. One thing’s for sure: if this truly is the way Favre’s career will end, it’ll be an even uglier end than Cory Webster’s interception that currently stands as Favre’s last professional pass and that may be the most unfortunate part about the whole ordeal. Here’s hoping that Favre gets his graceful exit, wherever it may be and that both parties resolve this amicably because Favre- and football- deserves no less.
  • Swinging to football north of the border is Rich “Stumpler” Stubler and his quarterback controversy on his Toronto Argonauts that he won’t acknowledge exists. At the start of the season, pundits all agreed that Kerry Joseph- the reigning Canadian Football League MVP- and Michael Bishop would form by far the best CFL quarterbacking tandem of recent vintage, giving the Argos that extra versatility and insurance two great quarterbacks gives you. Following an embarrassing 40-29 loss to the Edmonton Eskimos and both quarterbacks’ inability to pass the ball to their own players and it’s clear that Stubler’s inability to commit to one quarterback (Stubler refuses to name a starter and rotates quite liberally) is dragging the entire team down. Not only that, but the Argos have given up 86 points in their three games this season (an average of almost 28 points a game) meaning the former defensive whiz has lost touch on the other side of the ball as well. Fortunately for Argo fans they’re in a division with the equally pathetic and confused Winnipeg Blue Bombers and the often inept Hamilton Tiger-Cats but that’s small solace for a team capable of so much more.
  • Speaking of confused, there’s the Tampa Bay Rays, losers of seven straight games after a 5-2 decision saw them get swept by the hilariously inept Cleveland Indians in Cleveland. The Rays were once three and a half games up on the Boston Red Sox for first in the American League East and had led the Sox by seven in the loss column but are now a half game back of Boston (albeit at 55-39 they’re still one up on the loss column, as Boston sits at 57-40). Writers baffled by how the previously inept Rays could have a season like they were having could have the slide they are now having but the fact remains that Tampa Bay, being a young team, were prone to this kind of a funk. I’m not willing to write off the Rays just yet because slides happen in baseball, but you just had to wonder if the bubble is starting to burst. Hopefully it’s not…the Rays are too good a story for it to go to waste.
  • Of course, Tampa Bay’s success has to leave the Toronto Blue Jays scratching their heads- how could a team that was once a perennial bad joke make few changes in the off-season and now be battling for first place with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees; while Toronto- who was supposed to be up there- battles for last? At this stage of the season, I may just say that Toronto’s just not as good as they were made out to be. Outside of Scott Rolen, David Eckstein, Vernon Wells and Roy Halladay, the Jays simply lack the elite level playmakers that the likes of Boston and New York possess, and Toronto’s inability to draft well has cost them the opportunity to build a sustainable product for the long haul. Sure, there’s “optimism” after the Jays climbed to within a game of .500 following a 4-1 win over the Yankees at the Sky Dome, but haven’t we been through this before? As Rhianna croons, in “Take A Bow”, “this just sounds like a rerun- please/What else is on?”
  • Still, though, Toronto’s 15-year absence from the playoffs pales in comparison to the perennial lovable losers the Chicago Cubs, whose fans have lost count the amount of times they’ve felt “optimism”. What, then, is there to suggest that this latest version of the Cubs- who own baseball’s best record- won’t live up to expectations and find some way to bottom out? However, there’s more guiding Chicago than just blind optimism- the Cubs really are good, having that all-important blend of power and speed and (after acquiring Rich Harden) pitching that makes for a championship level baseball team. They’re still not a slam dunk for the title however, since the Boston Red Sox- who also share that important combination- are still very much in the mix and you’d have to think the defending champions are still the team to beat this season. Funny that we now think of the Red Sox, formerly also lovable losers, as the Goliath to the Cubs’ David, but sports has a funny way of doing things like that. It’s still too early to write that kind of story, but what a story it will be if it actually comes to fruition.
  • Last but not least is the Continental Hockey League (KHL) creating a stir after Ufa, one of its teams, signed Nashville Predators star Alexander Radulov to a contract despite the fact Radulov was already under contract in Nashville. Just a day previously the KHL- formed as a “rival” league to the National Hockey League- reached an accord with the NHL not to poach players under contract, but Ufa had done just that. It’s still unclear how the story will eventually unfold, but this development is certainly not positive for hockey. I’ve contended that the NHL is mismanaged and is vulnerable to a rival league, but the KHL does itself no favours in looking desperate by wilfully ignoring contractual obligations. Not only that but in doing so the KHL- whose clubs complained of “athletic terrorism” when the Pittsburgh Penguins got Evgeni Malkin to leave Metallurg Magnitogorsk- shows itself as hypocritical. Hopefully, though, the Radulov experience will bring the NHL out of its shell and force it to start working with the IIHF more, if not actually form a real international club competition that hockey so desperately needs and deserves. There’s a whole other world of hockey the insular flag-waving Canadians have consistently failed to acknowledge and it’s time they got a chance to witness it; but the KHL- like the NHL- needs to start behaving first.


Monday, July 07, 2008

A Wind of Change at Wimbledon

Perhaps I was just a little late in recognizing it.

When Basel, Switzerland's Roger Federer was upset by Serb Novak Djokovic in the Australian Open semi-final, whispers began to surface that the previously unbeatable Federer was no longer the creme de la creme in the tennis world. Those whispers only grew louder after Federer was denied a third straight time for the overall Grand Slam in the French Open Final against Spaniard Rafael Nadal, who demolished Federer in three sets in losing just three games and holding Federer to 6-0 in the third set, the first person since Byron Black in 1999 to hold Federer to a 6-0 set. Given the ages of Federer (he will be 27 in August), Nadal (22) and Djokovic (21), pundits bored of Federer's dominance were only too eager to pass the torch onto Federer's younger opponents, openly declaring that the end was (finally) here for the unbeatable.

At the time, I didn't really think the story was that special. First of all, Federer wasn't going to win all the time, so the fact that Federer lost in the Australian Open shouldn't have been a monumental surprise (surprise, yes, but- for the lack of a better word- flukey at best). Second of all, despite the fact that Nadal won so convincingly at the French and had now beaten Federer in three straight French Open Finals, Nadal still hadn't beaten Federer in any other Grand Slam (nor won another Grand Slam title). NBC's Mary Carillo pointed to Nadal's class in not overtly celebrating after the French victory (and don't get me wrong, it *was* classy), but she failed to point out then that Nadal knew he'd need another Grand Slam title before people would see him as a legitimate challenger to Federer (so there really was no point in crazily jumping around). Besides, Federer had yet to play on grass- his favoured surface- so the jury really should have still been out until Wimbledon concluded.

Well, it did, and Nadal finally got over his hump. In an epic match that featured two rain delays, a match time of nearly five hours with the latest conclusion ever to a Wimbledon final (9:20PM local time, over seven hours after the scheduled start time), Nadal defeated Federer for his first Wimbledon championship 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5), 6-7 (8), 9-7. John McEnroe, commenting for NBC, called it "the best match I've ever seen" which is an understatement as the match featured more drama than prime time television does in an entire year. Federer looked to have swung momentum his way after fighting off a 2-0 deficit in sets and match point on Nadal's serve in the fourth set, only for Nadal to secure the vital break in the fifth set (at 7-7 no less) and finally swing the match back his way. As McEnroe's broadcasting colleague, Ted Robinson, noted "these two bring out the Superman in each other" as the match featured the best both players had to offer: Nadal's impeccable ability to return just about anything and Federer's ability to ferociously pound winners and aces at a blinding pace. The match was also very evenly contested- Federer was only broken four times, while Nadal was broken just once. The match really came down to wits and, at the end of the day, Nadal just had more, but only barely. It was the kind of match where you didn't want to see anyone lose, with the match playing to expectations- the two best players in the world providing their very best stuff and ultimately producing the very best match.

The question now is "where do we go from here?" For Nadal, the answer is pretty simple. First of all, he can finally shake off the "clay-court specialist" tag in proving he can win on other surfaces. Second of all, having claimed his fifth Grand Slam title at the age of 22 (when Federer had just one at the same age), Nadal is well on his way to surpassing Federer as the world No. 1, which one would have figured to be just a matter of time given the two players' ages. Whether or not Nadal can get to Federer's total of 12 Grand Slam titles depends on how much the 21-year-old Djokovic develops (he too is an all-court player like Federer is and could develop a similar rivalry with Nadal that Federer currently enjoys) and if Nadal can hold off injury concerns, especially with his knees (his high-energy style has already led to a few injuries and that can be trouble in his older days). However, there is little doubt that on current form Nadal is the best player in the world and given how Nadal can make adjustments (he did serve and volley a little towards the end of the match) one suspects Nadal is primed for a real takeoff.

For Federer the situation is a bit more murky. It's not the end, but it is now getting close. At 27, there still is a lot left in the tank, albeit the engine operates a little slower now than it did in the past. There was going to be a year where Federer was going to lose because it's impossible to maintain that kind of form forever (players adapt and Federer is human after all). For perspective, Pete Sampras- who played a similar style to Federer and is compared to Federer as tennis' greatest player- won his last Wimbledon title at 29 and his final Grand Slam title at 31, so Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles is still very much attainable (Federer currently sits at 12). Plus, the loss may just spur Federer on to prove that this was just a minor dip and not the start of a real decline- he may have fallen back on Wimbledon knowing his past success, and while he certainly didn't "give up" this year, a loss may just shock out any feelings of complacency that he may have developed before this year. Besides, a champion like Federer doesn't stay down for long.

One thing is for certain though- tennis won today. All those hoping for a more competitive men's field finally got it as Federer now has a legitimate rival in Nadal (and maybe Djokovic if he ever gets his act together), meaning that these next few years the top will be as hotly contested as it ever was. It means that there's more matches akin to today's Final up ahead as the battle for greatness heats up and at the end of the day, the one who stands on the top is definitely going to deserve it.