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Keeping Score

Keeping Score: Bowl sampler

Good morning!

The weather in Tampa on New Year’s Day reminded me of an April afternoon in the mid-1970s at Fenway Park — an easterly wind was blowing rain in from the ocean, and the infield was covered. We were sitting in the dugout — a cop, a grounds crew guy and myself — when Carl Yastrzemski appeared half-dressed in white stockings, red stirrups and white game pants, cupping a cigarette in his left hand. He looked at the flag blowing in and smiled. “No game,” he said, and returned to the clubhouse to resume playing cards.

It was that sort of day in the Big Guava before the Outback Bowl between Iowa and LSU at Raymond James Stadium. I was on the first stop of my great Florida quest to avoid winter. My friend Jim Reid, an Iowa assistant coach, had left me a ticket at the team’s “will call” tent. A tall Iowan stood next to me waiting for a ticket that had been left by equipment manager Greg Morris, whose son James Morris is the Hawkeyes’ middle linebacker.

I asked how they knew each other. “I’m the priest at the Catholic Student Center. When somebody has an extra ticket they call me at the last minute.”

We were beyond earshot of the country band entertaining on stage near the sponsor’s tent where young women were handing out coupons for free food at the Outback — coconut shrimp if Iowa won, a blooming onion if it was LSU.

The Outback Bowl matches teams from the Southeastern Conference against the Big Ten, and this year it guaranteed both schools a $3.6 million payout. Iowa had rebounded from a 4-8 season to finish 8-4 this year, while LSU was 9-3, but for them anything less than the brass ring was disappointing and anti-climatic. Twice the Tigers have played for the BCS championship in the last six years, but despite beating Auburn in September, subsequent losses to Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama eliminated them from contention.

The 14th-ranked Tigers were eight-point favorites but playing for little more than coach Les Miles’ fourth straight 10-win season and a 41-2 record against out-of-conference competition.

Iowa fans, by contrast, were thrilled to be out of the cornfields and away from the freezings temperatures. Yeah it was wet, but they hunkered down in their plastic rain ponchos, popped open beers, and cheered for the black-and-gold with farm boy gusto: “Put on another 15 for being an idiot!” bellowed one of them after an LSU player was flagged for a personal foul.

Vendors sold bottled beer for $8 and made a 96-cent commission per purchase. A dozen cases worked out to about $250 plus tips. Programs cost $10 and parking was $25 next to the stadium but only $10 in the spot where I parked about a mile from the stadium.

The ticket prices varied from $80 to $120, and club level seats where the sponsors and well-heeled consorted cost $300. The announced attendance was 51,296 in the 65,000-seat stadium, which gave me plenty of elbow room. I didn’t bother locating my seat, I was just glad to be inside the stadium and knew if I did go to my seat I’d be wedged between two well-fed Hawkeyes fans. In the upper deck I could walk up and down the aisle and watch jetliners making their final approaches into Tampa International Airport.

There was plenty of that, and reading the program and otherwise staying busy between plays, because with ESPN getting nearly $1 million per 30 second spot, today’s football games last forever. First down measurements, play reviews, possession changes and injuries all give networks an excuse to break for commercial timeouts that last up to four minutes.

At one point during the second half, I was able to walk from the last row of the upper deck to the 19th row from the field and miss only one play. No wonder the Packers couldn’t sell out Sunday’s playoff game. It’s one thing to sit in sub-zero weather and root for your team, it’s another to watch seven plays in 14 minutes (which I did). Adding insult is that Sunday’s game in Green Bay is scheduled for a 4:30 p.m. kickoff. Stay home, mute the commercials and throttle the golden goose.

Iowa played hard, smash-mouth football, but a muffed punt and an interception both resulted in LSU touchdowns and helped them win, 21-14. Hawkeyes fans got a thrill in the second half when defensive back John Lowdermilk picked off an LSU pass and returned it 71 yards, but he dropped the ball at the half-yard line thinking he was in the end zone. After another long play review, Iowa was awarded possession and scored three plays later.

I stayed for three hours, polishing off a $7 “bottomless” tub of popcorn, then going back for another and giving it to the people next to me. A hot dog cost $5, a sausage grinder was $9, and a miniature football for my grandson was $17, but the blooming onion would’ve been on the house if I hadn’t lost the coupon.

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Chuck Blake passed away last week after many years at The Recorder with a camera slung around his neck. “He always had a smile or practical joke,” said his obituary and indeed, one needed only to drive by his house and see the sign in his yard: “Warning. Underground Beer Line.”

My favorite Chuck Blake story was the time columnist Irmarie Jones gave him a photo assignment and he returned with a black-and-white photo of a chef cutting on a chopping block.

“What’s he slicing?” she asked.

“Monkey balls,” Blake answered, and she promptly put it in the cutline.

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Squibbers: Baseball deciding to outlaw home plate collisions was 17 broken bones too late for Johnny Bench. ... Chipper Jones on closing his Twitter account: “Too much hate and too many trolls.” ... When Rick Pitino went on the Sports Hub to promote his book last summer he got the shortest interview on record. “You stink. You ruined the Celtics,” said co-host Fred Toucher, who then promptly ended the call. ... MLB’s final four — the Dodgers, Red Sox, Tigers and Cardinals — had the 2nd, 4th, 5th and 11th highest payrolls, respectively. ... Baltimore’s Chris Davis became the first player in MLB history to hit 53 home runs in a season, no more, no less. ... At Saratoga last summer, a fellow named Eric told me he worked at Conifer Park, a rehab joint in Glens Falls. He told me he’d been sober for 30 years but that his love for the bottle got him Shanghai’d by Uncle Sam. “I joined the Navy in a blackout. I woke up in the brig and was in the Navy and in those days there was no getting out of it.”... Nice to see women getting their just due in hockey. During her induction into the International Ice Hockey Hall of Fame last year, Geraldine Heaney said to her husband John, “I want to apologize for all the heat you’ve taken at work because your wife has a harder shot than you.”

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.

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