Best Of :: Sports & Recreation
In a year when a lack of clutch offense—hell, any offense—was the team's biggest problem (10th in AL slugging percentage; 13th in AL on-base percentage), we just couldn't give anybody who swings a bat on this team our nod for best overall player. Yet Torii Hunter deserves at least a little love. He has, after all, continued to do his thing: hit for pretty good average, draw some walks, hit a lot of doubles and more than 20 home runs. But what makes him impossible to ignore? The quotability factor. In this dreary season, scanning the sports section for Hunter's latest gem has been one of the few highlights for Angels fans, be they boneheaded ("People see dark faces out there, and the perception is that they're African-American," he said of Latino players of African descent. "They're not us. They're impostors") or classy ("I could say I want to go for that 10th Gold Glove," he said about his move to right field. "But all that individual stuff, you let that go"). The Angels may lose, but Hunter is never at a loss for words.
Orange County hockey fans can rest easy knowing that despite all rumors to the contrary, this 40-year-old family man from Coto de Caza by way of Finland isn't retiring just yet. That's good news for the Anaheim Ducks because Teemu Selanne is just about the greatest living hockey player anywhere on the planet. Among the top 20 goal scorers all time, he holds the record of all-time highest scorer in Olympic hockey with 37 points. In 2007, when he scored his 300th goal for the Ducks after joining the team just two seasons earlier, he became the biggest point-earner in the history of the franchise. While his speed and grace on the ice earned him the nickname "The Finnish Flash" even before he joined the NHL, Selanne has since earned a reputation for sportsmanship both on and off the rink that seems increasingly hard to come by in a sport in which brawls and cheap-shot checks are all too common. Just don't smash him against the glass, or he'll chase you down and try to slice you in half—with his stick. Just ask Dmitri Mironov.
The lanky right-hander is Exhibit A in the case against wins and losses as a worthwhile statistic for pitchers. Last year, Jered Weaver went 16-8 in 33 starts. This year, he went 13-12 in 34 starts. So, he had a better year last year, right? Sure, if you're stoopid. Wins and losses are a team stat; a pitcher can't control whether or not your best hitter breaks his leg stomping on home plate, eviscerating your offense for pretty much the whole year, fer crissakes! So, why was Weaver better this year? Let's look at some real stats: He has always had good control and has continued to not walk guys, but in 2010, his strikeouts were waaaay up (233, good for the American League strikeout crown). His ERA was a tick above 3 runs per game (quite a feat in the AL), and his WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) was just a few ticks above 1. That's sick. Some see a bit more velocity on his four-seam fastball—which also leads to more swings and misses on his straight change—as the biggest factor here. Others assert that his greater use of his two-seamer helps him keep hitters more off-balance. We've got a better explanation: He finally ditched that Carol Brady flip of blond locks that used to sprout from the back of his cap. Never underestimate the power of a decent haircut.
During his 10 years with the Angels, Darin Erstad plowed into outfield walls, made hard slides into second base and generally showed more regard for winning than for his own body. Yes, the North Dakotan was slowing down a bit by the time he left Anaheim with a World Series ring, two All-Star appearances and three Gold Gloves, finishing his career with the Chisox and Astros. These days, he's a hitting coach for the University of Nebraska, but Ersty and his wife, Jessica, have not forgotten Orange County. She annually hosts the "Not So Serious" Women's Golf Outing to benefit the Orange-based Child Abuse Prevention Center, which also receives funds from the auctioning of baseball memorabilia donated by her husband and players he shared the field with. First runner-up is Tim Salmon, who also spreads the time, handshakes and autographs for many charities here in Halosland.
As far as we know, nobody showed up to any of the eight home games the former USC and Chicago Cubs phenom pitched for our local Golden Baseball League team dressed in a dark sweat shirt, a Cubs cap, glasses and headphones. Which is great, because we here in Orange County are far too gracious to remind a guy of his role in the 2003 playoff-dream-killing meltdown that merely added to the Cubs' long history of such things. Well, most of us are, anyway.
This is tough because on the same Big West-conference-powerhouse UC Irvine soccer squad is assist machine Corey Attaway, scoring machine Spencer "Freight Train" Thompson and killing machine Andrew Fontein, the goalie. All three are nearing or setting team records and being mentioned alongside top players in the nation as the Anteaters find themselves ranked in the top 20 nationally (as of late September) by Goal.com, College Soccer News and NSCAA/HendrickCars.com. Also part of the national conversation is senior forward Amani Walker, who would lose to Thompson here if we went to the second tie-breaker: best nickname. Unfortunately for Freight Train and the rest, the first tie-breaker is: Player who looks most like he could play bass in Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers. As a junior, dreadlocked reggae fan Walker was named to the Soccer America Men's Team of the Week, to the College Soccer News National Team of the Week, the Big West Player of the Week and the UCI College Classic Most Valuable Player. He's picked up the ball and kicked it into the net this season as well. Yugga yugga yooo!
Azarian U.S. Gymnastics Training Center in Aliso Viejo aims to develop grace, strength, flexibility, discipline, coordination, determination, positive self-esteem, a healthy body, time management and respect for others in all the enrollees who pass through the doors—from preschoolers to Junior Olympians. It's run by Eduard Azarian, a second-generation men's gymnastics world champion and Olympic gold-medal winner from Russia. He is also head coach of the center's boys' team (ages 12 to 17) that tears it up in gymnastics competitions, earning the team many championships—and Azarian many coach-of-the-year honors, including the 2010 nod. He and his staff turn snot-nosed kids into superstars by applying training techniques that are as secretive as the spying techniques Boris Badenov used to confound moose and squirrel. Actually, Azarian stresses that his charges have fun, be creative and apply the fundamentals of his sport in a non-competitive atmosphere before thinking about winning, losing or even competing at all. You gotta love what you're doing before you can do it well. (So that's how the Ruskies beat us all those years.)
Yep, the Ducks won Lord Stanley's Cup, and the Angels are a perennial contender for the playoffs—usually—but the greatest success story in the history of Orange County sports is the Titans baseball squad. Its four national championships (1979, 1984, 1995 and 2004) and the 47 alumni who have gone on to play in the major leagues (including All-Stars Mark Kotsay, Phil Nevin, Tim Wallach and Chad Cordero and current big-time players Ricky Romero and Kurt Suzuki) are jaw-droppingly impressive. But chew on this: In 1975, the Titans graduated to Division I status. That year, they beat five-time defending champ USC to advance to their first College World Series. In the 35 years since, the Titans have qualified for the NCAA tournament 32 times, including 19 consecutive years, the third-longest streak in the country. They've also played in 16 College World Series. That's impressive shit, all the more impressive for the Titans being part of the cash-strapped California State University system (then again, Fresno State won the College World Series in 2008, so maybe that's not that big a deal) and routinely knock cleats with the most well-funded educational institutions, public and private, in America (like, say, the University of Texas and USC). Add it all up, and there is no collegiate or professional sports entity in this county that can come close to matching Cal State Fullerton's baseball success. It's a criminal shame the team's home games at the university's Goodwin Field aren't the biggest parties in North County during the spring and early summer.
It's easy to imagine that a view not that different from the one provided on a sunny day from the cliff at Crescent Bay Point Park was where so many clichés were invented: The ocean does sparkle, the swooping patch of sand to the south is breathtaking, etc. The park itself is small but perfect, from the gently sloping green lawn that provides a workspace for yoga practitioners and scenery painters to the fastidiously manicured native-foliage planters to the charmingly hokey statues of birds and seals. But the real attraction is the wildness at its rim—the craggy rocks below, the sea foam that shoots up from crashing waves, the barking of real seals, and the knowledge that you can go see any of this at any time.
Thanks to the Port of Long Beach, which has to donate $9 million per year to the city to offset all that crap it puts in the air, this playground, just across the water from Seal Beach, has been transformed into an urban playground that wouldn't be out of place in Paris or Boston—except for the palm trees and speedboats racing by in the city's rectangular-shaped water-sports park, Marine Stadium, just yards away. The brand-new, state-of-the-art climbing equipment includes elaborate rope-and-ladder rigs, sophisticated sandbox-digging tools and even a faux-rock wall—not the kind with little colored steps on it, but an actual phony rock kids can climb on and jump off. Combine a trip to the park with a ride on a rented two-seater kayak with you, and you've just made your kid's day.
Some other local municipal baseball fields are fancier or better kept. But few can boast a pedigree like that of the main baseball diamond at Anaheim's Pearson Park. It dates back to the 1930s, and the Art Deco-style stands look like a snapshot of Ebbets Field. It's rarely used by organized leagues, which makes the diamond so special—deep center field is usually occupied by soccer players, tennis courts stand to the right, and the shouts of families at the nearby pool serve as the soundtrack every summer. A true municipal-park experience.
It's technically the property of Orange Coast College, but there's a reason why the CIF perpetually schedules championship games at LeBard Stadium, and it's not just because of the massive stands or that Edison High calls it home field: LeBard is as close to a university football experience as we'll get, a stadium seemingly carved into a hill, just off a major road (Fairview) yet isolated enough from the rest of civilization come kickoff time that spectators feel the world has truly stopped for this game. Add the ivy-colored walls on the outside, and Friday night lights don't get better than this.