Men of a certain age who as boys collected baseball cards – along with marbles and skinned knees – may recall the morbid fascination that came with opening another five-cent pack to discover what pedestrian catcher from the New York Mets would be included therein.
Harry Chiti, Choo Choo Coleman, Hobie Landrith, Hawk Taylor, Chris Cannizzaro and more – all either at the beginning or end (or both) of nondescript careers, all within a few (low) batting average points of each other and all glutting the card market, or so it seemed.
But all were big leaguers and were due respect as such, if not adoration a la a Mays or a Mantle.
It’s a similar fascination that attends Gonzaga’s nonconference home schedule, which wrapped Monday night as the Bulldogs dispatched Detroit Mercy 93-72 at the Kennel.
The Titans were the last of the old Mets catchers among the mystery guests who filled up the Kennel’s November and December. It’s a familiar pattern. The games rarely stay close for long, and uncharitable wits have fun at the visitors’ expense. Arkansas- Pine Bluff became Arkansas- Pine Box in the midst of a 50-point drubbing, just as blowouts of past years have birthed the Denver Omelets, the Bryant Gumbels, the Howard Spragues and other press row hilarities.
Hey, we kid because we love.
On Monday night, it was Detroit (Have) Mercy – though by evening’s end that was more an expression of wonder for the way guard Antoine Davis filled it up, 31 points worth. That earned him a warm ovation.
It was the nonconference wrap for the Titans, too – and not a minute too soon. They’ll take a 2-12 record into Horizon League play thanks to a starting lineup with four sophomores and a schedule that saw them go a month without a home game.
But just like the No. 1 Zags, the tender Mercies are part of college basketball’s rich pageant, too.
The nitty, however, is a little more gritty.
And that’s OK with Mike Davis, Antoine’s dad and the second-year coach of the Titans who earlier this decade as head man at Texas Southern twice brought the Tigers to town for paydays and paddlings.
“All we want to do is get better,” he said. “It wasn’t about us winning or losing the basketball game. Every time I’ve come here and played, our team has gone home and gotten better.”
One of those times, during the 2015 season, his team left Gonzaga with a 40-point loss and a 1-7 record – and won at 25th-ranked Michigan State five days later. By March, TSU was 22-12 and in the NCAA Tournament field.
He also made the NCAAs the year he opened with 13 road games – at GU, Washington State, Ohio State, Syracuse, Kansas, Oregon, Baylor and TCU, among others.
The rationale is simple. They’re paydays. The Horizon, like the SWAC where he coached before, is a lone-bid league in the NCAA committee’s eyes. It all comes down to the conference tournament and the automatic berth.
And if it wears a team down?
“You need to get worn down,” Davis shrugged. “You don’t feel sorry for yourself. It’s how life is. I’m too old to worry about my record. Life is going to hit you with some punches that it’s going to be hard to come back from if you haven’t been through it at some point in your life.”
The Titans are the eighth “guarantee” game on Gonzaga’s schedule this year, the most ever. That hasn’t made for the most appealing competition, and the fan exodus out of the Kennel seems to come ever earlier, but the mitigating factors are real enough. There were daunting roadies at Arizona, Washington and Texas A&M, the historic home game with North Carolina plus the Bahamas minefield. There was also a massive churn in personnel.
“We were scheduling when the roster wasn’t even settled,” said athletic director Mike Roth. “There had to be some balance in the schedule and there had to be some caution I think because (coach Mark Few) didn’t really know what he had.”
Roth chuckles when he hears from game-goers how much they want to see closer games – as when Geno Crandall and North Dakota had GU on the canvas two years ago before the Zags recovered.
“Those are the things you worry about,” he said. “It’s why the Eastern Washington game this year had our staff tight. That’s a good, dangerous team – especially after the emotional high of the Carolina game.”
Now the danger lurks in the West Coast Conference – and the Mercies will try to scare up some in the Horizon.
“But I’ll be back next year,” Davis insisted. “I love the soft brittle (at the Davenport Hotel). I’ll come for that – and the guaranteed money.”
Indeed, the opponent and everything else about the trip is, uh, big league.