Saturday, August 30, 2008

A much easier loss to swallow


The differences are very, very stark.

A year ago, the Michigan football team suffered perhaps the biggest upset in college football history. You know the story. Ranked No. 5 in the nation. National-title expectations. Three explosive offensive playmakers. And playing against a Division I-AA team.

The Wolverines' loss to Appalachian State was a shocker, a stunner, a dumbfounding defeat to any Michigan football fan. It — one loss — almost ruined the season single-handedly. And afterward, all this was evident on the faces of the devastated Wolverines.

Fast forward to Saturday afternoon at the Big House. There were some similarities: It was the first game of the season; it was at home; and it was against a non-BCS school. And Michigan lost, marking the first time since the 1951 and '52 seasons that it dropped opening games in back-to-back seasons.

But the circumstances weren't even close to comparable to those of a year ago. For one, the Wolverines were playing a very difficult opponent in Utah. (Appalachian State was good last year, but I wouldn't put it on Utah's level.) The Utes are being talked about as a BCS bowl-crasher. There's no question they're legitimate.

Then, of course, there was unranked Michigan. Chock full of young, inexperienced players who were competing in new coach Rich Rodriguez's spread offense system for the first time. There was an offense with two plebe quarterbacks devoid of its top running back and two wide receivers from a year ago, not to mention its All-America left tackle.

It all added up to Utah's 25-23 victory. And the result wasn't shocking at all. Except, maybe, that it was so close. If not for Michigan's spirited fourth-quarter comeback, the final score could have looked much uglier.

The Michigan defense is what will need to carry this team in September, and it'd be wise to copy what it did in the second half Saturday — not the first half. Sticking with the no comparison theme, the Wolverines' D changed identities at halftime. All of a sudden, its strength — the front four — started getting into the Utah backfield. And middle linebacker Obi Ezeh — coolest name ever, by the way — was a beast, racing all over the field to record 15 tackles.

Utah scored three points in the second half. It managed all of 28 yards.

That is something to build on. I bet that defense wished it could play another half of football after the game, because it didn't really show up the first 30 minutes. It was just warming up when the game clock hit 0:00.

The offense, meanwhile, resembled exactly what I expected — in one word, ugly. Anyone who expected a smooth attack from the young Wolverines was — and probably still is — delusional. Actually, the fact that Nick Sheridan and Steven Threet only threw one interception in 38 attempts and were sacked three times isn't half bad, because many of their throws were off the mark.

Of course, the wayward tosses were the result of nerves, inexperience and playing in a new system. Utah put some serious pressure on the QBs, too. Saturday won't discourage either of the signal-callers, and they'll only get better as the season progresses. The same should be true for the rest of the offense.

And, I'm pretty sure, the rest of the team.

That doesn't translate into wins, though. Next week, the Wolverines should get their first win against a weak Miami (Ohio) team. That would be a nice boost for the youngsters. But then tough games against Notre Dame and Wisconsin await. And after a Toledo reprieve, Illinois visits Ann Arbor.

So temper your expectations, folks. Yes, I'm sticking with my 8-4 prediction, but I won't be surprised if the Wolverines stand 1-3 at the end of September.

Still, that sounds much better than the 0-2 start of a season ago.

With a new coach, new players and tough competition, these Wolverines are ground beef next to last season's Fillet Mignon.

Yes, a loss is a loss. And the close ones, especially, always hurt.

But, I'm sure, the atmosphere in Ann Arbor Saturday evening was much lighter than that of a year ago. No national reporters, I'm positive, we're flying in to interview the morbid Wolverines about what went terribly wrong.

This is, after all, the beginning of a new era. The wins — and higher expectations — will come.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Michigan football preview: It should be interesting


I can't put my finger on why, but there's something very sexy about low expectations.

Which is why, I surmise, this could be a very sexy season for the Michigan football squad.

What a difference a year makes.

Late last August, the Wolverines were ranked No. 5 in the country and considered national-title contenders. Pundits raved about the offensive trio of Chad Henne, Mike Hart and Mario Manningham. Who cared about the defense? Michigan could simply outscore people!

People, I guess, got caught up in the "sexiness" of Michigan's skill players and forgot about where the real work gets done -- in them trenches. And, of course, they misremembered what won Michigan its last national title -- great defense.

Obviously, nobody in Ann Arbor was feeling sexy after Appalachian State rudely broke up the "we're so great" party. I, for one, took a long shower after witnessing that game in person. And after the second loss -- this one lopsided -- to Oregon, people realized that the high expectations placed on the Wolverines were bogus.

So I'm guessing that being ranked No. 32 by the Associated Press is just fine and dandy in Rich Rodriguez's cubicle. Nobody expects his guys to compete for the Big Ten title. Nobody is talking 10 wins. Heck, Sports Illustrated predicted a 5-7 record for the Maize n' Blue.

There's no pressure on the winged helmets.

And that's one of many reasons this season is so intriguing.

The element of surprise is another. I have no idea what I'll see come Saturday afternoon. Absolutely none. Sure, I watched some West Virginia games while Rodriguez coached there, so I (kind of) know the spread offense he runs. But will he run the same version with the personnel he's inherited this season?

And speaking of personnel, I can't recall a season during the past 10 years when I was unfamiliar with so many of the offensive players -- particularly guys at the skill positions. Usually, without reading a single article, I can name the running backs and receivers. Not this year. Outside of Greg Matthews, I had no clue which WRs would be lining up in the spread offense until I checked out the depth chart.

Then I forgot their names a minute later. Players are going to have to establish themselves to make me remember them, especially on the offensive side of the ball.

We still don't even know who will start at quarterback -- or if it'll be a one- or two-man show at the position for the beginning of the season, the first half of the season, the whole season, etc.

Questions, questions, questions.

But sexy questions, at that.

What I do know -- I think -- is that the defense will be solid. Not 1997 great, but solid. The defensive line is the strongest part of the unit, led by upperclassmen Terrance Taylor, Brandon Graham and company. They could cause a little chaos in opponents' backfields.

If they do, they'll make life easier for Obi Ezeh, the sophomore who is the lone returning starting linebacker. Michigan's secondary -- as usual -- should be an adventure. At least there's some leadership back there, though, with senior cornerback Morgan Trent.

Perhaps all we can rely on from these Wolverines are two strong legs. Senior place-kicker K.C. Lopata and junior punter Zoltan Mesko will likely boot the ball just as well as they did a year ago.

So they're no fun!

Seriously, I can't remember the last time I was this intrigued by Michigan's season-opener. Usually, it's a warmup game for a highly regarded Wolverines squad. In other words, the boys better win by 30 or there will be serious questions afterward. Of course, there will be no taking opponents lightly after the debacle a year ago.

But still, the fact that Michigan isn't a convincing favorite aginst Utah inside the Big House is a good headline. Nobody is picking Michigan simply because it's "Michigan." Which, how convenient, fits perfectly this season, because Rodriguez doesn't give a damn about Michigan's tradition or what the block "M" means.

The new sheriff in town is doing things his way, a new way. And this is happening with many new players.

If nothing sexy can be said about the 2008 Wolverines, at least this much is true.

There will be nothing stale and old about this bunch. Unpredictably will reign supreme over a team that might just surprise a few folks (in both good and bad ways).

My prediction: 8-4, 5-3 in Big Ten.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Instant replay in baseball a no-brainer


Unfortunately, my three-week-long vacation has come to a close (hence my long-awaited -- I'm sure -- return to this writing space).

I, for one, wish I could have a replay on what was a spectacular time in the great Northeast. That, of course, ain't happening.

What is happening, however, is the introduction of a different kind of replay -- instant replay to baseball. And, boy, is it overdue! The system will be tried out in three ballparks today and then everywhere Friday.

Good stuff.

There, really, is no argument against the system MLB is instituting (maybe that's why I'm writing this column; gotta ease my way back into top-notch column-writing shape, you know?). The league made the right call in only implementing the system for controversial home-run calls.

That, of course, makes perfect sense, since those are the only blatant calls that have been missed all season. Sure, every once in a while a home-plate umpire gets a call at the plate wrong. But not as often as the men in blue have erred in calling -- or not calling -- home runs. During one two-week stretch, it became absolutely ludicrous how many calls were missed. And with TV cameras all over the ballparks, it must have been downright embarrassing for the umpires' union.

Now, that won't happen. Hey, those are tough calls to make. It's one thing in the playoffs when two umpires are stationed halfway down the first- and third-base lines. But during the regular season, the first- and third-base umps have to make home-run calls. At times, they're close to 300 feet away from the action. And especially when a searing line drive is soaring over the outstretched glove of an outfielder, that's a really tough judgement call.

Now, all those calls will end up right. Tell me what's wrong with that?

I love baseball purists. They're the ones who truly know the game. But if they argue against this change, they're dead wrong. With the technology available -- and with the NFL, NBA and NHL already using varying forms of replay -- this is a no-brainer. Thanfully, enough calls were missed this season to create this quick response. It's much better that a Pirates-Rockies game in July (generic example) be influenced by a poor call than a Cubs-Red Sox World Series game in November.

Can you imagine the rioting Cubs fans would partake in if they lost the Fall Classic because a David Ortiz single was called a home run? Yes, ugly pictures dance through my head.

The other issue here is whether MLB should have waited until the 2009 season to bring in replay. In one word, "No!" OK, there are some rules that should wait until a new season. A midseason change can be distracting to both players, coaches and officials. But not replay. Friday's games won't be any different from those of two days ago.

But what about fairness, the critic asks. Simple answer: If NFL refs blow critical calls in Weeks 4 and 5, does that mean they shouldn't try to call good games in Weeks 14 and 15? The bottom line is improving the system. And if that can be done right now -- if human error can be taken out of the equation -- then so be it.

Yes, some teams got robbed during the nebulous couple weeks of mistakes. But those teams -- and their fans -- should feel comfort in the fact that it won't happen again. (And as far as exacting revenge, Mom always told me that "two wrongs don't make a right." She's a smart woman.)

So we move forward, baseball fans, into a new era of America's pastime. Except that the game remains the same. That, really, is the beauty of it. This change will hardly ever be noticed. The purists can still enjoy their good 'ole game without many distractions.

But if there's one of those controversial calls, baseball people -- from players, to managers, to the umps themselves -- will be able to relax. The right call will be made.

And then the game will continue, with the baseball minds back to thinking about the next pitch.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Some food for thought...


I couldn't feel much further away from the sports universe. Here I am, sitting in the living room of the Red House in Center Sandwich, N.H. (basically the middle of nowhere).

Yes, there's decent Internet service. But no television, and no sports bars nearby. That's right — I'm on vacation from the 365/24 sports world, and I'm loving it.

But me being me (thanks, Manny, for the phrase), I haven't been able to completely shut myself out from what's been an eventful early August. My musings are below:

Tainted Olympics?: By the time I leave this self-proclaimed Utopia, the 2008 Beijing Olympics will be all but over. That means, of course, that I will probably miss all of NBC's 2,387,519 hours of coverage (ballpark estimate).

Oh, well, I'll survive. Here's how I know: When someone mentions the Olympics, the first thought that comes to my mind doesn't involve Michael Phelps going for a record eight gold medals; it doesn't center around the U.S. hoops team trying to regain control of the world; and, no, it has nothing to do with the men's 100-meter dash. Sadly, I think of how in the world Beijing got these Games.

An extremely polluted city; so bad, some athletes wore oxygen masks upon arriving. A government that has — against its long-ago promises — gone so far as to restrict what websites foreign journalists can use. A government that forced thousands of citizens out of their now-demolished homes so lavish Olympics facilities could be built. And the list goes on...

(And I haven't even mentioned all the doping that — I'm 118 percent positive — is going on.)

There are great athletes at these Games who deserve attention for their impressive accomplishments. And I'm sure they'll get that publicity, but not from me. I'll be doing my own Olympics here in the beautiful Northeast — climbing mountains and biking up long, twisting hills.

Manny trying now?: How frustrated must the Boston Red Sox be? A week and a half ago, Manny Ramirez could barely run out a groundball to first base. Now, he's batting better than .500 and jacking tape-measure home runs for the Dodgers.

Well, the truth is that Boston can't regret trading Ramirez no matter how well he plays for the Dodgers. He was miserable in Boston and there was no guarantee he would compete hard — or at all — for the rest of the season. He had to go.

But if Boston misses the playoffs and the Dodgers make it? Let's just say there'd be plenty of whispering in the current American City of Champions.

Favre stays with Green:
Hey, Brett Favre remains in a green uniform. Of course, the New York Jets wear a different hue of my cousin's favorite color than the Green Bay Packers. And now, more important (obviously!), they're a team to be reckoned with in 2008.

Will Favre have the great season he had in '07? I doubt that. He's a year older and doesn't have quite as much offensive artillery in New York. Plus, even the AFC East (and the almost-winless-in-'07 Dolphins) is better than the anemic NFC North — at least on the defensive side of the ball.

But even a mediocre season from Favre would be an upgrade from what the Jets had. There's no doubt that he can sling it a bit farther downfield than rubber-armed Chad Pennington.

And finally, as if the NFL needs another publicity boost, having Favre back will be a shot in the arm to TV ratings. Which basically means that the NFL will go from being America's most popular sports league to, well, its even more most popular league. Make sense? And Favre playing in New York? Hmm ... if the Yankees and Mets somehow make the playoffs, the sports sections of the Post, Daily News and Times might need to be doubled come October.

Low expectations in Ann Arbor: Ann Arborites should know that preseason college football rankings mean about as much to the actual season as Brittney Spears and Paris Hilton mean to Barack's chance at the presidency. Just ask the members of last year's highly touted team.

Still, it must be relaxing for the Wolverines to be ranked just No. 24 in the opening coaches' poll.

There is no pressure on this team. None, really. Sports Illustrated went as far to choose Michigan to finish 5-7 and in the bottom half of the Big Ten behind interstate rival Michigan State. Wow.

And while I don't think the predictions are far off (although 5-7 is a bit ludicrous), don't be surprised if Rich Rodriguez quickly transforms the Wolverines into a very explosive, fast and dangerous team. I won't hide my disappointment in Rodriguez as a person, but I believe in his ability to coach and ruthlessly recruit.

It'll likely be a rough first season, but the most refreshing thing about watching the 2008 Wolverines will be all the novelties. Everything about the team will be new, including some of the players, the plays called and the strategies.

It should be fun — if frustrating — to watch.

And finally: Minnesota Twins fans are a lucky bunch. Think about this for 13 seconds: The team enters every season with low expectations. That, certainly, was the case before this year. The organization had dumped its centerpiece, pitching ace Johan Santana. Nobody expected the Twins to do more than show up at the ballpark every night.

And now they're in first place? Unbelievable. They've won the A.L. Central four of the past six years and suffered just one losing record (79-83 last year). They're the polar opposite of this season's Tigers.

Low payroll. Low expectations. Overachievers.

Kudos to the Twins organization for their continued success.

All right, it's 1:09 a.m. Getting late for a vacation blog.

I'm out. Time to climb up the rickety old stairs.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Tigers' closer situation a debacle


Editor's Note: This, I promise, will be the last column I write this season about the Tigers' closer situation.

Hey Tigers fans, still happy that Todd Jones isn't your closer?

Here's a fun statistic for you: Jones saved 18 games in 21 tries. In five attempts, Fernando Rodney is 1-for-5. Yep, he's already blown more saves than the old, cranky guy with the mustache. Even more sad is the manner in which Rodney tanks. While Jonesy always went out in style, giving up two-run homers and the such, Rodney walks guys, hits guys, and then walks more guys.

Hey, that's no fun!

In all seriousness, though, do you really believe the underachieving Tigers are better off with Rodney as their closer? (Please don't answer that.)

Was Jones pitching well lately? No, no and no. His ERA (5.05) was atrocious, he had given up 25 hits in his last 16 2/3 innings, and he hit rock-bottom when Jermaine Dye blasted that season-killing home run on that morbid Friday night in Detroit awhile back.

Now, of course, we know that Jones was battling tendinitis in his right shoulder. He, reportedly, had been feeling discomfort for six weeks, but he didn't reveal the injury until a few games following his demotion, which occurred a day after the Dye home run. He said he hadn't felt the shoulder pain in a game until recently.

And the result is one Jonesy on the disabled list. It'll be at least a couple weeks until he's back. To the average Tigers fan, that's a good thing. They'd rather see Jonesy shot into space for 37 years than see him on a mound again.

But again, the issue comes back to this: If you're going to replace someone, you'd better have a replacement who you're confident will do a better job. Rodney is not a viable closer for the Tigers. At least not at this point in his career.

Rodney is a talented pitcher. There's no doubt about that. He's equipped with a volatile fastball and a nasty changeup. When those pitches are working, he's much harder to hit than Jones.

But the key to being a talented closer is control. Rodney has about as much control as the "Wild Thing" in "Major League."

Think about it: When a closer enters a game in the ninth inning, the other team's hitters haven't faced him. They don't know what to expect. The advantage is clearly his. If he throws strikes, he has a good chance of getting three outs. All he has to do is make the hitters beat him. Make them locate his 94 mph fastball. Make them guess what's coming with an 0-2 count.

The ability to throw strikes is one of the main reasons Mariano Rivera, arguably the best closer of all time, is so effective. He gets ahead of hitters and then throws that twisting heater wherever he likes. Batters are at his mercy.

Rodney is the antithesis of Rivera. He constantly falls behind hitters, and the only way to get back into the at-bat is by throwing the ball down the middle. Of course, Rodney prefers to walk guys. And any manager will tell you that in a one-run game, nothing is worse than a leadoff walk.

That, unfortunately, is Rodney's specialty. In 18 1/3 innings, Rodney has allowed 16 walks. That is simply unacceptable. He can't be trusted in one-run games.

Jones, on the other hand, has much better control. In 41 innings, he's issued 15 walks. Sure, his stuff isn't as hard to hit as Rodney's -- Rodney has 19 strikeouts to Jones' 14 -- but most of the time it's good enough to record a save.

I'm no baseball stats guru, but just because a batter makes solid contact with a pitch doesn't assure him of a base hit. Four balls, however, means the man in the batter's box is headed for first base -- that's a certainty. That, right there, is the difference between Jones and Rodney. Jones lets his defense save games for him. Rodney doesn't.

Before Sunday's 6-5 most-likely-season-breaking loss to the Rays -- Detroit's 18th one-run defeat and Rodney's fourth blown save -- manager Jim Leyland ripped his players, saying no one's job is safe. I would hope that one of the jobs in jeopardy is Rodney's.

But prior to that happening, Leyland should ask himself this: Who can I plug into the ninth-inning role that will do a better job? In this instance, of course, it's just about anybody. But the most obvious candidate, Joel Zumaya, continues to feel tightness in his right arm. Plus, his 18 walks in 20 2/3 innings is just as bad as Rodney's production. He, like his fellow flamethrower, doesn't possess the control to hold down the spot.

The other option is newly acquired Kyle Farnsworth, who was pitching well with the Yankees before being traded to Detroit for Ivan Rodriguez last Wednesday. But he didn't exactly make a good impression Sunday, blowing Detroit's 3-1 eighth-inning lead by allowing three runs. Also, like the other two, he's never been a full-time closer. His 27 saves doesn't exactly measure up to Jones' 319.

So what now? The options aren't exactly appetizing. The only Tigers reliever who has pitched well of late is left-hander Bobby Seay (2.41 ERA), who has a whopping one save for his career.

The Tigers sit six and a half games behind the tied Twins and White Sox with 51 games remaining. The chances of a turnaround are looking bleaker by the day, and the three-game stand that begins today in Chicago is a must-win series. Obvious statement of the day: Detroit can't afford to fall any further back.

The main objective with the bullpen, at this point, might be to groom it for 2009. That means trying to figure out whether Rodney or Zumaya can find enough control to be the Tigers' future closer. If not, then maybe G.M. Dave Dombrowski will go after Angels free-agent-to-be Francisco Rodriguez.

But if Detroit finds itself within five games of first place in a couple weeks when Jones returns -- and he's healthy -- the old fart should retake his place as the closer. No, not for 2009 or down the road. But for the final push toward October. To make this almost-lost season more like what it was supposed to be.

You can hate him all you want. You can boo him all you want. But the past week has shown us -- in a sick kind of way -- that Todd Jones remains the best closer the Tigers have got.

Even if that's a depressing thought.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The not-so -appealing NBA


The upcoming Olympic Games have taken on new meaning for the United States men's basketball team.

Kobe, LeBron, D-Wade and company must prove that their country is still the king of the basketball universe. Anything less than a gold medal would say otherwise.

But the Olympics aside, the past month has not been a good one for David Stern's league. (And I'm not even gonna say Tim Donaghy's name, besides just doing it.)

All of a sudden, Josh Childress of the Atlantic Hawks bolted to play professionally in Greece.

Then went another player. And another.

And ... oh ... I just looked at the bottom line, and Orlando backup point guard Carlos Arroyo is making a exodus as well. He'll play in Israel now.

This isn't something that happens every summer, folks. This is a new phenomenon.

Bottom line: For players who aren't the centerpieces of their franchises, the NBA no longer holds the appeal it used to. Just playing in the world's best basketball league isn't enough any more.

I don't have Childress' phone number in my Fave Five. Actually, to be completely honest, I don't even have T-Mobile. But to get to my point, I can understand what Childress, Arroyo and many others — such as former Nets big man Nenad Krstic — are thinking.

Consider the lifestyle of a sixth man in the NBA. Sure, you're still earning more than people like me will make in four lifetimes. Sure, you're still living the dream. But you're on a team full of other stars who get all the attention. You're simply expected to do the dirty work, wash the dishes.

Now consider the life Childress will enjoy in Greece, playing for Olympiakos. First of all, I've heard from trusted sources that living in Greece isn't bad. Secondly, thirdly, fourthly and fifthly, Childress will earn more money (about $20 million after taxes for three years guaranteed); he can opt out of the contract after each season and still make the full $20 million!; his housing will be provided and he'll be given a car; and, as if that's not enough, he'll be a star. Fans will love him. He won't simply be considered Atlanta's sixth man.

Now tell me how that's not better than his situation in Atlanta. As long as a player is comfortable with living overseas, it's a no-brainer.

And I didn't mention the style of play. No offense to the NBA, but foreign basketball is more team-oriented. It's not all about the stars and one-on-one basketball. All five players on the court are involved in the offense.

Granted, a reason for this is that you won't find any LeBrons or Kobes in Turkey or Russia. There aren't players that dominant, guys who you can simply give the ball to and get out of the way.

And part of what makes most of the U.S. stars so great is their ability to create easy shots for their teammates, for guys like Childress. Outside of the money he got, Kobe Bryant, I'm sure, is a reason why bench playerSasha Vujacic decided not to join the exodus and stay with the Lakers. Bot only so many players are privileged enough to play on teams like the Lakers and Celtics.

Childress was on a team — the Hawks — with an aging point guard (Mike Bibby) and a star (Joe Johnson) who knows how to do one thing: shoot. Staying with the Hawks was an invitation to stay the player he was without much room for becoming a mainstream-type guy. With a few signatures, he changed all that and became much richer.

Sounds like a tasty deal to me.

This is just the beginning, basketball fans. As we've seen in international competition the last five years, the level of play around the globe is only getting better each year. Don't expect this trend to end. The quality of play in the NBA, however, hasn't improved. And there's no reason, really, to expect it to.

When high-schooler Brandon Jennings chose to play in Europe for a year instead of college, American players suddenly noticed the overseas option. Playing abroad is no longer some abstract idea to U.S. hoopsters. It is a legitimate option.

Even for players not seriously considering playing overseas, it could be used as leverage against an NBA team. A player in contract negotiations with his team could use a better offer from a European outfit to garner an increased offer to stay in the States.

None of this can be considered good for the NBA. Only a couple years ago, the focus was on the hordes of international players coming to the U.S. to join the NBA. Italian Andrea Bargnani was taken with the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft.

Now, could a player of Bargnani's caliber decide to stay in Italy instead? I doubt it — the allure of being drafted in the top five of the NBA draft and becoming a franchise-type player is still very strong. But for lower-rung guys — potential second-round draft picks — a career in Europe could be much more satisfactory. A guaranteed contract (something second-round picks don't get); a spot in the starting lineup right away — players could decide not to come to U.S. in the first place.

All of this is speculation, of course, but what can't be doubted is that international basketball is dunks and jumpers better than it was a decade ago. And, just as important, international teams have plenty of cash to dole out to talented players (foreign or American).

Will the NBA miss Josh Childress, Carlos Arroyo and Nenad Krstic next season? No, don't think so. Their jerseys weren't exactly big sellers (I think). But their respective teams might miss them. And from now on, teams better pay attention to their players who are looking for new contracts — if, of course, they covet the players.

Because otherwise, such players might be gone in the snap of a finger. Headed for more money, better cuisine and stardom in a foreign land.