By Brian Murphy
Special to Page 2

It took two months and a few days, but I'm here at The Cooler to announce that the 2006 calendar year hath finally begun.

It happened in a quiet place, too. It happened in Maryvale, Ariz., on Thursday. I was in front of the concession stand. It first required a quick phone call, though, to my buddy Schuchie. He's from Milwaukee and I needed to know if the goods were real. I called him at his Florida home and asked him if I was making the right move.

"Live from Maryvale," I said by way of greeting.

"Home of the 2006 World Series champion Milwaukee Brewers," Schuchie said.

"Klement's," I said. "Is that legit Milwaukee bratwurst?"

He broke right into the Klement's jingle.

"But you have to wash it down with an Old Style," Schuchie said.

"All they have is Miller," I said.

"That'll do," he said, and wished me well.

One Italian Klement's bratwurst. One Miller Lite. I had my choice of seats, so I went about 10 rows behind the third base dugout and I had an entire row to myself. The sun was blazing with no clouds in sight. I carefully placed the beer by my feet and took a bite of the Italian special. I picked up the Miller Lite, and took a long stretch. I was completely satisfied.

I leaned back and watched the Brewers take the diamond. Chris Capuano went into his windup. The Giants' Randy Winn waited. Fastball … high.

The PA announcer didn't let the moment pass. "Game-time temperature is 72 degrees," he said. "Game-time temperature in Milwaukee is 32 degrees, with a wind chill of 23."

A chuckle rippled through the crowd. Capuano went into the windup for his second pitch.

And ball season has begun.

On, then, to the Weekend List of Five:

1. The Oscar Pregame

After enduring the Red Carpet show before the Oscars, it dawned on me: Is there such a thing as a good pregame show … in any arena?

Jon Stewart
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
"I know I deserve an Oscar because it's all about me." (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Unless Charles Barkley is feeling particularly chippy or Boomer Esiason threatens to punch out Shannon Sharpe, most pregame shows come, occasionally irritate, and then go. And then there's the Oscar Red Carpet Show. It comes, irritates constantly, and seemingly never leaves.

I'm guessing that there are occasions in the history of Western Civilization in which conversations have been more awkward than those between Red Carpet host Isaac Mizrahi and his guests. But as of yet, I am unaware of any -- perhaps the exchanges between the lawyers and Germans at the Nuremberg Trials rated or any bedroom patter between Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. But that's about it.

What's needed to save the Red Carpet Show is a dose of what Johnny Miller brings to golf coverage: unadulterated blasts of honesty. Give me Mizrahi ripping Felicity Huffman's dress to her face. Give me Jake Gyllenhaal admitting he regrets green-lighting the tent scene in "Brokeback Mountain." Give me Matt Dillon recounting how he installed a hidden camera in Janet Jones' shower in her trailer on the set of "Flamingo Kid."

Alas, it wasn't to be. Plus, the Red Carpet was woefully short on cleavage. A loser all the way around.

2. And then … the Oscars

As usual, it was 3 hours and 25 minutes of bloat, with about 15 distilled minutes worth watching. Yet we watched all of it. Which means, we saw the following:

Jon Stewart's amusing opening video of former hosts/Stewart's awkward opening monologue in front of a stiff audience/George Clooney doing his modern-day Clark Gable impression/Ben Stiller's green unitard completely topping Stewart's monologue/Dolly Parton, a former mammarian legend, now looking like Huffman's "Transamerica" character with falsies/Will Ferrell and Steve Carrell coming a close second to Stiller for comedic presentation for Best Makeup, with special mention for Carrell's eyelashes/Poor Lauren Bacall sounding every one of her 81 years/Jennifer Lopez landing the first blow in the "Holy Smokes She's an 11" category/Salma Hayek driving the lane and gorilla-dunking on J-Lo, scoring the first-ever "Holy Smokes She's a 12" win/Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep striking a blow for those who remember the Oscars in the 1970s/Stewart making a comeback by mocking the montages/Stewart making more of a comeback with his fake commercials for nominees/Stewart, still realizing at some point in the evening that it's a no-win gig/Stewart, saved by the victory of the Three 6 Mafia, milking 15 more minutes of jokes out of it/The Three 6 Mafia winning Best Song, forcing one to remember that Bob Hope and Bing Crosby used to win Best Song, forcing one to realize the 20th century is finally, officially, over/Philip Seymour Hoffman winning Best Actor, stirring up tremendous memories of Scotty J.'s horrendous, failed kiss of Dirk Diggler in the driveway, clearly the roots of Hoffman's brilliance/Reese Witherspoon winning Best Actress, and her overall cuteness reminding every dude that he wished he once had her as a high school girlfriend/And Jack Nicholson, as surprised as anyone, awarding "Crash" Best Picture. It didn't matter who won. Jack, as cool as ever at 67, was off to a party. Wherever he went, it clearly was going to be the place to be.

Reese Witherspoon
(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
"I would like to thank my mom, dad, grandma ..." Anything you say Reese is fine with us! (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

3. The Missouri Valley Conference

I speak to all of you -- fans of ACC schools, of Big Ten schools, of Big East schools, of SEC schools, of Pac-10 schools. None of us wants any part of any school from the MVC in two weeks. At least, that's the way the SGI (Sports Gut Instinct) goes. When the field is announced, you never want to see Southern Illinois, or Bradley, or Wichita State, or Creighton as the 10 seed to your alma mater's 7 seed. You're toast.

Then again, there may be hope. This year, the MVC is getting major run from the mainstream media: Sports Illustrated, ESPN, the New York Times … you name it, and somebody has come to write and extol the virtues of the MVC, and how nobody wants to face any of these teams come March. This may be the kiss of death for the MVC. In past years, Selection Sunday was always a time for Jim Nantz or Billy Packer or Greg Gumbel to remind us that a Saluki is an Egyptian dog, or for us to see a shot of a Northern Iowa team wildly celebrating a 12 seed as the ultimate underdogs -- usually camped out on the couch of their coach's house in team sweatsuits with the coach's wife serving Ruffles and onion dip and the coach's yellow Lab sprawled out on the floor for a homespun, Midwestern effect.

But this year? This year, it's different. The underdog label is gone. The MVC is getting so much pub, the Selection Sunday camera shot may show a bloated Southern Illinois squad half-heartedly picking at a pricey buffet laden with lobster at the Chicago Ritz Carlton, while barely noticing its seeding. I believe I am quoting Wayne Campbell in "Wayne's World," who was quoting Kierkegaard when he said: "If you label me, you negate me."

The MVC has been labeled. Its fans better hope that means it's not negated.

4. The WBC

Woke up at 4:30 a.m. MT in Arizona on Friday morning to head to work -- the mothership KNBR having sent us down to Scottsdale for some spring training shows. Flipped on the TV and … there it was … live from Tokyo: the World Baseball Classic or, as it's known by an alternate name, "Dropout City." If they had waited a week longer, 10 more players from various countries might have told their managers that their dog ate their homework and couldn't play.

Just a couple of quick thoughts: One, can a ball game in Japan be played outdoors, for once? Come on, friends. It's a beautiful world out there. Go breathe that smoggy air. And two, can we let Japan and China wear unis that feature their own, native language on them? There is no need for English lettering. What made the Soviet Union fun to watch weren't the words "SOVIET UNION" on its hockey jerseys. It was the letters "CCCP."

And yet, I'm officially on board with the WBC. As an avowed fan of the World Cup, the Olympics, and the European soccer championships, I like any and all international competitions. They rule. And I hate to admit this, but sometimes it's fun to root for other teams. Don't get me wrong. I love my country. Love it. Love cheeseburgers, voting, Little League, "Seinfeld" reruns, college football, Springsteen and everything else beautiful about our nation. It's just … well … in these kinds of competitions, we're the No. 1 seed playing the 16 seed; the D-I school playing a I-AA school to fill out our schedule; the Wal-Mart forcing the mom-and-pop store out of business. So it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world to see a smaller country like the Dominican Republic, Venezuela or Puerto Rico win this damn thing.

5. Meanwhile, in Durham, N.C. …

I'm not entirely positive, but I think ESPN covered the Duke-Carolina game on Saturday night. I can't vouch -- I was watching ESPN Deportes.

In any event … some game! Has anybody else spent the season finding a bizarre look-alike made between star Tar Heels freshman Tyler Hansbrough and former MTV Real World star "The Miz"?

I'm dating myself by referring to the Miz's time on "The Real World." The younger demographic would know the Miz's work in later years from the epic "Real World/Road Rules Challenge: The Inferno." Which, of course, brings the digression to that whole series. Imagine a "Real World/Road Rules Challenge" pitch meeting:

Idea Guy: "Yeah, let's take all these insufferable narcissists and foist 'em on America for another 10 weeks. And here's the hook: they do a, like, death-match thing at some point in each episode. Sort of like 'Ultimate Fighting Championship' meets a low-rent "Star Search.'"

MTV Exec: "How soon can we start shooting?"

Hate to admit it, Duke fans, but I was rooting big for Carolina. And I'll admit why: jealousy.

As a UCLA alum who entered Westwood's hallowed grounds in 1985, I was attending a school just 10 years removed from John Wooden's retirement and five years removed from Larry Brown taking Kiki Vandeweghe and the boys to the 1980 NCAA title game. In other words, I was attending the school with the greatest college basketball tradition in America. Yes, better than Kentucky. Yes, better than Indiana.

So what happened? In the next 10 years, I watched UCLA slip and slide to a Hazzard-ous mediocrity, while schools like Duke soared to UCLA-like levels. Combined with the rise of ESPN, Dick Vitale and March Madness, Duke became the new UCLA of the TV Age and UCLA became as relevant as the CCNY dynasty of the early 1950s.

I was bummed. And Duke represented my bummed-ness. I'm just coming clean with you guys. And, you know, sorry about "The Miz" ruining Senior Night for all you Blue Devils.

But take heart. After all, it's Ball Season.

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