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State finals--Peoria or Champaign?

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State finals--Peoria or Champaign?

The finals of the boys state basketball tournament should be played at Assembly Hall in Champaign.

The Illinois High School Association's signature event belongs in the state's most celebrated venue this side of United Center.

That said, it won't happen until the folks in Champaign-Urbana get their act together and decide that they really want to host the tournament, as they did from 1919 to 1995.

The University of Illinois' new athletic director, Mike Thomas, said he wants to host the tournament once again, and new men's basketball coach, John Groce, said he wants to see the tournament in Assembly Hall.

"The first question that coach John Groce asked me (after he was hired) was about having the state tournament back in Champaign. I think that's critical," said Thomas, who hopes to tie the completion of the Assembly Hall's renovation to a bid for the tournament.

But Thomas already is aware of the issues involved. Former coach Bruce Weber also wanted to return the tournament to Champaign. But neither Weber nor former athletic director Ron Guenther had enough clout with local businessmen to make it happen.

"We also have to remember, to do that, it's not just a University of Illinois event--we can certainly do our part--but it's also a community event," Thomas said. "So everybody in the Champaign-Urbana area has to be on board as it relates to hosting those events and putting in attractive bids that would make folks want to come here."

We've heard that song before. Until Thomas, Groce and university officials persuade the businessmen in the Champaign-Urbana...the hotel and motel owners, the gas station owners, the restaurant and bar owners...to stop gouging the people who attend the event, it will never happen.

For years, I beat a drum for Champaign. Assembly Hall, I wrote repeatedly, is an architectural masterpiece. Carver Arena in Peoria is just another gym. Even 50 years after it was built, Assembly Hall is a one-of-a-kind facility that still awes visitors.

If you can't hold the state finals in Chicago's United Center, then the best place in the state is Assembly Hall. You don't display the Mona Lisa in a convenience store. The state's showcase event belongs in a 16,000-seat arena that is unlike any other in the country.

Sure, Assembly Hall needs to be renovated, and it will be. As a Illinois student, I remember when architect Max Abramovitz' version of the Taj Mahal was a big hole in the ground in 1959. I was awed to walk in for the first time to attend the first game played there, then the first state tournament in 1963. It was build for 8.35 million or 63.4 million in today's dollars.

Last November, a 2.2 million proposal to renovate Assembly Hall was approved by the University's Board of Trustees, calling for the installation of air conditioning, expanded restrooms and corporate luxury boxes.

Trivia note: There are only two sports facilities in Illinois that are on the list of endangered historic places--Assembly Hall and Wrigley Field.

The state tournament was a big-time event when the dome-shaped Assembly Hall was originally opened. Scalpers abounded outside old Huff Gym, which sat only 6,000. But they still found takers outside Assembly Hall in the early years. In those days, the high schools supported the tournament. You saw dozens and dozens of basketball players wearing their varsity letter jackets. And radio stations from Carbondale to the Quad Cities covered the event live.

Not anymore. The last time the IHSA put up the site of state tournament finals for bid, Champaign-Urbana proposed 200,000. Peoria proposed 450,000 and a pact with local hotels not to gouge visitors or force a three-night minimum stay. Guess who won the bid?

Give Peoria credit, they have done a marvelous job of hosting the state finals. The city has financial support from Caterpillar and its riverboat casino. Without the University of Illinois, it has been argued, Champaign-Urbana would be another Tuscola or Paxton.

Another plus for the tournament in Peoria is the March Madness Experience, a collection of fun and games that draws hundreds of basketball fans and just plain folks and their kids to the large exposition hall adjacent to Carver Arena. Some visitors spend all their time at the Experience and never see a game.

The last time we checked Champaign-Urbana or any other community in the state, even Chicago, doesn't have a comparable facility to hold such an event, a fact I'm sure the IHSA takes into serious consideration whenever the tournament comes up for bid. The IHSA's current contract with Peoria runs through 2014-15.

Originally, the IHSA never dreamed the tournament would leave Champaign-Urbana. After 77 years in Champaign, even Steve Kouri, the Peoria lawyer who conceived of the plot to steal the prize, had doubts that the heist could be pulled off. But constant complaints from schools and fans opened the door and Peoria charged in with a well-organized and well-funded game plan that blew away the committee chosen to evaluate the proposals.

Kouri met with Jim Flynn, an assistant executive director of the IHSA, and was stunningly surprised when Flynn informed him that the IHSA didn't think it was appreciated in Champaign, that if Peoria could offer a financial incentive, it might be accepted. Yes, Kouri said to himself as he left the meeting with Flynn, "we can get this thing if we do it right."

"They (Champaign) never believed the tournament would leave the town," Flynn said. So nobody blinked when the Assembly Hall raised its rental fee, demanded a higher percentage of merchandise sales and gross receipts and began charging for parking. For years, tournament visitors had been complaining about rising prices for lodging. Tournament attendance had declined dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s.

"We had to find a way to get people back and generate more interest in the tournament," Flynn said. "It got to the point where Champaign-Urbana didn't budge and the other communities said: 'Give us a chance to show you what we can do.' I knew Peoria's bid would be a good one."

The Peoria package was too good to pass up. Civic leaders and businessmen pledged support. Caterpillar, the city's biggest industry, made a financial commitment. The hotels, always the biggest hangup in Champaign-Urbana, jumped on board.

It got even better when they organized a Fan Jam or March Madness Experience in the 66,000-square-foot exhibition hall adjacent to Carver Arena. "A light bulb when on. We could do it. We could enhance the tournament and give the IHSA something that Champaign-Urbana couldn't," Kouri said.

The final decision was a no-brainer. After examining bids from Peoria, Champaign-Urbana and Illinois State University in Normal, the IHSA unanimously awarded the tournament to Peoria.

The IHSA surveyed its membership and concluded that the overwhelming majority favored the move. "The only minus was Carver Arena (compared to Assembly Hall). But there were so many pluses," said then IHSA executive director David Fry.

"People said the tournament isn't about the arena, it's about players, games and fun. Peoria had everything except the Assembly Hall. But not too many people seemed to mind. When I went into the March Madness Experience for the first time, it blew my mind."

It is hard to imagine that the IHSA will opt to return to Champaign-Urbana. But, remember, nobody thought the state tournament would leave Champaign-Urbana in the first place.

NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson tests positive for COVID-19, out indefinitely

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USA TODAY

NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson tests positive for COVID-19, out indefinitely

NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson has tested positive for COVID-19, Hendricks Motorsports announced Friday.

Johnson, a seven-time NASCAR Cup series champion, has not experienced any symptoms and was tested after his wife tested positive. He will miss Sunday's race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Justin Allgaier will race in his place.

“My first priority is the health and safety of my loved ones and my teammates,” Johnson said in a statement. “I’ve never missed a race in my Cup career, but I know it’s going to be very hard to watch from the sidelines when I’m supposed to be out there competing. Although this situation is extremely disappointing, I’m going to come back ready to win races and put ourselves in playoff contention.”

Per NASCAR protocols in accordance with the CDC's guidelines, Johnson cannot return until he is symptom-free and has two negative coronavirus tests at least 24 hours apart. He also must be cleared by his physician before returning.

NASCAR has granted Johnson a playoff waiver. He is currently 12th in the standings.

White Sox pitchers' greatest hitting performances before universal DH

White Sox pitchers' greatest hitting performances before universal DH

The universal designated hitter is coming in 2020. Of course, the White Sox have had the DH since 1973, but when interleague play was introduced in 1997, there were still a handful of games where the pitchers hit. Now we won’t have even that.

And that’s fine. White Sox pitchers from 1997-present have hit a collective .104/.137/.144 with three home runs, 17 walks and 205 strikeouts in 516 plate appearances. That’s hard to watch. But there have been some fine moments by White Sox pitchers at the plate throughout history.

On April 29, 1901, Frank Shugart hit the first major league home run in White Sox history. He was a shortstop, but the second home run was by pitcher John Skopec the following day. So, believe it or not, there was a time where the White Sox had an equal number of home runs by position players and pitchers. One apiece — after the game on April 30, 1901.

In 1908, Big Ed Walsh had a season for the ages. He went 40-15 while tossing 464 innings, striking out 269 (a White Sox record until Chris Sale broke it) with 42 complete games and 11 shutouts. He even made 17 relief appearances; what more could you ask for?

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Well, on July 4, he hit a home run — one of only three home runs the Sox hit ALL SEASON! Walsh’s round tripper was the team’s first of the season — in Game 68. So, Ed Walsh won 40 games and hit 33.3 percent of the team’s home runs in 1908. That won’t happen again.

On Aug. 31, 1935, the White Sox beat the Indians 5-0. Three of those runs were on a bases-loaded triple by Vern Kennedy in the sixth inning. Of course, that wasn’t the big story. The big story of the game was that Kennedy tossed a no-hitter.

Tommy Byrne had notorious control issues, but he had talent, so the White Sox traded for the 33-year old lefty for 1953 trying to catch lightning in a bottle. The White Sox ended up trading Byrne to Washington in June, but not before he put up one of the stranger statlines in franchise history. Byrne made six starts but only pitched 16 innings. In four of his starts, he failed to make it out of the second inning. He walked 26 in 16 innings and struck out only four. His ERA was a nightmarish 10.13 but he was 2-0!

But that’s not it. He made twice as many appearances as a pinch hitter (12) than he did on the mound (6). And on May 16, 1953 at Yankee Stadium, he dug in to pinch hit in the ninth inning against Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell with the bases loaded and the White Sox trailing 3-1. You probably know where this is going. Yes, Byrne hit the most improbable pinch hit grand slam, one of only eleven in White Sox history, and the only one by a pitcher.

Jack Harshman holds the White Sox record with 16 strikeouts on July 25, 1954, which you may already know. What you may not know is that Harshman was the New York Giants Opening Day starter in 1950 — at first base. With 12 home runs for the White Sox, he’s one of only two pitchers in franchise history with at least 10. And on June 16, 1957, Harshman started against the Washington Senators and was knocked out of the box after allowing six runs in 4 1/3 innings.

Harshman didn't hit a home run but was relieved by Dixie Howell, who hit two of them. It’s the only multi-homer effort by a White Sox pitcher — and it was a reliever. Howell had one other home run in 1957, and it was a walkoff — the only White Sox walk-off homer by a pitcher (excluding pinch hit appearances) — on Sept. 6. The year before, Howell homered in consecutive relief appearances for the White Sox — June 27 vs. Boston and July 1 at Cleveland. Not bad.

Nellie Fox, Luis Aparicio and Early Wynn finished 1-2-3 in AL MVP voting in 1959, as the Go-Go Sox went on to the World Series. Fox won the MVP, hitting two home runs and posting a .389 slugging percentage. Meanwhile,  Wynn was third in MVP voting, won the Cy Young Award, matched Fox’s two home runs and .389 slugging percentage.

MORE: Tim Anderson leads growing White Sox toward contention: 'He's a man'

His masterpiece was on May 1, when he tossed a complete game, one-hit shutout with 14 strikeouts. But he also homered for the lone run in the 1-0 victory! And that June 14, he went 4-for-5 with three runs, two doubles and an RBI in Game 1 of a doubleheader at Baltimore. It remains the last four-hit game by a White Sox starting pitcher (Adam LaRoche had four hits in a game where he pitched the ninth inning. It doesn’t really count, but it’s fun to mention).

There have been four pinch hit home runs by White Sox pitchers — Byrne’s grand slam (mentioned earlier), Charlie Barnabe on May 1, 1928, and two by Gary Peters. Peters hit a remarkable 15 home runs for the White Sox, a record 13 as a pitcher and two as a pinch hitter. One of those two was a walk-off blast on July 19, 1964 in the first game of a doubleheader against the Kansas City A’s. Peters also hit one of two grand slams by a White Sox pitcher — three, if you count Byrne’s pinch hit blast. Peters hit his grand salami on Cinco de Mayo in 1968 off the Yankees’ Al Downing.

The other grand slam by a Sox moundsman was by Monty Stratton on June 10, 1938. Tragically, later that year Stratton suffered an accidental gunshot wound which required his leg to be amputated. Monty never made it back to the majors, but made it back to the minors in 1946 and pitched for several more years on a prosthetic. The 1949 movie "The Stratton Story" tells his inspirational tale.

The best single-season batting average in White Sox history (minimum 15 at-bats) is .526 by Terry Forster, a pitcher. Years before David Letterman referred to the big lefty as a “Fat Tub of Goo,” he went 10-for-19 for the White Sox in 1972 — 10 hits and 29 saves in the same season And then of course, the following season, the American League adopted the designated hitter.

What about those three home runs hit by White Sox pitchers in the DH era?

The first was by Jon Garland in Cincinnati on June 18, 2006 off Esteban Yan, who allowed two of the more unlikely home runs in White Sox history. It was Yan who allowed Paul Konerko’s epic inside-the-park homer at Tropicana Field on April 11, 2000.

Next was Mark Buehrle, who homered off Milwaukee’s Braden Looper on June 14, 2009. Of course, Buehrle later tossed a perfect game on July 23 that year. Buehrle in 2009 became the second pitcher in White Sox history to homer and toss a no-hitter in the same season, along with Frank “Piano Mover” Smith in 1905. Smith had two hits, three runs and a walk in his Sept. 6, 1905 no-no.

The most recent home run by a White Sox pitcher was Anthony Ranaudo on July 27, 2016. It was Ranaudo’s first game in a White Sox uniform; he is one of only two pitchers to homer in their White Sox debut, joining Jack Salveson on June 14, 1935. The 6-foot-7 righty is also one of only two AL pitchers ever to homer at Wrigley Field, joining the Tigers’ Daniel Norris on Aug. 19, 2015. Ranaudo was the first White Sox starting pitcher to homer before allowing a hit in a game since Peters on July 14, 1965.

But of course, Ranaudo’s blast was not the greatest moment by a White Sox pitcher in 2016. That of course would be on June 1 at Citi Field in Queens, when Matt Albers doubled to lead off the 13th inning, scored what would be the game-winning run and got the win over the Mets. The moment was immortalized with its own Topps Now card.

If you take 119 years of history, you’re bound to find a few rays of sunshine. Such is the case with White Sox pitchers at the plate. Fortunately, the designated hitter has allowed generations of White Sox fans to enjoy the fine hitting of Harold Baines, Frank Thomas and Jim Thome, just to name a few. So, if Major League Baseball wants to implement a universal DH, that’s fine by us.

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