Sunday, December 24, 2006


Since I’ll be out of town next week and unable to blog, I’m taking an opportunity now to sum up the year that was. Hopefully, by the time I return, I’ll have figured out a way to allow people to comment on blog-posts again, though due to past misuse of the privilege, I will not be allowing anonymous postings.

In terms of sports – or at least professional sports -- there was clearly a central theme: in the immortal words of #7, Yogi Berra, it was déjà vu all over again.

The year began with football and the return to greatness of the Steel City. I have never in my lifetime witnessed a better football team than the Steeler teams of the 70s, winners of four Super Bowls. Those squads would have destroyed the Steeler team that beat Seattle for the most recent world championship, but Jerome Bettis and the boys at least reminded us of what a great football town Pittsburgh is.

Did you see the recent Super Bowl? It was held in Detroit, a good 300 miles away from Pittsburgh, and yet roughly 90% of the fans at the game were pulling for the Steelers. That tells you something about both (a) Steeler fanaticism, and (b) the fact that the people in the Pacific Northwest have better things to do with their time than obsess about professional sports. Perhaps there’s a reason why the last time a Seattle team won a Championship in a professional sport – and perhaps the only time – I was still in college. (Do you remember that Super Sonics team? It was led by a man named Jack Sikma who looked like Frankenstein except that Frankenstein was shorter.)

So thanks to 2006, the Pittsburghers have “one for the thumb,” the elusive goal they have whining about for a quarter of a century. Good for them. Pro football being the hotbed of parity, however, the Champs have returned in the fall of 2006 to define mediocre. That’s right, with two meaningless weeks left to go in the season, the Steelers are 7-7 and heading for a January of golfing, girlfriend beating and DWIs (or whatever else pro football players do in the off-season). As for the fans of Pittsburgh, since they don’t have an NBA franchise, they’re left rooting for a hockey team that’s as mediocre as the Steelers, and waiting for the next football season to start.

What? Do you think I forgot the Pirates? I didn’t; the fans of Pittsburgh did. From what I can tell, the same folks who bleed black and gold in the fall can barely name a single Pirate in the spring. “Let’s see, there’s Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, Barry Bonds, Bobby Bonilla … and … well … since the team has sucked ever since, I’m really not interested.” It’s a strange attitude, considering that you can say many things about the weather in Pittsburgh, but “fair” isn’t one them.

After football, let’s turn next to professional basketball. In the NBA, a new cityMiami – got to celebrate a title, but the victory was truly a throwback. It was as if some Laker fan envisioned his favorite player and favorite coach coming together in another city and almost immediately making magic. Truly, with Pat Riley joining Shaq to win it for the Heat, the only thing missing was one of those great Laker guards – like Jerry West, Magic Johnson or Kobe Bryant. Dwyane Wade has no connection to the Lakers, but with him playing Batman to Shaq’s Robin, you couldn’t help remember the mid 80s, when Magic was carrying Kareem on his shoulders, but the Big Fella was always capable of throwing in a key bucket when you needed one.

It’s great to see that lethal inside-outside combo, much like it’s fun to watch a brilliant QB/WR tandem, or a wonderful line in ice hockey. What, did I say ice hockey? The hockey season was also reminiscent of the past – specifically, the time back in the 19th century when nobody cared about professional hockey (mainly because professional hockey didn’t exist until 1904). That’s right, thanks to the recent hockey strike, nobody cares about it once again! Good job, players and owners. Way to stand up for principle over profit – at least I’m assuming there was a principle there, because that strike may come to nail you in the wallet for a long, long time.

Next, let’s turn to baseball. An argument can be made that this was a good year in baseball if for no other reason than that the Yankees didn’t win. But the fact is that the Yanks haven’t won a Title in years. In fact, the Yanks this decade are starting to resemble the Braves of the last decade; every year they make the playoffs and then, almost invariably, they figure out a way to crash and burn. Screw them and their payroll; they can’t lose enough for my taste.

As for the “déjà vu” aspect of the year, it was definitely the triumph of baseball’s second most successful organization: the St. Louis Cardinals. It has been a while since the redbirds have won it all, but the fans in this “small market” town have nevertheless supported them in droves. You can’t help but be happy for the “greatest baseball town in America” that their team is once again the World Champs. It’s too bad that they won after having had such a mediocre regular season; I’ve always thought that takes a bit away from the lasting joy of a Title.

Well there you have a look at what’s happened to the Big Four, but what about the more “minor” sports? It was a bad year for NASCAR because the GOP lost the midterm elections. There you have it – a summary of all that I know about auto racing. As for golf, this year was indeed a return to the past: (a) Mickelson choked in the U.S. Open, and then (b) Tiger decided that for the next several months, he’d win everything in sight, (c) except the Rider Cup.

Predictable. But no less predictable than the fact that Roger Federer would dominate the men’s tennis tour. OK, so he lost to Nadal in the one major championship that’s played on clay. That’s also the only major tournament in which Nadal – or anyone else in tennis – has a chance to beat Federer. Just as it seems inevitable that Tiger will break Nicklaus’ grand slam victory record, it seems equally inevitable that Federer will break Sampras’ analogous record in tennis. But here’s the rub: whereas the entire sports world seems to care about Tiger’s quest, hardly anyone cares about Federer’s.

The problem isn’t simply that Federer takes on the personality of his native Switzerland – efficient and boring. The problem is rather that men’s tennis as a sport hasn’t been on the map for years. Candidly, tennis was the only sport in which I lettered in high school, and yet I watch more professional poker than I watch professional tennis. Yes, I know – that says something about me (anyone willing to watch poker on TV is only one small step up the evolutionary chain from the folks who watch America’s Top Model or Project Runway) … but it also reflects the lack of interest generated by a sport that once had some of the most captivating heavyweight bouts this side of Manila. Borg-Connors, Connors-McEnroe, McEnroe-Borg, McEnroe-Lendl – heck, even Harold Solomon-Eddie Dibbs was more intriguing that the tennis played today. Do you want a solution? It’s really simple. Wooden rackets. That and brash personalities.

Speaking of brash personalities, they certainly are dominating the sports world at year’s end. On December 16th, the NFL’s favorite narcissist, Terrell Owens, spit in the face of an Atlanta cornerback who had the temerity of trying to guard him. And that same night, the NBA’s leading scorer, Carmelo Anthony a/k/a “Melo,” didn’t exactly live up to his nickname. He watched as a fight between his Denver Nuggets and every basketball fan’s favorite whipping boys, the New York Knicks, was just dying down. And then, just to ensure that order wouldn’t be restored, “Melo” threw a punch to the face of some schmoe named Mardy Collins, knocking Collins to the ground – probably out of shock and indignation as much as pain.

Ah yes, a return to the hooliganism that so many of us missed, now that the best fights are relegated to Pay Per View. I guess now we have Ultimate Fighting and the opportunity to watch athletes try to elbow each other in the face. But since watching the UFC appears to be beneath the dignity of most upstanding sports fans, including your humble scribe, we’re left with lame one-punch knockdowns in New York and flying sputum in Atlanta.

Finally, let me close with what I thought was the most pathetic aspect of the sports year. That was the way the baseball gurus on TV discussed the candidacy of Mark McGuire for Pro Baseball’s Hall of Fame. It’s no secret that McGuire won’t make it in his first year of eligibility due to his steroid abuse. McGuire never admitted to using steroids, though he has not only been fingered by others but when he had a chance to clear his name in front of Congress, he repeatedly refused to answer the Representatives’ questions. Essentially, he pled the 5th.

Given that information, I would have expected Tim Kurkjian and the other baseball “journalists” to blast McGuire’s candidacy for the Hall, but that’s the opposite of what happened. Kurkjian and his fellow talking heads showed up on TV saying that Cooperstown should welcome Big Mac with open arms. “They haven’t proved he did steroids,” I heard one say. He apparently was unaware that the plaintiff in non-criminal cases is entitled to adverse inferences whenever a defendant takes the 5th.

If you want to know what’s going on here, I don’t think it’s stupidity, unfortunately. Sports “journalists” make their living by getting access to the players and coaches who star in each sport. That means that the journalists can’t afford to take positions that are particularly unpopular with the players – lest they end up getting scooped by everyone under the sun. Tragically, the fraternity of players seem to want to brush the scourge of steroids under the rug. I guess they’re too fearful of the consequences of speaking out against it – it’s easier to keep your mouth shut and “get along.” The result is that the journalists who feel the need to curry favor among the players are likely to vote the steroid abusers into Cooperstown, thereby debasing the currency in what had been one of sports’ most precious shrines.

As for me, I’ll still be hoping that someday, one of my childhood heroes, Tony Oliva, makes the Hall. Tony O had one of the sweetest swings in the history of baseball – at least as sweet as his more hyped teammates, Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew. But Tony O’s career didn’t last long enough to generate the gaudy lifetime stats needed to punch a ticket to Cooperstown. It seems that he had problems with his knees … and didn’t have “The Cream” or “The Clear” available to help his body recuperate. So now he goes down in history neither as a Hall of Famer nor as a cheater. In other words, he may not be venerated by today’s baseball fans, but at least he can live with himself. I’d take that choice any time over McGwire’s and Bonds’ sleazy alternative.

No comments: