Wednesday, September 30, 2009

October Transition – Baseball, Football, Basketball and Hockey; Follow-Up to a Question Leads to Another

If, like me, you are a fan of just about all sports, this is an interesting transitional time of year. For example, today I will make my way to Nationals Park for the final home game of The Washington Nationals miserable season. As terrible as the Nats have been, the fact that Washington has had a baseball team for the last five years--after 33 years without one--makes life here better. There will be a chill in the air for a late afternoon start today and I'll feel a certain sense of melancholy that baseball's regular season is winding down but it will still be good to sit in the ballpark, keep score and look down at a baseball field. Any of us who can still remember the way it felt the first time they walked into a major league stadium--I was six and it was Yankee Stadium--should be able to take pleasure in watching a ballgame--any ballgame--while at the ballpark.

Of course there will still be a final weekend of the regular season and a month of postseason baseball ahead. I enjoy the postseason but the late starts once you get beyond the division series make it tough for me. I'm an early morning guy and I love 7 o'clock baseball games that are over by 10. Postseason not only starts later but takes longer because of added commercials and all the pitching changes. It's fun, but different.

At almost the same moment that 22 of baseball's 30 teams are packing up for the winter and their on-air pitchmen are trying to sell season ticket packages for next spring, hockey is starting its regular season and basketball is starting pre-season training camp. Not to mention that the alleged college basketball experts are making their predictions. (I saw one top 50 ranking this morning in which every team picked below, I don't know, fifth claimed it was getting, "no respect." With all due respect I'm sick and tired of athletes saying they get no respect.).

As I've said before, I really like hockey, especially when I'm in the building and even more so when the playoffs begin. I love the tension of almost every shift. And there are few things in sports better than an overtime playoff game because no one knows when the game is going to suddenly end. It is true sudden death (or victory) because it happens in an instant and often you don't see it coming.

Here in Washington the expectations for the Capitals are huge. The Caps played a great six game series against the Penguins last year but, unfortunately for them, there was a game seven for which they simply failed to show up. Pittsburgh went on to win The Stanley Cup, fulfilling the kind of promise the Caps appear to have with Alexander Ovechkin leading them along with hot young players like Mike Green, Niklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin. Whether they can surpass the Penguins in the east remains to be seen but it should be fun to watch.

As it happens, I am one of about 12 people who still actually cares about the fate of The New York Islanders. The funny thing is of all the boyhood teams I cared about--the Islanders came into existence my senior year in high school and I immediately adopted them because I have always had an affinity for underdogs and expansion teams (often the same thing). I saw 25 of the 39 home games that year as the Islanders went 12-60-6 which at the time was a record for NHL futility. The Caps went 8-67-5 two years later. By then, the Islanders were good and actually came from 3-0 behind in playoff series twice that season--beating the Penguins in game seven; losing to the Flyers (damn that Kate Smith) in game seven.

I probably was hooked forever when I actually got to cover the team while they were winning their four straight Stanley Cups and found them a remarkably likeable group of men. I didn't have that same experience with my other boyhood teams--Mets, Jets, Knicks--which may explain why, as awful as the Islanders have been, I don't have the same affinity for them as for the Islanders. I pretty much gave up on the Knicks when Pat Riley was the coach because I didn't like him or the team's style of play. I'm still (sadly) a Mets fan even though the teams of the 90s were often difficult to root for and I've come back to the Jets this season not because they're 3-0 but because Rex Ryan is a friend dating to my experience writing about the Ravens five years ago.

The long-winded point is this: the end of one season in sports, disappointing as it may have been, always leads to the beginning of another season. Just when the Islanders are ending another lousy season next April (even with Jonathan Tavares they still aren't likely to make the playoffs) baseball will be starting again. The Final Four almost always is played the same weekend Major League Baseball begins. One of my favorite memories in sports is going to Opening Day in Kansas City in April of 1988 and then watching Kansas beat Oklahoma in the national championship game that night.

October is probably our busiest sports month. Postseason baseball; football in full swing; hockey underway and basketball warming up in the wings ready to crank up at almost the same moment--especially these days--that The World Series ends. I would love to make one more trip to Camden Yards this weekend even though it looks as if the Orioles are going to lose 100 games but I have Navy-Air Force on Saturday and my daughter's birthday party on Sunday. Priorities do come into play.

In the meantime, as much as I regret not having made more trips to the ballpark this summer, I'm looking forward to hockey and to college basketball. (Still tough to get me hooked on the NBA, I'll admit it). For now though, a trip to the ballpark this afternoon for an absolutely meaningless baseball game is something I can look forward to with zest. I consider myself extremely lucky that, even at my advanced age, all sports can give me so much pleasure. What's the old saying: a bad day at the ballpark is still better than most days. That's certainly be true for me going all the way back to that first time my mom took me to Yankee Stadium. The Yankees beat the Indians that day, 5-3.


I've been meaning since last week to respond to a note someone sent asking me if I had "reconsidered," my position on the Duke lacrosse fiasco, referencing a quote in my Wikipedia which says that, "The Duke players were guilty of something."

I do NOT want to re-open the entire Duke lacrosse debate but the mention of Wikipedia did bring up a somewhat sore subject. To begin with, what I said when all was said and done was, "I think those kids were probably guilty of everything BUT rape." What I meant was that, even though the case was handled inexcusably by the prosecutor (who was, correctly, fired and disbarred as a result) the notion that these kids were martyrs of some kind was ridiculous. This was a group of young men behaving badly who had a reputation for behaving badly. There WERE racial epithets directed at the two strippers according to people in the room and the e-mail subsequently sent out by one player (not one of the three accused) about what he'd like to see done to the two women was beyond horrific. Did Duke mishandle the situation from day one? Yes. Were the accusations proven absolutely false? Yes. Was Coach Mike Pressler's firing premature and unfair? Yes--and he received a hefty judgment as a result as did the three players. But the kids weren't Knights in Shining Armor accused of wrongdoing.

What bothered me most about the question being asked--which was a legitimate one to bring up if you read the Wikipedia--is Wikipedia. It is a helpful tool for someone like me looking for simple facts, but it can be quite misleading. If you read mine--and I'm sure this is true in a lot of cases--you'd think the two most significant things in my career were my, "rush to judgment," on Duke lacrosse and the profanity I used four years ago on a Navy broadcast. I know that's the way life works--ask Bill Buckner, who is a borderline Hall of Fame player remembered by most people for one booted ground ball. (And most people STILL think the Red Sox were winning the game at that moment). I get all that. But that doesn't make seeing things written about you that are wrong any less easy to see or to see more written about five seconds in your life than about 25 books. But, as I said, that's the way it works. And Buckner isn't the only other person who can attest to that.

In fact, let's make that a question for today: Name other athletes or coaches who are remembered for one bad moment who had otherwise sterling careers. Mitch Williams also comes to mind right away. Let's come up with some others.


Anonymous said...

Your comments on a late season afternoon at the ballpark remind me of John Updike's classic "Hub Fans bid Splinter Adeau".

You were also right about first game encounters. My first was 1967. I was 8 years old. The Reds lost 8-1 to the Cubs, but I was hooked for life. - pt wiley

Anonymous said...

Jim Marshall. Stellar career and seldom seen on NFL Films diong much other than returning recovered fumble to wrong End Zone. - pt wiley

Anonymous said...

Jackie Smith, Hall of Fame tight end for the Cardinals who ended his career with the Cowboys, dropping a touchdown catch in Super Bowl XIII against Pittsburgh.

Glen said...

Well, since you brought up hockey, how about Steve Smith? Scored into his own net in Game 7 of the Oilers-Flames series, and the Flames went on to win that game, interrupting the Oilers' dynasty. He had a 16 year NHL career, was an all-star, and won three Stanley Cups, but all people will remember about him is that goal.

Anonymous said...

This is really the only time of the year that the major sports are played at the same time, in one form or the other. Much much better time than the dead of the summer, just after the NBA and NHL seasons is a great sport, but as the only thing to watch (with an occasional tennis and golf major thrown in) just stinks.

Vince Spence said...

You wrote what you felt. Most do not.

Unfortunately, these young men might have been treated as martyrs even if they were guilty and were convicted.

thedean said...

Burt Blyleven walked out on the Pirates after not being allowed to finish a complete game in San Diego. Wicked curveball but not in Hall of Fame because as we say in Pittsburgh he is a jagoff!

Bob said...

how about woody hayes, the great ohio st. coach who punched a player from the other team as he ran down the sidelines on the way to a td.

Anonymous said...

kermit washington.

Anonymous said...

JMU graduate and Northern Virginia resident Scott Norwood.