This week, dear fans, we offer three things – not remotely connected – to wonder about, although in our town at this moment there’s only one sporting subject anyone yearns to chat about.
1. And that’s your gallant Bruins. If you’re baffled by the magic currently being woven by our jolly band of bruised but battering spear-carriers, join the club, which consists of the entire National Hockey League.
Prior to this series, widespread deference to Pittsburgh’s Penguins was entirely reasonable. Clever mid-season personnel moves leading to a stunning finish in the regular season further yielding casually explosive romps in two playoff rounds legitimately stamped the Pens near-unbeatable. In this age, a team averaging four and a half goals a game with a power play clicking a third of the time, captained by Sir Galahad Himself, Sidney Crosby, is a de facto juggernaut.
Yet here we are after the first two games of the semi-finals showdown that the savants quite correctly believe will determine who wins the Cup and we’re marveling over the Bruins’ total domination of the alleged “unbeatable foe.” It’s unreal! We’re dreaming it; aren’t we? This simply doesn’t happen in the Real World. Pinch me, says I. But don’t wake me up.
This is written after Game Two with euphoria bouncing off the scale. Prospects are giddy but a reasonable prudence urges caution. When the Pens last won the Cup in 2009, they twice came back from 0-2 deficits. When they first won it in 1991, they rebounded from being down two against – you guessed it – the Bruins. This year, the Kings, now combating the Hawks in the western semis, lost two to the Blues, then stormed back, winning the last four. When the Bruins last won two years ago, they rebounded from 0-2 against the dreaded Canadiens. The road to the Cup is zig-zag. It ain’t over yet.
But what has been wrought so far is glorious. Gentleman Claude Julien is flawless behind the bench. This team is focused. “Pittsburgh looks like a beaten team,” snorted ESPN’s old-pro, Barry Melrose, after Game Two. Agreement borders on the universal. Echoing Melrose was NBC’s Jeremy Roenick. “I knew the Bruins were good,” he quipped with a touch of wonder. “But I had no idea how good.”
Neither did they, I’m willing to bet. Until now!
2. Inter-league baseball: Might it be time to insist that Selig’s folly should be unhinged. The bloom is off this tattered rose. Only Czar Bud, who concocted the gimmick in the late ‘90s as a sneaky way to juice MLB’s then sagging attendance, seems unable – or, more precisely, unwilling – to admit it.
It worked for a couple of years. Novelties usually do. But baseball, with its deep cultural roots, doesn’t handle gimmickry well nor are the game’s fans, weaned on its deep-seated traditions, comfortable with it. Interest has steadily waned over the last half dozen years. Yet the commissioner, a shallow but stubborn fellow, persists.
This year, inter-league contests began popping up with little fanfare in April and will be laced throughout the entire schedule, making it a constant whereas formerly such tilts were concentrated in a three-week block in May/June that effectively got them out of the way early in a heavy but manageable dose. There have been inter-league games every day this season and that’ll continue. The Red Sox visit the Dodgers and Giants in a brutal West Coast road trip the fourth week in August. The Yanks host the Giants late in September.
This development was never intended and had it been proposed originally it would not only have been rejected, but denounced. But Selig is sly at manipulating the system and he’s determined to perpetuate this scheme in defiance of the overwhelming consensus opposed. He has much invested for it concerns his legacy, and Bud is obsessed with his legacy.
Insiders – those who manage, coach, play – have always disdained inter-league competition largely because the DH conflict messes with dynamics and rosters. Owners, another shallow lot, have mainly backed the gimmick, believing that it indeed gooses the gait. Early on that seemed true at many parks; but no longer. Overall attendance is down nearly three percent the first two months this season and more sharply in the inter-league jousts even where rivalries make sense like Chicago, L.A., and New York. Baseball fans have tired of this contrivance. They recognize that it’s artificial.
But even if the gimmick were abandoned now, the damage is done and can’t be reversed. The sharp distinction between the two leagues and passions thus engendered were unique to baseball, adding dramatically to the charms of seminal events, notably the World Series. Instead of stoking rivalries, this misguided business has diminished them. It has become a mere novelty. What’s lost worked splendidly for a century. It was precious. Thanks, Bud!
But tradition is not the only casualty. How much damage can inter-league play do to the integrity of pennant races with their increasingly complex wild-card components? Regulating inter-league schedules to the point where they’re completely fair to every team is impossible. It only adds more imbalance to the game’s acute contemporary problem of the unavoidably “imbalanced schedule” brought about by multiple divisions.
This season, the Rays have the slightly softest inter-league schedule of the combatants in the ever- tightly contested AL East. They’ve already had the privilege of feasting on those perennial patsies, the Padres and the Marlins. Tampa’s scheduling edge is minimal, but so is a one-game difference that decides who makes the playoffs. Come October, will Tampa be thanking their “traditional rival,” those moribund Marlins, for rolling over four games in May? Could be!
3. The humiliation of Tim Tebow: On-going throughout the NFL’s off-season and utterly needless and heedless. Which leads to the question, “What is there about this ostensibly so decent young man that disturbs so many people in our curious sporting times?”
It wasn’t enough for the ridiculous Jets to treat this kid shamefully all season; they had to orchestrate an extended public spectacle out of the messy process of dumping him. No one denies, least of all him, his limitations as a quarterback. So why did a gleeful New York media find it necessary to pile on the torment with mockery of his unusual jock-personality. Stories about him have been laced with derision. Why was that necessary?
In turn, various other NFL teams were reported to be spurning him and with every such occasion there were comments – always, of course, attributed to “anonymous’ sources” – disparaging his skills. Treated with particularly disdainful humor are the rumors that Arena Football is the only enterprise interested in his services. It’s intended as yet another insult, with arena football being only a step above the roller derby on the scale of sporting entertainment.
Such stuff is, in my book, gutless, both on the part of those who say it and those who report what they say. If you want to rip a guy, don’t hide behind “off the record.” Especially demeaning for Tebow was a recent account alleging that three teams were interested in giving him a shot but won’t touch him because of all his “baggage.”
Now, what “baggage” would that be? Is it is his Bible? Is it his faith? Is it his scandal-free life style, which is not easily maintained, I would think, given the astounding pressure of his unique situation? Or is it his unswerving allegiance to timeless principles for which he declines to apologize no matter how much grief, even scorn, it brings him? Whatever it might be, it plainly makes some people oddly uncomfortable.
In my book Tebow is a bit of a hero, or at least as much of one as you’ll find in the twisted kingdom of contemporary sport. Remarkable has been the way he’s handled this entire mess – no bitterness, no recriminations, turning the other cheek, as it were.
Tebow seems to me the Billy Budd of football and it will be a bloody shame if he never gets to play another down.