About that soccer call, the plodding Bruins, and other bits

We have stray bits and holiday leftovers for you to chaw on, if you please:

The next time the wise guy next door tries to dismiss the game of soccer derisively remind him of how even the qualifying rounds of the brilliant quadrennial World Cup festival can rouse supremely sophisticated old-world cultures to the brink of warfare.

Reference is to the wonderful contretemps that burst like a bombshell in the trenches when a dumb officiating call cost Ireland a berth in next year’s finals in South Africa.  Even France, the beneficiary of the epic bIunder, protests the unfairness of it all. A replay of the entire game has been demanded even by the captain of the French side. But FIFA, the grand poobahs who run international soccer, won’t hear of it. FIFA makes the NCAA seem progressive.

While accustomed to such indignities, Ireland declines to take them in stride nowadays.  This is no mere game. The ambassador is about to be recalled. The wild geese are massing for a return flight to the continent. Meanwhile, a sufficiently embarrassed French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, has been moved to offer a formal apology to his Irish counterpart, the Honorable Brian Cowen. It’s old fashioned continental saber rattling at its best. The Guns of November are locked and loaded.
The World Series is a comparative picnic.  Super Sunday is a day at the beach. There is no other sporting event under the sun that stirs the passions of the World Cup.   
   
***

Early read on the Bruins suggests the faithful may end up this season cheering as much against the Maple Leafs as for the Bruins, who have a losing record (10 wins in 22 games) through the first quarter of the regular season. You can easily see the Bruins struggling on the playoff cusp until April, battling it out with perhaps Atlanta, Montreal, Florida, Tampa, and the two New York teams for the last playoff berths.

It’s a competitive team but only average, or slightly above. They lack the immediate prospects down on the farm or the salary cap room that would allow for trades to meaningfully correct what ails them. A bad injury season – a hint of which they are already experiencing – would be ruinous and, in a bad economy, there would be reverberations at the gate. They over-achieved last season. That doesn’t happen two years in a row.

For better vibes, look to Toronto. In what could prove to be a splendid trade should they get lucky, G.M Peter Chiarelli conned the Leafs into surrendering their No. 1 pick next spring in the Phil Kessel deal. At the season’s first quarter mark the once lordly Leafs remain the lousiest team in the entire NHL. Therefore, the pick would be the first overall should they continue to co-operate thusly.

Alas – is there not always such a caveat where the Bruins are concerned? – there is as yet no looming, can’t-miss, superstar on this year’s draft horizon, as there is more often than not. Maybe one will develop, but there have been no Sidney Crosby, Mario Lemieux, or even Jumbo Joe Thornton sightings yet.

In the long and on-going interlude since the last Cup 37 interminable years ago, the Bruins have had the very first pick only twice and there is no surer way to build a championship team. Thornton was, of course, the last top choice and he proved to be a mixed blessing. The other came in the form of the amiable and bright defenseman Gordy Kluzak a decade or so earlier. The conviction here remains firm that the very large and gifted fellow would have bypassed Harvard and gone straight to the Hall of Fame had he been blessed with healthy knees. In an era of devilish bad luck for the Bruins, Kluzak’s misfortune ranked high. Nor has their luck much changed. The Leafs will probably revive any day now although they ought not plan on Kessel making it happen.

***

Folks who bet on NFL games – upwards to half the populace – viewed the Patriots-Jets rematch in Foxborough as the easiest pick of the season, if not the millennium. That the Jets, while playing abysmally and quarterbacked by a kid who should still be an undergrad, somehow managed to keep it reasonably close – the margin being only 10 points late in the fourth period – was the day’s biggest upset.

Too bad because it would have been fascinating to see how Boss Belichick would have dealt with the temptation of running up the score, a practice he much favors. Don’t all the teams unleash long bombs with a 17-point lead and just 30 seconds to go? After the humiliation of the Colts’ fiasco and the week-long grilling he was made to endure, the Boss would have gladly run up a 60-point margin on his much loathed adversaries from Gotham, only he couldn’t do it.  Face it! This is not the wagon it was two years ago.

In Belichick’s world, a 31-14 trouncing of the fast unraveling and historically inept Jets on your home turf is hardly impressive. They need a really big win. Welcome the Saints. 

***

It’s early yet but the free agent sweepstakes in baseball do not look promising for the players who are up for grabs. From a player’s perspective, last year was a downer while this year’s scenario begins to look more like a travesty.  From an owner’s perspective, there will be bargain hunting or no hunting at all. The increasing of tensions thus becomes inevitable.

There’s no question the owners have tightened the purse strings. But the fact that the market is overwhelmingly dominated – even glutted – with journeyman talent makes it easier and more sensible, and even more reasonable, for them to do that. There are but a handful of premium players available with no more than another couple or three dozen who are indisputably above average. The pickings are thin and they will be made carefully, even painfully.  Upwards to a hundred free agents may still be looking for work at much reduced prices well into the new year.

If that happens, watch for cries of “collusion” to rock the scene. There were mutterings last year, but with an international financial crisis keelhauling the nation’s economy and dire predictions of another Great Depression abounding, the players and their agents wisely stashed such talk, recognizing that the public was in no mood for it.

Whether that global crisis is truly past is highly debatable. But the fact persists that the roof did not cave in on the U.S in general and MLB in particular; at least not yet. The game survives quite nicely, so far. If ’09 season profits were flat with a few teams bathing in a bit of red ink – according to the owners and their mouthpiece, Czar Selig – the game nonetheless prospers relative to the rest of the economy with a majority of the teams very much in the black, according to the agents, led by the mouthiest of them all, Scott Boras.

The owners could, of course, put an end to all of the arguments by simply opening their books. But they have never done that and hell will freeze over before they do.

If you sense sharp lines being drawn in step with preliminary posturing for another major baseball labor dispute, be advised that the lads return to the mattress in just two more years. The combatants are warming up early and if we have a nasty free-agent winter, much fuel will be added to the gathering blaze. Collusion talk could inch them onto a collision course. The prospect is not pretty.