Friday, September 08, 2006

The Agony and The Ecstasy (Sports)

Early this morning, my son and I marched out of our house. Literally. Four year-old’s like to march. As I hummed a marching tune, we moved in procession to the top of the driveway, before turning right and proceeding to the tree there. What kind of tree? That’s not my specialty.

At that moment, we saluted the American flag hanging from the tree. Then, to conclude this stirring ceremony, we took the Stars and Stripes down. My son held on to it for dear life, but this flag that was bigger than him. Then I hung another flag. The flag of the defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

Thursday was opening day for the NFL and as the defending champs, the Steelers get the honor of starting the season with a nationally televised home game. The Miami Dolphins are the visiting team. There was plenty of pomp and circumstance, with a brief few brief ceremonies, and musical performances. Also of note was the return of NBC to broadcasting football. Al Michaels and John Madden handled the call, and seem to be on their game. Their presence, while perhaps a step past their prime, is still needed, as NBC gets comfortable. There were a few technical gaffes, but by and large, the presentation is that of the former Monday Night Football on ABC, right down to the cheesy theme song and the “personal” introductions of the starting lineups.

To the average fan, it probably isn’t noticeable. I don’t think I’m the average fan, because I study broadcasts like a playbook. So far, the graphics have been OK, but not great. The music is also nothing special, with Pink warbling a custom version of a former Joan Jett marginal hit. You might recall Hank Williams Jr. doing the same thing each week with “Are You Ready For Some Football” on MNF. Still, so far, so good. It’s nice to see NBC, the network that perfected sports broadcasting to me as a kid, get back into the NFL.

Anyway, as I write, the Steelers (or Stillers, in ‘Burgh-speak) lead 14-10, heading towards halftime. By working on my blog, I’m not as inclined to get emotional. The Wife and The Son are both in bed, so I need to keep it under control. Doesn’t always work, but I try.

Even thought the Yankees are off tonight, I couldn’t help but check what was on the YES Network anyway. I was an early fan of the Classic Sports Network concept, before ESPN’s bastardization of it. I’m one of those people who will watch classic games and, no surprise, collect them. So during a commercial in the Stillers game, I flipped on YES. In the way back machine was Game 4 of the 2001 World Series – Yankees versus Diamondbacks, at Yankee Stadium. Of course, even a non-baseball fan is going to connect that series with the September 11th terrorist attacks, which had occurred not two months earlier. In fact, it was 50 days earlier, as Game 4 started on Halloween night. It would end just past midnight on November 1st, when Derek Jeter hit a home run to win it.

To most, the World Series was an afterthought. I was the lone voice in the wilderness after the attacks that said sports must get back on the field, if only to get back to whatever “normal” means. Five years later, I still feel that way. Selfishly I went out of my mind waiting for something, anything to take my mind off of what had occurred. High school football was also getting ready to start in Connecticut, and only two games were cancelled following the attacks. One of them was Greenwich hosting Norwalk, a game that I was scheduled to broadcast on WGCH. While disappointed, I understood because Chuck Zion, the father of Zach Zion, a member of the Greenwich Cardinals, died in one of the World Trade Center towers.

Mr. Zion was one of just a few people that I even remotely knew who perished that day. Otherwise, I knew people who knew people who died, like the boyhood friend of a close friend of mine. He was a Port Authority officer whose death is portrayed in the Oliver Stone film “World Trade Center.”

Fortunately in due time, sports did return, and the Yankees were front and center. Yes, the Mets and Mike Piazza got back to the field first, with an epic home run against the Braves (no comment about their ceremonies that night), but the Yankees, as they often do, eventually stole the spotlight. First they went on and won the American League East. Then came Derek Jeter’s “flip” play, part of a stirring comeback against Oakland. The Yankees were down two games to none before winning two straight in Oakland. I was fortunate enough to go to the decisive Game 5, and the mood there after the Yankees won the series was nothing short of relieved elation. It wasn’t overly jubilant, but more of a fun, friendly atmosphere. For the first time in 50 days, I saw a lot of smiles in the New York metropolitan area. I got the feeling that people didn’t quite know how to react. Celebrating in a building that had recently held a memorial service for “9/11” victims seemed strange.

More smiles, and a sense of pride, came in the American League Championship, as the Yankees beat the Seattle Mariners. The M’s had won a record 116 games during the regular season, a fact which is now obscured due to their failure to win the World Series. That set up the Yankees against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The word from those who were in the desert was that, while their was fear and compassion regarding what had happened in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, people outside of the Northeast generally didn’t care. I was always afraid of that, and hoped it wasn’t true.

Things didn’t start well in games one and two at Yankee Stadium. The Bronx Bombers looked old and flat, getting dominated by dual aces Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling. Back in New York, the most stirring first pitch ceremony in baseball history preceded Game 3, as President George W. Bush stood on the mound ad fired a strike. The Yankees would get just enough to win the game and cut the series lead to 2-1.

Then came Game 4. The Yankees were flat again, down 3-1 heading into the bottom of the 9th. Side-arming right-handed closer Byung-Hyun Kim was embarrassing the Yankees, until Paul O’Neill flared a single to left with one out. With two outs, Tino Martinez stepped to the plate. Martinez would later say that he knew Kim would start him with a fastball, and Tino just wanted to get a good swing. He did better, as the ball landed in the right center field bleachers. Bedlam ensued, as it would again when Jeter homered for the win off of Kim. A new name was born – “Mr. November.” The series was tied.

I can only imagine that Mets fans were in hell. Not only was the evil crosstown team inching towards their possible 27th world championship, but there was almost a feeling that the northeast, and perhaps the country, were rooting for them. New York needed to smile, right? Personally I think that’s nuts. No self-respecting Mets, Red Sox, or any other fan would dare to root for the Yankees.

My father in-law and I went to Game 5. We stood there in disbelief as we watched the events of that night. Again, the Yankees were down two in the bottom of the ninth, except this time, it was 2-0. In the top of the ninth inning, fans serenaded crowd favorite Paul O’Neill by chanting his name. O’Neill was planning to retire after the season. I would have joined them in the chanting, but O’Neill was one of my favorites. I didn’t want to cry.

Jorge Posada would start the Bomber ninth with a double. But the rally would stall, until Scott Brosius came to the plate, down to the last out again. From our vantage point in the very top of the upper deck, just to the first base side of home plate, we watched Brosius put a good swing on a Kim pitch. But this couldn’t be happening, could it? Was I really seeing the ball disappear into the sea of raised arms in the left field seats? Was I really feeling the grand old stadium shake? It was amazing. Again, the Yankees would win in extra innings. One more win, and the world championship would belong to New York.

As sports fans, we’ve all injected God into the discussion at one time or another. God’s a (blank) fan – insert team name in the blank. There’s “Touchdown Jesus” at Notre Dame. So after everything that New York had been through, it was fate. The Yankees HAD to win the World Series.

The Lord moves in mysterious ways.

Not only would they not win the World Series but it would end in epic fashion. The Diamondbacks dominated Game 6, and embarrassed the Yankees, 15-2. Game 7 would be the kind of game that baseball fans love. I would normally love it, but I don’t ever want to see it again. Up a run, the Diamondbacks would scratch for two in the bottom of the ninth. I sat on my couch at home, stunned.

That’s why, although I love watching the replays of the home runs by Martinez and Brosius, the happy memories evoke the heartache as well. I’ve heard many people talk about how the 2001 series loss wasn’t that bad. Wasn’t the 2004 collapse against the Red Sox worse? And considering what had happened a few miles away, wasn’t it just enough to get the World Series and give New York such excitement?

Well yes…and a definitive no. Yes, the ’04 loss stung, but at least that was the ALCS. Still, they probable hurt just as much. But as a Yankees fan or player, it is never enough to just get to the World Series. That being said, the ’01 Yankees were old, and clearly at the end of their run. Martinez, Brosius, and O’Neill would all be gone, and the 2002 Yankees would be decidedly different. So if the Diamonbacks had run through the Yankees in five, or even six games, the hurt would have been minimal. However, winning the middle three games, especially Games 4 and 5 in such incredible fashion only adds to the hurt. The world championship was there for the taking.

It’s funny. Yankees fans supposedly don’t now pain. But that’s bull. For the thrills of 1977, 1978, 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2000, how about 1981, or 1995, or 2001, or 2003, or 2004? Oh we know pain, that’s for sure. I don’t exactly expect anyone to feel our pain though. I didn’t expect anybody to pity us in 2001 either. That’s the beauty of New Yorkers. With sports, as in life, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and move on.

Oh, I can’t finish without a quick nod to Steve Irwin, who had more guts than I’ll ever know. Not only was he not terrified of reptiles (unlike me), but he reveled in being around them. He seemed like a good person, and was so passionate about what he did. With his passing, as cheesy as it is, all I can say is crikey. Take care, mate.

NOTE – Final score – Steelers 28, Dolphins 17. The officiating doesn’t appear to have improved from last year, with bad calls on both sides. Still a win is a win.

1 comment:

Harold said...

Rob - if you want to know about agony, try being an Boston Bruins fan.

By the way...Steve Irwin's death was the ultimate irony. While filming a documentary about the most dangerous creatures, he gets killed by a relatively peaceful sea creature.