Saturday, May 1, 2010

The jockey's on you ...

Today, if you don't care about sports, stop reading now. If you do, however ...

We in the Boston area have quite the nifty little tripleheader today (well, quadruple if you count the Red Sox ... and the way they've been playing, my condolences to you if you do).

First, the Bruins start their Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers. Then, just as that's ending, you can switch the channel and watch all the festivities leading up to, and including, the Kentucky Derby.

To cap it all off, the Celtics are in Cleveland tonight to open their NBA playoff series with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Somewhere in the midst of all that, the Red Sox play the Baltimore Orioles ... a team so terrible that they can't seem to beat anyone ... except the Red Sox, that is.

In this country, we have four major sports: Baseball, basketball, football and hockey (sorry, folks, but soccer may be the rage everywhere else, but here, it's still not quite up to par with the other four).

Hockey would have been Andy Warhol's favorite sport, because, as he once said -- famously -- "everybody will be famous for 15 minutes." And that's about as long as hockey had its golden era. Fifteen minutes.

There are lots of reasons for that, but the biggest is that the National Hockey League thought it could do what other leagues have done: expand beyond control. And while there may be an inexhaustible pool of talent in baseball, basketball and football, there isn't in hockey. It's a regional sport -- at least in the U.S. To wit: If ponds can't freeze, you can't play ice hockey.

And even in cold-weather areas, the idea of playing on a frozen pond has given way to indoor rinks where it costs thousands of dollars per family to pay for equipment and ice time. So not only is hockey a regional sport, it has become the domain of well-heeled kids with parents who are willing to foot the bill to keep them in the sport, and who grudgingly accept getting up at ungodly hours to transport them to and from practices and games.

Yet the NHL steadfastly expanded the league, and in so doing, outpaced its talent pool. It was a silly thing to do, because hockey -- a lot like the National Basketball Association -- rose and set on its superstars. It was never as popular as it was when Bobby Orr and the Big Bad Bruins were swashbuckling their way through the NHL, or when Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers were at their peak.

Those days are over. The NHL is a more workmanlike league not (not without superstars, but none of them approaching the star power Orr and Gretzky -- and perhaps Mario Lemieux -- had). Pure goal scorers are rare, and, on many nights, you can see a regular-season NHL game and swear you saw better action when Tonya and Nancy were staring at each other.

The difference between good and bad in, say, the NFL is not that big. But in hockey it's huge. It's wider than the Gulf of Mexico and deeper than the Grand Canyon.

The ennui that is regular-season hockey ends, at the beginning of April. That's when the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin (genuflect, please, when you say Stanley Cup ... and bow your head).

Night after night ... game after game ... the Stanley Cup Playoffs are the greatest show in professional sports (topped only by the NCAA men's basketball tournament).

To me, a great sporting even has to include drama (and in Round 1 there was plenty of that), action (the Bruins-Sabres series left me exhausted, never mind the players), and -- most of all -- the potential for upsets.

Watching sports is simply no fun at all if the outcome is predictable. The two most talked-about Super Bowls in history will always be the 1969 Jets upset over the Colts; and the 2008 Giants shocker over the Patriots. Everybody likes upsets.

Well, we had three of them just in the first round of this year's Cup playoffs. The Bruins beat Buffalo, The Flyers defeated the Devils; and the Montreal Canadiens absolutely stunned the Washington Capitals.

Talking about the Canadiens upsetting anyone is very strange. It's almost like talking about the Yankees stunning the Toronto Blue Jays ... or the Celtics springing a shocker over the Cleveland Freaking Cavaliers (can we ... please? ...).

But here we are. The Habs, one of the most hallowed franchises in all of professional sports, were decided underdogs in a series against team created when I was in college!!

Being old enough to remember the Original Six, I am proud to say that my rooting interest in the Stanley Cup Playoffs goes strictly by old-time loyalty. Regardless of what I might feel, historically, about the Original Six, I root for one of them to win every year. This year, there is a particular embarrassment of riches, as we still have, at the moment, four of those six teams in the hunt: Montreal, Boston, the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings. I will root for one of those four teams until they're all eliminated (though I must say that if it's not the Bruins, I'm partial to Chicago, since I believe it was still in grammar school the last time the Hawks won the Cup.

If there's a team out there I'd really like to see not win (other than Philly, of course) ... it would be the Pittsburgh Penguins. And that's only because of Matt Cooke's outrageous cheap shot of Marc Savard, and the fact that the pusillanimous NHL wouldn't even suspend him for a game.

I'm looking forward to some good, exciting hockey between now and June. I hope the Bruins are still there by then, but if they're not, give me an Original Six team to cheer on, and I'll be there. Otherwise, it's whichever NHL Western Conference team faces the Penguins.

If the Stanley Cup promises the most sustained action and drama in sports, then the Kentucky Derby has to be the most exciting two minutes of action there is. Actually, the Derby is more than just a race. It's an event.

The closest I've ever come to experiencing that kind of an atmosphere, up close and personal, was in 2004, when I -- and about a zillion others -- piled onto the property of Saratoga for the Travers Stakes. It was about 99.99999 degrees that day (talk about your Hot August Nights), it was capped off by one of the most vivid thunderstorms I've ever seen, and there were people walking around the grounds dressed as if it were Ascot Opening Day (a gratuitous My Fair Lady reference).

Watching The Derby is a family tradition. My wife wouldn't know anything about any of the horses. And even I admit to being a little fuzzy on all the various players in the horse racing scene.

And for whatever reason, whichever network broadcasts the event, there's Bob Neumeier all over my TV screen, and, well, Bob can wear on you. He knows his ponies, though, so you have to tip your cap to him.

We actually watch all three of the triple crown races religiously ... the Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Even if there's no horse in the running to actually win the triple crown.

Now, I've been to Suffolk Down in Boston the same amount of times I've been to Saratoga ... once. Both times, I went because there was an outing that took us there. Once for work, the other time a bunch of friends hired a bus for the Saratoga outing. I went more to go than because of any love for horse racing.

Of course, I put $20 down on the first race of the day on a horse, to win ... and my horse, naturally, won (gratuitous Carly Simon reference). Which puts me and Warren Beatty (or is it Mick Jagger, or David Geffen, or someone else, perhaps?) in the same boat.

In the interest of accuracy, though, I should point out that was my only winner. But at least I'm honest. My friend Ralph Minsky swings at every pitch. I think he puts a little down on every horse in every big race ... and then proclaims -- to anyone who wants to listen to it -- "I had that horse," when one of his ponies comes in.

I have no idea who's going to win the Derby. I don't care ... though whichever horse does, I automatically root for to win the Triple Crown. We got so spoiled in the 70s ... three Triple Crown winners in five years (Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed, who was ridden by boy wonder Steve Cauthen).

I'm half Irish ... so I'll be pulling for Dublin today.

Finally (and briefly) there's the Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers. And all I really want to say about them is that I really, really, really want the Celtics to win. And that's not just because I'm a fan (I am), but because I want poor LeBron James to be out of his misery. I don't want him to feel as if he has to risk permanent damage to that elbow of his. I mean, God love him, he's sucking it up and playing with an elbow that's about to disconnect itself and send his arm flying in a million and one pieces around the basketball court.

We can't have that. I am so concerned about it that I've actually lost sleep.

If you detect sarcasm, congratulations.

Seriously, the prospect of having to read about LeBron and his elbow for another month and a half is nauseating. We haven't played Game One yet, and we're already getting daily updates.

So the Celtics could be doing me -- and the rest of the basketball world -- a heeeee-uge favor by beating the damn Cavaliers and letting LeBron and his elbow adjust to swinging a golf club a little earlier than he hopes.

I don't think it'll happen, though. But it would be nice if it did.

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