Thursday, September 17, 2009

Giant Heartache.....again

I sat down on my couch and flipped my TV to ESPN for the Rockies-Giants game. The Giants had won the first two games of the series to pull within 2 1/2 games of the NL Wild Card leading Rockies. The Giants had Matt Cain on the mound and the home crowd behind them (which has led the Giants to the best home record in the National League in 2009). A win would give the Giants all the momentum heading into the final 16 games of the season. A loss would knock the Giants 3 1/2 games back, and not having the Rockies on their schedule the final 2 1/2 weeks would make it highly improbable that the Giants could catch them. Essentially, this was the Giants biggest game since 2003.

I remember all the Giants big games. I can remember them with vivid detail. I remember the 1987 NLCS vs. St. Louis. I remember being up 3 games to 2 and losing game 6 to force game 7 in St. Louis. I remember the Cardinals winning game 7, 1-0, on a measly sacrifice fly. I remember 1989, the famous Earthquake World Series. And I remember the A's beating the Giants in 4 straight. I remember watching game 4 from my bed. Seeing the A's win 13-7 and Dennis Eckersely throwing his glove in the air after Brett Butler grounded out to end the World Series. I remember 1993, when a 103-win Giants team lost to the LA Dodgers on the last game of the season 12-3, because the Giants decided that rookie sensation Salomon Torres was the right choice to start such a pivotal game. The Braves won 104 games that season. The Giants went home. I remember 1997 and Devon White's grand slam. I remember 1998 and Neifi Perez's home run in the bottom of the ninth off Robb Nen to force a one-game playoff for the Giants vs. the Cubs. Which, of course, the Cubs won. I remember 2000, and the 10-inning game that gave the Mets the momentum that carried them to the NLDS win over the Giants. I remember the 2002 World Series when Dusty handed Russ Ortiz the game ball with 8 outs to go before the Giants would win their first World Championship in San Francisco. Their first in my lifetime. Their first since 1954. And then the Angels stormed back for 6 runs and beat the Giants 6-5. Then beat them 4-1 in game 7. I remember 2003. Jose Cruz's dropped fly ball in extra innings. Jeff Conine's throw. JT Snow crashing into Pudge at the plate. And Pudge holding onto the ball, defiantly. I remember all these moments as if they happened yesterday. The Giants always break my heart. And yet, I keep running back to them for more. Like a spouse who keeps taking their spouse back that cheats on them, saying, "this time it will be different. This time, she/he won't cheat on me." And they cheat. And the Giants break my heart.

The Giants have been a marginally good (and I'm being kind) team since 2003. And my heartbreak usually happens in June or July when I realize this. Not September or October. But this year, the Giants have put something special together. Their 1-2 punch of Lincecum and Cain is as good as their is in baseball (only Wainwright-Carpenter in St Louis compares). Barry Zito has found himself as a pitcher. Brad Penny looks re-born in San Francisco. And add to that Jonathan Sanchez threw the team's first no hitter since 1975 and something special was going on by the bay. They needed some more offense. But in the first two games against Colorado, they scored 19 runs and looked like a team on a mission to make the playoffs....and with their pitching staff, make some noise in the playoffs. So, the stage was set for the Giants to sweep the Rockies and carry that momentum into the playoffs. And then a funny thing happened, the game started.

Cain was not sharp. He gave up 2 home runs and left the game with the Giants trailing 4-0. The Giants bullpen held the Rockies in check for the final three innings, but the Giants' bats were completely overmatched against Rockies' pitchers, Jorge de la Rosa. For 8 innings, he completely shut them down, limiting them to just three hits. When the Giants did rally in the 6th inning - putting runners on 2nd and 3rd with nobody out, de la Rosa proceeded to strike out the next three hitters. And then Rockies' manager Jim Tracy made a questionable move. With de la Rosa in total control of the Giants, he lifted him for a reliever after 8 innings. The Giants bats came alive against Rockies' interim closer Franklyn Morales. Freddy Sanchez led off the ninth with a line drive single. Pablo Sandoval followed with a sharp single. Then Bengie Molina ripped a single that scored Sanchez. 4-1. Still nobody out. The Giants have life. Tracy lifted Morales for another reliever, Rafael Betencourt. He induced Juan Uribe into what appeared to be a rally-killing double play. Only, Troy Tulowitzki's throw whizzed past Garrett Atkins head at second base. 4-2. Giants now with 1st and 3rd and still nobody out and Mr. Clutch strolling to the plate. The Giants pinch run speedy Eugenio Velez at 1st base and he promptly steals 2nd. 2nd and 3rd, nobody out. Edgar Renteria, who won the 1997 World Series for the Florida Marlins with a hit, and who two weeks earlier hit a game winning grand slam off of Betancourt just needs a single to tie the game. Or a fly ball to the outfield to move the runners up. Or a ground ball to the right side. Renteria promptly pops out to 2nd. But that's only 1 out. A single still ties it. Pinch hitter Randy Winn grounds out to first. But the runners move up. 4-3. Runner on third, two outs. Nate Schierholtz coming up. Strike one. Strike two. Strike three (granted their were three balls thrown too, and he swung at ball four, but you get the point).

I slumped down into my couch cushions. It was 1:36 am and the Giants had done it to me again. And you know what, when they take the field this weekend in Los Angeles, I will still root like hell for them. And I will root like hell the rest of the season. Because that's what we fans do. We root and we root for our teams. They may break our heart like a cheating spouse, but we keep coming back for more.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Shhhhh.....Don't tell anyone, but Hockey is back....

If a professional sporting event takes place, but ESPN refuses to report it, did it actually happen? An NHL hockey game was played last night. Did you know this? It's true. I promise. While most of America was either watching the Bills and Raiders choke away sure victories in the closing moments of their respective Monday Night Football games; or watching Dirty Dancing on a continuous loop in honor of Patrick Swayze; or watching Tim Lincecum pitch the Giants back into the NL Wild Card Race; or watching Racist Kanye West read the half-assed apology that his publicist wrote, on the Jay Leno show, an NHL Hockey game, was in fact played. Fans showed up (approximately 4,000 of them). The Islanders and the Canucks showed up. And Vancouver won 2-1. All this did happen last night. But did you know about it? And tonight, 6 more NHL pre-season games are being played, including the Stanley Cup Champions, the Pittsburgh Penguins. Oh, but it's pre-season, you say.

I am pretty sure, in fact, I am 100% certain, that in roughly a month, ESPN will show highlights of NBA pre-season games. And in August, they showed highlights (and even televised) NFL pre-season games. And in March, MLB Spring Training is front and center on Sportscenter. So what gives with hockey? Does ESPN and Fox Sports and any other Sports Channel you can find this side of the NHL Network and VS. just ignore hockey? It would appear so. But don't hold the networks solely accountable for keeping hockey out of your homes.

When the NHL came back from its year-long hiatus (you call it a lock out, I call it a hiatus), Gary Bettman quite arrogantly shunned ESPN and FOX, opting instead for an exclusive deal with VS. and NBC. Three out of five American homes don't even get the VS. channel.....and 2 of the Stanley Cup Finals games are contractually obligated to be broadcast exclusively on VS. Let me say that another way - 60% of Americans canNOT watch 2 of the NHL's Championship games....the most important games of the season. That's a problem.

When the hiatus ended in 2005, Bettman and his henchmen (he calls them Marketing gurus) traveled around to the 30 teams to speak to their front offices and fans. It was a decent gesture of goodwill. He was trying to reach out to the communities to assure them the game was headed in the right direction. Somebody should have prepped him. Or written out his answers for him. Or he should have sent Bozo the Clown in his place. All would have been more appealing options. I was working in the Front Office of the Phoenix Coyotes at the time (I'll wait to continue until you stop laughing. No seriously, stop laughing and keep reading. They really do play hockey in the desert. It's true. Nobody goes to the games. And nobody knows or cares about Wayne Gretzky - the team's part owner and head coach, and the greatest player of all time - but it's a real team. I swear.) Anyway, when Bettman addressed the front office and Coyotes season ticket holders (all 12 of them), one of the astute season ticket holders asked Bettman why he left the deal with ESPN and opted for VS. instead. Bettman's reply is one I will never forget. And I will never forget it for it's ignorance and arrogance. Four years later, I still shake my head over it. Bettman replied condescendingly, "We got a better deal from VS. [which was known as OLN in 2005 - the Outdoor Life Network]. It's an up and coming sports channel that will utilize the NHL as it's anchor to attract even more sports programming. I don't mind that they actually show Bull Riding and canoing now. I mean, look at ESPN. In the 1970s when they first started out, they were airing some pretty bad stuff, too."

Four years later, 60% of American homes still do not get VS. and it's not like ESPN has missed a beat without having hockey. It remains the most arrogant thing I have ever heard a sports commissioner say. And it has crushed his sport and rendered it essentially anonymous in the United States. The sport has grown by leaps and bounds on the ice. But for every one step forward on the ice, Bettman makes sure that the sport takes two steps back off the ice.

Six games are being played tonight....including one at storied Madison Square Garden in New York, between the New York Rangers and Boston Bruins. And in just a few minutes, the Pittsburgh Penguins will take the ice for the first time since they won the dramatic game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals against Detroit, 3 months and 3 days ago. But will anybody who isn't at these Arenas even notice?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Fantasy vs. Reality

Arizona led San Francisco 16-13 with less than 8:00 left. The 49ers had the ball at the Cardinals 3 yard line and lined up for a 3rd and goal. Shaun Hill dropped back, looked left into the end zone.....Isaac Bruce, covered......Josh Morgan, covered. He spun and looked right.....Arnaz Battle, covered. The Cardinal defenders were bearing down on him. Quickly, he checked down to Frank Gore, who had spun wide open in the flat. Caught at the 2 yard line....the 1......touchdown, San Francisco!!!! The 49ers would win the game 20-16. A road win against not only the defending division champs, but the defending conference champions, to open the season. I jumped up and down on my couch and pumped my fists. I let off a Ric Flair-like whooooooo! Then, all of a sudden, I slumped back onto the couch and my jubilation was tempered just a bit. Wait a second, I thought, as I scrambled through about a dozen printed sheets on my coffee table. "Oh crap!" One of my opponents I was playing against in fantasy football has Gore on his team, and now Gore has 2 TDs today, putting me in a big hole. That thought quickly exited my head and all I cared about was the 49ers being 1-0 and that hopefully LaDanian Tomlinson would do enough on Monday Night to give that particular fantasy team a win. But the thought did enter my head. Even if just for a fleeting moment. Was I wrong to have that thought? Or is that the new natural reaction in 2009 - be happy for your favorite team, but temper the enthusiasm until you find out if your opponent in fantasy football has the player who just scored the winning TD? Is a Bengals fan (all 10 of them, shouldn't be too hard to find them and ask) that has Brandon Stokley on his fantasy team, happy today? Let's examine....

I have been a 49ers fan for over 30 years. I have celebrated their triumphs and agonized over there defeats. I will never forget Joe Montana's 88-yard drive to win Super Bowl XXIII or the dismantling of the Dolphins (in Super Bowl XIX), the Broncos (in Super Bowl XXIV) and the Chargers (in Super Bowl XXIX). All told, I have watched the 49ers win 5 Super Bowls. I have watched great playoff comebacks and wretched playoff defeats. Like most fans, I use we and our when describing them. So, their losses become part of me, as do their victories. In over 30 years of rooting for them and about 20 years of sports gambling, I have one steadfast rule (you listening, Pete Rose?) I have never gambled against the 49ers. I have never gambled against any of my favorite teams, for that matter. On occasion, if I feel really confident, I will wager on them, but never against them. That is basically rule #2 in the true sports fans handbook (rule #1, Yankees fans, Gators fans, Notre Dame fans, post-2004 Red Sox fans, Cowboys fans and Lakers fans is never abandon your true team to jump on someone else's bandwagon). This of course leads to a very dicey question - isn't having a fantasy team a form of gambling? So, in effect, wasn't I - who was playing against Frank Gore yesterday - wagering against the 49ers in some form? Not exactly. I wanted the 49ers to score. And, once I thought about it, I didn't care that it was Gore who scored. I just would have preferred that someone else scored the TD (like Josh Morgan, for example. 3 catches for 38 yards. Bust out year, my butt!). It's not like I was rooting for Arizona to stop Gore from scoring. But just that little twinge gave me pause and made me ask myself which is more important - the team I have rooted for, cried over, cheered mercilessly for, for over 30 years.....or my wallet? Because remember, winning a fantasy league doesn't just give you bragging rights over your friends, but it usually fattens your wallet pretty well. Fantasy Sports, football in particular has become a big business.

When I was in college, me and some buddies started a fantasy league. Really, it was just for fun. We all threw in $20. There were 10 teams and the winner won the $200. Not exactly high finance. Now, league entry fees can be upwards of $200 or more, with payouts well into the thousands of dollars. So, really, there actually is a dilemma for fans. My heart and soul or my wallet? It's not like if the 49ers win the Super Bowl, I'm getting a ring or big fat bonus check from the organization for being a super fan. Actually, what I'd probably get is some lost income - since I'd wind up spending hundreds of dollars on Super Bowl Championship memorabilia and shirts. But if my fantasy team wins it all, I'm going to have quite a bit of extra money in my pocket. Money to hopefully spend on the 49ers if they ever win another Super Bowl.

There is not a right or wrong answer here. Traditionalists will say that you have to root for your team no matter what...and that fantasy sports is a dumb idea anyway. Some of the younger generation (the post-2004 Red Sox fans and post-1996 Gators fans) will say root for your fantasy team and then just pick a team that makes it to their sports' championship game to root for. Me? I'm a traditionalist. But I'm a traditionalist who could always use a little extra money. So, for now, for the rest of the 2009 NFL season, I say, Go Niners! And Go Hebrew Oilers! And Go Heartbreak Kids! And Go Holy Shirts and Pants! And Go.....wait, I can't really tell you the name of my 4th fantasy football team. It's just wrong. Just know that I am rooting really REALLY hard for LaDanian Tomlinson tonight. And I don't even like the Raiders, so tonight, there won't be a conflict of interest.