It may be time for me to fiddle with the rankings of my favorite sports. I dont go into this proposition lightly.
After the most recent baseball strike, I abandoned the game. It didnt mean anything to me anymore. Overpaid athletes arguing with monopolistic owners about the kind of money no real fan will probably ever see. I turned off the news when the baseball coverage came on. I didnt follow any teams, any players, any games.
Then I got sucked into the steroid wars of Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa. That was a fun summer, and by the end of it, I found myself with a new job which prevented any continuation of deliberately ignoring the baseball box scores. I started working at Topps, the baseball card company. Within a few months, I knew every stat of every Bowman card rookie and how many 161-game seasons Ripken had in his run for the record. It wasnt that he missed any games, it's just that the Orioles didnt need to make up a rained out game at the end of some seasons if it didnt have playoff implication, so some teams didnt play a full schedule every year. I didnt even know that until I started working at Topps. So much for my personal boycott of the MLB.
Meanwhile, football was falling through the sky. After a decade of relative success in Buffalo, the Bills were sinking fast. They still havent come out of the dive they began back in the late 90s on the day Jim Kelly retired. I cried that day. Everyone stopped working for an hour to watch the press conference. Everyone in the city and the 30-mile radius of suburbs which constitutes Bills country. A lot of people cried that day, and we felt a little silly about it. Had we known where the team would be in 2006, giving the Lions their first win of the season, we would have cried a little harder, and not felt silly about it at all.
It hasnt been easy being a Syracuse football fan, either. The Orange roundballers have done us well. They came through on the NCAA Championship in fine fashion, and they gave Carmelo Anthony to the NBA, and they gave northern Pennsylvania something to cheer about for 4 straight years in Gerry McNamara, which is a very big deal. People in northern Pennyslvania dont usually have much to cheer for.
I spent much of my early adult life at Rich Stadium, getting completely blasted in the parking lot, going nuts in the stands, watching the K-gun offense shred disoriented defenses, in the heat, in the snow, in the rain. I saw the Bills beat Joe Montana, Dan Marino, John Elway. Football reigned while baseball waned.
Of course, hockey has always been there for me. The Sabres played some great games and, through the 80s and 90s, I followed their rivalries with the Bruins, Canadiens and Capitols. The rivalries have changed. Now I get more riled up for games against Dallas and New Jersey and Ottawa, but thats a good sign - those are better teams. The Sabres, and hockey in general, have increased in value tenfold in the past 10 years, despite the lockout. And hockey - Sabres and lockouts and favorite teams aside - has one thing baseball and football will never have - the Stanley Cup. The most coveted trophy in American sports lore. The Cup speaks of tradition, honor, dedication and endurance.
On Saturday night, amidst the afterglow of the first comfortable victory in the Sabres' so-far perfect season, football fell crashing to the ground. You cant spell "thugs" without da U. Florida International and the University of Miami took idiocy to a level not seen on the national news since Abu Ghraib. In the middle of the game, a fight broke out. Players were swinging crutches, helmets, possibly toddlers. They were stomping on one another, and the color commentary for the game, a U grad, was singing the praises of the fight like a drunken George Bush must have been howling about the humiliations of his prisoners captured on film.
And then, on Sunday, the Bills lost to the Lions.
On my way home from picking up a package on Sunday night, I listened on the car radio to the Bob Costas radio show, which I didnt even know existed, to his interview with the writer of a new Roberto Clemente book, or an old one - I dont know if the program was a repeat or not - it seems likely that it would have had to have been - I dont know why Costas would want to be doing a live radio broadcast during the first hour of game 3 of the National League Championship Series playoff game.
Roberto Clemente - baseball's last hero, according to the author. I already agreed. On a trip to Puerto Rico, I had brought along several Clemente baseball cards to give to anyone I might meet down there. I spent a lot of time drinking rum at the hotel bar, and I gave some cards to my friend the bartender. Clemente is a hero in Puerto Rico, and his status there made me research more about the man, and he's now one of my personal heroes as well. His grace on the field and his stature off the field are not seen anymore, not much.
After getting home, I watched the Mets-Cards game. Before I knew it, the sports world according to me, completed its topple. Jose Reyes of the New York Mets simply blew my mind. With a man on first (Scott Spiezio), Reyes intentionally dropped a caught ball on the dirt in the infield in order to keep Spiezio at first base while trying to trick him into being thrown out. Spiezio didnt fall for it, but was obviously confused. Reyes tossed the ball back to the pitcher and gave Spiezio a playground smirk and nod - I almost got ya, kid.
What I've always admired about baseball was its perfect physics. Its playing surface is inspired by a higher power. Ninety feet between bases, 125 from home to second [*]. No matter how the home run totals have changed, it's still tough to beat out the throw on an infield grounder, and stealing 2nd is still always a close play. And Roberto Clemente owned what remains perhaps the best right field arm in the game. Football is different. It's about brute force. But thats why I liked it. Thats why we loved Kelly, who was a rare kind of QB. Kelly dove headfirst into tackles. He blocked. It was something to admire, that kind of brute force, because his brute force respected the game.
But now football and baseball seem to be going in different directions. Football's brute force is resulting in more facemask tackles, and the foot stomping we saw in Saturday's brawl, unfortunately, wasnt the first case of foot stomping we saw this year.
Baseball, meanwhile, is reeling from the inflated heads of steroids and, interestingly, is redefining itself with the welcome antics of Jose Reyes and Willie Randolph-style coaching.
Many of us knew four years ago that pushing people around isnt the way to go. But not all of us. Some donned military garb and said things like "Bring em on," and "Mission accomplished." But look where brute force has gotten us. Every disagreement results in another car bomb. At some point, we can only hope, the clever and articulate voices of grace and reason will prevail, like we saw in Roberto Clemente, as typified by Jose Reyes. And by Carlos Delgado, who, while in Toronto, refused to take the field in the 7th-inning stretch to listen to "God Bless America." He took a stand. Clemente died taking a stand - a peaceful and thoughtful one. McGuire and Sosa were admired as gods while they hit home runs with the brute force of their steroid-enhanced bodies. But their status melted when the truth came out, when the fans recovered from the power of their brute force and saw the truth of it.
You can hit someone hard enough to make them cry, but eventually theyll stop crying, and you'll still be a bully. Because while the bullies are hitting, the little guys are reading, and learning, and fine-tuning the best approach to the constructs and confines of the game. Just as the baseball diamond's physics, in the end, favors the guys who can run down an infield hit, who learn to read the smallest movement of the pitcher's motion to first, the world stage favors knowledge and nuance, not brute force.
So I think I'm leaning towards baseball, away from football. And I think the world is heading in that direction, too. We can only hope.