.journal 2001.02.26
All about sports.

Now listening to: Tori Amos, To Venus and Back: Still Orbiting
Now reading: Poppy Z. Brite, Exquisite Corpse
Now playing: Madden 2001 (Playstation 2)

I warned you all that I had too much on my mind recently, and that I needed to drain some of it off if I'm to have any hope of ever getting a decent night's sleep. A couple of nights ago I told you that I'd wanted to do a follow-up on my video game rant and a music rant, but tonight it feels like the right time for me to do a rant about sports.

I guess I should preface this by saying I am only a sports fan, and am by no means an expert. I used to follow sports more closely in my youth, but as my favourite athletes retired from their sports, my interest in their sport tended to flag at the same time. About nine years ago or so I really got into hockey for some reason, and while I do follow hockey closer than any of the big-league sports (I still prefer Australian Rules Football above everything else), I'm still primarily a fan. I still have my opinions about such things as the worth of Chris Osgood to the Red Wings or whether touch-icing should be abolished, but those opinions are largely shaped on what I hear commentators say on television and my own personal beliefs of the aesthetics of sport. I would hardly classify myself as an expert in anything I'm about to talk about, and I just wanted to make that clear before starting out here.

So since I'm already on the subject of hockey, I guess I should talk about my beloved Red Wings' victory over the evil, satanic Phoenix Coyotes earlier this afternoon. Mind you, I didn't really care much one way or another about the Coyotes until recently, except to bemoan the fact that Canada lost yet another NHL franchise to the almighty dollar when the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix, a trend which sadly doesn't seem to be abating anytime soon. But any team that signs Claude Lemeiux automatically becomes Public Enemy Number One in the hearts of a lot of Wings fans, myself included.

Just for the sake of those of you who might not be as into hockey as I am, in the final game of the 1996 Western Conference Finals, in which the Colorado Avalanche defeated the Red Wings on the way to their first Stanley Cup, Claude Lemieux, then a member of the Avalanche, committed what many consider to be an act of attempted murder: Red Wing player Kris Draper was bent over near the player benches and Lemieux deliberately slammed into Draper's back with full force, sending Draper jaw-first into the edge of the rail. Body-checking from behind like that cowardly enough, but Draper's skull could have easily shattered with the way he went into the rail, and Lemieux very clearly knew that as he attacked Draper.

Now, keep in mind that this was back before I had DirecTV, and to give you an idea of how bad Toledo cable is, a lot of the time the best thing on Toledo cable are the Detroit feeds of the various networks. And that whole off-season there was not a single Detroit newscast that went by where we were not treated to the latest pictures of Kris Draper's face trying to reconstruct itself. So that incident has been stamped into the heads of all Red Wings fan, and more than any of the intense rivalries the Red Wings have with any number of teams, Red Wings fans want Claude Lemieux to get his in the worst possible way.

Of course, in a way Lemieux deserves some credit for the Red Wings' two Stanley Cups. The year after the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup, the Avalanche had pretty much dominated the Red Wings during the regular season, and in their final regular season matchup things were going back and forth until a fight that could have been mistaken for a mass Civil War battle recreation broke out, and as soon as the Red Wings' resident tough guy, Darren McCarty, got his hands on Lemieux, Lemieux curled up in a little ball on the ice like the pussilanimous little slug that he is. Then all around the ice other battles broke out, including a battle between the goaltenders. The Red Wings ended up winning the game in overtime, and that battle really gave the Red Wings such an emotional lift that they just ended up finishing the season so strongly it was incredible, including knocking the Avalanche out of the playoffs on the way to their first Stanley Cup in over forty years.

Despite Lemieux leaving the Avalanche, however, the Avalanche-Red Wings rivalry is still incredibly strong, thanks in no small part to the Avalanche eliminating the Red Wings from the playoffs in each of the past two years. More than that, though, Colorado claiming to be "the real Hockeytown" in such a shot across the bow of all Red Wings fans it's unbelievable. First of all, Colorado is a state. Not a town, a state. So how it can try to claim to be a "Hockeytown" is beyond me, other than to speculate that the high mountain air in Colorado affects the brains of everyone up there. (Actually, one of my acquaintances is originally from Colorado, so I probably shouldn't say that.) But assuming we're talking about Denver alone, I would very strongly debate the in-town popularity of the Avalanche versus that of the Red Wings. More than that, though, Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Michigan Tech all have hockey teams that are ranked in the top ten college hockey teams in the nation, the Detroit Vipers minor league hockey franchise has done very well recently, and there is a very strong junior and pee-wee hockey system in all of Michigan, especially Detroit. So to all of those who would dare call Denver "the real Hockeytown," I would very respectfully give you a one-finger salute and tell you to take off.

Anyway, last night ESPN Classic re-ran the Red Wings' first Stanley Cup victory, and even though I taped that game I still never grow tired of seeing it. That particular game has even more emotional value, though, as that was the last game Vladimir Konstantinov played for the Red Wings, as in the week of celebration after the Wings' victory a limousine Konstantinov was riding in crashed at incredibly high speed, gravely injuring both Konstantinov and team masseur Sergei Mnatsakanov. The Red Wings won the Stanley Cup again the following year, and the sight of Wings captain Steve Yzerman laying the Cup on the lap of the wheelchair-bound Konstantinov still stands out in my mind as one of the greatest moments in all sports history.

Ironically, after the rebroadcast of the game was over, ESPN Classic ran a station ID spotlighting what is perhaps my favourite moment in all sports; Kirk Gibson's home run in the 1988 World Series. Gibson is my favourite athlete of all time, and what he did on that night in 1988 was the stuff of legend. Gibson was playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers at the time, and Gibson had pretty much carried the team, which probably had no business even being in contention for the playoffs, into the World Series. Unfortunately, Gibson had already been competing on one bad leg for much of the season, then in the game that got the Dodgers into the World Series, he injured the other leg and was pretty much done for. The Dodgers' opposition in that World Series, the Oakland A's, would have been heavily favoured to win the Series to start out with, but Gibson's injury pretty much made the Dodgers' prospects of victory dwindle to nothing.

Despite that, Gibson did come in for one at-bat in the first game of the Series, in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs, the Dodgers down 4-3 and with a runner on first. I realize this sounds like the stuff of fairy tales and baseball evangelists, but I swear this really happened. Gibson fouled off the first couple of pitches, and it was obvious that he was in such pain that he could barely stand, let alone bat. But after working the count up to 3-2, Gibson summoned some unearthly force inside him, and hit the most unlikely home run in all baseball history to give the Dodgers a 5-4 victory, and the emotional lift that helped the Dodgers beat the A's in five games to capture the World Series. I watched the home run live on television, and remember, Gibson was already my favourite athlete to start with, so you can imagine how I must have felt watching my hero do something so epic, so unlikely, so utterly and mystifyingly unbelievable. Gibson pumping his arm in triumph as he rounded the bases after hitting the home run still brings that feeling back to me, as it did watching it for that brief moment on ESPN Classic last night.

Gibson qualified for the Baseball Hall of Fame for the first time this past year, and didn't make it. On numbers alone, I doubt Gibson could ever make it; he put up some decent numbers, including becoming the first Detroit Tiger to hit twenty home runs and steal twenty bases in the same year, but on pure statistical data Gibson could not get into Cooperstown. But I do believe in intangibles, and the fact that Gibson produced not only that incredible home run in 1988, but also another epic shot in 1984 when he hit the Series-clenching home run for the Detroit Tigers against the San Diego Padres in game five of that World Series, along with the fact that Gibson was such a strong leader both on the field and in the dugout, I think merits Gibson a spot in the Hall of Fame. If only his real estate business in suburban Detroit weren't doing so well, I think the Tigers would be well-served to try to nab Gibson as their manager, and in that role I have little doubt Gibson would solidfy himself as a true Hall of Famer.

When Gibson retired from baseball, my interest in the sport waned a good deal. A couple of years later, though, my sister, who had never shown even a cursory interest in any sports, suddenly became this big New York Yankees fan. I don't pretend to understand it, but in any event it did serve to kick my interest in baseball back up. Kirk Gibson does colour commentary for Detroit Tigers games on Fox Sports Net Detroit, and while I fully admit I may do the same amount of pumping-up for Gibson's playing career as any true fan does, I will admit that as a colour commentator, Gibson leaves something to be desired. But at least Gibson is still close to the game, in a readily accessible spot for me. Even if he's starting to resemble, both in appearance and personal beliefs, my least favourite Michigan export of all time, Ted Nugent. (Okay, I should clarify that: Ted Nugent the musician, I like a great deal. Ted Nugent the pro-militia, gun- and crossbow-wielding, ultra-right-wing doctrine-spouting conservative asshole, I have a real problem with. It's people like him that give Michigan the bad reputation it's got.)

Speaking of Fox Sports, that would take me to what I'm guessing is subconsciously the true catalyst behind this rant: the death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt. Now, I'm one of those people who would strenuously debate whether or not driving an automobile constitutes a sport in the first place, but that doesn't mean I don't recognize what Earnhardt's death meant to the sports world as a whole and auto racing in particular.

Despite the fact that both sides of my family are very strong yankees (as in "people from the northern part of the United States," not as in the baseball team), the maternal side of my family behaves strangely southernly. My maternal grandmother, the only member of my non-immediate family who will still talk to me, loves country music and all things traditionally considered to be southern activities, and my maternal grandfather was really into auto racing near the end of his life, going so far as to set aside a good portion of the acreage behind his house to build his own R/C car racing track. One Christmas he even gave me a very expensive R/C car of my own, which sadly never saw much use before being mothballed. (Remember, I've never been one for automobiles as a whole to start with, and the fact that I was never good driving R/C cars was probably a factor in the general disdain of driving I had for so long.) And one of my paternal uncles once ran his own auto racing track up in Michigan for a while.

Now, myself I have watched maybe one auto race in my lifetime, and that was when I was really sick and wasn't in that good a mental state to start out with. And like I said before, I don't know if auto racing should even be considered a sport. But I was still very aware of who Dale Earnhardt was and what he meant to both NASCAR and the greater sports world, and so news of his death did weigh very heavily on me.

Sadly, however, that weight was counter-balanced with my first thought after hearing the news. I may not follow auto racing, but I watch enough Red Wings games and coverage on Fox Sports Net Detroit that I was blanketed with the awareness that Earnhardt's death came in the first NASCAR race Fox televised under their new deal with NASCAR. And I just thought to myself, "Well, that's typical of Fox to do something like that."

I'm sorry, but given what kinds of things Fox has done since they first took the air, to have an on-the-track death occur in their first NASCAR race just seems like something they would do. From Cops to videos of animals attacking humans to World's Scariest Police Chases, Fox has made a name for themselves by exploiting human tragedy in their shows. Now, I honestly don't have a problem with that; I would fully support Fox's right to air these shows on their network, I just wouldn't particularly care to watch it. And I feel the same way about such Fox schlock as Temptation Island (although I will admit to being a Married ... with Children fan back in the day).

What bothers me, though, is the bullshit evangelizing Fox Sports personalities like Jim Rome and Keith Olbermann have been doing in recent months. Now, keep in mind that sports journalists tend to be a very sour lot to start with, because among other stripes of journalists they aren't considered real journalists. But a lot of these people have no business taking the kind of moral stands that they do, and when they do that it just annoys the piss out of me.

I've never had much use for Jim Rome, but I used to like Keith Olbermann a great deal. I thought the work he did with Dan Patrick on ESPN was outstanding, and I even liked his politically-oriented show on MSNBC. But as of late Olbermann has become so infuriating with some of the commentary he's been spouting. At first I thought the things he was saying was the product of well-intentioned but misplaced loyalty to his employer, but as his diatribes continued I began to realize he really was meaning what he was saying, which was just saddening.

In a world full of people like Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, countless fasicst military leaders, and unspeakable human rights violations taking place in every country on a daily basis, for Olbermann to claim that the "most evil person on the face of the planet" is some third-rate carnival promoter is just a bunch of piffle, and Olbermann should damn well know better. Olbermann can say what he will, but the worst that can be said about the person he considers to be the pinnacle of all that is wrong with humanity is that he trades in the exploitation of fictional tragedy. Olbermann works for a network that is largely based on exploiting real human tragedy, and there is little doubt in my mind as to which is worse. So if Olbermann wants to bitch about the lack of morals in one person, he should tidy his own house up first.

Anyway, just to get back to hockey for one last note, I honestly can't believe that Don Cherry, my own personal hockey guru, has been saying the NHL should remove touch-icing. One of the main problems the NHL has right now is that there are too many stoppages in play, and if you take away touch-icing then you're going to increase stoppages and ruin some of the most exciting moments in every hockey game. I realize that we've been having more injuries as a result of icings, but there are already penalties in place for these kinds of hits, and certainly I think they could be strengthened for these kinds of situations, but removing touch-icing is just a recipe for disaster. If anything, I think Mickey Redmond has a very good idea that would reduce the problem a good deal and open hockey up a great deal: make icing be only from behind your own blue line, and not the centre line.

Then again, that's just the opinion of one fan. I never said it was expert.

- Sean