Doing my part for hockey

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Baseball is always going to come first for me, in terms of sports interest. Other sports may get a momentary interest as well–as the NBA did in the Bird/Magic/Jordan era, but they’ll never be the game of my youth, or the sport I can talk to my family about. But since the off season still has another month to go until Opening day, I may as well see what else is going on.

The Olympics caught my attention for a brief moment this winter, and not because of the skating or the half pipe or anything like that. I found myself drawn to hockey, especially when the United States team beat the Russians. I reminisced for a bit about Lake Placid and the 1980 games, and hoped that the American team could do equally as well this time around. I realized then that the big bad enemy was no longer the Soviets, but the Canadians. When the women’s hockey team lost the goal medal to Canada, I challenged the men’s team to do better by beating or Northern neighbors. But alas, this did not happen. I then pointed out that it was win the final game and take the bronze medal, or lose and go home empty handed. The Americans chose the latter course, unfortunately.

It’s now a week after the Sochi games have ended. There’s no March Madness to follow yet, and the NBA is long past its resonance with me, and I know that there are many other endeavors that do not involve sports at all. But as a sports-centered American, I need to fill my attention with some sort of game involving athletic competition. I may move beyond this one day, but it hasn’t happened yet.

The NHL–the professional league of a sport I’ve never really been too interested in–staged an outdoor game at Soldier Field last night. I didn’t watch that much of it, and I didn’t even care too much about who wan the game, but I know a good event when I see one. The outdoors, the snow, the skyline of Chicago, and all the rest of it was as good a way as any to celebrate this terrible winter we’ve been dealing with this year. So I wrote a few words remarking on what a good thing it was for hockey, and for the NHL, and for the exposure it brought to the amazing city that I call home.

That’s more hockey writing in the past few weeks than I’ve ever done before, and likely more than I ever will do again. But it was fun while it lasted, this dalliance with a sport that’s a bit too North-woodsy for me.  Hopefully the Blackhawks will give me a reason to get back into it come June, even if baseball will be in full swing by then. I’ll be sure to write about it if that happens, too.

No Game seven, thank you very much

Think back to those Bulls titles of the 1990s for a moment. Of the six championships, only one—against the Trailblazers in 1992–was clinched in Chicago. Had any of those series gone to a Game seven, it would have been a financial bonanza for those with tickets to the game, and for those who owned a bar or restaurant. But it also held a danger that the Bulls might have lost the title, as well. That’s why the Bulls always finished their opponents off when they had the chance to do it. And the Blackhawks did the same thing on Monday night in Boston.

Yes, Monday night’s scintillating finish deprived us all of one last hockey game on Wednesday night, but there were no guarantees that the Blackhawks would win that game, either. With that in mind, and the Stanley Cup now in hand, the only thing left to say is Go Blackhawks! 

My Lou Brock moment

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Lou Brock is probably the most special ballplayer of all for me. I remember seeing him steal second base in the very first baseball game I ever attended, in the summer of 1975. The Cardinals fans in attendance began yelling “Louuuuuuuuuu” and I thought he was being booed. My dad then explained that they were saying his name, as a sign of respect and appreciation. This made sense, and I felt a lot better about it then.

In 1977, two years later, Brock made history by passing Ty Cobb as the all-time leader in stolen bases. He held this record until Rickey Henderson passed his record in 1991. For those 14 years, Brock could legitimately say he was the best base stealer there ever was.

But records are made to be broken, aren’t they? It must have been a bittersweet moment for Brock when Henderson nudged him aside. And today, on a much smaller scale, I know how that feels. Back in February of this year, I wrote a piece for ChicagoSideSports that pointed out how Pete Rose, the all-time hits leader in baseball–has been left off of Topps baseball cards this year. The story went viral, as the saying goes, and within 48 hours I had seen my story, and sometimes even my name, in places I never thought possible. It was amazing, but like all things it had to end.

The story generated a lot of attention, as measured by retweets and Likes on Facebook. The number of Facebook Likes reached 1.3K (as they display the number), which was far and away more than any piece that had run on ChicagoSideSports. And I liked the feeling that nobody ranked above me in that regard.

And now, four months later, that mark is about to fall. A piece called “Rivalrybait” appeared at the beginning of the Stanley Cup finals between the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks, and it, too, went viral. It’s now at 1.3K on the Facebook likes, and as the series progresses, I’m sure that number will rise. After all, we’re only two games in, and it seems like the series will go seven games. I hope it does, so long as the Blackhawks are victorious in the end.

So like Lou Brock, I’m about to see my record fall. Good. It’s better to have something like this happen than not have it in the first place. And besides, there will be other stories to write in the weeks and months ahead. None are likely to create so much interest, but I’m willing to give it a try.

Have you heard about the Midnight Rambler

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Tonight’s hockey game went into three overtime periods, and the sudden death nature of the playoffs meant that any scoring opportunity could have ended the game. And in the end, a shot taken at midnight deflected off of not one, but two Blackhawk players, and set off a wild celebration scene at the United Center.

I’m calling the winning shot the Midnight Rambler, to honor a Stones tune of the same name. And now I’m off to get some sleep. Tonight was a classic game, with an epic result. Can’t ask for too much more than that.

When Chicago met Boston

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Like Chicago, Boston has a team in each of the four major sports leagues (MLB, the NFL, the NBA, and the NHL). Some other cities can also make that claim (including New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Dallas, Detroit, Denver, and Phoenix), but many more can’t (such as Los Angeles, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Seattle, Milwaukee, and San Antonio). Boston’s sports teams, like Chicago’s, are woven into the fabric of their community. Boston and Chicago are among the very best sporting towns in America.

So what’s the best way to determine which one is better? Counting championships is one way to do it, of course, but Chicago comes out on the wrong end of that equation. Besides, Andre Dawson played in both cities during his career, and never suited up for a World Series game—let alone won a championship—in either one, and yet he’s still in the Hall of Fame. Surely championships aren’t the only metrics that count.

Perhaps we can look at the times when a championship was decided between these two cities and their teams. The times when Boston and Chicago went mano a mano, with a championship on the line. That seems to be a fair way of stacking these cities up against each other. But, in looking at all the years these cities have been fielding professional teams, the sample size for making such a comparison is distressingly small.

Boston and Chicago are two of the Original Six hockey franchises, and the two teams have appeared in the Stanley Cup finals a combined 29 times over the years (with 18 appearances for the Bruins, and 11 appearances for the Blackhawks).  It’s astonishing that these two teams have never before played each other for the Stanley Cup. Over a five-year stretch in the early 1970s, the two teams traded off appearances in the finals, like ships passing in the night. But they never met each other in the finals, and so we have no history to serve as our guide.

How about basketball? The Bulls and the Celtics both play in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, meaning they couldn’t play against each other in the NBA Finals. The best they could hope for is to play in the Conference finals, but that hasn’t happened since the Bulls moved over from the Western Conference in 1980. From the Bulls’ founding in the late 1960s, and all through the 1970s, a Bulls-Celtics NBA final was a possibility, at least in theory, but it never came to pass. Again, basketball offers us no insight into past competition between the two cities.

The only time that Chicago and Boston have met to determine a baseball championship was all the way back in 1918. To give some idea of the time frame involved, consider that the first commercial radio station was still two years away. It was an important and unique Series in 1918, and one we still commemorate today, in a fairly significant way.

1918 was the first, and most likely the only, September Series that baseball has ever seen. As America was gearing up to become involved in the Great War in Europe (what we now call World War I), Secretary of War Newton D. Baker determined that all men had to “work or fight” by July 1. Baseball owners were permitted to end their season on Labor Day, with the World Series to be played the following week.

The Boston Red Sox won the American League pennant, led by their pitching star-turned-hitter Babe Ruth. The Cubs won the National League title, and returned to the series for the first time since 1910. It must have been awfully hard for Cubs fans to endure an eight-year gap between World Series appearances.

The Series opened in Comiskey Park—since the Cubs could draw larger crowds there than in their own Weeghman Park—on Thursday, September 5, 1918. A brass band played patriotic tunes throughout the game, but the seventh-inning stretch provided the most enduring moment. Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner” could be heard by the crowd of just under 20,000, and the fans came to their feet and sang along. Players on the field also stood at attention while this display of patriotism unfolded. Boston went on to win the first game by a 1-0 score, but the impact of Key’s song had not gone unnoticed.

The playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the seventh-inning stretch was repeated for Games two and three—think of it as an early version of “Sweet Caroline”–and the teams split those games. The Series then moved east to Boston, with the Red Sox holding a two games-to-one advantage. But before the Series started up again in Boston for Game four, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee had an idea.

Harry Frazee had purchased the Red Sox at the age of 36. He was a producer of musical shows, and is said to have eventually traded Babe Ruth away to help finance his productions. But all of that was still off in the future back in 1918. Frazee’s success means that he knew how to please an audience, and he decided to move the Francis Scott Key ritual from the seventh-inning stretch to before the game started. This was done for Games four, five, and six, and thus an American tradition was born.

The Red Sox won the Series in six games that year, with Carl Mays and Babe Ruth each winning two games for the Red Sox and posting ERAs of 1.00 and 1.06, respectively. With its victory over Chicago, Boston established inter-city bragging rights that would last—incredibly—for another 67 years. That’s because the two cities would not meet again, with a championship on the line, until Super Bowl XX in the New Orleans Superdome on January 26, 1986. That’s when Chicago emphatically evened the score against Boston.

Any Chicagoan over the age of 30 could probably tell you about that game. It started out with a scare, when Walter Payton fumbled the ball on the second play from scrimmage. New England kicked a field goal just over a minute into the game, and it looked like the AFC’s wild card team had a chance against the mighty Bears. But by halftime, the Bears had built a commanding 23-3 lead, and the rout was on. The lead ballooned to 44-3 by the end of the third quarter, and the final score was 46-10. To give an example of the Bears’ domination, consider that New England’s leading rusher was Tony Collins, who gained four yards on three carries. A more dominating Super Bowl performance has not been seen since.

After several decades of waiting, Chicago had finally evened up with Boston at one title apiece. And since then, there has been nothing new to report. Over the past quarter of a century, Boston and Chicago have not had an opportunity to break their championship deadlock on the field. Fans in each city probably thought 2003 would be the year that the Red Sox and the Cubs would meet again in the World Series. It turned out that Dusty Baker, Grady Little, Mark Prior, and Pedro Martinez had other ideas. And another opportunity had not presented itself, until now.

Chicago fans think our teams are the best, and Boston fans think likewise about their teams. After the dust of this year’s Stanley Cup finals has settled, we’ll know which city can claim bragging rights over the other. Because those rights are likely to last for a very long time, I’m going with the Blackhawks in six games. Go Blackhawks! And Go Chicago!

Waiting on Opening Day

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A few things are going on in the sports world over the coming two months: the Super Bowl next weekend, the NHL trying to fit something resembling a season in, and the NCAA final four. And of course, Spring training will also get going in a few weeks’ time.

The Cubs will open their season on April Fool’s day (insert joke here). It seems a long way off right now, but it will get here soon enough, just like it always does.