Posted by Nuss at 6:29 PM
Tackling all things sports in Seattle from the perspective of a lifetime -- long suffering? -- fan. Celebrations, frustrations, adulations ... you'll find them all here in this periodical look at the sports world and sports journalism through the eyes of Jeff Nusser.
If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to listen, does it make a sound?
Likewise, if a professional sports league holds a championship series and no one watches it, does it matter? That's the question the NHL and its fans find themselves trying to answer right now.
In the interest of full disclosure, I'll admit up front that I love hockey -- not exactly normal for someone who didn't grow up in Canada or in close proximity to an NHL team. Somewhere between watching the Seattle Thunderbirds as a child in old Mercer Arena (where the beer literally flowed down the stairs) and catching about a dozen or so NHL games in various cities around the country in my adult years, I absolutely fell for the sport's aggressive brand of speed and skill.
That's why it saddens me that absolutely nobody seems to care about the Stanley Cup finals.
Less than two million households a night are tuning in to the Stanley Cup finals, and that represents a substantial increase over the earlier rounds of the playoffs. By contrast, the first two games of the NBA finals drew around eight million households, and that will only go higher as the series moves on.
Granted, the league is fresh off a year-long lockout, but the sport has never had wide-spread appeal. Many have hypothesized as to why people never have seemed to buy into hockey, ranging from "It just doesn't translate to TV," to "I don't really understand what's going on because I didn't grow up playing it," to one writer even theorizing that Americans lack the attention span to appreciate it.
Whatever the reason, all I can say is this: Your loss, those of you who aren't watching.
Last night's game five, in which Edmonton -- the No. 8 seed from their conference (No. 8!) -- had to win or the series was over, was one of the most riveting sporting events I've watched in a while. It culminated with an sudden-death overtime, short-handed goal on a breakaway after a turnover that sent the series back to Edmonton for game six (see photo, right). It proved once again that there are few things in sport more exciting than an overtime playoff hockey game, and I can't wait for the next installment.
Although Edmonton-Carolina isn't exactly the sexiest matchup (there's just something weird about having a sport on ice in North Carolina in the middle of June), and you might not know any of the players (no, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Grant Fuhr don't play for the Oilers anymore), if you call yourself a fan of sports, there's no way you can't watch this. It's unbelievable theater, everything you could love about sports. Rules changes have made the game even faster than before, clutching and grabbing is a thing of the past, and referees actually will call penalties late in a game when an infraction warrants it. It's exciting, exciting stuff.
As for the long-term viability of the league, who knows? Some say that it will never be more than a regional, gate-driven sport, but here's to betting that it still can be more than that ... if people will just wake up and pay attention.
Other thoughts ...
As the Mariners prepare to open their three-game series with Oakland tonight, I'm approaching my optimism with a healthy dose of guardedness (is that even a word?).
Yes, they've won nine of 11 games, and, no, I don't care that it came against Kansas City, Minnesota and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Orange County, California, United States, Earth. They showed me some things that lead me to believe that they can compete long-term in this division -- especially considering the fact that nobody in this division appears to be all that good.
But I've been sucked in so many times this year by their tantalizing potential that I'm reluctant to jump on board once again. I feel like I'm a taller, fatter, younger version of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part III, where I try desperately to get out ... but they keep pulling me back in.
Because of that, I believe this Oakland series comes at a perfect time. I think Mariners fans are ready to get excited, ready to get behind this team. If they somehow can go into their personal house of horrors -- they are 6-13 over the past two years against the A's in Oakland -- and win two out of three against another team as hot as they are (8-2 over their past 10), I will be all on board. I will believe.
Then again, if they get smoked over the next three games, I might not care about anything until Seahawks season.
Other (not so) random thoughts ...
I'm not sure if it makes me sound fickle or just plain bonkers to say that I'm actually pretty encouraged by what I've seen out of the Mariners in the past week.
For those of you who missed the duel of the future between King Felix (age 20) and Francisco Liriano (22), you missed out on one of the more exciting games to come our way in a while. Felix looked like the Felix of old -- if you can say that about someone who's 20 -- keeping the ball down, throwing that 97 mph sinker in places where hitters can't even dream of hitting it hard. And that yakker he threw to Torii Hunter in the fifth with the tying run on base ... well, if you didn't see it, there's really no point trying to describe it to you. Just know to strike a guy out on that pitch in that situation reminded us all why we have such high hopes for this kid.
Then, I watched the team sprint out to a five-run lead late in the game yesterday, only to blow it all on a grand slam, then go on to win it in extra innings on a Carl Everett home run.
No, they couldn't figure out a way to beat former Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana today, but they now have won six out of eight, and I don't care that it has come against the Royals and the Twins. I'm seeing signs of things that I like, things that ought to carry over when they play better teams.
For example, I like Adrian Beltre in the two hole. He seems to be swinging with more confidence, and he seems to be swinging at strikes a lot more often. I've said all year that his biggest problem seems to be a complete lack of command of the strike zone -- after all, none other than Ted Williams said the biggest key to hitting is just making sure you swing at strikes -- and it sure looks right now like he's flailing a heck of a lot less than he was before. He's batting nearly .300 the past two weeks and even has a couple of home runs. Modest, but it's an improvement. Jose Lopez in the three spot still isn't ideal, but he looks like he's sticking with the same approach and continues to rack up RBIs.
Additionally, Richie Sexson seems to be heating up, something he does every year around this time. Guys always seem to play to the back of their baseball cards sooner or later, and he's no exception. For his career, Sexson has batted under .250 in each of the first two months of the season, hitting a homer just once every 16.5 at bats. From June on, though, his average in any month is no less than .272, with homers coming every 15.3 at bats. For an even greater dividing line, he hits .253/16.9 before the All-Star break, and .285/14.1 after.
And while Joel Pineiro still is maddeningly inconsistent, Hernandez looks like he's getting over his slow start (does anyone else remember him starting slowly last year in Tacoma? I wish I could find some statistics to back him up as a slow starter, but evidence will have to be anecdotal for now ...), Jamie Moyer still looks ageless and Gil Meche even looks like he's starting to get over his MMS (aka Mental Midget Syndrome, activated every time a guy gets on base and results in his freaking out irrationally and failing to throw any strikes to the next four hitters).
In other words, I see reason to continue to hope.
Or maybe I'm just nuts.
For those not keeping track of such things, there are only 57 days left until the Seahawks open training camp in Cheney on July 29.
I point this out because I find it interesting that this fact leaves me with mixed emotions.
On the one hand, I'm excited beyond belief about being that much closer to returning to the scene of my favorite sports moment of all time, thanks to my new Seahawks season tickets.
But, on the other hand, the fact that I'm so looking forward to the start of something that actually is a full month and a half before the first real game of the team's season is -- at least on some level -- disturbing, as it only makes me that much more angry at the sad state of the other professional franchises in Seattle.
When juxtaposed, the contrast of the three teams is striking. How the Mariners and Sonics descended into such a morass of ineptitude while the Seahawks -- the laughingstock of the city for the better part of a decade -- ascended to what is becoming the model of how to run a franchise is baffling to me.
Larry Stone had a great story yesterday in the The Seattle Times about how the Mariners have absolutely squandered everything they built during their run of division titles and playoff appearances from 1995 to 2003. The Sonics did a similar thing following their Western Conference dominance during the mid-1990s.
For both teams, the legacy of their success has been marred by arrogance and an unbelievable series of personnel blunders.
The Mariners thought that a new stadium and an advertising campaign built around personalizing likeable players would be enough to keep fans in the seats even during a "rebuilding" phase. But when you allow a marketing scheme to force you to keep aging players to the point where you run the team into the ground, then make the mistake of replacing them with high-priced failures (Scott Spiezio, Rich Aurilia, Adrian Beltre, etc.) and bad trades (Freddy Garcia for a catcher who no longer is with us, light-hitting CF Jeremy Reed and utility man in the making Mike Morse), a clever ad campaign will not outweigh three consecutive 90-loss seasons.
Likewise, the Sonics essentially have kept the same front office on their way to five lottery appearances in the past eight years. The ownership can whine and complain all it wants about its lease and needing a revamped arena (just 10 years after they moved in, incidentally), but the reality is that if you don't win, it doesn't matter where you play -- just look at the Mariners, who have set new lows for attendance on multiple occasions this year in what is widely considered one of the most beautiful parks in the majors. To their credit, they do seem to have stockpiled some talent, but only time will tell if they can turn the Sonics into a winner once again.
So, where's the lesson in this?
The Seahawks have made the playoffs for three consecutive years, yet it took a run to the Super Bowl for the city to fully embrace the team the way it once did in the 1980s, in the days before Ken Behring. It took 15 years for the fans to come around.
What these franchises fail to value is just how hard it is to get fans back once you've lost them. We Seattleites are a laid back bunch on the whole; we'll put up with a lot for a lot longer than most fans. But we get real mad when we feel like we've been betrayed -- and we don't forgive easily. I'm angry that the Sonics have allowed themselves to slip into mediocrity, then have the audacity to threaten to leave town if they don't get a new arena. Everytime I see Adrian Beltre whiff while chasing another fastball out of the strike zone or Jeremy Reed hit another weak grounder to second base, I just get more angry.
The thing that should scare the Mariners most is that I'm a die-hard fan, and even I'm getting to the point where the Mariners are a distant third behind the NBA and NHL playoffs in terms of my interest level, something I never would have imagined two years ago. If I'm there, imagine what the casual fan -- the person whom franchises traditionally make the most amount of money off of -- is thinking.
The Mariners and Sonics would be wise to heed that lesson.
Some of my other favorite stories of the day: