Sometimes honoring old titles can be depressing
Posted: Tuesday March 4, 2008 4:12PM; Updated: Tuesday March 4, 2008 5:37PM
This season is the 100th anniversary of the Chicago Cubs' last World Series championship, and the franchise is understandably squirrely about commemorating it. The brass upstairs chose instead to advertise the team's multicultural flavor and strong emotional connection with its fans. That's probably wise.
Championship banners, retired numbers, and stirring reunions are all well and good. It can be great fun to revisit the glories of the past. Can be. But when a title drought or stretch of losing drags on well into the next generation, or beyond, it can be just plain depressing.
Case in point: Last Sunday, the New York Islanders again rolled out the members of their early '80s dynasty, this time to commemorate The Core of the Four -- the 17 players whose names appeared on all four Stanley Cups they won from 1980 through 1983. Now, I loved that team like no other in any sport before or since. Those guys can't get enough accolades to suit me, but the Isles just honored the '80 Cup team two years ago and brought Al Arbour back to coach one last game, his 1,500th, in November. Given the franchise's ongoing struggles, I just couldn't help think, "Enough already. Would someone here please win something again before the NHL moves the Predators franchise to Hades...."
Seeing Mike Bossy gone grey makes this old dog feel melancholy, mostly because these occasions highlight the wheezing water buffalo in the corner: the entrenched mediocrity that has gripped the Isles for the past 20 years: only eight playoff appearances and none beyond the first round since 1993, with another early summer beckoning. As if to underscore the point, the current Isles went out and lost to the dreadful Florida Panthers 1-0 despite firing 53 shots on their backup goaltender.
The Detroit Lions faced a similar conundrum last season -- the 50th anniversary of their last NFL championship. They ultimately saluted the surviving members of that team during halftime of the Sept. 30 game against Chicago, but the event mainly inspired a lot of public debate, even among the honorees, about exactly why the franchise has been in the toilet for so ungodly long. You can see why the Cubs are gun shy.
So, at what point should a calcified or title-starved franchise stop wheeling out its mummies every chance it gets? I understand the desire to honor old heroes and accomplishments, fire the faithful with hope and maybe even inspire the present team, but after a while there has to be a disconnect. Should the Cubs trot out the great grandson of Orval Overall, the right-hander who tossed a three-hit shutout in the deciding game of the '08 Series? I suspect most fans would squirm in their seats, just I suspect that the younger ones at the Islanders festival last weekend felt they were looking at a bunch of their dads' old fart pals sharing a backslap. I've tried regaling my kids with tales of the wonder that was Dave "Bammer" Langevin only to watch them nod off.
When it comes to doing history, it's hard to complain about teams like the New York Yankees and their Old Timers Day, or the Montreal Canadiens, who still have the NHL's richest history despite not having won Stanley's mug in 15 years. The classy Habs have been honoring the other Original Six teams by trotting out their rivals' former greats for pregame ceremonies that will continue next season, the Canadiens' 100th year. It's a nice touch, but there seems to be a point of no return with these things.
For current players on struggling teams, the constant presence of the greats basically renders them a bunch of under-the-gun ne'er-do-wells. The current Isles wore the names of the dynasty stars in warm-ups and the magic hardly wore off. As Cubs manager Lou Piniella told Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune last December, "My messare to the team is, look, let's worry about this year. You can't put the burden of 99 other years on yourselves."
Indeed. The Baltimore Orioles, Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders and Philadelphia 76ers (1983), Washington Bullets (1978), New York Jets (1968 Super Bowl season), New York Knicks (1973) -- some team somewhere always has an anniversary of some sort. This year marks the Dodgers' 50th year in Los Angeles as well as their 60th at Dodger Town in Vero Beach and the festivities have already begun. Oh yeah, it's been 20 years since the Dodgers last won the Series, but two decades isn't all that long compared to many other teams.
The Cleveland Indians are staring at the 60th anniversary of their last World Series title, but they've at least got a little graceful cover. During the team's Hall of Fame Heritage Weekend in August, Joe Gordon, the second baseman on the '48 Series team, will be inducted into the team's Hall of Fame. Fans will also receive a replica newspaper bearing the glad tidings of the championship.
Hey, maybe you feel differently, but it just seems to me that when a drought reaches, say, 50 years and counting, it's probably best to just get on with the game at hand and keep trying to get out of the rut. At the very least, roll those mummies out sparingly.
Two weeks ago, this space ran an ode to the undying passion of utterly devoted fans. Here is some of the more thought-provoking mail that arrived:
Kurt Kaufmann, Godfrey, IL: I have lived in the St. Louis Metro area for 14 years. I grew up in a rural area of Central Illinois where Cubs, White Sox, and Cardinal fans have been feuding almost as long as the feuding in the Middle East. Being a Cub fan in Cardinal country isn't always easy. When my first son was born in 1997, I wanted to make sure there wasn't a possibility of him becoming a Cardinal, or God help us all, White Sox fan. On January 24, 1997, another Cub fan, Addison Ross Kaufmann, entered the world. Yes, that's Addison as in 1060 W. Addison - the greatest five acres of God's creation.
Barb P., Gansevoort, NY: One of the librarians in our school is a super huge Yankees fan. Her son has lived in Boston for many many years now and is just as huge a Red Sox fan. My friend would get so mad when her son and family would come to visit and her grandson would wear a Sox cap. Well, this past spring, her son and his wife had a new baby boy and named him Beckett!! Boy does that ever kill poor Grandma! When she told everyone his name, I think she was hoping that nobody would make the connection, but of course all the baseball followers picked up on it immediately.
Dave W., Montreal: You are forgetting us diehard Montreal Expos fans. We maintain several sites still (see scout.com) and everybody hopes we move through the steps back to where we would have been with a new stadium before the Lorias killed it and carperbagged to Florida. You read it here first.