The lions of nuclear winter
Last week's whitepaper on surviving your team's nuclear winter of struggle drew a fair amount of opinion, heated and otherwise, from readers. Before I turn the floor over, I'd like to salute those athletes who make life tolerable for long-suffering fans.
Marcel Dionne (Red Wings, Kings), Barry Sanders (Lions), Dominique Wilkins (Hawks), Ernie Banks (Cubs), Archie Manning (Saints) are among the most honored. Of more recent vintage, Mats Sundin (Maple Leafs), Tony Gonzalez (Chiefs), Elton Brand (Clippers) and Jason Bay (PIrates) have been productively and nobly toiling for teams trying to fight their way out of years of inconsistency, frustration or worse.
Stalwart stars such as these stand as nearly lone beacons of skill in a morass of mediocrity, fueling your pride and making you more willing to surrender good money for a ticket to a game you know will likely have a downbeat outcome. Others, such as Marvelous Marv Throneberry and Choo-Choo Coleman of the hapless 1962 Mets became legendary simply for being colorfully inept, and we all want to see legends in action, right?
Having a colorful name can help make a lesser player likeable, at least a bit. To that end, perhaps Jimmy Gobble (Royals), Cleo Lemon (Dolphins, now Jaguars) and recently-departed Islander Wade Dubielewicz will be looked back on fondly, the way fans of the freshly successful Rays may be doing on Quinton McCracken or Albie Lopez from Tampa Bay's inaugural 1998 squad. Such good will, however, is not a courtesy afforded to a Bill Buckner or a Bob "Steamer" Stanley, who were reviled for their miscues when their team came so close to ending an epic title drought.
No question, it's a lot easier to fully appreciate your team's distinctive not-quites, has-beens, never-weres and fizzled prospects after it gets a little winning and maybe even a championship under its belt. But even in the midst of your worst suffering, you can find something to enjoy about these guys, even if it is only their honest effort.
As a kid, my first awareness of the New York Yankees and football Giants was of once-proud teams that had fallen head-first into the toilet. My friends and I still chuckle when we recall our childhood "heroes" Horace Clarke, Joe Pepitone, Roger Repoz, Dooley Womack, Hal "Porky" Reniff, and Bobby Murcer from the 1966 team that finished 10th in the American League. Murcer, who recently passed away, was the Don Mattingly of the late 60s and early 70s, a fine player on middling teams that never saw October. In the '80s, Mattingly shone on some frustrating star-packed squads and became a bona fide pinstriped icon who finally tasted the postseason in 1995, though not a championship. Yet, I still recall -- and not with anger -- Hensley "Bam Bam" Meulens and Steve "Bones" Balboni from the '90 Yankees team that hit rock bottom at 67-95 and seventh place.
My first favorite Giants were wideout Homer Jones and defensive back/kick returner Spider Lockhart from the '66 team that went a mighty 1-12-1. Big Blew would taste only two winning seasons until '81, and along the way while I was treated to the likes of Fran Tarkenton, I also got Joe Pisarcik of Fumble infamy, and the dynamic duo of quarterback Scott Brunner and receiver John Mistler from the 3-12-1 Giants of 1983. Why I felt and continue to feel so wistful about them, I'm not sure. Maybe it was because Pisarcik's name reminded me of Joe Shlabotnik, Charlie Brown's sadsack favorite baseball player, and he just seemed like a fitting quarterback for a team that couldn't stay out of its own way. Brunner to Mistler still mystify me, although Mistler did haul in 45 aerials for 422 big yards that hideous '83 season.
The Islanders -- yes, I'm a lifelong fan even though my scribbling in this space rarely suggesst it -- have provided me a slew of distinctive post-dynasty memories such as Roger Kortko (1984-86), Ari Haanpaa (1985-88), Mikko Makela (1985-90), Mick Vukota (1987-97), Joe Reekie (1989-92) and Ziggy Palffy (1993-99). The aforementioned Dubie Dubielewicz will also reside forever in my down years pantheon. Dubie, after all, got the Isles into the playoffs two seasons ago with a heroic effort against the Devils on the final day of the regular season.
If you've been suffering for many moons with your team, you no doubt have your own peculiar favorites and unique reasons for liking them. If they weren't the best of a sorry lot, maybe they just put a smile on your face in dark times, even if the smile was a rueful one.
And now, on to your epistles.
Boy, some teams just can't buy a break. The Islanders have stunk for years and the Clippers are a constant mess and forever the "forgotten child" in the LA sports scene. My poor Dolphins are suffering a nuclear winter (but I swear, I tell you, I see spring on the horizon). It's tough to win games with the odds stacked against you and morons running the show on some teams. But then again, the Rays are in first place! So anything is possible.
Indeed. That's the great hope that springs eternal in the breasts of all fans, even those who root for the Cubs, Lions, football Cardinals, Maple Leafs and others who never seem to find the light at the end of the proverbial funnel.
What about the Boston Bruins? Lately I continue to read more about the Islanders, but as most could tell you and agree, the Bruins have had never-ending growing pains. Mike O'Connell was a joke. The ownership still is all about making money, and not about winning a Cup. They traded Joe Thornton, treated Cam Neely poorly at one time... This is a franchise that has been on a rough patch since the Bobby Orr era, other than a few good years in the early 90's. I think that the SI writers should write about a team who has been so corrupt for longer than 20 years. Much more pain has followed the fans of Boston. I am in my 20's, and I still wonder if I will ever see a Cup go to the "hub of hockey" before my time comes.
Bruins fans are now in the hope phase, with GM Peter Chiarelli entering his third season in a potentially much smarter front office. The team's gutsy seven-game performance against the heavily-favored Canadiens in the first round of last season's playoffs was also a promising sign, but cruel experience proves you really can't fully exhale until a team builds on its first successes.
The Detroit Lions' nuclear winter is so long that we are actually in the second half of its radioactive half-life!
Well, if plutonium-238 has a half-life of 88 years, I reckon Lions fans can expect to see a Vince Lombardi Trophy sometime around the year 2052.
You forgot one option for a team in a nuclear winter: Have ownership sell to a friend of the Commissioner, who then orders you to build them, with their one successful season in the last 10 or so, a $500 million arena or they will leave and take your history and the last decade of mostly misery with them. I've seen all sides of ownership with our teams up here in the northwest, but what bad ownership like Clay Bennett does so overwhelms the knowledge of the good owners like Paul Allen that the bad taste sinks clear to the bones. I just can't even express to you how disappointed and disillusioned the whole thing has made me. At least we've got the most poorly constructed baseball team maybe in history going for us, which is nice. The Seahawks are all we have left.
It's a minefield out there. Every fan's prayer is for wealthy, knowledgeable and committed ownership, but quite often these guys seem to be in it only for the real estate. Islanders fans know all about that after the Howard Milstein experience, and Nashville Predators fans will have to hold their breath a while longer as their ownership situation gets sorted out. My condolences to Sonics fans.
And now a final word from a staunch defender of blue, orange and white faith....
What the [CENSORED] is wrong with SI and the [CENSORED] writers that continue to bash the New York Islanders? Keep your [CENSORED] opinions to yourself about the team. Better yet, how about a pictorial about the 20 years the Red Wings [CENSORED]-dog in the 70s and 80s. Or how about the [CENSORED] seasons the Rangers had WITH Gretzky, Bure, Lindros, and Messier, or the Leafs were at the bottom of the standings for 20 years.
It's [CENSORED]-faces like you that gives our team a bad name. Without Wang, this team would be in Hamilton or Kansas City. Neil Smith bought one championship and it took horrible officiating to give them that Cup. Milbury was told to sell all those players by Milstein. I'd sure as [CENSORED] rather have Wang as my owner than that [CENSORED] piece of [CENSORED] Dolan across the river.
Keep your [CENSORED] mouths shut about the Islanders.
Well, speaking strictly for my [CENSORED]-faced self, what makes the Isles' ongoing plight so remarkable is the dynastic heights from which they've fallen in a long plunge full of scam ownership, head-scratching personnel moves and other mindboggling developments. The Red Wings and Maple Leafs, by comparison, have been pretty much run-of-the-mill losers during their down times and the Rangers have at least recovered to the point of being a playoff-caliber team, although their ownership (mostly due to it also running the Knicks) has certainly been spicy of late. I'm not sure if it's [CENSORED] like us who are giving the Isles a bad name all by ourselves. They seem to be doing a decent job of it themselves, but if they do it a little less colorfully, I imagine we [CENSORED] in the media will dummy up.