I have become lost somewhere in the great shadow of the salary cap. I have tripped over the waiver wire. I am a mumbler as I check out the tripe and pinch the muskmelons in the back stalls of the free-agent market. Wayne Gretzky is a New York Ranger.
"Huh?" I ask with slack-jawed shock.
The familiar has become unfamiliar. The easy has become difficult. The terrain I have traveled for most of my life—yeah, that's right, sports guy here—has changed in front of my eyes. Everything has become so complicated. Shaquille O'Neal is a Los Angeles Laker.
"How so?" I ask with bug-eyed wonder.
I don't have answers anymore. I used to think I knew everything. I could argue about the machinations of professional sports with Jack Nicholson; George Will; Fred the First-Time Caller from Bayside, Queens; or the Pope. Anyone. Everyone. I could forecast what would happen tomorrow as well as I could describe what happened today. Now I can't even explain what happened yesterday. Neil O'Donnell is a New York Jet.
"Get out," I say with incredulity.
The rules of the games have become as dense as the fine print in my medical-insurance policy. Am I covered if I have this wart removed from my hand? Will the Orlando Magic be able to suit up five players for the opening tap? I don't know. Let me check with a lawyer who might be able to interpret what is taking place. The important statistics used to be height and weight, scoring and batting averages, yards gained and yards lost. No more. The numbers that count now are length of contract and dollars available and...I don't know what. Stuff. There is all this stuff.
Someone is a restricted free agent, and someone else is unrestricted; someone has six years of service, so he immediately is a free agent, and someone else will be able to go to arbitration; and then, of course, there's the option year. Either side can exercise that option year. Or neither. Or both.
I can't keep track of any of that. I can't keep the rules of player movement in one sport separate from the rules of player movement in another sport. I can't remember who's making how much money for how many years. I can't remember who has an "escape clause" and who doesn't. I can't understand the phrase "renounced the rights to." The Cleveland Cavaliers renounced the rights to Dan Majerle last Thursday. Why? Can't he play anymore? There has to be a good, money-rule reason. I simply don't know what it is.
Following sports used to be like watching a pretty good card game. You would watch for a season and see what each team had. You would know that the Indiana Pacers, say, could use a good power forward, or the Kansas City Royals could use a lefthanded reliever. At the end of the season you would watch a team draw from the deck or make a deal to better its hand. That was part of the charm, seeing how the moves worked. Now? It seems that at the end of every season everybody throws his cards into the air. Fifty-two pickup. Everybody grabs an entirely new hand and goes from there.