Friday, July 9, 2010
Unofficial Sports Holidays
We love our Holidays in America. It's a time to eat, drink, be merry, see family and friends, and take extra days off from work so you end up screwing all the people you work with who didn't take off and have to cover for you (ok, this post is going in the wrong direction. Recalculating route. Please wait one moment.)
So like I was saying before, there are certain days out of the year that universally ring out as sacred on the sports fan's calendar. Super Bowl Sunday. New Year's Day. Thanksgiving. The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The Kentucky Derby on the first Saturday in May. Memorial Day Sunday and the Indianapolis 500. Baseball's Opening Day in April. Even the NFL Draft has gotten big enough to warrant a mention in this conversation. Surely there are more, but you understand what I'm getting at. But there are several other, slightly less ballyhooed days or weeks out of the year that provide a comparable amount of intrigue and action. In this piece I'll offer my 7 Unofficial Sports Holidays, events that you really look forward to or take enjoyment out of, sometimes without even really knowing it. (Why 7? Because it's Mickey Mantle's number. And it could also be a great name for a boy - or a girl.) And before any of you fans of the Ryder Cup or any other periodic international competitions object, only events that happen once per year were eligible.
7. NFL Schedule Release
I must first say that I'm not the biggest fan of this day myself, because it's become way too much of an event in recent years. What used to make for an interesting, break-up-the-boredom conversation piece in the newspaper (remember those?) is now Exhibit 1A in how ESPN can ruin anything by turning it into an hour-long prime time special (see "James, LeBron"). Nevertheless, there is a certain magnitude to the NFL schedule release. It provides a road map through the autumn and winter months for many Americans. Vacations and road trips are planned immediately thereafter for specific weekends to get out and see your favorite team. Conversely, you cross your fingers that weddings, family reunions, and other certain events fall on your team's bye week. StubHub sees traffic that would crash many a website. And, last but not least, we all play the asinine game of "ok, Kansas City at home - that's a win. Minnesota on the road - that's probably a loss" trying to predict our team's final record 3 months before training camp even opens. Honestly, none of us can resist doing it, but I learned to take any April predictions with a shaker of salt way back when I predicted the 1997 Cowboys to go 13-3, only for them to come in slightly under that at 6-10.
6. The Day of Nothing
Also known as the day after the MLB All-Star Game, this Wednesday in mid-July is the answer to the popular trivia question of "what is the only day out of the year when none of the major American professional sports are in action?" I've always taken some sort of solace in the Day of Nothing. Being a sports fan can be a bit of a grind sometimes, especially if you're a day-in, day-out baseball seamhead like me and the pennant races are just starting to bubble. The Day of Nothing offers a nice little chance to recharge your mental batteries, especially after staying up the night before to see the end of the All-Star Game because MLB is still trying to pull off the gimmick of having it decide home field in the World Series about 4 years after the novelty of it wore off, but I digress. A big part of being a sports fan is maintaining perspective on the rest of life, and the Day of Nothing is a day to remind yourself of all the other crap there is to do out there in the world.
5. Big East Tournament
I've spoken several times in this space about how I despise the period of time from early February to mid-March. The regular season in the NBA and NHL are lost on me, and I'm not enough of a college basketball fan to even try to really sink my teeth into it until well after Presidents' Day. While the Big East Tournament is not the official end to the Winter Doldrums, it is something of a wake-up-and-smell-the-coffee moment. It's probably the first sporting event after the Super Bowl that I make it a point to watch. Of course, it does help that in the past few years the Big East has become the premier conference in college basketball, so its tournament is now a clash of titans who are very likely to be making hay in the Big Dance, all under the bright lights of the Garden.
4. Michigan/Ohio State - the Saturday before Thanksgiving
For Kevin, it's quite possible that this day supersedes Christmas, New Year's, and July 4 put together. But I put the annual Michigan/Ohio State football game on here because even the casual college football fan makes it a point to tune in, and the fact that it takes place on the same day every year can really give it holiday status. The tradition and history surrounding this rivalry is college football at its best, and for my money it's still the best rivalry out there despite the downturn that the Big Ten has taken in the past few years. For years, this game would not only decide who the Big Ten would send to the Rose Bowl, but it would also considerably narrow down the National Championship picture, given that the Wolverines and Buckeyes would very often be two of the top 3, 4, or 5 teams in the country when they'd line up across from each other in Ann Arbor or Columbus. Add in the unfortunate fact that this game now also marks the approximate anniversary of Bo Schembechler's passing on the eve of the 2006 matchup, and you have a day that remains significant regardless of the two teams' records.
3. Saturday at Augusta
They call it "Moving Day." The third round of The Masters is obviously not as big as the fourth round, but it is arguably more compelling because Saturday is the real chance for those in contention to make their run at the green jacket. Why Saturday and not Sunday, you ask? Because the traditional pin placements for the third round are much more conducive to scoring than they are in the fourth round. If you're behind in The Masters on Sunday and need some birdies, you're going to have to make some of the trickiest approaches and most delicate putts of your life. To come from more than a few shots down on Sunday essentially requires either turning the back nine into a video game the way Phil Mickelson did in 2004, or having the extreme fortune of the guy you're chasing being Greg Norman. The M.O. for Sunday is mostly to play for pars and not implode. However, Saturday is the day. Saturday is the day when a guy barely above the cut line can fire a 66 and find himself within 3 of the leaders. It's also the day when any two-round flukes get put to bed, because you can't handle Augusta on luck alone for 72 holes. In addition, Saturday's round is also the first chance that many of the working population get to sit down and watch a full round, when you consider that the first two rounds are mostly over by the time the average person gets out of the office on Thursday and Friday.
2. MLB Trading Deadline
You may be a bit surprised that I have the MLB trading deadline so high on the list, given how much we have all spoken out against the overload of hype, rumors, and speculation. But baseball's trading deadline has a bit more to it. I thoroughly enjoy the "should we go for it this year, or build for the future?" dilemma faced by teams teetering around .500 in late July. In a certain respect, the trading deadline is where seasons can really get started (see the 2004 Astros and Carlos Beltran) or end in a hurry (see the infamous 1997 "White Flag Trade" executed by a White Sox team that was only 3.5 games out of first). It's also where one team can trade for a veteran player and be giddy that they've just found their missing link to the World Series, only to look back years later and lament the fact that they traded away a future Hall of Famer. My favorite example of this is the 1990 trade where the Red Sox got reliever Larry Andersen (yes, that Larry Andersen) for the stretch run, and all they had to give up was some first baseman with a weird batting stance named Jeff Bagwell. Oops. Since baseball in so many aspects is an individual sport, a player switching teams midseason has much, much less to learn in order to be a productive member of his new team. Unlike football or basketball where a new player needs to be taught a ton of plays and progressions, baseball is little more than "ok, pal, here's the bunt sign, here's the take sign, here's the steal sign, and Eddie the clubhouse guy over there will tell you where the best places are to eat. Go get 'em." This, plus the absence of a salary cap, is why baseball is the only sport whose in-season trade deadline consistently provides meaningful trades.
1. FCS Semifinals and Finals
There is a big part of me that likes to call these two weekends the most enjoyable football you'll watch all year. Taking place around the third and fourth weeks of December, they fill that void between the end of the FBS regular season and the beginning of the bowl season. Obviously the talent is not at a BCS level, but as recent I-AA triumphs over high-profile Division I programs have illustrated (sorry Kevin), it's not garbage either. Guys playing I-AA ball (as the FCS was formerly known) are mostly tough SOB's who lack either the size or the 40 time to play at the top level, so what you end up getting is pure football played by evenly matched teams. And not to mention, some of these games turn into absolute beauties, the kind of 31-28 battles that have plenty of scoring but enough defense to keeps it from taking on a video-game cheapness. Watching these two rounds was especially a highlight during college, since they'd coincide with reading days (aka sit around and not study) right before finals.
Honorable Mention: Pitchers and Catchers, National Signing Day for college football and basketball, the Army-Navy game in December, Wild Card Weekend, the NBA Slam Dunk Contest (when the best players participated), the Home Run Derby (ditto), and the Mike and the Mad Dog Super Bowl Trivia Contest (it's not nearly the same since Mike and Dog split) the week immediately following the NFL Conference Championship games.