Thursday, February 10, 2011

Five Tickets to Paradise

In many ways, viewing a sporting event on TV can be a considerably more enjoyable experience than viewing one in person. You're in the comfort of either your own home or your favorite bar, without having to be concerned with traffic, weather, parking, $10 beers, bathroom lines, obnoxiously drunk fans, etc. You get ten times the replay angles and explanations (good or bad) from the broadcasters, and you usually get those views from a better angle than what your stadium seat would provide. But sometimes, well, that whole new attitude of "HDTV makes it pointless to attend a game" is pure garbage. Sometimes, there is nothing, and I mean nothing, that can equal the feeling of being in that packed house, and you don't care how much that hot dog just cost or how long it's going to take you to get home. It's the reason I still go to 10-15 major pro and college sporting events a year, and spend vacation-caliber money to do so.

As a collaborative effort of the blog that has been in discussion for several weeks, all three of us in the near future will give you the top 5 sporting events we wish we could have seen in person. They don't have to have taken place in our lifetimes - in fact, several of them probably won't have. There were going to be a few overlaps along the way (i.e. the Miracle on Ice) but we've managed to avoid them by ceding them to whomever out of me, Kevin, and John were considered the most qualified to write about the event in question. The only other major qualification I've laid down is that no one can use a cliché game, so any instances of one of our favorite teams winning a championship or clinching a championship berth are out. Sure, I'd obviously love to have been at the 1992 NFC Championship Game, or Game 6 of the 1977, 1996, or 2009 World Series, or Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS (among others), but we like to dig a little deeper than that around here. If you're still reading and haven't skipped down to the list yet, then thank you, and enjoy my Top 5.

5. 1991 World Series, Game 7
For my money, it doesn't get any better than a 1-0 baseball game - between any two teams and at any point in the season, for that matter. The game hangs in the balance on every pitch, no matter the count, the batter, or the baserunners. But an extra-inning, 1-0 affair taking place in Game 7 of the World Series? And wait, what's that you say? The starting pitcher for the winning team went all 10 innings? Oh yes, please, sign me up for this. Between the lines, Game 7 of the 1991 World Series between the Twins and Braves makes a strong case for best World Series Game 7 ever (especially among those who believe 1960 and 2001 never happened). Not only did you have the 10 scoreless innings from Jack Morris that singlehandedly keep him in the Hall of Fame conversation. You also had a fresh-faced John Smoltz nearly match the old master Morris frame for frame, as well as the famous Chuck Knoblauch deke play on Lonnie Smith that kept the Braves off the board in the 8th inning (at the 5:00 mark of the video). And remember, all of this came on the heels of Kirby Puckett's 11th-inning walkoff bomb in Game 6 the night before. Over time, this game has come to symbolize for me the end of a baseball era that I just barely missed, since the onslaught of juiced players and juiced ballparks had hit full swing by my first full season of baseball fandom in 1993. In this age of immaculately designed retro-modern stadiums, I kind of wish I could have experienced a little more of the mid-'70s-early-'90s years of cookie cutter stadiums, Astroturf, and the predominance of speed and defense. How cool must the scene in the Metrodome have been that night?

4. 1986 Masters

First I have to say that attending a golf tournament can be quite the hit-or-miss venture. You're never guaranteed a great field of contenders or even a decent view of the pivotal shots. But at Augusta National, I'm not sure how much any of that really matters anyway. Imagine the backdrop provided by the most picturesque eighteen holes in America. That's worth the price of admission alone. Now throw in the greatest golfer of all-time -at age 46, mind you- coming back from a 4-stroke deficit by littering the place with a 65 in the fourth round. What Jack Nicklaus did at Augusta in 1986 is even more impressive when you take a look at some of the other names that rounded out the Top 10 in that Masters. Golf fans understandably remember Greg Norman for blowing the 54-hole lead, but Nicklaus also surpassed Tom Watson, Nick Price, Seve Ballesteros, and Tom Kite on that Sunday, all the while with his own son caddying for him. The thing that separates a golf gallery from the crowd at any other sporting event is how there are only a few opportunities to let loose between shots until you have to quiet back down again. You exert the same amount of passion in about 1/4 of the time. On top of that, Jack owns Augusta. He's the king there. Witnessing Jack Nicklaus win a Masters must be like seeing Sammy Davis, Jr. at the Copacabana. People who bought tickets to the 1986 Masters probably considered it a great chance to see the world's best golfers go toe-to-toe and to maybe see Nicklaus play a few solid rounds in his old stomping grounds before he eased into the Senior Tour. What they got was the moment that cemented the Golden Bear as the best of his, or any, generation. I just wish that I a.) weren't four months old at the time, and b.) had one of those tickets.

3. Super Bowl XXV

The only Super Bowl to be decided by one point, Super Bowl XXV had the country at the edge of its seat for a multitude of reasons, many of them much larger than the back-and-forth game between the Giants and Bills in Tampa. Lest we forget, this Super Bowl was played against the backdrop of the Desert Storm conflict in January of 1991. Fittingly, it featured two teams with red, white, and blue color schemes, as well as Whitney Houston's stirring rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner," still the best to ever be sung before a sporting event. And as a nice contrast to the so-much-larger-than-life-you-forget-it's-a-football-game Super Bowls of recent years, this one was played in the modest accommodations of The Big Sombrero, sans the overload of luxury boxes and indifferent corporate stuffed-shirts in the stands. In a nutshell, this was the best Super Bowl ever played. Outside of that nutshell, it was the best coaching job ever delivered by the best football coach of the modern era. Sure, Bill Walsh was more innovative and won more championships than Bill Parcells did, but I'd like to see him win a Super Bowl with a backup quarterback and against an offense (Buffalo's no-huddle) that was still revolutionary at the time. Everyone who plays against a potent offense tries to follow the script that Parcells wrote for this game - pound the hell out of the ball and keep the opposing offense off the field. What was different about the Giants' plan in this game? It actually worked. The Giants set a Super Bowl record by keeping the ball for over 40 minutes, and the Bill Belichick-led New York defense did its part in holding Buffalo to 17 offensive points and kept the Bills from getting as close as they'd like to have been for the attempt at the game-winning field goal with 8 seconds left. I think you know what happened after that.

2. 2001 World Series, Game 5
You may think I'd want to have been at this game solely for the game tying two-run bomb hit by Scott Brosius with two out in the ninth (the second straight game it had happened, for those who are less informed). But shortly before that home run, amidst the intimidating backdrop of Yankee Stadium on a chilly November evening, seven weeks after 9/11, with the tattered flag from the World Trade Center flying behind the left-center field fence, something happened that Yankee fans should never forget. Win or lose, it was the last home game that Paul O'Neill would be playing before retiring. In the top of the 9th with Arizona ahead 2-0, it began to sink in that O'Neill was conceivably standing in right field in Yankee Stadium for the last time. With that, the right field Bleacher Creatures, for whom O'Neill had become a patron saint due to his hard-nosed style of play, began chanting his name, a chant that would soon spread throughout the building. The chant got louder and kept going for the remainder of that half-inning, creating a scene that still stirs me almost a decade later. Yankee fans get a bad name a lot of the time because there are so many spoiled bandwagon jumpers who think the baseball world revolves around them. This instance is the first thing I point to in defense of Yankee fans as a whole. The combination of spontaneity and raw emotion in that scene is a testament to the knowledge and passion of most of those who occupied the old Yankee Stadium, and those who unfortunately may have been priced out of the new Yankee Stadium. You wouldn't see that chant in Boston. You wouldn't see it in Philly. You wouldn't see it in Chicago, Detroit, or St. Louis - and you definitely wouldn't see it anywhere on the west coast. There's only one place in the world where something like that would happen, and it's at 161st St. and River Avenue in the Bronx.

1. 1954 World Series, Game 1

This moment is my #1 for reasons similar to why I put Game 7 of the 1991 World Series on the list. It's equal parts ambience and athleticism. The above video alone should make it easy to understand this game's ranking. However, there are a few things lost in the utter brilliance of Willie Mays' over-the-shoulder catch in the 8th inning. First, one of the top 3 defensive plays of all-time took place with two men on base and kept the score 2-2 until the Giants would win in the 10th and go on to sweep the Series. Also, if you know me personally, then I've probably had the "what other time and place would you like to live in?" discussion with you at some point. For me, it always comes back to 1950s New York. For even just a day, I think it would be really something to get on a packed subway in a suit and tie and go sit in the stands for an afternoon World Series game among thousands of other people also dressed in suits and ties. Maybe it's romanticized a bit too much, but there's something about that era that just clicks. Finally, like I've said time and again, there is an element to witnessing a baseball game in person that provides a different type of upgrade over television from the other sports - and that's not even considering being able to see this game in living color as opposed to the iconic-yet-grainy 1954 footage we've been seeing since we were kids. I want to put myself in one of those seats at the Polo Grounds and rise as the ball as crushed into center field, feel my heart sink momentarily when it looks like it's either off the wall or gone, and then see Mays with a beat on it and try to track if and where player and ball will intersect. That "oh no....wait, wait a second, Willie's got a shot at it, Willie's got it!" moment is why I firmly believe the best afternoons are the ones spent at a ballpark.

Honorable Mention: 1998 World Series Game 1 (Yanks score 7 runs in the 7th inning and erase any concept of anyone beating them that year), 1992 Duke-Kentucky Regional Final at the Spectrum (the Christian Laettner turnaround jumper at the buzzer), 1992 Bills-Oilers AFC Wild Card Game (Buffalo comes back from 35-3 halftime deficit), 2008 Memphis-Kansas NCAA Finals, either of the Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston fights in the mid-'60s, October 2007 Cowboys-Bills Monday Night game (the Nick Folk, before he was body-snatched, makes a 53-yarder twice in a row at the gun to overcome seven Dallas turnovers), 1979 Cotton Bowl (a flu-stricken Joe Montana leads Notre Dame to 23 fourth quarter points to beat Houston 35-34 as time expired).

1 comment:

  1. The Paul O'Neill moment must have been really cool to be it, even if you weren't a Yankees fan.

    I have 2 of my events done, working on the next 3.