With seven days left in the regular season, and five contests separating the Blue Jackets from the playoffs, the tension in CBJ Nation will be at levels not seen in recent years. Here's a reminder to keep you anchored on Planet Earth as the home stretch progresses.
October 16, 1962. Game 7 of the World Series. A young lad at Lincoln Elementary School, I was covertly catching updates of the game, featuring my San Francisco Giants and the hated New York Yankees, using a transistor radio hidden in the inside pocket of my reversible jacket, with the earpiece snaked up the sleeve to my palm. 1 - 0 Yankees in the ninth as I started my four-block walk home. Suddenly, the Giants had runners at 2nd & 3rd, two outs, and McCovey at the plate. Ralph Terry fired the pitch and McCovey lashed one of his patented low line drives to right field, certain to score two and give the title to the Giants for the first time in San Francisco. Except that Bobby Richardson stepped to his left to snag the ball and hand the title to the Yankees. As I turned the corner at my house, my mother had pinned a Yankees pennant to the front door. Not sure I ever forgave her for that.
January 10, 1982. NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park. Not able to afford (or find) tickets, my fiancé and I were at a hotel bar, not far from Candlestick Park. Joe Montana. Dwight Clark. The Catch. All that needs to be said.
November 20, 1982. The 85th "Big Game" between Stanford and Berkeley, this time at Berkeley. Normally, I would have been in the stands, rooting my alma mater, the Stanford Cardinal, on to victory. On this day, however, my fiancé and I were driving home from her law school mock trial competition, listening to the game. Stanford kicked a field goal with 4 seconds left to take a 20-19 lead, and win the Stanford Axe -- the perpetual trophy that is in the custody of the winning school. Except that Stanford had to kick off, and Berkeley then commenced to unveil what is simply known as "The Play". A five-lateral, incomprehensible sequence of events, culminated by a storied collision between the ball carrier and a Stanford band member in the end zone -- and as improbable as it was to watch on TV, it was practically incomprehensible on radio. Cal won 25-19, and it's a miracle I didn't drive off the road. I'll go to my grave swearing that the runner was down and the last lateral was forward.
January 22, 1989 -- Super Bowl XXIII. The 49ers are playing the Bengals in a rematch of San Francisco's first Super Bowl, seven years earlier. The Bengals are leading this one 16-13, however, as the Niners begin a drive at their own 8-yard line. Joe Montana famously entered the huddle, pointed to the stands and told guard Randy Cross -- "Hey -- John Candy is in the stands!" He then got down to business, and engineered a 92-yard drive that culminated with a 10 yard strike to John Taylor (who lined up on the wrong side on the play), with just 34 seconds left in the game. Another Super Bowl ring.
October 17, 1989. Game 3 of the World Series at Candlestick Park -- Giants vs. A's in what was known as the "Bay Bridge Series." My wife and I are in the upper deck, directly behind home plate, as the pre-game festivities are underway. The fans are rumbling their feet in a display of support and nervous energy, creating a roar and a vibration throughout the stadium. Then that roar and vibration escalated, as the Loma Prieta Earthquake hit. A surreal experience of the stadium twisting (as it was designed to do), of celebrities and fans scurrying to the exits after the first aftershock, and peering into the ABC trailer -- which had power -- showing the fires in the Marina District and the collapsed portions of the Bay Bridge and the Cypress Structure in the East Bay. Our six month old son was with my father near our home, 20 miles to the south . . .and 20 miles closer to the epicenter. All was well, but an indescribable several hours.
Are these the ramblings of a rapidly aging blogger with incipient senility? No, there is a point here, and that is that you can never tell what sports will throw at you. These are the highlights of what I have experienced, but there are so many more -- Joe Morgan knocking the Dodgers out of the post-season with a homer to right. Willie Mays just being Wille Mays. Juan Marichal. Watching guys like Chamberlain, Russell, Gretzky and Howe come through town. They all leave impressions -- and thrills.
This comes to mind because of some of the hysteria that has emerged over the last three Blue Jackets games. On the down side, Columbus suffered excruciating losses (one in OT) to Colorado and Chicago, due largely to inexplicable turns of fortune. Sandwiched in between was a virtuoso performance on the road against the Flyers. In all three, the Blue Jackets played well -- not perfectly, but well. Yet, the reactions have ranged from a virtually certain collapse, to the inevitable relocation of the club to Quebec. Time to inject some perspective.
First, the Blue Jackets are above the line, and have the magic numbers working in their favor. Any combination of 4 Blue Jackets wins or New Jersey losses eliminates the Devils. That number is 3 for the Capitals, and 2.5 for the Maple Leafs. (Any combination of two wins for Columbus, 2 losses for Toronto and an OTL by either club). The club enjoys a one stroke handicap advantage in the Dallas game. Oh, by the way, Columbus is only two points behind Philadelphia for the third spot in the Metro, and the Flyers are having trouble scoring.
Here are a few things to consider. First, the Blue Jackets are further along in the "brick by brick" transformation than anyone had any right to expect. With Nathan Horton not coming back from injury as soon or as well as expected, Sergei Bobrovsky missing a month due to injury, and a plethora of other injury issues, Columbus has overcome a lot of adversity. Despite the concerns over offensive production, the club is scoring at a record pace. Youngsters like Johansen, Jenner and Murray are stellar. Dubinsky, Foligno and Anisimov are making the Methot and Nash trades look like genius. Still, however, the Blue Jackets are not yet the equal of a Boston, Pittsburgh or Chicago. No sin in that, and they can play with any of those clubs on a given night. Get some hot goal-tending going, and anything can happen. That's the beauty of the NHL playoffs. Emerging from the Colorado-Philadelphia-Chicago sequence with 3 of 6 points is likely very close to reasonable expectations. Across the league, folks are taking notice of the club -- and the organization -- and many are actively advocating for the Blue Jackets' future. That's new, and is a testament to the changes that have been put in place over the past two years.
More to the point, the Blue Jackets are playing a good, entertaining brand of hockey. They are fun to watch, and past criticisms for lack of effort have no place with this club. Personally, I see the effort and quality of play, and fully expect that there will be post-season hockey in Columbus. But, there are no guarantees in sports. Deflections and crossbars can dictate fortunes, just as marching bands and earthquakes. But you know what? The sun came up the day after the Yankees beat the Giants, Cal beat Stanford and the cancellation of Game 3 of the World Series.
If you tie your enjoyment of the sports experience exclusively to results, you're missing the boat. The fact that the 49ers won a bunch of Super Bowls did not provide me with any financial bonuses or Super Bowl rings. Those victories did not make me smarter, funnier or better looking. Similarly, those disappointments did not make me dumber, duller or uglier. (I know, not possible . . .) While I will freely admit that the earthquake might have temporarily aged me, that was a transient phenomenon. If you want certainty or results, go bet on the sun rising tomorrow. You probably won't be disappointed for another billion years or so . . .but you might. By the same token, rooting for the sun will not likely create memories.
You see, the only indelible deliverable from being a sports fan is memories. We can replay those victories time and time again, maybe wear a championship shirt or Jacket, and perhaps enjoy some bragging rights at the local pub. That's it. Barring a massive long odds bet in Vegas, we all need to go to work tomorrow, without regard to how our team performed. Keep in mind that this run is creating memories, whatever the ultimate result may be. Maybe Columbus gets nosed out. Maybe they go on a great run and win the Cup. My sense is that the truth is somewhere in between, but there are no guarantees. That's the delicious edge that the experience of being a sports fan provides. When you least expect it . . . BAM! The victories are savored far longer than the losses are mourned . . .otherwise Wrigley Field would be empty.
So, root hard, exult over the wins, anguish over the losses . . .but enjoy the ride. There are a whole bunch of clubs that are not creating memories right now. We know what that's like, so appreciate the difference.