Yep boys and girls this is how we roll!!
Posted Jun 16, 2009 12:00AM By Jay Mariotti (RSS feed)
Filed Under: Back Porch, NHL
In Chicago, Milton Bradley further endears himself to Cubdom by flipping a ball into the seats with two out, a farcical sign that 100 years without a World Series title soon will be 101. In Cleveland, the poor people still haven't won a championship in any sport since 1964 and might lose LeBron James to New York, assuming the gulls and midges don't eat him first. In Buffalo, they're not yet over the sting of reaching the Super Bowl four times and losing four times, which still trumps chicken wings as the civic identity.
"That's life," Bradley explained. "These people have high expectations. I have high expectations for myself. I never made a mistake like that (losing track of the outs) in my life. Sue me."
"Something needs to be done," the Indians' Ryan Garko said of the birds and bugs that attack Progressive Field. "There's got to be a way to get rid of them. It's kind of embarrassing. We look like a bunch of kids playing on an abandoned field. It's kind of funny, but kind of not funny."
Across America, sports cities deal with unique forms of futility. How about Atlanta, which has fielded teams in major sports since the 1960s and has one championship to show for it? Or Minneapolis-St. Paul, which has only two since the '70s? Or Kansas City, which hasn't won anything since 1985 and may as well cede from the big time? All of which makes me even more amazed by the performance of the country's most efficient sports town.
Would you believe Pittsburgh as the City of Champions?
Since 1970, when the sports industry began its big boom nationally, a town currently ranked as the 26th television market -- sandwiched by Portland and Salt Lake City -- has won an astounding 11 championships between its three big-league teams. That rates behind only the New York and Los Angeles metro areas, which are represented by multiple teams in some leagues, and Boston, which owns 13 titles in that span among its four franchises. Tucked amid hills and rivers somewhere between Appalachia and the East Coast, Pittsburgh is a small, humble place with its own dialect and idiosyncrasies. When the rest of us say "you guys," folks in western Pennsylvania say "yinz." An Iron City beer is ordered as an "Arn and a shot." Anywhere else in the world, french fries are ordered and eaten separately; in the 'Burgh, the fries are stuffed inside the sandwich with coleslaw and anything else that might be laying around.
Whatever they're eating, it's working. Four months after the Steelers won their second Super Bowl in four years and sixth since the '70s, the Penguins won their third-ever Stanley Cup with one of the epic Game 7 triumphs in NHL history, a toppling of the Detroit Red Wings' dynasty in a hostile Hockeytown environment. Just as the Steelers are in a mode where they can win another championship any given season, the Penguins seem set for years with their young superstars, 21-year-old Sidney Crosby and 22-year-old Evgeni Malkin. There are towns that have waited decades just to get a sniff of a Stanley Cup, Vince Lombardi Trophy or any piece of hardware. Pittsburgh, little Pittsburgh, already is armed with an embarrassment of riches and can anticipate more glory well into the next decade.
Why there? Because it's a town blessed with sound, purposeful leadership, as demanded by hard-working people. Dan Rooney, who inherited the Steelers from his father, sticks by old-school principles and a continuity in coaching -- a formula that works in this century as well as the last. And Mario Lemieux, the cornerstone of Penguins clubs that won two Cups in the early '90s, helped saved hockey in Pittsburgh by the will of his personality and business sense, then completely lucked out and landed the No. 1 pick in the draft the year Crosby was available. With Malkin, the youngest Conn Smythe Trophy winner ever and the league's regular-season scoring champion, the Penguins have the most potent duo in sports for the next, oh, dozen years or so if they can keep both financially happy.
And the crazy thing is, all of this is happening in a town with only 335,000 residents within the city limits and 1.4 million in the market. An estimated 400,000 of those folks were downtown for another victory parade Monday, a celebration that took the same route as the Steelers. They chanted "Let's Go Pens!" and honked horns as the players waved and shot victory salutes.
"Thank you guys," Crosby told the fans. "What can I say? The support you guys have given us, the support you have showed ... You deserve to be called the City of Champions. You deserve the Stanley Cup."
Spoiled? I know I am. Pittsburgh is my hometown, and when I arrived in Chicago and started pounding on the Cubs and White Sox and Bears for not winning titles in a major market, the locals thought I was too rough on their boys. Why was I so discriminating? Maybe because I grew up in a place where Super Bowls and Hall of Famers were commonplace, where Lemieux became a hockey icon and where, until the humiliation of recent years, the Pirates won two World Series and were competitive into the '90s with a pre-steroids Barry Bonds and a scrappy, chain-smoking manager named Jim Leyland. The White Sox finally won in 2005, which brought Chicago its first Series championship in almost 200 collective seasons on both sides of town. But why was one title a big deal when Pittsburgh had won two in eight years?
They are appreciative and sophisticated enough in the 'Burgh not to burn down the town. Shocked as many were that the Penguins stunned the Wings on the road, which ended a six-game win streak for Game 7 home teams in a Cup final, the fans celebrated with beer and much merriment. That is in contrast to Los Angeles, where eight police officers suffered minor injuries in downtown flareups after the Lakers' NBA championship clincher Sunday night in Orlando. They started fires. They threw rocks and bottles at officers. They vandalized stores. In all, 20 were arrested. Given a choice of living in Southern California or Pittsburgh, most would opt for sun, surf and sand over shutdown steel mills. Sounds like Pittsburgh is a better place to raise a family.
In the wake of Friday's changing of the guard, it's a shame the Red Wings tried to spoil the moment by sniping at Crosby. Yes, the captain was late to arrive at the traditional receiving line in which handshakes are exchanged afterward, but did he not have a good excuse? Didn't the league commandeer his services for several immediate TV interviews before pointing Crosby to commissioner Gary Bettman, who handed him the Stanley Cup? Isn't Sid the Kid still just 21 years old? It was as if the Wings, bitter after failing to win their fifth Cup in 13 seasons, needed a target on which to vent. They picked the wrong guy. No one is more humble, more respectful of tradition, than Crosby. He's the boy-next-door who literally still lives in Lemieux's house. If Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom was waiting for him, he should have asked the league to delay interviews until after all hands were shaken.
"Nick was waiting and waiting, and Crosby didn't come over to shake his hand," Detroit veteran Kris Draper complained. "That's ridiculous, especially as their captain, and make sure you write that I said that."
"I think that's one thing you should do," teammate Henrik Zetterberg added Monday. "I don't know why he didn't do it. It's disrespectful."
"Sidney was probably caught up in the emotions and everything," Lidstrom said. "He'll learn from it."
No, gentlemen, Sidney was preoccupied by protocol, something Lidstrom and the Wings should know all about. The Cup ceremony was old hat to them. It was new to Crosby. The Detroit guys look petty in criticizing him.
"It's the easiest thing in the world to shake hands after you win," said Crosby, denying any bad intentions and pointing out that he did shake hands with goalie Chris Osgood and other Wings players. "I really don't need to talk to anyone from Detroit about it. I made the attempt to go shake hands. I've been on that side of things, too, I know it's not easy, waiting around. I just won the Stanley Cup, and I think I have the right to celebrate with my teammates. On their side of things, I understand if they don't want to wait around.
"I had no intentions of trying to skip guys and not shake their hands. I think that was a pretty unreasonable comment. The guys I shook hands with, they realized I made the attempt. If I could shake half their team's hands, I'm sure the other half wasn't too far behind. I don't know what happened there. I have no regrets."
Nor should he. He is part of a remarkable story in hockey lore, a team left for dead several times in the playoffs and regular season. When general manager Ray Shero found the guts in February to fire coach Michel Therrien, who merely had produced a Stanley Cup finals appearance last season, the Penguins were 27-25-5 and five points shy of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. Shero hired the raw, 38-year-old Dan Bylsma, not far removed from minor-league coaching, and advocated the installation of a more aggressive system that took advantage of Crosby, Malkin and the offensive talent. The result was a radical turnaround of 34-11-4, and wherever Therrien is today, even he must applaud the move.
"I think the game is meant to be played aggressively and in your face," Bylsma said after becoming the second rookie coach to win the Cup. "When you can dictate the pace of the game and where it's played, you can put teams on their heels. That's a fun way to play, and, I think, the right way to play."
It wouldn't be surprising if both teams returned to the Cup final for the third straight year. Both have to maneuver around a salary cap, but these are clearly the elite organizations in hockey. And they are the very two teams, with the requisite stars, that can attract more than the puckheads. If the NHL remains a niche league, the likes of Crosby, Malkin and Detroit's skilled pack of Euro-matons have caught the attention of the sporting masses. Now all we need is Bettman to seize the opportunity, return the games to ESPN and give his game a chance to finally grow in America, despite financial problems in several Sun Belt cities that never should have had franchises to begin with.
The epicenter of it all is Pittsburgh, always a football town and now a hockey town just a year away from abandoning an igloo-shaped relic for a new arena. It stopped being a good baseball town when the Pirates, despite playing in a beautiful waterfront park, became better known for their fire sales. The latest blunder, which sent All-Star outfielder Nate McLouth to Atlanta in early June, set off a near-mutiny among players and fans. "There ain't a guy in here who ain't [ticked] off about it," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "They might be trying to hide it or whatever, but, hey, you get a guy [that's] loved by everybody, not just in this clubhouse but in the community, who does everything you could want a guy to do, a perfect guy to be a leader. It's kind of like being with your platoon in a battle, and guys keep dropping around you. You keep hanging on, hanging on, and you've got to figure: How much longer till you sink?"
The Pirates are headed to their 17th consecutive losing season, a dubious major league record. Obviously, they are not part of the City of Champions mantra beyond the tradition of franchise greats such as Roberto Clemente. But why should the locals care when they have the most decorated NFL team of the modern era and a hockey club destined to be remembered the same way?
So many trophies, so little population. Per capita, that makes Pittsburgh the hotbed of American sports.