Saturday, July 16, 2011

Well Worth the Wait

By Bob Ekstrom

From all indications, the NFL lockout is inching closer to resolution. Last week, U.S. Magistrate Judge Arthur Boylan ordered both parties back for another mediation session set for July 19, and ESPN reported on Tuesday that the season could begin as early as July 28. Even in football-desolate pockets of the country like Buffalo and Carolina and Denver, everyone is giddy over the prospect of games being played this autumn, and as of right now, there's still fleeting hope that the preseason will start as scheduled with the Hall of Fame Game on August 7.

Whether we realize it or not, resolution of the lockout is good for America. For instance, the crime rate will stabilize, at least while games are being played. We'll be spared sports flashes that update us with MLS scores and NASCAR's Chase For the Sprint Cup standings every 20 minutes. And who can't get enough Tuesday morning radio shows that count how many times Jon Gruden worked "these guys" or "those guys" into his broadcast the night before?

But the news is even better for Echo Boomers who've been living in a Pollyanna world where Megan Fox never heard of Botox, 'Seven' is the new Mary, and going out for a joy ride means pedaling a bicycle down to the local vegan mart to buy a dozen Pay-As-You-Throw bags. This is the generation that gets aroused by old Star Wars movies and gives the biggest-spending team in Major League Baseball their ball back for nothing. Labor unrest in professional sports is virtually unknown to Gen Y — there have been only two seasons in the last 15 years to be affected by work stoppage — and most weren't even born the last time it happened in the NFL.

Think of what a postponed season would do to the guys and gals about to take custody of our society even if, to many of them, an NFL team is composed of only seven offensive players and that all-engaging position named "Defense" who can score points by recovering fumbles or intercepting passes. Gen Y is a sucker for a man in uniform but, unlike Mila Kunis, it doesn't matter which one so long as the colors are in and the player was activated on the fantasy roster before kickoff. It's doubtful some of them could last a weekend without NFL Sunday Ticket and streaming statistical updates coming in on vibrating iPhones, and it's looking like they won't have to.

They will, however, miss out on a golden sports opportunity that comes along once or twice a generation.

As a Baby Boomer, I've witnessed a total of nine sports seasons shortened or canceled by strike or lockout. Sure, there were bad memories. Like 1972, when MLB players went on strike for the first 13 days and, rather than pay them for a full season, owners canceled the missed games. My hometown Red Sox wound up losing the division simply because they played one fewer game than the Tigers.

More often than not in those nine cases, the pain of lost games was more than offset by the amusement once they resumed. In MLB's infamous split season of 1981, four teams clinched playoff berths on June 12, while neither of the two best teams — the Reds and Cardinals — made the postseason. Kansas City got in with a losing record and a composite fourth-place finish. The Yankees also placed a composite fourth, yet made it all the way to the World Series.

The baseball gods would later take their revenge on the Bronx, wiping out their 6.5-game lead along with the rest of the 1994 baseball season and World Series. That lockout would carry all the way into 1995 to become the first multi-season stoppage ever.

Baby Boomer and Generations X and Y alike experienced the only completely canceled season when the NHL shut down in 2004-05. Ten years before, it played a refreshingly reduced 48-game schedule that didn't start until after Martin Luther King Day when all the ponds had frozen and hockey was finally in the air. Had the Devils not swept the Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Finals, we may have seen hockey in July while we swam in those ponds.

The NBA's 50-game season in 1998-99 was similar, but with a twist. It featured several back-to-back-to-back games on every team's schedule as the league tried to jam in as many games as it could from February 5 on. After watching some of today's teams like the Boston Celtics mail it in on the second of back-to-back games this past season, I'd love to see how they would have come out on the third night.

The NFL has had only two shortened seasons in league history — in 1982 and 1987. Those were days when men were men and we woke up Thursday mornings not sure if the home team would even be televised come Sunday, and if some big-shot local company didn't buy out the last few thousand seats that afternoon we'd suck it up and go on that romantic get-away weekend with our significant others and no electronic devices of any kind, which was usually more than our significant others could say. We could deal with no football, but we were always the more grateful when we got it.

Like the 9 games played in 1982. That season is best remembered around my home in New England for the "Snowplow Game," when a work-release inmate cleared the Schaeffer Stadium turf for John Smith to kick the winning field goal in a game against the Dolphins that was instrumental in putting the Patriots in their first playoff game since Chuck Fairbanks walked away before the 1978 postseason. So, if you ever ask a New Englander about Snowgate, you will have to be more specific.

We got almost a full slate in the 15-game 1987 season, but that included the first three played by replacement players, aka scabs. Nevertheless, in the final Monday Night Football game before the regulars returned, New York Giants replacement receiver Lewis Bennett caught a 46-yard touchdown pass that I've never forgotten and remains — purely from a skills perspective — the best catch I've ever seen. During one replacement game, a Cowboys receiver reached into the stands for his clean laundry and took it back to the bench with him. That was a full 20 years before another Cowboys receiver tried the same trick with popcorn.

The 1987 strike gave New England the opportunity to bring back one of its iconic figures when it traded for former BC great Doug Flutie, who had earlier agreed to cross picket lines. This was Flutie I, not to be schmeared with his drop-kicking Flutie II days. The strike also gave the NFL a chance to witness the greatest receiving performance of all time when Jerry Rice caught 22 TD passes in the 12 games he played.

Granted, it hasn't exactly been dull over the intervening 23 years, but the memories of those two zany NFL seasons in 1982 and 1987 will last us Baby Boomers a lifetime. Echo Boomers may fear a shortened season full of quiet weekends and long romantic walks on Sunday afternoons, and that remains a possibility. But even if that should happen, get ready. History tells us the best is soon to follow.

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