Saturday, August 18, 2007

A Journey of a Thousand Miles Can End With a Single Step, Too.

A fact that never ceases to drive baseball snobs around the bend is how TV ratings for meaningless and chaotic NFL exhibition games are consistently higher than those for real August baseball games, even those involving teams in pennant races. The ratings aren't not out yet, but I'll bet the Pats game last night on Channel Five did better than the Red Sox game on NESN, and I don't expect the comments department to be overloaded with takers.

Does this mean sports fans like football better than baseball? I don't think so. In my not-small range of sports experience, there are maybe 5 percent of fans who like football and don't care for baseball. There are maybe double that number who adore baseball and frankly, think all other sports are unworthy of a serious person's attention. A substantial percentage of this group lives east of Worcester, Mass. That leaves 85 percent of normal fans who like both wonderful sports just fine, thank you, and switch their attention from one to the other as the spirit moves them.

How to tell you're a normal fan. You don't care about mini-camp, never pay attention to the major league draft, and attend minor league baseball games to have a good time, not to pretend you're a superscout.

And while I'm not a normal fan, having spent 25 years watching the sausage get made, I'll bet most normal New England fans did what I did last night. I watched the Pats game (Incidentally, Channel Five, brutal technical effort. Just brutal.) until Tom Brady and the other starters were out of the game, then switched over to baseball-related programming on ESPN and NESN.

On one level, that's the backwards way to watch exhibition football. For the starters, the second preseason game is just practice, extreme practice, but we won't learn anything about them we don't already know. Brady's had a rather eventful offseason, but he hasn't forgotten anything. The guys in there for the third and fourth quarters are playing for their careers. They have an emotional intensity that reaches Super Bowl levels. If the level of the stakes is the measure of a sports event, it doesn't get much higher than watching people try to make one of five or six NFL roster spots.

Trouble is, you have to know as much about football as Bill Belichick to figure out what's happening in the confused, close quarter combat of scrub exhibition football. And the coaches make their evaluations after leisurely scrutiny of videotape. In real time, the last half of exhbition football is an indecipherable mess. Anyone who claims otherwise has delusions of expertise.

So we watch the game while the starters are in it. And we do so for one logical, sensible, important reason. We want to make sure they don't get hurt, especially the quarterback. I'm sure Eagles fans' hearts were in their mouths watching Donovan McNabb last night. It would be instructive to check the Water and Sewer Commission records to see how many Boston-area residents visited the bathroom right after the all-too-numerous time Brady got crunched by the Titans.

A football team's season is on the line every time its best players are on the field. NFL history is littered with clubs whose promising seasons ended before they began with a devastating loss of a vital player IN TRAINING CAMP, let alone during the mayhem of the preseason.

Fans are anxious by nature. Given the possibility of disaster, they'll watch in torment until it goes away. Besides, it's not like people in Boston missed anything. Having seen Brady avoid calamity, there was plenty of time to change the channel and see Eric Gagne fail to do the same.


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