by Kent Sterling
The narrative in sports is constantly evolving, and that’s what makes it so consistently fun to think about. The minute the Cardinals won Game Seven of the World Series, talk began to percolate about whether Albert Pujols would come back to the team. Then Tony LaRussa retired, and the Cubs hired Theo. It’s only been five weeks since the final game, and the pages have turned many times.
Indiana football and basketball are at very different stages of their development, and fans are talking about both in very different ways. Peyton Manning led the Indianapolis Colts to so many consecutive playoff appearances and 10-win seasons there is a generation of kids that have never known what it is to watch the Colts lose – until now. The story with the Colts is whether Manning will play this year, or ever.
The NBA had a lockout. Did you hear about it? It was given the same level of coverage as Triple A baseball. The NFL’s lockout was covered like the future of the planet revolved around its resolution. David Stern, the guy who rode Magic, Michael, and Larry to great career success, learned the NFL is not just the NBA’s big brother; it’s the sun around which the NBA is a distant circling planet.
So what’s going to happen, and will any of it really matter?
Manning will not play again this year, and may never play football again at all. The spine is the hard drive of a body, and once it’s damaged, you don’t let 300-pound monsters with violent intent crash into it at 22 miles an hour. If he ever plays again, Manning should be institutionalized. Spinal fusion is serious business, and the act of testing his spine’s ability to heal by exposing to the meanest sadists not residing in state penitentiaries would be that of a crazy person, and Manning is not crazy. I don’t believe he will play again. The consequence of the violence inherent in football is too great.
Pujols will re-sign with the Cardinals. Even before moving to St. Louis, Pujols was so obviously a career Cardinal to me. The Cardinals are one of the few teams that see their stars retire in their own colors. The Giants let Willie Mays go back to New York, and Hank Aaron was sent back to Milwaukee, but Lou Brock and Bob Gibson stayed in the Lou to the very end. Sure Dizzy Dean went to the Cubs, as did Rogers Hornsby, but since then, the Cards have kept their heroes. Allowing a once-a-generation talent like Pujols wander off to Miami would be a silly financial miscalculation. Pujols is one of the few ballplayers who are so talented and decent they elevate the prestige and value of the franchise. The Cards are the Yankees of the National League, and they don’t let statues walk away.
Theo Epstein is in over his head. The Cubs are incapable of slaying their dragon, even though it doesn’t really exist. The mirage of being required to lose is so deeply ingrained that it has become reality. ”Five outs to go”, “The Billy Goat”, “Claude Passeau on two days rest”, “Babe Ruth’s called shot”, “Bartman”, “The Black Cat”, “Steve Garvey”, and on and on and on. You can argue with the idiocy of understanding the winning is inconceivable, but you cannot overcome it. Not even if your name is Theo, and you’ve done it once before. The Red Sox are not the Cubs, and they never were. He’s assembled the best and brightest front office in the game, as though we are in the race to the moon with the Soviets. It won’t be enough because in the case of the Chicago Cubs, dogma has become physics.
Bloomington, Indiana, is currently the home to major sport cellar dwellers, and it has been for several years. Kevin Wilson was hired almost exactly one year ago to resurrect the moribund IU football franchise. The past 40 years (minus a magical period from 1987-1993 when bowl trips to Atlanta, Memphis, Jacksonville and all other destinations not in Pasadena were routine) have been terrible with occasional glimpses of mediocrity. IU athletics director Fred Glass hired Wilson to change the culture, and the immediate result was more of the same. But IU is not the Cubs, and Wilson is a driven wild man who will find a way to turn Bloomington into a football town. Talk to him. Look into his eyes. Then deny this guy is a force of nature who will bring kids to the much improved facilities and teach them to play winning football. The biggest problem for Glass and IU will be to keep Wilson. That sounds ludicrous, but if Wilson is the head coach at IU in four years, I will be very surprised.
That brings us to IU basketball and Tom Crean. There is no discernible evidence of what Crean’s philosophy of basketball is. With other coaches, you watch a game and see it. There was a comment to a previous post from a basketball coach who made that observation, and I had to agree. What Crean seems to be good at is aggregating really good players, and good players win games regardless of whether they play man, zone, run motion or sets. Indiana with Cody Zeller and maturing talent like Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo is better this year, but still not elite. They will win 18-20 games, and might eke into the NCAAs. That would be progress. And then the horses arrive next year. Crean can pace, chug endless bottles or water, crouch, and raise all the hell he wants. Indiana will win games next year – a lot of games.
Lots to think about in December of 2011, and there will be new stuff to talk about next week, next month, and next year. That’s what makes sports so damn fun, and if none of what I’ve written here comes to pass, no one goes poor, becomes ill, or dies. It’s sports.