Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Wrights Of Spring

Yes, I know, considering that David Wright didn't actually play in yesterday's spring training game against the Braves that title doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Apparently there was rain early in the day and every Mets starter is descended from the Wicked Witch of the West so they pulled them all before first pitch. Either way, baseball is back. It may be entirely meaningless, dull, unimportant baseball, but it is still baseball.

And in this case it was winning baseball. Yeah, I was shocked, too, but sure enough here we are. The Mets topped the Braves, 4-2, which, given that it's spring training, doesn't matter at all, but first baseman of the future Ike Davis did go 2 for 3 with an RBI and a run scored. There's that to cling on to. More importantly though, it was just nice to watch some baseball. I missed green grass, the deliberate pace and Mets announcer Gary Cohen's extreme hyperbole when he described the game as a "big win" for the Mets after the final out.

I'm all for painting things in a positive light, but this may have been a wee bit extreme on Cohen's part. After all, it's the first game of spring training. It might be the absolute least important game the team plays all season. Either way it was nice to see someone swinging a bat in a mildly competitive fashion. It would have been nice to get a look at newest Met Jason Bay, but what with that tenacious rain and all, we may have to wait until this afternoon.

Considering most of you out there probably still aren't sold on the NHL, though last night's Sharks-Devils game was a pretty exciting potential Stanley Cup Finals preview, and the NBA regular season is completely inane, baseball may be the most exciting thing you've got going for you, even if it is completely meaningless.

Then again, if the ratings from Sunday's gold medal game are any indication, some of you may actually be more interested in hockey than you let on. Not every game can have the same excitement as that one did, and it was pretty amazing as far as sporting events go, but the ratings were stunning. An average of 27.6 million people watched the game in the United States, while peak viewership in the end of regulation and in overtime was 34.8 million.

In case you're wondering, Canada's entire population is just over 34 million even.

Yes, that is skewing the numbers, I know. Apparently at the moment Sidney Crosby put in the overtime winner, some 80% of the Canadian population was tuned in, but regardless, the U.S. audience was an incredible number. The average viewership was the most for a hockey game in the U.S. since America's gold medal triumph over Finland in the 1980 Lake Placid Games. The only sporting event so far this year with higher ratings, with the obvious exception of the Super Bowl, was the BCS National Championship Game between Texas and Alabama, and the gold medal game had higher ratings than the Grammys, the Rose Bowl, every World Series Game since 2004, every NBA Finals game since 1998 and every NCAA Men's Basketball Final Four game since 1998.

Yeah, that's pretty good.

It remains to be seen if this will create a healthy carryover to the NHL's regular season and postseason, though there seemed to be mostly healthy crowds at the 12 games being played last night, but if my friends are any indication, and that's probably a good enough sample size to extrapolate over a nation of 300 million people, welcome back hockey.

What's even more remarkable to me is that, while this may encourage a large increase in attendance at hockey games down the rest of the regular season, people still seem to be clinging to nationalism in the aftermath of Sunday's game. This became most remarkable to me at last night's Penguins-Sabres game. Unfortunately, we were denied a Sidney Crosby-Ryan Miller rematch by Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff, who wisely decided to give the overworked Miller the night off, but what was most interesting was the Pittsburgh crowd's reaction during the pregame Olympic ceremony. I have no doubt that Sid will always be the tops in that city as far as hockey goes, perhaps with the exception of Mario Lemieux, and while Crosby did get a healthy cheer when he was mentioned during the introductions, the largest ovation went to Miller.

Of course, I'm not naive enough to see the NHL's modest gains in attention as on par with the attention we give to the NBA in this country, even though the run-of-the-mill NBA game can't compete with the run-of-the-mill NHL game in my opinion. That said, I'm not sure the NHL would garner nearly as much attention if Sidney Crosby or Alex Ovechkin chose to change their number, but leave it to Lebron James to get all of ESPN in a tizzy over switching his numerals.

To hear it from him, Lebron's desire to change his number from 23 to 6 comes out of respect for Michael Jordan, largely considered to be the greatest player of all time, which makes sense since no other NBA legend has ever worn No. 6 before.

I think if this is a sincere attempt to honor Michael Jordan and not sell a slew of new jerseys, that's all well and good, but I can't help but also think there's a little too much emphasis put on MJ's numbers. Yes, I know Wayne Gretzky's 99 is retired throughout the entire NHL, but Gretzky transcended his sport in a way Jordan never did -- and if you think I'm being ridiculous we'll sit down and have a chat some time -- and furthermore, I wouldn't even oppose Jordan's 23 being retired throughout the NBA in homage, but several teams have taken it upon themselves to do so without a mandate. The Miami Heat for instance have retired Jordan's 23 out of respect for his contributions to the game despite the fact that he's never played for the franchise.

Of course, the Heat have also retired Dan Marino's no. 13 out of respect for his accomplishments despite not actually playing pro basketball. Perhaps they're a bad example.

Either way, the NHL appears to have a long way to go to reach this kind of hysteria over its stars, which really is too bad since it's a phenomenal sport to watch. If Sunday's ratings are any indication, though, maybe it's starting to make the climb.

And if not, there's always spring training baseball for me to take solace in.

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