Saturday, January 24, 2009

The play's the thing...

I'm getting excited for the Super Bowl and it had me thinking back to the last time the Steelers played in the game. It was not a particularly pretty game and there are Seahawks fans who still think the NFL tried to make them lose (get over it).

Anyhow, there were maybe two highlight-worthy plays: a big TD run by Willie Parker to start the second half and a crazy TD pass off a reverse by Antwaan Randle-El. And that last play brings me to this blog.

We are force-fed highlights by ESPN and any number of other outlets. The problem is that the moments that make me love sports RARELY match up with the oft-hyped highlights that are supposed to be so great. And it makes me mad. Sports are an escape and should be enjoyed, not taken too seriously. And why are they an escape? It's a rush. We like to be loud and we like to be hanging on the edge of a plot - the what's going to happen? feeling - except in sports (with rare scandalous exceptions), there's no script. It's people who are going to have to perform. And if they're being paid a lot of money, no country likes a million-dollar failure like America.

Anyhow, I put some thought into it and realized that the things they want you to see on TV aren't the things you probably love the most about a sport. Let's see:

Play they always show you: The deep pass for a touchdown
Play that really gets you excited: Any play where a running play suddenly becomes a passing play
Why: Goes back to that Super Bowl. The Steelers hand the ball off, the running back starts running to the left and hands it off to another runner going the opposite direction. This is called a reverse. But the runner the ball was handed to was a college quarterback. He starts running and then - here it is - he looks downfield. Me - along with every other football fan - stops and goes "Oh my god, he's going to throw." Did the defense give up on the receivers who are now way downfield? Will this guy throw a strike or a disastrous pass? This could change the game.

This play doesn't happen often but happens just often enough - and it works just often enough - that good teams try it. And if it's tried against your team, you hope your team has it together enough to pick it up. No matter, every person is standing when that runner looks downfield. The ball hasn't been thrown yet. But you're hooked with the anticipation.

Play they always show you: The slam dunk
Play that really gets you excited: The three-point shot
Why: The slam dunk used to be cool. Until everyone could do it and until every center in the league stood over seven feet. But the jump shot - something of a lost art in the NBA - is the heart of the game. And the three point shot is the best of those, mainly because the ball is up in the air so long when it's shot. You see the shot, you see the ref raise his arm and stick three fingers in the air to indicate that if this thing falls, it's three. And it's the game-changer. Say you're down by five points and your guy hits a three... no you're losing by two. Stop the other team down the floor and you can bring it back... and try another three. The ball's in the air. If it falls... you are winning.

Play they always show you: The penalty shot (which ESPN long ago declared the most exciting play in the sport)
Play that really gets you excited: The breakaway
Why: It's easy to say these are the same... one skater coming in alone against the goalie. A penalty shot involves the clock stopping, the skater thinking about it, the goalie having time to stare the guy down, and, if the skater misses, there's a faceoff to re-start play. A breakaway has none of that. A skater on a breakaway has a defender trying to chase him down. The goalie probably didn't see this coming. There's no thinking. There is acting. And if the skater misses on a breakaway, he's got to watch out because someone will hit him into the boards as soon as possible.

Play they always show you: The home run
Play that really gets you excited: the long throw from the outfield
Why: Home runs are great, but they involve a startling small amount of action. It is the one play in baseball where no player touches the ball once it is batted. But say you're a runner at first and you decide you're fast enough to make it to third base - or better yet to the plate - on any batted ball. A good outfielder sees that and says "oh hail no!" and guns the ball to the base. Everyone in the stadium immediately becomes a physics major watching the speed and trajectory of the ball compared to that of the runner. And like the three-pointer, the ball is in the air a while. You know it's coming. Will the guy be safe? Will the ball be thrown accurately enough to not turn into a disastrous error? No question why everyone is standing up in the stadium for this one.

Play they always show you: Penalty kicks
Play that really gets you excited: Corner kicks
Why: It's a very American thing to adore penalty kicks in soccer. In games that can end 0-0, sometimes they are the only time impatient Americans will see a ball hit the net. But the corner kick... those happen in every game. Soccer is basically organized prevention of mistakes. Goals happen when mistakes are made. And on a corner kick, there is a huge chance that a mistake will be made by a defender. And while luck plays a factor in any game, luck mixed with good chances means even more. I love when my team gets a corner opportunity and I almost cannot watch when they have to defend one.

Anyhow, go ahead and tell me I'm wrong... or improve on this. But I stand convinced that I would give up all the homers, all the penalty shots and still enjoy my sports the same amount all because of these plays and the potential they occur.

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