|The tournament of tournaments|
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist
We're all reeling with the Madness right now. We dream in buzzer-beaters and wake up speaking in Vitalese tongues. Right now, it seems impossible to us that anything -- not chocolate, not sweet love in the morning, not even a crazy-big, computer-error tax refund -- could be better than the NCAA men's basketball tournament.
Hopped-up on Butler juice and giddy with office-pool gas, we tell anyone, everyone -- we tell our priests, we tell the dog, we go on at length trying to get the UPS driver to see the simple, unassailable truth of it -- that the Big Dance is, without question, the single greatest postseason spectacular in all of sports.
But is it? I mean, in the cold light of day, minus the intoxicating prospect of winning $80 from a bunch of sallow-faced mugs at work who'd sooner starve than pick up the check at lunch, without the three-week mass hallucination that all the best players really aren't already wearing NBA threads and that the game is not at all tainted by boosters and TV and shoe deals, and beyond the lingering memories of our own days as an undergrad, does it hold up? Is it still the one, the undisputed, once-and-future king before which all other postseason tournaments must bow down and pay tribute?
Who can resist such an aroma? Certainly not me.
So here it is, the tournament of tournaments (the matchups below are set, by the way, according to a complex algorithm taking into account the Sagarin ratings, the modified Stableford System, the VH-1 countdown of the top 100 rock songs, the 11 food-poisoned strokes by which Tiger smoked the Bay Hill field Sunday, the consumer price index, and, most importantly, the whim and wisdom of my little girl who pulled slips of paper out of a hat yesterday afternoon, then chewed on them and spit them back out in perfect little wads. It's all very scientific, like the way they do the post-positions at the Kentucky Derby, only with a little bit more healthy infant spit and a little less pretense):
NBA Playoffs vs. NFL Playoffs
MLB Playoffs vs. World Cup
The Frozen Four tournament has fresh-faced kids playing a game they love for the love of the game. It has rabid, knowledgeable fans who eat, sleep, live and die in skates. It has genuine amateur spirit, small-town flavor, and beneath-the-radar charm. It also has about three different champions in the past 54 years, and the people who care about it are the people who've always cared, and who form little clubs of caring, and who procreate precisely so their children will carry on the tradition of caring. It is these people, all of whom live within something like 125 miles of each other, who give a damn, who give their hearts and souls. It is these people ... and absolutely no one else. Winner: Stanley Cup Playoffs.
NCAA Men's College Basketball Tournament vs. College World Series
NHL Playoffs vs. NBA Playoffs
Editor's Note: We told Eric that as a matter of fact both the NBA and the NHL have 16-team playoff fields, and that actually, proportionally, the NBA lets more of its teams into the postseason. He said, "Yes, yes, I know, but doesn't it feel like there are more NHL teams? I mean, what with those line changes coming in waves and all, isn't it just a little overwhelming?" We decided to cut Eric some slack since he's from California.
MLB Playoffs vs. NCAA Basketball Tournament
NBA Playoffs vs. MLB Playoffs
There it is. Baseball takes the ultimate cage match.
And in closing, a word about a handful of postseasons that didn't even get invited to the big throwdown.
First, all women's postseasons, college and pro, including the very good NCAA soccer tournament and the mostly forgetable WNBA playoffs, are missing here. My bad. I'm only one writer, this is only one piece -- I just couldn't imagine handling both men's and women's tourneys for this thing. There were complex arguments about relative strength and style, deep theorems of enthusiasm and influence, tide-turning vindications of the rights of women, and spirited attacks on the status quo, to be worked out in such a thing. Daunting stuff. And I'll be honest, I shrank from the task. I know this is precisely the sort of selective pragmatism that has been marginalizing women's history for eons. I know it's nothing but convenience covering for cowardice. Thing is, I had a deadline to meet. Apologies all around. (Wanna punish me for it? Tell my sister Kate what I did -- she'll let me have it, for about eight or 10 years.)
You'll also notice that the committee (which is pretty much just me) did not extend an invitation to college football's Bowl Championship Series. The committee had fond memories of the days when the bowls were named for flowers and textiles and such, and when they were funded by incredibly rich anonymous donors who sipped short, clinking glasses of scotch and were driven around town in leather-top Cadillacs. Like a lot of folks, the committee longs for the days when "winner" and "loser" were just words drowned out in pomp and circumstance, and the satisfaction that comes from knowing you participated and played hard. Still, the committee lives in the FedEx Now; the committee is Tostitos realistic, it realizes kids today want something tangible and immediate. And, taking a cold, hard look at things, the committee couldn't help noticing that the BCS isn't really a tournament at all.
The World Series of Poker did not make the cut for one simple reason: a split vote on Gabe Kaplan, the event's primary television announcer these days. The majority of the committee thinks his he's-still-alive-who-knew appearance is creepy. But one guy, like Henry Fonda in "12 Angry Men," is holding out, ranting all sweaty-browed and beady-eyed about Mr. Kotter's dynamic range in "Fastbreak": "Couldn't it be that he's better than you think," he's saying. "Couldn't it be that he's not the problem but the solution?!"
The Breeder's Cup didn't get in, either, because it happens every time: I go to the track, just to have an iced tea, sit with some friends and soak up the sun, maybe snack on a chicken salad sandwich. Next thing I know, I'm in the paddock, sizing up lines and gaits, claiming I have a feel for this horse or that. And then it's off to the windows, and the little bet to show I had planned becomes a no-pain-no-gain trifecta bid. And soon, sure enough, I'm staring blankly at the sun, hoping to do permanent damage, and my wife is shouting in my ear like Julie Hagerty in "Lost in America": "You lost the nest egg! You lost the nest egg!"
And finally, the America's Cup got axed because, well, it's a freakin' boat race, for crying out loud.
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.