Monday, February 13, 2012

Grammys, Golf, and Hockey: A February Sunday

1) A headline that most of the world was expecting for many years finally greeted the world yesterday, as Whitney Houston expired from causes that so far have not been made public. I was more interested in this celebrity death than I would be in most others, because Houston was my age and because she struggled with the very same substance that took me down years ago. While it is not certain that Houston's death was drug-related at this time, it is clear, from reports that have surfaced, that substance abuse was an issue that she had never been able to put behind her. And for me, that is the most salutary bit of information about the entire melodrama that was Houston's life: that without profound changes in attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, it never gets put behind you, and the end results are "jails, institutions, and death." And unfortunately, the third option happens much more frequently than one might think. There's no guarantee that anyone is ever going to a second or fourth or fifteenth chance to put it down. Even if the autopsy report doesn't show that drugs were an immediate cause of death for Houston,--well, let's put it this way: the way she has led her life for the last twenty years certainly didn't help.
1a) That she died on the eve of the Grammy Awards cast a pall over the entire spectacle. To be honest with you, I felt a lot more sorry for Adele than anyone else connected with this. Last night was supposed to be the crowning achievement of a career, the celebration of a remarkable story--and instead, most of the people there and most of the country want to talk about someone who essentially committed suicide over two decades. And the accolades and outpouring of emotion that were all over the public and private mediums yesterday got a little irritating after a while. Did anyone give a shit about Whitney Houston last Thursday? I didn't think so. It just goes to show that George Carlin was right: if you want people to speak well of you--then die. And maybe I am just sensitive to this sort of stuff because I have faced down addiction and been able to rejuvenate my life and take care of my responsibilities--but I have very limited sympathies for those who have every opportunity and every reason to put it down and don't do so, or maybe it's more that a lot of the same people boo-hooing about Houston wouldn't cut you and me that kind of slack. It just rubs me the wrong way.
2) On the curmudgeon front...I usually don't pay a lot of attention to what happens in the world of golf. But the fawning coverage of Tiger Woods that has characterized sports media over the past few years has gotten beyond the point of nauseating. Woods' behavior and double life was perhaps one of the more awful examples of ego run amok, and his half-hearted "apologies" and resolute refusal to even acknowledge that a reappraisal of his value system might be in order have made him, in the eyes of most ordinary people I have talked to on the subject, a pariah, someone who is, on a general level, not well regarded or liked. And yet the sports media treat his every tournament, his every appearance, with the sort of (positive) coverage that used to be reserved for someone like Joe DiMaggio or Wayne Gretzky. And it is manifestly undeserved. Woods remains, as far as anyone can see, a creep of the first degree, a bully-type personality, who folds like an accordion now when things don't go his way. Yesterday, the media was all over the PGA event in California because Woods was in contention--and for an added bonus, his foil for much of his career, Phil Mickelson, was in the same group in the final round. But the hype was so manufactured, it was beyond disgusting. For starters, Woods was never at any time closer than four shots to the lead. For another, watching him play, it is clear that his game is the same as it has been for the last two years--more than the occasional errant tee shot, he can't make a putt anymore, and he gives away a shot or three every round because he blows a comebackers that 23YO Woods never would have.
But yesterday was great to watch for people who don't like Woods, because as he suffered through another final round implosion, his playing partner had one of the rounds of his life, posting the best round of the day by three shots and winning going away right in front of Woods. It was great to see the grimaces and clear annoyance on Woods' face as Mickelson went around the course with the precision of a surgeon, to see him visibly deflate when every decent shot he made was answered and then some. And while much has been made of Woods' determination and drive and alleged will to win--look again. It isn't there. What has become clearly apparent over the last couple of years is that Woods doesn't have the temperament of Michael Jordan, to whom he is often compared. Jordan had a drive to excel, to be the best, to beat back all opposition--but Jordan also was not afraid to take up a challenge (remember baseball?), and Jordan never stopped trying, even when the glory days were past (remember Jordan as a Washington Wizard?). Woods has the temperament of a bully; he cannot really deal with adversity well anymore, if he ever could. In short, he gives up after a certain amount of time. And that is why I feel certain when I say Woods will not catch Jack Nicklaus's majors record. Nicklaus, even when Watson and others had clearly passed him as the game's best player, never gave up on a tournament, never gave away strokes--and the result was that he was never one that could be safely ignored. Woods has the look of Arnold Palmer more than Nicklaus--Palmer never was able to accept the challenge of Nicklaus as a way to drive himself to greater heights; once he figured that the cheers weren't going to stop coming, for whatever reasons, whether he won or not, he stopped winning. I think Woods is dangerously close to that place now.
And it was good to see Mickelson develop a killer instinct. He is now 41, and his career will always be regarded as never what it could have been, but it isn't like he hasn't done anything; he has 40 wins and 4 majors and by all accounts is a more successful human being than Woods ever was. But there was no mistaking that he was enjoying shoving his success yesterday down Woods' throat. Maybe this is the beginning of a fundamental reordering of Mickelson's career. I hope so. He's not perfect, but he's a hell of a lot easier to root for than Woods is.
3) The remarkable story out of New York city continues unabated. And no, I am not referring to Lin-sanity, which does not have the looks of a long-running show (I will show my age, but to me, this is the Billy Ray Bates story of this era). I am talking about the season that my beloved New York Rangers are having. Yesterday, on national TV, they handled their erstwhile nemesis, Washington, in a game that in past years they would have found a way to lose, and in general this team's progress--not the way they play, but the results--is very reminiscent of 1994. But this is a lot better than 1994, because it doesn't feel like that they are another team in Ranger uniforms; these are mostly home-grown Rangers, with two major pieces coming via free agency. But the elements of  a championship team are starting to be apparent. Lundquist is having the best season of a very stellar career. Del Zotto is resembling Brian Leetch more with every passing game--and depending on your tastes, may be no more than the Rangers' fourth best defenseman when everyone is well and healthy. It speaks to how good a player you really are when you have seven game-winning goals during a season that everyone agrees is not one of your best--and that is why Brad Richards is one of the best players in the game. The erratic Gaborik is lights out this year. The younger guys have all more or less come through, and while the role players are not exceeding expectations--well, maybe John Mitchell is--they are not wasting minutes when they play, either--guys like Boyle and Prust and Fedetenko carry their weight. And most importantly, there is no dead wood. In past years, guys like Christianson and Wolski were given prominent roles that they manifestly did not deserve; this year, they can't get on the ice. And that's a good thing.
The one great unknown is whether they will make a trade for someone before the deadline. I wouldn't make one just to make one, but there is one I would make in a minute: if Columbus is really willing to part with Rick Nash for Dubinsky, Chad Kreider, and a number 1--pull the trigger! Nash...scores....goals. If you can get a guy for whom 30 goals is an off-season for nothing more off your current roster than a decent second-line center, you have to make that move. But for the first time in years, it is fun to be a Ranger fan again, and to dream about a deep run in the spring.

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