You see the charm in the story. You see the electricity in the players. You see the passion in the stands.
More and more, you love this story of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
But do they love it in the big city?
And do you care?
The Lightning has reached the Final Four of the NHL, at which time teams seem to turn into popularity contests. In New York, do they find the charm in the story of the Lightning? In Moose Jaw, are they excited?
And does it matter?
Here we are again, people, with the Lightning on the verge of playing in the Stanley Cup Finals, and already, the slickers from the city are pooh-poohing the idea. To them, we are the outposts, the hinterlands, here to spoil your TV programming like a special edition of Masters of Illusion.
In the big city, you see, they don’t think much of the idea of the Lightning in the Stanley Cup Finals. New York Daily News columnist Filip Bondy, in fact, quoted me in a story that referred to the Rangers as “one of only two teams most people want to see hanging around.” The other would be the Chicago Black Hawks.
Also, New York would like to sell you a watch.
Now, not to pick on Filip, who is a friend of mine. We’ve roomed together at Wimbledon and the Masters. We’ve shared dinners.
But this is familiar rhetoric. New York teams draw bigger numbers, and so the impression exists that they matter more, and the people in their seats matter more than the people in this seat. Frankly, we heard the same rhetoric in 2004, when the league kept mentioning that a lot of people in Moose Jaw weren’t watching.
To repeat: Who cares?
You want a TV show, watch a TV show. Gotham is fun. But if you want an athletic competition, are we supposed to care that a network’s numbers aren’t as jacked up as they want? Hey, if only we care about the Stanley Cup, that’s plenty.
“It’s just that Tampa Bay is in Florida,” writes Bondy, “where it is difficult to maintain so much as a single ice cube in your Coke, and represents only the 18th-largest market in America (Actually, it’s 13th, but who’s counting?) What happens in Tampa Bay stays in Tampa Bay – only because people outside of Tampa Bay don’t want to hear about it. Things aren’t exactly hopping down there, sports-wise.”
And on Bondy went, spreading the news the way they do in New York.
Look, this much is true. In Tampa Bay, we need the Lightning. The Bucs were the worst team in the NFL last year. The Rays had a losing season. South Florida was terrible. Around here, the Lightning is the one reason for the fan to swell his chest. Yes, they dance a lot at Lightning games. There is finally something to dance about.
Still, there is nothing quite as smug as a New York fan. They’ve seen so many championships. They’ve had Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio and Joe Namath and Lawrence Taylor and Mark Messier and Willis Reed and Eli Manning and Mickey Mantle and Reggie Jackson and Derek Jeter and all the rest of them. We’ve had a couple of Lee Roy Selmons and a lot of Trent Dilfers.
So when Filip called the other day, sure, I was willing to talk. Somebody from around here had to.
“It’s always amazing to me. You think you’re superior because you’re from New York,” Bondy quotes me as “firing back.” “The guy who sells hot dogs on the sidewalk thinks he’s the valedictorian of Columbia.
“It is true we’re a bit of a sports outpost. But the Lightning is kind of the last vestige of pride for the town. They are young, they are fun and seem to have a future. Our other teams, you just don’t know about. The Lightning is the last thing in the driveway you can be proud of, and here come Marty and his new bunch.”
Filip didn’t use my line about all the Rangers’ men fans being Joe Pesci and all the women being Fran Drescher, but I suppose he didn’t have room.
The important thing to keep in mind here is the way that teams, and fans, from Tampa Bay are looked at by the rest of the nation. We’re interlopers here to crash their party. Nothing more.
But if this Tampa Bay team (tied 1-1 in the series) wins, we can scare all those big-city folks.
For instance, we could bring them a Lightning-Anaheim series.
That would teach them.