Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 3, 2015

Lots Of Hype, And A Little Bit Of Hope

It was the greatest weekend in the history of sports. So fans were told repeatedly over the last few days by any number of breathless announcers at venues all across the land. Of course greatness is a quality best discerned from a distance. So for now it would be more accurate to recognize this first weekend in May as a reminder, as if one were needed, that no two things go hand in hand quite like hyperbole and sporting events.

Without question the calendar gave fans a confluence of important events in a large number of our pastimes. The second month of the longest season got underway, a time when the wildly careening statistics produced by the tiny sample size of a couple of weeks worth of baseball games begin to level out. Divisional rivalries were renewed at Fenway Park and Kauffman Stadium in the American League and at Citi Field and Busch Stadium in the National. But every contest carries equal weight in the Great Game’s final tally of wins and losses, making it hard to assign special significance to one particular weekend’s slate.

In contrast the importance of the games on the NBA’s and NHL’s schedule was self-evident, for the playoffs are underway in both of the arena sports. In May there is plenty of time to make up for a loss on the diamond. On the court or rink losses now can quickly spell the end of a season. In the first round of the basketball playoffs, they may even have marked the end of an era.

Few teams have been as accomplished, and fewer still less lauded for their achievements, than the San Antonio Spurs during the Tim Duncan era. Since the Spurs made him the first pick in the 1997 draft, Duncan has led the team to the playoffs every year, and to five championships; all while garnering a sliver of the attention paid to LeBron James or Kobe Bryant or Shaquille O’Neal.

But Duncan is 39 now, and other key members of the Spurs are similarly ancient in basketball years. San Antonio held a three games to two lead over the L.A. Clippers in the first round of this year’s playoffs, but in the end the Spurs were unable to close out a younger and more determined team. In Saturday’s decisive Game Seven, the Clippers’ Chris Paul returned from a first quarter injury in dramatic fashion, netting the winning basket with one second remaining to send his team into the second round, and Duncan and the Spurs into an uncertain future.

Win or go home was also the theme in San Francisco, where the second of four annual World Golf Championship events was held. The WGC Match Play is the one time each year that the PGA Tour, along with the other five international tours that co-sanction the WGC tournaments, uses the format most familiar to amateur club players. Match play is exciting stuff for devoted golf loyalists, but a bane to sponsors and television networks. By the time play reaches the weekend the handful of golfers remaining are all too often unfamiliar to casual fans.

That was the bad dream come true for NBC on Sunday, when one of the semifinal matches pitted the golfers ranked 49th and 52nd in the world against one another. Fortunately for the network the other semifinal matched American favorite Jim Furyk against world #1 Rory McIlroy. As he had done twice before during the tournament, McIlroy trailed with two holes to play only to rally to victory. In the afternoon finals the 25-year old from Northern Ireland never trailed in dispatching Gary Woodland 4 and 2, giving television and the PGA Tour a recognizable and worthy Match Play champion.

But the hype surrounding the Match Play or the early rounds of the NBA and NHL playoffs or the Yankees playing the Red Sox was far outstripped by that lauded on three other events. In two of the three, the event itself proved scarcely worthy of all the frenzied promotion.

There was a time when the NFL Draft was a little noticed affair. But then along came ESPN which in its early days was desperate to broadcast something other than Australian Rules football. NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle agreed to allow the draft to be televised starting in 1980, and as the league has grown to become the dominant sports entity in North America, the coverage of the draft has grown right along with it. But despite the histrionics of Mel Kyper Jr. and the scores of mock drafts which sprout this time each year like daffodils, it is stultifying to watch and with the exception of a handful of players rarely means much about the near-term success of any NFL franchise. None of which matters to ESPN or to the millions who tune in to what has grown into a prime time start and three full days of coverage.

But this weekend even the NFL Draft couldn’t win the title of the most over-hyped sporting event. That dubious honor went of course to the Fight of the Millennium. Millions plunked down close to $100 for pay-per-view access to the welterweight title bout between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquaio. What they and the 16,507 who paid many times that amount to see the fight in person at the MGM Grand Garden in Las Vegas was a match that inevitably fell far short of the promised drama. Mayweather, the heavy pre-fight favorite, spent the evening ducking Pacquaio’s blows and landing enough of his own to finish far ahead on the cards of all three judges.

Representatives for the two boxers have been negotiating terms for this fight for more than six years. Perhaps back then, when both were in their prime, the actual boxing might have at least approached the predictions of hyperventilating pundits. Instead the biggest news out of Las Vegas was the obscene amount of money both fighters made, and the ham-handed attempts by Mayweather’s people to deny credentials to reporters who have focused on the champion’s multiple convictions on domestic violence charges.

The first Saturday in May is also one of those rare moments on the sports calendar when horse racing claims at least a bit of the spotlight. At Churchill Downs in Louisville there were mint juleps and big hats as always, as well as any number of celebrities who presumably were unable to score tickets for the fight in Las Vegas. But this year in the days before the Kentucky Derby there was also an unusual amount of hype about American Pharoah, the favorite in the mile and a quarter first leg of the Triple Crown. A handful of horsemen were pointing out that while the colt with the misspelled name had been voted the two-year old champion last year, his first racing season had ended early because of an injury and in two races as a three-year old he had not been asked to face down a driving opponent in the deep stretch.

Those few naysayers were overwhelmed by pundits calling American Pharoah the second coming of Seattle Slew. When the field of 18 sprang from the starting gate jockey Victor Espinoza guided his horse into striking distance of the leader Dortmund. The favorite went wide around the final turn, and he along with the early leader and Firing Line raced abreast down the final stretch. The favorite who had not been tested previously was challenged mightily Saturday, and in the end pulled away to win by a length.

The greatest weekend in the history of sports ends, as the calendar says it must. The NBA and NHL playoffs will go on, as will the seasons of major league baseball and the PGA Tour. Boxing will recede into the background. But the hype around American Pharoah will only build. Horse racing longs for a Triple Crown champion, even as the interregnum since Affirmed approaches four decades. Perhaps it will all come to naught at the Preakness, or as it has so often in recent years, at the Belmont. But on a weekend when human athletes and events fell short of what was promised, American Pharoah lived up to his, and in doing so turned hype into hope for horse racing fans.

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