By Jason Keidel
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It’s no secret that the last year in New York City was a sporting sewer. Not one of our local teams made any tangible noise, and few seem to have a very fruitful future.
So if we can’t necessarily latch onto a league or team, let’s talk our town.
The next few days represent a cornucopia of high-end sporting events, almost enough to slap together a tourist brochure.
First we have the Belmont Stakes, which needs little introduction or dissection. California Chrome is pining to become the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win horse racing’s Triple Crown. It gives an otherwise peripheral sport a rare moment to bogart the bold ink.
The difference between a Triple Crown threat or none is immeasurable, nationally and locally. At least an additional 50,000 people will attend the race based on the idea of a colt ending the 36-year drought that has assumed mystical contours.
A dozen horses have been at this very verge of history, only to have a bad injury or bad breaks or poor performance thwart their moment of immortality. If you’re rooting against California Chrome and don’t have some interest in the other horses, then you probably root against Christmas.
Three hours later, a few miles west at Madison Square Garden, Sergio Martinez and Miguel Cotto are fighting for the meat of the middleweight belt. While we often associate and mythologize MSG in basketball and hockey hues, you could reasonably argue that it is boxing that made the Garden great.
You can have CCNY and Willis Reed and Mark Messier. I’ll take Joe Louis and Ray Robinson and Rocky Marciano. MSG was the main nerve of boxing, and boxing was the main nerve of Americana, at least after baseball. But no sport commanded your attention and demanded your emotions like pugilism did for decades.
Oh, and there’s the Fight of the Century, which was really the Night of the Century. That would be March 8, 1971, for the uninitiated. No sport, no athlete, no icon was or is bigger than Muhammad Ali, and no one stretched his survival skills more than Joe Frazier. The fight speaks for itself, living up to its hyperbole and then some.
It wasn’t that long ago that boxing still consumed the city and the Garden. Especially if you had a local fighter, or a fighter with local characteristics. Like Cotto, who has already fought nine times at MSG, selling out each bout. It’s not a surprise that gifted Puerto Ricans are princes in this area, and MSG is often flooded with flags and cowbells and salsa music in an ethnic chorus serenading their guy, from Wilfred Benitez to Hector Camacho to Felix Trinidad to Cotto.
Then, of course, we have the Rangers, who had Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final in their back pocket — and gave it back. They return to MSG next week either down two games or tied at one, with the latter being far more desirable, for obvious reasons.
Say what we will about hockey, about how it doesn’t really resonate nationally — or perhaps even regionally. The NHL is what it is, and if you aren’t in the hockey hot pockets on each coast you probably won’t miss work to watch this series.
But it is here, in the middle of Manhattan, and the symmetry is unavoidable. It’s been exactly 20 years since the Rangers were in this position, and while they are an underdog in this series, they were underdogs in just about every other series in these playoffs. And the Blueshirts have shown an apathy toward pressure or predictions.
Would it shock anyone if the Rangers turned this season and series on its ear by beating the favored Kings? New York is used to underdogs, from the Mets to the Jets to the Giants to even the Yankees in 1996. We’re not fazed.
Pick your triple handle. Imagine the sporting triumvirate, trifecta or hat trick of Chrome, Cotto and King Henrik winning their respective crusades. It would give our city some juice and a much-needed moment of eminence.
But even if we don’t get what we want, we are still the vortex of American sports, which feels quite fine — if not fitting.