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Seasonal Sports Transitions

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Major professional sports used to have discrete seasons that did not overlap. A baseball season of 154 games would run from mid-April until late September. Now the season begins around April Fool's Day or even before. Early April games are occasionally "snowed out" in northern climates. The World Series continues until late October, or even into November. NFL football starts its "pre-season" in early August and runs through the February Super Bowl. Hockey and basketball have always claimed the winter months, but now they overlap both football and baseball seasons as well.

The committed sports fan has to make a decision when to "transition" from one sport to another. Of course, you can follow baseball and football at the same time. However, for most fans there comes a time when the local heroes of the diamond are so out of contention that the prospect of following a new season in another sport becomes irresistible. A clean slate for each team each year! That is a joy to behold, especially when your baseball club is mired near last place.

Each new season brings glorious, if unwarranted, optimism. I remember a business trip to Tampa a number of years ago when the Rays were still called the Devil Rays. A local sportscaster reported from spring training camp that the club looked so good that folks were talking openly about a pennant. I thought that was terrific, at least until it was clear that the club would again end up in the cellar of the American League East. I hope that the same sportscaster is still around now that the Rays are a great club.

The addition of the wild card in Major League Baseball after settlement of the 1994-95 strike has added a new variable to the seasonal transition mix. A club may be out of the race for the division championship, but it takes much longer to write off the wild card. For example, are the Red Sox done for - especially now that the club's MVP, Kevin Youkilis, has undergone season-ended surgery? How do you decide when to start following the Patriots or any other professional or college team?

Some fans have their favorite sports and will not shift their focus as long as their team takes the field. That is commendable loyalty. Others simply hate the next sport that will fill the headlines of the sporting pages. (I, for one, find it difficult to adjust to the jarring collisions of football after a summer enjoying the pastoral calmness of baseball.) Others will switch their attention to football only after a their collects a few wins in a row.

There are some cities that are devoted football towns. Washington, DC, for example, is the domain of the Redskins and has been for a long time. The Washington Post is filled each day with a half-dozen pages of reporting from training camp. I remember a summer in Washington as an intern at the State Department - could it really have been 1966? - when I attended a party at a Congressman's home. The Skins were playing a preseason game that, as far as I could tell, meant nothing. No regulars played. When the ball was kicked off, all political discussion ceased and the "party" changed to a viewing event as dozens of guests gathered around the television set to watch their beloved squad lose. At least there was no line at the bar.

The seasonal sports transition issue, of course, only really applies if you are in or near a metropolitan area with teams in more than one professional sport. Folks in Oklahoma City will wait for Thunder preseason camp, while they are enjoying Sooner football. The same is the case with the Columbus Blue Jacket faithful. There are such folks, but they have the treat, in the meanwhile, of watching the Ohio State Buckeyes crush their Big Ten rivals.

Then there are the fans in our biggest cities who have a choice of teams in each sport. Mets? Yankees? Rangers? Devils? (or even the Islanders?) How do you decide for whom to root? Some of those choices have been made for you by your "ancestors." If your family has always rooted for the Pinstripers, you may have to move out of the house to switch your allegiance. (You will also have to explain exactly why you have decided to root for the Mets.) Mets fans, of course, at least the older ones, are still angry about the Dodgers and/or Giants leaving town more than a half-century ago.

The seasonal transitions of sports are a built-in safeguard against despair. When baseball was the only game in town and the leagues played in circuits of eight clubs each, your team could be out of contention by late spring. It was a long time to wait until next spring training. We should rejoice in the abundance of sports in which we invest our time and our commitment. Now, do you think the Sox have a chance without "Youk?"

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