One of life's cosmic bolts struck the other day. Never did I even bother to consider that when I am summoned to join either the saints or scoundrels of sport it might be etched on my tombstone: "He Kept Hockey Alive in Washington."
Abe Pollin doesn't see it that way. With a hard, but legal, check during that Tuesday press conference, his last effort to keep his Capitals in the area, owner Pollin said a column I wrote June 27 got him ever closer to the life-draining bottom of his hockey career. What he said was:
"I had reached the stage several months ago that seemed to present insurmountable problems . . . I attempted to find a qualified buyer, who would keep the team here, but none came forward. There seemed to be a total lack of interest in the Caps, by the business community, the fans and the media.
"One reporter even wrote a story that nobody really cared whether the Caps remained in Washington or left forever. I was extremely discouraged."
Not a bad assessment, Abe. Somebody actually quoting a column accurately for a change. What I'd said was: "Now a man (Pollin) who correctly sees himself as being as civic-minded as anyone not paid to be is hurt and angry about area-wide yawning over his dilemma . . . Eight years of agony, Lord only knows how many millions melted and his town dismisses the Capitals as quickly as a bad dream."
What I'd written, evidentally, was what Pollin had been thinking all along.
He went on: "Then fans started writing to me, by the hundreds, telling me how much they loved the Caps and how their lives would be empty if they lost the Caps. The Save the Caps Committee was formed, and immediately went to work to prove that the reporter who wrote the story and his editor that allowed that story to run . . . were wrong. That they were dead wrong."
There followed several minutes of Pollin's acknowledging a bandwagon being hitched: meetings with prominent businessmen, a Washington Post editorial, supportive letters from area congressmen and the governor of Maryland.
"All this feverish activity," Pollin said, "gave me hope that there may be a chance that this area would truly respond and make it possible to keep the Caps here in Washington."
A cheap-shot column?
Seems to me, Abe, it was the spark you silently, desperately wanted. Not bad from a confessed hockey hater, eh?
It's at times such as these, with one team near death and another, the Washington To-Be-Named-Laters of the United States Football League, recently hatched, that media mauling becomes fine sport. The foundering team won't say anything; the fledgling team says too much.
Both want, very often assume, the media will be a permanent life-support system. Sorry, people. You eventually fly or flail on your own. In truth, even though reporters are infinitely wise and patient, models of taste and clean living, we are not as mighty as might be assumed.
If press attention is so significant, Washington would not have lost the Senators twice and a pro soccer franchise with each sunset. Rasslin' and bowling would not thrive. We're a journalism hybrid, part just-the-facts-lady fire chasers and part theater critic, very often more objective about sport than the deep thinkers who frequently invade our turf.
Basketball somehow survived the dedicated apathy of Washington's most celebrated columnist, Shirley Povich, and classiest reporter, Dave Brady. During their eight years, whenever the urge to watch the Capitals has hit, I've usually managed to fight it off. Pollin believes that disgusting; I've called it benign neglect.
Since being burned by soccer in the late '60s, we've been more skeptical of new sports and franchises. Every paper, and there were three then, devoted a sinful amount of space to explaining the world's passion, to introducing these new Whips who soon would surely grab area hearts almost as tightly as the Redskins. When half of RFK Stadium was empty for their first game, we sensed impending doom. Properly, we've been reluctant to sell a sport since. Once shown, though, we can caress a team--say, Pollin's NBA champs of four years ago or an ordinary horde of Redskins, with near-suffocating affection.
The Post's Gang of 13 in Los Angeles in '73 for Dolphins 14, Redskins 7 still holds the transcontinental record for Super Bowl overkill (with a staff of 17 for Super Bowl 15, a Philly paper no longer alive set the record east of the Mississippi).
Many owners and coaches can't grasp the fact that reporters can be fans without being cheerleaders. Pollin has made that crowd larger, although anyone who has lost $20 million in eight years hardly can be expected to act rationally. But how can he demand massive support for the Capitals without offering reasons why they won't be as sad as always?
And shouldn't those involved in smaller businesses, whose existence also might well hinge on a drastic reduction in amusement tax, be offended if Prince George's County yields to Pollin?
To his four-point program for the Capitals' survival, a reasonable person might counter with a two-point program of his own before buying a ticket: make a major trade and put somebody who knows hockey in full charge. If faith and charity fail to sell, maybe that will happen.
Still, spirits seemed bright at the phone bank at Caps Central yesterday, at least when I ordered two tickets for the Canadiens' game. Just an ol' sporting softie, Abe.