By Bill Campbell
Baseball openers are on everyone’s mind, especially the Phillies’. But I suggest that the most meaningful games being played this month will be in Pittsburgh. They are hockey games.
The Flyers and the Penguins will go at it in the NHL play-offs and they could last a long time. The Flyers finished the regular season with 103 points, the Penguins with 108. Guys on both of those teams don’t like each other very much. It’s a series that should dominate the month of April before we spend too much time worrying about the Phillies. The Flyers have that winning record at the Penguins’ new home although in their last meeting there, that meaningless last game of the regular season, the Penguins won. That might have provided the Penguins with a little confidence.
A note that should be included in any thought regarding the Flyers and the Penguins before the start of this big series is breaking down some of the individual players – but look at one. The greatest Penguin on the ice this week will be dressed in a Flyers uniform. Forty-year-old Jaromir Jagr is second to Mario Lemieux in nearly every category in NHL franchise history including games played (806), goals scored (439), assists (640) and points tallied (1,079). When Jagr returned to the NHL after his sabbatical in Europe, he chose the Flyers — and Penguin fans have never forgiven him. That’s why I think that Jagr will be the stand-out player in this series and has the chance to do something most unusual. Keep your eyes on Jagr even though the Las Vegas odds-makers are picking the Penguins to win the NHL championship.
The Miami Marlins, with a new manager, new players and a brand new ball park are giving the Phillies an interesting time at the opening of a new season. The new manager is Ozzie Guillen, who has just signed a new, very expensive contract but may become the first manager to be fired in the new season, probably for a comment like this: “I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have tried to kill him for the last sixty years but he’s still there.” Comments like that don’t figure to endear Ozzie Guillen to the natives of Miami, particularly those in “Little Havana” where the Marlins’ new ball park sits. Guillen’s contract is worth $10 million for four years to be not only the manger but the voice of the franchise. He’s off to a great start. Guillen has a reputation for making outlandish statements. It will be interesting to see how long he lasts in Little Havana.
I guess it’s because of my lengthy experience as a broadcast interviewer but I cannot allow the Master’s golf tournament to pass without a comment on Phil Mickelson. He has always been a class act and is a reason why galleries resound with ringing applause every time he is on the scene – even when he is not in contention. He appeared to be a cinch to win his fourth green jacket last Sunday before taking that horrible triple-bogey on the fourth hole at Augusta in the last round from which he never recovered. An experienced interviewer like me knows enough not to even approach an athlete after an experience like that. It’s like asking a guy to review how things went in the torture chamber, asking him to recapture a tragedy like that. But Phil Mickelson isn’t just another competitor. CBS asked him to do a post-tournament interview on Sunday evening and, unlike many of his contemporaries, he agreed. He was positively eloquent and took time to note that, while the triple-bogey was disastrous, he did have throughout the back nine many make-able putts and plenty of chances to recover. He failed to make the putts and he didn’t recover. Think of what it means to say those things, with his wife and children at his side and a nation watching and listening. This was Phil Mickelson speaking. This was a guy who, from his first day on the scene, has been a class act – which is why he has always been very high on my list of great competitors.
Here’s one for the proverbial book. It’s a quote from New York Jets quarterback, Tim Tebow, who drew 15,000 people to an outdoor Easter church service in Georgetown, South Carolina, on Easter Sunday. He said that it was important to be outspoken about faith and he admonished some pro athletes about not being better role models. In his words directed at the athletes he said, “You are, indeed, role models. You’re just not good ones.” When asked what he thought needed to change culturally in America, he said, “First and foremost is what this country is based on: one nation under God. The sooner we get back to that, the better.” He welcomed the attention to his convictions as well as the Tebow-ing prayer he often strikes on the field because it puts his faith and prayer in the public conversation. Some people at this Easter service drove more than a hundred miles to hear Tebow speak, more than one hundred school busses were pressed into service to handle the transportation of the crowd. There still are many people in and out of the NFL who think this guy is a phoney; still others in the NFL whose attention is diverted to the “bounty” issue. The appeals in the bounty issue have been rejected by the Commissioner but there are indications that the names of, possibly, 27 players who might still be disciplined. Then there’s Tebow. You decide.
Incidentally, Bubba Watson is going to play in another tournament this coming weekend. Its title is the Tim Tebow Foundation Celebrity Classic at Ponta Verde Beach in Florida. Watson accidentally met Tebow last year at the Players’ Tournament and Tebow invited him to play in his tournament. Watson accepted.
The new Masters’ champion should do much for the attendance.