Magazine article USA TODAY

March Magic. (Sports Scene)

Magazine article USA TODAY

March Magic. (Sports Scene)

Article excerpt

ONCE, March meant one thing to me and one thing only--baseball was finally back. The long bleak winter soon would be no more; spring finally was ready to bear fruit. The National Pastime had returned! I'd sit in our backyard on cold, windswept days, bundle up in a lounge chair, and stare at the small transistor radio that was broadcasting Mets exhibition games from somewhere in warm and sunny Florida. The countdown till Opening Day--an event I never failed to attend--was on.

Those warm and fuzzy feelings seem like ages ago now. The start of the baseball season can't even raise a yawn from me these days. Where once I delighted in analyzing every teams' personnel and prospects for the upcoming campaign--and could provide genuine expertise even on the bench players dotting the rosters of the alsorans--today, with the potential labor impasse, the attempts at contraction, Commissioner Bud Selig's conflict-of-interest loans and pathetic testimony before Congress, multi-multimillionaire owners crying poverty while extorting tax money to build themselves new stadiums, and the payrolls of some teams approaching the national debt of many Third-World nations, I won't even look at the standings until June. Read box scores? Yeah, right--get a real life.

Still, life in March still retains its magic and wonder--and no wonder--as the National Hockey League playoff race is hitting the home stretch and the post-season is but a month away. It all climaxes, of course, in what any right-thinking fan considers the number-one event in the world of sports--the Stanley Cup finals, a North American extravaganza that dates back to 1893. Lord Stanley's ultimate prize holds a special place in every hockey enthusiast's heart, more so if you're actually lucky enough to be there. So far, my luck's run good, having covered 11 of the last 14 finals (including the longest, fourth-longest, and seventh-longest games in history) and a myriad of memorable earlier-round playoff showdowns along the way.

Of the latter, the one that pops out immediately is Game 7 of the 1994 Eastern Conference championship at Madison Square Garden. A finer, more exciting hockey game has never been played. On the verge of going to only their fourth Cup finals since 1950, the Rangers and their fans seemingly had their hearts broken for the umpteenth time as the New Jersey Devils tied the contest in the final seconds of regulation. When Stephane Matteau saved the day for the Blueshirts by scoring the game-winner in double-overtime, the explosion of joy that erupted as the red light went on is something I can't imagine ever witnessing again in my lifetime. Never has there been such a cacophony of rapture, not even two weeks later when the Rangers finally completed their impossible dream with another one-goal Game 7 victory at the Garden to win their first Stanley Cup since 1940.

Even though I loathed the Rangers, I wanted them to beat the Devils since it was easier to take the train to New York City for the finals than to make the dreaded drive to New Jersey. More than that, though, the hatred that beat within my breast for the Rangers caused me to want them to qualify for the championship round just so it would hurt them and their fans that much more when they lost the finals. Even as I admired--and was moved--by their Conference celebration, that dark, mean-spirited part of the psyche that lurks within couldn't help but whisper its warning into the deafening roar: "Enjoy your party today, my friends, because soon you will know only sorrow. …

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