FEAR AND LOATHING: The Sport Of Kings

Baffert's Folly, Part III … Flashbacks Of Elwayian Nightmares Long Past … The Great Ex-Cleveland Browns Wide Receiver Sweepstakes … New Duds For Bad Bills … Welcome Back, Crappy Indians.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Good Doktor has taken a few moments to pen some thoughts about the upcoming season. He asks readers to take note that he's in the midst of self-proclaimed "Hockeytown" fanatics of the Detroit Red Wings, and it's hard to write amidst the stink of rotting squid.

 

FORT GRATIOT, Mich. — The City Desk came to a screeching halt Saturday afternoon.

It was Race Day, and everything takes a backseat to the Sport of Kings when the Triple Crown hangs in the balance at New York's fabled Belmont Stakes.

The Belmont is a savage and cruel race, turning pretenders like War Emblem into staggering hamburger, and propelling knacker material like 70-1 long shot Sarava into winners. The track at Belmont Park is a dark and bloody ground of failed dreams and dashed hopes.

Once again, the elusive Triple Crown remains maddeningly out of reach, just beyond the grasp of a gambling public thirsty for new heroes.

After the race, with time on my hands, I turned down the police scanner, tuned out babbling reporters and began to mull a galaxy of notes and ideas I'd jotted down over the past few days. Between bites of sweet-and-sour tabby cat from the local Chinese place — which makes a tasty dachshund soup — I managed to construct a few coherent thoughts connecting the race to Cleveland Browns football.

War Emblem owner Bob Baffert has to be feeling a little bit like Art Modell during the 1980s. So close, yet so far in three tries at the sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Kinda reminds one of the Browns in the 1986, '87 and '89 AFC Championship games.

For Baffert, Silver Charm came up short in 1997, and Real Quiet failed in his 1998 bid for the crown.

War Emblem — a sleek, black 3-year old colt with an explosive closing burst — was favored Saturday to break the 24-year old Triple Crown drought plaguing the racing world since Affirmed pulled it off in 1978. The horse's failure reminded me of the 1989 Browns squad that collapsed in the title game at Mile High Stadium.

After a rough start, the Browns pulled with three points of the Broncos, but like War Emblem, faded ungraciously down the stretch. It was like an old tire finally blowing out. During the regular season, the Browns had put together several spectacular offensive shows, but just didn't have it in crunch time.

War Emblem was much the same. A couple of magnificent victories, a brief rally in the big game, then conking out AMC Hornet-style. The Saudi-owned horse pulled up long before the American-owned Sarava notched his first Grade I race victory.

War Emblem jockey Victor Espinoza managed to get the spent horse across the finish line in eighth place. But no one will remember them. Only winners get into Valhalla. The rest get tossed onto the ash heap of history, a la Bud Carson and Jim Schofner.

Like the Browns, War Emblem was ridden hard. He got off to a sloppy start, stumbling out of the Belmont gate. A foreboding event that cast the rest of the race in an evil pall for Triple Crown fans. A split second of ill luck and the stars cross. Life, so glorious and full of promise one second, is a bleak reality the next. Call it the Ernest Byner Syndrome: Headed for the goal line and certain glory, but losing the ball before paydirt.

It's those fleeting instances of luck that are the difference between being on the verge of the Triple Crown one moment, dog food-bound the next. Or being plagued by unnatural injuries and referee decisions one season, and winning the bloody Super Bowl the next.

I've not consulted Miss Cleo or any of her psychic ilk, but I've got a vibe that good things are going to happen for the Browns this year. The feeling came on during the race. Can't explain it. No more freakish injuries like Couch's thumb and no more outlandish calls, like Bottlepalooza.

Instead, the stars may all be aligned and the team's aura must be shining.

The I Ching says the outlook is bright.

The worm has turned in Cleveland. We will march on a road of bones to San Diego.

 

In other news …

  • The first batch of annual pro football mags like Athlon and Lindy's have the Browns taking second place in the AFC North. Clearly, they don't share my vibe, and they still subscribe to the outlandish notion that Pittsburgh is anything more than a shadow of its former self. The Steelers are doomed, and that's not shooting from the hip; it's my professional opinion. The Big Collapse is at hand for the Big Chin and his creepy quarterback.
  • Linebacker Jamir Miller is a class act. He showed up for minicamp despite the limbo status of the new contract he wants (and deserves). Miller is a vital cog in Cleveland's defense and plans, and he showed he's a team player by reporting. Let's hope the deal gets done, and this doesn't degenerate into a Bengals-style drama. Management would be foolish to let this turn into something tragic. The team simply doesn't have the depth to replace him. Not yet.
  • Defensive back Daylon McCutcheon got a new deal this week – a sharp move by the Browns brass. One of just three regular defensive starters left from the expansion team, McCutcheon is undersized, but he's a textbook tackler, perhaps the surest tackler on the team. He's not afraid to play the run. He may not relish taking on Eddie George turning the corner, but he sacrifices himself and makes the play. It'll be vital for rough diamonds Lewis Sanders and Anthony Henry to learn techniques from McCutcheon, especially since one of them will supplant him as a starting corner this season. McCutcheon and Corey Fuller at nickel and dime ain't such a bad deal, fans.
  • The Ex-Cleveland Browns Wide Receiver Sweepstakes came to an end Saturday when Keenan McCardell signed a four-year, $10-million deal with Tampa Bay just five days after being released by Jacksonville. One half of the league's most prolific wideout tandem (with Jimmy Smith) over the past half dozen years, McCardell was one of the few bright spots to emerge from the dark days of the Belichick regime.

    Former Cleveland receiver Derrick Alexander inked a three-year, $5.1 million pact with Minnesota on Friday.

    The moves help the Browns because it means two talented offensive threats are out of the AFC. The Browns will face the Chiefs and Jaguars this season, and it's likely Cleveland's defensive backs won't be sorry to see McCardell and Alexander absent across the line of scrimmage.

    Interestingly, both ex-Browns will play in the long shadows of media darlings: McCardell behind Keyshawn Johnson for the Bucs and Alexander with Randy Moss for the Vikes. My money says the Cleveland alumni have more productive seasons than their immature counterparts.
  • The Buffalo Bills unveiled their new uniforms to a crowd of more than 16,000 fans at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Saturday. The helmets are the same, but the colors are modified blues and reds. The final effect looks like an amalgamation of the Broncos' and Titans' uniforms. Newly acquired quarterback Drew Bledsoe was one of the models. It would have been appropriate to include green streaks on the jerseys to hide the grass stains Bledsoe will wear while enduring sack after sack in Buffalo.

    For pictures of the Bills' new togs, visit www.buffalobills.com. There's several links on that site to the new uniforms, and a gallery of Bills uniforms from the past. At some point espn.com's Page 2 should have a screen of comparison shots, as they've done for all recent uniform changes in pro and college sports. The Indians slightly altered uniforms on are there, but judging by the team's record and stadium attendance, no one cares.
  • Speaking of the Indians, the recent trade of Russell Branyan to Cincinnati for some nameless minor leaguer is the latest indication that this team is drifting aimlessly into oblivion. A team whose heavy lumber once chilled even the likeness of Randy Johnson now gets swept and nearly held hitless by the hapless Tigers. Sad.

    Y
    es, Branyan struggled mightily at the plate. But there have been flashes of talent. Does anyone truly believe swapping Branyan for a minor league outfielder that will play in Buffalo will do the team in Cleveland any good?

    It's also a shame to watch a blue collar slugger like Jim Thome toil away in the twilight of his career on a team with inept management and ownership that's clearly not committed to winning - or the fans. Otherwise, we would not seen such blundering moves as the Branyan trade passed off as attempts to right the ship. The Indians' brain trust has its marching order: Cut costs, win if you can. Proof positive is that manager Charlie Manuel hasn't been fired. Free-agent signings, like that of elderly Brady Anderson, were only thinly disguised cheapskate measures designed to deceive fans into thinking that management was still trying to field a contender. Cleveland fans, though desperate for a winner in any sport, are sophisticated enough to see through such measures. The long shadow of mediocrity has again fallen over the Indians. Farewell, old friend.
  • For reasons beyond my control, as Valmont would say, I stayed awake Sunday to watch the 2 a.m. live broadcast of the U.S.-South Korea World Cup match. I've little interest the "other football" but I never pass up a chance to sprinkle a little jingoistic patriotism for any of America's teams. The U.S. side took a 1-0 lead in the first half, but the feisty non-communist Koreans wore down the Yanks in the second half for the 1-1 tie. Lakewood native Brad Friedel was an absolute demon in goal, stopping shots he had no right to, including a point-blank penalty shot. Amazing bit of work. The lone South Korean goal wasn't Freidel's fault; defenseman Jeff Argoos failed to properly head the ball out of the box, allowing the home team a shot not even an angel could have snared. OK, that's all for that stupid, brutal, thuggish (and that's just the fans ...) sport.
  • All in all, it was a good weekend in sports. There was enough meat to make football's Dead Zone pass a little quicker. Hell, I even went to a Tigers game Sunday, where the highlight was my getting a nasty sunburn. I spent most of the afternoon, to my girlfriend Melissa's chagrin, comparing Comerica Park to Jacobs Field. The Jake wins, hands down. Comerica is a cheap imitation, with less personality and some bad sight lines. Plus, the Tigers are just awful. The Tribe is, too, but Detroit makes it a habit. It's not even painful to watch, just annoying. Oh, and the fan banter from the nimrods behind me was limited to almost-correct lines from Major League. Gee, Detroit, that's original. Stick to your silly games on ice. On the bright side, Comerica is just a few blocks away from Greektown and its wonderful food and snazzy little casino. Ohio is still missing the boat by not allowing casino gambling. Detroit gets about $100 million a year from its three casinos. Cleveland and its pathetic schools sure could use moolah like that.
  • For those of you that read my scribblings regularly (both of you), you'll notice the dateline at the column's beginning is different. That's right: The BerniesInsiders Southeast Michigan Bureau has moved even closer to the shores of Lake Huron, this time to swanky, chic Fort Gratiot. What that means for you, gentle reader, is nothing. What it means for me is another 20 minute's drive added on my visits to Cleveland. But at least I'm right next door to Damon's.

    And ribs are what it's all about in the end. Pass the sauce.

    Res ipsa loquitor.

 

Doc Gonzo is a former Ohio newspaper reporter and editor. He now lives in a remote part of Michigan's Thumb, safe from knaves, fools and Ratbirds. He can be reached at docgonzo19@aol.com.


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