The Best of Times, The Worst of Times
by Robert Ferringo - 06/21/2006
Sports - and by extension sports betting - can be an incredibly intense and emotionally overwhelming experience. In most instances we are left awe-struck and inspired by the incredible feats that athletes can accomplish. Sports are supposed to be the Realm of the Righteous, where man's wrongs are righted and where victory is bestowed upon the most honest and noble of competitors.
Unfortunately, it doesn't always work like that. For every yin there's a yang. For every light a dark. And for every amazing instance of titanic triumph there is an equal and opposite occurrence of gut-wrenching agony and atrocity.
This past Saturday and Sunday gave us perfect illustrations of the dark and heart-breaking side of sports and wagering. We would have all been better off spending the weekend dropping acid and going to the county rodeo. Instead, fans, gamblers, and Worshippers of Fate alike were privy to several fantastic failures and moments of brilliant destruction. The carnage that took place over one 36-hour period is still sending reverberations throughout the Sports World.
I had recognized the power of these moments at the time, but was stunned by an article on cnnsi.com this week proclaiming last week "The Greatest Sports Week Ever". That's a bit like saying that the Spanish Inquisition was "The Most Pious Time Ever". It's an outrage. A claim of a lunatic. Depending on where your money lied, last weekend may have been enjoyable or profitable. But from my vantage point it was abhorrent.
Saturday, June 17, approx. 3:42 EST
The United States was robbed. Pick-pocketed in broad daylight. Mugged in front of 100 million people. You know the story by now - against the Italians we took one brutal elbow, two illegitimate red cards, had a potential game-winner disallowed, and outplayed a soccer power with just nine men - and it is one most won't soon forget.
The insulting part is that the culprit has a Past. Referee Jorge Larrionda was investigated and reprimanded back in 2002 for unspecified "irregularities" in his officiating. His morality and his credibility had been called into question, yet here he was, four years later, tossing out red cards as if he was Karl Marx during the single biggest game in United States soccer history.
Our cries of "Foul!" fell on deaf ears. Of course, it's tough to seek sympathy from people who dodge bullets on their way to work, live in areas with 70 percent unemployment, or face regime change at the end of bloody sabers. Santa Claus doesn't visit those children, and corruption is seen more as a survival instinct than some contemptible vice.
It wasn't that we lost - we didn't, we tied, and it paid 6-to-1. But I don't buy the idea that the experience was a positive one for our side. The spin is that we had gained the respect of the international soccer community because of our toughness and grit. What really happened is that we were hustled, conned, and swindled. We were taken out the back and flogged, and in a lot of people's minds we looked like suckers.
And what about those who were sitting on a 6.5-to-1 payout for an American win, or those who had multiple Benjamin's on the Americans to advance? Casualties. Collateral damage. Like Brian McBride, we were all introduced to the seedy and underhanded world of international soccer. We were baptized in blood.
Sunday, 6:54 p.m.
As Tiger Woods was home mourning the loss of his dad on Father's Day, Phil Mickelson was one hole away from joining Tiger as the only men in a half-century to win three consecutive major championships. It would be historic.
Mickelson was the obvious crowd favorite and the house favorite entering the tournament at Winged Foot in New York. When Woods missed the cut for the first time in his professional career, you could feel the chips shift to Mickelson as people attempted to either press or hedge on Lefty. And when he teed off on Sunday with a share of the lead it seemed like the perfect time to double-down.
(If you don't think that there are big-money gamblers floating around the clubhouse, you probably believe that cops don't lie and that your goldfish is waiting for you in heaven. These men are Players.)
Lefty was poised for the payday - up one stroke with one hole to play - but inexplicably swapped his golf game for mine. His drive hit a tent. His second shot hit a tree and went 25 yards. The third shot found the sand and the fourth flew the green. His bogey chip, which he needed to make to force a playoff, rolled meekly past the hole. Just like that, the entire tale and trajectory of Mickelson's career may have been altered.
His battles were against nature and against himself, and Mickelson lost both during his implosion. It was like watching your alcoholic cousin sit down, two months out of rehab, and crack a beer at the family picnic. You heart - and possibly your wallet - was broken knowing that there was nothing you could do.
Sunday, 10:23 p.m.
The Atlanta Braves eighth inning pitching stats against Boston were a speed bump on the Monday sports page: three pitchers, six runs, five hits, two walks and a blown two-run lead. All six runs were scored with two outs. The result was a 10-7 win by the visiting Red Sox. It was Atlanta's seventh straight loss and left them 13.5 games out of first place.
What tragedy lay here, you ask? The game marked The End for the Braves. I know there's still 90 games to be played, but Atlanta doesn't stand a chance of catching the Mets. The coaches know it. The fans know it. John Smoltz knows it. Their organization hasn't been in this position in nearly 15 years and it's searing their flesh.
Atlanta has won 14 consecutive division titles, a feat that may never be duplicated and one I feel doesn't get nearly the appreciation it deserves. Beyond that, The Streak is the heart and soul of Atlanta fans. It's their identity. Once they don't have that to latch onto, Atlanta fans will become Linus without his blanket.
I was at this game. I could hear and taste and touch the frustration and disappointment of Braves fans. Mets fans know those feelings well, and I enjoyed watching them soak into my arch-enemies. Many insiders feel as if the Braves bullpen was the one thing that kept them from winning more than one World Series. So to have their demise punctuated by a bullpen blow up - in front of a packed house, on national television, against a premier franchise - was a horrific and symbolic nail in the coffin.
There are people who have made a killing on Atlanta's divisional domination. Along with wagering against Mike Tice in a big game it's been the best bet in sports. But the sun has set on those days. The Braves are dead. Long live the Braves.
Monday, 12:27 a.m.
After shuffling out of the Braves-Red Sox game at Turner Field, my friends and I ran over to an empty bar next to the stadium to catch the end of Game 5 of the NBA Finals. As dejected Braves backers trickled in to The Bullpen they were swept into the ruckus that we were causing over the game.
In their emotionally fragile state, the Braves fans were prime targets. Before anyone new it there were beers and bills flying across the joint as wagers were placed between complete strangers. Black and white. Northern and southern. Die-hard and bandwagon. It didn't matter. It was madness, and everyone wanted action. I actually had Dallas getting four points in one bet and Miami with three points in another. Double-or-nothing in overtime. We were shamelessly fleecing the locals.
However, I couldn't help but feel disgusted by the way that Dallas had the game ripped from its clutches. Granted, they did suffer a complete mental meltdown in the final two minutes of overtime. But they still played well enough to walk out of South Beach with a win and with the series back under control.
This one was stolen in one swift and decisive motion down in the swamps of our nation's most corrupt and vile state. Bennett Salvatore (again with the Italians) made an absolutely despicable call on Dwyane Wade's drive at the end of overtime to hand Miami the match. Anyone who thinks that was a foul can't be trusted when it comes to hoops, and I wouldn't leave them alone with your money or your wife either. It was a travesty, pure and simple.
The silver lining and a poor consolation prize is that the Mavericks did cover the 2.5-point line. But that makes no difference. That one revolting call sucked the remaining life out of the Mavericks. They were a shadow of themselves in Game 6. What should have been the Return of Fun to the NBA became a karmic catastrophe as those ruthless thugs and scumbags on the Heat hoisted the trophy. It was unsettling on several levels, and the final entry from a fateful and fascinating weekend of sports and gambling.
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