Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Unleash the sprinklers!

One of my favorite movies is Bull Durham. I just love the thick, ungainly rookie pitcher "Nuke" Laloosh. He's the Natural Man: unfiltered, unabridged, uncensored, unexamined, unzipped. Hilarious! And somehow he ended up with the million-dollar arm. (I guess in today's dollars it would be 100 million.)

One of my favorite scenes in Bull Durham is when the Durham Bulls - a minor league baseball team - turn the sprinkler system on at the field they're scheduled to play on the next day, and slip-n-slide into the wee hours in the resulting mud, causing an artificial "rain out." For some reason that scene popped into my head last spring while the Caps were in the process of blowing it in the playoffs. It's recently returned.

I came across a reader's comment on a website a couple of days ago. Something to this effect: the Caps should have stuck to their old (pre-losing streak) style of play because they don't have the personnel to be good enough on defense, and the new system is too difficult for the offensively-minded stars to master. Play to your strengths! the reader admonished.

It's easy enough to dispute the first part of this; it seems the lads can play defense; the team's GAA is down, the PK has been very effective, and even an non-expert like myself can see that they've got a new, more aggressively defensive style going. Even when they don't have the puck, they are, by and large, skating purposefully and working hard. Those things are good.

But - too true! - they haven't been scoring goals. Monday night they scored only one goal - and that was on "a depleted Rangers squad" (check out my awesome sportscaster lingo!) - and they can't even blame it on a "hot goalie," because ours was way hotter than theirs. On Saturday they scored 4 against the Maple Leafs, but that was first time they've scored more than 3 in a game since who knows when.

Obviously I'm not alone in worrying that the new system has irrevocably sucked the life out of this team - and sucked the life out of, specifically, Alex Ovechkin, Captain.

Let's talk about Ovie for a moment, shall we? (I love to talk about Ovie!)

Of course, I don't actually know him, I only admire him from afar.  And it's not only for his hockey skills, either, or his good looks (thank you, Gillette), his ability to pick up the tab, or even the fact that he wears his mother's number (bless his heart). No, what finally bumped me over the edge and caused me to plunk down my $24 to purchase that Winter Classic t-shirt with the "C" and the "8" and OVECHKIN on the back was my feeling for the guy himself. It's clear that he's been having a tough time this year, and I wanted to show my support. I won't go into all the gory details, because we all know them.  But I do want to point out that before, during and (probably) after his current tribulations, expectations are heaped upon him by the dozen, by friend and foe alike, while at the same time he's all too often put down, vilified, or pointedly ignored by the North American hockey powers-that-be.  

At the risk of sounding too maternal, let me remind you how young he was when he first came to this country (20 years), and how young he still is even now. And while some may envy the acclaim that has come his way, the celebrity, and the salary (heck, with that kind of money I could have bought the damn jersey instead of the lousy t-shirt!), those things don't necessarily make it easier to adjust to a new country, a new language, a different style of play, and a different hockey culture. (How well would Crosby have done in Krasnojarsk? Or Novosibirsk? I can't be sure, but, it's safe to say, it would have been a challenge.)

So maybe Ovie's hit a rough spot. Development - physical, mental, emotional - is not a constant upward slope. There are plateaus, and there are setbacks. But what I think we see now is someone who is growing up. Willing to risk change. Taking on new responsibility. Playing a new role on this hockey team. The role of captain. He is, as they say, buying in - not only to the new more defense-oriented system of play, but to the system writ large. Both are adjustments.

And, generally, I think, that's what the whole team is doing, or trying to do. It has to be tough, it has to be scary to make changes in mid-stream. To change the way you think of yourself. It takes intelligence, work, confidence, and a leap of faith. It takes mental toughness to stare down the naysayers.  

So what does this have to do with sprinklers? "Crash" Davis - the veteran catcher assigned to grow Nuke up - sort of a Jeeves to Nuke's Wooster - switched on the sprinklers to punctuate an interminable, losing road trip that was just oozing demoralization and misery. Why? It wasn't to avoid losing the next game; rather, he manufactured the rain-out in an attempt to take control of an out-of-control situation.  

But of course, it's only in the movies that "taking control" is as easy as flicking a switch and sliding around in the mud, or breathing through your eyelids, or wearing a woman's garter belt, or pulling the head off of a live chicken. Or a goat. But the Caps are doing it in real life, they're taking control again, little by little, with every battle won, every pass completed, every shot blocked, and every goal scored, even if they are few and far between at this point.

The other part of the sprinkler scene, though, is the mud-sliding part. That's the fun part, the letting loose. That's key, and I hope Ovechkin and the Caps are still having fun - on the ice as well as off. They're young guys, playing a game, and they need to find a way to relax and - in the words of my favorite color commentator - enjoy the journey.  

To hell with the playoffs, to hell with the Cup (I know, I know - blasphemy), and to hell with critics and cynics and, yes, to hell with fans who want it all right now. Don't be afraid! You're still you, the Washington Capitals! Work hard! Take control! Play your game! And don't forget to unleash the sprinklers!