It’s the new year, time for that provocative column that deals with fresh starts and high hopes. Organization is key, of course, and this year will be different from last. Resolutions are flying about, and behind all the banter there’s an underlying seriousness. What we are doing here, we remind ourselves, is important. That’s right. Even in the face of the ever worsening situation in Iraq, the onslaught of global warming, and the daily grind of our disjointed lives, what we are about to discuss is serious stuff.
We are talking about sports, friends, and it’s about time we got this important subject back on center stage.
This is a great time of year for sports. College football is just coming to an end — how about those Broncos from Boise State and the Gators of Florida? Pro football, a completely different sport — is finally getting down to serious business. College basketball — the only form of basketball worth following — is underway. And baseball’s hot stove league, where hot air is more important than a hot bat, is at its mid-season peak.
And in our town we are treated to some other sports competition that almost no other city in the United States can enjoy: The battle between the sports departments from two competing daily newspapers, the Times of Trenton and the Trentonian.
As a journalist who began his professional career in just such a competitive tinderbox, working in the sports department of the Binghamton Press in its deathlock standoff with the morning Binghamton Sun-Bulletin, I am especially intrigued by the competition in Trenton, one of the few two-newspaper towns in the nation.
On several occasions in recent years I have wondered in this space how much longer the Trentonian will continue. But then the Times of Trenton, the paper I buy every day, went through a re-design (read cost cutting) and moved its production to a new facility that it apparently shares with its big sister publication, the Star-Ledger. Suddenly scores of late night games were not reported in the Times; readers were directed to the website. Then I noticed scores of high school games not being reported.
So around a month ago I began buying — for 35 cents rather than 25 charged by Times — the Trentonian. The paper is so thin these days that you think you are leaving part of it behind when you take it out of the vending box. Inside there is a tiny news hole, made even tinier by the presence of the obligatory Page 6 girl in a bikini, and the same “editorial” page that has few actual editorials. It does have a “Backtalk” feature that includes anonymous rants from readers supposedly phoned in to a hotline. I’m skeptical. The other day, January 7, an editor’s note appeared along with the column: “Due to a technical problem the current Backtalk could not be published today. This edition of Backtalk was published a year ago, January 7, 2006.” Last year’s rants didn’t seem any different from this year’s.
But turn to the sports pages and you find the heart of the Trentonian, still beating strongly. The morning after the Dallas meltdown, the Trentonian had the final score and details. The Trentonian stayed up late for the Florida-Ohio State game, more than I or the Times could do.
And on any given day the Trentonian not only covers yesterday’s high school sports, but runs listings of what’s scheduled for today. Sports — it may be what’s keeping the Trentonian in business.
And now, with a little help from those opposing newspapers, here are some thoughts about some favorite teams:
Yankees: Both papers accurately forecast the imminent trade of pitcher Randy Johnson back to Arizona. But neither one has yet fully explained the implications for Philip Hughes, the Yankees’ No. 1 minor league prospect who pitched last year in Trenton. Hughes will be a headliner come spring training time.
Rutgers Football: Give credit to Harvey Yavener of the Times of Trenton for watching some obscure college football game — the U.S. Army All-American Bowl — on Saturday, January 6, and picking up the announcement that the 6-foot-6, 340-pound Anthony Davis, arguably the nation’s most sought-after high school lineman, has decided to enroll at Rutgers.
Say what you want about Rutgers’ new-found emphasis on big-time football, the team is nevertheless fun to watch. As a 14-year-old kid my parents took me to watch Penn State host a Syracuse team led by Ernie Davis, the first black to win the Heisman Trophy and the No. 1 NFL draft pick who died of leukemia before he ever played a pro game. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw 80,000 fans crammed into Beaver Stadium. In a few years some kid might have a similar feeling in Piscataway.
Princeton Basketball. Offense is usually what sells tickets and generates television ratings in sports. But last Saturday I spent a few hours watching Princeton’s defense shut down the leading scorer in the nation and the entire Rice team, 51-28. It was almost vintage Pete Carril-style Princeton basketball, except today’s Princeton players can actually dunk the ball when they get free on a back-door play, as they inevitably do when they are playing well.
Based on the Rice game alone, no one should expect that Princeton will have a cake walk in the Ivy League — Penn, as usual, is a favorite, and a team like Columbia could surprise someone. But Princeton, 9-4 so far this year, is a much deeper and stronger team than it was last year, when it was 3-10 at this point in the season.
And that’s the beauty of sports, especially at this time of year. As Princeton coach Joe Scott told the reporter from the Times of Trenton, when asked about the dark days of 2006, “I don’t even remember last year.” In life as in sports, it’s not a bad way to go.