The WNBA’s Houston Comets are officially gone. I don’t hold the view that this means some kind of impending doom for the WNBA (there’s more on that in my ESPN.com blog). But I know that there are Comets fans feeling pain that I can relate to.
A couple of weeks ago, the Arizona Cardinals improved to 7-3, which passed for somewhat of a remarkable feat for a franchise that is legendary for its poor management. I couldn’t help but notice because it was the first time the Cards had been 7-3 since 1977, a time when they were still the St. Louis Cardinals and the love of my life.
The Big Red, the Cardiac Cards, Air Coryell … all were nicknames for one of the teams that I was obsessed with as a child. The baseball Cardinals and football Cardinals occupied my mind most of my waking hours and in my dreams. The football Cardinals tended to make me the craziest … I suppose because of the weeklong buildup to each game and all the emotion I seemed to have tied up in every play.
St. Louis had its first playoff game in 1974, and I was so excited I parked myself on the floor in front of the television long before kickoff and would not move. My mother simply did not grasp why I did not want any supper following a blowout loss to the Vikings.
The next year, convinced things would be different, I allowed myself to get moronic, insane Super Bowl hopes. The Cardinals lost their playoff opener to the LA Rams, and again I felt – at least for that night – as if the world might as well have ended.
In 1976, the two greatest evils in my universe – the Washington Redskins and Dallas Cowboys – beat the Cardinals back-to-back. The latter wrecked my Thanksgiving beyond repair when Dallas demons Charlie Waters and Cliff Harris each got away with pass interference against the sadly ill-fated J.V. Cain late in the game with the Cardinals in the red zone, and they lost 19-14. (I realize Cowboys fans might not agree with my assessment of the defensive muggings, but of course they are wrong.)
The Cardinals finished with 10 wins that season, but didn’t make the playoffs.
In 1977, as stated, the Big Red started 7-3 … and finished 7-7. And coach Don Coryell departed for San Diego. The 1974-77 seasons were four years of joy and hell mixed together at a time when I was still young enough to not know anything about the “bad” side of football and all pro sports, when I didn’t think of the players as regular people with regular flaws, but as superheroes who existed only on the field in their helmets and uniforms.
Things started to change as I got old enough to understand the ugly aspects to pro sports. And it especially turned for me once I started covering sports and viewed everything in such a different way. In particular, the ruthlessness of pro football in regard to the pain and dangerous injuries players face just didn’t let me enjoy the game the way I had as a child.
Even so, with my still-new cynicism and sober knowledge somewhat in check, I went to Busch Stadium for what turned out to be the Cardinals’ final home game, in December 1987.
When that season ended, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch ran a headline that read like a tombstone: “St. Louis Cardinals, 1960-1987” and I just started crying during breakfast upon seeing it. I knew I’d never go back to my innocent childhood worship of the Cardinals even if they had stayed in St. Louis. But their departure meant it was all really, really dead. (I realize, of course, that somewhere there may still be fans of the Chicago Cardinals who felt that way when the team went to St. Louis.)
I absolutely did not even try to be an Arizona Cardinals fan. And forget being a St. Louis Rams fan. They’re still the LA Rams to me, the team that ruined my life in the 1975 season.
I still kept everything: My St. Louis football Cardinals zip-up sweater, jersey, long-sleeved T-shirt, frisbee, glasses, mug, trading cards and even a Cardinals pajama top that hasn’t fit me since I was in eighth grade. To this day, all that stuff is in my house. But my team is gone. Forever.
I admit I was a little surprised that it mattered for me – just a tiny bit – to see the Arizona Cardinals were 7-3 for the first time as a franchise since 1977. (Naturally, since then, living up to their history, they have lost two in a row. Although they’re still in good shape in the ultra-crappy NFC West.)
But, in fact, I realized that 7-3 mark was just another one of the “triggers” that sometimes makes the Big Red come back to me periodically, like a bittersweet ghost from someplace I can never re-visit and yet never completely lose sight of, either. Look, I know it’s “just” sports, and it all shouldn’t matter or still make me emotional thinking about it. But it does.
The Comets were around for 12 seasons, which is long enough for them to have become a part of some people’s lives. Long enough for their demise to leave a wound. I feel for you, Comets fans.