Friday, February 29, 2008

Myron Cope 1929-2008

A piece of Pittsburgh died this week.

As I write this, people are gathering in downtown Pittsburgh to pay tribute to Myron Cope with a ceremonial wave of the Terrible Towel he invented. Newspapers, TV stations, and blogs are loaded with tributes to Cope, who died Wednesday from respiratory failure at 79.

These tributes are the most I’ve ever seen for a sportscaster. Nobody mourned Howard Cosell this way.

In the relatively brief time that I’ve lived in Pittsburgh, I can see that the tributes are justified.

Soon after I moved here in 2002, it became apparent to me that Cope was more than a sportscaster. One of the first things Jamie did to introduce me to the area was play a Steelers radio broadcast. I had never heard an announcer quite like him. His nasal voice, with a heavy Pittsburgh accent, came across like Cosell without the pretentiousness. His catch phrases, such as “um-hah,” “yoi,” and “okle-dokle,” became part of the local vocabulary, as did his nicknames for opposing teams—the “Cleve Brownies,” the “Cincinnati Bungles,” and the “Baltimore Birdies.” He made Steelermania instantly accessible to me. For the uninitiated, this site has a good collection of Myron’s sound bites.

Two of his most recent games stand out in my mind. One was the last game of the 2004 season. The Steelers had clinched a playoff berth and started many second-stringers against the Buffalo Bills, but beat them anyway. Myron marveled at the performance of the “Steelers Scrubs” and riffed on it throughout the game. He even joked that he would have T-shirts made reading “Steelers Scrubs.”

Another game, that same year, was a fairly decisive win against the arch-rival Cincinnati Bengals, in which he came up with the line, “We’re putting the lox on those Cincinnati Bagels!”

His legacy goes beyond the broadcast booth. He once joked that his epitaph would read, “Creator of Towel Dead,” and many people know him best as the creator of the Terrible Towel. The Towel, invented prior to a 1975 playoff game, has set the standard for sports team symbols. Cope was also an excellent print journalist. He and George Plimpton are the only two writers ever given the title of Special Correspondent for Sports Illustrated.

Until Myron's retirement, it was a tradition in our house to watch the Steelers game with the TV sound turned down and the radio playing in the background. I will never forget that moment before each game when the stadium music boomed in the background as the Steelers ran onto the field. Myron would sputter, raise his voice higher than usual, and generally break every rule of sportscasting, but, at that moment, he said everything you needed to know. It’s telling that, with all due respect to Tunch and Bill, we now listen to the radio broadcast only when the TV announcers really suck.

Thank you, Myron, for welcoming me to Pittsburgh.

Bye now!

Saturday, February 16, 2008

We can all stop searching now

In my intro to this site, I said that I’d blog on chess if I thought anybody was interested.

I never thought I’d get the opportunity so soon.

Bobby Fischer passed away last month in Reykjavik, Iceland, the town where his legend reached its peak. It may sound strange to call him a sports legend, or to even call chess a sport, nowadays—but for a brief period in the 1970s, both were true.

It goes without saying that Fischer was to chess what Babe Ruth was to baseball, or Michael Jordan to basketball—but he may have been even more important, as chess was made and broken by his place in the spotlight. Interest in baseball did not plummet the day the Babe retired, but when Fischer was stripped of his chess title in 1975 in a dispute over issues that wouldn’t have made Terrell Owens blink, people, at least in the U.S., stopped trumpeting chess as “the sport of the mind,” and it returned to what it was before Fischer won the title—a pastime for high school nerds.

It was the chess world’s misfortune that its destiny laid in the hands of a stark, raving loon. This was borne out by the obituary story done by ESPN on "SportsCenter." While the story did show a montage of Fischer’s extraordinary rise to the top, the most lasting images were a sound bite from a Filipino radio station in which Fischer praised the 9/11 attacks, and an anti-Semitic rant at a news conference in which Fischer vehemently denied his own Jewish lineage.

Not that Fischer was the first chess champion to suffer from mental illness. Paul Morphy, the first American chess champion, stopped playing in his twenties and became a recluse who passed his time arranging women’s shoes on the floor and dancing around them. Wilhelm Steinitz, the first official world champion, once challenged God to a game—and offered him a pawn. Steinitz eventually died in a mental hospital.

Does the intense concentration and need to anticipate an opponent’s moves at such a high level lead to mental illness, or does the game’s nature attract the unstable? A lot of bandwidth could be eaten making chicken-or-egg arguments about that question.

Fischer’s My 60 Memorable Games opens with an epigram from champion Dr. Emanuel Lasker that speaks to the game’s enduring appeal:

“On the chess board lies and hypocrisy do not survive long. The creative combination lays bare the presumption of a lie; the merciless fact, culminating in a checkmate, contradicts the hypocrite."

Other games have some element of chance, such as dice or cards. Even in Scrabble™, you have to draw the letters before you can play them. But not chess. In chess, it’s just you and your ability. That’s why many have considered it an ultimate test of intellect, if there is such a thing.
But what happens when the intellect fails—when a player reaches an opponent or position that just can’t be beaten? What does that say about a player? Maybe it wasn’t mere hyperbole when Pravda published news reports after the Fischer-Spassky match saying that Boris Spassky “would never recover” from losing the match, as if he had contracted some terminal illness. (Although Spassky has not only continued to play topflight chess for many years, but has now outlived Fischer.)

Maybe that’s why so many chess grandmasters fall apart.

Or, at the very least, maybe that’s why I don’t play chess much anymore.