Commentary: Confessions of a Kansas City thief
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- This one's confusing. There is no doubt that it would be thrilling to have the Penguins -- and the hottest young player in hockey, Sidney Crosby -- move to Kansas City.
It would be the most exciting thing to happen to this sports town since a not-quite-finished Joe Montana was brought in for his swan song. It would be great for this town.
Personally: For a Kansas City sports writer staring at the cold and bleak winter sports months, the Penguins would be like manna from heaven.
But here's the thing: I really don't want to steal the Penguins.
This is the bewilderment Kansas City faces now. To steal or not to steal? That is the question. You know the story: The Penguins, one of the most popular franchises in the National Hockey League, are still trying to negotiate their way out of the oldest and most rundown arena in major professional sports. Mellon Arena opened in 1961 for the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera, which soon moved out because it was a lousy building even then. The Penguins moved in. They have been trying to get out of there since the Reagan administration.
Yes, this fight has been going on for years, and the latest negotiations have reached Chris Berman-volume levels. The Penguins are now in the threatening stage -- and they are threatening to move to Kansas City's new arena, where they can play rent-free. The city of Pittsburgh has so far responded to these threats quite maturely by calling the Penguins ungrateful and by rehashing the "Cows run in the streets of Kansas City" jokes that should have expired the same year as the "You can't see the sky in Pittsburgh" jokes.
Still, I understand exactly where the Pittsburgh people are coming from. We all understand the feeling of being spurned. Barely a dozen years ago, my Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore. Go back another decade, and people in Kansas City watched the Kings go to Sacramento, and before that the Scouts go to Denver, and before that the Athletics go to Oakland.
It stings. As a fan, you lash out. For years after the Browns moved, I despised everything about Baltimore. I refused to eat crab cakes. I mocked Edgar Allan Poe poems. I gave away my H.L. Mencken books. I booed Cal Ripken Jr. In this newspaper, I picked the Baltimore Ravens to lose every game 55-0, which spurred countless angry Ravens fans to write in and ask, "What the heck is your problem?"
One of those Baltimore letters stood out. It was from a woman who seemed wounded by my Baltimore vitriol. I don't have the letter any more, but I must have read it 20 times. She seemed guilt-ridden. She wrote: "It's not our fault that the Browns moved here. We would have preferred they did not move -- we remember the Colts moving to Indianapolis. It's not our fault. Why blame us?"
Why? There is no logic in the heart of a spurned sports fan. I know a woman in Minnesota who will never watch another NBA game because she hasn't forgiven the Minneapolis Lakers from leaving (for the record that was 1961). Most of us know someone who has never quite gotten over the baseball Giants leaving New York or the Dodgers leaving Brooklyn. It still makes me slightly sick to see football people in Arizona wearing St. Louis Cardinals uniforms and football people in St. Louis wearing those Los Angeles Rams uniforms -- though, of course, the Cardinals originally moved from Chicago and the Rams originally moved from Cleveland. It's confusing.
This stealing another city's team is emotional stuff. We all understand this. This is why I believe that despite what you may hear from angry Pittsburghers, Kansas City has not really gone after the Penguins. There have been no season-ticket drives, no public rallies and no letter campaigns. Sure, Kansas City offered a sweetheart of an arena deal. But that's not being aggressive. That's just being smart. Kansas City has a new arena and needs an anchor tenant. The Penguins talk about moving. What else are you going to do?
All in all, Kansas City has stood back and respectfully waited for Pittsburgh to work out its problems. Other cities would not have been quite so nice. The simple truth is that the Penguins are perfect for Kansas City. Sure, many people -- maybe even most people in town -- may say they don't care about hockey, they don't understand the rules, they won't pay to watch it. But this is because they have not seen Sidney Crosby play. He is so good, so much fun to watch, so much of a hockey prodigy that people in town would line up twice around the building to see him score. Kansas City -- like just about every other town on earth -- is always looking for the "thing to do." Seeing Sidney Crosby and the Penguins play in a beautiful new arena would be the thing to do. You are talking about a guaranteed hit.
So what happens now? Nobody really knows. Talks continue in Pittsburgh. The NHL powers work behind the scenes to keep the Penguins in town. Kansas City waits quietly and politely. Information is impossible to find. A friend from Pittsburgh called the other day to (rather bitterly) tell me that he heard Kansas City was just being used as a pawn to help the Penguins get their new arena.
"That's great!" I said.
He couldn't understand. I want Pittsburgh to work out its problems. The Penguins have been in Pittsburgh since the year I was born. The fans there suffered through the Ed Johnston years and celebrated during the Mario Lemieux mini-dynasty. They lived and died with Syl Apps and Mike Bullard and Rick Kehoe and Lowell MacDonald and a bunch of other names that don't mean a thing to us. They have filled that cracking arena for 20 years. The fans don't deserve to lose the Penguins.
Now, reality is reality, and if the Penguins are going to move anyway, then it would be best if they moved here. But I hope that Pittsburgh works things out. And if it does work out, the NHL will owe a big favor to Kansas City. A big favor. And next year, it looks like the Nashville Predators -- who play to empty seats every night -- might flee their town.
For the record: I wouldn't feel badly at all about stealing the Predators. Nashville doesn't care about them anyway. Like I said, it's confusing.
First Published February 13, 2007 12:00 am