Posted by: mdegeorge | February 14, 2011

A fan at the crossroads

My rooting interests as a fan are, to say the least, diverse, and to say the most, borderline schizophrenic. It’s entirely possible that I am the only card-carrying fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Indianapolis Colts in existence upon this earth right now…or possibly ever.

The unique distinction gives me the privilege of making a number of claims few can. For example, I can boast backing teams that have won three World Championships in the last five years. It’s something many of my Philly peers can’t claim over their lives (and for friends of mine who are Eagles fans, even their parents’ teams can’t fulfill that ode.)

But the success that I’ve long enjoyed now brings uncertainty on all fronts. To say that all three franchises currently stand at a crossroads that could undermine their past success and prevent future successes isn’t an exaggeration.

The Penguins, veterans of two of the last three Stanley Cup Finals and once a favorite to increase that quantity to three of four are crumbling. Despite maintaining the second spot in the Atlantic Division and fourth spot in the top-heavy Eastern Conference despite more closely resembling an AHL team than a Stanley Cup contender.

The team that has ascended to the role of perennial Cup contender on its up-the-middle strength nonpareil has seen all four of its top centers miss significant time. Mark Letestu faces at least another month on the shelf. Jordan Staal’s season didn’t begin until January thanks to a post-operative infection and a freak morning skate accident. Evgeni Malkin’s already injury-riddled season is likely over. That’s all on top of injuries to the Pens’ closest approximation to a scoring threat on the wings, Chris Kunitz, and their biggest forward acquisition of the offseason, Arron Asham and the prolonged funk following Mike Comrie.

But even in injuries, as on the ice, Sidney Crosby takes the fore.

The star’s concussion has kept him out of the lineup since Jan. 5 and will likely keep him in streets until at least March. Crosby has vowed to play again this season, but the simple fact that such a declaration is necessary points to ongoing symptoms and led to Friday’s revelation that he’s acknowledging the possibility that he may not.

The debate as to whether staying on the sidelines for the rest of the year is actually beneficial to his career in the long term (concussion veteran Keith Primeau even weighed in on the matter). All of a sudden, the comparisons to Wayne Gretzky are giving way, replaced by names like Eric Lindros. The league, not to mention the Pens franchise, is now being confronted directly by the concussion issue in a way they never expected yet always feared. From a Pens perspective, the risk-reward scenario of a title run this season seems to be shifting towards precaution for the sake of the franchise.

While the Pens’ uncertainty is limited to the Steel City, the only redeeming quality of the drama in Indy is that it is being relegated to the back burner by a labor issue that could render it moot, at least for a season. The Colts appear to be in some kind of standoff, albeit a quiet and at outward appearances congenial one, with Peyton Manning, the unquestioned face of its franchise and the only thing separating it from the fate of the Cleveland Browns the last decade.

The Colts want Manning to stay. Manning wants to still Indy home provided the price is right. Both sides know the Colts would bear a striking resemblance to another Cleveland squad, the hapless Cavaliers, were Manning to bolt, leaving the town’s vibrant footballing atmosphere decimated. The Colts this week took the obvious yet bold step of announcing that they have no qualms about placing the franchise tag on Manning next year to keep him under contract. Manning has in the past made salary concessions for the betterment of the team, deferring pay to allow the team to afford other stars like Marvin Harrison and Dwight Freeney. Now that he’s at the bargaining table for himself, he rightfully wants his due.

It’s a negotiation proceeding with enough mutual respect on both sides to get done. But team president Bill Polian, owner Jim Irsay, and the team’s rabid fan base must know that mishandling the situation could be the biggest disaster in franchise history (Indianapolis history that is) and send the darlings of middle America back to the middle of the mediocre pack.

It’s certainly difficult to envision the four-time MVP in a jersey other than Colts blue, not just because of my fan sentimentality. But the uncertainly from a club that prides itself on exemplary stability coming from the most prominent source of that constancy in Manning is disconcerting.

The Cardinals face a more dire situation with their star slugger, Albert Pujols. The club is firmly backed against a wall with literally hours remaining before the deadline imposed by Pujols of February 16 to reach a new deal. Pujols, as he did last season, steadfastly refuses to negotiate with the club during the season and has vowed to lock the Cards out of negotiations until he becomes a free agent at season’s end.

This self-imposed deadline isn’t Pujols playing hardball only to renege later in the season. He has shown repeatedly an aversion to talking turkey while negotiating a tough season. If he says no offers until October, you can take it to the bank.

That gives the Cardinals around 24 hours to pony up the cash that the best player in baseball deserves. At 31, he still has several years left in his prime. Not to continue railing on Cleveland, but a Pujols-less Cardinals squad in 2012 could resemble the punchless Cavs thank to the removal of a local hero and the team’s heart and soul.

The three-time NL MVP Pujols, who recently rejected an offer from the team, want money like what Alex Rodriguez got from the Yankees. He deserves it. The Cards have it. The equation should be pretty simple. Failure to sign him would cast a pall over the season and be a constant distraction off the field. Plus the thought of him wearing a Yankees or Mets uniform next season is galling beyond belief.

They’re three teams, with three championship superstars on the precipice of franchise-altering decisions. My fan future hangs tenuously in the balance.

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