DO LIONS HAVE A GHOST OF A CHANCE?

He finds me in the basement, hidden behind a stack of books.

“Go away,” I say, “I’m busy.”

“But it’s Sunday,” says the ghost in the silver and blue football jersey.
“It’s Sunnnnnday. . . . “

I know it’s Sunday. I know it’s the first weekend of the NFL season. That is why I have surrounded myself with these fine, wonderful books. This year, I’m saying no. This year, let someone else be the sucker.

“I’m sorry,” I say, leafing through the T.S. Eliot, “I just don’t have time for Lions football. I have a lot of reading to do.”

“First game of the season,” says the ghost. “New coach, new offense. . .
. “

Ha. You think I’m falling for that again? New coach? New offense? Allow me to introduce myself. I’m the man who fell for Tommy Hudspeth. I’m the man who fell for Monte Clark. I’m the man who said, “David Lewis? He must be good. He’s our first- round draft choice.”

I am the man who believed it all, year after year. I have swallowed so much crow, my stomach has wings. And now you want to drag me back in front of the TV set for another 16 weeks of living hell? Ha. You have a better chance of seeing Pete Rozelle on “Love Connection.”

“You better move along,” I say to the ghost, flipping quickly through the

Dostoyevski. “I really am busy with this book. What’s it called . . . ‘The Idiot’? Hmmm. Must be about a season-ticket holder.”

“Kickoff in one hour,” he says.

“I beg your pardon?” Am I wrong? I am not wrong. Every man has his limits. These are my limits. Six years since a playoff game. Thirty-two years since a championship. Lousy drafts. Lousy trades. Fumbled balls. Fumbled fumbles. Darryl Rogers. Reggie Rogers. Limits.

“Besides,” I say to the ghost, picking a broom from the closet and sweeping around the sump pump, “it’s the same old story. Every September we think the season will be different. And by October we’re mathematically eliminated. And anyhow, I have all this housework. A man’s sump pump can never be too clean, you know.”

“Peanuts or popcorn?” asks the ghost.

“What?”

“Do we start with peanuts or popcorn?”

“You’re not listening.”

He’s not listening. He never does. I am the guy who thought Oscar Smith would be a star in our backfield. I’m the guy who thought Rick Forzano was the man for the job. I’m the guy who thought it must be the sun, or the sudden wind, or maybe an alien moonbeam, that made Mark Nichols drop all those passes.

They said it; I believed it. Every autumn I would hunker down with a bowl full of optimism, and every winter I would be left with crumbs. I was there when Mike Black missed the ball. And he was the punter. I was there when Jeff Komlo smacked a beer mug off of Keith Dorney’s head. I was there when they had 12 men on the field. When they had 10 men on the field. When Eddie Murray missed that field goal.

“Storm windows,” I say to the ghost. “What a perfect day for putting up the storm windows. Lemme see now, where did I put them? . . .”

“Barry Sanders,” he says.

“What?” I say.

“Barry Sanders.”

Barry Sanders. Colonel Sanders. What difference does it make? Every year there is somebody new, and sooner or later he gets sucked into the quicksand. Remember how excited we were about Chuck Long? Remember the unbridled optimism when Reggie Rogers came to town? Quarterback of the future! Pass rusher for the ’90s! And today we still have no quarterback and we still have no pass rush. Don’t give me Barry Sanders. I mean, how much difference can a Barry Sanders make? Where did I put those storm windows?

“He led the nation in rushing last year,” says the ghost.

“He did?” I say. No. Forget it. I don’t want to know. This is the year I use my Sunday afternoons for culture. This is the year I put on Mozart at 1 p.m. and Paganini at 4 p.m. And when there’s a Sunday night game, I’ll slip on the Beethoven. Or maybe the Bach. One of those guys. Culture.

“Well, it’s almost kickoff time,” says the ghost. “I’m heading upstairs. I’ll fluff the pillows on the couch.”

“Don’t bother,” I say, leafing through the Stravinsky records. “I’ll be down here with Concerto No. 34 in E-flat major. Or maybe No. 21 in A-sharp major. Whatever. Have a good time.”

The door closes. I am flush with a wave of satisfaction. I am finally cutting my losses. I am finally getting smart. I am finally saying good-bye to Eric Hipple down on his knees, trying to remember what day it is. To Jeff Chadwick, watching the ball bounce off his fingertips. To the offensive linemen yelling “LOOK OUT!” as the Chicago Bears go plowing through them.

I am finally bidding farewell to Sunday evenings, weeping over instant replays. To a half-empty Silverdome, where opponents have more fans than we do. I have my music. I have my books. I have the sump pump. This is great.

It is quiet now.

I am alone.

I am happy.

I am content.

I am. . . .

I am walking up the steps.

“Any score yet?” I ask the ghost, who has the Coke, the peanuts and the big box of hard pretzels.

He shakes his head and pats the couch, silently. I am moving closer.

“Just this one game,” I say, taking a seat.

“I know,” he says, turning up the volume.

Mitch Albom’s sports talk show, “The Sunday Sports Albom,” airs tonight from 9 to 11 on WLLZ-FM (98.7). Guests include Bob Gagliano.

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