TEMPE, Ariz. — “Do you want to have an argument?” the man asked.

An odd question. But Mendel the bartender did not hesitate. You learn never to say two things if you want to make it in the bartending business. One is
“We’re out of ice.” The other is “No.”

“Sure,” Mendel said, polishing a glass. “What’s the subject?”

“The national championship in college football,” the man answered. “It really burns me up.”

“OK,” Mendel said. “You start. But first, have a drink.”

I moved my stool closer. Here we were in this seedy little watering hole somewhere outside of Phoenix, with cactus plants in the corner and corn nuts on the bar, and these two guys were going to butt heads over one of the hottest arguments in sports. This I had to see.

“All right,” the man said, swallowing his drink. “Here’s the thing. They’re gonna name Oklahoma the national champion today, right?”

“Seems likely,” Mendel said.

“But what does that mean? It just means they finished first in the polls. Is it fair to call them the national champions for that?”

“Interesting question,” Mendel said, pouring a refill. “What do you think?”

“What do I think? Well, I, uh . . . it depends.” He gulped down the refill,

too.

“You see,” he continued, “Oklahoma beat Penn State in the Orange Bowl. I know that. But who did Penn State beat all year? Nobody great.

“Yet Oklahoma lost to Miami earlier this season. And Miami got its tail waxed by Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl.

“So maybe Tennessee should be the national champions. What’dya say to that, my friend?”

“Hmm,” Mendel said, stroking his beard. “That’s a tough one. Have another drink while I think about it.” Yep, we’ll never know

This went on for a while. Every time the man made a point, Mendel nodded. And poured.

“And what about Michigan?” the man said loudly. “A lot of people think Michigan could beat Oklahoma and Penn State. But we’ll never know. They didn’t play one another.”

“That’s true,” Mendel said.

“So how can you defend the system?’ the man hollered. “It’s ridooculis . .
. uh, ridiculous.”

“Easy,” Mendel said. “You’re getting upset. Calm down. Have a drink.”

“Thanks,” the man said. And he did.

They went through every team in the Top 10. The man did, anyhow. Mendel the bartender just sort of grunted. And poured. This was obviously not his first sports discussion.

“Florida!” the man shrieked. “If only Florida wasn’t on probation!”

“You look a little tired,” Mendel said. “You should take the rest of the day off.”

“Playoff?” the man bellowed. “Did you say playoff? That’s bootiful. A college football playoff. Just like they do in basketball. Bwilliant! Gweat! That’s what I was gonna suggest.”

“I toast your ingenuity,” Mendel said, raising a glass. The man smiled. And downed another one.

No one said anything for the next few minutes. Mendel refilled the bowls of

corn nuts, carefully working around the man’s head, which was now resting on the bar.

“I know what you’re zinking,” the man whispered.

“What’s that?” Mendel said.

“You’re zinking a playoff isn’t fair either, ’cause how do you decide who plays who first? What if one team has a . . . um . . . um . . . an easy first round, and another team has a real tough one? It’s not fair. That’s what you zinking, right?”

“Now that you mention it . . . ” Mendel said. No money, no trophy

It didn’t take long to see where this was going. By the time Mendel was finished cleaning the ashtrays, the man was pretty much gone.

“Champooship . . . chimpanzeep . . . ” he mumbled.

Eventually, Mendel put the man in a cab and told the driver to make sure he got home all right.

“That was pretty swift,” I said when he returned.

He shrugged.

“Tell me something,” I said. “Just between you and me. What do you really think?

“About the national championship?”

Uh-huh.

He leaned over. “Well, I look at it this way. There’s no money in it. There’s no trophy in it. Fact is, the national championship doesn’t really exist. So personally, I don’t think it matters one bit.”

Then why do all the schools and the coaches and the athletic directors and the TV networks make such a big deal out of it?

He returned to the sink. “I reckon for the same reason I do,” he said.

Which is?

He held up a dirty glass and smiled. “It’s good for business.”

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