Our seasonal sports rhythms do not follow nature. During the autumn, nature begins to shut down. The leaves flash red and gold and then turn brown. The grass fades. The flowers and vegetables die. When we refer to the autumn of our lives, we’re talking about our last, golden years. Sports suggests a different possibilitythat the autumn of our lives is the most vital time of all. In the autumn, sports come to life after baseball and golf, with their slowed paces, have carried us through the summer hibernation. In the fall, our nature is to get busy with football, to re-energize for baseball’s playoffs and to get ready for basketball and hockey. It’s like spring planting on the farm: so much to do in such a short season. To help you cram everything in, we offer a few suggestions as you organize your calendar.
Four Weekend Baseball Series to Catch: 1. Anaheim Angels at Seattle Mariners, Sept. 20-22. 2. Mariners at Oakland Athletics, Sept. 13-15. 3. Athletics at. Anaheim Angels, Sept. 27-29. 4. Houston Astros at. St. Louis Cardinals, Sept. 20-22. All four may be crucial in determining who reaches the playoffs. And the first three will feel like the playoffs, as the Mariners, Angels and Athletics try to survive one of the best divisional pennant battles since the NL East in 1969. While you’re at it, here are a couple more possibilities: the Arizona Diamondbacks at St. Louis from Sept. 23-25 (not a weekend series but a possible playoff matchup); and Pittsburgh Pirates at the Chicago Cubs Sept. 27-29. (Late September at Wrigley is always special, even if the series is meaningless.)
Three Great Excuses to Make a Road Trip and Scalp a Ticket: 1. Texas-Oklahoma, (Oct. 12). Even in an ordinary year, this annual game has an ambience that suggests spring break in Destin with the Serbs and Croats. But this is no ordinary year, with the possibility that the Longhorns and Sooners could be rated No. 1 and No. 2 when they meet in the Cotton Bowl. 2. Miami-Tennessee, (Nov. 9 in Knoxville). As if Smacky Talk vs. Rocky Top didn’t already provide enough incentive to go up to Neyland Stadium, here’s one other attraction: The ESPN GameDay crew will be there. With the Vol Nation still inflamed over the yanked “pig in the elevator” spot, Lee Corso and the TV boys will be surrounded by more security than the Afghan president. 3. Florida State-Miami, (also Oct. 12). Compared to this annual turf battle, which this year could be for college football’s top spot, the Crips and Bloods stage a weenie roast. Don’t worry, though; the participants (supposedly) have been screened for weapons.
One Good Reason to Get Excited about Vanderbilt Football This Year: Um, ah, er, let us get back to you on that one.
One Double-Play Weekend: If your appetite for live sports is voracious, you can almost fill it on the weekend of Oct. 12-13. On Saturday afternoon, you can help the Predators drop the puck on their fifth season. From 10:30-11:30 a.m., they’ll host a “garage sale” at the GEC with used hockey sticks, gloves and pads (all washed, we hope). At noon, the Preds rookies scrimmage their counterparts from Columbus; and from 12:15-1:15 the veterans are available to sign autographs. Come back at 7 for the team’s home opener against Edmonton.
If you’d rather be outdoors that evening, MTSU, the most exciting football team in the state (at least when UT’s Kelly Washington holds himself out to rest up for the NFL combine), visits Vanderbilt. Then on Sunday afternoon, the Titans host Jacksonville in a game that always has a winner and no love is ever lost.
Double-Play Runner-Up: On Nov. 16, the Predators host the Columbus Blue Jackets in what has rapidly become a rivalry game. Then, on Sunday afternoon, you can catch two teams with even more history between themthe Titans and Steelersin what looks like Tennessee’s most attractive home matchup this season.
Three Convenient Excuses for a Weekend Trip to the Coolest City in America:Visiting San Francisco is like traveling to the Southern Hemisphere; the seasons are reversed. Mark Twain wrote that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco. On the other hand, late September through mid-October are wondrous, with dry, temperate days and exhilarating, cool nights.
If you’re looking for a (sports-related) reason to justify a trip, here are several. On Sept. 22, you can catch the 49ers and Steve Spurrier’s Redskins. On Oct. 6, the Niners host the Rams in what promises to be one of the season’s biggest games. If you prefer baseball, the Giants host the Houston Astros, in a series with playoff implications, for three games beginning Sept. 27. (For a baseball devotee, PacBell Park alone is worth the trip.) Start calling your ticket brokers now. And if you can’t scalp your way in, there are consolations. The Pacific Coast Highway beckons in either direction; the Muir Woods are minutes beyond the Golden Gate; the Napa Valley is barely an hour to the northeast; and Yosemite is reachable within a couple of hours.
One Last-Minute Ticket Solution: Want to attend a sold-out game without chancing that no scalped tickets can be had at the venue? Try TicketsNow.com, which bills itself as the cure. You can search by team name or venue; see what’s available, in what section of the stadium, at what price; and then order online. Just about any game is availablefor a price. Tickets to the Notre Dame-Stanford game, for example, will run you from $150 to $475. Or, you can pay $80 to $100 to assure yourself a decent seat for a Cubs game at Wrigley Field.
Three Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Pick the Titans to Finish Above 9-7: 1. Despite their 7-9 record last year, they still drew the first-place schedule in the weak AFC South. That means road trips to Oakland and the N.Y. Giants as well as tough home dates against Philly, Pittsburgh and New England. 2. Even with a healthy Samari Rolle and the addition of Lance Schulters, the secondary is still a question mark. 3. Less defensive line depth, and rookie Albert Haynesworth’s on- and off-field behavior so far does not inspire confidence.
Four Reasons Why the Titans May Return to Super Bowl Form: 1. Eddie George’s healthy toe. 2. Greg Comella’s healthy blocking at fullback. 3. Kevin Carter’s healthy motivation to atone for two-sack performance in 2001. 4. The same realignment that sticks the Titans with a first-place schedule also puts them in a division with the defanged Jaguars, baby Texans and an Indianapolis defense that still can’t stop a clock.
World Series Prediction: Braves over Athletics in 7 games: For the first time in years, the Braves aren’t just winning their division; they’re vying to own the best record in baseball. Atlanta’s pitching is strong; John Smoltz makes the bullpen solid; and the offense is adequate. Pitching also will make the difference for Oakland, which in August and September looked as if they wouldn’t lose again against the aging staff of the Yankees. The Series will be short on runs, long on suspense.
Alternate World Series Prediction: Diamondbacks over Yankees. If the above scenario doesn’t pan out, look for a rematch of last year’s Fall Classic, which strangely promises to be just as exciting and just as boring, all at once. Best reason to watch: Hear Yankees owner George Steinbrenner whine about how socialism (baseball’s new labor agreement, to the rest of us) is eating him alive.
One Reason to Be Glad Baseball Didn’t Strike: the Minnesota Twins. Their inflatable stadium is awful, but otherwise it’s hard not to like the Twins. Last season, their young, low-paid, underdog outfit challenged until September. This year their reward was to be placed on baseball’s death row by Commissioner Bud Selig. Then, as they ran away from their division, it looked as though a work stoppage would cheat them out of their last chance. Happily, the strike was averted, and contraction was postponed at least until 2006. Go Twinkies!
Two Good Bets for All America: Chantelle Anderson and Ashley McElhiney. Vandy women basketballers entertain strong hopes and a decent chance of bringing a national championship trophy to Nashville this year. If they succeed, much of the credit will belong to 6-foot-6-inch center Chantelle Anderson, who not only should repeat as an All American but is being heralded as a favorite for Player of the Year honors. The glue of the team, though, is McElhiney, an unflappable floor leader whose scoring abilities were too little utilized in Jim Foster’s half-court offensive sets. Now with new coach Melanie Baucomb planning to run and run some more, look for McElhiney to get more shots, including a well-deserved one at making the All America squad.
One Superior Pro Sports Value: Predators Games, Section 301. If you’re subject to nosebleeds or vertigo, this deal is probably not for you. Otherwise, however, for a mere 10 bucks you can take advantage of an all-too-rare pro sports bargain. I watched a Preds game from near the top of 301, and the view is better than not bad. From behind the goal, you can see plays develop and, often, even follow the puck more easily than from a seat on the side. Meanwhile, you can relish being the icebound equivalent of a baseball bleacher bum, and you’re close enough to mingle with the Predators’ variation on that species, the lunatics of Section 303.
Super Bowl Prediction: Pittsburgh over San Francisco. The Steelers followed the Titans’ old blueprint and built an even better model: a nasty defense reminiscent of the old Steel Curtain; a punishing runner in Jerome Bettis; a mobile, strong-armed QB in Kordell Stewart; and good young wide receivers. Oh, and one other advantagethe badass attitude of the Ravens, minus the thugs and plea bargainers.
The ’Niners, meanwhile, have re-arrived after a long rebuild. They have the most underrated QB (Jeff Garcia) and, in Terrell Owens, the Avis of wide receivers: He tries harder than Randy Moss. But the 49ers get the NFC nod for a reason that has nothing to do with their own team. With New Orleans and Atlanta no longer in the NFC West, the St. Louis Rams, who become mortal when they have to play on real grass, get fewer games indoors, none on the road.
Alternate Super Bowl Prediction, Just in Case: Rams over Patriots. No last-second field goals this time around.