By Brian Murphy
Special to Page 2
At The Cooler, there's rarely a shortage of topics.
Take this weekend, for example.
Shaun Alexander went from placenta to pigskin up in Seattle.
Browns fans wore dog masks at Candlestick, and nearly asphyxiated themselves in 90-degree heat.
And in Eugene, Oregon, fans stuffed their Ipods playing the collected works of the Dave Matthews Band into their VW buses long enough to celebrate a big-time Ducks' win. Because football, besotted with its wartime analogies, is the sporting equivalent of the World Trade Organization, that means Autzen Stadium will be egged by ski-mask wearing protesters in due time.
In the meantime, party on, Ducks.
While all of these are "Weekend List of Five'' candidates, I come to The Cooler today instead to propose a different list.
Today, we go with the "All-time Cooler Weekend List of Five."
Because today, we put The Cooler into semi-retirement.
I can hear the audible gasps from my loyal readership -- and really, Mom, isn't it time you clicked over to cnn.com or, at the least, benandjlobreakup.com for a higher-level form of entertainment?
Here's our thinking at Page 2.
We'll let you in on a little "insider" talk from World HQ in Bristsol, CT, which is not unlike the KAOS World HQ manned by Bernie Koppell in "Get Smart:"
The Cooler was born in November, 2000.
(That was back when people thought the candidate who received the most votes actually won the presidency.)
The pitch went like this:
ESPN SUIT: We've got Hunter Thompson and Richard Ben Cramer penning literate essays for our new venture. Can you bang out a half-assed take on the weekend sports scene to flesh out the page, and get it to us by Sunday night?
ME: Will you pay?
ESPN SUIT: Sort of. Well-below scale, to be honest.
What ensued was nearly three years of Cooler Talk. Some of you laughed. Some of you cried. Some of you asked, quite plainly: Who are you, and why did they issue you a laptop?
Recently, the Bristol Braintrust and I came to a conclusion. Murph, they said, why don't you spread your literary wings even more? Why constrict yourself to the straitjacket that is the format of The Cooler? Why not let your Muse take you on journeys into creative places you never dared existed?
My response: Will you guys still pay?
Their response: Sort of. Well-below scale, to be honest.
My response: Deal.
Now, now. Don't get weepy. I even sent a telegram to my boy Johnny -- you remember him, the shoeshine guy from the old "Police Squad!'" episodes -- in Dubai, and he gave the seal of approval. His response read: Murph. Stop. The Cooler has sucked since you wrote me out anyway. Stop. Now if you'll excuse me, I have a German supermodel to escort to the race track. Stop.
Good ol' Johnny. As sentimental as the final scene from "It's a Wonderful Life."
So here's the deal: The Cooler goes into semi-retirement, sort of like Keith Jackson or Roberto Duran.
In the meantime, we'll try to write half-baked essays, rants and lists on Mondays for Page 2. And if I can't get it done in time for Monday -- well, they'll still pay me any other day of the week.
Nice work if you can get it.
With that, we review an "All-time Cooler List of Five," highlighting the Best and Worst of The Cooler -- or, at least, The Best and Worst of The Cooler dating back to February, 2002, which is when I got tired of reading my own archives and decided to put pen to paper.
1. Oh, The Places You'll Go!
Not to mention the endless Marriott points in various spots around the Lower 48.
But today, we don't honor the places The Cooler was penned. Today, we honor the places The Cooler honored.
At The Cooler, we have glorified, in order of worship: 1) New York City; 2) Chicago; 3) Philadelphia; 4) Boston; and 5) Reno.
San Francisco, naturally, is exempt from the list. You can't vote for your own teammate.
I've called New York the greatest drinking/cab/sports fan town in America. I have marveled at an experience consisting of Wrigley Field by day, The Lodge by night. I have stated, without question, that the most beautifully insane people in this country are Philadelphians, as symbolized by my former Gold Cane bartender Paulie, who flew an Eagles flag 365 days a year out of his San Francisco apartment.
As for Boston? The Cooler once marveled at Celtic bricklayer Antoine Walker lashing out at a fan, then saying the fan had been on him for SEVEN YEARS -- a sort of Tibetan monk-styled persistence and dedication offered by that heckling fan. Boston, man. The Cooler once noted of its sports culture that "beneath its John Updike tweed and Doris Kearns Goodwin earnestness ... it's basically Cleveland, with foliage."
Reno? Speaks for itself.
2. The Sports Thoughts
Let's get this out of the way right now: Any take offered on boxing, horse racing or the NBA was strictly filler.
The NBA -- such a sad case. I loved it, once. But then Boston and Detroit played a playoff game last year. The final score was 66-64. Don't get me wrong. I love defense. But let me repeat: The final score was 66-64. Chew on that, dweller. Inhale that. David Stern, get back to me when your league is doing what it does best -- not what it does worst.
The rest of the sports, The Cooler loved.
Even the NFL, with its quasi-imperialist themes, provided great theatre. Who could forget FlutieMania? Or the verb "To Gruden?" Or Brian Billick's caustic disdain for any media member, even though the media is Billick's conduit to the public, which pays for his outrageous salary, which allows him to ply his absurd trade and inflate his absurd ego at his will?
And who could forget that magic day in February, 2003, at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am when Tom Brady admitted that he's a Cooler Dweller?
I nearly have to wipe away the tear, dweller.
College football, we love -- even though no one listened to our repeated plea for the 4-bowl New Year's Day: Lindsey Nelson at the Cotton, Enberg and Olsen at the Rose, Jackson at the Sugar and Criqui at the Orange. College hoops? Come on. What would life be without rips for Steve Lavin and love for Gene Keady's increasingly amazing Combover?
Golf took up an inordinate amount of space at The Cooler -- but you have to dance with the girl that brung ya. If the S.F. Chronicle is paying to send me to the last 12 majors -- then, dammit, you're going to get 12 Coolers dedicated to majors. Drink up. I still think the idea of the "Caddie Media Guide'' listing Missed Tee Times, Bad Habits and Felonies/Misdemeanors was an idea just a club short of brilliant.
And baseball? Come on. Talk about my family before you talk about baseball. At The Cooler, we reveled in the Little League World Series (Danny Almonte, even with the bogus birth certificate, still makes us wet our pants) and the low-budget Minnesota Twins. We reviled in horror at purple-clad Arizonans winning a World Series well before their time. And we sought serious therapy at The Cooler on a dark October night, when Scott Spiezio turned on a Felix Rodriguez fastball to start the Mother of All World Series Rallies, and the Mother of all Giants Fan Heartaches.
Baseball rules. Its rhythm, its strategy, its skill and its aesthetic remain the best thing about American sports. The Cooler will never waver on that topic.
3. We Hardly Knew Ye
To Dale Earnhardt, who died in the midst of pursuing his passion.
To Ted Williams, whose death we refuse to classify on the macabre terms laid out by his son, and instead remember as my father's hero and the man who taught me how to hit a baseball with his book, "The Science of Hitting."
To Al McGuire, who saw life as seashells and balloons, and a good joke over a Scotch.
To Riverfront Stadium, where the ashes of Pete Rose's betting slips still dance in the air; to the Kingdome, where REI-clad denizens of the Pacific Northwest cheered on Steve Largent; to Three Rivers Stadium, where the sounds of Sister Sledge still reverberate in memory.
To Bobby Bonds, whose gift lives on in his son's otherworldly skills.
And to Johnny Cash, who'd write a song about all of the above -- and sing it in plain-spoken American talk.
4. It's a Love-Hate Thing
Stram, for his work with Jack Buck on radio broadcasts of Monday Night Football. Sampras, for understated greatness. Armstrong, for Bunyan-esque feats. Giambi, for being a modern-day Mickey Mantle. Alou and Baker, for being the two greatest guys to ever talk ball with.
Those Entirely Unwelcome: Paul Tagliabue, Phil Mickelson, Roger Clemens and Bud Selig.
Tags, for multiple offenses: general arrogance, the blackout rule, European and Japanese imperialist sentiments and the five-game exhibition season. Mickelson, for all-around phoniness. Throw in some more of your real self, Lefty, and we'll love you. Clemens, for saying he'd go into the Hall as a Yankee. Selig, for dismissing small-market ball, and for the All-Star Game.
Hey, at The Cooler, you're either in or you're out.
5. The Best Part About Running the Cooler
If I had brilliant takes from my pals, well, then The Cooler was the perfect place to make their views known. On the one hand, we had my boy Roberts wishing NFL halftime entertainment would consider the concept of bare-knuckled prisoners fighting for early parole. On the other hand, we had the Collected Works of My Boy T.C., who became such a cult figure, he inspired fan mail. A review of T.C.'s takes produces these gems:
-- On fan clubs at the Vet, particularly the club devoted to Vicente Padilla: "He has Padilla's Flotilla. I would have gone with Padilla's Tortillas."
-- On Bob Huggins' game-day apparel: "Who wears a three-piece suit? He looks like Louie DePalma."
-- On the prevalence of low-rent "reality" show hosts: "For my money, there's only ever been one true Game Show Host ... and it was Gene Rayburn."
-- On seeing the flowing blond mane of Cameroon soccer coach Winfried Schaeffer: "Now there's an Indomitable Lion."
If I had icons I wanted to hold up for closer inspection ... well, then, The Cooler allowed me the latitude to ponder the sociological effect of the Ligues -- the Chicago Ligues -- on father-son relationships all across this great land.
And if I had catch-phrases I wanted to push across ... well, then, The Cooler was the perfect gathering point.
So it was that I could tell of the small-scale bodybuilding competition in San Francisco on a Sunday afternoon in a mostly-empty theatre, in which a fan implored a competitor named Bobby to "Hit the light ... hit the light, Bobby, hit the light!"
Or we could dig deep on Frank Bruno's English-accented assertion that "You don't get an Olympic medal out of the sweetie shop."
Or we could, in moments of deep meditation, remember what my boy Sully always remembered, and that was Lenny Kravitz on MTV saying of a sad development in the world: "These are the last days, man ... the last days."
Ultimately, though, The Cooler remembers the best of times. And so it is that we remember a fall afternoon at the Rose Bowl in 1989, a UCLA-Michigan game playing out on the immaculate turf, and in front of us, a sandy-blond surfer-stoner who, after a particularly fine play by the home 11, embraced us in joy and shouted:
"We play some ball on the West Coast!"
With characters like that, you think we'd retire The Cooler forever? Please. Consider this a step forward, with a nod to our past, and an eternal acknowledgment that we do, indeed, play some ball on the West Coast.
Brian Murphy of the San Francisco Chronicle writes the "Weekend Water Cooler" every Monday for Page 2.