Fed-up fan

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To borrow Lloyd Bridges' immortal line from Airplane, if you're a sports fan, you picked the wrong year to give up sniffing glue. Or maybe the wrong era.

Peyton Manning's stirring coronation in the rain was a fitting metaphor because here we are, not even two months into 2007, and the weary fair-minded fan has already seen a cheating scandal soak the illustrious Daytona 500. Hardly an earth-shattering revelation that five NASCAR teams installed illegal hamsters on exercise wheels in the trunks of their cars, but the incident was still a soul-stirring warm-up for Barry Bonds' final assault on Hank Aaron. That sucker promises be a profoundly squirrely occasion. Bud Selig is surely scheduling unanasthetized root canal for every day after May 1 in order to have a reaason for not being on hand for the historic -- or is it hysteric -- moment.

Lawdy, it ain't easy being a fan these days. With ever-rising prices so the likes of Gil Meche can make $11 million a year, you need a plump wallet to witness the action, not to mention a cast-iron stomach and a sturdy clothespin for your nose in order to care, let alone root with your heart in just about any sport. A big urn of black coffee or a nice kilo of crystal meth also helps as prime time games routinely dance with midnight.

I'm still trying to wrap what's left of my mind around the reality that sports are really no messier that any other big-bucks endeavor, like politics, business or art, although one still yearns for something pure and noble (blame the Ancient Greeks and their stinkin' Olympic ideal for that). Precious few sports events are actually inspiring. What should be a joyous celebration of excellence too often turns out to be riddled with chicanery and surrounded by the unsavory behavior of its participants, from the incessant whine of "disrespected" milllionaires to gun play and drunken driving (with or without pants) to assault and slurring someone's sexual orientation.

If this sorry state of affairs is all you know, it's business as usual, no big deal. Me, I'm a grizzled, ranting relic from an age when games were plentiful on free TV, the World Series and Super Bowl were played in sunlight, tickets were reasonably priced, and teams stayed together for more than 15 minutes. Maybe fans have no right to such things, but if you've had 'em and lost 'em, trust me, you've got the red ass.

Jerry Seinfeld lamented that sports in the age of free agency is like rooting for the laundry, and in ths day of rent-a-star deals, that feels truer than ever. Then there is the matter of megastars such as Roger Clemens, Tiger Woods and Annika Sorenstam playing partial seasons. I guess we've entered an era where if you're good enough, you can choose when you play, regardless of the impact on your team or sport. But doesn't dodging events to keep streaks alive or enhance your chance of winning a title make the achievement a little hollow? It sure makes it harder to care here in the peanut gallery

If modern sports is largely illusion and swill, we can console ourselves that there's plenty to be had. Ever since leagues and seasons expanded and the internet and cable TV joined networks, radio and print venues, the coverage, analysis, highlights and chatter has been incessant, negating the need to even watch games -- something NHL commissioner Gary Bettman noted last week on WFAN's Mike & The Mad Dog radio show when he said that the NHL is trying to cope with the fact that kids don't follow sports the way adults used to: by sitting and watching whole games. They get their sports in highlight bits, which is appropos of our Short Attention Span Theatre of a cultuire. Then again, brief doses of what's out there now may be all you can stand.

Who knows what it all bodes for the future, but I've seen heap big change during my time here on God's Golf Ball. Colleges are still hotbeds of actual fan passion, but I imagine that as wages stagnate or shrink while player contracts rise, major pro sports will continue to become more exclusive, catering to an increasingly narrow base of well-heeled fans, the majority of them hailing from the business community. Working stiffs will be left with local horseshoes tournaments. That's fine if it means we won't have to digest the bitter news that even that humble game is awash in human growth hormone and rigged shoes, or that its biggest stars have been busted after a vicious bar fight with a pair of autograph-seeking Carmelite nuns and the National Guard.

Until that day arrives with a thud, the goal is to get thorugh this year, one game at a time.