By Steve Rushin
January 04, 2012

It's a nice idea having two NHL teams play outdoors in January in a gentle snowfall, but the so-called Winter Classic is hardly an authentic approximation of hockey's roots, given that it takes place in a baseball stadium and not on a frozen pond, cleared by shovel, lit by the headlights of a '72 Dodge Dart and contested with a single puck, so that every time it's flipped out of play both teams have to hunt for it beneath the snow with their sticks like old men combing a white-sand beach with metal detectors.

That search for buried treasure -- in this case vulcanized rubber -- is what makes any sport great. Every fan older than 15 is trying to excavate whatever it was that drew him or her to sports in the first place, before it ossified under layers of spectacle, moolah and hype.

What's been lost -- that first spark of love -- is hinted at in hockey's Winter Classic. It doesn't go nearly far enough -- the venue is scaled up, not down -- but the Winter Classic goes further than most sports, all of which would benefit from a single day devoted to a version of the game stripped to its essence.

It will take a powerful act of imagination to conjure the NFL's traditional Thanksgiving games played in a backyard, immediately after both teams have eaten Thanksgiving dinner. But try anyway. Think of Brett Favre's Wrangler commercials, but without Brett Favre. (Or Wranglers.) The rules are two-hand touch, defense counts to five Mississippis, Tom Brady is All-Time Quarterback, huddling with his back to the defense while drawing plays with his index finger on the front of his shirt.

The only other rule, of course, is Suckers Walk: Which is to say the team that has just given up the touchdown must walk to the other end of the field to receive the hand-thrown kickoff because there's only one end zone in this game, the other end of the field having been made unsafe by swing set, sandbox or flapping bedsheets. (Speaking as one who knows: You haven't experienced a clothesline tackle until you've been tackled by an actual clothesline.)

For its part, the NBA really should play one regular season game on a playground with bent rims devoid of nets, or better still with a chain net that sways like the grass skirt of a hula dancer after every made basket. The ball should be rubber, and as orange as an Oompah-Loompah, with bald spots where the pebble grain has been worn smooth. Jump shots will be borne away on the wind like a ping-pong ball on a fast river, and only the chain-link fencing surrounding the court will prevent said jumpers from rolling into the street and being squashed like a grape by the M-22 crosstown bus.

In northern cities, where the weather makes this annual game unplayable outdoors, the Timberwolves might host the Heat in a finished suburban basement, Nerf hoop suction-cupped to a paneled wall, every dunk doing new damage to the ceiling tiles, which rain dust down on all participants, rendering redundant LeBron's pregame cloud of talcum powder.

All sports would benefit from this model. Imagine the U.S. Open tennis quarterfinals contested concurrently on four contiguous courts, so that every errant shot -- unimpeded by ball boys -- rolls into a nearby match. If Novak Djokovic can execute an overhead smash without stepping on the dead Dunlops scattered around him, then he is truly worthy of his exalted status.

Likewise, what a joy PGA-golf-on-a-goat-track would be, Rory McIlroy making his approach to 18 over a Port-a-Potty and under a power line to win not a green jacket but a Blue Ribbon. (A Pabst Blue Ribbon, pulled from the pocket of his playing partner's bag.)

But the game that begs most for the Winter Classic treatment is baseball. Already forced by its own excesses to downsize -- to pull in the fences and shrink its sluggers -- baseball should devote a day to taking down the fences entirely, and hitting the kind of tape-measure home runs that can be quantified with a real tape measure.

For one day, Major League Wiffleball would invert the natural order, making masterful pitchers useless and useless pitchers masterful. The same would go for hitters, swinging for the shrubbery with majestic bombs that trace a majestic arc across the front yard before finally returning to Earth some 75 feet away.

None of this will happen, of course, because for all that we've lost in sports, there is one thing that cannot be lost, and never will be lost: Revenue. When the live audience is one person -- peering through the bedroom curtains at the ballgame below -- owners can't countenance a single day of lost revenue.

But it's nice to dream about such a game, with nobody testing positive for PEDs and everyone -- for a day, anyway -- testing positive for Pez.

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