A hockey town or baseball burg?

A hockey town or a baseball burg? The identity crisis of 18 cities is now solved.

Updated: September 30, 2003, 12:42 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

One difference between the NHL and Major League Baseball?

The NHL could have a Boston vs. Chicago Stanley Cup final and the neutral fans around the country wouldn't feel like taking an emergency two-week vacation to Rome to get away from the insanity. Among the fans of the winning team, there would be no real lasting satisfaction in the wake of a Cubs-Red Sox World Series because after the celebration dies down, then there would be nothing about which to be paranoid and complain. In hockey, Bruins and Blackhawks followers -- even those who overlap with the baseball fanatics -- could celebrate the Stanley Cup with genuine and lasting satisfaction.

Now that the baseball playoffs last nearly as long as the NHL postseason, and a World Series Game 7 could end at 3:21 a.m. (or later if it goes into extra innings) on the verge of Thanksgiving, there is considerable overlap at the front end of the hockey season. Remember when hockey was a winter sport and baseball claimed the summer? Now it seems that the period when the sports don't overlap now is about the length of time it used to take Blackhawks goalie Glenn Hall to paint the barn in the offseason.

A look at each of the dual MLB-NHL markets, where the sports stand and who deserves the most attention:

Anaheim

Baseball: Most important, the Angels' management should be sentenced to purgatory for popularizing those ridiculous thunder sticks. Going from world champions to eight games under .500 and out of the postseason? Garret Anderson couldn't do it alone. Hockey: Sergei Fedorov will be trying to make the fans at the Arrowhead Pond forget Paul Kariya, and Jean-Sebastien Giguere will be attempting to show his playoff performance was a sign of permanent elevation to elite status and not a fluke.
The verdict: In what-have-you-done-for-me-lately Orange County, the Ducks are Disney's hottest team again and deserve to be. But in that Mike Babcock system, they better win because the entertainment quotient has taken a downturn otherwise.


Atlanta

Baseball: Outside of the Bronx, the Braves are the most consistent winning operation, even after the departure of pitcher Tom Glavine, who picked between baseball and hockey and at times wondered what it would have been like to be Wayne Gretzky's linemate with the Kings. But the relative indifference of the fan base has been unrelenting. Hockey: With bright young stars Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk and a solid coach in Bob Hartley, the Thrashers are winning the fans back after the expansion honeymoon period expired.
The verdict: Those who grouse about the Braves not winning the "big ones" should be sentenced to be locked in a room for 10 hours with a Red Sox fan ... with a thunder stick. The Thrashers are making progress, but for now, the Braves rule.


Boston

Baseball: As we all know, if Red Sox owner Harry Frazee hadn't needed to raise money to get "No, No, Nanette" on Broadway, not only would Bill Buckner have made the play like Tommy Hutton, the Red Sox would have more world championships than the Yankees and Ted Williams would be only one of 27 former greats honored with monuments, somewhere behind the Green Monster. But give credit where credit is due: The Sox are a class act, and Nomar and Pedro and Company have a real shot at winning this time. Hockey: The Bruins' management acts as if it needs to keep costs down after financing 77 straight Broadway flops, including, "Yes, Yes, Yvette," "Summertime for Mussolini," and "Phantom of the Ballet." Bruins' fans curse every time another star departs. So a great hockey market has become relatively apathetic.
The verdict: It doesn't even take a look at the great scoreboard to know that the Red Sox, for all the paranoia that surround them (or maybe even because of it), have it all over the Bruins.


Chicago

Baseball: North side, south side, the fans have their choice -- and their often mutually exclusive loyalties. The Friendly Confines, where the overachieving Cubbies and their great pitching staff hope to pop the cork out of champagne bottles and not have them show up in splintered bats. Or Cell Phone Park, with the Other Sox, Esteban Loaiza and Magglio Ordonez, and an entertaining team that finished 10 games above .500 in the so-so Central. Hockey: See also: Bruins. Plus, an entire generation in the Chicago area has grown up as fans of other NHL teams -- the ones they can watch on television. If the Hawks can ever get back on the winning track, the United Center could be one of the best spots in the league to watch a game.
The verdict: Despite the Original Six tradition, the NHL barely is on the radar screen. And deservedly so. It's a mostly ivy-draped baseball town.


Dallas

Baseball: Alex Rodriguez is the second-best player in the game, but he has been like a fancy hood ornament on a Gremlin. And owner Tom Hicks wants to cut the Rangers' payroll. So the last-place Rangers are going to get worse. Hockey: After spending tons of money on free agents and not getting his money's worth, owner Hicks ordained a backing off. But the Stars were able to rebound last season, at least until the postseason, and they have a legitimate semi-long-odds shot at the Stanley Cup this time. Marty Turco is back in the fold and the crease, Mike Modano returns and Derian Hatcher's departure won't be debilitating.
The verdict: The Stars at least can pull off a hit and run, which is why Brenden Morrow is so aggravating. They're the better of the two Hicks operations, and -- at least between Cowboys games -- the fans know it.


Denver

Baseball: An inept management that has changed philosophies about 23 times during the past seasons has taken the bloom off the baseball rose, and the Colorado Rockies -- who like the NHL team, never have had a good bullpen -- have become irrelevant in the market. Attendance has gone from the best in the game to even worse than the figures, with tickets going for "what'll-you-give-me?" prices along 20th Street. And most nights, Larry Walker looks as if he rather would have followed childhood pal Cam Neely into the NHL. Hockey: The Rockies -- both the hockey incarnation and, more pertinent, the baseball team -- serve as an ominous reminder for the Avalanche. Though hockey roots go far deeper in Denver than the cynics acknowledge, and virtually everyone in Denver grew up somewhere else (including in Detroit and other Original Six markets), the Avalanche's sellout streak and popularity is tenuous. And that's where owner Stan Kroenke deserves credit for stepping in and continuing to allow Pierre Lacroix to run the show, albeit with a budget that balances both 2003 economic realities and the quest to win another Stanley Cup. The ownerships in Chicago and Boston, among many other places, would do well to pay more attention to the economic rewards that go with winning.
The verdict: Mainly, they were drawn by winning, and there's nothing wrong with that. Even the NHL's greatest markets no longer are invulnerable, and that's the way it should be. Coors Field has become a tourist attraction only; the product is the draw on NHL nights at the Pepsi Center.


Detroit

Baseball: The Tigers win their 43rd! The Tigers win their 43rd! The Tigers win their 43rd! It's too bad the greatest sports bar in America, the Lindell A.C., closed because everyone could have raised a glass to the Tigers' avoidance of ignominy -- and to the ghosts of Casey Stengel and Marv Throneberry. Hockey: The Red Wings, Mike Ilitch's other team, will win that many by the time the Tigers start spring training. Hasek's back, Yzerman's back, and the loss of Fedorov is balanced by the absence of the baggage he carried.
The verdict: Of course, the way some folks talk, all those empty seats in the Olympia and Joe Louis Arena in lean times are figments of our imagination, and this always has been Hockeytown -- through thick and thin ice. But for now, the credibility gap is cavernous. As long as the Wings win, the copyrighting of the term will be unnecessary because it will be obvious.


Los Angeles

Baseball: Partially because of a wondrous ballpark that has held up better than any facility of its generation, the Dodgers have retained a mystique that also at times makes you feel as if you just got off the trolley car at Ebbets Field. It's just the baseball and the tradition that resonates, without requiring a decrepit park to make it happen. (No offense, Wrigley and Fenway.) Yes, in some ways, the Dogers have been the New York Rangers of baseball, but Shawn Green and Adrian Beltre are worth the price of admission. Hockey: Give the Kings and its ownership part of the credit for a downtown rejuvenation, with the Staples Center, and due marks for being an entertaining product in the new building. Now if Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh can shake their concussion problems and Roman Cechmanek can rebound in net, the Kings might be back in the postseason and again make NHL games a place to be for "A" list celebrities.
The verdict: It's ineffable, but the feeling here is that in the land of let's-do-lunch, the Kings could win four Stanley Cups, the NFL could return to L.A. with a championship team, and the Lakers and Clippers could alternate titles for 10 seasons, and the Dodgers still would be No. 1. And for now, at least, that's true in the short-term perspective as well.


South Florida

Baseball: The Marlins deserve tons of credit for showing that stripping a bloated payroll following a championship doesn't have to be a ticket to long-term oblivion. But does anyone care? Hockey: Now that the Panthers are playing halfway to Atlanta from Miami -- or maybe Sunrise just seems that way -- the challenge is to get the fans back in the building. If Roberto Luongo gets more help and Valeri Bure really can be rejuvenated, it will help.
The verdict: Neither is a hot ticket, but the Marlins at least have showed recovery is possible.


Minneapolis-St. Paul

Baseball: Whatever you do, do not use contractions around Twin Cities baseball fans -- or mention Bud Selig's name. This is another organization that showed that a terrible ballpark, modest payroll and even uncertain survival can be overcome. Of course, logic says that the Twins would have no shot to get to the World Series, but you can't -- oops, cannot -- be certain of that, given the way this franchise has beaten the odds before. Hockey: Considering all levels of the sport, this is the top hockey market in the United States. The return of the NHL to the Twin Cities has been a resounding success, both at the box office and on the ice, even with Jacques Lemaire's Sominex game. The Wild's negotiating intransigence is befuddling, though, and Marian Gaborik is back in Slovakia, at least for the foreseeable future.
The verdict: A close call. For sheer resiliency and overcoming adversity, baseball and the Twins get the nod ... for now.


Montreal

Baseball: Where in the name of Rusty Staub and Vladimir Guerrero have all the fans gone? The game's orphans, operated by MLB itself and playing a home schedule that is more barnstorming than traditional baseball, could go 160-2 and not win back the disaffected fans of Montreal under these circumstances. Hockey: No matter how much management fouls up, they always will be the Habs. Saku Koivu's latest knee problem, which at least is unimportant in relation to his cancer fight, makes it even more unlikely the Canadiens can get back among the elite. But if Jose Theodore plays like an MVP and not the life of the party this season, it will be a huge help.
The verdict: The Canadiens and hockey, by default ... or a one-punch knockout.


New York

Baseball: The best team money can buy. Pinstripes, Jeter, the Rocket headed for retirement, Wells eating more donuts than Don Koharski, and echoes of Ruth's carousing, Gehrig's speech, Mantle's and Maris' chase and everything else. And the Mets providing occasional highlights under the LaGuardia flight pattern. Hockey: The worst team money can buy. Ghosts of Gardens past, and the 54-year drought, but now a franchise that can't dig out. The Islanders are a world apart and a Long Island Railroad commute away, with a terrible arena and a team still trying to overcome the succession of awful ownerships and managements that followed the glory years.
The verdict: "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."


Philadelphia

Baseball: No wild card, but at least the Phillies are escaping the Vet and the last of the cookie-cutter stadiums. Hockey: Can Jeff Hackett be the answer? Probably not, but you can get in a few arguments in line at the cheesesteak joints. (We won't name them, or say which is best because that always starts an argument worthy of Dave Schultz jumping into the fray.)
The verdict: Because of sheer passion, and because of the higher standards, hockey gets the nod.


Phoenix

Baseball: At least the Diamondbacks had the smarts to move into a facility that was suited for their sport, and the fans have rewarded them for it. The one world championship wasn't a monument to fiscal responsibility, either, but they remain an entertaining product -- even on the days Schilling or Johnson isn't going. Hockey: It's as if everyone, Wayne Gretzky included, is holding his breath until the Coyotes can get out of America West Arena and into the new suburban building in midseason that will give the franchise a chance.
The verdict: Close the roof, and score one for baseball.


Pittsburgh

Baseball: A testimony to survival instincts, the Pirates held on and got a new ballpark built. But the paring continues, so about the only thing to get excited about this season was Sausagegate. Hockey: Mario Lemieux wants the same treatment afforded the Steelers and Pirates. And his investment depends on it, which is the major reason he still is playing. This is a sad story, if the Penguins leave town.
The verdict: The Pirates have the stadium and inertia. The Penguins are fighting for survival, while being forced to make decisions that add to the odds. Because we like gritty underdogs, the nod goes to the Penguins.


St. Louis

Baseball: The Cardinals didn't make the playoffs, which is amazing considering Tony La Russa is supposed to be the Edward Teller, Thomas Edison and Enrico Fermi of baseball -- all rolled into one. But this remains the quintessential baseball town, and not just because of the numbers -- but also because the fans do things like keep score. Hockey: The Blues have been tantalizing for the past decade, and they still could pull off a surprise if Chris Osgood settles in as the goaltender they need and doesn't pull a Roman Turek in the playoffs. If they get it cranked up again, the Checkerdome will have seemed quiet.
The verdict: Both teams have been underachievers of late in a market that "deserves" better, so it's a draw.


Tampa-St. Petersburg

Baseball: Lou Piniella tried to breathe life into the worst operation in the game, but Ben Grieve wasn't the only one who yawned. There's little hope, and few care. Hockey: The Lightning have ridden a roller coaster in their expansion existence, but Vinny Levacalier and Co. are a legitimate Eastern Conference threat.
The verdict: No contest. The Lighting are the hotter act, and are on the ascendancy. But both teams are in the shadow of the Buccaneers.


Toronto

Baseball: Once one of the game's showcases, much to the consternation of the purists who hated domes and Canadian franchises, the Blue Jays at least are on the radar screen again and have one of the best pitchers in the game in Roy Halladay. Hockey: An ownership and front-office reorganization will help and Pat Quinn can concentrate on coaching. If Eddie Belfour again plays as if he holds a grudge against all his detractors, and the Leafs can avoid the injury sieges for once, they have a shot.
The verdict: For a long time, the Leafs acted as if they knew they didn't need to win to remain at the top of the heap. And they were right. Hockey remains the king, and the Leafs at least are showing signs of trying to deserve the status.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

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