They're ubiquitous. They're all over the news, every day, on the hour, and they won't leave the city alone. They've won five out of their last six, impressively, and show no signs of slowing down. They're the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Penguins should thank God for them.
It may seem far-flung, but step back for a moment and look at the sporting landscape.
Currently Major League Baseball is trying to find a way to avoid shutting down for the season while, quietly, dealing with a would-be scandal involving Jerry McMorris of the Colorado Rockies, Carl Pohlad of the Minnesota Twins, and MLB Commissioner Bud Seilg. It's the kind of sordid tale that would do Enron proud; questionable loans, fair market price brushed aside, the generally scurrilous behavior one would expect from any industry lucky enough to be granted an antitrust exemption. It should be a big story, yet virtually no one is talking about it. Why?
Not because it's irrelevant, or because Major League Baseball is working the press like a political animal, leaking bits and pieces into the news cycle whenever it wishes. The reason nobody's talking about this, or about the speed skaters who fixed their time trials to get into the Olympics, or about the 36 year-old Pittsburgh Penguin captain who's outscoring teams single-handedly is simple. It's because of the news cycle itself.
Right now, no self-respecting sports fan is concentrating on baseball, they're focused on the NFL playoffs as they near their calamitous crescendo. They're distracted with the way basketball (both pro and college) is taking over televisions left and right. Everybody knows hockey doesn't get really compelling until after the All Star break, thus whereas Mario Lemieux may well save this season on the ice, it might just be the Steelers who save it in the seats.
Normally the Penguins' annual albatross, the football Steelers dominate the town and the news like they once dominated the NFL, with a shameless dose of brute force. Even when they're bad they get all the ink. But this year, this absence of attention is the Penguins' greatest gift the Penguins could ask for.
This year, when it's all said and done, Mario should send a thank you note to every player who calls Heinz Field home. Were it not a violation of that unwritten ethic that says every jock must be as manly as humanly possible every second of every day, Mario would be wise to send Coach Cowher and his team enough roses to start an chain of hothouses throughout Allegheny County.
Thanks to the Steelers surprising run to the AFC Championship and possibly beyond, the casual Penguin fan has been nearly oblivious to the entire first part of this hockey season. All those months of truly wretched hockey simply don't exist for many because they weren't paying attention. What luck.
Without Mario, watching the Penguins has been like enduring the type of searing eye pain NBC normally reserves for its NBA telecasts. The power play: awful. The effort: atrocious. The production: anemic. The players: anonymous.
All that talent, all that potential, all those losses. The coaching change. The injuries. The disappearing acts (please, Milan Kraft, send us a post card when you've got a moment, some people are starting to worry).
Yet, who's seen any of it? Certainly the die-hard fan has, but they're going to watch regardless. It's the casual fan, the one who will fill the arena with their presence and paid admission as soon as this Steelers' run concludes. They're the ones Mario needs to marshal the rest of the way if this team is to continue operating in the blackand the best part is, most of these people have no idea just how bad this Penguins team has been.
The worst power play in the league? Looks fine now, see, there's Mario. Pass the nachos.
By the time these fans turn their full attention back toward the Igloo, Mario and the Penguins might well look like they've got a shot.
It's never fair to ask one person to carry the team, or to be the someone who constantly has to inject his squad with confidence, but the organization seems bound and determined to go back to well number 66, again and again, until they've tapped it dry. Thankfully, luckily , Mario continues to astound.
Thirteen points in his last three games? At this pace Mario could win the scoring title by mid-Marchand he didn't play two months of the season.
Sure enough, football ends in two weeks, right at the end of the NHL's All Star break. At that point, the Penguins will probably be fighting for playoff positioning, unbelievable as that may sound to someone who's been following them all year long.
In other words, to the outside world, the Penguins might look just fine.
Therefore, for the next week or so, when the television reporters lead with Jerome Bettis' groin, again, or focus on Lee Flowers' mouth for hour upon hour, Penguin fans should just grin and nod. For a change, the Steelers have been quite helpful this year, they've killed time until the best part of hockey season just perfectly.
Thanks to the Steelers, when someone now asks how the hockey team looks, Penguin fans can honestly say they look great. Then they can hide a smile when they add, 'you have no idea what you've been missing.'
Brother Karsh appears weekly at LGP.com and believes that by the time the rest of the world catches up, the Penguins will be fighting for seventh place in the conference. He also believes those fans will have missed one hell of a turn around.