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'That time of year' again in the world of sports
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As the dog days wear on interminably and the phrase "high heat" takes on a meaning other than what a big league power pitcher throws toward home plate, baseball fans know that the major league season has fewer than 40 games remaining.

Folks in these parts, having grown so accustomed to seeing the Atlanta Braves in first place for more than a decade, are coming to grips with the reality that they may not make the playoffs this year as even a wildcard entry.

If the National League finishes the season as things stand now, can you imagine the excitement in Chicago, with the Cubbies leading the Central Division? But along with everyone who knows that club's history and who claim as friends more than one long-suffering Cubs fan, I'm just waiting to see how that team will self-destruct down the stretch.

Will the Cubs break those Windy City hearts and leave them in Wrigley's twisted ivy vines for yet another long, cold winter of second-guessing and wondering "what if?"

As for the Braves, I've been waiting all season for the big push - the hot streak - shaking off of the doldrums and the reassertion that the big boys are back and ready to rumble.

But I'm starting to think that's not going happen this year, and the worst part is that the Mets lead the Eastern Division. I could handle it if the Phillies win, but the Mets? Please.

Elsewhere, it looks as if the Diamondbacks are set to win the Western Division, unless they, too, self-destruct and let San Diego back in.

Over in the American League the pressure is on in Detroit for the Tigers to win their Central Division, lest they be excluded from the wildcard hunt by the battle for first place in the Eastern Division being waged by Boston's Red Sox and the Yankees.

And out in the Western, the Angels and the Seattle Mariners know they'd better win the division or possibly miss the playoff cut due to the wins being piled up by the BoSox and Bronx Bombers in their late-season pennant drives.

Pete Rose, whose theme song ought to be Kenny Roger's "The Gambler," could have a field day wagering on whether the Yankees and Red Sox both get into the playoffs, one as division champ and the other as wildcard.

But the very best thing about baseball, even more so than with football and basketball, is that you never know how things will turn out from night to night. Yogi Berra said it best way back in the 20th century: "It ain't over 'til it's over." And any real fan knows that a team can catch fire and make a last-minute run that can send it not only into the playoffs, but have it poised in the midst of a hot streak at the most important time.

So maybe the boys of summer who call "the Ted" home will crank it up a notch, Knock-A-Homa or Knock-A-Buncha-Homas, and leave the Phillies and Mets circling their wagons wondering what happened.

Ah, yes, it's that wonderful time of the year for football fans, as well. It's the time when summer practice has begun and high school teams across the nation are getting ready for the magic of Friday nights under the lights. Every team is undefeated and everyone has a shot at winning the state championship. Cheerleaders and high school bands are practicing their routines, getting ready to do their part to add to the color and pageantry that is high school football.

Behind the scenes, booster club members are scratching their heads preparing to raise the bucks it takes to field all of those teams. They're scrubbing down the concession stand counters, firing up the stoves and grills that have sat in storage since the last season ended and setting up work schedules in order for all of them to get to see their kids play, at least a little, while still giving their time as volunteer workers.

Grounds crews are sweating out how to keep the turf viable - or simply how to keep the grass alive - in these sweltering conditions and days of water restrictions. Public address systems are being tested, and wasp nests are being expunged from tower speakers and from under press box counters across the nation.

As an old coach, though, one of the very best and most poignant moments was always the first day back in the equipment room prior to practice. I'd open the door and breathe in that first lungful of what I called "football season." Musty, dank, thick and heavy, the aroma of pads, helmets and practice dummies would swirl out and envelop me. I'd stand there and drink in the moment, looking at those stacks of shoulder pads and racks of helmets.

There's nothing like that smell. That smell signals the start of football season. It lets you know that you're alive, and are about to work harder than you ever thought you could for several months, trying to bring something special into the lives of your kids. For me, at least, that smell was an elixir of wonderful memories and the promise of great things yet to come.

If you've coached for any length of time, you know that kids look different in those uniforms, too. You can actually pick up a helmet, or some shoulder pads, and picture the kid who wore it, so recognizable is the way players and their equipment meld. Even today, watching football on television, I'm always amazed when players remove their helmets because they look so very different without them on their heads. And, being old school, I was always taught - and I always taught my kids - that you don't take your helmet off on the field; that's like an inviolate rule of being. And yet contemporary football players like to rip that shell off their head when they score, as if they were the sole entity responsible for the touchdown.

Lemme tell you, I'd love to see some hot shot catch a touchdown pass, rip that helmet off and start all the dancing and arm-waving to the crowd, and then see the other 21 players on the field - his team and their opponents - just light his tail up like one big tackling drill.

That's because football, as every fan knows, is a team game. If the center botches the snap, you're done. If the quarterback misses the handoff, you're done. If, facing elimination from the playoffs on that fourth-and-two in the last drive of the season, your running back lacks the heart of a lion, you're done. If the 5-foot-5-inch 135-pound cornerback fails to give his body up with a pulling guard and a blocking back bearing down on him as they bring the bad guy's tailback around his end, you're done.

And at the end of the day, when those kids find the strength to make their way back to the locker room and the helmets and shoulder pads get hung up to dry overnight, there's that magical moment as the kids head out the door for home, when their eyes lock with the coach's.

They don't have to say "good night" or "see you tomorrow." They usually are so tired, in fact, that they're doing all they can just to get out the door. But the ones who love it, the ones who give it all every day for the pure love of the game, the ones in whom greatness is stirring and looking for a way to get out - they'll lock eyes with you and maybe nod as they head home.

And when that happens, right then and there, you know as a coach that you've got yourself a team. And you remember, for perhaps the millionth time, that you're the luckiest person in the world to have this title: "Coach."

So the dog days wear on. Major League Baseball winds down and football season gears up. It's the best of times and the worst of times for typical fans as their favorites continue a march toward greatness, or pack up the equipment.

But for those true fans of sport who love the game itself, played within the spirit of sportsmanship and fiercely competed, it's that special time of the year, indeed.