Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Buy Sam a Drink: Kordell vs. Jagr

Hello and welcome back to the third installment of the new Wednesday/Friday feature, “Buy Sam a Drink”. Don’t know the drill yet? Then check out the first and second editions to see what you’ve missed. Today’s match-up features one individual who, during his original emergence onto the Pittsburgh sports scene, wasn’t even old enough to buy Sam a drink, and another athlete who…well…let’s just say he grimaces a little when hearing the terms “beer” and “Pittsburgh sports” juxtaposed with one another.

With winners buying in this cross-sports comparison, its time to decide...


No mullets or sideline tears allowed after the jump.

If you have ever been to a Penguins game when Jaromir Jagr was a visiting player, or if you have even the most rudimentary knowledge of the Steelers, then you have probably booed/hated/witnessed people booing and hating/dumped beer on one of these players. In a discussion of both franchises’ recent history, they are fundamental parts of any conversation and serve as two of the more controversial, hate-inspiring athletes in Pittsburgh history.

We’ll explore why they are so hated in a moment, but first lets remember what these two players had accomplished at one point in time. For Jagr, those accomplishments read like the numbers of a Hall of Famer, and that doesn’t even count his post-Penguins days: five Art Ross Trophies, one MVP, two Lester B Pearson Trophies for MVP as voted by the players, six NHL First Team All-Star Appearances. He even won a gold and bronze medal for his homeland to boot. He had 157 points in 150 playoff games, which isn’t an overwhelming point ratio compared to some all-time greats, but when you consider that Lemieux only ever played in 107 playoff games, it becomes clear that with Jagr on the team the Pens were almost always seriously contending in the playoffs.

Kordell’s rate of success with the team was, obviously, a little more up and down (okay, a lot), but he did do some impressive things. His first full season as a starter he went 11-5 and led four comebacks on the road. He was the team MVP in 2001 and actually is second only to Steve Young in all-time rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. With Kordell though, fans don’t remember the 80-yard touchdown against Carolina or his clutch performance in the ’95 AFC Championship against the Colts. They remember the turnovers in all the other AFC Championship games (as documented here); the crying on the sidelines in Tampa; the beer shower; the rumors about his sexuality.

But what people tend to forget is that for brief periods of time, Kordell Stewart was the epitome of cool in Pittsburgh. Random anecdote, but in gym class back then we had dots laid out in a 5 dot by 5 dot grid, with each student standing on their own dot to do “warm-ups” (I know this sounds like something out of the Wonder Years, but bear with me). Anyways, on a Friday before a huge playoff game one year, we were doing our insanely idiotic warm-up stretches when our teacher pointed out that three entire lines worth of dots had Kordell Stewart jerseys on. In fact, I am willing to bet that there are perhaps more old Kordell Stewart jerseys (albeit collecting dust in closets and attics) in Pittsburgh than any other jersey except maybe Crosby or Ben. The guy was just unfathomably cool back then.

But you know the rest of the story: Championship game struggles, more INTs, a rarely discussed loss of speed that hurt him more than anything perhaps, the Tommy Maddox miracle and ultimate debacle (speaking of being treated unfairly, did we REALLY expect an insurance salesman to lead us to the Super Bowl?). Kordell fell off the pedestal, and Kordell fell hard.

Jagr, on the other hand, left town of his own accord – demand, even. As far as murky circumstances go, the Jagr trade ranks right up at the top. There were questions about his relationship with Hlinka, his relationship with Mario, and his gambling problem, a habit that Sports Illustrated said was costing Jaromir half a million dollars. Whatever the reason for leaving, he cashed in at Washington for 7 years, 77 million and has been hearing boos in Pittsburgh ever since.

But who was treated more unfairly? These two players were icons – icons – in Pittsburgh for much of the ‘90s, and as it always seems to go with ex-Pittsburgh players, they are now roundly despised. Certainly Kordell caused Pittsburghers much more anguish than Jagr, and it was Jagr who scored a handful of the biggest goals in Penguins history. The relationship with Jaromir was certainly a much easier one while he was in Pittsburgh.

But consider the timeline of the Kordell era: universally beloved from ‘95-97, unequivocally hated from ‘98-99, gained back credibility in ’00-’01, and then became cemented as a failed Pittsburgh sports athlete thereafter. Sure his level of play varied greatly, but so did his offensive coordinator and even the position he was playing. One never heard Kordell complain as Tommy Maddox pulled the wool over our eyes, and he graciously returned to his Slash role when Kent Graham assumed the starting job.

Despite all this, I still had lingering hatred towards Kordell up until this past spring. When Bill Cowher retired, (did you hear?) I was watching ESPN. After hearing some reaction from the NFL Live studio, who did they bring on to discuss the announcement? Kordell Stewart. He was gracious, cited his up and down times in Pittsburgh, and ultimately said that the experience made him a better person and that he liked playing for Cowher. Aside from being absolutely shocked to see Kordell talking about the Steelers, my initial reaction was regret. This man was the coolest guy in town for a few years and now here he was, seemingly haunted by the word “Pittsburgh” and, through only the greatest politeness, speaking kindly about it.

Jagr was probably involved in 10 of my top 50 moments as a sports fan (sorry for the Bill Simmons impersonation there), but he left on a whim – maybe because of gambling, maybe because of Hlinka. Jagr comes back now hearing boos, and while I don’t boo him, it s hard not to feel as if he cashed in while cashing out Penguins fans. Meanwhile, Kordell switched positions, kept his head up, took the most intense abuse I hope to ever see from Pittsburgh sports fans, and still all these years later showed up on TV to discuss the Steelers.

I really feel as if both these guys were treated unfairly in many regards given how much they were once loved, but is Jagr going on TV to talk about anything Penguins related? No. Jagr was one of the best athletes I have ever watched, and Kordell is one of the most frustrating. But in this comparison, performance plays second fiddle to the manner in which the player left town. Jagr left a legacy behind for money; Kordell fought to recapture a type of cult-hero status that only few can achieve in Pittsburgh, and even fewer can live up to.

So hey Kordell!


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Kordell stewart was definately treated worse. If he would've remained slash he would've been one of the most honored steelers. But when they let him play quaterback full time and he couldn't do it the fans were all over him. Steeler fans are less forgiving than Penguin fans.