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TALE OF TWO CITIES

The next time some genius with five or six Miller Lites in him spins around on his barstool and starts regaling you with that old business about how sports reflect the agony and ecstasy of life, tell him to go home and put his head in the sink.

Sports reflect the agony of life only when your horse runs seventh. The sole ecstasy is when he pays $19.80.

Of course, you'd have had trouble convincing certain people of that last week--namely the entire population of New York (excluding Tibetan cabdrivers), and every last, miserable, beleaguered soul in Chicago.

For those who were vacationing on Pluto when all hell broke loose, here's your handy digest of news-in-review:

First, this just in from the Big Apple: The New York Rangers (that's a hockey team, not a street gang) won their first Stanley Cup in 54 years, and, as of this writing, the New York Knicks (that's a street gang, not a basketball team) stand on the verge of winning their first NBA title since 1973. In P.J. Clark's and Mickey Mantle's, even the pickpockets are buying rounds.

Second, from the Windy City: Veteran Chicago Cubs second baseman Ryne Sandberg, a municipal icon second in importance only to that rusty Picasso in front of City Hall, suddenly retired at the age of 34. Naturally, this was a setback to the Cubs' steady, 86-year drive to their next World Series championship. But it meant more than that. Last year, you may recall, another number 23 who played for Chicago, guy by the name of Jordan, abruptly quit his team, too.

The Sandberg defection simply compounded the local trauma. What else can go wrong? Hey, some guys in Chicago are still trying to get over the fact that Da Bears fired Mike Ditka. And that Dan Rostenkowski took them off the payroll.

What are we all now to make of these sporting events, aside from writing all the appropriate numbers down in the ledger and quickly getting back to our re-reading of War and Peace?

Well, to hear people in New York and Chicago tell it, that little D-day commemoration a couple of weeks back was nothing compared to what's happened to their sports teams, and that killer virus scare will just have to go on page nine. So what if this thing eats flesh at the rate of an inch every hour? For North Siders, the day Ryno hung his spikes up was like having your heart torn out of your chest by a power shovel. Now the Cubbies might not win the Series next year, either.

First things first, though. To Gotham.
During the week before the Rangers defeated the Vancouver Canucks 3-2 in game seven of the finals, New York had become the City That Couldn't Sleep. The Rangers had played exactly 4,229 hockey games since last winning the Stanley Cup in 1940, and after going up 3-1 on Vancouver, the so-called Curse was suddenly moving in on them like a crack-dazed mugger on the F train. Those scalpers who sold Game Five tickets in front of Madison Square Garden for $5,000 apiece were the only ones who loved it: The Rangers blew Game Five, dropped Game Six out in British Columbia, then, as the scalpers double-dipped at the Garden for Game Seven, the ordinarily brash New York crowds virtually held their breath as Messier and Company scraped by.

The agony and the ecstasy? The operative hand-painted sign, held aloft before ESPN's cameras once the final was in, read: "Now I Can Die in Peace." Game 4,232 proved to be a Winner.

At week's end, things looked tougher for the Knicks. The brand of ball perpetrated by Patrick Ewing and his henchmen looks like a cross between Hulk Hogan on speed and the Tet offensive, and non-New Yorkers (which is to say everyone who hates the place) immediately seized on the opportunity to become instant Houston Rockets fans and to imagine in the Knicks' rude bargings and musclings the symbols of all they despise about the loud, arrogant, impatient, constantly complaining city of their nightmares. Of course, these protesters never ate at my grandmother's house, and they probably haven't caught that new show at the Guggenheim. So what do they know?

The Knicks may be brawlers, but they embody neither the collapse of Western civilization nor the scandalous price of a pastrami on rye at Wolf's on Sixth Avenue. They play with what they've got. And what they've got does not include the annoying half-wit Spike Lee.

At the same time, another New York event got completely upstaged by the daily dramas unfolding on hardwood and ice at the Garden. Tabasco Cat, a hard-trying three-year-old who trampled his trainer last spring in the barn at Santa Anita, inflicting a fractured skull and coma on the poor guy, capped his upset win in the Preakness with a victory in the Belmont Stakes.

The Cat did not seem bred to run the daunting mile and a half, but run it he did, outdistancing Kentucky Derby winner Go For Gin and favored Strodes Creek. The injured conditioner, Jeff Lukas, watched on TV in California. His father, hard-as-nails super-trainer D. Wayne Lukas, cried in the winner's circle. This little melodrama commanded but second and third billing in the New York tabloids, but if that guy with six beers in him really wanted to find meaning and verisimilitude in sports, Belmont Park was the place.

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