Stop me if you’ve heard this.
A team cheats. Both leading up to and then actually during the biggest contest of the year, they cheat.
They deny that they’re cheating, of course, and mock their accusers. Dozens of people who work for the team know about the cheating, but they’ve all got their own little vested interest in making sure that it goes on, their own little slice of the pie. And so it does go on. And on and on. Right up through the very end.
And — slowly, painfully, through leaks and official channels — it comes to light that they did, in fact, cheat. They broke the rules. Blatantly! Obviously! It wasn’t even clever. Mostly, they got away with it because they did it out in the open and nobody thought they could possibly be that dumb.
And now they’re defiant. They claim that their cheating was inconsequential, that it wasn’t even really cheating, and the fact that people keep bringing it up means that they’re the victims, that they’re the injured party. Poor them; everybody has always had it out for them; the people hurling accusations are the real cheaters.
Investigations are ordered and conducted. But the system that was designed to protect the integrity of the institution rolls over, just wishing it would all go away. Hundreds of thousands — millions! — of fans, decked out in team colors and chanting team slogans, turn surly, defensive, nasty. They’ll ignore any fact that doesn’t fit their narrative, that might cause them to question the result. Who cares how they won? All that matters is that they won, that they have the prize. Suck it, losers!
The investigation concludes, and… nothing happens. Maybe one or two people somewhere in the organization are punished, maybe not. The great mass of cheats and sneaks and liars slip away, unscathed and unpunished. The fans and even the members of team start mocking again, this time emboldened by a sense of invincibility. The lies become worse — both more egregious and stupider. You are told not to trust your own eyes, your own common sense.
And everybody who could have done anything about it — the team, the rule makers and officiants who ostensibly protect the system, the vast number of people who knew exactly what was going on, the slavering fans — gives not one good goddamn. Because it’s all about winning, and flying the flag. Lost amid the cheers, plowed under by the relentless march to victory, is the right thing, the important thing, the good of the game. What does it mean for the past and for the future and for the system that they all claim to love, hands over hearts?
Who gives a shit? They won.
And that’s the ballgame.
This is a terrific story, and it almost makes you feel sorry for A-Rod. He was a humble, joyful kid — blessed with gifts both aesthetic and athletic — and the world rewarded him with a life of almost unimaginable plenty. How could he not become a spoiled, divisive asshole?
On second thought, fuck that guy.
It’s the day after the Super Bowl and thoughts turn to, well, the Super Bowl.
Before we get to the start of baseball writing season, before we talk about pitchers and catchers and even hockey scores, there is that thorny post-Super Bowl issue to be tackled in hundreds of papers across the world now. The titles of all the articles may be different but they all read the same: The Super Bowl Represents America’s Penchant For Violence, Excess and Material Things.
Ok, so we have a violent game with an excessive halftime show, cushioned by a plethora of advertisements for expensive cars and junk food. But does that represent us? Does Super Bowl Sunday really define what we are all about or does it define something more, perhaps our need to escape into a world where the entertainment value is at premium?
For sports fans like us - the kind who talk about, read about it, write about it but aren’t rabid about it - the idea that this one day of the year and the pageantry that comes with it defines who we are is sort of a ludicrous notion. While football is inherently a violent game, it’s not the violence most of us are watching for. We’re in it for the plays, for watching the running and passing, for the strategy and sense of competition. We like it because it entertains, with or without the punishing hits.
It’s the same with the ads. I don’t think there are many of us who spend non-Super Bowl days studiously watching commercials. But on this one day, those ads are entertainment. They’re not just advertisements, they are parts of a whole; Super Bowl Sunday is part game, part food, part show, all entertainment.
I used to argue that major events like the Super Bowl were our means of escape, but exactly what have we escaped by watching last night’s game?
We have an inherently violent sport maligned with sordid stories of suicide, murder and an administration at least guilty of depraved indiffirence when it comes to the topic of concussions. We have, in this time of economic worries, commercials selling us expensive cars, ads that we eat up as part of the entertainment aspect of the Super Bowl. The violence, the game, the ads, the halftime show, all sums of the part of the whole. And what is the whole telling us when it starts out with something so beatific as the choir of a middle school still mourning the death of 26 of its children singing praise to the country that fails to protect their innocent?
But we forget these things for a while. Maybe, in our attempts to escape life, we immerse ourselves in a game and see it as just that, a game. Nothing more. The ads nothing more than fodder for tweets and water cooler laughter, the halftime show nothing more than a brief interlude of song and dance.
And then when the final moment count down and we’re left to watch the victors dance on a field confetti, when the ads are no longer new and the halftime entertainment has left the building, we go back to remembering Ray Lewis is allegedly complicit in a murder and Chris Culliver is a homophobic idiot. We go back to remembering that those angelic, singing kids are part of a horrific chapter in our violent history.
But for that brief time the game is being played, the dancers are on stage and Go Daddy is making us all barf, there’s a game. Just a game. A couple of hours of cheering, whether it’s for a team or the numbers you drew in the office pool. That defines us more than anything else about this yearly extravaganza. We crave the escape.
Is the Super Bowl us? No, not really. Those articles that say such a thing are using too broad a scope in figuring out what we, the sporting fans of America, stand for.
Maybe we don’t stand for anything, as far as the Super Bowl goes. Maybe a game is just a game and a chorus of kids is just another sweet moment in the pageantry of escapist sporting events.
In order to fill the time between baseball seasons, people do all sorts of crazy stuff.
They play basketball, despite the danger that LeBron James might win something. They box while wearing skates and call it a sport. They even crash giant men into each other, to the point of traumatic brain injury and suicide. Ha ha! Fun!
This weekend is the Super Bowl and the fuck the NFL and their lawyers. Super Bowl, Super Bowl, Super Bowl!
Following the First Rule of Fandom, I don’t have football team. I could claim the Rams (because they used to be in Los Angeles) or I could claim the Raiders (because they used to be in Los Angeles) or I could claim the Chargers (because they will eventually be in Los Angeles) but I’d much rather maintain the blissful indifference that descends during the season. When you don’t care, you can flip on the TV on a Sunday and enjoy the slow-motion destruction of any human lives, rather than just the lives owned by whichever billionaire or conglomerate your local city council has decided to kowtow to. Also, when the dancing robots get too much, you can walk away.
But football is a contest and picking sides is what competition is about. So who does a disinterested party root for this weekend?
Both teams are populated with terrible human beings, so that doesn’t help. (I’m tempted to give the edge to the Ravens, because at least Ray Lewis knew what he was doing when he denied it later.) The normally reliable heuristic of rooting against a Harbaugh doesn’t work. Colin Kaepernick is the obvious hero from every football movie ever, but nobody should have to cheer for someone with a chin beard. Seriously, Colin, stop taking grooming tips from Brian Wilson.
So let’s look beyond the teams themselves. What about the cities they represent?
As an upper-middle class white man, I of course feel that I know Baltimore’s soul because I’ve seen every season of “The Wire.” I also know the soul of San Francisco because I’ve seen a couple of episodes of “Too Close for Comfort.”
I’ve never been to Baltimore, but San Francisco fills its main purpose as a weekend getaway for people from Los Angeles well enough. I mean, it’s no San Diego, but it does the job OK.
New York is the country’s capital of self-satisfaction — go ahead, ask a New Yorker about New York; don’t have anything planned for the afternoon — but San Francisco is a powerful up-and-comer. Its baseline smug is already at borderline-fatal levels, but when you start adding sports titles to the mix, things go bad very, very quickly. This is a city that nicknamed itself “The City” — The City — as opposed to, say, “The Human Defecation Capital of America” or “MUNI: Don’t Have Anything Planned for The Afternoon” or “Frisco.”
Just as all the charm went out of Boston when the Red Sox became just another team, San Francisco abandoned whatever sympathy lovable losers deserve when the Giants stumbled into two World Series championships. Watching bearded hobos and longhairs — and that’s just the pitching staff — roll through the streets on a friggin’ trolly? Ugh.
Now imagine how insufferable San Francisco is going to be if they add a Super Bowl to that stew. A city that is already dangerously self-satisfied becoming both the MLB champs and the NFL champs in the same year?
No real surprise that after an extensive and well orchestrated game of legal chicken, NHL sell-outs have resumed as planned. Apologies were published, overpriced swag was temporarily reduced in price, and we’re all back in the arena like nothing happened. Remember when you were pissed? Yeah, I do too.
In my anger, I set DirecTV to record all the opening day games. I researched what games were on when I was traveling to NHL cities. In my fury, I wore my Montreal Canadiens jersey all opening day weekend. Never again will I… Wait, what am I mad about?
Hockey is back, hockey will make a shit ton of money, and you’re the source of that money and if you’re not, if you don’t love hockey like me, I offer a brief primer to appreciating the game.
Hockey is best watched in person. As I said before, the game shines when you’re in the arena because you have the maximum amount of pixels. Hockey is fast and newcomers to the game are confused when they see it on TV because they think that you have watch the puck to watch the game and while HD has vastly improved the puck-seeing-situation, the best way to first understand the game is live.
NHL arenas are relatively small and even in crappy nosebleed seats, there is a sense of being near and a part of the game. In baseball and football games, when I’m in crap seats, I end up watching the Jumbotron and - fact - I can watch TV at home. Distance from the field, distance from those little colored blobs running around the field means I don’t feel a connection with the game - there is no relationship. While it is a illusion based on proximity, an arena ice hockey game feels… cozy. It’s just you and 15,000 of your closet friends.
HD TV has been good to hockey. As I mentioned, HD gives you a better chance to track the game via the puck, but if you’ve taken my advice and seen a few games in person, you understand that the best way to watch this ultra-fast game is to watch the players. Unless you’re on the rink, a constant appreciation of puck location is less important than the story told by the movements and positions of the players. Watching hockey means not looking for the puck, it means watching two or three players - at once - and learning to notice, hey, if he can just pass the puck because, SWEET, that’s a break-out….
Like any good sport, there’s an on-going narrative to be discovered within the game. Your appreciation of the game will increase exponentially when you notice that #11 is clearly pissed at #29 and he is just waiting for the right moment to line him up on the boards. Yeah, ouch, just like that. You can half-watch any sport on TV, but hockey is moving so fast, failure to watch the whole game means missing essential parts of the story and, contradicting an earlier post of mine, the clarity of HD is the next best thing to being there.
My final advice. Play hockey. I don’t care if you’re 31 and never skated. Find a way to get ice or roller blades on your feet and a stick in your hand. You’re awful. It doesn’t matter. Knock the puck around on the ice or the asphalt and appreciate for a moment what is going on in that arena. These are guys are moving faster than you can imagine, they’re doing amongst other players traveling at similar velocity with a stick in their hands, and, while they’re doing all of this, a vulcanized rubber puck crazily dances in front of them.
It’s no surprise the arenas are full even though we should be pissed. It’s a great game and I’m looking forward to writing about every single pixel.
It took thirty years for me to realize that as a kid I had been judged an athletic misfit and filed away where I could do the least amount of harm.
My daughter's softball league holds a draft every year to place the eligible players on several different teams, equally balanced by skill. And then I realized: My childhood team, so terrible that it won two games in four years, had been comprised entirely of the kids who couldn't play very well.
I don't recount this story here to elicit sympathy for my childhood self, or to judge the parents who devised this plan of attack (though they were selfish assholes), but to establish the fact that I am not, nor have I ever been, a jock.
I did not have a moment in high school where someone discovered that the nerdy kid with the bowl haircut could, miraculously, throw a football accurately or hit home runs or reliably plant a jump shot from outside. The closest I came to any of that was when a bunch of guys who hung out at the computer lab during lunchtime (which I did not, since I was too busy playing a dice-themed fantasy game instead) recruited me to be on their team in an inter-school programming contest.
That's the nerd stereotype, right? Bad at sports. Loves computers. And probably spent his lunch hours playing Dungeons and Dragons. Except that the dice game I played in high school wasn't D&D, but Sports Illustrated Superstar Baseball. Because I loved, and love, baseball. I even loved playing on that losing team of baseball misfits.
It was a long time before I realized that in the geek world, there's a weird schism between the people who love sports and the ones who don't. The first time I saw someone on Twitter act furious that one of the tech nerds they followed was tweeting about sports, I was amazed. These are people I otherwise felt a kinship with, as fellow lovers of technology and sci-fi and comics and similarly nerdy topics. But they had suddenly drawn a line between what was geek-appropriate and what wasn't. And I was on the wrong side.
It's easy to look at sports and view it as a massive jockocracy, a celebration of the physical over the intellectual, an industry designed to sell beer (and, later in life, Viagra) to high-fiving fratboys.
And yet sports are embraced by nerds as much as by jocks. The revolution in baseball chronicled in Michael Lewis's book “Moneyball” was one driven by nerds with spreadsheets (and later, massive databases) who discovered an entire layer of baseball hidden in its statistics, one that could be turned to a team's advantage. The most successful professional football coach of the past decade is a mumbly slob who wears hoodies with the sleeves cut off on the sidelines. And fantasy sports—a number-driven pursuit utterly disconnected from reality—is a multimillion-dollar sub-industry.
I've heard it said in more than one geek-oriented forum that sports are a modern manifestation of our base, tribal tendencies. That it's more socially correct to cheer for the paid professionals wearing the home team's laundry and boo the ones wearing some other set of colors. A statement like that might seem to suggest that geek culture is above such baser instincts, when of course geek culture is just as rife with tribalism. Whether you're a Red Sox fan booing a Yankee or an Android fan posting angry comments at the end of an article about Apple or a “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” fan mocking the viewers of “Supernatural” or a Magic player who laughs at kids playing Pokémon, you're someone who has identified with a side and demonized the opposition.
It's a fact of human nature proven by endless wars, nationalist politicians, and the Stanford prison experiment, I'd like to suggest that all the study proved was that Stanford is made of pure evil, but I think I'd just be proving its point.)
Geeks analyze (and over-analyze) everything. We want to know the rules of a system. We want to watch something repeatedly until we know it by heart, and have spotted all the flaws. We want to debate theoretical conflicts between incompatible objects, like the Death Star and the Enterprise or Superman and Spider-Man.
To enjoy a sport, at least at some level above tribalism, does require being able to analyze it. I admit that baseball is not everyone's cup of tea, but when I ask why people don't like it, most of them simply say that it's boring. And viewed on one level, it most certainly is. If you spend hours watching a baseball game waiting for a run-scoring hit or, better yet, a home run, you will spend most of your time being disappointed.
And yet to me, the game unfolds into something much more interesting when you focus on the individual confrontation between pitcher and hitter—baseball being one of the rare sports where the offense doesn't possess the ball. My wife, who was not raised around sports, became a baseball convert once she became aware of the strategy happening on a pitch by pitch basis. I admit, it's still not a sport for everyone, but it seems to me that debating the right pitch selection when the count is 1-2 and there's a man on third is not that different from debating the right decision to make in chess or Settlers of Catan or Halo.
Given my lack of athleticism, my history of being on awful teams, and the usual collection of high school locker-room horror stories, there are plenty of reasons for me (and other geeky types) to not be a fan of athletic competitions. Yet we are. Given that I could just as easily boo Windows users or DC comics readers as Dodgers, why do I like sports?
For a possible answer, I turn to my favorite novelist, Nick Hornby. In addition to being an award-winning writer, Hornby is an obsessive soccer fan who has written the definitive memoir about being a fan, “Fever Pitch.” (Read the book; skip both forgettable movies.) In his recent ebook “Pray,” Hornby speculated that we are fans of sports because it provides drama that can not be predicted by any amount of analysis.
A match can't be a work of art because there is nobody playing God. When you watch a play or a film, even a film directed by Tarantino or Hitchcock, you are aware, somewhere in you, that there are many, many people who know the ending… the people who willed it, wrote it, shaped it…. The glory of [the last day of the English Premier League season] was that all was chaos. Nobody in the world knew how it would turn out, and nobody—not the coaches, not the players on the pitch, not the referee, not the hundreds of millions watching around the world—could shape anything.
What sports gives me, and my sport-loving comrades, is an opportunity to do the same, but in a world that has a fundamental amount of mystery that just can't be reverse-engineered. Statistics reveal to me the true face of baseball, and (American) football affords me an enjoyable amount of game-theory analysis (or as it's more commonly known, Monday-morning quarterbacking). But in the end, with sports there is never a point at which I can sum up what I've seen so far and figure out the ending that's been scripted. Anything could happen. And I find that incredibly appealing.
Unless we're talking about fans of wrestling. I mean, it's totally fixed. Only an idiot would like wrestling. Let's all go beat those guys up!
[Originally published in The Magazine, Issue 1.]
Of all the stupid things we are going to watch on tv today, we will watch the Nathan's Hot Dog eating competition on ESPN. Granted, it will only take about ten minutes of our time, but I feel like I'll need to do penance for those minutes.
ESPN is a sports channel, right?
When did eating your weight in nitrates and meat-by products become a sport?
I really don't mind eating competitions as a whole. I did venture to Coney Island once on the Fourth of July to get a glimpse of the hot dog eating contest, but that was mostly just to say I did it. And to avoid a family gathering. There are plenty of people out there who hate the contests because they promote gluttony and flaunt the excess of Americans and waste food in the face of world starvation and that's why the terrorists hate us. Not for nothing, but there are millions of homeless people in America and that doesn't stop me from adding unnecessary luxuries to my home, so the idea of hungry kids in Indonesia is not going to stop me from watching some guy shove back 40 hot dogs in thirty seconds.
What does bother me about the whole IFOCE (yes, competitive eaters have their own federation) is that the people who partake in this stuff take themselves so seriously as to refer to themselves as athletes. Eating is not a sport. A competition, sure, but it's not a sport, in much the same way that high school dance squads are not a sport. Yet ESPN wants you to believe they are, just so they can fill their programming slots with something besides paid advertisements from companies wanting to sell you souvenir coins imprinted with the number of your favorite NASCAR driver. Pounding back food, whether it be hot dogs or burgers or burritos or ice cream, is not a sport. Yes, it takes training and determination and discipline, but so does being a car bomber, and no one considers that a competitive sport.
So why will I watch this today? Why do I ever watch any of these competitions? Why do I watch Toddlers & Tiaras? Sheer curiosity, I guess. I watch it in the same way one watches a freak show; you want to be disgusted by the bearded lady or the dog faced boy, but instead you are somewhat enthralled. Sure, you leave the freak tent feeling like you need to take a Silkwood shower for having participated in that form of culture, but it's still entertainment. Which is much like I feel every year after watching the Nathan's competitors eating their food.
While I've seen competitions like this before, I never really watched long enough to get the close up view I did when I once watched a Krystal Burger eating championship on, yes, ESPN. The sports channel. See, ESPN isn't just for sports. It's for education, too. Before I watched that I had no idea the contestants dunked their food in drinks. The guy I picked as my favorite, the mowhawked Pat Bertoletti, was using some blood red fruit punch to soak his burgers. According to my boyfriends, who knows way too much about competitive eating, they soak the food to take the air out of the bread, thus making it easier to get down.
First let's establish that the thought of eating even ONE Krystal burger is enough to nauseate me. I've never had one, but they seem enough like White Castle burgers for me to take one look at a plate of them and have flashbacks to being absurdly drunk at 3am and making a bet that I could eat 25 sliders and ending up covered in vodka and burger vomit. So right away, I'm disgusted by this competition.
I might have been ok with it if it weren't for the close ups. That's when I got the real view of what these people are doing. Pat would dunk a burger into the red drink, squeeze it with his fist, then practically shove his whole fist into his mouth to stuff the dripping, soggy, red-tinged burger in there. I focused on Pat because of the color of his drink. For a second, it looked like he was a cannibal devouring a blood-soaked victim and I thought “hey, cool!”, until I saw all that water logged bread and meat dripping out of his mouth and squishing through his fingers. Worse than that was the dreadlocked guy whose burger bits got caught in his hair, or the old guy, because nothing is more disgusting than an old person with a face full of chewed up food.
The thing about this competition is it separates itself from all other "athletic" endeavors in that it's the only "sporting" event where I keep waiting for someone to vomit. That, by the way, is against the rules and referred to as a Reversal of Fortune. I'm hoping if anyone reverses their fortune today, it will be someone who dunks their hot dogs in fruit punch, because that blood red puke would rival the pea soup scene from the Exorcist. This is better than any dog faced boy. I'm rooting for a vomitorium, begging the God of Excess to unleash his brand of karma upon the entire IFOCE, and have everyone, from the eaters to the scorecard chicks to the little kids in the front row covered with ten different colors of chunky hot dog puke.
When it is all over, I will chide myself for watching something so depraved, so revolting, so sickening.
Then I'll eat hot dogs at a bbq at my father's house while being forced to watch the Mets play, so your mileage of what is revolting may vary.
Either way, I'd like to thank ESPN for broadening the definition of sports to the point where holding in your vomit while sucking down wieners will probably get more ratings than a regular season NHL game.
And yea, I'm rooting for Sonya. Or maybe I'm rooting for Joey Chestnut to implode.
America, Fuck Yeah.
The New York Times reports on the circus that will be this year's Hall of Fame ballotting. This is the first year of candidacy for Bonds, Sosa and Clemens. A mostly matter-of-fact will they or won't they story until the final two paragraphs:
Danny Knobler, a baseball columnist for CBS Sports, said he would not be particularly influenced by the verdict. “The standard of proof is totally different, and should be. My opinion isn't putting him in jail, and my Hall of Fame vote is based only on whether I believe he should be honored as one of the game's all-time greats.”
Knobler indicated that he did not think so.
Really? I can understand feeling the taint of steroids, I can understand (less so) the taint of lying to a grand jury (btw, I completely don't understand Pete Rose, but that's a separate issue). But is Knobler seriously suggesting that if there were no steroidal taint on Clemens, that he wouldn't consider him an all-time great? Tell me I'm reading something wrong here.
What an honor for the Texas Rangers owner.
Back in the early 80s, I joined a baseball fantasy league. It was called a Rotisserie League back then, before the internet and before everyone and their uncle paid big bucks to enter fantasy drafts sponsored by beer companies. I was the only girl in the league, just me and about eight other guys sitting in someone's basement drafting players. They let me in reluctantly because, you know, I'm a woman. What do women know about sports? Well, if knowledge is a weapon I came to that draft armed and dangerous. And I won the inaugural season of that fantasy baseball league. I would go on to win the title twice more before I stopped playing.
I've been a sports fan since I was old enough to know how to say “Let's go Yankees!” It was mostly my mother, not my father, who got me into sports, who gave me my love of baseball and hockey. It wasn't until I was a young adult that I began to feel like men just were not taking me seriously as a sports fan. Even though I could name every single player in the NHL, their position, jersey number and most of their stats. Even though I could hold my own in a debate about the designated hitter. I was a girl. My opinions didn't count.
When I went back to school I majored in Athletic Administration, a then pilot program at St. John's University, which later became the very popular sports management major (I changed my major to English later, feel free to make jokes at my expense). I worked in the Sports Administration office. I traveled with the hockey team while covering sports for the university paper. I spent a summer working for the New York Yankees. I lived for sports. Yet I was always just a girl. What could I possibly know about sports? The guys I tried to talk sports with dismissed me as a groupie. The girls I tried to talk sports with just wanted to talk about what players I'd like to fuck (none, thanks). It was frustrating. The only women who understood me were my mother and my sister. The only guys who took me seriously were the close friends who watched hockey games with me, the few guys who loved to spend an afternoon at Shea Stadium booing the Mets and drinking beer.
It wasn't until recently that I felt like women were making strides as sports fans. I don't know if there are more of us now or if we're just more vocal because of the internet, but we are out there in strong numbers and I've finally begun to feel that acceptance. Nobody on twitter dismisses me from a conversation about hockey just because I have tits. Nobody ignores my feelings about the DH because I'm a female. If you look at any sports conversation on twitter you can see us right in the thick of it. We are many. We are legion. We are taken seriously as sports fans. Hey, look at me. I'm in an otherwise all male club here at American McCarver.
And then along comes the women of While the Men Watch.
Let that name sink in a bit. While the Men Watch. Sports. While the men watch sports. Because that's what men do. Men watch sports. Women do other stuff while men watch sports. And the women who run this site, well they want you to do the things girls do while the boys watch their hockey games.
With column titles like “Five Sex Games For Hockey Season” and “Sex on Game Day: Does He Lock it Up or Love You Down?” it's like Cosmo meets ESPN. And it's not pretty. Oh, the girls on the site may be pretty. But the underlying theme of While the Men Watch? I find it pretty damn ugly.
Girls, if you don't like sports, it's ok. No one is going to like you less because you don't care about the Stanley Cup. But there is no reason to make it difficult for those of us who do like sports to be taken seriously. Go find something else to do on game night. I don't know, throw a scrapbooking party. Go shop for shoes. Keep perpetuating the stereotype of female sports fans. Or you can do us all a favor and step away from the sports.
I don't know, maybe you feel threatened by the women who actually do love sports. You think we're out to steal your men or at least their attention. I'll let you in on a secret: we're not. We watch sports because we love the games. We watch sports because we enjoy them. And we're too busy keeping score or counting hits or, you know, just rooting for our teams to be thinking about stealing your man's attention. There's no need for you to come around, step into the middle of our conversation and start shaking your tits. We're just trying to watch the game. You're just trying to ruin it for us. Take your little sex tips and bring them to Cosmo. That's where your kind of columns belong.
That's not a compliment.
The Dodgers won tonight.
In fact, they swept the reigning world champs, to maintain the best record in the MLB, closing in on an astonishing .700. They’ve won 19 of 23 at home, and are seven games above the second-place Giants in the NL West. Heck, the Giant are closer to the basement-dwelling .375 Rockies than they are to the Dodgers.
And all this while half the starting line-up is on the DL. Tonight, a rook they brought up from AA two weeks ago hit his first major league homer, to drive in three runs and put the team up and over in the bottom of the seventh.
First place! With stars on the bench! You cannot beat the goddamned Dodgers. Who would have imagined something like that a year ago?
But what a year it’s been. Matt Kemp, robbed of last year’s MVP, was on pace to indisputably earn the trophy this time before going on the DL. Andre Ethier leads the MLB in RBIs. Clayton Kershaw, the 2011 Cy Young winner, could very well claim the award again.
And the very worst thing to ever happen to the team — the dim-eyed toad, Frank McCourt — pocketed his billions and was tarred and feathered and run out of town on a rail. Yes, “tarred and featured” is the name of a really expensive suit maker and a “rail” is a private plane. But he’s gone… replaced by Magic Johnson. Magic Johnson. That’s like rebuilding your church after a tornado and having Jesus show up as one of the carpenters. Movies that end that way aren’t believable, much less real life. Hell, the new owners even dropped the price of parking at Dodger Stadium! It’s like Frodo destroying the One Ring and then picking up donuts for everybody on the way back to the Shire.
But the Dodger’s new golden age is only part of what’s happening in Los Angeles. Everybody is feeling it.
The Galaxy are the defending MLS champs. (MLS is a soccer league. Yes, professional. Soccer. No, I didn’t believe it either, but you can look it up on Wikipedia.)
The Kings — the Kings! — entered the NHL playoffs a forgettable eight seed and have rolled over every opponent they’ve come across. Brown time, indeed. They are now the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup. It’s almost enough to make you care about hockey. Almost.
The Clippers — the Clippers! — have achieved new heights simply by not completely sucking. Yes, they lost tonight, to end their play-off run. But they had a play-off run! They’re usually back working at Wal-Mart by this time of year.
And though the Lakers are being beaten up by the Thunder, they’re still in it. A second-round exit would be considered a disappointment for LA’s, y’know, real basketball team, but the compressed season has really hurt a squad composed almost entirely of geezers. That they can hobble onto the court at all is a moral victory.
Think about that: the Dodgers, the Galaxy, the Kings, the Clippers, the Lakers — champions or pending champions or moral champions or simply not losers anymore. Los Angeles sports is undergoing an unprecedented renaissance. It’s amazing to watch, to feel, to be a part of. There’s a frisson in the city, and no matter where you look, there’s something you can be a part of that’s winning, however unexpectedly.
Don’t count us out of the Superbowl just yet.
In 1971, Dock Ellis, of LSD no-hitter fame, was chosen to the National League All-Star team. Vida Blue was chosen to start the game for the American League. A black pitcher had never started an All-Star game, so Dock figured the chances of a black pitcher starting for BOTH teams was more than America could bear. He said as much to the media and received this reply from Jackie Robinson.
“I read your comments in our paper the last few days and wanted to let you know how much I appreciated your courage and honesty. In my opinion, progress for today’s players will only come from this kind of dedication. Try not to be left alone.”
Read the rest on Deadspin.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this for Mariano Rivera.
No matter how you feel about the Yankees — and, believe me, I feel exactly the same way — it wasn’t supposed to end like this. One of the greatest pitchers — and certainly the greatest closer — in the history of the game, put down by a blown-out knee, shagging flies during batting practice? Oh, no. That’s not dramatic enough. That’s not glorious enough. That’s the ending of every weekend-league high-school-once-was, gone fat and forty, not for one of the best to ever play.
It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
It was supposed to end with Rivera pitching a low-outside fastball that Matt Kemp puts out of the park for a walk-off win in game seven of the World Series.
The Yankees have numerous rivals. The Red Sox (division). The Mets (cross-town). The Dodgers (11 World Series matchups). But these Yankees — this particular squad — have a bigger rival. Father Time.
Derek Jeter is 37. Alex Rodriguez is 36. The team’s most-anticipated call-up from the minor leagues is Andy Pettitte, age 39, returning from a year in retirement. Their best hitter during last season’s postseason loss to the Tigers was the now-retired Jorge Posada, who turned 40 in August.
And Rivera. Mariano Rivera — the one who, until last night, seemed most immune to the effects of age and time — is the same age as the never-to-be-worn-again jersey number on his back: 42.
I’m a Yankees fan. I’d be rooting for these guys whether I were 10 or 80. But these guys aren’t just any Yankees. They’re my Yankees. I’m 39. Most of the athletes “my age” have long since walked away from their games. This is an age when you’re more likely to be a coach or TV analyst than an active player. But these guys play on, against the odds. (Jeter is hitting .404.)
To be a Yankees fan is to be greedy. We expect the Yankees to win far more than a fair share of World Series titles. We always expect to win. But last year, when it became clear that Posada was not going to return for another season, my desire to see them win felt almost desperate. I wanted not just another title for the Yankees, but something more: another title for my Yankees, the three remaining players from the glorious Joe Torre dynasty years. Guys “my age” winning it all, one more time. I convinced myself that it was meant to be. It was not.
When Pettitte announced his intention to return to the team this year, that same irrational sense of “Wouldn’t it be great?” destiny rekindled in my heart: three of these guys have a chance to win One More Ring. Now we’re down to two.
Time’s effects, even against Rivera — the most graceful and elegant ballplayer I’ve ever seen, the closest thing in sports to an ageless wonder — are ignominious. The Yankees often win, but in the end, time always wins — the one opponent against which even the Yankees will forever be underdogs. To struggle against time is to struggle against the inevitable. We all know you can’t beat time, but the joy of these aging Yankees is that sometimes you can get lucky and race ahead of it for a while. But now this.
I’m not writing him off. If anyone can return from such an injury at 42, it is Rivera. But no matter how this turns out for Rivera and the Yankees, the reminder is clear: everything is fleeting.
The Worst Person in the World is a flag football coach in the Los Angeles suburb of Westlake, in the San Fernando Valley. I know this because my son’s team played his last weekend.
The game was over, or it might has well have been. There was a minute and a half left in the fourth quarter and the Worst Person in the World’s team was up by five or six touchdowns. This was expected, even before play began, because they were an established tackle team that had worked together for years, and used flag football for off-season training. We were a helter-skelter collection of random kids who wandered into the league to have some fun on Sunday afternoons. The outcome was predetermined.
But we’d had some luck on what would be our last drive, and had completed two solid plays — a deep pass and a broken-field run. We were settling into scoring position for the first time in the half. A little more effort, another couple of flukes, and we could be in the endzone inside the time limit. It wouldn’t matter, of course, except to salvage some pride. Losing is part of playing, and so is never giving up.
The Worst Person in the World had just finished shouting at his team — “Come on! Come on! Stop him!” — and called a defensive timeout, gathering his players into a huddle. They took a long time and when they came out, they came out hunting.
At the end of the next play, three of our kids were face down on the grass, hurt, including mine. It was the single dirtiest play of the entire season. Forearms to the face, pushing from behind, straight arms. Stuff that’s not only illegal in neighborhood flag football, but illegal in the NFL.
The Worst Person in the World had ordered a hit. He’d told his experienced tackle players that they weren’t going to let these… pussies… score, that they were to go out there and hurt them. Put them down. Flag football? Rules? Sportsmanship? Bullshit. The ball is just as down if the player carrying it is lying on his back in pain as if you grabbed his flag. And he’s not as likely to think he can get away with scoring the next time.
The Worst Person in the World had told his players that it simply wasn’t enough to play hard, that it wasn’t enough to win, or to dominate or even humiliate. He told his players that they were to go out there and destroy. A grown man told 12-year-old boys put down other 12-year-old boys, just for the sake of preventing the possibility of a meaningless touchdown. Hit them. Hurt them. Kill them.
And the other sideline cheered. Parents high-fived each other. Players basked in the approval of their coach. They pumped their fists. We ran out onto the field to make sure our kids were OK, to help them to their feet. Our coach complained to the ref — a skinny high schooler in well over his head — and then to the league rep, while the Worst Person in the World held his arms out to his sides and mimed innocence. No fouls were called. No action was taken. The Worst Person in the World smiled a smug little smile, like the schoolyard thug who got away with it, his world-view reconfirmed, his ruthlessness rewarded.
And so we walked away. We packed up our folding seats and six-packs of Gatorade and walked away. A minute and a half left on the clock, we abandoned the game. Never giving up has its limits.
I love sports. I love the outdoors, the camaraderie, the exercise, the life-long ability to work at something until it’s totally natural, totally effortless. I love the fun, the reward for persistence, the essential fairness. I love the exhilaration of winning and the lessons of losing. I love coaching.
The look on a kid’s face when he connects with his first real hit, nails his first real swish, grabs his first real pass — it’s amazing. He may not remember the details, but I’ve gotten to see it dozens of times. It’s joy.
But sports has a dark side. There are winners and losers, determined both by the final score and by what the expectations are. To some people — the Worst Person in the World included — all that matters is being on the right side of that line, no matter where it is. Rules, sportsmanship, common decency — they’re all just things that get in the way. These are tiny little men, in tiny little kingdoms, their sense of self-worth so fragile that a group of 12-year-olds can threaten to take it away from them with a meaningless gesture. They’ll literally do anything to prevent that. This is where bullies come from, where they are made.
I know why some people hate sports. I saw it. It’s when nothing matters more than propping up whatever delusions you have about yourself, when skill or accident or luck puts you in a place you don’t want to be, and you react like a cornered animal. The Worst Person in the World has never learned anything from sports but how good it feels to win, and that has trapped him into living a life where being a bully — where creating bullies — is not only accepted, but required.
My kid was exposed to an ugly part of the world last weekend, through the lens of something he loves. We had to talk about fair play and ethics and why winning ugly isn’t winning. We had to talk about when you walk away and why. We had to talk about how to deal with domineering assholes, and how the world is full of them. No parent wants to have these conversations, but each has to.
And like every other lesson that sports has to offer, he’ll use them again and again.
Just so we’re clear here: Ryan Braun — a player who should be serving a fifty game suspension — pops a weak sac fly into center field, where Matt Kemp snags it and instantly fires it home. The Brewer’s third base coach gives Nyjer Morgan the hold sign — because he knows who actually deserved the NL MVP last season, and he’s scared to death of him — but Morgan ignores him and goes for it. The throw arrives, the catch is made, the tag is easy and the umpire calls him…. safe?
Go and look at the picture at the top of this post. Safe?
But then maybe that’s how they do things in Milwaukee, where they race wieners, inject testosterone, and play baseball indoors, like degenerates and perverts.
At the start of the hockey season, I bet my Rangers fan son $100 that the Isles would end up with a better record than the Rangers. I knew in my heart it was a losing bet but when the season is new and the prospects look better than they have in while, your hope turns into something like stupidity. I was reaching for something, anything, to make me feel like this season wouldn’t be another one of despair and bitterness.
Of course it was. And I say was even though the season isn’t over because - let’s face it - the Islander’s season is over. After their OT loss to the Rangers Sunday night I felt deflated and sad and then spent a good portion of the night wondering why I let something like sports make me feel so awful. In fact, people ask me this all the time: “Why do you care so much?” I’m sure you’ve heard it. “It’s just sports.” “It’s only a game.” “It’s not like it matters in your life.”
These words come from people who get hung up on tv shows so I try to put up a comparison for them. Each hockey (or baseball, etc.) season is like an episode of a tv show. You become emotionally invested in it. You care about the characters and what happens to them. You wait for each subsequent episode and between those episodes you talk about the show, speculate what will happen and armchair quarterback what should have happened. When you devote that much emotion into watching all those episodes of a show just to have Shane get his zombie head blown off leaving you with no characters left to like, you feel a sense of disappointment. You feel let down. Empty. “Why bother,” you think. “Why watch the rest of this show when there’s just nothing left to care about?” Then you spend the next hour evaluating all the ways in which Rick and Lori and Carl can die. You just hope for implosion at that point.
Sometimes people will get it. They’ll realize why I feel sad when my favorite team sinks to the bottom and I’m left hopeless and sad. The people who mourn when their favorite person gets voted off American Idol now understand that sports is my entertainment, my escape, my moment to cheer for something awesome to happen between the bookends of my hours spent at a soul sucking job and hours spent watching people vote for Rick Santorum.
So yea, I’m sad. I’m sad the Islanders once again have failed me. I’m sad I have nothing left to cheer for. The only thing I can wish for now is a Walking Dead type vengeance, where Garth Snow and Jack Capuano are fed to the zombies and left jobless, if not walking around aimlessly looking for entrails to eat.
My son has forgiven me the $100 bet, sort of. I bought him MLB2K12 and told him to never talk to me about the bet, the Islanders or hockey ever again. Especially during the playoffs.
At least we’re both Yankee fans. We’ll have plenty of shared happiness, high fives and hopefully an ending which does not involve me thinking of the Phillies as soul crushing zombies.