Wednesday, October 3, 2007

In My Tribe (September 28th, 2007)

Recommended reading: ESPN's Guide To Psycho Fan Behavior

Dedicating this week's post to Mr. Mark Longwell, a great athlete, who just gave so much more meaning to the overall message of what's been written below - thank you, Mark, for all that you're doing!


That's what one soapy message declared on the rear window of some Ford Bronco passing me this last week. Usually those window spaces are reserved for **JUST MARRIED** and CONGRATS GRADS OF '07! type exclamations. But, 'Make It Personal'? Make what 'personal' exactly?

I pulled along side the dented and dusty black truck and inside were revealed four young occupants clad in a color all too familiar around the UT-Austin campus: the hoo-wah burnt orange of the Longhorns college football team. The "Horns" were playing Rice University (the "Owls" if you really must know) that weekend and everyone and their dog were wearing the team colors. In fact, so stirred was the excitement-pot that one restaurant billboard trying to attract the frenzied throngs in to enjoy the game rather disturbingly ventured:

"We Don't Give A Hoot! The Owls Can Go Pluck Themselves!"


Thoughts of the famous barroom scene in the original Star Wars came to mind wherein Obi Wan Kenobi has taken Luke aside to school him before entering the alien cantina, "Mos Eisley spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious."

Longhorns' fans will come out in droves during a regular game day turning the streets into row after fluid row of leggy lava. Watch these hordes come over the hilly terrain of nearby UT Stadium and it looks like an army of angry Texas Fire Ants on the rampage. Yep, point taken. Truly intimidating.

Of course, I have nothing against 'The Longhorns'. I rather appreciate the teams understated, slightly over-ripe piece of dried fruit color of the same name... and the logo? Well, a Longhorn. Pretty cool: A big mother heffer (Ahem, cough-cough) of a silhouetted steer head complete with 'don't mess with Texas' sized bullhorns. You see these everywhere. Football rules the roost 'round this rodeo. Can't go to any shop, stand or supermarket(!) without having an opportunity to pick up your 'Horns attire. For you AND your pets... Yee and Haw. End of discussion.

They're a winning team to boot. Unbeaten this season as of this writing. Minimal criminal activity among the ranks, too. Sort of. Some players have had their ups and downs lately but I assure you the greatest offense (not withstanding their plays on the field...nark-nark!) are probably their combined grade point average.

But, you see, I'm a baseball fan. Always have been. Always will be. I like football just fine ... when the Patriots are winning, but I adore my beloved Boston Red Sox. All the time.

I have been watching the Sox since I was a kid in all of their vanity, victories, follies, heroic tragedies, comically flawed serial flub-ups (all is forgiven Billy Buckner) of magnitudes so great that grown men have been known to cry in front of their off-spring. This last statement is quite true - as I was the one to have actually witnessed this at Fenway Park. It was at the tail end of one bloodied and bruised season's game against the Toronto Blue Jays. The game was pivotal to continuing in any post-season play-off series. The outcome - apocalyptic. Sox hitting was just 'off' that 9th inning and with Toronto only one lousy point ahead. The last swat of the day, not a tie breaking home run like everyone was genuflecting to the Sports God for, but a sad, listless drooper that landed right smack-dab into the glove of the opposing Jays center fielder.

(Wuh-Waaaah!) Game over.

The man next to me began his initial tantrum with the all too familiar and incredulous, "Aww, COME! --- ON!!!" Then he just burst into tears. Right in front of his two kids. His wife looked out towards the scoreboard, trying not to pay attention to him, and just shook her head. So did I. Wow. I'm disappointed, too, guy, but ... "COME! --- ON!!!!"

So, of course, once the Sox took the World Series in that glorious fall of October 2004 I was ...

... in Seattle.

Business trip I swear! I thought the games would go on much longer than they did against St. Louis. A four game sweep? ("COME!! --- ON!!!!")

Not to worry, though, I was amongst many, many absolutely ecstatic ex-pats from "Red Sox Nation" at a bar called F.X. McCrory's in Pioneer Square. 86 years worth of hugging strangers, hollering exhortations of glory and of self righteously intoned "OF COURSE THEY DID IT"s and most of all, well, yes ---> weeping. Like a baby. No. Not like a baby. Like that man at Fenway Park. Only happy.

I called my friend, Albert, first as he and I are 'attached at the hip' when it comes to the Red Sox. We spoke in the following pre-exorcism babble for about five minutes: "Woooooo! Arrrrrrhhhh! Waaaahhhhhh! Wahaaaaaaaaa! I LOVE YOU, MAAAAN! (sniff-sniff) We did it! We (sniff-choke-sniff) We did it... WOOOOO!" And so on... yeah, I know what you're thinking ... "We" did it? Like we were on the team or something.

Which brings me to the subject of today's 'gee, isn't life worthy of deep contemplation' rant: Sports Fans (had you not guessed already...).

Its not ironic that I find myself pontificating about this subject just as the Red Sox are, in fact, about to head into post-season play - again (YEAH, BABY, GIVE ME A ... oh, sorry...)!

But, honestly, now: "sports fans".

I just don't get them either. Even *as* a sports fan! What 'gives' with all the sports derived mania that can go on inside a grown person's helmut holder? How can watching sports bring even the most seemingly average citizen to brazen, mob-mentality new 'heights' of pure gah-gah idiocy and infantilism? Why all the nutty antics and male/female bonding (bondage?) via bear-hugs and "high-fives" when points are scored, or when opposing team players are, ugh ... seriously injured on the playing field? Oh, the "humanity".

And "Hey, please stop beating up on my 'Weekly Dig' newspaper box, you cad! I like my paper un-urine-soaked just fine thank you very much!" and this kind of behavior - after a win?!? If we truly must destroy things then we should be destroying things only when we're upset - right? Hello? Anybody there?

Heather, my wife, can't stand it. Any of it. She is not a sports fan. She doesn't get why I like the Red Sox. She will tell me how alienated she feels whenever she sees anyone wearing a sports team's baseball cap or a T-Shirt with something written in code like: "RAMIREZ 24"

Is that like Leviticus 1:10? (n.b. - a passage, by the way, for those reading a bit deeper, about sheep...burnt offerings specifically ;^)

She also believes it is my "Dark Side". No, no. She does not discourage me from my Jekyll and Hyde personalities - its probably what makes me interesting after all - she's just confounded by it.

When she asks me to explain why I like baseball, or any sports for that matter, the only stock answer I can parrot back to her is this, "You see, Sweetheart, it's a tribal thing. We, as a species, never truly ever evolved. We are still throwing rocks at each others caves and the guy with the better aim and the harder throwing arm wins the admiration of his fellow clans folk. It wasn't until 'Grok' invented the catcher's mitt, by weaving swamp grass together, that they discovered hurling stones at one another was actually really kinda fun. Minus the whole occasional smashed in the face thing..." Homer Simpson invents the history of sports.

She will concede this one thing: Texas sports fans, at least, are far more 'polite' than New England fans. There is a certain blue-collar uncouthness to the typical Boston Red Sox fan, for example, their turned around baseball hats, their thick Southie brogues for some, and their penchant for abusive protestations whenever they see one of those "N with the Y embedded in it" aegis's:


Nay, dear non-natives! Texans, and Texas fans, are exemplary in their behavior when it comes to the treatment of others - including their sports rivals. Red carpets, big wide open grins, friendly 'may the best team win' back slaps all around. They just want to let you know, 'No hard feelings ... before we absolutely crush your players and make them cry for their Mamas on the field today.' Have a nahss day, ya'll!

Someone we call our "Genius Friend", Mitch Hampton, who we frequented outings to the 'Philosophy Cafe' in Davis Square, Somerville every Tuesday night was once frustratingly asked by Heather, "So, Mitch, why do you think people like sports?" And, Mitch, usually one with a snap and long-form essayist like answer to everything (all the while quoting sources ranging anywhere from Aristotle to Zola!) could only say this about the subject: "You know, I don't understand it either, but it must be important because it means so much to so many people." Seriously, this is a guy who can use words like 'deleterious' and 'peripatetic' in the same sentence and make it sound like he's describing a typical day at the office - this was all that he could come up with...

I blame my mother. For my Red Sox addiction that is. And my ultimate not understanding of the nature of being a sports fan. All I remember is that as a wee boy of tottish age she and I would attend several baseball games together at Fenway during the summers of my most developmental of years. I'll never forget one game (Ha! A Sox v. Blue Jays game again! Double-header this time!), she, sitting there, crocheting (yes, crocheting! at a Red Sox game!) along the first base line of seats close to "Pesky Pole" and Carl Yastrzemski ("Yaz" of yore) was up at bat. Suddenly she leaped up, hands pressed together and offered this unsolicited screaming salutation cum fan adulation, "C'mon, Yaz! You are God, now belt the living hell out of that ball!!!"


He delivered, too, by doing just that, by the way. Prayers answered?

I think that very moment may have sealed the deal right there for me ... we learn from our elders, after all, am I right?

So, you may gather then that sports fan can be notoriously superstitious, is that what drives them? True. Verily true and sad. My friend, Ed's, mother gets up from her chair with her hands over her eyes, leaves the room and hides in the kitchen whenever the Sox are losing. This is her voodoo. Her ritual spirit walk. She has been rewarded enough times by the team getting back ahead again upon her return to know that she is actually in control of the game.

My ritual is more, shall we say, obtuse. No, its downright bizarre really. When the Sox are losing I have been known to walk up to the television set and perform what can only be described as a "Vulcan Mind Meld" with the TV screen image. On bended knee I place one hand on the surface of all those negatively charged pixels, spread my fingers wide and concentrate a focused beam of 'up with people' like thoughts to the playing field. I assure you I am only injecting positive vibes to that otherwise unacknowledged and underpaid roster of players. They just need that extra little cosmic boost from a die hard ... a die hard Sports Fan.

I, too, have been rewarded enough times to know that, "No, Ed's Mom! I'm in charge of this game!"

Sports as religion? Mysticism at play perhaps? Why not. Clarifies things a bit more in terms of the need for a belief system in a sometimes very mundane existence for so many people. In the larger scale of things is a gathering of dozens of people in a 'place
of worship consecrated by the holy sacraments', hands placed firmly together, chanting their 'communes with God', really any different? Only they might be asking for things a bit more grounded like, say, health, prosperity, peace & good will toward men, stuff like that.

Pffff, please.

Who was it that was once quoted making this ingenious observation: "God doesn't have time for dealing with things like the War in Iraq and poverty; He's too busy making sure football teams score touch downs and actors win Academy Awards." Or something of that nature. Splendidly put, good sir!

Enough meandering here. Can we get to the bottom of this mystery of Sports Fans once and for all then? Why do we place such high value on the imaginary importance of home runs, netted goals, touch downs, match points, dunked hoops and holes-in-ones. Commerce? Sure, there is a lot of money involved. But I'm no gambler. I have never gambled on a sports game. Ever. Not even in those foolish office pools. Hated the concept. I just loved watching the games. Don't sully it's purity of competition and grit with capital! Yuck. Athletes win tournaments because of their physical prowess and finely honed skills (the Barry Bonds of the world aside...) just appreciate that! Please don't belittle or corrupt my viewing enjoyment with your dirty lucre! I did buy a baseball cap once, though... But that's not it. Money. That doesn't drive the game. Not for me anyway. Whether my team is winning or losing I always follow them. Fanatically.

I've heard one person sum up sports as "civilized warfare". That kind of works, especially if there is any weight to my cave dwellers theory, but not all competition lends itself to savagery necessarily. We calculate to win in whatever manner, perhaps (here's lookin' at you Bill Belichick!), but we can admire sportsmanship for its craft, and in its purist state, as an art form. To note many of us have *several favorite* teams and players, too - not just ones restricted to someone's personal region or country even - because certain athlete's 'super human ability' attracts fans to these performers or their organizations. Bend it like Beckham anyone? Pele? How then does this warrant as 'useful' any warfare that is conducted 'fighting amongst our favorites' ... makes for some pretty damning conflicted-self scenarios in essence methinks. I'm just not wholly buying that bellicosity is built into everything human anyway.

So, I've found comfort in seeing my own sports fan-dom this way: Sports are a form of "Soap Opera" for people like me. Players and teams embody everything there is to know about everyday men and women in their idealized form and how they conduct their day-to-day lives. Its what we can achieve by chiseling away the chafe and ugliness of 'I can't do this' that many of us practice as mantra in our lives. If these players say "I can't do this" there is no game. Or there is one hell of a crappy game. Each individual player has a story rife with obstacles they must overcome, plot lines, sub-plots, character arcs, equal or better opponents they must 'figure out' (ever heard of a "Pitchers Duel" before - same thing) and great heights they must achieve in order to reach whatever their mount. Curt Schillings' legendary bloody red sock will remain forever an iconic 'Story' to us Red Sox fans. It is symbolically loaded: this guy pitched right after ankle surgery to victory over New York in one of the most crucial of series games -- 'so why can't I draft this stinking report for tomorrow's big meeting?' To quote one sports equipment franchise: Just Do It!

"Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sports... the thrill of victory... and the agony of defeat... the human drama of athletic competition... This is "Humanity's Wide World of Sports!" (apologies ABC's Jim McKay...)

I don't condone idiot fan behavior. I loathe it. Sports, in my mind's eye, are not a conduit for aggression but rather of cathartic release. Yes, vanquishing the Yankees is always a thrill for me to watch and sometimes I get ' a little too into it'. But then I am easily reminded of my one time (one time! you heard me!) I became a Yankees fan. That particular
episode put everything about team rivalry and faux belief systems into hyper-charged focused reality:

One Tuesday morning, on an otherwise beautiful September day (and during the height of the baseball season), two jet airplanes brought down two very tall buildings and all of their human contents with it - in one of the greatest cities in the world...


Yes. It went without saying: Go Yankees! Boston loves you deep down anyway; arguably without the Sox-Yanks rivalry would there be as great a story to tell? Would our team mean nearly as much? Probably not...

Goliath, David longs to hold your hand.

So, go ahead, 'Horns, make it personal. It is. Just play nicely, ya'll!

Happy New Year,



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