Sports

From the Archives: On the Meaning of Baseball (and a Suggestion)

This piece comes from our archives.

 

When I am trying to recall my childhood, the best I often call forth is a phantasmagorical flash of images and feelings; for instance, a friend whose play habits I have forgotten or a name without a face-not nearly tidy enough for scrapbook presentation. Amongst the confusion, there are a few vivid, traceable “story lines,” if you will, by which I can mark my life’s progression.

One example that comes to mind is my relationship with Rich, my best friend since I was three. Another is my exploration of books and all the richness I have found there. Indeed, there are other threads equally as important to the overall weave and design of my personal history, influences that give it form and worth. But with October winding down, amidst the kaleidoscope of autumnal color, one storyline, which comes accompanied by the “crack!” of a bat and the “pop!” of a mitt, gains a particular poignancy: my love for baseball.

As a lifelong New Yorker born in the 1980s, I grew up amongst baseball chatter and rivalry. From one house to the next, loyalty was divided between the Yankees and Mets. My house belonged to the Yankees. With stars like Darryl Strawberry, Doc Gooden, and Keith Hernandez, and having won the World Series in 1986, the Mets were the better team of the eighties. But I inherited my father’s love, became a Yankees fan, and learned to revere the history of the team. Dave Winfield, Ron Guidry, and Don Mattingly were my players of choice.

As I grew older, what I loved so much on television I took to the schoolyard, and began playing catch with my father, two older brothers, and the other neighborhood boys. And soon, I was playing in the local Pee Wee league, helping my team to the championship round in five consecutive seasons. Unfortunately, we won only the first of five. Eventually, as the skills of the other boys developed, mine stalled, and I became a mere spectator. While my playing days were over, I still found baseball exhilarating as an onlooker. And I watched year in and year out, following my team down the valleys and up the peaks, devastated with every playoff loss and elated with every October victory, devoted to my team and to my sport without demur.

Recently, a friend, peering over my shoulder while I read baseball box scores, asked me with sincerity (a rare and disarming temperament), “Why do you like baseball, anyway?” Truly, baseball, like many things personally enjoyed, is a delight to some and a frivolity to others. As with anything really loved, my love for baseball has been challenged before.

It is a challenge, honestly, with which I rarely engage because cynics-of sports, most especially-very seldom ask genuine questions, usually making proclamations through their “questions.” The conversation inevitably devolves into an each-to-his-own pact of non-aggression. They go their way; I go mine. It is not a conversation worth having often. So when I detected the sincerity in my friend’s voice, I realized that he was not showing disdain for my sport, but that he was actually asking a rather thoughtful question: “What is the meaning of baseball?”

Very quickly, I recognized that I did not really know the answer. I had never considered baseball in that manner. I had always unquestioningly enjoyed it, as I suspect is the case of all baseball enthusiasts. But that is to be expected, maybe even hoped for. As C.S. Lewis, the Oxford don and author, explains, enjoyment, the disposition at the heart of sport, is vastly different to contemplativeness, the disposition at the heart of paradigmatic construction. Contemplating baseball requires objective detachment from it-an outside view, if you will. On the other hand, enjoyment of baseball requires an unquestioning subjective engagement: humility before the sport-being inside of it.

Enjoyment and contemplation are two differing consciousnesses. One sees from without, one from within. And fans learn from the earliest age to see sports from within. Still, I thought to contemplate the question and seek an answer.

Admittedly, when measured with a detached rationality, baseball appears absurd. The principal action of the game revolves around a man who, from a raised bump of dirt, throws a stitched leather ball across a 216 square inch pentagon which lies 60’6” away. An opponent stands aside the pentagon and tries to swat the stitched leather ball with a narrow wooden stick. Many more precisely measured and equally ambiguous actions ensue as a result of this repeated event. While these are famously difficult feats, they appear entirely arbitrary. At first glance, baseball gives the impression of meaninglessness, and, especially in light of their enthusiasm, its fans appear irrational.

Yet, a cardinal virtue of any good sport is its ability to test the physical limits and discipline of an athlete. And, although the rules and actions of baseball may appear arbitrary, they certainly excel in testing an athlete’s physical endurance, agility, speed, and strength. To this end they have been constructed and diligently upheld; so they are not entirely random. As each game generally spans over three hours, and each player has limited opportunities to contribute to the contest’s outcome, an athlete must prove his patience and focus as well. For example, on offense the position players (players who both play the field and hit) are likely to have only four at bats per nine innings. On defense, a position player can go an entire game without fielding a single ball-a rather frequent occurrence. The athlete must remain vigilant, as a result, so as not to be caught unaware. However, the greatest test for a ballplayer is one of will, for even the most excellent hitters succeed, on average, only three times out of every ten at bats. Failure is at the very heart of baseball and success can only be had in spite of it.

Americans love excellence, even of the purely physical sort. It satisfies our meritocratic predisposition. On that level, one can understand an American’s appreciation for a baseball player or team. But can appreciation for excellence explain the intensity of the fan’s communion with his team? Can it explain the fan’s tears over loss, adulation from victory, or even prayers for a player’s well being? Can it explain his devotion during years or even decades of competitive futility? No, it certainly cannot. Again, the fan is either entirely irrational, or there is something more to baseball. I suggest that there is something more, which can only be found in the experience of the fans, a testimony that cannot be discounted. To see it, we must move a little further in.

Simply put, baseball has a visible level-a physical dimension viewable by all, even cynics-and an invisible level-a metaphorical dimension experienced by fans only (often on the subconscious level) which is unknown to cynics; especially empirical statisticians. If baseball is a body, the rules are the bones and flesh, and story is the blood. Only together does it have fullness and its fullness can only be found in fandom.

So what does the fan see, exactly? While it’s different for each fan, it certainly contains nostalgia, as I have recounted from my own life. More importantly, the fan sees a microcosm of the human story. In my experience, I of course appreciated Don Mattingly for his offensive and defensive prowess. Nevertheless, he became my favorite player during years when his back was balky and his numbers declined. During those seasons I appreciated his perseverance, humility, sacrifice, and sympathized with a career that became increasingly demoralizing. Don Mattingly became my favorite player because I empathized with his personhood. This is common: in one breath fans will praise a player statistically, the next in universally human terms.

In addition, the drama of baseball is entirely unscripted, which makes its structure both analogous to life and more theatrical than a stage play, film, or television show. In this way, a baseball game reflects spontaneous human achievement, action, and emotion: a physical dramatization and symbolization of everyday living. Furthermore, the story of a particular game, season, franchise, or player establishes the meaning, and thus the dramatic content, of any given physical action. For example, a home run hit in an April contest, while physically impressive, is quickly forgotten. On the other hand, in 2003, Aaron Boone’s home run to defeat the Red Sox and send the Yankees to the World Series was a narrative masterpiece, complex and deep enough to stir true euphoria and genuine devastation. As a result, the moment is memorialized in both infinite honor and infamy. This demonstrates an indelible fact: no matter how impressive the physical act is, its meaning is understood, and memorability determined, by its place in the story of the game.

On a subtler level, baseball is symbolic for an overarching metaphor that mirrors human existence at its most primal: that life can only be lived in the face of certain death. A baseball contest progresses by outs, failures, if you will, not by time. Generally speaking, a standard ballgame is complete only after both teams in the contest record twenty-seven outs. In the bleak world of baseball, both teams fail. The victor is merely the team who has accumulated the most runs in spite of their own demise. Concomitantly, the hitting side, dubiously named “the offense,” is postured from the start in a defensive position, and their task is to temporarily stave off the efforts of the pitching side to retire them. Ultimately, the world of baseball is a fallen one in which even the victors inevitably perish. Much like life, victory in baseball is achieved in the face of a harsh fatalism. Ballplayers are actors in a passion play and the fans are the beneficiaries of their willingness to demonstrate the human struggle.

If victory means failure, and winning the World Series is so supremely difficult, why play? Here I can only make a suggestion: for good reason baseball first took root amongst rural Americans, a people famous for their protestantismus. Imported from England, baseball became a reflection of the Americans that claimed it. Like all, the people of rural America were aware of death’s certainty, yet they still hoped that on the other side promises would be fulfilled and dreams come true. Baseball, their game of choice, offers players and fans a mirrored anticipation. Fielding a baseball team is like taking Pascal’s wager: when a team wins the World Series, all of their hopes and dreams for the season have been realized. Wouldn’t it be worth it to dedicate oneself to that cause even if humiliation was assured and victory uncertain?

The Sporting Life

Egregious!

Scott Van Pelt uttered it for the umpteenth time while describing a pass interference call in a September football game and suddenly my mind drifted to Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

The news reports came out there was still one golden ticket left and the whole world freaked the hell out. Candy shops were emptied, fights broke out, perhaps trampling occurred, new technologies were produced, and, in a word, the world went crazy…for candy bars!

This week, in spite of weeks of jokes and idle threats revolving around bad NFL referees, a call caused the Green Bay Packers to lose a game, and the jokes stopped. Now it’s serious. And with every last drop of “let’s not go overboard here,” the media went overboard. Long-winded monologues about the tribulations of enduring an NFL season where the game is being under-legislated ensued. Oh, the travesty! Oh, disaster! My year is ruined. My life is ruined.

A co-employee of mine chatted me up in the elevator about how he lost $400 on that call. It’s neither here nor there, but maybe stop gambling? Could the problem possibly be your obsession with the game and problem with gambling and not the referees calling the games?

To paraphrase Scott Van Pelt, “People in this country wait all year for this. They wait all year for the fall when they can watch sixteen games. They only have sixteen chances to watch their teams play.”

And it got ruined. Well this is just terrible. Almost as terrible as when you realize that you are not one of the five people who get to tour the chocolate factory.

I love sports. I watch sports every night. I damn near make my living from sports (at least I’m closer than others). I get bent out of shape when my squad loses. I feel tension and soak up every last moment of victory. I played sports. I watch sports. I cover sports. I attend sporting events. I talk about sports. I write about sports. Every fiber in me understands what is going on here and how it makes us feel.

But here it is, and it may be a tough pill to swallow—football is over, prioritized in this country to the point of insanity, and that very point was exposed no more than two minutes after the “egregious” touchdown call by the replacement refs.

We live in a place and time where church can’t run late because it may cut into the first of seven games we’re going to watch that day. I played a noontime game of golf last Saturday; the weather was sixty-six degrees and sunny. I was one of maybe ten people on a normally gridlocked course on account of College Game Day. Millions upon millions of gambling dollars get circulated every week for this game, and if anyone dared get in the way of that it may well cause a catastrophe.

Well, something did get in the way of it, and more than anything else, it exposed the addiction that is running rampant in society today. Folks are generally beside themselves.

“I’m boycotting.”

“I’m cancelling my NFL Network subscription.”

“I’m going to be one of the seven million people who called the NFL offices to complain.”

Imagine if seven million people called to see how they could help feed starving children somewhere. Shameful. And by the way, there are very few people, I would guess zero, who care about which subscriptions you are canceling.

This is a fun exercise: imagine if 500 random Americans were selected, blindfold, shuttled to a courtroom for a town-hall style meeting, and sat in front of Roger Goodell and the NFL owners sitting on a panel at the front of the room. The place would explode, no? Screaming, throwing, tongue-lashings, cursing, more trampling, and who knows? If there are no cops and no security guards,  maybe a handful of the random 500 decide to just beat the shit out of one or two owners.

It’s certainly not a far stretch from players, grown men, professionals, cursing out the commissioner and owners after they lose a game. (And Tweeting it, no less).

Beneath all this noise are some important questions: Who is mad, who is the most mad, why are they mad, and who or what are they mad at? If it’s the players that are mad then so be it. They are perhaps so committed to winning and being the best that it hurts them deeply to be cheated out of a win. But it’s not their livelihood that is being jeopardized by a bad game, or even a bad season of unfortunate breaks. So maybe it’s that they desire to win a championship, and these mistakes made it much harder for them to achieve that goal. Great reason to be mad. That would imply that money is not everything, and winning a championship is far greater an achievement than making seven figures. That’s much nobler.

But it seems like the fans are the maddest. Those, who Van Pelt pointed out so poetically, wait all year for sixteen chances to cheer for their team. The majority of folks act now as if something has been stripped of them. Some right inherent to watching football at the highest level, with very few mistakes. This entitlement is obscene, and the fact that conversations exist in the media about the threat of a boycott ought to make folks think more about Willy Wonka and his factory.

And relax! The real refs will come back, I’m sure! Either that or the bad refs will progressively get better. Either way the quality of the game will return, and all will be well. Everyone will get a chance to ride the Wonka Wash, and everyone will receive a lifetime supply of chocolate! It just might not happen today or tomorrow. Maybe just take a deep breath and watch a less-well-officiated version of your favorite thing in the whole world, even just for a short while. And maybe while this is going on, and even when it’s not going on, stop placing large portions of your income on the line. Save that money and buy some golf clubs or something because the courses are wide open on Saturdays! Or better yet, send that money to someone who needs it. It’s really up to you, and that’s the cool part.

I’m all for competitive spirit, and there are about a million reasons why you should have good referees in a league that generates so much money. But America showed its colors this week, and the populous should recognize how silly it looks getting so bent out of shape over a football game that, oh my gosh, might cost the beloved Green Bay Packers a playoff spot or home field advantage.

I think we’d laugh if we saw folks rioting over a trip to Willy Wonka’s factory. We did laugh, in fact! We laughed and laughed when we saw the movie, even for the fiftieth time. So take a step back and check it out. This is laughable.

No, this is egregious.

 

Glory with a Side of Nachos

By the time you read this, there is a good chance that the New York Rangers will have won the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1994. There is a slightly lower chance that the Boston Celtics will have also won the NBA championship for the first time since 2008. But whether these things come to pass or not, there is one thing that is certain: in these few short weeks of the NBA and NHL playoffs, I will have consumed enough chili cheese nachos to make even Charles Barkley jealous.

Photo by flickr user roeyahram.

That’s because I, like so many sports fans, will spend as many of my free nights as possible this playoff season at the local sports bar. Of course, saying “local sports bar” in Williamsburg, Brooklyn instead of “local pub” or something equally pretentious is rumored to be a crime punishable by stoning, but don’t let these hipsters fool you: they like sports as much as anyone else. They may pretend to think that the Stanley Cup is merely an oversized vessel for holding PBR, but when the puck drops or the ball goes up or the first pitch is thrown, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a seat at any of the few sports bar in this neighborhood, and not just because we’re all too poor to afford cable at home, but because sports bars are where games are fully experienced as opposed to simply watched.

A sports bar is distinctly different from a bar that just happens to have a game or a match on the overhead television in that they specifically design their bar business around sporting events. They are the sorts of places where you know you’ll be able to catch all of the big games, but also where you will likely be able to catch some of the smaller market games, perhaps even sports like gymnastics and softball if there’s nothing major going on in the big leagues. Sports bars will likely have music playing during insignificant events, but when big game days arrive, the music is tuned out in favor of blaring broadcasters giving onlookers a play-by-play over the steady din of a live audience. A good sports bar won’t just have two or three televisions tucked in the corners, but at least a dozen flat-screens lining the walls like picture frames to ensure variety during things like playoff season and the Olympics, and certainty when the masses arrive for championship matches or that decisive Game 7. And of course, the signature of any sports bar worth the distinction is an offering of succulent bar food and a wide variety of reasonably-priced beer.

But what makes the sports bar experience better than watching the game from home? Isn’t a bar too loud, too expensive, and too crowded? How can one possibly focus on the game amidst so much distraction and inebriation?

These are all valid complaints for someone who merely wants to watch a game. But this isn’t about watching — this is about living. Sporting events are, by their very nature, energized, emotionally-charged, and social situations. To truly experience a game the way you would before the advent of television, is to get next to the action, to engage with complete strangers in the common pursuit of victory. Because when you boil it down, sports are about more than simply winning and losing; they are about community.

For reasons I’m not qualified to explain, the current state of human nature compels us to compete with one another. Whether or not you are a sports fan, everyone competes with someone else on some level. Most people won’t have trouble associating competitive nature with things like fighting for a better position or salary at work, or even perhaps for a potential date who has captured the attention of more than one interested party. But competition can happen on a more basic level, even simply that of trying to convince somebody that your ideas are better or more truthful than theirs. If I were to speculate, I’d have to attribute this to mankind’s need to be validated, as well as the universal desire to become something better than what we are, no matter how comfortable we may feel in our own skin. The pursuit of love, money, power and the like suggests that we are all subconsciously aware of our own inadequacies, however many or few they may be.

To compete at all requires that there be someone else to compete against, someone whose defeat will mean another person’s victory and subsequent validation. Thus competition, by its very nature, must be a social occasion because without the interaction of at least two human beings, there is really nothing to overcome. But where two are gathered, others will join because we are naturally social creatures and as such we also naturally gravitate towards social situations, interested and oftentimes eager to be a part of them.

So when one challenger engages another, a crowd almost always forms. People want to see who will emerge victorious, and for some reason (also beyond my understanding), we have a tendency to take sides, to favor one challenger over another. This breeds competition amongst the audience as well until literally thousands and, thanks to television, even millions of people have become a part of the main event. Once there, those who have taken the same side will naturally interact with one another, commenting on observations, strategies, amazing plays, rough hits, or whatever may be relevant for the particular game taking place. Wins results in celebrations and losses result in relative mourning, but all of these things were done historically in the presence and community of others, many of them strangers.

Television threatened to change all of that. Sports have been broadcast into the privacy of people’s homes for over fifty years, eliminating the need to be part of the bigger picture. Of course, one can still be social in one’s home, inviting friends over to watch a game, serving brews and maybe even some of grandma’s secret-recipe chili, but to watch at home amongst friends is comfortable, safe, and frequently dilutes the competitive factor. Friends watching together are likely to be, though they are not always, on the same side, meaning there is an entire component of sports — opposition — that is missing. Besides that, friends watching together can only celebrate with one another, not the collective family of both strangers and friends who stand unified behind a single team.

Sports bars respond to this threat by taking it’s very source — the television — and using it for a greater good, bringing the broadcasted events once more into a public arena and effectively re-establishing community between people who otherwise would not have experienced it together.

This public forum also re-establishes the competition. If you go to a sports bar, you’re not only going to find home-team fans, but also fans of the visiting team, the underdog, the enemy. Fans of both sides can share common space, pitted against one another, making best and talking trash in a truly visceral experience of rivalry and trial.

Not only is the competition re-established, but it is compounded. With the best sports bars out there having multiple televisions scattered throughout, there’s a substantial chance, at least during playoff season, that you’ll be able to watch more than one game at the same time. Consequently, someone who goes to the bar to watch the Celtics game might find himself cheering on Philadelphia or Chicago on the neighboring screen during halftime, period breaks, and timeouts. Add the beer and the nachos, and you’ve got a miniature heaven for sports fans.

Sports bars also bring some of the excitement of a live game into a smaller, more affordable arena. Between the huge crowds of people who swarm the stadiums for local events and the almost-excessive security one has to pass through to attend a live game, sports bars are a great alternative to the stress brought on simply by getting into the live event, offering still the energy of a live crowd, but without the numbers or the invasion of privacy. And in a world where even halfway decent Brooklyn Nets tickets fail to sell for prices lower than the Earth’s stratosphere, sports bars are a cheaper alternative for publicly viewing the big game.

Though watching at home has a time and a place (probably winter when it’s too cold to go anywhere), there’s no better way to take in a game than at a quality sports bar. Sure, at home you lower the likelihood that someone will spill beer on your, or that you’ll have to wait in line for the restroom, and certainly that you’ll have to put up with someone cheering on the opposing team, but all of that misses the point. Sports aren’t supposed to come with a cushy guarantee that everything will go smoothly and without anxiety or a struggle. Sports are gritty, and to properly experience them, we as the spectators need to be someplace equally as gritty. We need to be someplace where we can feel the energy, nerves, excitement, and disappointment of every brother and sister with a vested interest in winning. And most important of all, we need to be someplace that serves chili cheese nachos. Hold the jalapenos.

OKC Thunder and the Arts Inspire a City

If you’re following the NBA Playoffs, you know that the Oklahoma City Thunder are making a great playoff run for an NBA Championship. Check out this video of the Oklahoma City creative community and how they’ve been inspired by their OKC  Thunder who are currently in the NBA Western Conference Finals!

Photographers, Videographers, Graphic Design Artists, and more share how the game of basketball has woven itself into the fabric of the growing arts and culture scene of OKC.

Video shot by James Harber

Why the Japanese Keep Winning World Championships

Despite being born in Boston, I spent my grade school years in Kamakura, Japan. My third grade teacher, Mr. S, was a catcher in an amateur baseball league. He used to throw chalk at students not paying attention, and I remember being hit by one in the head.

Mr. S was feared by his students, and he taught as if all of his students were baseball players. He emphasized team play, sacrificing of oneʼs desires for the sake of the whole. He taught us that paying attention was the best way to survive a class. Call it pre-Koshien training. Koshien is the famous high school baseball tournament held every spring and summer. It is where a good pitcher is discovered and then asked to throw over five games in a row in a span of a week. Think of Daisuke Matsuzaka of the Boston Red Sox. He threw nearly 400 pitches in two days at Koshien, winning the championship after 17 innings in a tight game for Yokohama High School, and became a national hero. If you ever wonder why he is so ineffective now as a 36 year-old, you can rewind the tape of their high school championship to see the inevitable: no pitcherʼs arm can withstand that kind of abuse as a teen.

Japan, a country the size of California, has won a remarkable array of championships in recent times. Nadeshiko teamʼs surprise victory in the Womenʼs World Cup reinforced the notion that being outsized, out-powered and largely ignored does not mean that a country cannot win championships. Japan is a perennial power in the Little League Baseball World Series (though they lost a close one this year to a team from California). They won both World Baseball Classics. But there was a time not too long ago that the Japanese would contend for, but never win a championship.

If Mr. S is an example of what is pervasive in Japanese education, you can expect that many actually see education as overlapping with sports. For the Japanese, playing and excelling in sports is just part of culture. But Japanese teams always seemed to be literally dwarfed by the world. Though they contend in world stages, it was rare for Japan to win championships. That is, until 2004. At the 2004 World Baseball Classic, I saw something I had not seen before in a Japanese team. It was a harbinger of things to come.

Sadaharu Oh, the national hero of Japan, with his idiosyncratic balancing on one leg like a stork, as he timed his many home runs, was the manager of the first ever World Baseball team. Matsuzaka was on the mound for many of their key games, including their championship game against the formidable Cuban team. But it was in their game against the sure-to-be-in-the-finals Americans that I noticed something.

The US powered in some runs, and I was expecting the Japanese team, as they have done in the past, to look very stoic in the inevitability of a loss. Japan had always felt inferior to the US since WWII. The post-war sentiment was that the Japanese would work very, very hard to recover from the war, but when it came to leadership, it would always be deferred to others, especially the Americans. Even if you come close to winning something, you almost let that possibility go. I expected to see a face of resignation.

But the 25 year-old starting shortstop for the Japanese team, Munenori Kawasaki, looked out from the dugout during the next inning, watching his teammates come to bat. Kawasaki had dyed his hair with chestnut-blonde highlights and looked more like a Japanimation character than a stoic baseball player. But, I saw in his face something I had never seen in a Japanese athlete. He was actually having fun.

Up to this point, competing in a championship was a kind of duty, a bland effort toward a stated goal. Kawasakiʼs face said, “Isnʼt this cool that we are playing against the US and we are only down by one run? My counterpart is Derek Jeter and we can actually hold our own!” This was a new face of someone without the baggage of the post-war atomic debilitation or industrial work ethic as the only answer in a grey vision for restoration. This face said, “Heck, this is only a game, but we can match with anyone and we might win this whole thing.” And they did, celebrating on Petco Field in San Diego with Matsuzaka on the mound against a team that should have defeated them.

Japan’s women’s soccer team is called by a nickname “Nadeshiko Japan”, named after yamato nadeshiko, a pink plant, but also a figure of speech for the beauty of Japanese women who are modest but have inner fortitude.

With Nadeshikoʼs win in the Womenʼs World Cup, we will remember, of course, one of the most thrilling matches ever played, by men or women. The Japanese team broke through unprecedented categories. The US team has the best goalkeeper in the world, Hope Solo, and has never lost in a Penalty Kick shootout or even missed a penalty kick in the whole tournament. No team has ever come back from a deficit in the last ten minutes of a regular game, and in the finals, no team has ever come back from a deficit in the last ten minutes of overtime. When Abby Wombach scored in her typical dominating fashion in the last minutes of overtime, no one expected the Japanese women to come back. But this team, stricken with the devastating earthquake and tsunami of March 2011, decided that they had nothing to lose, but everything to gain. This was not just a stoic, hard-working team; this was a miracle team that created something out of nothing.

I saw the same creative energy, a quick strike that flowed out of Kawasakiʼs face, on the Nadeshiko team. And that outlook was evident much earlier in the tournament as they shocked the host and expected champion, Germany, in the the final seconds. It was a “nothing to lose” attitude combined with the trademark Japanese determination that brought the victory. Not only were they playing against the heavily favored Germans, or Americans later, they were thinking of the people who lost their lives in the tsunami and earthquake and the people who lost desire to live in the uncertain shadows of the Fukushima power plant. (One of the players actually plays for Fukushima, a team that has not practiced since March 2011.) All of the training that came from practicing on the grassless, hardened grounds of a Japanese soccer field, or from enduring chalk-throwing teachers, came to play. They were determined to be wholly present every second of the game, to make every move count. They found a resilience in focused attention rarely seen on the world stage. They moved as one, collectively inviting a whole nation to come on the field with them. A quick strike is all you need and the Japanese disadvantage of having small bodies became an huge advantage in those last minutes of play.

We saw Homare Sawa, who would steal away the MVP from Abby Wombach and win the Golden Goal award for most goals in the tournament, score with a simple flick of her right foot off a corner kick. But what the viewers may not have realized is that for that play to work, you have to convince the defender who has been guarding you for the entire game that you are going to head the ball. The other players on your team also have to set themselves so that one precious run toward the front of the goal will not be blocked. This corner kick was a set play, but it takes the entire front team to set themselves up so their captain has a shot of making that diagonal, counter-intuitive, run. If you are a small, but quick, finessed player, that, at the last minutes of the game, is the only play you have.

The execution was flawless and the game was tied. Then I saw something that echoed Kawasakiʼs face seven years ago. Norio Sasaki, the Japanese coach, faced his team before the penalty kicks to determine the winner. Squatting down to speak to the exhausted team, he was smiling. I have never seen a Japanese coach smile before, especially in such a crucial moment. This was a proud father-like face releasing children to also be proud of what they already accomplished. Whatever happened next was irrelevant. This smile transgressed the stoic Japanese norms, while the Americans wore steely faces. Destiny already decided the outcome: Japan dominated in the penalty kicks, even with their diminutive goalkeeper, and Homare Sawa became a national hero, holding high the golden trophy. Jumping up and down on the stage, the whole team looked like Smurfettes with a World Cup.

In Japanese, the name Homare means “to praise.” My mother, an avid sports fan reading the Japanese newspapers, noticed that her Chinese ideograms are unique. Sawaʼs parents did not use the usual ideograms of “to praise.” Homare is made up of two ideograms instead. “Ho,” meaning the husk of wheat or rice, and “Mare,” meaning extraordinary or a miracle. Imagine that: an ordinary substance to be discarded causing a miracle. Did her parents ever anticipate that their daughterʼs right foot would redefine greatness?

So the next time you see the Japanese play on the world stage, do not count them out. If youʼve been hit by a piece of chalk many times, you are not likely to forget to pay attention. And if your country needs inspiration, you are likely to provide one. You may even smile as you do so.

How and Why We Stay Lions Fans

A passerby at a soccer tournament stopped, turned around, and came toward me.

“Well,” he said, “Did you drink the Kool-Aid?”

I imagine this sounds cryptic, but it wasn’t. Here are two clarifying details:

1) It was August in Michigan.

2) I was wearing a Detroit Lions jersey.

***

We spend our autumn Sundays, each Thanksgiving, and the rare Monday, in the throws. We visit Ford Field; we stare at our televisions. Sixteen times every fall, we participate, identify, and scream — sometimes with joy, usually in pain. We are offsides; we are injured; we shake our heads and curse ourselves for wasting a perfectly good afternoon on this ridiculous team. Occasionally, we win, and we shake our heads just the same. We are being strung along. Stupid Lions.

Winter brings the playoffs, and we watch numbly, from afar. By the second round, we’re adopting a team. The Super Bowl is played. We don’t wonder when it will be our turn. We have no dreams for our future. It’s February, the mercifully shortest month, the worst month. Our hearts and road conditions unite: we are cold, iced over. We are sick of winter and done with football.

The rash among us disassociate and make vows: they will never watch another Lions game until that team proves their worth. These rash might get teased a little, about jumping off the bandwagon, but mostly, everyone nods.

***

Come March, the roads thaw. We joke about the draft, how it’s our Super Bowl, the one benefit of mediocrity. We remind each other of draft years past, the bad decisions, the promising picks made of glass. Someone brings up Randy Moss, whom we passed up in 1998, or All-Big Ten, All-American receiver Charles Rogers, drafted in 2003, out of the league 3 years later.

Draft day comes. Some people host parties. Most everyone keeps an eye on the ticker, even the rash. We collectively try not to buy into anything, but a small voice whispers, “Did you see who we got in the first round?”

***

We catch a little coverage of mini-camp, not on purpose of course, and note who has shown up, who has lost weight, that the rookies seem to be behaving themselves. We speak in clichés and we hedge and nobody minds: the coach runs a tight ship, but so did Bobby Ross. That wideout has great hands, but who’s gonna get him the ball?

The off-season surgeries are deemed successful, and we the fans seem to be on the mend.

Those who heal first begin sentences with the word “maybe.”

***

The summer finds our recovery progressing. We sit in camp chairs, around fires, and forget.

Who was it that kept jumping offsides?

He didn’t drop that many balls.

What was our record last year?

Is it those starlit nights, or is it the sunshine, sand, and chlorine? The month of June generates a lovely wave of amnesia, a selective amnesia that forgets Gus Frerotte and holds fast to Billy Sims and Chris Spielman and Barry Sanders.

***

The players report, and their practices make the news. One story shows a boy running onto the field, holding the helmet of a player, beaming. His dad chokes up. Times have been hard, he says. He’s talking about losses beyond football, we know — money and jobs and housing, but his son and this sport remind him of something good. Joy?

The preseason begins, and we all remember that lowest year, 2008, when we won the preseason and lost every game thereafter. The preseason doesn’t mean anything, we know, but we go to the first game. We cheer and holler and gesture for a coach’s challenge when a call doesn’t go our way. We laugh because we know it doesn’t matter, but we can’t help ourselves. We sing the fight song, a tune somewhere between “Hail to the Victors” and “The Dating Game,” at least six times that night, once for every score.

The second preseason game is on the road. We give up a lot of points in the first half, but come back in the second. The waves of amnesia crest more quickly now; overnight, we forget the first two quarters, remembering only the win.

We drop the term preseason. The third game, nationally televised, versus New England, is a sellout. We’ve got plans to be at a soccer tournament, but we’ll find a way to see a little American football. It is still only August.

***

We leave the park for the night and watch part of the game over dinner. The Lions win. The preseason ends and we are 4-0. We set aside the shame of 2008 and remind ourselves that we also went 4-0 in 1993. We won the division that year, we tell each other with an exclamation point, completing our recovery. The once rash return to the bandwagon.

We joke as far as the Kool-Aid goes, but this isn’t some cultish death march. It is a game after all, one with faults and flaws, but also the great catch, the trick play, the fake punt: unscripted moments made of skill and good fortune. In football, life begins anew in September. We choose to risk the pain and savor the hope.

photo by:

Go Bulls

I smile after wrapping up another cell phone conversation with my dad. I haven’t talked to him this much in my entire life. After just about every Bulls game this season, one of us calls the other to discuss our favorite plays in the game, adjustments we hope to see in the next, and just the general joy we both feel when it comes to this current team. We’ve been experiencing a basketball drought in Chicago for over a decade, but this season has filled us with elation, and we just have to share the good feelings with each other.

Derrick Rose, NBA MVP.

I know we’re not alone either. Derrick Rose was voted the Most Valuable Player this year, Tom Thibideau won Coach of the Year, and the Bulls had the best record in the league this season. They haven’t been this successful sine the Jordan ’90s, when, unfortunately, my dad and I couldn’t have the relationship we have now.

Michael Jordan’s Bulls were an essential part of my childhood. Before I became an angsty high-schooler with punk rock aspirations and spiky hair, I was a skinny little Bulls fan with Nike Air Max’s and a Scottie Pippen jersey. While my mom and dad were fighting their way through an ugly divorce, I was out in the driveway pretending I was MJ. Jordan’s heroics made what should have been a tumultuous time for me just a little bit easier to cope with.

“10 seconds on the shot clock, Chicago down one but with possession. He brings it up the court. Seven… Six… Five… here’s the crossover, the drive… Three… Two… the shot is up… It’s good! At the buzzer! Bulls win! Bulls win!”

Yeah, this is what I would pretend, when the Bulls weren’t doing it in real-time.

Perhaps my favorite memory growing up is that last shot Jordan took against the Utah Jazz in the ’98 Finals. At that career-defining moment, every Chicagoan leapt out of their seats and screamed into their ceilings. Over and over again throughout that entire decade we experienced some of the greatest moments in sports history, and we were a proud city. No matter what difficulties plagued our personal lives, we were happy when we were Bulls fans.

Sadly, I couldn’t share these moments with my dad back then. I was living with my mom, and I only saw my dad once a week. MJ’s last game wasn’t on a Friday or Saturday night, so we couldn’t watch it together. Even though my dad probably took just as much joy in that moment as I did, the tension between him and my mom was always thick enough to keep me from developing a deep bond with either of my parents.

I knew my dad loved the Bulls though, and I wanted to share that love with him. He had the Bulls bumper sticker on his truck. He had the official championship t-shirts. But we didn’t go to games together. We didn’t discuss coaching tactics. I was a Bulls fan, and so was he, but we lived in different suburbs, and we didn’t talk on the phone.

When a kid’s parents hate each other, it creates a viciously awkward situation for the child. Is there a right or wrong side? If I call my dad, will my mom yell something derogative that he’ll hear on the other end? If I stick up for my mom when my dad yells at her, will he yell at me in retort? Adult relationships are awful, complicated things. Especially when (as the old cliché goes) kids are in the middle of it all. It took growing up a little bit myself, and forgiving a little more, in order to learn this.

Now I, too, am a complicated and awful adult. And I like this current Bulls team even more than the ’90s dynasty of my childhood. Not simply because they play magnificent team ball and are led by a fellow South-Sider, but because now I can finally share the experience of Bulls basketball with my dad.

We’re just two men who love the Bulls, but we both feel like kids again.

My dad never used text messages until this season, but only during Bulls games, usually parroting one of the local announcer’s catch phrases: “Cherry pie!” “Mr. MVP!” “Bench mob!” “TAJ!” My siblings marvel at this development as if he just gave up meat for vegetarianism.

He’s one of those dads who hates to use email for anything. I’m not sure if he even knows what Twitter is yet. He was a carpenter for his entire life until a back injury forced him into an early retirement a few years ago. Hard work and physical activity are what my dad is all about, so the very thought of those 50-year-old, thick-calloused fingers texting cute messages on a cell phone that he doesn’t even know how to set up a voicemail for is downright valiant. I don’t know if he realizes it, but he missed the potential father/son experience between us during the last Bulls championships. It’s not that he didn’t want it, but the circumstances kept us both timid. Now, we’re seizing the moment. That is, we’re taking the Bulls by the horns.

Sports are exciting only if they are experienced within some sort of group atmosphere. Sure, while I’m by myself I can pretend I’m hitting the last-second shot of a championship game on the rim above my garage door, but it’s just that: pretend. When a real, professional team sets out to win a championship for the pride of their city, the community comes together in genuine camaraderie. The flags come out on porches. The shirts and hats all turn to crimson. The lights atop the Hancock and Willis Towers are lit bright red. Families that might not have talked much before the season suddenly come together behind their team and high five each other. And there is excitement. And there is the thrill of competition.

After the Bulls won their first playoff series a few weeks ago, Dad sent me a text message that I’ll never forget: “It’s been an incredible season so far, and it’s been an honor to be able to share it with you.”

We really didn’t see it coming. At the start of the season, we didn’t predict the Bulls would be in the Eastern Conference Finals this year. We didn’t think our hometown hero would be the league MVP this soon either. But now that it’s here, there’s no way we’re missing it again. This time, we’re experiencing this thing together. This is for us. “Go Bulls.”

Sundays, Football and Chili

Being my favorite of all seasons, fall is synonymous with so many good things: apple cider, changing colors, pumpkins, and scarves. The downshift to cooler weather means we can once again enjoy a day outside without sticky clothes and sweat stains, a welcome change for those of us living in extremely warm climates. Best of all, the onset of fall brings with it a favorite ritual at my house, Football Sunday.

Photo by Lindsay Crandall. Chili by Adam Crandall.

Now I know football is about as middle America as it gets and that I’ve already lost some of you just by mentioning the f-word. Some of you feel about football in general the way I feel about the SEC – I just don’t give a flip and I wish it would go away. That’s okay. Football Sunday isn’t so much about the football as it is about togetherness. For me, Football Sunday is family time, a day we set aside to be together and somewhere in the background the television is tuned into the game. It was this way when I was a kid and now that I’m married with a kid of my own, it’s this way at my house.

Football Sunday: How to Do It

1. Five minutes before kickoff, crack open a good fall beer. Sam Adams Octoberfest or something similar will do just fine. (No need to get too fancy, but whatever you do, stay away from Miller Lite.)

2. Eat in front of the TV. A sandwich or a hearty bowl of chili (see below) will do just fine, though snacks are almost always necessary. Tortilla chips with cheese is a good choice. Feeling extravagant? Have a baguette with a good soft cheese. (Another reason to stay away from Miller Lite.)

3. Watch the game.

4. Or not. It is perfectly acceptable to read, knit, or nap as long as you are within earshot of the TV. It’s togetherness we’re after here.

5. If it’s cold enough, build a fire. But only if you have a functioning fireplace.

6. Keep drinking beer. No need to be excessive, but a cold beer in hand is a crucial component in the magic of Football Sunday.

Optional: Go to church in the morning, preferably as early as possible so as not to miss the lengthy pre-game show with Terry, Howie, Jimmy, and the rest of the gang.

Adam’s Awesome Chili

We make chili weekly during the cold months. It’s a simple recipe that makes enough for plenty of leftovers or can feed a crowd.

Ingredients

2 whole bell peppers

1-3 jalapeno peppers (depending on how hot you want it)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium white onion

1 28 oz can crushed tomatoes

1 14 oz can each: refried beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, garbanzo beans, whole kernel corn and diced tomatoes

12 oz beer

2 tbsp. vegetable oil

2 tbsp. chili powder

1 tbsp. cumin

Optional: If you like your chili meaty, you can add 1 lb. of ground beef, pork, or the like.

1. Chop peppers, onion and garlic. Add to oil in large 5-quart pot and sauté for 5 minutes. If adding meat, do so now and sauté until meat is thoroughly cooked.

2. While vegetables sauté, open all canned food and drain.

3. Add crushed and diced tomatoes and refried beans. Stir until well-blended.

4. Add beans, corn, beer and spices. Reduce heat to low and cook for at least 30 minutes, preferably several hours.

5. Serve to your favorite football fanatics (and those who barely tolerate the sport) with shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, and tortilla chips. Enjoy!

The Predominant Pigskin

The advent of fall carries with it a fairly newborn American tradition at the peak of its popularity: professional football. Compared to most cultural traditions, which are established over decades if not centuries, football has entrenched itself in American culture faster, and with a larger presence, than any other contemporary national tradition.

In the last 25 years, NFL viewership has more than doubled. Last year’s Super Bowl attracted 106.5 million viewers, beating the MAS*H finale record of 105.97 million. Television networks are savvy to the demand. In 1989, at the height of the Joe Montana era when pro football had already established itself as the most popular American sport, TV networks paid a combined $473 million per year to air NFL games. The next year, in 1990, that amount nearly doubled to a whopping $900 million per year. Today, five networks are contracted to pay a combined total of $3.085 billion per year to air a sports league whose teams play once a week for five months out of the year. This is anything but ordinary.

Typically, when a cultural institution is as dominant as the NFL, the masses begin to loathe the institution for its monopoly. But with the NFL, public opinion has largely abstained from railing against this behemoth business. On the contrary, our culture tends to marvel at the NFL’s success. America is rooting for a major corporation.

Collectively, our interest has not waned, our wallets have remained opened (despite stark economic realities), and Americans’ schedules continue to give priority to this national pastime. But why? What sets the NFL apart in its popularity? The answer is something remarkably simple: the product values place.

It might seem obvious to say that local sports teams rely on the locale in which they play, but the NFL in particular has adhered to a community-centered ideology by setting out to not just create entertainment, but to establish tradition. Sports organizations seek to create a consumer who holds not just an allegiance to their sport, but an allegiance to an individual entity within that sport; an allegiance to a single team. It could be said that identifying allegiances is not dissimilar to identifying values, in which case the NFL has identified and chosen to invest in an inherent societal good. More than time and money, people value Home.

For an increasingly transient society, the idea of Home is one thing we will always long for and identify with. Where-somebody-is-from will always be a determining factor in how we think of them. Place isn’t fleeting. Place is resilient and hard to destroy (in some instances, attempts at destruction solidify an even stronger sense of identity for that place. See the recent Super Bowl Champion New Orleans Saints). Even in a global culture, place remains a constant and a necessity.

What sports teach us is that if a cultural institution serves to advance the powerful constant of place, tradition is born and that institution thrives, but the NFL has taken this a step further.

It is worth noting that NFL teams play approximately 1/5 of the number of games that NBA teams play, and 1/10 of what MLB teams play, yet pro football still has the highest revenue. One could point to parity, salary caps, or athleticism as the leading cause for the NFL’s success, but all those elements are merely results of the true outlier. That is that pro football has attained its “hometown tradition” status through a consistent commodification of Sundays.

By reserving its tradition to occur on one already communally-oriented day of the week – the only day of the week our society reserves for home-life and not work-life – NFL games have become more than entertainment. They are now events. With events comes nostalgia, and only with nostalgia can traditions be instilled.

By establishing a Sunday ritual that fits into the existing cultural fabric, pro football transcended the typical bounds of sport, leisure, and entertainment. It became a people’s game, a new national tradition that borrowed from the historical southern tradition of SEC football. Here, cultural capital was attained and the NFL entrenched itself in the lives of Americans. But has pro football lost sight of its community-oriented roots? Has it gotten too big for its own good?

Over the last twenty years, the tradition of Sunday football has slowly crept into the rest of our week with games now occurring on Monday and Thursday nights. Fantasy football has controversially shifted fan values to the individual player. The NFL has its own TV network and a 24-hour news cycle. We are inundated with everything from updates on a quarterback’s pinkie finger, to the circus-like annual tradition of “Favre Watch.” As a whole, we’ve bit on their unashamedly explicit branding.

The power of greed, some argue, has spun the league out of control and into a less upright sport.  Following the upcoming season, the NFL must face a few ugly hurdles that threaten to compromise the integrity of the league; namely the very grim reality that pro football might not exist in 2011. Disputes about length of season, concussions, and most of all, player salary, are running out of time to be resolved. Without a CBA negotiation that pleases both owners and players, pro football could turn into an uncapped league and go the way of Major League Baseball. In this situation, teams like the Cowboys and Redskins (the league’s most lucrative clubs) would become the football equivalent of the rich and famous New York Yankees, and all parity would likely be lost.

However, despite these challenges and forewarnings, NFL fans have shown that the bedrock of community and Home still trumps the individual player. The majority of fans still value home teams over individual superstar athletes. Teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers boast the most dedicated fan base in the league and yet had one of the league’s smallest operating incomes of 2008 at $14.4M, compared to the Washington Redskins’ $58M.

In 2008 Luke Russert wrote an op-ed piece for ESPN Magazine that outlined how the NFL can sustain fan interest by holding to its community emphasis, highlighting the preservation of the crisis-bound Buffalo Bills as a potentially pivotal move.

The league should man-up and give Buffalo fans a stake in the team, like in Green Bay. Under the Packers model (formed in 1923), 112,088 fans hold more than four million voting shares in the team, having paid from $5 (offered in 1923) to $200 (1998) per share. There’s no owner to pocket the profits, just an advisory group of fans to make sure every penny is reinvested in the team. The benefits are huge. In financial straits and need cash? A fan-owned team can sell more shares. Need pols to approve a new stadium? Your franchise is co-owned by voters. If Buffalonians are given a stake in their team, I’ll wager . . . that the Bills open the 2015 season in new digs on the shores of Lake Erie. Hello, revenue!

The proposition isn’t as easy and foolproof as it sounds. There are many hurdles in taking the sport public (a 1961 ban on public ownership being the primary one, which could be overturned only through an owners agreement) and some argue private ownership is what brought the league into prominence in the first place. But Russert has NFL commissioner Roger Goodell on his side. “[Fan ownership provides] . . . a great bond with the community, something we’re trying to achieve,” said Goodell. Look no further than the faithful cheeseheads of Green Bay to see that it’s also good for the brand.

Teams like the Green Bay Packers, Buffalo Bills, and Pittsburgh Steelers remind us that community ultimately trumps cash, and leads to larger profit margins in the long run. Total public ownership is probably too drastic a measure, but the attitude behind democratizing the sport is compelling to say the least.

As the NFL has proven over the last 25 years, working to advance community is not only an upright investment, it’s also a lucrative one. For the ultimate team sport, the NFL must wisely abide by its original principles if it is to sustain growth. Otherwise, 50 years from now NFL stadiums might look more like abandoned malls than cultural landmarks.

For the Uninitiated, a World Cup Cheat Sheet

Messi
Image via Wikipedia

In the U.S., soccer is considered more of a children’s activity than bona fide sport, niche programming appropriate for a mid-afternoon spot on ESPN 8 between competitive hacky sack and the World Series of Poker. The world’s obsession is all well and good, but for us? Football means first downs and cheerleaders, thankyouverymuch.

Yet the spectacle of a World Cup is enough to compel even stubborn Americans to pay attention. Last time, in 2006, Italy’s victory over France drew 16.9 million viewers in the U.S. Those are American Idol numbers, and this year promises to be even bigger. The U.S. – surprisingly ­‑ leads the world in tickets purchased for this summer’s World Cup, and the core group of supporters, dubbed “Sam’s Army,” is larger than ever.

While the die-hards are as dedicated as anyone in the world, they will be well outnumbered when the U.S. kicks off against England on June 12. The audience for that game will be the largest for any U.S. Men’s national team game ever. It will also be the most uninformed viewership of any World Cup nation.

Among them will be a special American brand of modern jackass: World Cup Guy.

You know the type. He fancies himself an expert, or a European, or both. He’ll show up in a Beckham jersey with the tags still on it, use the word “footie,” and generally act like he knows what he’s talking about. He’ll pontificate on players and tactics like a cab driver from Rio. The secret? He has no idea what he’s talking about.

So get armed with the facts now. He’ll never see it coming.

The Basics

The World Cup is contested between 32 teams who mostly earned their spots though regional qualifying tournaments. The teams are drawn into eight groups of four. Each team plays each other team in its group once, earning three points for a win, one point for a draw, and nothing for a loss. The top two teams move on to the knockout stage, where it’s winner-moves-on until there’s only one left standing.

U-S-A, U-S-A!

The US team is the strongest it’s ever been, with a core of veteran players in their prime supported by a bevy of young talent.

Included in that veteran group is midfielder Landon Donovan, the only American player World Cup Guy will have heard of. This is not only the last World Cup of his prime but also his last chance to get signed by a big European team.

The defense is anchored by the strong trio of Oguchi Onyewu, Jay DeMerit, and captain Carlos Bocanegra. Their main weakness is speed, and a quick attacker like England’s Aaron Lennon could cause them problems.

Of the guys nobody has heard of, the most promising is midfielder Michael Bradley, son of head coach Bob Bradley. He’s had a good career in Europe so far and looks like a potential world star. His midfield partner will be either the precise passer Jose Torres or the powerful, gritty Maurice Edu. Twenty-year-old striker Jozy Altidore will lead the attack.

Altidore’s close friend and fellow striker Charlie Davies was left nearly paralyzed by a car accident in October. The driver, a friend of Davies, was killed. Davies made a Herculean effort to return in time for the World Cup, but ultimately missed out, leaving Altidore without his preferred strike partner and the U.S. team with no clear second starter up front.

There are plenty of other problems. In preliminary matches the U.S. defense looked shaky and disorganized. Onyewu and DeMerit are recovering from injuries, and it’s unclear whether they’re playing at full capacity. Coach Bradley selected only seven defenders, and if Onyewu or DeMerit can’t play, they’re in trouble.

But the team has an edge: chemistry. Other countries may have 23 star players, but they’re distant stars, never willing or able to build the trust and cohesion that the U.S. team has.

World Cup Guy will probably harp on how awful America is – or how amazing. The truth is somewhere in between. For the first time in recent memory, the U.S. can legitimately expect to get through the group stage. Further progression is unlikely, but with a bit of luck, they can beat anyone.

The Favorites

Brazil, Spain, England, and Argentina lead the pack. Spain is absolutely stacked with talent, but has traditionally underperformed at the World Cup and has never won it. Brazil is often the runaway favorite, but the team’s best players at the moment aren’t quite as good as usual, and they have had to adapt their approach to stress strong tactics and fundamentals over flashy skill.

England has plenty of talent but tends to collapse in spectacular fashion when the pressure gets high. Despite inventing the game, they’ve only won the World Cup once, 44 years ago, generating a culture of losing that could easily derail them.

Argentina is the mystery of the group. They have wonderful talent – including the world’s best player, Lionel Messi – and are coached by the legendary Diego Maradona. But Maradona’s playing career ended in a coke-induced tailspin, and his decisions as a manager have been inexplicably poor.

Messi scored a phenomenal 47 goals for Barcelona this year (ordinary forwards score 12 goals per year, world-class forwards score 30). World Cup Guy will think that Messi’s presence will be enough to lead Argentina to glory. But Messi has never played his best for Argentina, where he is usually asked to occupy an unfamiliar role with less support. Don’t be surprised if he stinks.

Transition and Turmoil

World Cup Guy will consider Italy, France, and Portugal elite, but this World Cup finds them all in an awkward phase. Each of these teams has a group of once-great players who are past their glory days, and the next generation hasn’t matured enough to make up for the diminishing effectiveness of the veterans.

The French team in particular is in trouble. They’re in midst of a cringe-inducing scandal involving an underage prostitute, barely qualified for the competition, and have a lame-duck head coach with a 22% approval rating from French fans. They could go out early.

The Details

World Cup Guy may wonder why the players are wearing long sleeves – it’s winter in the Southern Hemisphere. World Cup Guy’s favorites Ronaldo and Ronaldinho were not selected by Brazil, but Portuguese forward Christiano Ronaldo is in. Several superstars will miss all or part of the tournament through injury, notably England’s Rio Ferdinand, Ghana’s Michael Essien, and Ivory Coast’s Dider Drogba.

South Africa is terrible, but no host nation has ever failed to qualify for the group stage, and with the nation behind them, they may have some success.

Every match will be instrumentalized by thousands of Vuvuzelas, stadium horns that annoy everyone but the South Africans. Even more annoying is the sound of World Cup Guy asking what “that buzzing sound” is, as the issue has been discussed ad nauseum in soccer circles.

Ready?

Unlike professional sports, where the fans care more than the players, and Olympic sports, where the players care more than the fans, the World Cup earns 100% passion from both sides.

The World Cup is the globe’s biggest sporting event because of this elusive, unique harmony. It’s a stubborn oasis from our dominant cynical sports culture, a refuge for sportsmanship and pride. America pays attention simply because there’s nothing else like it. Shut World Cup Guy up, sit back, and enjoy.

In Defense of Quatchi

The 21st Winter Olympic Games begin today in Vancouver. At last, the world is coming to my hometown to discover that it has more to offer than Twilight location tours. In the next two weeks, 5,500 athletes representing 80 nations will perform their skills for up to 350,000 visitors.

When they get here, however, along with a surprising absence of snow, they are sure to find a large population of disgruntled locals raising placards at events around the city. A lot of Vancouverites are up in arms over the Olympics.

Along with concerns about unmanageable traffic, the Olympic Committee’s failure to sensitively address Vancouver’s problem with homelessness, and the usual Olympic cost overrun, there is one issue that has the city polarized in hot debate: the 2010 Olympic mascots.

Designed by Vancouver and Los Angeles-based Meomi Design, the painfully cute mascots are three mythical creatures, somewhat derived from Canadian aboriginal mythology. As they will be gracing your TV screens for the next two weeks, they warrant a short introduction:

The big boss and big-seller in plush-toy-ville is Quatchi—a snow-boarding, earwarmer-wearing, tattoo-sporting Sasquatch. Just your run of the mill Big Foot, really.

Miga is a sea bear (half killer whale, half Kermode spirit bear, of course) who lives in the ocean near the Vancouver Island surf town of Tofino. She has a dorsal fin on her head, but anatomical irregularities aside, Miga possesses the majority of the cute quotient in the bunch. Her pink nose makes her conveniently suited to the myriad pink backpacks, beanies and other paraphernalia she adorns.

Sumi, a sometimes wheelchair-bound thunderbird, represents the Paralympics, which take place immediately after the Olympics. Native American mythology claims the thunderbird can shoot lightning from its eyes, but Sumi’s black dot eyes seem innocuous enough.

While not an official mascot, there is actually a fourth member of the Cute Squad. When a local newspaper suggested there be a sidekick that is actually an identifiable local animal, along came Mukmuk, a Vancouver Island marmot. Never mind the fact that marmots hibernate in winter; Mukmuk keeps warm in a cozy toque (that’s a “beanie” in Canadian).

Now, having met the rascals in question, surely you can see what all the controversy is about. No?

Here are some of the charges laid against them:

They don’t represent Canada as a whole. They are too Asian. They are too aboriginal. They aren’t aboriginal enough. They are too cute. They are too simple. They are too childish. They are not real animals. They are costing the Olympic Committee too much money. Their stuffed-incarnations are made in China. Et cetera, et cetera.

One of the greatest objections to the mascots is that the “rest of the world” will not be able to understand them. But certainly the world deserves an opportunity to discover for themselves something completely new and possibly surprising about British Columbia’s past and present.

Once they do begin that process of discovery they’ll learn that anime-influenced depictions of local mythological characters are actually a stroke of design-genius. Quatchi, Sumi, and Miga are the embodiment of Vancouver — a city whose origins rest in aboriginal culture and whose evolution is largely credited to Asian immigrants (who make up around 40% of Vancouver’s population).

I wonder, did those who protest that this amalgamation doesn’t represent the rest of Canada also complain in 1988 when two polar bears in cowboy hats (Howdy and Hidi) welcomed the world to Calgary? Sure – the polar bear along with, perhaps, the mighty moose or the eager beaver, are quickly recognizable Canadian stereotypes – but frankly, any of those three icons are spotted in Vancouver about as often as the humble Sasquatch.

And while some object to the use of mythical creatures as mascots, I would challenge them to track down an ice cube with arms trotting around Torino (Winter 2006) or a dog in a three-piece suit sunning himself in Barcelona (Summer 1992). In 1996, Atlanta’s mascot was named Izzy, derived from “What is he?”—a question which, 14 years later, remains unanswered.

Certainly, appropriating native mythology for commercial gain is without excuse, but the introduction of Sumi and Miga prompted me, and thousands of others, to dig into British Columbia’s cultural heritage for the first time since fifth grade, to figure out just what a sea bear is, and if a thunderbird actually does have the legs of a black bear or the hat of an orca.

That the stuffed Quatchi dolls that now crowd Vancouver souvenir shops are made in China is problematic. But in light of complaints about the Olympic Committee’s cost overrun, you can understand their desire to save Canadian taxpayers’ money by outsourcing.

Most of the objections to Quatchi and his gang, however, overlook the very nature of the mascot: they are for children, young and old. Their sole purpose is to engage and enchant. This is best done through simple, fun and easily adaptable cartoon characters.

Finally, to those who claim they are simply too cute, I have no defense. They simply are too cute. Which is exactly why I, along with thousands of sasquatch-loving Olympic fans will be sporting a screen-printed Quatchi on my favourite Olympic hoodie while I cheer on my country’s athletes this week.

Football as Art

As a young man I used to spend each day after school practicing my footwork in my backyard. 1-2-3 and stop, pivot, turn my knee and push. Again. 1-2-3 and stop, pivot, turn and push. Or perhaps I would leap backwards, and 2-3-4-5, turn, raise arms, twist and pivot shift weight, push arms forward. Over and over I would do these motions, again and again, until my muscles ached and my body did them instinctively, as my mind counted, or hummed music to keep rhythm. In bed at night my mind would repeat the steps, and my legs, arms and back would tense as though going through them.

At times I watch other men doing this dance, men who are much more accomplished than I ever was at such motions. I watch them weave back and forth in carefully choreographed movement, leave their feet, sail into the clean white air, and then collide into one another with all the violence of two great machines of war set against one another. They collide and fall, and the dust rises and they hoist themselves up, shake their heads and arms, and return to their huddles to plan their next opus.

At this point you no doubt see the joke I have attempted. Comparing the steps of a high school quarterback rehearsing his passing drop cannot possibly compare to the grace and skill required for a ballet dancer, as I have suggested. And yet, consider Barry Sanders. Sanders is widely considered one of the finest running backs to have ever played in the National Football League. He rushed for over 15,000 career yards and 99 touchdowns and was recently inducted into the pro football hall of fame. He was also a lifelong student of ballet.

Even novice football fans understand that playing running back requires speed, stamina, strength, balance, and even grace. These are simply the talents of any top athlete. But there was more to Sanders’ game than that. Watching him run with the ball elicited within in me different kind of emotion than a fan cheering for his team (I didn’t really even like the Detroit Lions). Watching him play elicited an aesthetic response, the feeling that there was gravity and beauty in the way he moved about the field. This was more than just a man trying to avoid being tackled. There was a great transcendent yearning in this man that took expression in spin moves, jukes, ducks, and leaps.

I have marveled many times as I watched a school of many thousand sardines move in perfect unison, stopping their trajectory as one coherent whole in a way that seemed impossible for so many beings, and continuing in another direction just as fast, like they are responding to some call or force or rhythm just below the surface of their being.  Watching Sanders is like this at times.

Or consider Peyton Manning. Manning is like a surgeon performing a triple-bypass during a hurricane. There are grave and ruthless forces determined to thwart his every move, to crunch his bones and to foil the work of his hands. But he moves through the bedlam, he watches, steps, waits, and makes his incision.

Sometimes watching Manning reminds me of jazz guitar seminars that I used to attend. The master would teach us that practicing scales was the best method to learn how to improvise. How could this be? we asked. We had come for freedom from the restriction of practice. We wanted to be like Hendrix, to create noise that was free of troublesome scales and key signatures and finger exercises. But he corrected us. The freedom to improvise came after great patience and practice, learning the fundamentals of the theory, disciplining our hands to know when to go where.

This is how Manning plays. He has studied and mastered one of the most complex constructions in all of sports (the Indianapolis Colts’ offensive playbook) and calls his own plays from under the center. Receivers cut and move across a field littered with large men who are aching to destroy him and all he holds dear. Opposing defensive tackles come at him like large boulders down a steep hill. He relies on his steps – leap backwards, and 2-3-4-5, turn, raise arms, twist and pivot, shift weight – the same steps I practiced as a boy, the scales and modes of quarterbacking, and then he improvises. What results is as beautiful as bebop jazz – a man taking a scale and transforming it into a moment by moment experience, pure feel, shared by everyone on the field and every patron in the stands.

There is music in football; there is choreographed movement. In a single offensive play there are backfield motions, coordinated snap counts, pulling guards, gap blocking, quarterback drops, crossing patterns, button hooks routes, block and release routes, passes, catches, downfield blocks. There are spin moves, swim moves, double fakes, quick draws, pump fakes, cornerback blitzes, and fingertip grabs. For a single play to succeed, eleven very large men must each execute a nimble, powerful and precise maneuver, in unison with each other. And all of this while eleven other men are trying at all odds to destroy their plans with maneuvers of their own, equally complex, varied, precise and physically demanding. If the best quarterbacks and wideouts are dancers and jazz musicians, then the best defensive linemen and linebackers are composers of chaos, as ruthless and jarring as Penderecki’s Threnody. And even they can rise to the level of aesthetic awe, as a defensive back lifts into the air to rupture the unsteady line of a poorly thrown pass. Or the perfectly timed hit, the jarring tackle. It may not be pleasant, but it still it is capable of eliciting something akin to an aesthetic response. The physicist Robert Oppenheimer knew well that there is beauty in destruction. So did Francisco Goya. And yet in football they all get up again, they return to their huddle, they prepare again their composition.

Football, like music, like dance, like much of life, is a study of chaos and disorder that men strive and plan and work to overcome, doing so only in moments, in glimpses of something more. This is a great task, and it often fails. But I take a good measure of joy away every time I watch these men make the attempt.

There is another moment from my youth that sometimes returns. My junior year of high school I moved from quarterback to running back. The quarterback would drop, and follow many of the same steps that I had practiced in the years before, and he would hand me the ball and I would run. Before me, hulking young men did battle over a small stretch of turf, my teammates trying to protect me, and my opponents trying to destroy me. I would wait a moment, and the men doing battle would rage and push at one another and dirt would sail into the air and all was lost in a flurry of chaos before my eyes. And then something happened. A space of clear green grass would magically open before me. Through careful preparation and execution, my teammates had pushed and growled an opening in the line of defense. Moments of chaos and terror lifted before me, and all was open and clear. This was more than good blocking, it was revelation. And so I put my head down, and I trusted the ritual of my steps to guide me. All the drills, the motions, the studies, all of them carried me through that hole in the line. Now to the open field, the lights in my eyes like stained glass windows. In the open field, a composer begins to improvise. It was time to play.

Bell of the Ball:
An NFL Commentary

The NFL has become a hotbed of athletic theatre. Football is America’s most popular sport because it is highly entertaining, amazingly athletic, and elaborately strategic. Bordering on cinematic in its production, the game is an ongoing narrative that brings cities and communities together each Sunday to celebrate a victory or mourn a loss. We experience four acts (four quarters) of improvised storyline that no movie director could ever emulate – especially not Oliver Stone (see the groan-worthy Any Given Sunday). There’s no reason to make a movie about a game that’s better than a movie. The game is enough.

This year we experienced plenty of noteworthy NFL stories. Whether it was the Detroit Lions being the first team ever to achieve an 0-16 record, another edge-of-your-seat Superbowl, or Plaxico Burress accidentally shooting himself in the leg in public because he was carrying a gun in the waistband of his sweat pants, there was never a dull moment for America’s sports columnists. One player’s story, however, struck me as particularly interesting.

That story was the season of Denver Broncos running back Tatum Bell. Bell started the year as tailback for the Detroit Lions. He was traded in 2007 from the Denver Broncos, a team with whom he had a nice career, gaining over 1,000 yards rushing in 2006. He was set to be the Lion’s starting back until Rudi Johnson entered the situation and took the starting position away from Bell. Bell was let go and asked to pack his bags. Unfortunately, upon exiting the facilities, Tatum Bell took the wrong bags … literally.

Not only did he take the wrong bags, he took the bags and valuables of the player who replaced him – Rudi Johnson. What started as a supposedly honest mistake suddenly boiled over into a media frenzy accusing Bell of stealing $200 in cash, credit cards, and several personal items that belonged to the very person who stole Bell’s job. “Everyone’s putting it out there that I’m a thief. They’re acting like I got released, and I was mad, so I took the bags of the guy they brought in behind me. But it’s not true, and that’s what’s hurting me so much right now,” Bell said.

Looking for a story more interesting than Peyton Manning’s bursa sac, the sports media milked the Bell accusations dry. Rudi Johnson accused Bell of theft, the Lions made no comment, and we never found out if Bell was telling the truth. “I’m very, very concerned that this is my career here.”

Bell was right. He was not given due process and was labeled damaged goods, unfit for the morally upright NFL, whose players are more often accused of drunk driving and steroid use than petty theft. Bell left Detroit humiliated. His career was over. No team wanted to hire a thief.

After the melee in Detroit, Bell returned to Colorado, the place he and his wife made home before Bell got the job in Detroit. It was at this point that Bell’s story took a turn so unlikely, one would think it was the screenplay for a Saturday afternoon movie on ABC Family.

Tatum Bell was desperate for work. And, like many Americans in our current crisis, was willing to participate in a humble-pie-eating contest to get a job. So one day, Tatum Bell, who only two weeks prior was a starting running back for an NFL franchise, stepped into his local mall, and asked for a few applications.

The mall that Bell stepped in to was the Aurora Mall in Aurora, Colorado. As a proud Coloradan, I feel obligated to paint a picture of what I remember the Aurora Mall to be.

The Aurora Mall is like that weird gift shop on your drive home from your family vacation to the Grand Canyon that offers an assortment of sweatshirts with howling wolves on them, and has a strange Lakota woman sewing something in the corner next to the “Sounds of the Prairie” CDs. The Aurora Mall is your number one destination for white elephant gifts, black lights, lava lamps, and quasi-inappropriate paraphernalia that middle-schoolers keep in their lockers and show to their friends. The Aurora Mall is verging on the post-apocalyptic, with several abandoned department stores and a Santa at Christmas that smells like deer jerky. That’s the Aurora Mall. And Tatum Bell got a job there. At a kiosk, nonetheless.

His job was working as a cell phone salesman at Mobile Solutions. “I just appreciate them giving me a job,” Bell said. “I was working 9 to 5.” Bell sold “a couple” phones and said the job was “actually pretty hard.” Bell would kindly chat with Broncos fans that incredulously approached him at his kiosk. Then he’d try and sell them a phone.

When asked his reasoning for pursuing the job after coming off an NFL salary, Bell said “Just supporting my family. Doing what I can do.”

Bell worked humbly and tirelessly. He watched the Denver Broncos on TV each Sunday and tried to keep in shape, clinging to the remnants of a former dream-come-true.

After a few weeks, Bell noticed a bizarre trend in the Broncos depth chart: their running backs were dropping like flies.

A pigskin plague hit the Broncos backfield with such force that it seemed as if anyone who carried the ball was bound to be put on injured reserve – out for the season. By midseason, the Broncos were so banged up at the tailback position that they turned to their rookie fullback, Peyton Hillis, to carry the ball for every single one of their running plays. It was only a couple games before Hillis suffered a torn hamstring, falling victim to the curse and sidelining him for the rest of the season.

After five tailbacks were hit with the plague (there would be an unprecedented seven total by the end of the year), Bell’s phone rang. Broncos head coach Mike Shanahan invited Bell to practice with his former team. Bell obliged, went to practice, and proved that he was a better football player than cell phone salesman.

“I think anytime somebody’s out on the streets for a while, everybody gets humbled,” Shanahan said. “If a coach has been fired, a player that’s been cut, it’s the same thing. You look forward to those opportunities and you take advantage of those opportunities once you get them. And Tatum’s come in, worked extremely hard and he’s taken advantage of an opportunity.”

“I’m humbled,” Bell said. “I didn’t think I was going to get another chance, to be honest. I thanked coach Shanahan for giving me this chance. I’ll do whatever it takes. I’ll play special teams. I’ll play center. I’ll do whatever it takes to help the Denver Broncos win.”

Bell didn’t play center, but he was the Broncos starting tailback for the last four games of the season. He worked hard and did his job. Not dissimilar, I’m sure, to his position at the Aurora Mall. I’d like to tell you that he led the Broncos to a playoff berth and broke several records, but apparently, Cinderella has to return home from the ball at some point. The Broncos lost three of their last four games and crumbled in tragic fashion. But Bell persevered. His last game was his best, racking up over 100 yards of offense and two touchdowns, including one off a 37-yard run.

What is most remarkable about Bell’s story is not the cosmic irony of his rags to riches tale, but the resilience and poise he maintained through it all. His sense of altruism, despite the circumstances, was astonishing. “I had to hold my head up high,” Bell said. “That’s what I had to do to feed my family.”

The meek inherited a bit more of the earth when Tatum Bell walked into that cesspool of plastic trinkets that is the Aurora Mall. In a country in the midst of crisis, Tatum Bell is an encouraging example. If we are, in fact, in store for tougher times, then I take comfort in the resilience of a gridiron jock who won with humility.