Monday, October 10, 2005

A Portrait Of The Artist As A Sports Fan

I’ve watched sports for as long as I can remember; I’ve always had a passion. I can’t even begin to count all the time that I’ve spent playing sports, watching sports, collecting sports cards, talking about sports, and now writing about sports. This piece is designed to introduce myself as a sports fan. Rather than giving a brief bio and listing of my favorite teams and players, allow me to trace my development from birth to today. Here’s 23 years of history condensed into 4500 words.

First, a little history that pre-dates my birth. Most of my sports history is inherited on my dad’s side. There are two major exceptions:
• My grandfather, who grew up in rural, southern New Brunswick. So south in fact that until recently you could only get there by taking a ferry from Maine. He was born in 1914, and in the 1930s, through the miracle of a new technology called “radio”, discovered and began following the Boston Red Sox. He would later regale my brother and I with stories of baseball and hockey “old-timers”, which along with one other event I’ll mention later, gave me an early interest in the history of sports. He also bought me my first hockey jersey (Edmonton Oilers) when I was 5. Through my mother, he also passed on an interest in horse racing, specifically the Triple Crown races.
• My Uncle Bruce, a rabid fan who helped introduce my brother and I to the wonders of Table Top Hockey, which has to be one of the most underrated creations of the 20th century.

My mother also deserves mention, mostly for facilitating (or putting up with) my rabid interest in sports even though she’s not a big fan of any sport or team.

My dad, however, is a big sports fan. He immigrated to Canada in May of 1970, mere days after Bobby Orr’s famous goal broke the Boston Bruins’ Stanley Cup drought of 29 years. He lived, and went to school in London, Ontario, right in the heart of Leafs country, and lived in a house filled with hardcore Leafs fans. Remarkably, by the spring of 1971 he had not been converted to the dark side, but nonetheless was developing an interest in the sport of hockey. In April of 1971, the Montreal Canadiens were matched up against the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Boston Bruins, in the opening round of the playoffs. Montreal looked overmatched, since the Bruins had a dominant team, and Montreal was depending on a rookie Goaltender named Ken Dryden to carry them to victory.

Well, he did just that, stifling the Bruins and helping the Habs advance and go on to win the Stanley Cup. To hear my dad describe it, you wouldn’t be shocked if you had heard that Dryden walked across the St. Lawrence River just for kicks after stoning Esposito, Orr, and Cashman for 7 games.

Suffice to say, my dad immediately took a liking to the Canadiens, and their miracle worker of a goalie. This liking intensified in 1974, when upon graduating college he moved to Montreal and settled into an apartment across the street from the old Montreal Forum. From what I gather, the next 6 years consisted of attending lots of games, seeing the Habs win lots of Stanley Cups, and routinely seeing legends like Toe Blake and Jean Beliveau walking around his neighborhood. He was sold. There was no turning back from Les Habitants now. Somewhere in this period, he discovered baseball, and began following Les Expos and attending games at old Jarry Park. He also discovered American Football. This was huge.

Fast forward to 1982, when my parents have their second child (me). I was born 8 days after Cal Ripken Jr. started his ironman streak. There’s really no reason for me to mention this, but it’s neat nonetheless. I don’t remember any of this, but from what I’m told I spent a lot of time between the ages of 0 and 3 watching football with my dad. Also, I apparently learned to cheer at an early age, though my repertoire consisted mostly of yelling ‘Go! Go! Go!” no matter who was playing, or what the situation was. What’s my point? Well, there isn’t really one, except that I’ve been watching football longer than most anything else in my life, and that even as an infant I was more sophisticated than your average Raiders fan.

Next big event, we move to Edmonton in the mid-80s, just in time to catch the Oilers dynasty. Of course, being five years old at the time, I was in no position to appreciate it. I did, however, take a liking to Oiler goalie Grant Fuhr, who became my first sports hero. I was a die-hard Oilers fan, and we would watch Hockey Night in Canada every week. I’d also watch the games during the week when they’d be shown on ITV, or as much as I could until my parents sent me to bed. While I supported the home-town team, and we would go see a few games a year, my brother Nick followed in my dad’s footsteps and became a Habs fan. We both liked our team’s goalies, and somewhere around 1987 wrote our first fan letters to our respective idols. My brother got a stock Patrick Roy card back in the mail. I got nothing. I waited, and waited, and waited. But the Oilers never responded. I was crushed. My relationship with the Oilers would never be the same. Later on, I’d find out about Fuhr’s drug problems. It didn’t help that he was traded to the Leafs around the time I was becoming a Toronto fan, and failed to do anything substantial with them. It was tough to see that your first idol, seemingly invincible for the Oil, become more and more human. (As a side note, I attended the same High School as Fuhr’s daughter. She was a grade ahead of me. I don’t think I knew anything about her, or ever had a conversation with her. I just knew that she was Grant Fuhr’s daughter). Just like we always have a soft spot for our first love, I still couldn’t help but root for Grant Fuhr, even when he briefly donned a Calgary Flames jersey at the end of his career.

Anyway, I began to take a liking to the Leafs in the early 90s, with my support cresting during their 1993 run to the Western Conference Final, where they fell one game short of an epic Stanley Cup matchup with the Montreal Canadiens. This was a pivotal time, as my following of the team was facilitated by the fact that I had strepp throat, and missed about three weeks of school. This allowed me to watch SportsDesk on TSN about three times a day, and fully devote myself to the playoff run. Big moment. As mentioned in a previous column, Gretz got away with a highstick on Gilmour in Overtime during Game 6 (I’ve never fully forgiven him for it) and LA won. Life lesson learned: life isn’t fair. I kept following the Leafs throughout the ‘90s, but felt my interest overall in hockey waning.

Backtrack a little. In 1987, my family was visiting my dad’s uncle in New Jersey. My dad’s cousin Gus is a lifetime New Jerseyan (is that the right term?), and longtime New York Mets and New York Islanders fan. He was also a long-time sports card collector, but had tired of both the habit, and having to store them in his room. So, he made the logical decision to dump them onto my brother and I (then aged 8 and 5), who were all too happy to add to our sports card collection. This was about 3 years before the brief period where sports cards were a hot collectible. ANYWAY, we split them up, and I went about using this collection to learn about the sports stars of the 1970s. There were some notable names (like Dryden, Tony Dorsett, Bobby Hull), and a lot of no-names. As a side note, my brother ended up with an Al Cowlings football card, which was completely unnoteworthy until June of 1994, when Al Cowlings earned his 15 minutes of fame by driving O.J’s White Bronco down the California Interstate.

Collecting sports cards (and stickers, who else remembers those?) was a big part of my childhood around then. This was before you could go to a collectibles store and buy an entire set of cards, but I still managed to amass near complete collections of the O-Pee-Chee Hockey and Baseball lines from 1986-1989. I still have them too. My sports card collection occupies approximately 40% of the closet in my old room at my parents’ house. Along with reading the sports section of the Edmonton Journal, this was how I learned about, and kept up with players and teams. Baseball began to rival hockey as my favorite sport (especially when I started playing it), but I never found myself attached to any team. I kinda liked Boston; I kinda liked Baltimore (cause of Cal Ripken Jr., still one of my all-time favorite athletes). Oddly, I never really liked Toronto, who would be the closest thing to a home team, being Canadian and all.

Around this time, we were also towards the tail end of the peaks of two all-time greats: Larry Bird, and Joe Montana. I fell in love with their respective teams, more so the 49ers though, as we didn’t watch much basketball back then. Still, I saw enough to develop an attachment to the Celts, enough so that I would eventually root for players like Dino Radja and Dana Barros a few years later. We did, however, watch lots of football, and Joe was my guy. Thus, the 49ers were my team. They were awesome. They rolled over the Bengals and the Broncos in the Super Bowl. Then I got Joe Montana Football for the PC, which is one of the all-time underrated video football games. This acquisition was second in excitement only to the pair of 49ers wristbands (sweatbands, no less!) that my dad bought me around the same time. I think I wore them for all of Grades 1 and 2. It’s a miracle I had any friends at the time.

I still have those wristbands too. If the 49ers make the playoffs, I may break them out for the first time in something like 15 years.

When Montana gave way to Steve Young, my allegiances didn’t waver. While I missed Joe Montana, and rooted for the Chiefs out of loyalty, I still favored the Niners. In fact, Steve Young did the impossible: he replaced Montana. Maybe not on the field (he only won 1 Super Bowl), but he did in my heart (there’s no way to make that not sound cheesy). He was the best. He was left-handed, like me (for some reason this was important, regardless of the fact that I wasn’t a QB). He scrambled, threw the ball well, and played with a reckless abandon that would only be topped a few years later by Brett Favre.

In other words, Steve Young was the fucking man. And he still is.

Being a longtime follower of Professional Football, it was merely a matter of time before I discovered the College Game. Around 1990, I immediately took a liking to Notre Dame. The fact that they were on TV pretty much every week helped, but when I found out that Joe Montana played for the Irish, that sealed the deal. The early ‘90s were good years for the Irish. I followed them religiously during the 1993 season when they made an improbable run to the National Title, peaking with a big home win over FSU in the last #1 vs. #2 matchup that truly mattered (I still have the game on tape). They blew it the next week with a loss to Boston College, and FSU ended up taking the National Title since the pollsters felt sorry for Bobby Bowden. I firmly believe this. You’ll never convince me that FSU had any business being in the title game, since ND had the same record and held the head-to-head win, but nonetheless both polls ranked FSU ahead of the Irish. After this, the most notable event (aside from a series of heartbreaking losses to the hated Michigan Wolverines, and a still on-going string of bowl losses) was my acquisition of a Notre Dame jersey, #3, the number that greats like Joe Montana, and not so greats like Rick Mirer and Ron Powlus (remember him?) wore. I still have it, and last wore it about a month ago while watching the ND-Michigan game.

Another big event from this period was meeting my friend Matt Doig, which occurred somewhere around Grade 2 or 3, if I remember correctly. He was also a sports fan, which is huge, because until then the extent to which any of my friends were sports fans consisted of casually following hockey and collecting sports cards. At the same time, MJ and Scottie were turning everyone into basketball fans, but you couldn’t feel the effects yet. I could never cheer for the Bulls, except when they played the Pacers. I never liked Reggie Miller; he rubbed me the wrong way. I’m glad he never got a ring. Anyway, Matt followed baseball and football, which was great, but he cheered for the Cowboys, which made him evil. This was at the height of the 49ers-Cowboys rivalry for NFC supremacy. This was my first experience having a rivalry with a friend/family member. A true rivalry that is. I cheered for the Leafs partly to rebel against the Canadiens fanaticism in my family, but that was hardly a rivalry since they never played for anything important, and they were also in opposing conferences. I also started cheering for the Bruins, since they played Montreal every year in the playoffs, but I never felt passionately about them the way I did the Niners. Interestingly, Matt was also a big Pacers/Reggie Miller fan. It’s amazing we got a long, despite being the only two rabid sports fans at our school.

Fast-forward now to 1995, when we started to discover the Internet. I soon discovered that this was a way to get sports information and coverage around the clock. Next to the fact that girls in my class were starting to develop breasts, NOTHING was this revolutionary in the mid-90s. This would help facilitate my growing fandom, though things kind of slowed as I hit my teens.

I mention my teens for a reason, and that’s because in 1996, at the age of 14, I did the unthinkable. I cheered for the Yankees. I jumped on the bandwagon as they made their World Series run. I even had a Yankees cap to prove it. In hindsight, I’m ashamed of this, but you have to remember that:

a) This was probably the most likeable Yankee team. They were largely devoid of superstars, and played like a team. Any baseball fan has to give props to guys like Paul O’Neill, Derek Jeter, and Scott Brosius.
b) I was 14. When you’re that age, your whole life revolves around bandwagon jumping and trying to be cool.

Nonetheless, this is still one of my great embarrassments. It’s fitting that this happened in 1996, the same year that Hulk Hogan turned his back on the fans to become a founding member of the new World order. That’s about the only event I can equate it with – if you ignore the fact that I didn’t have millions of fans and followers, and nobody ever trained, said their prayers or ate their vitamins because I implored them to.

Within 18 months of that, however, I made my first visit to Fenway and was 100% sold on the Red Sox. It helped that they had Nomar, who was eminently likeable (emphasis on ‘was’) and Pedro, who was the best pitcher in the game. Though I’d followed baseball religiously for at least 10 years, this was the first time I felt truly passionate about a team. That hasn’t changed since. Once I fell for the Sox, I fell hard. I also developed my dislike of the Yankees at that point, since they seemed to be playing big games, and playoff series’ against the Red Sox all the time.

This happened at the perfect time, since it coincided with the depressing Bob Davie era at Notre Dame, and the fall of the 49ers, heralded in when poor cap management and drafting caught up with them, and a series of concussions finally forced Steve Young to retire. I still watched hours of football every week, but it wasn’t the same. The Sox filled that void, which was important given the:

a) Aforementioned football situation
b) Celtics struggles, and myriad of Bulls-Pacers games at the Market Square Arena that NBC was shoving down our throats.
c) Fact that hockey kinda sucked around this time. That is, unless you like the neutral zone trap and plastic rats.

The Red Sox kept my passion for sports alive during high school when things like music, house parties, and what college I was going to go to couldn’t help but be at the forefront of my mind. Plus, we were all worried about Y2K. And Professional Wrestling was huge. HUGE. I spent many hours on the various fan sites, watching Raw and Nitro (but not Smackdown and Thunder) and talking about it with friends.

The only other notable development from this era is the emergence of Gonzaga as an annual cinderalla team in March Madness. I still find myself rooting for them, even when they’re a Top 10 basketball team. They’re based in Spokane, Washington, where we’d get our American networks from, which made it like a home team too for me. I could watch any newscast, and get lots of Gonzaga coverage every spring. Ever since 1998, they’ve held a place alongside Duke as college hoop teams I consistently support, though Duke’s status is in jeopardy since:

a) It’s been over a decade since the Laettner-Hurley-Hill era which made me a fan.
b) They screw up my March Madness bracket every year, since I always pick them to win and they inevitably get bounced by a lesser team.

2000 was the start of University, which again brought a whole other set of priorities. Remarkably, sports began to creep up more and more.

As a kid, I’d been a big video game fan through the Nintendo and Super Nintendo eras. I skipped the PS1/N64/Dreamcast era, but in the summer of 2001 our house got a Playstation 2. Soon afterwards, we got Madden, courtesy of Kimmis. This single event would be responsible for about 36,483 lost hours of productivity over the next four years. Football was making a comeback for me too, as the Niners were once a gain a contender, behind CFL star Jeff Garcia, and new Coach Steve Mariucci, who brought a level of intensity and energy to the sidelines unlike his predecessor. In 2001, the Pats won the Super Bowl, but I wasn’t a fan…yet. I was mostly happy that they beat the Rams, Kevin’s favorite team.

Hockey made a comeback, as we spent lots of time watching, and discussing things like ‘Top 3 Finnish Oilers of all time’ at the Power Plant with Muhly, Bendall, and the B-Man. And I bought Total Hockey, aka the Bible, which would allow Grabia and I to look up random things like ‘how many teams has Dino Ciccarelli played for?’ to pass the time. On the basketball front, the spring of 2002 brought a Celtics resurgence, when they made it to the Conference Final before being bounced by the New Jersey Nets.

As the 49ers began sinking back towards the abyss this decade, my support didn’t waver, but I found myself developing a similar affinity for the New England Patriots. Part of it is because of my general love of Boston, New England, and its sports teams, but mostly because they remind me of the 49ers of old. The genius coach (Walsh/Belichek), the stubborn adherence to a system of play, and a QB who often appears unassuming, but has a knack for making big plays when his team needs one (Montana/Brady). They reminded me of everything I loved about the Niners when I first became a real football fan. And so I find myself with dual allegiances in the NFL. For what it’s worth, I always play with the 49ers in my Madden franchise, partly because of the long-time association, and partly because it’s not as fun to start with the best franchise in the league. Plus, until this year’s release, it was always satisfying to be able to fire Dennis Erickson.

Football’s still big. Whenever I talk to my dad, we probably spend more time talking about football than anything else. We horrify my stepmother by getting together to watch the NFL Draft, which is especially bad because my dad does a good enough job of it on his own whenever he wakes up early to watch the pre-game shows during the season.

I also spend more time talking about the NFL and Fantasy Football with Grabia and Kimmis than any reasonable human being should. And when I lived in Edmonton, it was all about Sunday Ticket and the playoffs in HDTV at Casa Kimmis, just like it will be once again when I’m home over Christmas.

One other events to touch on from this period: the Flames Cup run in 2004, which reinvigorated my active dislike of that team, so much so that they made me actively root for Tampa Bay. It bothered me to no end to see Oiler fans jumping on the bandwagon (but that didn’t bother me as much as the car flags did), I felt a need to hold strong in opposition to the enemy from the South.

That brings us to the Red Sox. Quite simply, no sports team (college or professional) has stirred my emotions over the past seven years the way the Red Sox have. The years around the turn of the century were frustrating, as the Yankees (who I grew to dislike in a hurry) always came out on top, partly due to talent, partly due to breaks (some luck, some from the umpires), partly because they continuously spent money to have more talent than Boston.

Then came the 2003 playoffs. The Sox opened with an improbable rally, coming from 0-2 down against Oakland to win the last 3 games of the series and move on. Then, facing elimination, they beat the Yanks in Game 6 of the ALCS to force a decisive Game 7. Which was cool, cause they add their ace, Pedro Martinez, going. I don’t remember what was going on, but for some reason I missed the first few innings. I caught parts of the game, but my memory begins in the 8th inning, when the Red Sox seemed in control. Others have chronicled this game better than I can, but I remember watching in horror as Pedro ran out of gas while Alan Embree stood in the bullpen, waiting in the wings. If this were professional wrestling, Pedro, the face-in-peril, would have made the hot tag to Embree, who would have cleaned house on the Yankees and avoided the rally. But life (or Grady Little) doesn’t work that way, and the Yanks tied it up, and forced extra innings. As long as I live, I’ll never forget the 11th inning. I remember it like it was yesterday. Grabia and I were watching on the TV in our buddy Kirks’ room. Before the Yankee half of the inning, my old buddy Matt Doig pops on to msn and says “I can’t watch”. Not a good sign. As for the rest, Grabia summed it up in a previous post:

Poor Tim Wakefield. I actually didn’t see it. I refused to watch the television. Abboud called it, and I sat and watched his face. Devastating.

Yup, that about sums it up. The lowest of the lows I’ve felt as a sports fan in a long time, maybe ever.

Then came the 2004 season. I’ll skip over the ARod chase, the regular season, and get to everything else. Once the playoffs rolled around, I probably didn’t care about anything else more than the Red Sox playoff run. When they had afternoon games against the Angels in the ALDS, I would go upstairs from my office to our campus bar to “work” while the game was on. I had a meeting during Game 1 of the ALCS, but followed the entire game on ESPN GameCast using my laptop. I watched Game 2 in frustration. I wouldn’t leave our hotel during Game 3 (I was in Lethbridge) until the game was out of reach. Only when it was something like 15-6 did I sullenly agree to go out to the bar. After their improbably wins in Game 4 and 5 forced a Game 6 (on a night that my friend Blatz and I had to drive out of town for meetings over the next few days), we listened to the game on ESPN radio all the way there. Eventually, after ARod knocked the ball out of Arroyo’s glove in the 8th, I couldn’t take it anymore. We pulled over and watched the game at a bar in Drumheller, Alberta. We watched Game 7 at a hotel room in Brooks. More than anything, it was a cathartic experience. Even though they led all the way, I held my breath. Part of me was in disbelief; part of me kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. It didn’t. The inning that Francona brought Pedro in, and the Yanks staged a mini-rally (probably spurred by the ‘Who’s Your Daddy?’ chants), I held my breath. Those 15 minutes probably took 2 years off my life. When Pedro pulled through, and the Red Sox put the game out of reach for good, I relaxed a bit. I breathed a huge sigh of relief when they got the final out. I couldn’t believe it. Even in victory, I felt emotionally drained as a fan. It didn’t seem real. I kept expecting the other shoe to drop.

Once we got through Game 1 of the World Series, things were on smooth sailing. By Game 4, we expected the sweep, and got it. It was satisfying, but the win over the Yankees still felt like the real victory.

Then this year happened. They made some roster moves that didn’t work out (Renteria replacing Cabrera for one), and struggled with injuries to the pitching staff (Schilling and Foulke). Nonetheless, they held first place for most of the year, before ceding to the Yankees in late September. Something bothered me about this team, which I’ll elaborate on in my upcoming post-mortem on the season. Suffice to say, I sensed a lack of desire during the final week when they chased the Yanks, which carried over into the ALDS against Chicago. Aside from a few players, they didn’t seem to want it; they didn’t even seem to care. And that’s what makes this year’s defeat sting so much. It shouldn’t, since we’re still less than 12 months removed from a World Series win, but I can’t help it. If the players didn’t seem to care, why am I so bothered? That’s what probably frustrates me as a fan more than anything. After the final out Friday night, I sulked for a good hour. I probably could have done it for a week. And there will probably be even more highs and lows before the first pitch in April. Oh well, hopefully the Irish, Pats, Celtics, or my harem of hockey teams will give me something to cheer about before then.


At 12:37 PM, Blogger Kevin Kimmis said...

This still doesn't explain your liking the Leafs, but it explains your encyclopedic knowledge of sports no Canadian has a right to know about, like US college football.

Also: Did you know there's a table-top hockey league? With world rankings? And that the games aren't made here anymore ... they're made in Sweden? The horror....


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