Sunday, October 23, 2011

Hooray, Sports!

Ahh…sports!  Baseball in the summer, football in the fall, basketball and hockey in the winter, competitive mosquito swatting in the spring.  Love them or hate them, you can’t deny that sports play a significant part in our culture.  (Well, you could, but I wouldn’t believe you.)

I consider myself a sports fan.  I don’t come from a particularly athletic family, and have no major athletic accomplishments to brag about, aside from five goals scored in one game of floor hockey back in sixth grade.  Nonetheless, I follow the sports world every day in one form or another.  I have ESPN’s Mike & Mike sports talk show on every morning as I am reading the other news of the day in the paper or online.  I also check sports websites for scores several times a day in-season and subscribe to two sports magazines.  In the evenings during the summer, I like to have a baseball game on as background noise.  There’s a kind of comfortable rhythm to it, even if I am only half-paying attention.

Baseball is my favorite sport, and the Boston Red Sox are my team.  It wasn’t always that way, and sometimes I wish it wasn’t like that now. 

As a very young kid, I was actually a fan of the Los Angeles Dodgers, oddly enough.  I think it was in part because Los Angeles seemed so far away and cool to a kid like me from rural Maine.  Surely their baseball team was populated with only the best players, I reasoned.  And back then, in the late 70s to very early 80s, the Dodgers were actually pretty good.  Steve Garvey, Fernando Valenzuela, Ron Cey, Pedro Guerrero, Steve Yeager…they were winning pennants most years and even took the World Series in 1981, when I was 11.  Trouble was, hardly anyone in my hometown knew anything about them, much less followed them.  Being a young Dodger fan in northern Maine was a lonely business.  The girls all thought the L.A. logo on my baseball cap (as pictured below) meant “love always”, since that was what it had been appropriated for in notebook doodles and so-called “love notes” by young girls at that time. 

While the media juggernaut that is the Boston Red Sox was not nearly then what it is now, they were still the “local” professional baseball team.  Their games were on the radio every night, their highlights were on the local sports reports, and their caps and t-shirts were in the stores.  In time, I gradually moved my loyalties over to the Red Sox.  In my mid-teens, part of my frequent responsibilities at the radio station where I worked was to play the commercials between innings of Red Sox game broadcasts.   I was there behind the operating board when Roger Clemens struck out 20 batters in a game.  I was also there when that ball went between Bill Buckner’s legs during the 1986 World Series.  Joe Castiglione is still calling games for the Sox.  His is one of the few voices still left in broadcasting that instantly take me back to my youth when I hear it.  Almost all the others are gone.

NOTE: I have to be careful when addressing the topic of the Red Sox right now, since they are in the midst of scandal and turmoil, and it would be very easy for this posting to degrade into an angry rant.  Let’s not go there.

I like football too, but admit to not understanding a lot of it.  You see, here in northern Maine, we didn’t have football teams growing up.  For the most part, we still don’t.  The area is mainly agricultural, and when I was a kid, school let out for three weeks in the fall so students could work in the potato harvest.  Harvest break fell right in the middle of what would have been football season, and the students who were most likely to have played on a football team, the big, strapping guys, were working on the farms.  So the local schools and recreation departments never really established football teams.  Sure, there were football fans around, but for most of us, who didn’t play it or see it in person like we did baseball, basketball, and hockey, there was a bit of distance there.  Unless you really applied yourself, it just looked like big guys in tight pants lining up, falling into a pile, and then lining up and doing it again.

I understand a lot more about football now than I did as a kid.  It all started when someone explained it to me as “a game of acquiring territory”.  While I always knew this at a basic level, that explanation somehow opened my eyes and helped me open other doors.  I still do best during a football game if I have Google on standby for looking up oddball things like "fair-catch kick" or "Terry Bradshaw".

I am a passing fan of other sports too. 

In my radio days, I did color analysis for local high school basketball games on the radio.  I saw MUCH more of that brand of ball than professional basketball, though I did catch the occasional Celtics game.  However, professional basketball seems so slick and polished compared to the high school ball I was so exposed to growing up and the street games I took part in with my very limited skills.  I’ll tune in when the Celtics are on TV once in a while, but for my money, the amateurs are the best show in basketball.

And hockey is a terrific sport.  Fast paced, action-packed, physical.  It sucks on TV though.  I can’t see the puck.  Fox Sports tried to use a technical trick on a TV broadcast about ten years ago where they had a computerized “tail” that swept behind the puck on the screen, making it easier to see.  I loved it.  The rest of the world apparently did not, and that experiment was considered a failure.  If I am going to watch a hockey game, I want to be there in person.  At least then I can see the damn puck.  Looking back on local pond hockey, it’s a flipping miracle that my friends and I didn’t break more teeth, bones, etc., given the wild abandon with which we played and the complete lack of protective gear.  And absence of rules.  Pond hockey for my friends and I as kids was fast, brutal, totally exhilarating, and would probably have scared the bejeezes out of our moms.  It was great. 

I came to NASCAR most recently…around ten years ago.   I’ve figured out that the best way to watch a NASCAR race is to tune in during the last 10-20 laps.  That’s when things really get shaking.  Come to think of it, that rule applies pretty well to basketball and football games too.  Tune in for the last quarter, and you’ll see most of the best stuff live.  The other highlights will be shown ad nauseum on ESPN for the next 24 hours anyway.

And I LOVE the Olympics, summer or winter, but really could care less about most of those sports at any other time.   ABC’s Wide World of Sports was a very popular weekend afternoon program when I was young.  I remember watching it quite often, pretending to be interested in bowling and the like, since there was absolutely NOTHING else to do on a January Saturday afternoon where I lived.  My most enduring memory of that program has to be that poor sap on the skis who wipes out big-time in the “agony of defeat”.  

Other sports:  Tennis? Boring.  Golf? I've shed my blood for it, so I am done with it.  (A topic for another post) Curling?  Great after a few drinks.  Heck, what sport isn't?

At 41, I don’t play many sports these days.  I like to toss a baseball around once in a while or shoot a few hoops, but that’s about it.  However, I think sports play an important part in modern life, one that is sometimes overlooked.  

You see, they are one of the few things left in our culture that are not totally fragmented.  Back in the old days, there were only three or four radio stations to listen to, only three or four TV stations to watch, more people went to church and joined community organizations, and our worlds in general were a lot smaller.  Consequently, we had a lot more in common with the people we ran into every day.  Chances are, they DID watch the same show you did last night, or they DID hear what that announcer said on the radio this morning.  They were at the same church service as you last weekend or the same lodge meeting last night.  Those shared experiences are a lot fewer and farther between today.  Most things are fragmented.  Hundreds of television and music choices are out there, not to mention the vast array of “stuff” that is available on the Internet.   However, sports is still relatively compact.  There’s one major league in each of the five professional sports of baseball, football, basketball, hockey, and car racing, which is more compact than many other diversions in our world today.  

Anything that bring us together, that helps us share our passions and feelings in a positive way, that lets us see each other as pretty much being in the same boat...well, that's a good thing.

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