Still In The Blood

October is in many ways the best sports month of the year.

The baseball playoffs, which were once the premier event of fall, still bring fascinating match-ups and great drama to the sports stage. Hockey’s season begins, almost stealthily, while many of us are paying attention to other games–but nevertheless, the promise of a new NHL season always raises the spirits of those with a passion for the game. And, unavoidably, football bestrides it all like a sporting colossus that cannot be ignored, as synonymous with autumn as holidays, turning leaves, and a touch of refreshing chill in the air.

It seems inevitable, then, that anyone dropped into this world in the midst of these days would be drawn to these games as an inextricable thread of life.

The DFR: FandomAs today, October 9, 2015, is my 47th birthday, I stand as one of those natural born sports fans. Or rather, I sit, or possibly even lay (on the couch) as one of those fans, for I will spend the bulk of the day in front of the TV, watching as much of the MLB postseason games as I can stand. And if there’s any hockey or football on the schedule, I’ll probably pop over now and again to check out those games, too.

It’s always been part of my birthdays, watching a game or two or three. The parties have been few and far between, and that was always just fine with me; sorry, but I’d rather spend my time with a game broadcast than with friends and family on my special day.

…in a world of subjectivity–of relativity, of “truth” not truth, of belief not reason–sports provide one of the last bastions of an objective reality left to us.

I’ve never really understood those who don’t like sports at all–especially men who aren’t into sports. It’s easier to get it when women don’t like sports, given traditional societal roles; I can even accept a man who doesn’t like some given sport. But an American male who doesn’t like any sports? That’s an alien concept for me. How do you not like any sports?

Of course, I should give folks more credit than that. Perhaps those individuals are simply more attuned to the fact that sports are really artificially constructed conflicts designed to substitute for war–if not outright major war, then at least the small-time local skirmishing that has been a hallmark of human society almost since the monolith appeared (or however civilization started back in the almost monkey days). It’s understandable that some folks might find such carefully channeled pseudo-conflict to be distasteful. Even so, it’s a wonder that anyone who grew up in this society–the United States, late 20th century to early 21st century–could escape the appeal.

(By the way, if you reject the idea that sports is war reduced and somewhat civilized, think back on the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid. If you don’t recognize the USA vs Soviet Union hockey game as a proxy war of peak importance, you’re just completely out of touch.)

I probably had a bigger boost towards a love of sports than most: being born a boy in Philadelphia in 1968 virtually guaranteed that sports would be a consuming passion, even as my genetic inheritance assured that I would never have the physical ability excel at the games myself. I was destined from the start to be a fan, a spectator, a follower–and, eventually, a commentator.

Some of my earliest memories involve the spring of 1974, when I was five years old and the Flyers–a franchise barely a year older than me–won the Stanley Cup for the first time. For championship-starved Philly fans–an NBA title for the Sixers in ’67 was the only win for the city in a decade and a half–the Flyers’ unexpected triumph led to a tremendous outpouring of joy. I still remember the people shouting in the streets, the cars honking, the delirium that accompanied their skate with the Cup. To a boy just beginning to perceive the bigger world, the message came through loud and clear: these games can lead to stuff that’s really, really good, really, really fun.

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Steve Carlton and the Phillies helped magnify that message, first with Carlton’s dominance on the mound, then with the rest of the team coming along for division titles in ’76, ’77, and ’78. The disappointing endings to those seasons only tempered the passion, and the payoff came in 1980: the Phillies beating the Royals, Tug McGraw bouncing off the mound, slapping his leg with that glove, the team winning a championship for the first time in its then-almost-hundred-year history.

That victory almost took the sting out of the championship defeats: the Eagles in the ’81 Super Bowl, the Sixers bowing out to the Lakers (twice) and the Celtics (Eastern Conference Finals, Game 7, 1981) before finally winning it all–not quite in “Fo’ fo’ fo'”–in 1983. That win almost brought more relief than joy. Almost.

The only problem with those titles in ’80 and ’83? By that time I had left Philadelphia behind and moved to the Bay Area.

The late ’70s turned out to be a fortuitous time for a sports fan to move to the East Bay. The Raiders beat the Eagles in that Super Bowl–a bitter pill, as I loathed the Raiders despite the proximity–but Oakland was also the home of two other teams, both of whom started their existence, like me, in Philadelphia. The Athletics quickly became my go to team–literally, as I lived mere miles from the Coliseum–and they soon turned their fortunes around with the exciting BillyBall teams of the early ’80s. The Warriors were tougher to love, but eventually I came around on them, too; by the time Run TMC hit the hardwood in the late ’80s–coincidental with the rise of the Bash Brother champion A’s–I wanted to shoot like Chris Mullin, not rebound like Charles Barkley (even if I had a physique more like a miniature Chuck).

And then there were the 49ers. Where the Eagles scuffled and struggled their way to occasional success, Bill Walsh, Joe Montana, and Jerry Rice raised the Niners to heights few would ever have imagined. No Philadelphia sports fan would ever have expected success like that. Only California dreamers could have ever believed they’d root for a team that good. That team was in many ways transformative for the area, turning the Bay Area into a place where the local teams did not merely occasionally win, but where teams were expected to win, expected to be among the best–a place where to be a sports fan was to be a believer in very high possibilities.

That’s what being a sports fan can bring even to a non-athlete’s life. Sports point the way to the possibilities in life, in ways that are tangible to a greater extent than almost any other endeavor. Sports are also meritorious: if you can play, you’re in; if you can’t, almost no amount of connections, money, or other advantage will get you on the field, get you the W you don’t deserve. Indeed, in a world of subjectivity–of relativity, of “truth” not truth, of belief not reason–sports provide one of the last bastions of an objective reality left to us.

It’s not all perfect. The fact that I branded this space “The Disgruntled Fan Report” should indicate right front and center that there are things about the sports world that bother me a great deal. But if you strip away the corrupting influences–the commodification of the fans, the greed and stupidity that seems to hold the reins over all our sports–you’re still left with a pitcher blowing the ball by a batter, a running back reading the hole and bursting through the defense, a kick save and a beauty, the gorgeous arc of a three-pointer swishing through the net. The fundamentals are still there, and they can still bring you great joy, even forty years down the road. It’s still in the blood, as it was just about from the start–and hopefully it will stay there, all the way through to the end.


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