Will It

I am not much of a sports fan, outside of high-school and intercollegiate wrestling (and even then, I’m not a superfan). I watch professional sports from time to time, not out of a love for any particular sport or loyalty to a particular team, but because I was never much of an athlete myself, so great physical performances are amazing to me.

This also helps to explain why I have so often been a fan of the greatest players and moments in sports. For example, I was a Detroit Pistons fan as a teen, but loved to watch Michael Jordan do his thing, and I still rewatch Gibson’s homer and Jeter’s flip anytime I want to shake my head and grin in disbelief. The ability to anticipate the action, to slow down the speed of the game, to perceive the field clearly, and most importantly, to will your body to respond, is beautiful and incredible to me—especially when I remember my own athletic career. As a young baseball player, I was lucky to make contact with the bat and struggled to stay focused in the field. As a tween basketball player, the pressure to move my body and the ball on offense (or worse yet, shoot) caused the ball to bounced off me and my fumble-fingered hands. As a high-school football player, I finally settled in as a backup noseguard…the one position simple enough for me.  And as a wrestler? I loved the sport, but could rarely make my body respond quickly enough to my opponent’s moves and counters.

So I watch athletes in any sport, willing their bodies to do the beautiful, the amazing, the impossible, and it captures me.

* * * * *

Something changed in me as I approached (and since then, entered fully into) middle age. Whether I’ve grown more accepting of and accustomed to my own strengths and weaknesses, or no longer feel pressured to perform, I can do things I never could before (although I still can’t hit a baseball for any money).  Continue reading

Colorful Language

Blogger’s Note: My friend, children’s author Jacqui Robbins (yes, the Jacqui Robbins, and don’t act so surprised!) posted this little gem, which got me thinking about when my own kids began to notice differences in people.

Let me say up front: racism is a real problem in the world. As a result, we have complex reactions to race — we notice differences between people quite naturally, and then (especially as adults) we sometimes overcompensate for our reactions. We react so strongly at times that we can confuse our children by overthinking it. This is how I remember one early incident.

Several years ago, Jodi and I took the older boys to a high-school basketball game. Brendan and Gabe were preschoolers, and we were seated in the crowded home bleachers. The visiting team was from a nearby city, and had players “of multiple ethnicities” on the floor. All one of the starters on the home team, the Warriors, were white — and when that one minority player hit a nice jump shot early in the game, the crowd cheered wildly.

“Who made a basket?” asked Brendan.

“Number five,” I said. “Do you see him?”

Brendan went down the steps a ways to get a better look at the scrambling players. “You mean the brown one?” he called back.

The crowd around us matched the makeup of the starting five: Mostly white, except one family seated across the aisle from us. Jodi and I glanced at them in sudden embarrassment. They didn’t seem to have heard.

“There he is,” I said, pointing. “Number five!”

Brendan craned his neck, then looked back at me. “The brown one!” he said. “That’s what I said!”

“I wanna see th’ brown one!” yelled Gabe.

“Listen,” I rasped as Jodi glanced across the aisle. “His name is Charlie. You guys can cheer for him by name. Cheer for Charlie.”

They did, and after a while, the family across the aisle noticed and smiled proudly. And I started to think: The boys didn’t mean anything by it; they’re just kids, pointing out the most obvious distinguishing characteristic. I laughed at myself. To think that I was worried about a color…

The cheer squad chanted, “Here we go, Warriors, here we go!”

“Let’s go, Warriors!” I shouted, and Bren repeated, “Let’s go, Warriors!”

“Who is ‘Warriors’?” asked Gabe.

“That’s the team we want to win,” said Bren. “The ones in white.”

The other team was pressing hard. “Let’s go, Warriors!” yelled Brendan.

“Yeah,” said Gabe. “Let’s go, whites!”

Confessions of a Casual Sports Fan

We didn’t watch a lot of sports when I was kid. I’ve been to two professional sporting events in my life: Tigers-Yankees at Comerica in Detroit a few years ago, and Yankees-Orioles last fall in old Yankee Stadium. But when we visited Busia and Dziadzi, sports were on—Ernie Harwell calling the Tigers game on the radio; the Lions telecast on Thanksgiving; college hoops or football in season if my uncles and cousins were there, too.

At home, we didn’t pay much attention to sports unless a Michigan team was making a playoff run. I tracked the Roar of ’84 on black-vinyl-covered portable radio with a 9V power source and a hanger for an antenna. We watched the Motor City Bad Boys elbow their way to back-to-back championships in 1989 and 1990, and watched the Wolverines bounce Seton Hall from the NCAA tournament in 1989. I had a big box of baseball cards, but didn’t know the three Don Mattingly rookies were worth anything until a kid at school showed me a photo in a collector’s magazine in junior high.

These days I get a lot of grief here in Minnesota for not rooting for the Twins and the Vikings, and a lot of grief all over the place for cheering for the Yankees. I have my reasons for the teams I cheer for, but none of them have to do with family ties or geographic loyalty. In fact, my reasons are only slightly better than colors and mascots. Here’s the breakdown:

MLB: Yankees (Runners-up: Twins and Tigers)
As I said, I grew up with the Tigers. I loved Chet Lemon for his name; Señor Smoke (Willie Hernandez) and Aurelio Lopez for their names, Lou Whitaker and Kirk Gibson for being Sweet Lou and Gibbie, game-in and game-out. About the only non-Tiger I could name anywhere else in the league was Kirby Puckett, and I loved him, too, for his name, his frame, and his game. Now I live in Minnesota, and the Twins always seem to put together a solid team. You gotta respect that.

As I got older, I lost interest in baseball. It seemed monotonous to me on television, and it wasn’t until after I was married that I began to catch the subtleties of the game. In fall of 1999, Jodi and I and two-year-old Brendan were at her parents’ place in South Dakota. Her older brother Brad was watching the World Series, cheering hard for the Braves, so I took the other side—the Yankees—just to keep things interesting … besides, their shortstop, Jeter, is a West Michigan boy. And I like history and tradition. I like raucous home fields.

The next spring, when baseball rolled around, little Brendan said, “We root for the Yankees, right, Dad?” He told me his favorite player was Andy Pettite, because he wore his cap low over his eyes—and he began to do the same.

How can you argue with that? We’ve been Yankee fans ever since.

NFL: Packers (Runners-up: Lions and Broncos)
Barry Sanders was a class act. Crazy talented and all business: no spiked balls or touchdown dances. He’s the one bright spot I remember for the Lions. Ever. I grew up in Michigan, so I wished (and continue to wish) the Lions well every year. But my cousin Mel was from Green Bay, right across the big lake, and Lambeau was legendary. Again: I like history and tradition. I like raucous home fields. When the Lions washed out, I pulled for the Packers. That hasn’t changed.

However: the first game I ever remember watching start to finish was a Broncos game, with Elway putting on a show. When I met Jodi, I learned that she is the only member of her family who is not a Viking fan. Her uncle told her as a little girl to root for the Broncos. So Denver stayed on the radar, too.

NHL: Red Wings
Michigan team. Yzerman and Lidstrom. History and tradition. Raucous home fields. And when I went to college, they were deadly on Sega hockey. We played a lot of Sega hockey. ‘Nuff said.

NBA: Pistons
To be honest, I watch very little basketball. But the Bad Boys, and the fact that my favorite soft-spoken superstar from those days, Joe Dumars, is leading the organization these days, means when I cheer, I cheer for them.

NCAA: It’s complicated
I went to Yale. Long tradition of intercollegiate athletics, but aside from hockey, not grabbing national headlines these days. Still, I pull for the Bulldogs. I grew up liking Michigan basketball, but also have great admiration for Coach Izzo at State and Coach K at Duke. I grew up liking Michigan football, but I now work for Minnesota, so I pull for the Gophers whenever I can (football, basketball, hockey, and wrestling). I’ve never followed college baseball. I also worked for Ferris State, and will cheer for them, except when they play the University of Minnesota or University of Minnesota Duluth.

That’s it. For what it’s worth, the kids like the Vikings and hate the Packers. And Jodi likes the Twins. To each his our her own. As I type, New York leads 7-1 in Game 6 of the World Series. Matsui-san is on fire. Go Yankees!