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!

Bronx Purgatory

Let me start by saying that Bren, Gabe and I had a great time in New York and New Haven. The weather was fantastic, the Deezledub ran like a champ*, and the Yankees and Elis** both won.

That said, for first-time visitors to Yankee Stadium, the bleachers are a bit like purgatory — you see heaven firsthand and are witness to its glory, but you can’t … quite … reach it. Let me explain.

Narrow is the way
First, you gotta get there. Despite their noteriety, the subways weren’t bad. Narrow, yes, but packed with fellow Yankees fans. Makes you feel good.

Then you get off the train. An aside here: I asked my dad if he wanted to come on this trip. His response: “I’d like to have seen New York around 1790. Not since.” He would consider the clausterphobic concrete confines of NYC a vision of hell, I suspect. I wouldn’t go that far, but you do get the feeling that the Bronx, over the years, has been paved with good intentions … not all of which have been realized.

There’s no beautiful approach to this stadium. It’s grittier, more “real” than you might believe, given the pristine white of the uniforms and the clean-cut multimillionaires swinging the lumber. Then you see it: the line of ticketholders filing slowly through the gates. The excitement is palpable. You reach into you pocket to find the tickets — only the thousandth time you’ve double-checked. You smile, because you are one of the chosen.

Shedding our worldly possessions
Our camera lost its charge on the three-hour Circle Tour of Manhattan Island, so we prowl the souvenir shops along the narrow way, looking for a cheap disposable, or failing that, an expensive disposable. Finding none, we head back to the gates — and lo! a stadium souvenir stand with a solitary Fuji hanging on the pegboard behind the cashier.

“How much?” I ask.

“$20,” she states flatly.

Judge not! my conscious admonishes, and I smile and hand her a crisp $20 bill. She hands us the camera, and we get in line. From somewhere above us, a loud voice proclaims that only small, child’s backpacks are allowed into the stadium — no other bags. Brendan carries ours — a green knapsack barely big enough for a grade-school reading textbook. In it is our dead digital camera, sweatshirts, a notebook, a bottle of water, and souvenirs from the day thus far.

Then I notice that no one, but no one, is carrying anything remotely close to the size of this little knapsack. I approach a nearby angel — a no-nonsense black woman with security written all over her. I point to Bren’s pack and start to ask … she slowly shakes her head. We turn back.

“What will we do with the backpack?” asks Gabe.

“Throw it away, I guess — we have no place to put it,” I say.

We tie our sweatshirts around our waists, stuff our pockets with souvenirs and the two cameras, grab the notebook, triple-check that we have the tickets, and carry the rest of our belongings in search of a trash can. Finally, we resort to quietly slipping it into a plastic bag tied to the side of a hot dog cart while the owner serves his customers.

St. Peter at the gates
We get back in line. It’s moving quickly now, and when we reach St. Peter, he’s stocky, with a crew cut and the same uniform and no-nonsense look as the angel from earlier. He is about to scan our tickets, then frowns. He shakes his head: “Not here. Bleacher gate.” He points back around the corner, past the hot dog stand.

“OK, thanks. C’mon, boys.”

We turn, and there’s no easy way out … unless the angel lifts the ropes for us. I approach and smile. “Wrong gate,” I say. She raises the rope, but does not smile.

The bleacher gates aren’t exactly pearly. We enter into a dank tunnel, past a smiling old man like Charon on the Styx. Incidentally, he doesn’t seem concerned about bags or backpacks — only tickets.

We follow the tunnel nearly to its end, and see section 59. We emerge into the light of Yankee Stadium. The sun is blinding, but in a few minutes, it’ll drop behind the upper decks. The grass is immaculate, and the atmosphere is electric, even with only a handful of fans here this early. So this is baseball heaven.

Saints and sinners
We could see the visitors’ bullpen from our seats — and if we stood, we could see the line of fans waiting to get into Monument Park, home of Yankees heroes in marble and bronze.

“Wanna go down?” I ask.

The boys nod excitedly.

“Wait just a sec; I’ll find out where we get in line.”

I step back into the corridor. The angel’s brother, by the looks, stands in a wide doorway opening toward the field.

“This the way to Monument Park?” I ask.

“No admittance,” he says.

The line had looked pretty long. “It’s full up for tonight?” I venture.

“No admittance with bleacher tickets.”

I told the boys. They took it better than me. They wanted to see the Yankee greats, but this was still The Coolest. Trip. Ever.

To me, it was as if we were chosen, but as yet unclean. We could sit with the sinners and glimpse the saints, but not yet commune with them.

Next time we’ll know. Next time we’ll be worthy.

* * * * *

*The Deezledub is what I call my devilishly fuel-efficient Golf — a diesel Vee-Dubbleyoo

**We went to Yale football opener, too — technically the Bulldogs, but they go by the Elis, too, after Elihu Yale. Elihu — that’s a name you don’t hear much these days …

Summer Vacation, Day 56: Go Yankees!

I know that the above subject line will make some people’s blood boil. To them, I say, “Tough!”

I purchased four tickets to a Yankees-White Sox game in mid-September – part of a week-long final home-stand in The House That Ruth Built. Brendan, Gabe and I (and one other person TBD) are going to the Bronx to see the old stadium before it closes and falls. Plus NYC, the Statue of Liberty via the Staten Island Ferry, maybe. Everything we can do cheaply. Suggestions? Woohoo!

A couple days later, the Yale football plays its opener at the Yale Bowl against Georgetown. Might hit that, too – and the Peabody Museum of Natural History and Yorkside. Oh, this is gonna be fun!

It’s also gonna be a lot of driving. Even figuring diesel at $5 a gallon and only 40 mpg (I average 46 or so), it’s still way cheaper to take the Golf than fly or Amtrak it. Could check the bus, I guess …

Skin Deep Is Deep Enough

I reconnected with an old friend while in New York City last week. We met at a Starbucks (not that Starbucks, as it turns out; the other one, just half a block down and across the street), and she didn’t know me for a moment, in part because someone else had approached her a moment before thinking that she was someone else, and in part because I have a healthy crop of whiskers and shaggier hair than in our college days.

She had just finished a videotaped interview or some such thing in which a makeup artist had prepared her for her “close-up” – and she mentioned how strange the whole thing seemed: she’s not one to wear a lot of makeup, much less have someone apply it for her, and she’s yet to fully realize or release her inner diva. It reminded me of the story I promised to tell a several days ago, about the last time I flew into New York. This is how I remember it now.

I watched as the plane passed over the city and couldn’t fathom the enormity of it. Dad once summarized his dread of New York City as the feeling that, if something went wrong, there was no way he could walk out before sundown. I could see his point firsthand – the skies were clear, and the only open space I saw for miles was the Atlantic. All else was rooftops.

For a moment the plane dipped its port wing earthward, and I saw Yankee Stadium, lit for a home stand, the interlocked NY gleaming white from the green grass. Then we tipped starboard, and I turned to look out the windows across the aisle.

Across the plane sat a young woman I’d seen in the airport: shoulder-length blond hair in a loose ponytail, a few loose strands tucked behind her ears, deep blue eyes and freckles, a simple white t-shirt and jeans. She was beautiful, sure, but seemed even more so in that comfortable-in-her-own-skin way. She laughed easily on her cell phone; she slipped off shoes and tucked her feet beneath her on the seat while she read.

She wasn’t reading when I turned to look out her window, however. She was gazing into a tiny mirror, dusting her cheeks and nose. I watched the cityscape pass outside the window, then glanced back at her. Eye shadow now. The freckles were gone.

I tried hard not to stare, but the process was fascinating and her concentration was absolute. Her lashes black with mascara, she went to work on her lips – gleaming pink edged with just the right shade of lip-liner; her ready smile replaced by a mouth poised to pucker or pursed for profanity – one couldn’t be quite sure.

She shook out her ponytail and arranged her hair just so around her new face, which had taken on a cool and porcelain perfection. She was still beautiful somewhere, I was sure. I shuddered – strangely, our corner of the plane seemed to be getting colder as we descended. She must’ve thought so, too – she covered her t-shirt in a short, stylish black jacket, and slipped into her heels.

I wondered at her transformation – wondered if she did this for herself or someone else, someone who might meet her at the airport and whisk her off to dinner. I wondered what fool would prefer this flawless, frozen mask to freckles and teeth and bare feet.

Moments later, we touched down. She was home.