Saturday, October 1, 2011

It Wasn't Bartman's Fault

In my own childhood, I suffered from what might be seen as a variant of the Stockholm Syndrome. Though I was awful as sports, I identified myself in terms of them. I spent years foolishly telling myself that if I wanted it badly enough, I could somehow will myself to much greater athleticism than I had it in me to achieve. In so doing, I condemned myself to years of cruel disappointment or even humiliation. I wonder if a person ever completely gets over years of being chosen second- or third-to-last (there was, thank God, always at least one boy even more hopeless than I in my classes) for every team?

At Loyola Village School, teams were never chosen for spelling, reading comprehension, or art.

The remarkable documentary film I watched on ESPN America last night reminded me how sports bring out the worst in people. At a 2003 National League Championship Series game in Chicago, whose Cubs appeared to be about to make it to the World Series for the first time since something like 1831, a Florida Marlins batter hit a fly ball down the left field line. The Cubs left fielder might have caught it, putting his team within only a few outs of victory, had not the bespectacled 26-year-old Steve Bartman tried to catch it himself — as several other fans to either side of him tried to do as well, and as you or I would surely have done in the same circumstances. The Marlins went on to score a great many runs, and to win the game, and then to win the next evening’s too, and with it a trip to the World Series.

Fans outside the stadium watched a replay of the Bartman mishap over and over on a portable TV, and began chanting, “Asshole!” Their counterparts actually inside Wrigley Field took up the chant, and some of them came over to throw beer at Bartman, who had to be rescued by security guards. And there weren’t 10 of them among the 40,000 in attendance who wouldn’t have reacted to the foul ball exactly as he himself had.

A local TV channel thought its ratings might be enhanced by their making known not only Bartman’s identity, but also the location of the home he shared with his parents; it was a wonder one of them wasn’t killed. I suspect there were moments when Steve and his parents almost wished they would be. I’d bet the whole thing haunts him to this day.

The Cubs shortstop, who made a crucial error shortly after the foul ball, and pitcher, who suddenly lost the ability to get a Marlins batter out, weren’t threatened, nor were the Cubs batters who failed to produce sufficient runs to overcome the Marlins’ big inning. But that’s hardly to suggest that the fans always cut athletes all the slack they need. It was over 20 years before the good folks of Boston “forgave” Bill Buckner for the fielding error that contributed to the New York Mets’ winning Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, and then the Series itself the following night.

I had a small dog in that particular fight, as, back in the days when I was a fervent LA Dodgers fan, I saw then-Dodger Buckner make the greatest defensive play I’ve ever seen in person, sprinting from left-center field to make a diving, skidding catch of a fly ball down the left field line.

I’d imagined, given their reputation for orderly queuing and for murmuring, “Sorry,” if you bump into them, that the Brits might be rather less beastly in this regard, but it turns out that they are actually even beastlier — given, for instance, to shouting, “I hope your kids get cancer,” at David Beckham after he failed to lead the England team to victory in an important international game.

I'll confess it anew. I watched sports nowadays mostly in hope that players I know to be narcissistic jerks or worse will suffer painful injuries.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Piggy on the Beach

The weather here is spectacular, and we have walked down to the beach just west of the port the past two afternoons to bask in the sunshine. Today a saddening tableau unfolded before us. In the age-old universal tradition, a boy of around 20 hurtled from behind us into the sea, daring it to be too cold for him One of his pals followed. Then a slight kid wrestled his corpulent, protesting mate into the drink after them, though the corpulent one probably outweighed his tormentor by 75 pounds. I thought immediately of Lord of the Flies. I thought too of my own junior high school days, during which I observed that only Billy Snyder, the spastic, and Walter Daniels, the Negro, had it worse than Dale Jensen, a small mountain of a boy, but a gentle, timid sort, who quickly gained a reputation for being disinclined to use his immensity to his advantage.

The three alpha boys at the beach today swam out to the end of the jetty, and then climbed atop it to launch themselves into the North Sea from an altitude of maybe 10 feet. Finding this insufficiently thrilling, they then took to leaping from atop the guardrail (which added another three and a half feet of altitude) at the jetty’s tip. All the while Piggy, as we’ll call him, played by himself, bouncing a football (that is, soccer) ball against the side of the jetty.

His estrangement reminded me of the late summer of 1962 when, after convincing my parents to let me use some of my paper route money to buy our next door neighbor’s surfboard (because to not surf was to not exist in the eyes of the maidens of Orville Wright Junior High School), NDN invited me to accompany him and two other neighborhood boys on a little surf safari down to Palos Verdes.

I was beside myself with pleasure during the long drive down there, which might have been the first time I was ever a passenger in an adult-free car. What wonderful camaraderie the four of us had. How glorious the music (the Beach Boys’ Surf Safari, appropriately enough, and Bryan Hyland’s Sealed With a Kiss) sounded! But then we finally reached our destination, and the facts that the waves were big and I a very, very tentative swimmer (having grown up afraid of the water, as of most things) kicked in. As my mother’s son, I was also given to catastrophic expectations, and was pretty sure that if I actually tried to ride a wave, my surfboard would fly into the air and come down on my head.

I spent the afternoon sitting on the beach watching my…buddies, trying to think up a credible excuse for my non-participation. It was an excruciating lonely feeling, but hardly an unfamiliar one. To a large extent that feeling was the story of my childhood.

Once having got bored with the tip of the jetty, the three fit boys today returned to the beach. Getting dressed, a couple of them playfully walloped and kicked Piggy in a way that simultaneously affirmed their fraternality and reminded Piggy of his place at the bottom of their pecking order. He, naturally, tried to act as though the kick and wallop were much more the former than the latter.

No one was fooled.