AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez
Just as Astro’s center fielder George Springer went up for the ball, the screen went black. “I’m not watching that, I’m not watching them jumpin’ around, celebrating.” My sister-in-law Judy is an avid New York Yankees fan. A little over two weeks visiting my in-laws in New Jersey means baseball every evening (but only when the Yankees are playing).
“So, Judy,” I said, “I take it that you’re not so much a baseball fan, as a Yankees fan.” After a fairly long pause, she replied, “Yes, that’s right. I love my Yankees.”
My husband Anthony, in spite of his offbeat persona, is truly a baseball geek and knows batting averages from the 1950s. During this year’s ALCS (it took me a while to figure out this acronym for American League Championship Series) I either learned, or realized I already knew, a fair amount about major-league baseball. Anthony thinks it stands to reason, given I’m a Pitkanen and both in the U.S. and in Finland today, my dad’s family is known for their athleticism.
Judy says she won’t watch the World Series, she doesn’t care because the Yankees won’t be in it. Thinking of the brackets in college basketball tournaments, I said to Judy, “Look at it this way: if the Astros are pitted against the Dodgers (who she also hates), and the Astros win handily in four games, you’ll know the Yanks are actually the number two team in the majors.” I remembered high school tournaments where a hapless team, perhaps my own high school’s, lost by a few points in the first match-up to the eventual championship-winning squad, showing our team was not so bad after all. It was the luck of the draw.
During the ALCS, I sometimes watched intently, sometimes read, sometimes wandered around the house figuring out what to do with myself. I watched closely when Justin Verlander was on the mound, bringing an intense focus to his part of the Astros winning the sixth game of this American League series. It was an admirable performance for an athlete who was supposedly too old and too played out — until he signed with the Astros at the last minute and showed his mettle.
It reminded me of other notable sporting events I happened to stumble across. I don’t seek out sports of any kind on television, usually only encountering a special event because someone else wants to see it. I didn’t see Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs, but I did see a seemingly endless match (more than six hours) between John McEnroe and Mats Wilander in 1982. I find tennis generally boring, only slightly more interesting than golf, and I don’t understand the scoring, but that match was a test of endurance where the skill, stamina and sheer athleticism of McEnroe and Wilander was fascinating to watch.
I prefer seeing sports live. As with music, there’s a special energy, a feeling, that sets live performance apart. Perhaps it’s the context provided by the audience. I’ll go see any sporting event once, just to see what it’s like. I’ve attended pro basketball, University of California football with Craig Morton throwing the long bomb but Cal losing anyway, hockey, horse races, so-called pro-wrestling, and soccer in Finland where a cousin’s son plays semi pro while attending university.
My most unlikely sports experience was going to a bantam weight boxing match in the basement of Portland’s Marriott Hotel more than 30 years ago. I’d received free tickets, so I went. The crowd was a far cry from the Blazer game where the crowd is noticeably white, the teams are noticeably black, and the tickets are noticeably expensive in spite of the large tax subsidies provided for stadium construction. (Why taxpayers get snookered into helping pay for stadiums for teams owned by billionaires beats me — but that’s another topic.) The crowd was a mix of women in furs, men sporting heavy gold chains, kids in T-shirts, and everything in between. The two boxers were evenly matched, so quick, and with nothing close to a knockout, the fight came down to a draw. At the end, the crowd roared its approval and showered the ring with money — not because someone won, but because the athletes performed so well.
Nowadays it seems that many fans, not just my sister-in-law, care more about who wins than about how the game is played — another contribution to a divided America.
Victoria Stoppiello is a long-time Observer contributor; you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her sister-in-law did break down and watch the Dodgers/Astros in the World Series. Her dad was a long-time Ilwaco fisherman.