Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Only One Team Can Win, but Both Can and Will Be Patronized

The World Series offers me a personal dilemma. I can't take sides between the Cubs and the Indians. I'm too close to both of them.

No personal ties, mind you. I did cover Terry Francona for a season and half in Boston, but I'm sure he doesn't remember me and he shouldn't. What's pulling at me in two directions is opposing parts of my own experience as a lifelong fan of a perennial loser that wound up winning for once. As a Phillies fan, memory helps me identify with the Cubs. Attitude makes me identify with the Indians.

I was 31 when Philadelphia won the World Series in 1980. I'd never seen them in a Series. My father had never seen them win one. Neither had anybody else, since the Phils had managed to win just two National League pennants and one Series game since the franchise was founded in 1883. Grover Cleveland wasn't even President yet.

So I can understand the delirious yet trance like state many Cubs fans have been in since last Saturday night. It's how I felt when the Phillies got past the Astros in five excruciating games in the NLCS. Hey, victory is possible! Doom is not a given. The cosmos doesn't hate us for rooting for this team. That 10-game losing streak to blow a seven-game lead with 12 to play in 1964 was the result of a team playing over its head reverting to its own level in a miserable way, not the result of original sin. My fan self became a different person before that Series started. If Cubs fans begin tonight feeling they're playing with house money, hey, I've been there, too.

Feeling like you can't win is bad for people in general, and it has an especially strong effect on fans. Neurosis, quitterdom, endless whining, all the qualities that made so many Red Sox fans so insufferable for so long before 2004. Sox fans are still manic-depressive, but at least they now temper their manic reaction to success with more genuine pleasure.

Also, jinxes are dumb. Teams win and lose because of what they do, not something that happened before their grandfathers were born. A Cubs win would mean their "lovable loser" persona would be tossed on the scrapheap of baseball history. Good riddance.

So it'd be nice if the Cubs win. But I won't join in the national "aww, isn't that sweet" chorus if they do because half, and maybe more than half of my Phillies soul feels the Indians side of the spiritual matchup. They haven't won a goddamn Series in my lifetime either, and they're stuck with the role of unsentimental underdog.

There are two kinds of teams in every sport -- the Brand Names and the Plain Old Teams. It's not always associated with winning and losing, since the Raiders and Knicks are still Brand Name outfits, but can easily be identified by scrutinizing a team's fan base.

Does a team have aggressive celebrity fans who haven't lived in its home town in eons? Do fans get op-ed pieces in the Times when it wins? Do the fans of Plain Old Teams hate the team just because of its fans? That's Brand Name, baby.

The Cubs are about as Brand Name as it gets and have been for decades. We need only cite Bill Murray crashing the White House press briefing in Cubs gear, but special mention goes to Michael Wilbon of ESPN wearing a Cubs shirt on the air last Saturday night. Wilbon was once a fine columnist. Now, he's a professional Cute Fan. Yuck.

The Indians are Plain Old. Not quite to the max, because the "Major League" movies were about a fictional Tribe, but aside from that, they have much more in common with baseball's Plain Olds. They are the brothers of the Rangers, Mariners, Diamondbacks, etc. They have no celebrity fans, unless one counts Drew Carey, which I don't. They have no poets and big-time political reporters singing their praises on Twitter. Indians fans are Indians fans because Cleveland is where they live or lived as a kid, period. The Indians can win the Series and their bandwagon will still remain smaller than a Prius. Their joy or sorrow will be theirs alone.

The Phillies are a Plain Old team if ever there was one. We got no celebrities, no Op-Ed pieces, no glamor. Nobody turned our 97-year losing skid into bathetic reflections on the transitory nature of life. People just thought our team sucked, which it did. There was no Phils' bandwagon after 1980 or 2008. We didn't want one. The famously negative, nasty behavior of Philadelphia sports fans is a defense mechanism, a way of shutting off the world. Who'd choose to act that way if it wasn't bred into you from toddlerdom. Nobody, and Philly fans like it that way.

So I can't pick a side tonight. If the Cubs win, baseball will be minus a stupid storyline and a great many nice fans will be happier than ever before. If I have to wade through a sewer of saccharine prose to see that, well, I can take it.

If the Indians win, a great many equally nice fans will be happier than ever before and almost nobody else will be. I can take that, too.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

David Ortiz

The West Coast road trip immediately after the All-Star break was not a happy time for the 2004 Boston Red Sox.

It was becoming clear the Sox would not catch the Yankees in the AL East pennant race. In six days on the road, soon to be traded Nomar Garciaparra didn't speak. Not to the media, to anyone. In a start against the Angels, Derek Lowe got hammered off the mound and then got hammered in the visiting clubhouse as the game went on before doing the most ill-advised press availability imaginable.

The next night, David Ortiz, popular but not quite the beloved Big Papi of today, did a very foolish thing.

It is one of the lesser recognized parts of Ortiz's career, but a man not wrongly perceived as amiable is one of the most constant and aggressive complainers about ball and strike calls I've seen in over 50 years of watching.the big leagues. Ortiz gets genuinely angry on borderline calls. In this game, a called strike three by an ump whose name I can't remember set him berserk. Face-to-face screaming led to an immediate ejection, more screaming, and when Ortiz stomped back to the dugout, he didn't leave it, but began tossing bats onto the field.

It was a jolly good show, right up to the moment one of the bats took a bad bounce and came within millimeters of hitting that ump. That's an instant mandatory 10-game suspension. As it was, he got three games. It wasn't as if the Sox didn't need his bat. Ortiz risked his team's season to indulge in a childish display of temper.

Every reporter on the road with the Sox was at Ortiz's locker when the game ended. He was going to be Exhibit A in my early column for the Herald the next day on that ever-popular topic, "What's Wrong With the Red Sox." All I needed were a few defensive quotes from the miscreant slugger himself.

Didn't get 'em. Ortiz was the last Sox to go to his locker. He turned and faced his inquisitors with a sheepish but broad grin. "Gang, what can I say," he said. "I fucked up."

Ortiz was not Exhibit A in my column the next day. How could he be? Honest admission of error is rare in public figures in any walk of life, let alone a star ballplayer of a team in trouble.

In the event, of course, that unhappy team in trouble in July became the happiest, most astonishing story in Boston sports history, which would not have happened without Ortiz. Good thing that bat missed.

I don't want to overstate what I am about to write. Performance determines how the public views athletes, the rest is window dressing. San Franciscans adored sociopath Barry Bonds, and they should have. Big hits and plenty of 'em are why New Englanders made Ortiz Big Papi, why they resolutely overlooked his link to PEDs (again, as they should have). But window dressing is an important part of the sales process, even if it's the product that makes or breaks it.

David Ortiz is an emotionally candid man. He wears his heart on his sleeve right near his batting glove. As almost all of us do, he liked being adored, and fans could see his delight in their delight, just as umps could see he really was mad about that called strike.

That sort of openness is getting rare among elite athletes. They can't afford it. Look what it's gotten Colin Kaepernick. Safer to have one's agent craft sweet nothings for the Player's Tribune.

Ortiz hid from no one. It never crossed his mind he ought to. As a result, he never had to.

I don't know if Ortiz will make the Hall of Fame. Probably yes, but one never knows with the Hall electorate. If he does, I do know this. His acceptance speech will be of considerable interest.


Monday, October 03, 2016

Bills 16 - Patriots 0

Seldom if ever has the Michael Gee Theory of Random NFL Lousiness had a more complete validation than it received yesterday afternoon at Gillette Stadium.

You may remember that the Theory holds that in every NFL season, every NFL team, even the eventual Super Bowl champion, will play a complete 60-minute stinkeroo in which failure is so complete it appears as if a visiting Bulgarian folk dance troupe was somehow sent on the field instead of the uniforms' usual inhabitants.

The Patriots, as Bill Belichick readily admitted, were terrible at everything. Offense, defense, special teams, game planning, in-house fan promotions, you name it. Had Tom Brady played quarterback instead of Jacoby Brissett, things might have been different. Buffalo might only have won 16-6. Forty-four men failing outweigh any superstar, even Brady.

Oh, well. Fans should remember the corollary to Gee's Theory, namely, that the annual debacle is an anomaly, not a sign of impending doom or even Things to Fret About. If it happens to all teams, and it does, then your team is no worse off for having endured the experience.

Pats fans especially should remember their team's next game is against the Browns. This is as close as pro football can get to one of those Division I-AA cupcakes SEC teams play to fatten up their home win records for the press guide and to give third-stringers a chance to play so they won't transfer out.