Wednesday, October 31, 2007

It's Not Easy Seeing Green

In 1996, Freelancer and I went to a Target store somewhere way off the beaten path to see Kevin Garnett in person. The line stretched halfway around the store by the time we got there, which was fairly late, but we got our stuff signed (a photo for Freelancer, media guide for me--I still have it). We'd seen the Wolves earlier that year, and Freelancer, who has forgotten more about basketball than I know, said, "That kid can play." Seeing him in person, up close, was weird in the same way it's weird to see any professional basketball player up close. They just seem to be built on a different scale (I once saw David Robinson in an airport--same deal. You never ask "is that a basketball player?" You ask "which basketball player is that?").

Garnett was huge, not only in person but for the state of Minnesota. He became, like Kirby Puckett, the face of a franchise. When he went silent the summer of the salary negotiation that would soon change the collective bargaining agreement, the state held its breath. He wasn't committing to staying, but he wasn't signaling his departure, either. It felt difficult to get at the truth: he was a 21-year-old kid, still, who was doing the best thing a kid can do in that situation. He was letting the professional he'd hired to represent him do just that.

The huge contract he signed was worth it. I was living in Minnesota when Kirby Puckett entered free agency for the last time, and the suspense was similar, the relief even more pronounced this time, because while Puckett was just sliding off the edge of his prime, Garnett had yet to reach his, and this was a guarantee that it would be spent in Minnesota.

Sadly, it became clear after several years that "wasted" might be a better word than "spent." Apart from one run to the Western Conference Finals, the Wolves got to the level of "first-round playoff team" and stayed there. Things deteriorated, but Garnett was always the face of the Timberwolves. I don't think it's possible for anyone who hasn't lived in Minnesota to realize how much he represented that franchise. He carried them for years, overcoming McHale and Taylor's borderline-incompetent management until recently.

I discovered about a month ago that I can't watch him in Celtics green. It's a painful reminder of what the Wolves could have been, what they gave up, what they are now. Maybe I'll get over it later this year, but right now, it just seems wrong, like the hue is wonky, and I need to adjust a dial on my set to get that uniform back to blue or black. It's not that I hate the Celtics or anything; just seeing Garnett in a different uniform hurts. I don't begrudge him the chance to go somewhere where he has a chance to be winning a title, nor to start over with new management. I'll be rooting for him to get that ring someday, somewhere. But I won't be watching.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Four and Out

You may have heard something about an unlikely team winning the NL pennant and electrifying a city. I can't add a lot from the baseball side, but a couple of us did have the good fortune to attend last night's NL pennant-clinching game, so I thought I'd recount a bit of the experience.

When we got the tickets to the fourth game, it was more because Monday worked better in our schedule than Sunday did--driving out from California to see family, the trip planned well in advance of the playoffs, we only started thinking toward the end of the season, "You know...if the Rockies beat the Phillies...nah, don't say it." And when it turned out there'd be a game coinciding with our visit, we grabbed some tickets online from a long-suffering Cubs fan who'd succumbed to a rare bout of optimism (thanks, Gus!).

After the Rockies' first win in Arizona, we thought, "you know, we might...don't say it, don't say it!" Then on the way out, we sat in a bar in Vail watching them win in extra innings in Arizona. Sunday night in Colorado Springs we were glad we weren't in the freezing rain, even though Torrealba's homer would have been an amazing moment to see. By the time Monday rolled around, it seemed almost inevitable that we would see the pennant-clinching game, the Rockies' first World Series appearance just 27 outs away against a team that had managed only four runs in three games.

We arrived in downtown Denver to see people selling brooms on every corner. Our non-sports-following friends who'd met us for dinner thought, because of this, that the Arizona team was called the "Dust Devils." We explained that they were the "Diamondbacks" and the brooms were because you kill snakes with brooms. Then we actually explained the "sweep" thing. They liked the snake-killing explanation better, and frankly, so did we. Not wanting to jinx the team, we opted not to buy a broom, amusing our friends with the power we felt we had over the team's fate.

After dinner, as we got closer to the stadium, we found people distinguishing their brooms by painting them in Rockies colors. The atmosphere was crazy, people hooting and cheering before the game even started. We found Mark's sister, brother-in-law, and friend, rounding out our group, and proceeded into the stadium.

We'd visited Coors Field in June, when the Rockies were struggling along toward what looked like another .500-ish season, flirting with the wild card. The upper decks in June were sparsely populated, especially with the light rain falling. Last night, of course, every section was packed. Our seats (sec. 303) were in the very top row behind right center field, but the weather this night was perfect October baseball weather: cool, clear, crisp, with a light breeze.

I've been to a few playoff games in baseball and basketball: the Timberwolves' second playoff game in history (loss to the Rockets), and a Twins playoff game in Oakland (their only loss of the series). The energy in a playoff game crowd is a level above a regular game--it's not unusual for chants to go on through the whole game. This one was even more enthusiastic than the Oakland game, because the crowd knew that the pennant was possible. Chants of "Let's go Rockies" came up at least once an inning, late in the game one side of the stadium started to chant, "GO!" and our side responded, "ROCKIES!" Matt Holliday got "M.V.P.!" chants every time he came up. Being a Phillies fan (yes, rooting for the Rockies--besides the family connections, my credo is, if you beat my team, you damn well better win it all so I can say we got beaten by the best), I couldn't let down Jimmy Rollins by joining in to that one--until Holliday popped that homer to dead center in the fourth. After that, I just told myself, "Well, it's for M.V.P. of the series..." Fan favorite rookie SS Troy Tulowitzki got the British football clap, with "TU-LO!" at the end. And of course, every time Eric "we've outplayed them" Byrnes came to the plate, he was greeted by loud and lusty boos (we were saying "Boo-urns").

The fourth inning was incredible. We were a little surprised that Hurdle pulled the pitcher so early, but Morales had been struggling and the priority at that point was clearly to keep the rally going. Seth Smith delivered, in spades. His bloop seemed to hang in the air forever, the crowd trying to help gravity with screams of "DROP! DROP! DROP!" And drop it did, just inside the foul line. And if we thought that was exciting, three batters later, Matt Holliday smacked a ball that was by no means a no-doubt-about-it from our angle. It hung in the air over center field while we jumped and yelled, opposing gravity this time, and then dropped out of our sight toward the center field fence. A second later, even people down in Colorado Springs heard the cheers as it landed 452 feet from home plate, scoring three more runs that would prove to be the difference in the game.

The energy subsided a bit after that, but being in the top row, we didn't sit down for the whole game. One man came backing up the stairs, eyes riveted on the field as he tried not to spill his beer and cup of fries. In the mid-to-late innings of a regular season game, people get tired, the stadium quiets down, and we usually take that time to do a walk around the stadium. Not last night. Top of the sixth, we started counting down the outs. 12...11...10. 9...8...7. Every strike cheered as though it were an out, every out cheered like a regular-season win. 6...5...4...4...4... Even when it got dicey in the eighth, a three-run home run almost equaling Arizona's entire offensive output in the first three games that brought the game back within reach for them, we kept faith. We knew intellectually that Arizona could come back, could take this game and maybe the next, but emotionally we felt it: there was no way. Fuentes went out, Corpas came in, and there were three outs to go.

Then two. Then a double, just to make things interesting. Then one. How fitting it was that Eric "they're just lucky" Byrnes should make the final out, a grounder to Tulo, who rifled it to Rockies legend Todd Helton. Pandemonium. We knew it was going to happen, and yet the actual moment still exploded in the stadium like the fireworks that seemed to go on forever, the "National League Champions" graphic repeating over and over on the screen as though it couldn't quite believe itself either. We kept yelling, cheering, trying to express the incredible elation of the moment.

Yes, I'm not a die-hard Rockies fan (note the dorky look in the above picture). I don't have years following the team. This victory probably meant more to just about everyone else in the stadium. But it's impossible to be in that crowd and not soak up some of the dizzying joy of it all, the giddy heights of we did it! Because no matter who you are, you're welcome to be a part of it. I high-fived more drunk people last night than I have since college. Several times, walking through the stadium after the celebration (which was full of awesome as well, seeing the stand set up and the trophy actually right there on the field), I met someone's eye and we'd both just grin for a moment and shake our heads, thinking the same thing: I can't believe this, how great is this moment.

I can't say enough about the city and its fans. Rockies banners on the state capital building. "Go Rockies" on every other LCD sign along the highway. The only thing I've seen comparable to it was the love for the Pacers, back in the 90s when I visited Indianapolis during the NBA playoffs. Whether they win the Series or not, these fans deserve their NL pennant, and, what's more, they appreciate it.

As we walked around after the game, there seemed to be a fan stationed on every corner getting cars to honk. Security guards drifted discreetly through the streets, but there was no need for them. No rioting for their first World Series here in Denver, just screaming, honking, cheering, more high-fiving. We walked around for a while soaking it in, and when we finally stopped in a bar to warm up, the bartender gave me my non-alcoholic drink on the house. "Go Rockies," he said, indicating our brand-new "NL Champions" hats. "You know we're goin' to the World Series??"

We grinned back. "Yeah," we said, "We think we mighta heard something about that."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

An Idea

Okay, this might not be 100% appropriate for this blog, but I dunno where else to put it. I don't really follow the ever-changing world of MMOs all that much, but I was intrigued recently when I read about a Flight Simulator community that has grown up around allowing people to play at being air traffic controllers for all the people flying simulated planes. In other words, there are people who voluntarily simulate what is supposed to be one of the top five jobs that comes up when you cross-index "tedious" and "stressful." (I assume that part of the attraction is that the virtual plane crashes are much less stressful than the real ones.)

On the heels of that comes today's Penny Arcade article in which a noted game designer imagines an MMO based on industrial construction, and does a pretty darn good job of it. Which got me to thinking that people are probably willing to do virtually (ha) anything they would do in the real world as an MMO.

So why not play sports? Not just the current incarnation where you take your teams and design plays and control a couple key players, but really...get into the world of sports. Be a player, control your exercise and diet, learn your plays, and get ready for the big game. Be a coach, plan strategies and develop a playbook with signals that you have to teach your players. Be a GM, be an owner, and instead of buying Alex Rodriguez or Randy Moss, go get the services of actual people. Join some friends to run a team, band some teams together to form a league, and let there be as many leagues as necessary. Games take place whenever teams can schedule them conveniently. You could even be a referee or an ump!

I mean, come on. If you're going to take a real-world activity and make it virtual, at least make it something fun, hm?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Being a Fan

The blogs have been ringing with the demise of the Yankees--between that and the late-season collapse of the Mets (which I have to bring up as often as possible), it's like heaven for everyone outside the NYC orbital cloud. While it's moderately annoying to have more attention devoted to a team that lost than to all four teams that are moving on (combined), it has sparked some interesting conversations, and one dialogue in particular about what it means to be a fan that interests me specifically.

It started with Joe Posnanski, a recent addition to my blogroll, talking about the "irrational fan":

[...]somewhere along the way, I did lose some of that irrational fan I had been as a boy, the one who believed that Rick Waits would win 20, the fan who sat in bed and stared at walls for hours when the Browns lost, the fan who screamed “Get a damn rebound, one damn rebound, just one,” over and over at the television when the Cleveland Cavaliers were playing. I guess I believe that most people outgrow that fan much in the same way that most people at some age stop going to keggers and stop pretending they get today’s music.

We talked about being irrational fans. There are some people I know who have not yet outgrown that phase, and some who have. But that's all tied up with love of the team and how much influence sports has over your life. The important part of that that I took away was that the team for these people was like family. When they succeeded, you felt like a part of that success, and their failures were your failures. Growing up, for many of us, the family we grew up with becomes less important and the family we create ourselves takes precedence. The sports team, at this time, drifts back to a second tier of importance. We'll cheer their victories and lament their failures, but we don't feel them as our own. But still, that bond is there. Win or lose, we love our team.

Unless that team happens to be the Yankees. Jeff Pearlman, on ESPN's Page 2, chimes in with this interesting observation:

Like the Yankees, [Marion] Jones had invested heavily in the modern American way of thinking -- that nothing but first place can be considered a success. That's why Barry Bonds allegedly broke the rules to snap the single-season and career home run records, why Floyd Landis and dozens of others apparently wouldn't mind winning the Tour de France with cheater's gold flowing through their veins, why Shawne Merriman can be suspended for using steroids and named a Pro Bowler in the same season and we're not shocked. It's why, whenever I pass a Little League ball field or a Pop Warner scrimmage or a gymnastics meet for 7-year-olds, there is inevitably a parent (or 10) chewing out his/her kid, not for a lack of effort, but for a lack of results.

It's not just Yankees fans, of course, but they are the most glaring example, and on an individual level, being a fan of winning has started to supplant being a fan of the game. We were taught growing up that "it's not whether you win or lose; it's how you play the game," and jokingly we would change it to "it's not whether you win or lose; it's whether you win," or, if we were feeling more lofty, quote Vince Lombardi (himself quoting Red Sanders of UCLA) in response: "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." Somewhere along the way, the easier, more personally rewarding and selfish phrase morphed from a twist or a joke into a real credo.

Being a fan isn't supposed to be about the results. It's supposed to be about supporting your team, when they screw up (let me run down the last ten years as a fan of Minnesota sports in a nutshell, shall I? Clem Haskins, Gary Anderson, 41-0, Joe Smith, Fred Smoot's boat, contraction), and rejoicing with them when they win. You're not a stockholder in the team, to demand results or else; you're family. You don't give up on family.

Again, lest you think that all columnists are stereotypers who don't know how the real fans think, here is a portion of a comment from a Yankees fan on Will Leitch's NYT column of 10/9:

To root for the most successful franchise in the history of professional sports is not a difficult thing. In fact, if you divide up the years by the 26 WS titles the Yankees have won somewhere in between 1 out of 4 and 1 out of 5. Our time is coming. We will be champions again.

I just wonder how you can be an Astros fan, or a Mariners fan. And I’m not sure what is worse, never winning, or winning once, like the Angels.

The extent to which this person doesn't get it is breathtaking. Of course it's not "difficult" to be a Yankees fan--that's why they make it difficult by demanding more and more of their team. How can you be an Astros fan, or a Mariners fan? You grow up with the team. You learn the players, you watch the game. You appreciate the small successes. You never forget that Alex Rodriguez and Randy Johnson were Mariners once, that epic NLCS game against the Phils in 1980, Joe Neikro (or was it Phil?) and Luis Sojo and Craig Biggio and Ken Griffey, Jr. Every moment doesn't have to be a championship; every playoff victory is a gift, not a right. That's how you're a fan of any team--including some for the Yankees. Just not many.

Because when you come down to it, sports teams really are a family. Love them, hate them, but always come back to them, win or lose. Which makes me wonder if those of us with less idyllic childhoods might be more prone to "picking up" new teams to root for, or why moving to certain cities might or might not inspire you to root for that city's teams, but that's another post for another time. They will never be that perfect family you remember from childhood, but they will always be there for you.

Unless they move to L.A. That's where it all breaks down, of course.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Replay It! (So I can have my heart broken in slo-mo)

I'm not sure why so many people are up in arms about the end of the Rockies/Padres game on Monday. Sports talk radio (especially sports talk radio here in Southern California) was abuzz about how this game was proof that baseball needs instant replay just like football and basketball.

Except it's not proof at all.

This wasn't a game lost because of the lack of replay like the Jets/Seahawks 9 years ago when Vinny Testeverde was awarded a touchdown even though replays showed the ball was a good 6 inches short of the goal line. And it wasn't like the Rams/Bucs playoff game a couple years later when a Bert Emanuel catch was overturned because technically the ball had touched the ground even though Emanuel appeared to have it in his control. These were plays that justifiably led to the instatement of replay and the tweaking of the rules.

Monday night's game, however, would not have been changed by replay. Neither controversial call in the game (Colorado's maybe-home-run and Matt Holiday's swipe-or-no-swipe of home plate) would have been overturned had replay been used in that game. Both were too close to call, with no visual evidence that the ball did or didn't clear the fence and no clear evidence that Holiday did or didn't tag. And lest this sound like a pro-Colorado stance, I'll state the had Holiday been called out there is no way the call would have been overturned. It would have ended much the way the UConn/Temple football game ended earlier this season where Temple appeared to score a go-ahead touchdown in the waning seconds of the game, but the call was out of bounds and there was no visual evidence to overturn it other than some body-language cues that he probably did catch the ball.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Fired Up

Okay, maybe it's just bitterness from getting dropped out of the survivor league (I wasn't the only one), but I find myself in the rare position of arguing for a mid-season coaching change. How do you lose a home game to a team as woeful as Kansas City with the level of talent Norv has in San Diego? At this point, their season is over. I won't say you're going to need a particularly good record to win the AFC West, but Denver clearly has the inside track on that now, and Oakland has been playing well enough that you can't count on either of those games as a gimme (and clearly, you can't count on a KC game either, especially when you're going to Arrowhead). Not to mention that they have to play the Colts, at Tennessee, and at Jacksonville. Heck, even Houston coming to SD is not a cert right now. Coupled with the Bears loss at Detroit, it now looks like the Chargers' win in the first week of the season was a product of a lousy Bears team more than a talented Chargers team.

So what to do? Usually I am more cautious about calling for mid-season coaching changes, but Norv has got to know he was on a short leash to begin with, given his prior record. Getting blown out at New England was bad. Losing at Green Bay was bad. Losing at home to the Chiefs--sorry, that's strike three. Write this season off and bring in a new coaching staff, let them get used to the players and vice versa, and load up for next season.

Postscript: I wrote this before seeing the consensus across blogdom. (Google "fire norv" for more. It's astounding, really. I should buy stock in rakes and Frankenstein torches.)

Best line courtesy of Deadspin: "Chargers 16, Chiefs 6 -- Taking a lead in the first half, Norv Turner solemnly made halftime adjustments in the hopes of making the lead smaller or non-existent."