Are We Winning? That Depends On Who You Mean By "We".

Tuesday, May 18, 2010 |

Are We Winning?, Will Leitch's endearing homage to baseball, his father and the St. Louis Cardinals (in that order), is a breezy, surprisingly snark-free read that avoids, somewhat miraculously, veering too far off into sentimentality. I have to say that I enjoyed it about as much as I can enjoy a book about a team I once loathed and which doesn't have a table of contents. 

While the book does get awfully personal, the Cardinals and Leitch's dad could reasonably serve as stand-ins for any team and father. There's a commonality that runs across fanbases and the father-son dynamic that Leitch is able to successfully tap into, affording his work a broader perspective. It's easy to see yourself in his experience, even if you don't own seven Rick Ankiel jerseys, and for that reason Are We Winning? makes for an outstanding Fathers Day gift for the baseball loving dad with a basic understanding of Sabermetrics.

That is not to say the book isn't without its faults. Disappointingly for this book editor, it contains more errors than the average Little League game. The majority of these errors are minor, however, and none of them lead to disaster. Like a crafty pitcher, Leitch manages to limit the damage and save himself from the "big inning" with writing that's equivalent to a strikeout and a ground ball double play. It gets the job done with remarkable efficiency, humor, insight and, perhaps most of all, genuine sincerity. But the errors are there. Dozens of them.

I also could have done without the scorebook chapter, which I found unnecessary and indulgent the way it was presented, and there were some instances of offputting repetition as well. But the few missteps Leitch takes throughout the book are more than made up for by his Steve Bartman and Brooklyn rooftop chapters, both of which are excellent, heartfelt, and the best indications of Leitch's unique talents as a writer and storyteller. If overall the book isn't as much of a home run as it is a hard-hit double in the gap, I concede that I might have gotten more out of it if I had Midwestern roots and cared deeply for Leitch's Redbirds. But I got plenty out of it regardless, far more than I got out of his previous book, which I found far less amusing than it seemed to find itself.

If I have one major criticism of the book, it's the goofy logic that went into the creation of the following paragraph:
Football is once a week. You can pay little to no attention to football, and it's still always there for you on Sundays and Monday nights. It requires no effort, no investment, no obsession. Anyone can sound like they know football, and anyone can appreciate its violence. But it asks little of you. You can like football, a lot, and no one will really notice. It does not require you to love it. It does not require much at all. There are people who love football, who obsess over it, who follow it the way millions of others follow baseball. They are the minority. Football does not breed diehards.
I guess if my hometown football team split for the desert when I was 12 years old, not to be replaced until I had left that town and was away at college, I might have similar feelings about NFL allegiances. But Leitch's argument that football's once-a-week schedule requires less of a commitment from its fans is, to be polite, ludicrous. 

Sure, baseball teams play 6 or 7 games a week, every week of a six-month season. Following a team requires a daily commitment. But if a baseball team suffers a soul-crushing loss on a Friday night, the team and its fanbase is afforded an immediate shot at redemption the following afternoon. There's therefore little time to dwell excessively on losses, no matter how heartbreaking, because there are games to play, and games require focus. Plus, there are 162 of them. While they each count equally in the standings, it is not reasonable to expect even the most diehard baseball fan to devote the same level of intensity to each contest. Instead, baseball fans tend to yield to the natural ebb and flow of the season, ratcheting up the intensity for key series and, in the event of a pennant race, the stretch run.

But football fans? In football, the 16-game schedule dictates that each and every contest is of the utmost importance. Football fans live and die with every snap, knowing that one big play or catastrophic injury can and often does turn a season. The gameday experience is defined by its relentless intensity. And after a game, once the intensity ostensibly subsides, fans then have six days to analyze what happened from every conceivable angle, to second guess the coaches, to crucify the player who missed the key block or who blew his coverage assignment. We've got six days to read the beat reporters, the shit-stirring columnists, the knee-jerk bloggers and message board posters, to listen to the TV and radio pundits spit their unique brand of venom. It's enough to drive a fan mad. 

Perhaps I'm in "the minority," but I do this after every game. The coverage is endless, and I read everything. I read reporters and columnists from papers I'd never otherwise have occasion to peruse (The Journal News? The Star Ledger?) just to see if they caught something the other beat guys missed. I read hundreds of blog and message board posts. Hell, I even subscribe to The Giants Insider, a weekly tabloid of dubious quality, because there simply isn't enough information about the New York Giants out there to satisfy me before the next game.

And that, I'd argue, requires more of an investment, more of an effort than being a baseball fan does (and I am a baseball fan). It requires more because it forces us to study, to be informed in advance of the next contest. It requires more because the individual games mean more, and because the games take more out of us. A bad Giants loss can take me several days to recover from. A season-ending loss can take months. Years, even. As a season ticket holder who gladly braves rain, snow, and single-digit wind chills (do baseball fans do that?), I think it's safe to say I'm committed (or should be committed). If Mr. Leitch disagrees, I invite him to plead his case at our next five-hour tailgate, provided he doesn't mention Yadier Molina.

He can even bring his dad.

The Monstrous Crying of the Wind

Tuesday, May 4, 2010 |

My precious daughter, Ruby, will be 10 weeks old on Thursday. She can't speak, or crawl, or even hold her head up on her own yet, but like her daddy she's already a huge Giants and Mets fan.

For evidence, just take a look in her dresser drawers, where various Giants and Mets onesies, t-shirts, hats, bibs, pairs of socks and the hoodie she's unhappily modeling in the picture to the right* can all be found. That's a lot of gear for a 10-week-old. Ruby's even got a book about the Mets that she's infrequently attentive enough to sit through, and in efforts to calm her or to put her to sleep I've sung the first verse of "Meet the Mets" to her several hundred times. What can I say? It's a catchy tune.

The Old Man and I have already successfully indoctrinated her 8-year-old cousin into our little cult of Giants fandom--no small feat when you consider that he's growing up with a Pats-fan father in the heart of Redskins country--and in doing so I learned, as any worthwhile cult leader will tell you, that the key to indoctrination is that you've got to get to them young. So with so much at stake here, I've wasted no time with Ruby. At this rate she'll be screaming at television screens by the All-Star break, breaking down film come winter.

But Jason Fry's recent post to the always outstanding Faith and Fear in Flushing about his 7-year-old son's discovery of his first sports nemesis and the the larger issue of inviting young children to "stick their innocent fingers into emotional light sockets over and over again", got me thinking. Is it fair of me to foist my insane sports allegiances on my daughter before she's able to determine on her own whether or not the Giants or Mets (or both or neither) are worth such a significant investment of her time and emotional energy? By willfully exposing her to the heartbreaks and anxieties inherent in devoted fandom--by subjecting her to the wild rollercoaster rides that make up seasons--am I setting her up for a life of torment? Moreover, am I being an irresponsible parent? 

On one hand, sports are something she and I can share together, even when we can't come together on much else. The games present an opportunity for some invaluable father-daughter (and grandfather-daughter) bonding. But on the other, more extreme hand, encouraging her to give her heart to the Giants and Mets is tantamount to child abuse, or at least child endangerment. And if that seems like too harsh an assessment to you, think again. I know these teams.

If Fry's blogmate, Greg Prince, loves the Mets because he loves the Mets, then the same can be said of me and my Giants. I love the Giants because I love the Giants, but it would be disingenuous of me if I didn't also say that I love the Giants (and Mets) because of my Old Man. Like little Ruby, I, too, was born into bluenacy. Indoctrinated, if you will. While I concede that I have, through my own unique mania, taken that bluenacy to another, more obsessive level, I can't even remember a time when I wasn't a Giants fan. The Giants, like freckles and, later, eyeglasses, have always been a part of my identity. I never had a choice, really, until it was too late. The Old Man got to me when I was young.

He, however, did have a choice. Inspired as a 12-year-old by the heroics of the Giants 1956 championship team he made a conscious choice, two years later, to venture by subway from his home in the Bronx near the South end of Van Cortlandt Park to Yankee Stadium, where after showing his G.O. Card and paying fifty cents he was admitted (along with 63,191 others) to the Giants' December 14th game versus the Cleveland Browns. It was his very first (Football) Giants game, and an important one. The boys in blue needed a win that cold, snowy day to tie Cleveland atop the standings of the NFL's Eastern Division and to force a playoff. After yielding a 65-yard touchdown run to a 22-year-old Jim Brown on Cleveland's first play from scrimmage and missing two field goals (one from just 32 yards), the Giants scored 10 points in the fourth quarter, including a miraculous 49-yard Pat Summerall field goal through swirling snow with just under two minutes remaining to win the game, 13-10.  

It was an historic victory. 48 years later, it was ranked the 49th greatest day in New York sports history in a book by Stuart Miller, #3 among days concerning the Giants (behind only the '56 title game and the "Sneakers Game" of 1934). One week later the Giants shut out those same Browns (10-0) to take the Eastern Division crown, setting up their now legendary championship showdown with Johnny Unitas and the Baltimore Colts in the contest commonly referred to by sportswriters and fans as The Greatest Game Ever Played. Needless to say, my 14-year-old Old Man was hooked. For good. Six years later, after the Giants made their sixth championship game appearance in eight years, he purchased four season tickets that he has yet, to this day, to relinquish.

How quickly it all fell apart. Despite losing 5 of those 6 championship games, the Giants team that captured the Old Man's imagination played a decidedly winning brand of football. They boasted superstars on both sides of the ball--future Hall of Fame names like Gifford, Robustelli, Tittle, Tunnell, Brown and Huff--players who became, in turn, the darlings of Madison Avenue. But in 1964, the Old Man's first year as a season ticket holder, the Giants finished 2-10-2.  By 1966, the year the Giants posted their worst-ever record (1-12-1), every single one of those Hall of Fame players was gone. It would not get better for quite some time.

To his credit, or as a sign of his penchant for masochism, the Old Man stuck with them. And in the second decade of what is now referred to as the Giants' "Wilderness Years," 1975, I was born. A year later came Giants Stadium. And in the Fall of 1981--Lawrence Taylor's first NFL season--the Old Man started taking me to the games. That season, after seventeen consecutive years without a postseason appearance, the Giants finally made the playoffs. I guess you could say I was a good luck charm. I know the Old Man thought I was. What's more, in me he finally had someone with whom he could share his misery (and trivia), someone to inherit his increasingly heavy burden. I was the one who could, at long last, validate his fandom, who could prove that he didn't endure seventeen years of lousy football for nothing.

I don't remember much about the first game he took me to. I don't know if the Giants won or lost, or even who the opponent was. What I do remember, though, is being awed by the spectacle of professional football, by the intensity of the experience. I also remember The Old Man telling me to "watch number 56" but not being able to peel my eyes off of number 53. But whether or not I knew or understood it at the time, that afternoon I was invited into the club of long-suffering Giants fans, an invitation I readily accepted without hesitation. Just like that I was a Giants fan for life. And though my resolve has been tested several times over the years that followed (most notably during The Dave Brown era), I can't say that I've ever seriously regretted my decision. Still, it was not an informed decision.

When I made that fateful decision to pledge my lifelong loyalty to the New York Giants, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. None whatsoever. How could I have? I was just a seven-year-old kid. What did I know about pain and loss? What did I know about disappointment? Even if the Old Man had warned me (which, wisely, he didn't), how could I have possibly known that being a die hard fan would bring with it stress and despair with far greater frequency than it would exultant triumph and joy? To paraphrase Yeats, what need did I have to dread the monstrous crying of the wind?

Now that I know better, it's far too late. I've reached the point of no return, and will never get out of this alive. But little Ruby still has a fighting chance. Maybe. If she's strong, she may be able to resist the allure of the game, to deny the attraction of its beguiling spectacle. Maybe I'll figure out a way to explain to her what it is she's signing up for in terms a child can understand, offering up an early lesson in risk and reward. Or perhaps she'll be blessed with the gift of perspective, an ability to differentiate between a game played on an artificial field by a bunch of athletic strangers and, well, real fucking life.

Doubtful. Chances are that from the first tailgate she'll embrace it without thinking, just like I did. Then I'll embrace her, knowing that our season tickets will be in good hands for at least one more generation, uneasily resigned to accept the truth that bluenacy runs in our veins.

I apologize in advance, sweetheart. I know you didn't ask for this. One day, perhaps after a Super Bowl, you'll find it in your heart to forgive me.


* Ruby made that face after learning, on Sunday night, that both Gary Matthews, Jr. and Fernando Tatis were in the Mets starting lineup.