Take Me Out Of The Ball Game1
I actually started to write this installment over a year ago with the announcement to one Elliot Eisen that I would not be taking any of his season seats to the Toronto Blue Jays that season. Major League Baseball had mandated netting in front of the seats between the baselines because people were either stupid enough to take infants and small children into seating areas within the spray area of a foul ball or were more interested in their not-so-smart phones. Or both. The former Jays catcher, TV analyst and #metoo casualty Greg Zaun was always adamant after a report of someone hit by a foul ball, “Pay attention to the game people.” Not any more.
The thesis of the original piece was my creeping disinterest in televised pro sports and pro team sports in general which has since metastasized into something more of a grand mal revulsion at what the whole spectator experience has become. The trigger for this has been the recent, sudden dismissal of one Don Cherry from his throne at Coach’s Corner on Hockey Night In Canada, where he had, until a few weeks ago, ranted and raved about the state of the game between the first and second period for close to forty seasons clad in suitings that can only be described as the sartorial answer to staring at a solar eclipse. Some of his fabric choices have actual scarred my corneas. For full disclosure, I say this with some tongue in cheek because for the last several years my company has had the pleasure of doing business with Don and his son Tim as distributors of the venerable DVD hockey yearbook – Don Cherry’s Rock’Em Sock’Em Hockey.
Don was always professional at the appearances we scheduled and personable outside of business. No complaints, unlike the torrent of outrage that greeted what was to be the final installment of Coach’s Corner November 9th when Cherry offered that Canadians were sporting less poppy pins to commemorate Remembrance Day in honor of all the men and women who had made the ultimate sacrifice in battle and on duty for the country since World War I. He specifically directed his ire at a vague demographic he defined as “you people”. For context, Cherry surrounded the phrase in xenophobia by admonishing these same “you people” for enjoying the Canadian way of life without recognizing the country’s selfless heroes. It was a wide net. Ironically Cherry, a lifelong supporter of Canada’s military, was sacked in short order on said Remembrance Day – apparently he wouldn’t grovel to save his seat – putting to rest any thought of a Hall Of Fame dinner and relegating him to his weekly Grapevine podcast with Tim. This was the same man who in 2004 was voted the seventh most important Canadian of all time. Yes, the direction of his speech was not inclusive, so to speak, and would offend some people who previously counted themselves on Cherry’s team. Personally, I think Don was due for victory lap a couple of years ago. But I am not 85 years old and looking at going off into that good night sooner than later. Whatever, this was no way to exit and I put some blame on his longtime Ed McMahon, Ron MacLean, who did not have the mental foot speed to hear the offending phrase and call for a correction in real time. Neither did MacLean fall on his own sword but asked for forgiveness the next week in the disingenuous style of the tried and true caveat of “My dog ate my homework.” It was weasely and not in the Ron way. The Ron of Harry Potter to be clear. MacLean still has a job and Don doesn’t. Bobby Orr stepped up for Cherry, his former coach in Boston, with a rant of his own. But Bobby is pretty much forgotten and his, like mine, are the words of an old man. I’ll miss Don Cherry, for better or worse.
Not for his yearly warnings to Junior A moms not to let their sons go to the NHL draft unless they are “guaranteed to go in the first three rounds” because the trauma of leaving the arena without a ticket to a pro camp can emotionally cripple a young man. Oy. I’ll miss Don because he was the last living link to the hockey of my youth, allowing me the delusion that today’s game is even the faintest echo of a game when the lads wore leather skates, played without helmets and made about $100K a year. Maybe. Risking their life on crappy ice in old barns in wet equipment and against some very very tough, desperate competition. There’s very little in today’s game that can appeal to a man of my vintage who finds himself older than pretty much everyone but ownership in most buildings. The NHL has become a business for all involved, with a corporate structure and behavioural Kool-Aid that everyone has to drink. All personality has been genetically engineered out of the dressing rooms. On ice skills are more important than leadership skills. Players don’t hang around long enough to create a team narrative and a bond with their fans. My beloved New York Rangers are in a rebuilding mode let by three veteran Europeans – very few Canadians on the roster – and I am too old to wait around for another Stanley Cup run. I remember the sign that was held up after the win in ’94 following a 54 year draught – “Now I can die!”.
The loathsome Leafs in the city in which I live are an appalling assembly of rich kids who play with a stunning lack of urgency. Blame minor hockey and the current level of entitlement at the youngest levels. It’s no longer a sport for poor farm boys from Saskatchewan. Tell a kid today that his parents are too busy to get him to practice and he might have to take public transit. Yeah, once a kid is used to a hot latte waiting for him in a heated cup holder in an import SUV, he’s not much for transferring from one bus to another in the middle of February. Sadly these are the challenges that build character. When Mitch Marner rats out his recently sacked coach for some questionable coaching methods from years past, like some kid who was scarred by the swim staff at his toney sleepaway camp, that is not character. That is weasely. Again, apologies to Ron. You’re playing professional hockey wimp. Start acting professional.
The career broadcasters who cover the game are too scared of their own shadows to be entertaining lest they suffer the same fate as Cherry or Jimmy The Greek before him. If you can’t remember Jimmy The Greek….hmmm. What we have now is the choice between some former players turned intellectual lightweights, completely unfunny drive time bingo callers and dry as sand reporters taking their jobs with a measure of gravitas last seen at the Battle of Hue. Please see Rick Salutin’s excellent column on the whole Bill Peters fiasco and the attendant geniuses on the sports TV panels. Again, if the Battle Of Hue is lost on you…
I still watch the odd game but I don’t watch a fifth of what I used to. My time is now much more precious, given to taking care of my father, my severely autistic brother and providing as much moral support I can do my children. Someone spoke at my synagogue about the five biggest regrets people have on their deathbeds. One is not staying in touch with old friends. This is what I do. Especially those that need the conversation. As I do sometimes in the absence of a significant other.
As for the other big team sports I enjoyed the Raptors run last season but I now posit the question as to whom was responsible for the cheering in the Scotiabank Centre when Kevin Durant went down in Game Five of the NBA final? What Canadians were those? Yes, applauding an injury to a guy who put his career on the line to help his team put a tarnish on the series and the win. Not the Canadians I grew up with. Durant is now out for a full year, thank you. However I don’t care much for NBA basketball period. The travelling (more than 1.5 steps without a dribble) is completely out of control and the sport resembles more of a rugby match at times. There’s a lot of skilled shooters but very little team play until the last breath of the finals. And the money – $30 million salaries are rampant and the players are, for the most part, poorly disciplined, sub-literate cry babies What did John Havlicek make for running around in canvas Chucks? love the fact that guys making eight figures are upset with the use of the word “owner” to define the guys who actually worked hard and made enough to own the teams in the new ‘antebellum’. Here’s Adam Silver kowtowing. Wussy. I will take NCAA Tournament basketball over the NBA. But I don’t even watch that enough even though the travelling isn’t as blatant.
Baseball can’t hold my attention. Least of all the horrible Blue Jays. I am constantly amazed at what passes for major league fielding and hitting. Mickey Mantle is rolling in his grave looking at what guys are making to hit .267 with 35 dingers. I will grant you that hitting a major league pitch is the hardest transaction in all of sport. That is not arguable but even it was, MLB too has drained the blood out of the dugouts and I miss Bob Uecker, the brief reign of Mark Fidrych and Reggie Jackson and the crazy fuckers who played in Oakland for “Charlie O” in the early 70s and did not nothing but win World Series after World Series. I miss pitchers who could go nine more than not. I miss guys with junk balls. I miss Earl, Casey and Yogi and old managers that were quotable. I remember going to the ’68 Series in Detroit with my mother. Game Five. Lolich over Gibson. Jose Feliciano shook up the joint with his cantina version of the Star Spangled Banner. Nothing in my future will replace that memory.
What I will watch is some golf. It’s a game with which I still struggle but The Masters is pretty much a High Holyday in my world and it is the one event which has always been bigger than those who have been lucky enough to play the tournament. For that week every tour player at Augusta is humbled by the opportunity to walk its fairways like Arnie, Jack, Ben and Sam before them and breath in the greatness of the week as it wafts up like the morning dew off its pristine greens. Egos are put aside, emotions are palpable and the coverage is of a quality that understands tournament history and the foolishness of not paying it respect.
Come tonight I am going to watch Eli Manning take some of his last snaps as a New York Giant. Perhaps my last snaps as a fan. I have noticed over the years that my interest in pro football has waned significantly. Months will go by when I don’t watch a game. I have been a Giant fan since I watched Fran Tarkenton, Homer Jones and Pete Gogolak engineered a comeback win over the superior Cleveland Browns in the fall of 1967. I played some high school football, operative word being ‘some’ and I marvelled at the way Tarkenton would scramble away from defenders in the dirt infield of the old Yankee Stadium, scratching out the next play like a sandlot game. The game was slow, lumbering and populated by old white guys making $40K a year. Please see the ramblings of the late great George Sauer. I hung in there with the ‘Jints’ long enough to see Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor, the greatest player ever to play the game, win that Super Bowl in ’87. Then there was that fluke win in 1991 on the Norwood missed FG and finally Manning’s wins in 2008 and 2012, one of which I watched at Howard Lapides’ house. What a great night. See my previous post.
My opinion of the game is that of a Luddite. It’s over coached, over officiated and under played. I don’t remember Fred Biletnikoff running up and down the sidelines like the second coming after he executed an eight yard slant play. The average game sees more drops than those of Fred’s entire career. Nor do I remember the heroes of my youth getting arrested for a variety of offenses usually attributed to juvenile delinquents or worse. There’s some horrible statistics about the percentage of NFL players with rap sheets. I think Ray Lewis might be a serious criminal convicted or not. I think Michael Irvin was the tipping point in the history of the Dallas Cowboys when they went from being the classiest team in football to a team bus infected with thugs. He remains an asshole. Aaron Thomas played tight end for the Giants in the 60s while holding down a job on Wall Street. He’s 82 now. I’d love to meet him. Colin Kaepernick had a salary guarantee of $13M when he re-signed with San Francisco in 2014. That’s more money than a large portion of the black population in America will make in their lifetimes. Combined. So when he took that infamous knee in 2016 to protest back oppression in America, so began a downward slide that resulted in him opting away from the Niners at the end of the season. The bottom line here is that Kaepernick and his minions took the advantage of a stage that was built, not by them, but the generations of Forty Niners before them to air a grievance. Something he and his only Super Bowl appearance had little to do with. The great John Brodie and the likes of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice are the stuff of the Niner firmament. Kaepernick is now out of football and will soon be the stuff of autograph confabs. Pro football is not the stage for social justice. The street is. NFL has become a Sunday/Monday/Thursday casino for the pool players and over/under junkies. I have to think – and smarter people than me have posited – that if gambling was illegal and businesses couldn’t write off their seat expenses, the sport and all its concussions would be over. And now, it’s not a stage on which I will not spend any more significant time.
So I am going to watch Manning and his weak arm tonight and remember the highlights he and the Giants gave me over the years – Strahan, OBJ, Amani Toomer, Plaxico and the others. I’ll find a bar somewhere here in Miami that has some Giant fans. It will be fun. It has to be. Can’t say I’ll be around when the next Eli Manning shows up.