Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The beautiful game

My blessing of a week-plus of free cable finally turned into a curse today, my first day off work in a week, when I finally realized I was getting dumber again. I must say, having fought off the cable bug since last summer, that it is quite nice to come home from a sometimes-exhausting job and fall on the futon in front of Baseball Tonight. But today, with finally some free time, I again wanted to rebel against the trap. I think this says a lot about why work-obsessed American culture is so anti-intellectual.

The only reason for my initial tele-giddyness was the ability to watch baseball regularly. Then I re-remembered I'm not patient enough to sit through a game on TV. Nonetheless, some ruminations on sport, since it has leaped back into my life with titan force.


In an O'Rourke's tavern filled with no more than 10 people last night, Mr. Kris Kolden points to the tele, showing Sportscenter of course, and inquires, "so what do you think about Barry Bonds?" Kris, now, is too cool to be as into sports as yours truly; I like to think that he asked because, like me, he enjoys the sound of my voice.

Without hesitation, I turn the crack of conversation into a gaping hole of morally outraged romanticism, yearning for the great old game to revert back to its beauty. In better days, I say, Bonds would've never hit so many home runs -- not because of steroids, but because of bigger ballparks for one, and more importantly, he would've focused on the other parts of the game, and would've been a superior ballplayer for it. Bonds today is a Ruthian figure today not only because of power, but because of limitations -- both are lumbering hulks good for little more than hitting round-trippers. Forty years ago, though, Bonds would've remained the skinny kid on the Pirates. I don't care for Bonds -- not because he's a crab who's on the juice (though I don't know his stance on crab juice), but because he represents the sorry nature of modern baseball thinking. Most are willing to sacrifice that stolen bases and gold gloves of Bonds' younger days so he could become a one-trick pony. The trick is admittedly impressive, juice or no, but I could do without it.

That discourse was for you. Kris stopped me in the bar before I became too much of a walking George Will column. While we're on George, though, bless him. Not for his politics, obviously, but bless him and everyone who goes on silly nostalgia cruises to our agrarian past and romanticizing the Brooklyn Dodgers and the smell of the grass and all of that. Last night Olbermann was doing anything he could rhetorically to slam Bonds and make it clear that nobody cared about this accomplishment. I don't care, as previously stated, but Keith was delving head-first into heavy hyperbole. Baseball ought not be the arena of that kind of attitude, the life juice of guys like Jim Rome who get by the ounce of testosterone to inject everything with attitude. Save that for the linear militarism of American football or the trash talk of badly-played NBA basketball. Though baseball and poetry both have their weak spots, they deserve each other.

Basketball is another story for another day. But if it resembled jazz as much as it did when Kareem played, I'd still watch it.

Football (Soccer)

The U.S. played Morocco in an international friendly on cable tonight. I am torn. It's exciting to see the Yanks get something of an organization together and actually see visible improvment in their squad. On the other hand, part of we wants them to keep on suckin'.

Having become reinvigorated into soccer during my stopover in Europe, I though a lot about why it's no thing in the States. Here are not all the reasons, but my top four:

1. Heritage. My boss in a Nascar fan. At least, she married into a Nascar family. Clearly this sport is not so located only in the South as the stereotype would insist, but it is a cultural thing. Watching cars, albeit fast cars, go around an oval in the same direction holds little appeal to most people at home without context. Going to a race and getting drunk in the morning anticipation with people who care intensly about it is another. I can only assume it's a less literate and more industrial incarnation of European football craziness, but I will never find out. In fact, I'm making it my dream to someday to find a place with no rednecks.

Without history, without heritage, soccer to Americans is just a bunch of skinny kids kicking a ball around. At least the objective makes sense; imagine how Europeans view baseball. Even if you get how it's played, without context, history and a talent with statistics, it's just trying to hit a ball with a stick. And then a bunch of morons fighting once in a while, for reasons unknown. Which brings me to my next point:

2. Machismo. Soccer is one of the most popular participant sports in the U.S., if not the most. Why? It's what all kids play before they're big enough for real sports, like American football. I could pluck this prejudice out of the air if need be, but I remember my youth pastor saying it to a member of the group almost word-for-word when I was in high school. Real men play 6A football in Lawton, OK.

3. Grace. Contrary to the American stereotype, the beautiful game is just as punishing, painful, angry and intense and anything on this side of the pond. Clubs hate each other just as much. But watch the end of a hard-fought match sometime. The exchange of jerseys packs a certain grace, a recognition of a battle hard-fought on both sides. Over here, we shake hands. Starting in little league you recognize this practice as bullshit, instigated by grown-ups who mistakenly believe sportsmanship is important. Really, you're either sulking because you lost or ready to talk shit all over the other team.

"Good Game" my ass.

4. Internationalism. This is why I partially hope America never becomes a soccer power.

Why doesn't the U.S. get World Cup? Because this is a wholly anti-international country, in every part of culture (except business, when we can make money off other countries). The sports manifestation is easily identifiable. Our culture's major sporting events are the professional national leauges, who's best we call world champions but are anything besides that. International competition is a curiosity, the only attention-grabber being the occassional brief Olympics, where strange athletes in strange sports go at it for two weeks before returning to the stock room at Home Depot. And the only time it ever really matters is if A) The U.S. does well unexpectedly, or B) The Yanks lose at something they're supposed to win, like basketball.

Everywhere else it's quite the opposite. Fans go rabid for their national club leagues, but the really big European enchilada is Champions League, where the best teams from the continent play one another. And the stupid Olympics take a backseat to World Cup, the biggest sporting event on the planet.

It's not just that we play sports like baseball, which is only quasi-international, and American football, which few others are stupid enough to play. It's the fact that something like 12 percent of our citizens have passports. It's the fact that so many people think Jesus spoke English and, therefore, so should the fucking Mexicans if they want to come here. It's the fact that we appoint a U.N. ambassador who thinks the U.N. is a joke.

Much of the world rejoices that American soccer isn't great, because elite soccer is one of the few clubs they've kept us out of. It's admittedly juvenile, but I don't blame them. If I lived in another country, I'd want some beautiful refuge from ugly Americanism. Shit, I live here and I want one. So that part of means yearns for American soccer to remain wandering in the wilderness; if we won World Cup, it's just be one more place where we could ignore the international community, push everyone around and get our way in the end.

In short, America doesn't deserve a good soccer team.

I, for one, am going for Sweden. Also because of my huge man-crush on Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

No comments: