Category Archives: sports

Capità

I wrote a eulogy for Barça two years ago. It’s possibly more appropriate now that the era is finally ending with Carles Puyol announcing the end of his time as a Barça player. While this Barça era’s high point were the teams built around Xavi, it’s an era which has really been dominated by Puyol’s spell as captain.

It’s even more personal for me. My time as a serious Barça fan has coincided with Puyol’s time with the club. I became serious in the late 90s and went through a lot of growing pains and heartbreak in those early years. As a former defender, I’ve naturally been inclined to prefer defenders when it comes to picking favorite players. Puyol quickly became my favorite player with both Spain and Barça in those years just based on how he played on the pitch.

When Puyol became captain in 2004 though, everything fell into place. We finally won La Liga again and went on to win a lot more. I also got to see that there was a lot more to him than how he played on the pitch. There are lots of highlight packages on the webs right now—thundering headers and crunching, yet clean, tackles that I’ve been watching and rewatching. But what I’m really remembering is everything else that Puyol embodies—none of which can be YouTubed. If Xavi is the brains of the team, Puyol is the heart, soul, and engine. And the moral compass.

It’s been an honor to just watch him set the example of everything we, as fans, want our favorite athletes to be. He’s a loyal fan of the club he plays for and cares about the colors more than any other fan could. He’s never rocked the boat regarding salary or anything else. He’s been a consummate professional regarding fair play and respecting opponents. He’s always working his ass off for the team and exhorting everyone else to do the same.

He’s even more impressive off the pitch.

The way he’s gone out of his way to honor teammates, ex-teammates, and coaches—giving the armband to Abidal after the 2011 Champions League Final being the best example here—has been beyond classy. His quiet funding of Miki Roqué’s cancer treatments is even more impressive.

I’ve never been embarrassed by anything he’s done—even his exit is perfect. He’s not hanging on too long. He’s recognized that he can’t maintain the level he needs to maintain for the club. He’s giving the club enough warning and time to really look for a replacement.* He’s even kept the club from having to make any difficult decisions here.

*In some ways, he’s forcing the club’s hand.

It’s not supposed to be like this. Aging player situations are messy and emotional even when handled well.* But Puyol is different. He’s always been different and we’ll never see another player like him.

*It’s even worse when they’re not.

I’m thankful and lucky I picked him as my favorite player over a dozen years ago. I’m going to miss him a lot when he’s gone.

Means vs Ends

Part 1: Autograph Hunting

Donell NixonDarren Lewiscaldwell

Between the ages of 10 and 16, I was an avid collector of baseball autographs. Since I was a kid without money, this meant I was actually getting the autographs from the players: doing my homework to know who might be where, being adequately prepared with the correct baseball card,* always carrying a spare ball,** learning how to recognize players without relying on the uniform, drumming up the courage to approach and ask them.

*I was good at this. Whether it was having a Mike Sadek card handy for the free Giants’ clinic at the local park, a Mario Mendoza card for when the minor league team he was managing came through San José, or a Mike Caldwell card for when his Campbell Fighting Camels got assigned to the Stanford Regional.

**Important. I obviously specialized in the more obscure players. But having a ball in case I had an opportunity for a genuine star allowed me to not waste a ton of money on pipe dreams. Buying a Billy Williams, Vida Blue, or Gaylord Perry baseball card was not something I could afford as a just-in-case purchase.

When I was 10, autograph hunting was all about the thrill of just getting anyone to sign. But that quickly changed. I was lucky enough to get to stay at the Giants’ hotel in Philadelphia when they were also staying there for a series against the Phillies. On my first day there, I tentatively approached Donell Nixon and got him to sign a card for me. He did. I was thrilled.  By the next day, I knew what I was doing and had become fixated on the reward. And on “completing” the set. Which meant that I was getting more and more upset each time I didn’t “get” a player.

I got a good talking to from my mom that day about greed and appreciating what I had versus fixating on what I didn’t.

Still, autograph hunting was about the thing—getting that signature and having something to show that I saw or met the player. If I didn’t get the signature, the experience never happened. It wasn’t until I started going to baseball card shows that I started to realize there was more to it.

As I got older, I became able to buy autographs—both already-signed items and paid appearances at card shows. Both felt wrong to me. Already-signed items were troublesome because there was no experience there. Something I’d acquired myself just felt more important even if the player wasn’t. I knew how much I’d worked to get the autographs and I started to value the experience and effort I put into it.

At first my objections to the already-signed items was a sense that buying the finished item was cheating. But the card shows showed me there was more to it. Paying for autographs at the card show also felt a little like cheating—though getting to the show and waiting in line were pretty similar to the travel and wait aspects of the rest of my hunting. But it was also just a lousy experience. After all the wait, you’d hand your item to a guy at a desk, he’d sign it, and give it back to you. All without looking up.

My first card-show autograph was Darren Lewis. I remember nothing about it other than the fact that it cost me $5. I remember less about the rest of my card show autographs. Except for Troy Neel.

When I got his autograph, rather than the usual baseball card, I brought a Tacoma Tigers program which had him on the cover. Since the show was in the Bay Area, he wasn’t expecting anyone to have this and he got a bit excited when he saw it. It was a nice change of pace and drilled home for me how much I valued the interaction and experience as much as the final product.

When I look back on my autograph hunting days or flip through my collection of autographed cards, it’s often the experiences and stories which I treasure. I love talking about meeting Will Clark and how he hated signing for non-Giants fans. I love telling the story about failing to get Willie Mays’s signature because the crowd jostled him and he stopped signing halfway through his name so some poor guy out there has a ball which just says “Willie.” I love the story of Todd Benzinger’s daughter asking from inside the car, “What is daddy dooning?” while he signed for everyone. I loved waiting for Bob Brenly outside the press elevator at Candlestick with our “Bach, Beethoven, Bob Brenly” tshirts.* I loved the Stanford Baseball Alumni game which used to signal the beginning of summer in January. I loved getting Mike Caldwell’s signature while his players crowded around to get a look at his baseball card.

*My mom made them. And sent him one. We were fans of him from his Giants days even though he was a Cubs announcer at the time. Yes I also got Steve Stone’s autograph.

Part 2: Photography

out of herechacho
When I started out in photography, I found it easy to become obsessed with the final product and frustrated when that product never matched what I saw in my mind. In many ways seeing something that should make a good photo but being unable to put it all together is still the most difficult experience I have when photographing. There’s always some detail I missed or something I’d prefer to have done differently or something which I saw originally just goes  missing.

Similarly, I’ve missed more photos than I can count because I couldn’t pull the trigger in time. This isn’t just about bad timing. I’ve found myself so caught up in watching what’s going on that I won’t even have my camera out and ready to take the photo.

This was especially common when I was birding. I could easily just watch a bird hunt for fish or fly by without ever bringing my camera to my eye. Even though I was out,with a camera, specifically to take photos. Some of this could be excused as watching and getting a sense of behavior so I could take better photos later. But most of it was just getting caught up in the act of seeing.

With my family, it’s the same thing. I’ll see moments and instances which I wish I could capture, but I’m just not able to do so. And this is despite me looking out for moments I consider to be more interesting.

I’m not complaining though. I’ve long since arrived at the conclusion that as much as I enjoy taking a good photo, it’s the everything else which encompasses photography which I actually enjoy. Photography for me has become going for a walk or drive* and just having my eye turned on and my brain assessing what works and what doesn’t. It’s an exercise in active seeing and the resulting images are my feedback.

*Or train ride.

I also like to try things without knowing what the results will be. Sometimes this is gimmicky, but the willingness to cede control adds a lot of the fun back into the result. I can play around and then the result becomes a “what happened this time?” surprise rather than a “did it work out?” disappointment.

Do I get a nice high from making a particularly good image or taking a photo which matches my conception of what it should look like? Absolutely. But it’s the looking and seeing and noticing and playing which makes me continue to shoot. And it’s the process of seeing and playing which I remember when I look through my images.

Part 3: Memory

Chris Ware. All Together NowSometimes, I’ve noticed with horror that the memories I have of things like my daughter’s birthday parties or the trips we’ve taken together are actually memories of the photographs I took, not of the events themselves, and together, the two somehow become ever more worn and overwrought, like lines gone over too many times in a drawing.

Chris Ware

photos

My earliest memories are from when I was two years old. One of them is of my sister being born. The other is of my uncle’s wedding. In both cases, my memories have nothing to do with the actual events.

With my sister, my memories concern the construction around the hospital which we drove through on the way to visit. I have explicit memories of looking through the window of the car at all the diggers and bulldozers. My parents have confirmed over the years, repeatedly, that these memories are related to my sister’s birth.

With my uncle, my memory is holding onto my dad’s neck as he took me through the hotel swimming pool. What a pool it was. It wound around the hotel, went under walkways, and had a restaurant in the middle of it. Years later, my parents recognized my description of the pool as belonging to the hotel where the wedding was. I’d have had no idea otherwise.

There’s no way I would have been able to hold on to those memories without having something specific to pin them to. The result is not really my memory of the event anymore. Instead it’s my memory of being told what my memory was of that I remember and which anchors the earlier fragment in my mind.

This anchoring of my memory with something specific is how photography works for me. And it’s how autograph hunting worked back before I stated photography.* The activity helps me focus on certain experiences and the resulting objects serve to remind me of the experience. Do the objects and memories kind of blend together? Absolutely. That’s pretty much the point.

*Also, baseball-wise, why I keep score at baseball games. It’s not about reliving the game afterwards, it’s to help me focus during the event.

Which is why I’ve been amused about the recent hoopla about the Taking Photos Hurts Memory study. It’s pretty clear in the abstract that the only kind of photography which hurts memory is rote documentation without thought. Focused, observational photography improves it. As it should. You’re engaged in seeing and looking for specific details that make you think. Of course your memory will improve.

Part 4: Means vs Ends

Snow DayCoast Starlight

The way to understand photography as it happens on social platforms is not to compare it to traditional photography, which is about creating an art object, but instead as a communicating of experience itself. It’s less making media and more sharing eyes; your view, your experience in the now. The atomizing of the ephemeral flow of lived reality into transmittable objects is the ends of the traditional photograph, but merely the means of the social snap.

Nathan Jurgenson

I’ve never really understood Snapchat. Well, I get it. In the sense that we experience our lives through the viewfinder, it makes sense that we’ll communicate more visually as a result. I just never imagined that I would be communicating this way. It’s just not how I see the world. I forget the viewfinder half the time.

Then my mother-in-law got a smartphone.

For the past couple months now, there’s been what’s effectively an MMS chatroom consisting of my wife’s family plus me and my concuñado.* Lots of text. Lots of photos. We’re all just talking to each other and keeping up to date as a family.

*Is there an English word for my sister-in-law’s husband (aka my wife’s brother-in-law)? If not, why not?

I’m finding that most of my messages are photo-based. Without comment. Send them out and they become part of the conversation. Not something to discuss. Nothing final. Just a statement the same as texting “just landed” or “it’s snowing!” I’m even taking and sending selfies* now.

*E.g. on Halloween.

Now I understand what Nathan Jurgenson is talking about. And I understand the appeal and use case for Snapchat.

What’s both interesting and confusing here is that photographs can be both the means and the ends of communication. Traditionally, photos are presented as the end product. In Snapchat, or in my family MMS chatroom, they’re the means. At the same time, some of the photos I send eventually become blogposts and things which I consider to be somewhat final. They stop being conversation and instead a record of the event. Same photo, different framing.

Which is why Jurgenson’s focus on framing is so correct. The same image can be presented in multiple ways and as a result, suggest vastly different uses. I tend to view the framing as a Donald Norman style affordance. If I’m in an app which is conversation-based,* I will use images as conversation. If I’m in an app which is post-based,** the images become posts to comment on.***

*I use MMS, private Tumblrs, and IRC for this kind of communication.

**Facebook, Tumblr, and Flickr in my case.

***Twitter is kind of a grey area here. It’s a bit conversational. But it’s also very post-based. And I’m realizing that my usage is all over the map. All of which is probably why I like Twitter the most.

I’ve referenced McLuhan before here when talking about how the context in which I encounter a photograph changes the way I react to it. I should have realized a lot sooner that the same dynamic is at play with how use my own photos.

For someone like me who has a tendency to remember or enjoy the process more than the end result, it’s especially exciting to realize how my process can actually be my end product. I’ve been structuring posts around tweets for a while, but this is something else.

My twitter-based posts are typically straight archives of conversations on twitter which I use as a jumping off point for something else. Twitter makes me think about things and want to respond in more than 140 characters. So I blog.

When I take photos which I’ve been messaging to my family and turn them into blogposts, I’m not presenting an archive but am instead drawing on my experience while shooting and presenting what I feel represents that experience best. I’m not responding to the previous conversation, instead I’m incorporating it into the larger experience.

That I use my process as my end product, and that I value my process so much, also explains why I’m not likely to ever get into Snapchat itself. I’m a bit of a hoarder in the digital realm the same way I am in the physical one. I like all the bits of ephemera—and memories which are anchored to them. I like being able to roll back the chat archives and see what we’ve talked about in the past.* And I know that even in what seems to be an ephemeral medium, that it’s completely possible to record messages.

*As much as I enjoy IRC, this is my main problem with it too. I do however save my AIM chat logs.

Heck, if anything, now that I’ve realized how conversational photos are part of the way I react to and think about my experiences, I want to be able to go back and see what I was thinking even more than I did before.

Insomnia

I dreamt about Candlestick last night.

Not the games.
But the long cold hikes to and from The Stick.

Mostly from.

Over the bridge
Through the tunnel
Fighting the crowds

Mooooo

Past the pretzel guy
Into the neighborhoods where I was always surprised to find the locals were also Giants fans.

But also to.

When I was younger and we parked in the lots.
And passed the tailgaters
And entered through Gate A with the escalator and wound our way clockwise to the 3rd base side where we used to sit before we started buying tickets behind the plate.

The games never featured.

Instead it was the anticipation
The energy
The leaving the everyday world to go to a ball game.

And then the rough return back through the cold night
Peeling off the tundra kit and driving back home
Eating Cheetos.

The Stick

Croix de Candlestick

While Candlestick Park hasn’t hosted a baseball game since 1999, that it’s going to be shuttered/imploded after this 49ers season has me reminiscing about all my childhood memories from there. I never attended a 49ers game. But I  attended Giants games from 1986 through 1999 and had season tickets from 1988 through 1994 (the baseball strike that year killed my habit).

My mom and I spent many summer afternoons, and quite a few summer evenings, at The Stick. Keeping score. Talking. Trying to stay warm. Going through our ritual of only eating in odd-numbered innings. Eating Cheetos on the drive home. I started off as a kid making sure to hit all the giveaway days which had things I wanted. I went through an autograph collecting phase where I forced my mom to get there early so I could hang out by the dugout* and hopefully snag a signature or two.** Eventually though the point was to settle into our upper deck seats, watch batting practice, get the lineups, and just pay attention to the ballgame.

*I always went to the visitors dugout. The few years I was really into autographs, we were also going to Spring Training. By the time the regular season had rolled around, I already had all the Giants’ autographs.

**The highlight was Billy Williams. I also remember getting Ron Gant and Moises Alou.

In many ways it’s not the specific memories which I treasure but rather the entire experience. In 1986 when I went to my first game—a 16-inning marathon—I was 8 years old. I attended the last night game with some college friends. I pretty much grew up there, marking time with the baseball seasons and the baseball teams. Was the place a dump where I froze my ass off despite bringing the tundra kit* to every game? Absolutely. Were those nights when the fog rolled in over the stadium rim and soaked my scorecard to the point where I could no longer write on it miserable? Pretty much. Did I love being there despite all that? To the point where I have no idea where I’d rather have been. Following baseball and rooting for the Giants was part of who I was. Of course I’d rather have been there than anywhere else.

*Sweatpants over shorts. Sweatshirt and Jacket. Gloves. Hot chocolate.

A large part of my mentality about sports formed in the upper deck* of Candlestick. It was often lonely up there. I remember crowds of 12,000 at some games—and that was paid attendance in a 62,000 capacity stadium. My mom and I would be the only ones up there besides the occasional vendor. We’d arrive before the first pitch and stay until the last out. Every time. Anything less was cheating. We’d go regardless of how well the team was playing and always root for them to win. I learned to appreciate good baseball and the fundamentals. Being so high forced me to look at the entire field and pay attention to everyone’s positioning.

*Upper Reserve Section 1, Row 8, Seats 1 and 2. Section 1 is right above the plate. Anything below Row 8 was obstructed by people walking along the aisles. Our seats were right on the stairs.

I saw fairweather fans come and go—both with the Giants’ fortunes and the actual weather. I became proud to be a diehard. I learned to appreciate winning but not to expect it. I learned how to discern true fans of the opposing team from trolls looking for a fight. And how to apply those same lessons to fellow Giants fans. I learned to appreciate the sport for what it is and take it seriously at a personal level. I didn’t grow up with religion, I grew up with baseball. I agree with Annie Savoy.

As beautiful as Pac Bell—or whatever it’s called now— is, part of me died when the Giants stopped playing at Candlestick. The timing was good since I was moving from being a college student to becoming an adult. But it was still me losing a major part of my youth. I always held out hope that there’d be one last turn-back-the-clock game at The Stick just to fuck with the Dodgers. Now that flicker is gone too.

In terms of specific memories. I’ll never forget my first game and being thrown into the deep end of how a baseball game can keep going forever. The sense of both hope and fear that each night game could result in a Croix. Dave Dravecky coming back from cancerRiding out the Loma Prieta Earthquake. Scott Garrelts losing his no hitter with 2 outs in the 9th. The last game of the 1992 season when we all believed that the team was moving to St. Petersburg. The first game of the 1993 season full of renewed life and joy. The two-game series versus LA in 1997 where we leapfrogged them in the division race.*

*While the Brian Johnson game is justly remembered. The previous game was an equally exciting pitching duel.

I loved watching Will Clark play and Rick Reuschel hit. Matt Williams, despite becoming a slugger and gold-glove third baseman, will always be the shortstop who swings at the first pitch and pops up. I miss Bob Brenly’s postgame radio show. I miss Rod Beck and closers who could throw double play balls. I still expect to see trash blowing around in circles in the outfield and third basemen to chase pop-ups to first-base foul territory. The sound of a fog horn means “play ball” to me. And I’d love to see Tommy Lasorda make the long walk from the right field corner to the visitors dugout again, the stadium full of boos while he blows kisses to the crowd.

So long Candlestick. You were the best home-field advantage any sports team could hope to have. I’m wearing my hat covered in Croixes today in remembrance.

Sporting Integrity

Watching, and catching up with,* Twitter during the last round of World Cup qualifying games was both exciting and annoying. Lots of late drama makes for exciting sports. But the number of US fans who wanted to lose so Mexico would fail to qualify disgusted me.

*One thing I’m still getting used to on the East Coast is how late sporting events go. What used to end at 9PM for me now starts at that time.

I fully appreciate the US-Mexico rivalry and I understand the motivation for rooting against Mexico. Especially given how US fans get treated in Mexico. But I’ve always disagreed with rooting against your rival in all circumstances. It’s no fun if your rival is a lousy team. However, I especially disagree with rooting against your own team.

It’s a function of sporting integrity. When we watch a game, we expect to see two teams who are playing to win—or at the very least, playing to not lose.* And as a fan, I would hate the implication that my team ever threw a game. So to see fans openly suggest that their team should throw a game (or to openly root against their team) offends me.

*The maletines phenomenon in Spain astounds me since it suggests that teams wouldn’t play to win without the motivation.

SantaAnna

Root for your team. Enjoy rubbing your rival’s nose in the fact that you bailed them out. Heck, taking the high road gives you better rivalry fodder. Especially since Mexico is so self-critical, full of pride, yet enjoys exceedingly black humor.

All of the resulting trolling has been way more fun than “neener neener you didn’t qualify.”

Also, there’s no way this brilliant rant would have happened.

If you need it translated

Seriously.

This result—assuming Mexico beats New Zealand—makes the next US visit to the Azteca extremely interesting. And it keeps open the possibility that the US and Mexico will meet in the World Cup again. That’s a much more juicy situation to root for.

Addendum

It’s worth adding that I’m perfectly okay with resting players for playoffs, rotation, etc. even if it means fielding a “weakened” team. What I have a problem with is with fans rooting for the team to lose or with the team actually throwing the game and not playing to win. This holds even if the coach is unpopular or if draft position is up in the air.

Només un negoci

Today’s Eric Abidal news has me re-reading my head versus heart post. I’m typically cold blooded with how I expect the business side of sports teams to be run. I certainly don’t like to pretend that I have any business commenting on an player’s contract situation. But today upset me more than I expected and it’s taken me a while to figure out why.

I’m not upset with the decision. I’m upset with the way it was handled and the callous disregard to human decency that it reveals. There are perfectly good reasons to conclude that he was no longer a reliable Barça-quality player. This is cancer we’re talking about. A best-case scenario has him being available for only 33% of  the time. He’s not a young player.

None of those reasons are new.

Yet the team appears to have led everyone on for the past season and has been using the Abidal story as a way of claiming a moral high ground about how the club has a soul. All that appears to now have been opportunism.

None of those reasons were mentioned.

Instead we got “sporting” reasons and nods to consensus among the staff—essentially sharing the blame. It’s telling though that no one could articulate any reasons. It’s especially telling that the president of the club actually dodged answering specific questions about the reasons. So we get an extra layer of dishonesty to go with our disappointment in seeing a beloved player leave.

For a while it looked like Barça was indeed more than a club and could be counted on to take the moral high ground. This was a club with a heart and a soul which I could be proud to be a fan of. Even though I know that both the heart and the soul were new phenomenons,* I wanted to believe it would last.

*Historically, Barça has never done well with end-of-contract stuff.

But things have slowly been chipped away. We now have corporate advertising on the shirts. Club membership is no longer open to the world. Players are released with little warning and without regard to any prior service or commitment.

As much as I joke about my team being back, I’m feeling the betrayal of so much of the positive direction I thought we were headed in. And that stings more than any sporting loss.

Més que un club has turned out to mean només un negoci. Only a business. Not even a good business at that. Barça has turned into the kind of business which demands employee loyalty but constantly reminds its employees that company loyalty is a one-way street. I wouldn’t blame any player for being on the lookout for other offers. Nor would I hold it against him if he left for those reasons.

Today’s news serves as a reminder about how we should enjoy the truly special teams. That special team is truly done now. Many of the players remain but the soul of the team is gone. Soul is not useful from a sporting point of view so we’ve let it go on a free transfer.

I only kept two recordings from that team—the manita against Madrid and the Champions League Final where Abidal lifted the cup. It’s time to watch them again.

Soccer and America

I really enjoy reading Laurent Dubois’s posts about soccer and national identity. Especially when he writes about Europe and how different countries have dealt—or not dealt—with immigration, colonialism, and integrating non-european players into european national teams. Two standout posts which are worth reading are his post last year on Mario Balotelli and the New Europe and his more recent post on the French National Team and La Marseillaise.*

*This last post also reminded me of the Spanish National team and the pre-2008 desire in Spain to add words to the Marcha Real in order to instill a sense of national pride which would help the soccer team. Spain is also a super-interesting case of the national-identity issue due to the fact that it has traditionally hampered by infighting between castillians, catalans, and basques. Not a non-european issue, but definitely a national-identity one. 

What I like best about his posts though is how they make me think about how soccer in the US is so distinctly different and almost in the opposite situation.

In the US, soccer is still thought of as being a non-american sport. It’s not played by Americans, it’s played by immigrants. Or if it’s played by Americans, it’s as a sport of second choice when baseball/basketball/football is not in season.

More importantly, it’s not a sport which is watched by Americans—to the point where being a soccer fan in this country often still involves picking your ethnic national team over the US National team.*

*A phenomenon which is especially notable in the Mexican-American community.

That the US national team has a history of “non-native” players from military families only adds to this. We don’t have any expectations of them conforming to some sort of US identity as long as they play for us. As with our choices to be fans, we’re happy with players who either choose soccer over a “major” sport, or choose the US over another country.*

*Our anger when a player like Giuseppe Rossi chooses to play for another country shows how much we expect players to believe in the cause.

The result of all this is that fans of the national team are in no position to use it as a proxy for pushing a concept of americanness. The very existence of the team still seems unamerican.

Being an american soccer fan marks you as being part of a global community in a way that no other american sports do. In the Olympics, we expect to be the best—and certainly only focus on those sports. With soccer? We’re still also-rans. Rooting for a losing cause is not what we’re used to with our national teams either. The whole experience is foreign.

NoteS:

Not enough here for an additional post but the strangeness of being a soccer fan in America also extends to the club game. It’s necessary to accept that MLS is a minor league in a worldwide game. Since the US is a country which is used to having the best of the best, accepting this minor league status results in an interesting phenomenon of increased disconnect and name calling between fans of MLS and the eurosnobs. Both sides have legitimate points. There is definitely something to supporting your local team. At the same time, people should be encouraged to seek out and enjoy the sport at its highest levels.

Full disclosure, I’m a eurosnob and proud of it. MLS killed my interest in the league by moving my local team right when I had really gotten into it. While MLS was not good in its first decade, by 2005 it had turned into a decent product. I was watching Earthquakes games and was a bit of a Landon Donovan fan around then. The way he ended up moving to LA and the way the Earthquakes moved to Houston pushed me into the MLS wilderness. The ensuing Beckham debacle where all MLS news became exclusively “Beckham only” sealed the deal.

Weaning from football

For a while now, I’ve been trying to wean myself from football. This is due to a combination of multiple things.

I hate the way it’s corrupting colleges. The number of teams with lousy graduation rates is embarrassing. The way players are used, essentially for free, is appalling. I’m glad that my school is doing things the right way. But it’s one of very few and I think things are going to get worse before they get any better.

The ongoing concussion/brain injury situations are scary and depressing. Why would anyone let their kid play this sport? How can I watch, let alone root for, an activity which is literally killing its participants. This is not something I want my sons to do. Nor is the behavior anything I want them to model.

The complete lack of interest in any drug testing is astonishing. No one’s asking these questions now. We’ve been aware of the issue for over 40 years. Other sports have, to various degrees, been addressing the issue. Soccer is getting flak in Europe for being too lenient. Baseball is also a bit of a joke. But both of those sports seem to have their houses in much better order than football.

The way football teams are demanding public financing for stadiums or TV deals which then stiff the public is disgusting. Best-case scenario is a dozen games a year at a football stadium. That’s a lot of money to spend for 12 days. It’s not even 25% of the weekends. Yes you can do other things at the stadium. But that involves having to go out and bid on those events. That the public is expected to recoup its costs due to increased business to the area just doesn’t add up. Especially when the teams are raking in the luxury box deals and advertising revenue.

The amount of money and attention lavished on the Super Bowl is obscene. What are we up to, $4 million per advertisement? Craziness. The entire country has a holiday which consists of watching TV for 4 hours and talking about the commercials we’ve seen. What is wrong with us?

I don’t even really like the games anymore. I can appreciate the tactics—in fact, this is really all I still like—but I’m finding that neither the violence or the athleticism is appealing. Besides, most of time during a football game does not involve playing football.

Weaning though is hard work. Football is so engrained into the fabric of America that it’s difficult to not be aware of the NCAA or NFL seasons and top teams. Super Bowl Sunday is, at this point, as legitimate an American Feast Day as Thanksgiving. It’s especially hard if the local teams, my teams, are doing well. In this case, it’s the curse of being a local.

Stanford won the Rose Bowl. And the 49ers went to the Super Bowl. I found it hard not to root for them.  However, I can report progress.

When Stanford won, I was happy, but not the way I used to be. I felt no compulsion to blog about it. I was not worried about the game (one way or another). I did not feel like I had to purchase anything to celebrate. I didn’t even brag about it to anyone.

When the 49ers lost last weekend, I realized that I’ve made even more progress. I was not nervous during the 4th quarter when things got tight. I felt no anger in the loss nor any sadness. I did not even have any of the stomach-punch feeling I’m used to getting as a long-suffering Giants or Barça fan.*

*Not recently for either of those teams but I’m talking about my long-term experiences.

It’s liberating to not care.

I’ll try to stick on this path. I may always have a residual rooting interest but if I don’t feel it in my gut, it’s not a real one. We’ll see what happens when my sons get older though, I fear they may pull me back in.

Head vs Heart

Fans, have absolutely no right to have any say in the terms and conditions of players.

—Marvin Miller

When Marvin Miller died in late November, I was prompted to begin a blogpost about my attempts to be a rational sports fan. Sports, and sports fandom, is inherently irrational. We root for laundry and hate any reminders that players are mercenaries. At the same time, it’s becoming increasingly obvious how important market forces are to the sports landscape and smart fans have to be aware of their team’s budget situation when it comes to maintaining the roster as well as the needs of the players.

We tend to forget—and hate being reminded—that the players are people and playing sports is their job.Instead, we hold them to unreasonable standards based on what we want. When it comes to my expectations from players, it takes my best efforts to balance my heart with my head.

Whenever a player approaches the end of his contract things always get weird. If the player is important to the team, things get really weird. If the player is approaching retirement, things get extremely weird.

Is the player still invested in the team if he doesn’t have a new contract?* Is the team going to overpay him to stay?** Is he holding the for ransom?*** Is the reason I want him to stay more sentimental than reasonable?****

*Yes. As long as he’s not flying all over to negotiate.

**Overpay in this case refers to what portion of the team’s income is being spent on this player. This is not a reflection of what the player could get on the open market. If a team overpays a player, it means that it’s allocated too large a portion of its resources to that player.

***Essentially trying to be overpaid.

****Especially players approaching retirement.

I’ve been sitting on this post though because I haven’t felt much like finishing it. Thanks to Victor Valdés, I feel like I have to. The reactions to his announcement that he doesn’t intend to renew his contract have baffled me and provide a perfect case study for the kind of irrational behavior fans fall into.

Victor has given notice that he doesn’t intend to sign another contract for Barcelona once his current one expires in 2014. The reactions from a number of Barça fans has been to treat this as a betrayal which hurts the team and indicates that he should be sold today.

I don’t get it.

The only way announcing his plans early hurts the team is that it supposedly means other teams can try and extract higher transfer fees since they know we have to buy a keeper. And that assumes that there aren’t multiple keepers who we’re going after.

Oh, and it also means that we lose out on any transfer fee when we sell him. If we sell him. And if there’s only one team interested in him (or one location where he wants to go).

I’m going to categorically dismiss any claims that he’s unsettling the team or no longer committed. He is a professional. He’ll do his job as long as he’s under contract.

The Valdés situation is an example of how irrational and impossible the situation is for players. Fans want him to stay. Anything else is unacceptable. If he’s decided to leave, is he supposed to lie for the next year and a half?* Is he supposed to string the team along and not tell them what the plan is?** Is having a discussion about “Is he or isn’t he?” every press conference somehow less disruptive?***

* I can understand the outrage if fans feel like they’ve been lied to. That sucks indeed. But in to kill someone for telling the truth? 

**As if that wouldn’t unsettle the team. Uncertainty is always more unsettling than certainty.

***Also much more likely to unsettle players is having to be reminded of things which aren’t related to the games they’re playing.

I applaud him for telling the truth and not making trying to extort the team for too much money. And I thank him for making it perfectly clear what situation any new keeper Barça signs is going to be entering.

I also don’t begrudge him, or any other player, seeking the biggest possible payday. Though I tend to believe that the largest paydays are often indications that an organization isn’t run well and so, should be treated with some suspicion. Likewise, I don’t blame any player for refusing to renegotiate his contract down in order to make up for a club’s stupid business decision.

The flip side of this is that I find myself becoming somewhat cold blooded when it comes to aging players. Aging players are typically overpaid in that their skills are in decline and they can’t be expected to maintain, let alone increase, their levels for future seasons. It makes no sense to pay them as much or sign them to long-term deals. Yet they’re typically the ones which get the largest, and longest-term deals.

If an aging player also happens to be a fixture/icon of the team? Look out. Heartbreak dead ahead. It’s true with baseball and it’s true with any other sport. There is an age at which everyone is expected to get worse. What do we do with those players? Do we sell an icon of the team a year early? Do we keep him a year too long and let him embarrass himself? Is the break up amicable? Are we paying him too much? Could he get one last big payday somewhere else? Lots of questions. No good answers.

I tend to fall into the sell early and give him an option for one last big payday somewhere else camp. Yes, this means that I would be willing to sell Xavi or Puyol right now. But that’s my head talking. My heart will root for the team no matter what.

The best, but…

Saving these for posterity. Yes, Bojan appears to be able to finish threads better than he can finish chances.

In any case, this is all silliness over the inanity about trying to pick the best soccer player in the world. Last time I tried trolling I ended up writing about Xavi. This time it made sense to be silly.

My true feelings:

Late edit:

For anyone who doesn’t know who Dimonio is. Best. Mascot. Ever.