Category Archives: sports

On kind of sort of maybe getting back into baseball cards

I collected baseball cards pretty seriously from 1986–1993. I got into the hobby at the same time I got into baseball…and I got out of it once the number of sets and subsets and insert sets and premium sets became overwhelming.* Sort of amazingly I never even looked back. I stayed a baseball fan. I picked up other hobbies—specifically printing and photography. The Giants even won three World Series. But I never felt the itch to buy a pack of cards until this year.

*Plus we had a strike which served as the coup de grâce and my last years of high school to keep me plenty busy without that hobby.

What changed? I started reading the SABR Baseball Cards blog. It’s not focused on any of the things which drove me out of the hobby,* instead it reminds me of everything I loved about it. Looking at the cards and the photos. Studying the backs and comparing stats. Completing sets rather than finding rarities. Discussing particularly beautiful—or particularly awful—designs. Thinking about which ones will work well with autographs. It’s a blog which is about the cards as they relate to fandom and baseball.

*The focus on scarcity and individual-card value and condition both swamped me and priced me out of the hobby.

So I’ve found myself wandering by the card aisles again to check out how much the landscape has changed in the past 25 years. And I find myself in disbelief that my collection is as old now as the mid-60s cards were when I was collecting. Those cards were always my dream cards when I was little. I wanted to see them and handle them and connect with baseball history through them. Eventually I managed to acquire one or two from each year but couldn’t afford more than that.

Meanwhile a lot of the guys on the SABR blog have complete Topps sets going back that far—or at least through the 70s. I can’t imagine. I have sets from 1987 through 1992—accurately capturing my peak collecting years—but I can’t even fathom completing the 1986 set let alone working back toward my dream cards. All the same, I have started thinking about what I would do if I were to start collecting again.

While focusing on complete sets is too much, I can imagine just focusing on the Giants. This wouldn’t even be expensive for the 70s or 80s but I’d expect the 60s, with Mays and company, to get a bit spendy. I can also imagine trying to complete the various weird sets I collected in the late 80s and early 90s. Getting that last missing Mothers Cookies card. Filling out my Dennys Grand Slam holograms. Completing the King B Disc set. Weird projects just appeal to me.

The bigger question for me is what I want to do if, or when, my kids get interested in card collecting. They’ve already shown an interest in soccer cards.* They also have a tendency to be interested in what I’ve collected. So in many ways it’s only be a matter of time.

*This interest probably planted the first seed of my renewed interest in the hobby.

I know that sharing a hobby with them could be a lot of fun. I also know that I want to give them room to do their own collecting, make their own choices, and balance their own allowance budgets. A large part of that is going to involve staying out of what they’ve chosen to collect. And to do that I need to leave territory undiscovered and free for them to have choices.

So maybe that’s a sign I should stop thinking about getting back into collecting and instead just enjoy the conversation and memories. Or maybe it’s a sign that my initial instincts about what to focus on are the extent of what I should do. All I do know is that the next time I’m at my parents’ house I’m going to go dig up my albums and take a good look through. I haven’t really looked at them for 20 years. It’s going to be nice to see some old friends again.

AT&T

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For my birthday I got to take the behind-the-scenes tour at AT&T Park. It’s a good tour that goes through the stands, press box, clubhouse, and on to the field. I’m very much glad I went.

It’s also sort of a weird tour. We were there during a Visa corporate event and the tour definitely felt like it had been built along those lines—hit the good photo spots and keep moving. I couldn’t help but compare it to the Camp Nou tour I took in 2006. It felt like a pilgrimage for half of the adults on it and all the kids were treating it like Disneyland.

I think that part of the difference is that there’s no San Francisco Giants museum where fans can see the history of the franchise. A lot of the allure of visiting a stadium is to walk through the history of the place. This is why I’d love to visit Fenway or Wrigley and why, despite the Giants not playing there for a decade, I felt a pang of loss when Candlestick went down. AT&T is still very new and, while the Giants have done well there, it’s not the same sort of historical presence.

Still, the park is a beaut and we had a wonderfully clear day for the tour.

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Drifting away

I’ve never been a Luis Suárez hater—I have serious reservations about the way the racial abuse stuff was handled* and the biting stuff, while admittedly abhorrent, is not actually dangerous play. Still, I’ve never liked him despite his obvious greatness as a player. There is too much baggage there where, while I’m not convinced in the severity of everything, I don’t want anything to do with him still.

*Mainly because the way the translations were handled felt both culturally and linguistically simple.

This is distinct from how I enjoy rooting against Ronaldo because he’s a brilliant heel.* If the worst thing Suárez did was the handball against Ghana, I’d still consider him a heel.** But this is something worse where while I think the hatred may be harsh, I can see and understand and even agree with where it’s coming from. I can’t defend him. I also think the people defending him have to cherrypick so much evidence that they appear to be the worst kind of fanboys.

*It’s fun to root against him. It makes the game fun to root against him. At the same time, appreciate him for what he is too. I’m a Barça fan but the constant Messi vs Ronaldo thing is annoying and awful. Appreciate the fact that we’ve got two players playing at—and pushing each other to—levels that no one else has ever reached. 

**I thought that play was brilliant BTW. 

Which is why I’ve been dreading the end of Luis Suárez’s suspension all season. When Barça signed him I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. There have been a lot of things the club has done in recent years that I have disagreed with but none of them have affected my feeling for the team itself.

Until now.

Now, one of the chief attacking weapons whose goals and assists I’m supposed to count on and celebrate is a player who I don’t want anything to do with. He’s a player I don’t want to discuss with other fans. He’s a player who I know I’ll get crap about if I wear my Barça jersey.

I drifted away from being a Giants fan during the last half of the 2000s. Mainly because of Barry Bonds and the endless steroids sideshow and how I eventually ended up keeping the team at arms-length because the face of the franchise was something I couldn’t support anymore. Bonds was unlikeable and eventually undefendable and, as such, I found myself paying less and less attention to the individual games and instead just checking in every once in a while to see how things are going. I cared about the team in general. I just didn’t want to know the details.

One week of Suárez in the starting lineup and I’m finding myself taking the first steps to not caring about Barça in exactly the same way. I don’t want to watch the play-by-plays because I find myself hoping he doesn’t do anything good—or if he does, there’s no enjoyment in it. I don’t want to read the write ups because he’s the big story right now. I second-guess wearing my jerseys because I don’t want to talk about him.

This sucks.

I want to be proud when I wear my jersey. I want to take pleasure in being able to watch the games and joy in whoever our goalscorers may be. It’s easy to say that rooting for a team means rooting for laundry. But it’s not true. The people wearing the laundry matter. I’m rooting for both laundry and whoever’s wearing it. If I can’t root for both, I’m stuck not rooting at all.

What. The. Hell.

If 2012 was the bonus round, what the hell is this? I’m definitely happy. But I’m also really confused. My brain is still hardwired to expect disaster and before 2010 I’d pretty much convinced myself that I’d never see the Giants win the World Series.

Now it’s happened three times and I’m in a daze.

I can’t adjust to this new reality where people are throwing the “dynasty” word around. We’re not a dynasty. The Yankees are a dynasty. When did we turn into the Yankees? Oh geez are Giants fans as insufferable as Yankees fans are? This can’t be right. All of the Giants fans I know are like me: giddy with joy and full of disbelief that this has happened.

It’s a nice state to be in. There’s none of that pressure of decades and decades of failure. Nor is there any of the entitlement that we expect to win each year. It’s a team of scrappers and good pitchers and hot hands and we’ll see what happens and how long this ride will go and it should be a good ride no matter what.

And holy crap did riding Madison Bumgarner’s hot hand result in something from another era of baseball—both with the inning count and the dominance. I avoid player-based merchandise but I’m thinking of making an exception here. It’s rare to see a player, in any sport, dominate a tournament like Bumgarner has. So to have him be a player on my own team is extra special and worth commemorating.

This is fun. It’s nice when sports is fun. We’ll see how long this bonus round lasts.

Not a “true” soccer fan

The World Cup starts this week and as Americans become more and more interested in it, we’re seeing more and more articles castigating how we’re* interested.** Some of the critiques are legit—for example the way we’ve appropriated European nomenclature without recognizing what it means—but a lot of them feel like generic hipster bandwagoning scorn of the “how dare we finally get into soccer” type. Most of these articles are laughable but one of the primary noted “problems” with American fandom really pisses me off.

*By “we,” I mean White America. Most of the articles neglect to see or fail to mention that there are millions of Americans who have been following soccer, and the World Cup, for decades on Univision. And the articles which do notice this often suggest that White America needs to convert these viewers in order to help the “adoption” of the game.

**This is still preferable to the awful, condescending articles which try to explain soccer and soccer players in “American” terms.

Specifically, the idea that liking soccer but not liking MLS makes you a poser fan.

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.

Soccer and America

This isn’t about me being a soccer hipster who was into soccer before MLS existed. It’s that I’m still of the mindset that soccer in this country shouldn’t be driving people away because they’re interested in the “wrong” way.

Heck, soccer in this country has done a shit job of recruiting people who have been watching fútbol forever into being American soccer fans. That the current US national team has more American-Germans than Mexican-Americans embarrasses me—and I liked Thomas Dooley back in the day. I don’t understand* how we’re unable to scout and recruit Mexican-American players. Still. It’s why I’m so excited by what’s going on in Tijuana and how it shows what soccer, and soccer fandom, can really be in this country.

*Actually, I do. Youth sports, and soccer in particular, has become a rich kids’ game. Which is awful on multiple counts.

Right now though, Tijuana is the exception. Which means that I still don’t think soccer can afford to drive people away. The important thing is to get people interested and hooked on whatever team brought them in. Even if it’s a bandwagon team. One of the glorious things about soccer is that it’s totally okay to support multiple teams. There are so many different leagues and competitions that it’s easy to pick teams who’ll never play each other.

I got sucked into Barça in part because of Romario, Stoichkov, and the 1994 World Cup. It was near impossible to follow international soccer in the US then* but by the time I was able to start following things online, the hook had already been set. I wasn’t a culer 20 years ago. But it started then.

*I remember snippets in the sidebars of the Eurosport catalog. Thankfully I got hooked up to the internet in time for World Cup 1998 qualifying.

I’ve since followed AC Siena* and, before dropping MLS, the Earthquakes. I’ve also followed Rangers, Sunderland, Manchester City, Everton, Fulham, Spurs, Blackburn, and Hanover** at various times but have never settled on an EPL team.*** It’s a hell of a rabbit hole and, while I don’t expect everyone to be like me, soccer kind of sucks you in.

*Whose repeated match0fixing issues are starting to bug me.

**Because Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, Clint Dempsey, Brad Friedel, and Steve Cherundolo.

***I did though come close to picking Fulham.

Pick a team. Follow a player. Find a new team. Find a new player. Find a new league. Find a new team. Etc. Etc. It doesn’t matter how you start being a fan. There’s no wrong way. And it’s fine to be a newbie. Just, be careful. Soccer excels both at grabbing hearts, and breaking them.

Ivy League

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So I finally went to my first baseball games in New Jersey. Felt great to finally get out into the sun after such a long winter. I’m not all used to waiting until mid-April for my baseball fix. At the same time. Wow. Ivy League baseball is weird.

I’m realizing now how completely spoiled I’ve been by Stanford, and the rest of the Pac 12,* both from a quality of play and a depth of quality point of view. Readjusting for more-limited rosters and, somewhat surprisingly, a lower baseball IQ** has been harder than I expected. I’m okay with players who aren’t as good, whether it’s that slower first step or just sloppier defense. But it’s the not knowing who should field a ball, where to throw it, or when to just hold onto it that drives me nuts. Those aren’t skill issues at all.

*Well, I miss the original south Six-Pac of Stanford, Cal, USC, UCLA, ASU, and Arizona with three games against everybody both at home and away. The league has been gradually diluting as it’s been expanding.

**To the point where I find myself mentally heckling these kids with, “When did the Ivy League start offering scholarships?’

The coaching is also kind of scarily simplistic. On offense it’s autopilot smallball. On defense, autopilot intentional walks. Often it appears that the point of the sacrifice bunt is to compel an intentional walk for the next hitter. Sigh.

The handling of pitchers and pinch hitters seems to be either beyond them or irrelevant due to roster depth issues. I’m not craving the Tony LaRussa school of over management but I’m also not used to seeing absolutely no lefty/righty matchup stuff. In the game against Harvard, Harvard’s entire lineup was righthanded. Princeton only used lefthanded pitchers. Similarly, Harvard brought in a righty sidearmer (who wasn’t a dedicated closer) to face Princeton’s lefthanded batters.

I don’t understand.

At the same time, there’s something potentially refreshing about all this. Maybe all this lack of strategy is really just running your best players out there and hoping it all works out. I can live with that.

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.