Not fun anymore

Football has moved on, but we haven’t. And on social media, on Barça Twitter, we bicker and squabble, more worried about being right than what any of it means for the team. It’s wanting Valverde to lose so that he could be fired so that a new, more correct coach could be hired. It’s harassing players on social media, and turning every post by the official club account or any club official into a shit trench of bile. Everything is wrong. What we aren’t stopping to acknowledge, maybe, just maybe, is that it won’t be right again until we understand what is possible now, what the game demands from its champions in the here and now.

Kevin Williams

I haven’t blogged about Barcelona and soccer in a long time. A long long time. I’ve still been following the team but it’s not a priority like it used to be. I used to follow streams and conversations during matches. Twitter was awesome. I wore jerseys all the time. It wasn’t my life but I was as die hard a fan as you could be in the United States.

Then five years ago I just sort of stopped. Some of this was baseball taking over but it was really a combination of things. Kevin’s post covers a lot of it but at the most basic level it wasn’t fun anymore. It got harder to find clips. Discourse about the team went into the toilet. Everything became about trying to reclaim an impossible ideal rather than acknowledging what was possible with the team at hand.

This wasn’t even about winning or not. It was about a team going through the motions with one foot in the past and the other unsure about the future. It was about a fandom that was vicious and cruel about tearing down anyone and anything that wasn’t “good enough.” It was about a club operating as a business fully content to milk a cash cow as long as possible.

I didn’t want a piece of any of that. Not something I want to associated with nor something I wanted to have to weed through in order to get my soccer fix. Which is a shame because I miss soccer an awful lot. It’s one of my favorite sports to watch and I love how it connects me to a global community.

Compared to my conscious decision to drop football I just passively stopped following soccer. For whatever reason Kevin’s post was a bit of a wakeup call. I’m not stuck in the past but I also haven’t made a decision about anything. Listing so much of what’s made the sport not fun also means I can consciously try avoiding just those things rather than aimlessly casting about like I have been doing.

So I’m trying to get back on top of the schedule and standings and be more aware again of when there’s a game and who’s playing who. It’s not turned fun yet—the team is indeed sleepwalking—but I’ll give it some time.

New Years Zapping

Last week Kenny gave me a heads-up that he’d sent me a package. I was expecting a small bubble mailer or something and kept an eye out…especially after we realized that the package had been sent to my old address. Then on Friday though my old neighbor gave me a call and said that a box had arrived for me.

A box? That was unexpected. So last weekend I popped on by (we only moved down the street), said hello, and picked up a medium priority mailing box filled with a lot more than just Yankees prospect cards.

Assorted vintage and junk wax. I love the 1975 Len Randle and am looking into other Len Randle cards now since his 1978 is one of the best of the set. The more I see of 1981 the more I like about it even though I really dislike the floppy caps still. But the bright, solid border is great and the photography has character.

A pre-A’s Dave Stewart is always fun and I’m very happy to have the giant glove Mickey Hatcher. I don’t have all the classic fun Fleer cards* but every one I do add makes me smile.

*Still missing the 1984 Hubbard and Johnstone cards among others. 

I’m also never going to be upset to add another Topps Gold card and while Collectors Choice was a set I barely collected due to 1994 reasons I like it more and more each time I see it.

Some more-modern cards starting off with a great photo on the Mark Bellhorn and then moving into more-expected territory with Yankees and Mets cards. Nice image on the El Duque card and it still weirds me out to see Derek Lowe as a Yankee.

A bunch of 2016 Archives in the 1979 design. Nice to get a couple Giants. Brandon Drury is also appropriate since I saw him rehab at Trenton. These cards all have pretty nice paper too, they just have some slightly weird photo processing especially the Billy Williams and Maz cards which feel like the backgrounds have been messed with a little.

It’s especially instructive to compare the Archives cards with the big batch of over 60 real 1979s in the mailer. Archives does a decent job at mimicking things but can’t quite get the photography right. This is partly because there’s been a standard Topps portrait setup used for all of Archives and Heritage recently and, while it’s fine for what it is, it’s not trying to capture the 1979 look either.

Some of this is the poses (the hands over head pitching posed windup is a thing of the past now). There’s also the slightly lower angle which, results in lots of sky-dominated, if not sky-exclusive, backgrounds. But it’s really cards with candid shots like the Garry Templeton which just no longer exist now. They’re not super-common in the 1979 set either but they’re there and tend to be my favorite shots of the set.

I still don’t like the 1979 design but it’s growing on me. Very photocentric and the splash of color is great. The fact that it’s the base card for Basquiat’s anti-product baseball cards is an added bonus.

Some more 79s. Larry Cox is a great catcher card. Clint Hurdle has a wonderful cheekful of chaw. I will never understand why the Cubs team cards were the way they were in the 1970s with all those floating heads. Mike Lum is a key addition to the not-yet-official Hawaii-born players project I keep telling myself I should start. And Nino Espinosa is an addition to the Candlestick binder.

Almost done with the 1979s and I have to admit that the Ken Landreaux stopped me cold when I was flipping through the stack. I joked on Twitter by calling it Vermeer lighting but in all seriousness I’ve never seen a baseball card lit like this before.

Indirect windowish light is not a situation that occurs that often in baseball as it is. The fields are exposed. Dugouts are usually open. Photographers are usually shooting into dugouts or out into the field. So getting a side shot of a player looking back from an open window? Even if it’s just a grab shot it’s one of those moments and lighting situations that makes the photographer side of me look closely.

Last handful of 79s includes another Candlestick card with the Jamie Easterly. I’m slowly putting together a page from each set showing just cards taken at the Stick. No specific searchlist, just pulling cards as I come across them This batch took me to five 1979s of Candlestick and also pushed my non-set-building accumulation over 200 in general.

Kenny included a few Giants and Giants-related cards. The Panini Joey Bart is especially nice. It doesn’t look like I’m going to get to see him in Trenton since he’s projected to end up at Sacramento but I’m hoping he’ll start the season in Richmond and only move up after they visit Trenton.

Chrome Suarez is cool and I know that Yastrzemski is an Orioles card but it just looks like a Giants card to me. The bunch of Pence cards is also fun. It’s weird to see him looking so clean cut as an Astro and I’m glad he regained some form with the Rangers.

Moving to Stanford guys. I don’t actively collect relics but this is one where I can see why people do. Not just a half-inch square of material, this is instead a big swatch which shows off how well-done Stanford’s ink/fabric color matching is. The photo is small but legible. The autograph is on-card. I don’t like the red uniforms but the color really pops here.

I’m not super-collecting Quantrill but he’s the one guy who debuted this year who got a bunch of cards from Topps. As a result I’ve picked up a lot of them and this is arguably the nicest of them all.

Three more Stanford guys in the mix. Bleich is also a former Trenton player and I’m not sure Kenny realized Ramos and Osuna were Stanford. that Osuna card is fantastic though.

Girardi on the other hand is a Spanish-language card and so fits with another of my mini collections. I’ve written about this set before and while I only have a handful of these total it’s always great to add a new one.

Speaking of non-English cards, Kenny sent me a couple Japanese cards as well. From what I can tell on his blog, Kenny visits his family in Japan and comes back with all kinds merchandise, much of which he’s generous enough to send out to other people.

God help us all if he starts bringing back mid-70s Calbee cards since these Kanebo and Card Gens are cool enough as it is. The Kanebo Bonds card is a massive improvement over the regular 2003 Topps design* because it’s deleted the Topps logo. The logo is often intrusive as it is but in 2003 it’s doubly annoying because it’s bright red instead of being reversed, black or, as is the case today, foil stamped.

*Also it uses the Opening Day photo.

Sega Card Gen is something that really intrigues me because it’s part of a video game that really has to be seen to be believed.  The card itself is pretty neat too: stiffer than a regular card and rounded corners. I actually have one on my Stanford Wantlist because San Fuld’s only 2012 card is a one of these but never expected to actually get one. Very very cool to have a sample in my collection.

Looking at the back of the Kanebo card is pretty wild. I appreciate that they translated his height and weight into metric. I also recognize that the team name is listed as “Jaiantsu” instead of “Kyojin” and am noticing the connection in voiced and unvoiced katakana syllabic pairs (in this case the BA in “Barry” and PI in “Pirates”).

Sticking with Japanese issues, There was a huge stack of close to 80 Japanese Panini Soccer cards. Even better, many of them were from 2010 to 2012 and so cover the years in which I was most interested in the game.*

*I’m still a fan but ever since Suárez came to Barcelona I’ve found myself less interested. Plus the inequality in the game itself has gotten worse and it’s become increasingly difficult to actually follow what’s going on as even highlights are going behind paywalls.

The biggest highlight in this batch is a Messi card from 2005–2006. Not technically a rookie card but pretty damn close. Messi debuted in 2004 and so probably only shows up on commemorative Campions Lliga type sets from that seasn. 2005–2006 would be the first time he’d be included from the beginning and what a season that was. A good time to be a Barça fan.

Two early-career Cristiano Ronaldo cards are also very nice. I also like seeing Keisuke Honda and Guiseppe Rossi. And even the Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid guys bring back good memories of that period of time.

More Soccer. Another Rossi. Diego Forlan. Bojan Krkic. Gianluigi Buffon, Shinji Kagawa. So many players who I watched play in Europe and int he World Cup. They won’t all make it into my album but it’s going to be difficult to cut things down to a couple pages.

Last bit of soccer takes us into current-year cards and stickers. These don’t resonate as much although Mathieu and Vidal are both players who’ve played at Barça. Rodrigo Taddei is also a former AS Siena player. I used to follow Siena when they were in Serie A but after going out of business and restarting in Serie D it’s been much harder for me to follow them. I do know they’re in Serie C now and doing well while not competing for promotion.

Also it‘s worth nothing that these cards are all mini-card sized and feel like the B5 equivalent to regular cards A4/letter size. I haven’t compared them to the classic Calbee size yet but it’s close and feels similarly satisfying to handle. Like the Card Gen cards these are part of a game and have backs that detail each player’s strength number within the game.

Okay now we’re getting into Kenny’s wheelhouse. Mostly Yankees. Mostly minor leaguers. These are from nationally-released minor league sets and as such I don’t really recognize many of the names. Jim Walewander may be the only one actually since the Melky Cabrera and Mike Stanton are part of the Major League side of Bowman.

A few more-modern Minor League issues with some Major Leaguers mixed in. Not much to say here except to note that while I like these Bowman designs they’re also some of the designs that I have the hardest time telling apart.

I also need to comment on whatever Topps did in that 2013 Heritage 1962 design. Design looks good but the photo processing looks like the black plate just didn’t print. At first I thought some of these were blackless variations but they all have the same look. It really weirds me out.

Sticking with minor league releases, Kenny included a dozen cards of guys I might see in Trenton at some point.* Most of these guys were in Tampa last year and can reasonably be expected to be in Trenton this year. The big name is Florial who I’m hoping won’t jump Trenton after a couple years in Tampa.

*Assuming there’s even minor league baseball in 2021 and beyond.

Another dozen or so cards related to Trenton. A handful shows guys who pre-date my time as a fan including three more which show the weird photo processing. Always fun to expand the Thunder collection though.

The rest show guys who I saw last season. Kyle Holder might be back though I expect him to move up to AAA.* It would’ve been nice to have had that Bowman card last year though. Same with the Jeff Hendrix although the fact that Hendrix was released early last season means I didn’t miss out much. Jhalan Jackson is another guy who didn’t make it through the season. And Casey Mize isn’t a Thunder player but was part of Erie’s excellent pitching staff which was impressive whenever I saw them play.

*Unlike Trevor Stephan who struggled with injuries last year and so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him at least start the season at Trenton.

It wouldn’t be a proper zapping from Kenny if there weren’t a bunch of Yankees minor league team set cards. I never properly appreciated how long he’s been Yankees prospecting but the first cards here are from 1992. I don’t like these cards individually but there’s something about seeing the progression of designs and the increased production quality which I find fascinating.

The 1992s are full bleed but the typesetting is an afterthought and the paper is super thin. By the time we get into the 2000s the cards feel and look like proper cards. I don’t know if the designs are used across all the different minor league teams the way that TCMA designs were consistent across all the teams in the 1980s but they increasingly look like national releases.

These show the 2000s and 2010s designs which are much less loving-hands customs and much more professional looking. They still don’t pass as Major League cards in part due to the print quality but they’re not bad. The stock and finish is much much better now though.

The last items in the box were three mini-binders. I’ve been intrigued by these for my Mothers Cookies sets since the four-pocket pages are perfect for 28-card sets. Unfortunately Ultra Pro seemed to have discontinued these right when I started looking. This is also probably part of why Kenny decided to dump these. I know he’s trying to condense his collection but these are a nice way to have some things on display without taking up too much space.

These came with pages inside too so that makes them perfect for me to give to the boys. They have plenty of big binders but I can see the small ones being great for the cards they want to show off the most.

It’s a good thing I opened the binders too since there were a dozen autographs in there. Bobby Brown is the big one and now forces me to make a decision about my Stanford Project. To-date I’ve not included him because he was only at Stanford for a year before enlisting in the Navy and finishing his education at UCLA and Tulane. Part of this is me preferring guys who ended finished off their collegiate careers with Stanford* and part of this is me not wanting to pay the Yankees tax on Brown’s cards.

*Or, in the case with Bill Wakefield, Stanford graduates who didn’t play college ball.

At the same time he’s in the Stanford Athletics Hall of Fame so it’s clear that he kind of should be part of the project at some level and I’ve added this to the binder to reflect that.

The rest of the autographs are all guys from the 2004 Battle Creek Yankees. I’m going to assume these were TTMs and, since none of these guys made it to the majors, Kenny’s willing to include them in his clean-out. Battle Creek was a low-A level team in the Midwest League and so demonstrates how hard it is to predict who’ll make it to the majors at that level. Only seven guys on the entire team made it al the way with Melky Cabrera the only real success story.*

*For my interests Stanford-wise, Jason van Meetren was also on this team but I’m not intentionally going into Minor League team issues for this project unless it’s the only way to get a card of a guy who eventually played in the majors.

Wow. That was a lot of stuff to get through and a lot of fun to look at. Thanks Kenny! I’m going to have to touch base after Spring Training as I prep for the Trenton season.

My 2010s

I’ve only been blogging for nine years but ending the decade feels like a good time to look back on where this blog has been and how it’s changed from being about photography, museums, and sports to a lot more card collecting.

I still like photography and museums, I’ve just been in a bit of a rut ever since I moved to New Jersey. I need to get out more but I also need to be back in time to pick up the kids from school and I honestly just haven’t been inspired by my surroundings despite being here for six years.

Anyhoo, highlights from the past nine years of blogging. I made it to WordPress’s Discover (previously known as Freshly Pressed) twice. The first time was for a 2013 post about looking at photography which is really about dealing with the proliferation of any media. The second time was for a post about Atlee Hammaker and how, as a kid, I didn’t realize that he shared the same multicultural background I did.

I also had a moment of semi-virality in 2013 when I dashed off a quick (it’s always the quick posts that get you in trouble) post about “white guy photography” which took on a life of its own. I had to follow that up with some clarifications. That was an interesting ride and I’m not sure how people deal with that level of scrutiny and seething anger on a daily basis. I also shudder to think about what would’ve happened if that post had gone viral in the last half of this decade.

Another popular post was in 2014 and forshadowed my return to the hobby when I recognized that my childhood autograph collecting and current photography practices had a bit in common in terms of that push/pull between the process and the result. That reminder to enjoy the process rather than fixating on the result is possibly the single most important thread in my blogging. I don’t seek viewers or an audience, this is for my enjoyment and I just like the writing. That I only average, at most, one view an hour is still a lot more viewers than I ever expect to get.

For a blog where I wrote about sports a lot, I don’t have many sports posts listed on here and that’s because while I started out writing a bit about sports and fandom, the general theme on this blog has involved me drifting away from The Olympicsfootball, and Barcelona. Yes there are some posts in there which I liked but it’s been weird to chronicle and revist my abandonment of a lot of things I used to be a fan of.

The flip side of this is that I’ve also been able to write about my sons’ discover of baseball, especially minor league baseball. Over the past couple years I’ve been able to enjoy going to games with them and collecting cards and autographs with them and it’s been wonderful. I’ve rediscovered how baseball cards are one of the formative items in my childhood photography and design education and not only started blogging for SABR, I’m now the co-chair of the Baseball Card Committee.

This has meant that some of my favorite posts over the past couple years are actually on the SABR blog where I still write about photography and museums with posts about people like Mike Mandel, Cady Noland, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. I’ve also particularly liked writing about the mental exercise of thinking about what it means to restore a baseball card as well taking a deep dive into R G Knowles and discovering the state of baseball in turn of the 20th century England.

Where will this blog go in the next ten years? Who knows. It’s been a fun ride so far and I owe everyone who’s read any of my posts a big thank you.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Winning

It’s been a couple weeks now since the Giants won the World Series and I’ve been thinking about the difference in my reaction to the Giants’ continued success than  the way I react to Spain’s or Barcelona’s.* With the Giants, I’m still in the afterglow of the 2010 victory and treating 2012 as a bonus. With Spain and Barça, I find myself wanting continued success and being disappointed in any hiccups.

*Since my last post, I’ve watched Spain win Euro2012 and the Giants win the World Series.

I’m tempted to chalk these differences up to a baseball vs soccer thing but they’re not. I enjoy both sports as much for the down time as the exciting moments. Soccer is perhaps a bit more passionate but not enough to really explain the way I feel.

A large part of this is the expectations game. I still don’t expect the Giants to win. Every year I hope for the best and expect the worst. But Spain and Barça begin each competition as THE favorite now where the expectation is winning. I won’t reach the point where I start rooting against them because of the expectation. But I can admit that while the past six years have been extraordinarily special, they have taken some of the shine off winning.

Another part is the nature of the teams themselves. Baseball teams have a lot of turnover now. The Giants are no exception. There are only a few important players on this year’s team who were also important in 2010. While I root for laundry, the connection to the players is still important. And continuity is key here. The Giants are in the position to start a great thing. We’ll see how long Posey, Cain, and company can maintain the core of the team and forge a connection with the fanbase.

This hasn’t been Barça or Spain’s problem. The core of those teams has been constant for longer than they’ve had success. And it’s my connection with those players which drives a lot of my desire for continued success. I want to see them do well and I dislike it when they play poorly. As a result, I find myself caring a lot more about their games.

It could also be that it’s the amount of my life I’ve invested in each team. I’ve invested twice as much time in the Giants as I have in Barça. And while Barça was always good, the Giants have been all over the map. Maybe the longer you watch a team not win a championship corresponds to a longer afterglow when that win finally arrives.

Homage to Xavi

My internet behavior tends to be positive. I try to contribute to discussions rather than attack people. I even avoid trolling.

Most of the time.

But there’s something about the “best player ever” discussion in sports which brings out the worst in me. I suspect that it’s the myopic fanboy nature of the arguments where they degenerate into trying to tear down players as “not being that great” rather than making a case for which player is actually greater.

Recently, I was reading* a “Messi is the best ever” thread which degenerated into a Messi vs. Maradona showdown. Since the thread was in a Barça forum, I decided to troll with a “you’re all wrong, Xavi is the best player ever” comment.

*Well, skimming.

Yes, this counts as trolling for me. Any time I make a comment which is intended to provoke rather than be an accurate reflection of my opinions? One step toward the dark side of the internet. Only in this case, I surprised myself by posting a disingenuous comment which ended up being so convincing that I ended up believing it.

Soccer is a team sport. In many ways, it’s the team sport since it can’t be distilled into stats which show what individual players contribute. You have to really watch and see how the teams play and there’s still a sense of connoisseurship in recognizing brilliance and quality. At the same time, results do matter. And sustaining results over years make a statement.

In 2006, after coming back from his injury, Xavi became the key player for both FC Barcelona and the Spanish National Team. He had already been a very good player* but he was always playing on someone else’s team. Between 2006 and 2008, both teams became indelibly his—despite the fact that he was not the marquee star of either of them.

*I remember at the time being ecstatic that he’d make it to the 2006 World Cup. Yes, this is me being a hipster.

It’s easy to focus on the star goalscorers in soccer. It’s the only stat we really have and it is important. But it’s the rare player who can actually take control of a game and dictate the way it’s played. Xavi is such a player. Barça and Spain both made the commitment to play games centered on him, his playing style, and his philosophy. He, and his ethos, embodies both teams and he remains the player which both teams need right now in order to play their best.

We forget this now, but in Euro 2008, the only Barça players getting regular minutes were Xavi, Puyol, and Iniesta. Spain looks like a Messi-less Barça now, but the similarities started when both teams built around Xavi.

As a fan, I’m most concerned when Xavi is not available since I don’t have the confidence that the team will be able to control the match without him.

So if we’re talking about players who take over matches and embody/espouse the philosophy of their teams, we have to look at the teams and how they play. And what they’ve done.

Xavi’s teams? Since 2006? He has won every team competition possible. Twice. Except for the World Cup—a competition only two men have ever won more than once.

Not only that, but Xavi’s Barça is arguably the best team of all time. And Xavi’s Spain is arguably the best national team of all time. Not just because they’ve both won, but because of how they’ve won and the fact that the style in which they play and win is both ruthless in how it get imposed on opponents and astoundingly beautiful to watch.

At the center of all the success is Xavi.* Dictating play. Demanding the ball. Holding the ball. Sending passes into spaces players—and the rest of us—never realized they should be running into.

*Do yourself a favor and read both Sid Lowe’s and Grant Wahl’s interviews with him.

The sad thing that that we’ll only realize how great he was when he retires and his teams have to figure out how to play without him. I do not look forward to that day.

The only silver lining is that Xavi’s retirement will allow us to see how truly great Messi and Iniesta are. As Spain and Barça have to re-invent themselves, we’ll see two great players have the opportunity to stamp their own philosophies on the teams. Right now, both players are playing on Xavi’s team. I hope Iniesta’s team and Messi’s team bring me the same joy. But matching Xavi’s teams is an extraordinarily high standard.

Xavi’s teams.

Playing his style, his philosophy of soccer.

If I get to build a team around one player? Xavi. How is that NOT the definition of best player ever?

“Eulogy”

Winning is hard.

Repeating is harder.

Being the favorite is even harder.

Expecting to win everything is irrational and impossible.

And it takes the fun out of actually winning. It’s not the end of an era. Yet.* But this Barça season has felt like a return to form for me. The Barça I fell in love with was a great team which constantly came close and specialized in breaking fans’ hearts. Yes, it did win a lot. But not nearly as often as it came close and lost.

*That comes when Xavi and Puyol retire—yeah, I don’t want to think about it either.

The double-whammy of effectively losing La Liga and then getting knocked out of the Champions League in back-to-back games is especially harsh—especially to new followers who aren’t used to the spastic panicky Barça which broke/stole my heart so often a decade ago.

Many of those followers are now leaving. To those that stay, welcome to the club. This season is much more in-line with expectations. Compete well in everything.* Play beautifully. Break our hearts anyway.**

*That the Senyera symbolizes everything Barcelona is perfectly fitting. Its origen may be a myth but the club’s colors represent the blood, sweat, and tears that come from competing fully.

**Though to be honest, that everyone is despondent after a season where we’ve won three trophies and are in the final for a fourth goes to show how spoiled we all still are.

I’m pleased though to see so many fans who are reacting to the losses with pride. They should be proud. We should be proud. The past week of Barça soccer has put the past four years in perspective. It reminds us how much we should remember and enjoy this team. We’ve been so dominant and played so beautifully that people have forgotten how hard it is to maintain that quality.

Any fan would kill for a period of success like we’ve had.

Despite all the eulogies we’ll see in the press this week, it’s not like things are over. Next season just got really really interesting. The rivalry with Madrid will take on a new face where Barça may be the underdog. Similarly, we’ll be playing the entire season with a chip on our shoulder and something to prove.

There’s nothing like losing to remind us how good winning is.

I’m looking forward to next season. A lot. Fewer bandwagon fans. More dark humor where expecting the worst isn’t considered patronizing. And another chance to make history.