Saturday, June 13, 2009

Unless You Belong

One of my favorite movies is Fever Pitch -- the original English soccer version, not the Red Sox version that I, a Yankee Fan, consider a horror movie because of the way it ends.

Colin Firth is ruminating on how much the team he loves, London soccer club Arsenal, has cost him, and not just in money but in relationships and heartache. At the time the movie takes place, 1989, Arsenal was on its way to winning the league for the first time in "eighteen fucking years." (To which a Red Sox fan from the U.S. version would say, "Boo hoo, poor you. Try eighty-six fucking years!")

But, like the Red Sox -- or the Cubs, or, dare I say it, the Mets -- Arsenal had provided fans like Nick Hornby, who wrote the screenplay based on his original book version, with devastating moments where they should have won but didn't. By 1989, Arsenal was no longer "shit," and has rarely been since, but the point Firth, as Hornby's fictional stand-in Paul Ashworth, was trying to make, still fits:

Football has meant too much to me, and has come to represent too many things.

After a while, it all starts to get mixed up in your head. You can't remember whether life is shit because Arsenal is shit, or if it's the other way around.

I've been to far too many games, and spent too much money, fretted about Arsenal when I should have been fretting about something else, and I've asked too much of the people I love.

All right, I accept all of that.

Perhaps it's something you can't understand unless you belong.

That sums it up, really. Maybe Yankee Fans and Met fans feel it more than most, because (this is one of the few things we agree on) New York is the baseball city. But isn't there a Seattle Mariners fan, or a Houston Astros fan, out there who mopes about why his team can never win, but doesn't switch teams, or drop baseball entirely?

It's the best drug of all: The highs are incomparable, and the lows don't kill you -- not even in October 2004 (or September 2007, as the case may be), when you might wish you were dead.

And then I read Greg Prince's book version of his blog, Faith and Fear In Flushing," and the inside cover blurb compares his Metdom with Nick Hornby's Arsenal love in the original book version of Fever Pitch.

As a fan of both the Yankees and Arsenal, I was a little offended by that. But both are terrific books, less about the teams involved than about the nature of fandom itself.

You see your team lose, especially to a team you hate, when you know they're a good team, and you wonder, "Why do I put myself through this?"

And if the Mets beat the Yankees today -- a pitcher the Yanks have never seen before? Televised by those Yankee-haters at Fox? If not necessarily a good sign for the Mets, then usually a recipe for disaster for the Pinstripes -- I'll be asking the question, and I'll have to remember the answer:

Because I chose this. Because I belong. And because I've had opportunities to get out, when the Yanks were awful and the Mets were good, and I didn't get out.

I didn't abandon the Yankees in 1979, or 1982, or 1990, or after the crushing defeat in the 1995 Playoffs -- and I was rewarded with 1996 through 2003.

I didn't abandon the Devils in 1984, or after the crushing defeat in the 1994 Playoffs -- and I was rewarded with 1995, 2000 and 2003.

I didn't abandon Rutgers football in 1985, or 1997, or 2001 -- and I was rewarded with what they've done since 2005. No National Championship, no Big East Championship, no major bowl game, but definitely enjoyable, with hope for more.

I didn't abandon the Nets in 1989, or 1995 -- and I was rewarded with, well, 2002 through 2004 didn't give us an NBA Title, but it was a lot better than what came before.

And while I just concluded Season One with Arsenal, there were plenty of times in that season when I could have said the hell with it, why am I watching this team from across the ocean, which I never heard of a year ago, with whom I have no connection, logical or otherwise, to whom I owe nothing and vice versa... and stuck with them to the end, and didn't switch to Liverpool or Chelsea or Manchester United, and now I can't wait until this coming Wednesday morning when the 2009-10 Premier League schedule -- excuse me, "fixture list," forgot to speak English there -- is released.

Arsenal since 2008. The Devils since 1982. The others as far back as I can remember, which would roughly be 1977, when I first saw the Yankees on TV, the Nets moved from Long Island to New Jersey, and I began to realize there was such a thing as college football and could read about it in the paper then known as The Home News.

I'm sure there are only a handful of people on the planet who root for exactly that combination of teams. Are there a hundred, or even a dozen? I'd be surprised.

But whatever team you root for, in any sport, there will come a time when you feel as if you belong, as if, no matter what bonehead decisions come from the front office, the team can't trade you, and you reach the point where you would never, ever trade them.

Not after the Captain died in a plane crash. Not after the Royals finally beat us on their 4th try. Not after the Dodgers finally beat us on their 3rd. Not after Reggie's homer off Guidry in his first game back since Steinbrenner let him go. Not after the Mets won the '86 Series. Not after Andy Hawkins' not-really no-hitter. Not after Jeff Fucking Weaver blew a World Series we should have easily won, with one pitch in Game 4. Not after "the Idiots" came all the way back and, for all intents and purposes, ended Yankee Stadium's postseason history.

Not after the most overrated hockey player of all time called your team "a Mickey Mouse outfit." Not after "Matteau! Matteau! Matteau!" Not after ex-Devil (and ex-Met) broadcaster Gary Thorne slobbered over Ray Bourque after the Devils blew a three-games-to-two Finals lead. Not after freezing your ass off walking across the desolate, winter-wind-swept Meadowlands parking lot too many times after losing to some scrub squad (NBA or NHL, take your pick). Not after two Carolina goals in the last 1:20 of a Game 7.

Not after the Nets drafted (take your pick: Dennis Hopson, Yinka Dare, Ed O'Bannon, someone else). Not after John Starks clotheslined Kenny Anderson. Not after the team you struggled with all those years finally began winning, and THEN some bastard billionaire buys them and says he's moving them out of your home State.

Not after "The only bowl Rutgers is going to is the one I just got off of." (Way to stay classy, Glenn Foley.) Not after Notre Dame 62, Rutgers 0 in 1996. Not after 0-11 in 1997, which included 50-3 to Syracuse (I was there) and 49-7 to freakin' Temple. Not after Syracuse 70, Rutgers 14 in 1998. Not after West Virginia 80, Rutgers 7 in 2001. (Nope, that's not a misprint: Eighty. To seven.)

Like Bruce Springsteen said, "Everything dies, baby, that's a fact. But maybe everything that dies someday comes back." That's what a fan lives for. And, sometimes, he is rewarded.

In the meantime, there's gonna be a rumble on the promenade, and the gambling commissioner's once again hanging on by the skin of his teeth.

*

Congratulations to the Pittsburgh Penguins for winning the Stanley Cup last night. This was a team that, two years ago, was thisclose to moving because they couldn't get a new arena deal. The got the deal, their new arena will open in October 2010, and they get to play the last season at the Civic Arena/Mellon Arena/Igloo as World Champions.

For only the 4th time ever, and the 1st time in the Super Bowl era, a city or metropolitan area has the reigning champions of both the NFL and the NHL: Chicago with the Bears and Blackhawks from April to December 1934, and Detroit with the Lions and Red Wings from April through December 1936 and again from December 1952 through April 1953. Now, at least from now in June 2009 to February 2010, Pittsburgh with the Steelers and Penguins.

Now, if the Pirates can just get their act together for the first time since George Bush was President... the father, not the son...

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