Friday, May 21, 2010

We Could Be Hooligans, Thankfully We're Not

If American baseball was like English soccer (or "football"), tonight the New York Police Department would be on full alert. It would be a derby weekend.

There's no doubt in my mind that Yankees-Mets, and Yankees-Red Sox, would be the most hooligan-ridden rivalries in the sport. Worse than Dodgers-Giants (although that would still be the worst if the teams were still in New York, instead of in California these last 52 years), worse than Cubs-White Sox, worse than Cubs-Cardinals (that one would be a little one-sided, Card fans might come into Wrigley Field to talk trash, or "take the piss" as they say in England, but the Bleacher Bums would pound them), and don't even think about Dodgers-Angels being a rough one.

English hooligan firms have fearsome sounding names. Chelsea had the Headhunters, before their image changed a bit and they backed off from their hard-right National Front image. Birmingham City has the Zulu Army, so named because they were one of the first racially integrated firms. Burnley have the Suicide Squad. Leicester City have the Baby Squad, which is sort of like naming a very tall man Tiny or a fat man Slim.

Portsmouth have the 657 Crew, because, being on England's South Coast, they needed to take a train leaving at 6:57 AM to get to London by 10:00, enablin them to then get to any other part of England in time for the games, historically at 3:00 on Saturday afternoons. Stoke City, a bunch of bastards from the fans to the players (Ryan Shawcross) to the management (Tony Pulis, a.k.a. Tony Pus) have the Naughty Forty, and there are a number clubs whose firms call themselves that or the Dirty Thirty, and there's at least one Nifty Fifty. Since "barmy" is an English term meaning "crazy," several clubs have a "Barmy Army."

In Wales, Cardiff City have the Soul Crew, because the original members loved soul music; while their arch-rivals, Swansea City, have the Jack Army, because they're a seaport town and British sailors tended to get nicknamed "Jack."

My favorite name comes from Bradford City, which haven't done much lately and are buried in the lower divisions, but what a name for a firm: The Ointment. Ointment is what you're going to need after they're through with you.

The two clubs in England's Steel City have nasty-sounding names: Sheffield United, or "the Blades" due to Sheffield having had a noted cutlery industry that included swords (combat and ceremonial) for the armed forces, have the BBC, not the British Broadcasting Corporation but the Blades Business Crew; Sheffield Wednesday, so named because they began as a cricket club that played on Wednesdays, or "the Owls" because they played in a part of town called Owlerton, have the OCS, the Owls Crime Squad.

Probably the two most notorious, mainly because of their battles with each other, don't have names that fearsome, but they are not to be messed with: West Ham United's Inter-City Firm (ICF) and Millwall's Bushwhackers. Fortunately, they haven't played each other much in the last few years, due to a decline in Millwall's fortunes putting them in a lower division; unfortunately, they can still be drawn together in cup ties, and when they played each other in an FA Cup 2nd Round match last fall at West Ham's Upton Park, there was another riot, and there were injuries, and the question needed to be asked, "What moron was in charge of picking the matchups?"

And, "Did this moron not see the film Green Street?" In that film, written by former Watford hooligan (and Royal Air Force officer) Dougie Brimson, Elijah Wood plays a good kid who has to leave Harvard, and goes off to his sister and her English husband in the East End of London, and gets drawn into a fictionalized (or rather "fictionalised") version of the ICF, the Green Street Elite. The highlights of the film are the West Ham boys' battles with the Millwall thugs. This film is not for the squeamish, but it has a satisfying ending, at least from the point of view of Wood's character, who doesn't have the One Ring to rely on, just his wits and his fists.

You'll notice that I'm using plural forms to describe them. That's how they do it over there. Here, we would say, "The Yankees are going to beat the Mets tonight." Because North American team names are almost always plural, although there are confusing ones like the Miami Heat. (Rick Reilly once asked in Sports Illustrated, "What is one Heat called? A Hot?") So, while a lot of these English football club names sound singular, you wouldn't treat them as such. You wouldn't say, "Arsenal is going to beat Totteham," you would say, "Arsenal (or 'The Arsenal') are going to kick the living shit out of the fucking Spurs."

As you may be aware from previous posts in this blog, I'm an Arsenal fan. Which means I hate Tottenham and I hate Tottenham, I hate Tottenham and I hate Tottenham, I hate Tottenham and I hate Tottenham, I am one of the Tottenham (clap-clap) haters! Arsenal, however, are not known for having hooligan firms, althoug the usual name for Arsenal fans suggests it: Since the club's crest has a cannon, the club are known as the Gunners, and the fans as the Gooners.


With the 25th Anniversary of the Heysel Disaster coming up on May 29, we in America should thank God that we don't have hooligan firms -- especially since some of the on-field postgame celebrations of the 1960s, '70s and '80s could be quite scary, and if you add the hooligan element then these "pitch invasions," as they call them over there, could have been truly bloody.

Although I'm unaware of any Yankees-Mets game resutling in violence, there is precedent. On August 4, 1985 -- a few weeks after Heysel and in the all-time peak year for English soccer violence -- the Yankees were playing the Chicago White Sox at Yankee Stadium, and the Mets were also playing against Chicago, the Cubs at Wrigley. Pitching for the White Sox was Tom Seaver, the greatest player the Mets had (and still have) ever had, and he was going for his 300th career win. As a result, about half the crowd of 54,000 was rooting for the ChiSox. I was there, not because of Seaver -- he hadn't even been announced as the starter when I called Ticketmaster for the event -- but because it was Phil Rizzuto Day. And, as the Scooter himself would have said, "Holy cow, were there a lot of huckleberries there that day."

As the Sox were winning and Seaver was pitching brilliantly despite being 40 years old, the out-of-town scoreboard had the Mets kicking the stuffing out of the Cubs, who had beaten them out for the National League East title the year before. Dwight Gooden was in the process of striking out 16 Northsiders. And in the Bleachers, the holy Bleachers of the old Yankee Stadium, a blasphemous chant went up: "Let's Go Mets!"

Now, the fans who normally sat there were not yet known as the Bleacher Creatures. (In fact, that name was held by one of the Atlanta Braves' mascots, along with a man dressed as an Indian, named Chief Noc-a-Homa.) But their reputation, built during the nasty 1970s battles with the Red Sox, was already in place. First, there was a counter-chant of "Mets suck!" Which, by the way, they do, they always do, even when they're winning. In fact, had this been an English soccer game, no doubt, the chant would have gone up to the Met fans, to the tune of "Guantanamerea": "Sing when you're winning! You only sing when you're winning!"

The back-and-forth chanting didn't last long before the fists started flying, and there were about 50 ejections. I was in the right-field boxes, Lower Level Section 35, so I had the best possible view of the fighting: I could look right down on it, without actually being a part of it. Where I was, there was shouting, but nothing serious.

I've been to sports stadiums from the Montreal Olympic Stadium to RFK Stadium in Washington, from Fenway to Wrigley, and this was the only time I've seen a full-out brawl at any game, in any sport. This despite having been to Fenway during a Yanks-Sox game in a Yanks-Sox Pennant race. (Some minor pushing and shoving that night, but the Yanks' 13-3 blowout win probably demoralized some of the would-be fighters on the Boston side.) And, I should point out, this '85 game was in broad daylight. Not at night, when people tend to get a bit bolder, and have more time to get tanked before the game.

When the game was over, the White Sox had won, 4-1, and Seaver had his 300th. Those of us who hadn't been thrown out, regardless of whether we wanted him to get it, rose to applaud the old master, who had not just won, but pitched a fantastic complete game. I even tipped my cap. What could I do? It's not like Seaver is a figure worth hating. Met though he was, and remains, he has been all class for over 40 years. If he knew what was going on 400 feet behind him, he probably would have been appalled. I wonder if the Channel 11, Channel 9, MSG Network, SportsChannel, WABC and WHN broadcast crews knew what was happening.


Fortunately, thus far, America's MLS (Major League Soccer) does not have hooligan firms, only supporters clubs. The New York Red Bulls have the Empire Supporters Club, the Garden State Supporters, Raging Bull Nation and the Kearny Army.

The brand-new Philadelphia Union have a group that call themselves the Sons of Ben, named for Franklin, and have a great logo: A skull with Franklin-style long hair and bifocals, and a crack on his skull resembling that of the Liberty Bell, on a diamond-shaped crest meant to represent the kite from his electricity experiment (and thus the logo also includes a lightning bolt and a key). But opposing supporters' clubs have already nicknamed them the Daughters of Betsy, after Betsy Ross; so they countered by using that name for the supporters' club of the women's pro soccer team, the Philadelphia Independence. With their initials, they could also be called the SOBs.

If U.S. baseball teams had hooligan firms, it would be a terrible thing. Unless you were a member of such "a handy group of lads." What would their names be? Possibilities:

Arizona Diamondbacks: The Rattle (a "Diamondback" is a snake)

Atlanta Braves: The Bravo Squad, Ted Turner's Troops (so much for the A-T-L being "the city too busy to hate")

Baltimore Orioles: The Birds Business Crew, the Charm City Casuals

Boston Red Sox: Red Sox Nation (Nathan Cobb of the Boston Globe appears to be the originator of this actual name, in 1986), the Massachusetts Mafia, the Rhode Island Red Squad, the Southie Army (but would likely get their arses handed to them by Yankee Fans, who would probably call them the Mouthy Southie for being "all mouth")

Chicago Cubs: The Bleacher Bums (a name that's been used by the actual, but usually peaceful, denizens of Wrigley Field's bleachers since at least 1969), Brickhouse's Bad Boys (for broadcaster Jack Brickhouse, a World War II Marine), Harry's Hooligans (for broadcaster Harry Caray)

Chicago White Sox: The Old Romans (named for long-ago owner Charlie Comiskey), the Enforcers (for the city's Mob heritage), the South Side Hit Men (a name used for the '77 ChiSox, who had a lot of power but not enough pitching and fell out of first place in August)

Cincinnati Reds: The Machinists (from the team's 1970s nickname, the Big Red Machine)

Cleveland Indians: Chief Wahoo's Army, The Quake By the Lake

Colorado Rockies: The Rocky Horror Puncher Show

Detroit Tigers: The Motor City Madmen (Ted Nugent would have been one), The Rumble On Trumbull (Tiger Stadium was at Michigan & Trumbull Avenues)

Florida Marlins: The Miami Mafia

Houston Astros: The Far Out Space Nuts (from the city's space heritage -- how weird that sounds, our space program now old enough to have a heritage -- and a 1970s kids' TV show with Bob Denver & Chuck McCann)

Kansas City Royals: The Royal Flush Gang, The Monarchs (for the city's former Negro League team)

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: The Orange County Avengers

Los Angeles Dodgers: They wouldn't have hooligan firms. Walter O'Malley and Tommy Lasorda would never have allowed it. Yeah, right! Maybe it could be called The Squatters, for the people who got kicked out of the land in Chavez Ravine so that Dodger Stadium, O'Malley's monument to himself and his theft from Brooklyn, could be built.

Milwaukee Brewers: Fonzie's Army (from the Milwaukee-based Happy Days character), Harvey's Wallbangers (the actual nickname of the Brewers' 1982 Pennant winners, for manager Harvey Kuenn and their power hitting)

Minnesota Twins: The Evil Twins (come on, that one was obvious), Lou Grant's Goons (from a TV show set in the State), Hayden Fox's Screaming Eagles (ditto)

New York Mets: The New Breed (the press actually called Met fans that in their awful early days of the 1960s), Archie Bunker's Army (there's an actual Met fan blog with that name, in "honor" of Flushing's most notorious fictional resident)

New York Yankees: The Bleacher Creatures (that one is actually used, but they're not quite hooligans), the Bronx Bad Boys, the Pinstripe Army, the Sons of the Bambino, the D-Train Terrors, Yankees Universe (an unbeatable counter to "Red Sox Nation")

Oakland Athletics: The Athletic Supporters (an obvious one), the Swingin' A's (an actual nickname for the 1970s' World Champs), the East Bay Casuals, Jack London's Army

Philadelphia Phillies: The Hoagie Army, Ashburn's Army, Harry's Hooligans (not that either Richie Ashburn or Harry Kalas would have approved), the Sons of Rocky (for the city's fictional boxer, paralleling the Sons of Ben, for Franklin, used by the city's soccer team, the Union)

Pittsburgh Pirates: The Gunners (a connection not to Arsenal but to longtime Pirate broadcaster Bob "the Gunner" Prince), the Family (Willie Stargell's nickname for his World Champion Pirates of 1979, based on the Sister Sledge song "We Are Family"), the Steel City Psychos (which could have been used for one of the Sheffield soccer teams, but isn't)

St. Louis Cardinals: The Busch Barmy Army, the River City Trouble (a nod to The Music Man, although that play/film took place in a fictional Iowa town, closer to Cubs territory)

San Diego Padres: The Fighting Friars, the Border City Firm (used by English club Carlisle United, which is on the England-Scotland "border")

San Francisco Giants: Lefty O'Doul's Army (named for the longtime star and manager of the Pacific Coast League's San Francisco Seals, and operator and namesake of San Fran's most noted sports bar)

Seattle Mariners: The Wobblies (from the Seattle activities of the Industrial Workers of the World), the Sickos (from Sick's Stadium, home of the PCL's Seattle Rainiers and, for one year, the American League's Seattle Pilots), Davy Jones' Navy (focusing on the "mariner" theme)

Tampa Bay Rays: The Ray Devils, the Stingers

Texas Rangers: The Bad Cats (the Texas League used to have a Fort Worth Cats), Bush's Whackers (the moron former President used to own the team)

Toronto Blue Jays: The Royal Canadian Cheer Force, the Rocketeers (Toronto's subway is nicknamed "The Rocket," which probably goes over real well with Montreal Canadiens fans)

Washington Nationals: The Capital Punishers (a nickname used for the Washington Senators' last star, Frank Howard), the Rough Riders (in honor of their favorite President, Theodore Roosevelt). As the Montreal Expos, they could have had an English firm, the Olympians (for the Olympic Stadium and surrounding Olympic Park); and a French firm, Le Grand Armee. Hopefully, in those years of Quebec nationalism, they wouldn't have fought with each other, although an Expos-Jays interleague series from 1997 to 2004, when the Expos became the Nats, might have been trouble.

But, thankfully, we don't have hooligan firms in North American sports. We occasionally have trouble, but not like a Millwall-Luton riot, or a Heysel, or the fights that often happened between rival firms on London's subway, the Underground/Tube, and on its inter-city railway stations such as King's Cross and Euston -- due to 12 clubs being inside London's beltway, the M25, and anywhere from four to seven usually being in the first division, the subway and inter-city train stations were no-go zones on matchdays for much of the 1970s and '80s.

Baseball's attendance is higher than ever before. So is that of our college football and basketball games. Attendance remains high in the NFL and NBA, and it's bounced back considerably from the post-lockout dropoff in the NHL. Even our MLS matches are doing much better, and it doesn't just seem that way because 22,000 in a 25,000-seat stadium looks better than 22,000 in a 70,000-seat stadium.

So far, MLS supporters clubs haven't made the jump from loud, boisterous, sometimes profane, prop-wielding "ultras" to truly nasty, violent, weapon-wielding "hooligans." Nor have any other sports' fans in this country and in Canada.

May that remain so in perpetuity.

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