Friday, October 19, 2012

You Can't Understand Unless You Belong; Slater Martin 1925-2012

With the Yankees' season over, and not in a good way, it's a time for reflection.  Wondering where we went wrong.  Wondering how we can make it right, in the short term and in the long term.

And what it's all about -- and what it should be all about.

I'm reminded of the movie Fever Pitch.

No, not the U.S. baseball version, with Jimmy Fallon (a Yankee Fan in real life, he must be a really good actor) and Drew Barrymore, which ends as, from a Yankee perspective, a horror film.

I mean the British soccer version, with Colin Firth as a stand-in for the film's scriptwriter, Nick Hornby, who based it on his memoir of the same title, about supporting Arsenal, the North London club that I also came to support.

He was talking about the game that Americans, and a few other English-speaking nations, call "soccer," but most of the world calls some variation or other of "football." But, really, it applies to fandom in general.  Not just to fans of any team, in any sport, in any country.  But to aficionadoes (aficionadii?) of anything, be it sports, or music, or movies, or books, or art, or cars, or architecture.  Anybody who's ever said, "(such-and-such phenomenon) is my life":

We all have our reasons for loving the things we do...

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

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.  I've asked too much of the people I love.

Okay, I accept all of that.

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

You're at the center of the whole world...

The truth is, it comes again and again.  There's always another season.  You lose the Cup Final in May? Well, there's the 3rd Round to look forward to in January.  What's wrong with that? It's actually very comforting, if you think about it...

It's not easy to become a football fan.  It takes years.  But if you put in the hours, you're welcomed, without question, into a new family.  Except, in this family, you all hope for the same people, and hope for the same things.  What's childish about that?

You see, when you've got nothing going on in your life, Arsenal will fill in all the gaps.  You get into a state about losing to Spurs, when you really should be getting into a state about yourself...

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

We still see each other from time to time.  I still love them and hate them, all at the same time.  But I have my own life now.  And my failures and successes aren't wrapped up with theirs.  And that's got to be a good thing.  I suppose.

And yet, there are some lines in the film that still, very much, hit home.  Like this exchange, between Firth as Paul, and Mark Strong as his best friend Steve, watching the May 26, 1989 season-finale match between Arsenal and Liverpool that would decide the League title, which Liverpool would win unless Arsenal could win by at least 2 goals, on the road:

Steve: "We're doing okay, aren't we?"

Paul: "Well, what's the use of okay? We might as well be losing eight-nil!"

Steve: "I don't think that's really true, Paul.  It seems to me, if you want to win a game two-nil, you've got a much better chance if it's nil-nil at halftime than if you're eight goals down.  You see where I'm coming from?"

Paul: "You're living in Cloud Cuckoo Land! Join the real world!"

Steve: "In the real world, it's nil-nil at halftime!"

Paul: "Might as well be eight-nil... "

Steve: "Jesus, Paul! You need medical help! You've got some kind of disease that turns people into miserable bastards!"

I've been on both sides of that kind of exchange.

And, yes, Arsenal went on to win, 2-0, with Michael Thomas' stoppage time goal -- the last minute of the last game of the season, making him English soccer's Bobby Thomson -- sealing it for the Gunners.  It was the first time the League title was won in such a fashion, in stoppage time of the season's final game, and it was a unique feat until Sergio Aguero did it for Manchester City this past May.

Like the U.S. version, there's a flashback scene to the main character's youth.  Unlike the U.S. version, the "past" and "present" scenes are mixed up.  (The film came out in 1997, but takes place in 1968, 1972, and over the course of the 1988-89 season.)

In the book, Hornby mentions that his parents split up in 1968, and that his father went to France to live with his mistress.  But he would come back, and take young Nick to games.  Eventually, after the elder Hornby married the mistress and had more kids, they reconciled, and he'd take his father and young brother to games at the Arsenal Stadium, nicknamed "Highbury" after the neighborhood it was in.

In the movie, however, there is no indication that this happened: Paul's girlfriend, fellow junior high school (as we would call it) teacher Sarah Hughes (played by Ruth Gemmell), points out, "You stopped seeing your father when you didn't need him to go to the games anymore."

These days, the FA Cup Semifinals, like the Final, are held at the new Wembley Stadium in London.  But before the new Wembley opened, they would be at other neutral sites.  Villa Park in Birmingham, home of Aston Villa, was a frequent choice.  Arsenal were set to play Stoke City at Villa Park in one of the 1972 Semifinals.  In the book, Hornby states that his father got him a ticket for the match, but he went alone.  In the movie, Paul's father (played by Neil Pearson) says, "The tickets are waiting for us up there," but tries to talk Paul (played at ages 11 and 15 by Luke Aikman) into doing something different on this visit.  Paul calls his bluff.

Paul: "You're teasing me, aren't you?"

Mr. Ashworth: "Look, we don't have to go to Arsenal every time I'm in London, do we? I thought we'd be beyond that stage by now."

Paul: "We'll never be beyond that stage."

I know.  I understand.  I understand because, with the Yankees, with the New Jersey Devils, with Rutgers University, with East Brunswick High School, and now with The Arsenal, I belong.

When Greg Prince turned his blog Faith and Fear In Flushing (see link to the right) into a book, the jacket blurbs compared it to Hornby's original book version of Fever Pitch.  As a Yankee and Arsenal fan, that ticked me off.  But it was still a good book.

Prince started a chapter by rattling off things that were not reasons why he loves the Mets.  And he wrapped it up by saying, "Mostly, I love the Mets because I love the Mets."

Circular reasoning? Well, it makes as much sense as anything else.  Not because it's the Mets -- little about that team has ever made sense -- but because it's sports.

This is what sports does to people -- players and fans alike.  It turns boys into men, but it also allows men to be boys again for a little while.

And, as Nick Hornby would agree, there's nothing childish about that.  We all need our safety valves, to release the pressures.

As Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post put it, in his interview for Ken Burns' miniseries Baseball, "Life can't be all big issues and heart surgery.  Something has to bring joy into the day.  And baseball provides this."

So does football -- and so does football.  And basketball, and hockey, and whatever other sport you might love.

*

Slater Martin died yesterday. You'd have to be old enough for Medicare to remember him at anything resembling his best, but he was a basketball legend.

Slater Nelson Martin Jr. was born on October 22, 1925 in Elmina, Texas, outside Houston. A point guard, "Dugie" went to the University of Texas, and his 49 points in a 1949 game against Texas Christian is still a school record. He won NBA Championships with the Minneapolis Lakers in 1950, '52, '53 and '54, and with the St. Louis Hawks in 1958. He also coached the Hawks and the ABA's Houston Mavericks.
The University of Texas retired his Number 15, and he wore 22 with the Lakers, before it was worn by Elgin Baylor, for whom it would be retired. At the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where the Lakers moved in 1960, they have a single banner honoring their Hall-of-Famers from the Minneapolis years: Martin, forwards Jim Pollard and Vern Mikkelsen, centers George Mikan and Clyde Lovellette, and head coach John Kundla.

Martin is in the Basketball Hall of Fame. He died in Houston yesterday, at age 86. He was survived by 2 sons, Slater Jr. and Jim.

*

Hours until East Brunswick High School plays football again: 8, tonight, against John P. Stevens High School on the north side of Edison Township.  After getting throttled 55-12 at Manalapan in a Greater Middlesex Conference/Shore Conference crossover game last Friday night, Da Bears are now 1-4, with the other losses being 34-0 at home to South Brunswick, 41-0 away to Sayreville, and 27-0 at home to Monroe.  The only win was 14-0 away to North Brunswick.  Begging the question, how bad is North Brunswick? They're usually a good team.

Hours until Rutgers plays football again: 25, tomorrow afternoon, against Temple University, at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.  This follows a solid home win over Syracuse that advanced the Scarlet Knights to 6-0 under rookie head coach Kyle Flood.  Greg who?

Hours until Arsenal play another competitive match: 25, tomorrow afternoon, away to Norwich City of Norfolk, East Anglia.  Jack Wilshere is in the squad, and could play his first League game in a year and a half, after one of those injuries that seems to hit one Arsenal player every year and never quite go away.

Hours until the Red Bulls play again: 32, tomorrow night, the home regular season finale, against Sporting Kansas City.

Days until the Devils play again: Who knows.  I've heard rumors that the lockout is close to getting settled, and that a full 82-game season could begin on November 2, which would be in 14 days -- 2 weeks -- but that date is almost certainly untenable.  I think we're looking at a shortened season, possibly starting around November 15, and lasting around 60 games.

Days until the Devils play another local rival: Who knows.

Days until the U.S. National Soccer Team plays again: No matches currently scheduled, but there's a rumor going around that there will be a friendly away to Russia on Wednesday, November 14, which would be 26 days.  The Stars & Stripes come off 2 wins in the CONCACAF World Cup Qualifiers, over Antigua & Barbuda (yes, that's one nation) and Guatemala.  This qualifies them for the final qualifying round for the region that encompasses North America, Central America, and the Caribbean nations.  If they finish 1st or 2nd in this group of 6, they qualify for the 2014 World Cup.  These matches are expected to start this coming March.

Days until the Red Bulls next play a "derby": 8, against the Philadelphia Union at PPL Park in Chester, Pennsylvania, a week from tomorrow, on Saturday afternoon, October 27, in the regular-season finale.

Days until the first Nets game in Brooklyn: 13, on Thursday, November 1, against the now actually crosstown Knicks.  Under 2 weeks.
Days until the 2012 Presidential election: 18.  Under 3 weeks.  Remember, on Tuesday, November 6, vote! 
Days until the next North London Derby: 29, on Saturday, November 17, at the Emirates Stadium.  Under a month.  The return fixture will be on Saturday, March 2, 2013, at White Hart Lane.
Days until the next East Brunswick-Old Bridge Thanksgiving clash: 34.  Under 5 weeks until our annual Turkey Day beatdown by the Purple Bastards.
Days until the Yankees play again: 164, on Monday, April 1, at 1:05 PM, at home at Yankee Stadium II, against the Boston Red Sox.  Under 5 months.  Beat The Scum!
Days until the next Yankees-Red Sox series begins: See the previous answer.
Days until Alex Rodriguez collects his 3,000th career hit: 317 (estimated around September 1, 2013).  This is taking his recent injury into account.  Under 11 months.
Days until Super Bowl XLVIII at the Meadowlands: 471 (February 2, 2014).  Under 16 months.
Days until the 2014 Winter Olympics: 476 (February 7, 2014).
Days until the 2014 World Cup in Brazil: 601 (June 12, 2014).  Under 21 months.
Days until Alex Rodriguez hits his 700th career home run: 696 (estimated, around September 15, 2014).  Under 2 years.
Days until the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil: 1,386 (August 5, 2016).  Under 4 years.
Days until Alex Rodriguez hits his 756th career home run to surpass all-time leader Hank Aaron: 1,442 (estimated -- I'm guessing around the end of 2016, around September 30).
Days until Alex Rodriguez hits his 763rd career home run to become as close to a "real" all-time leader as we are likely to have: 1,654 (estimated -- estimating 28 home runs a year, taking his recent injury into account, I'm guessing around April 30, 2017, at age 41).  Under 4 1/2 years -- if he can.  And even if he does, will he still be a Yankee when he does it? Your guess is as good as mine -- and his.

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