Monday, February 4, 2013

Pro Sports are Losing Me

Before the lights went out
It's Super Bowl Sunday, the day of the Greatest Sporting Spectacle in the World™ or, as I like to call it, Sunday, February 3, 2013. I've never really been a football fan at any point in my life; I do watch the occasional game if there's some significant reason to do so and will try to at least follow if not actually watch a Championship Game from time to time, at the very least for pop culture value. Last night, for example, the importance of a solid social media presence was once again driven home to me: I hadn't watched even a moment of the "festivities" (and especially not the half-time show) when I was alerted on Twitter that something extraordinary was happening in the Superdome—specifically, half of the lights had gone out due to some sort of power surge. I immediately switched over to the channel carrying the game and left it there for about twenty-five minutes, soaking up the historical occasion. Then the game itself resumed and we all went back to watching the Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet. I did switch back at the very end when I learned how close the game had become; I really only watched it for curiosity's sake, though, from there on in. But that's always been my attitude toward football; there's nothing new under the sun there, although I do watch it—and basketball and tennis and pretty much all professional sports—even less often now than the miniscule amount I once did.

Empty rink: sign of things to come
The biggest change in me, of course, has had to do with hockey. Long my absolute favourite sport to play, watch and coach, the past few years have seen such a severe drop-off in my interest that I have almost completely turned my back on the game and not just at the professional level. I have stopped playing hockey (even pick-up shinny), I haven't coached in over a year and I barely even noticed the World Juniors this year. After so many years of pouring my heart and soul into the game—even last spring I still was so wrapped up in the sport that I wrote several blog posts about the NHL playoffs and even correctly predicted the eventual champion—the sudden and utter lack of interest in hockey is a bit confounding and startling. I imagine I will come back to the sport I grew up adoring, but I won't ever again be in love with it the way I used to be. I can't take the incivility in the game any more; it's likely that it was always there and I just decided to ignore it but I also imagine the change in the attitudes of North Americans in general (such as the inexplicably enormous popularity of "Ultimate Fighting", even more vicious than Rollerball predicted) has taken its toll on the sport and on me. A good friend of mine in university—over thirty years ago—told me he loved hockey and baseball and football but just never could understand the world of "professional sports". I, of course, looked at him like he had three heads; now I think he was light years ahead of his time in my circle of friends. Even so-called "amateur" events like the Olympics or the Tour de France have succumbed to the lure of the almighty buck and have become travesties. I still love watching athletes push the limits of their own abilities but the pressure to cheat in order to "win" has made so much of the sporting world very difficult to love. And refereeing and judging has reached an all-time low; I won't even watch Olympic events that are judged any more, the NHL's refs lost me long, long ago and there isn't a sport out there that I don't believe would be infinitely improved by somehow doing away with human "subjectivity" completely.

Brett Lawrie doesn't like umps any more than I do
Which is why it's even more amazing to me that baseball is the one holdout among all professional sports in my life. I haven't yet turned my back on it and I wonder, now, if I ever will. I wrote last year about why I love baseball as a game; perhaps the beauty of the sport simply transcends the greed, the fan abuse, the egotistical and aggressively ignorant umpiring of Major League Baseball. It's especially difficult for me, a dyed-in-the-wool arbiter hater from way back, to understand how I can just shrug off the deep impact those umpires have on a game, especially compared to other major pro sports. There are about 130 plays from scrimmage in an average NFL game; 130 chances for one referee or another to have an influence. Hockey is a little more ethereal as it is a "flowing" sport and not broken up into plays the same way as most others are. Still, I think it's reasonable to say that the number of times a referee or linesman has to make a choice that, one way or the other, will affect the course of any given game isn't a lot higher than 100. But in baseball, there are an average of just under 300 pitches thrown in an average nine-inning game. That's 300 separate, distinct and obvious times where an umpire has to make a call, whether it be strike or ball; fair or foul; hit or out; or myriad other variations on those themes. Some of those calls are far easier than others, of course, but even at that there are an amazing number of instances every year where what appears to be an incredibly obvious ruling is missed and a mind-boggling call is made. Think about only the times in a game where an umpire calls a batter safe at a base and a replay shows that the call was wrong. That's one more scoring chance for the offense (given to them specifically by the umpire) and one more out for the defense to get. If you tried to translate that to, say, hockey you'd get a situation where the team defending the lead watches as elapsed time is put back on the clock while the other team is given a second puck to shoot at the net for a few seconds. Preposterous, of course, but not a terrible analogy.

R.A. Dickey, Renaissance Man
So, really, I have no logical explanation for why baseball—and especially professional baseball—still has this tight grip on my life. I'm glad it does, though, because I am not ready to turn my back completely on my sporting past. When spring breaks in Toronto—and even before then—I will be pathologically in love with the Toronto Blue Jays and will rabidly devour any and all news items that have to do with the team. It's the way I used to feel at the start of every NHL season when I was a younger man; the thing is, though, I used to feel about baseball the same way back then, too. That's why it's so difficult to pinpoint exactly why one has lost my interest while the other still makes me feel like a kid every Opening Day. And speaking of Opening Day, I hope to be at the SkyDome (no, I won't stop calling it that) on April 2nd as R.A. Dickey, Renaissance Man and humanitarian extraordinaire, takes the mound as the new ace of a staff which has the feeling of greatness about it. I hope to squeeze into a cheap seat somewhere in the upper deck and soak in the feelings from the full house and remember how it was twenty years ago in the glory years. And I hope to repeat the experience when the Red Sox come to town three days later, sitting in the bleachers and booing the traitorous John Farrell so lustily that I won't be able to speak the next day; shades of when the Tigers used to visit old Exhibition Stadium in the mid-80s. And I'll still be enchanted by the beauty of the game and I'll chew on all of the statistics and numerical breakdowns, because I am still that much of a numbers geek. I'll wildly overpay for beer and parking and nosh and I won't care because this is the year, dammit. And then I'll suffer through the sixty losses even the very best teams in the league put up in the ledger every year because in baseball, unlike any other sport, there's always tomorrow.

Only eight more days until there's news filtering back from Florida about the Jays in Spring Training. Even though they are the only team I continue to care about at the professional level in any sport, there is really no pressure on them at my end because I just don't think I can ever quit them as long as they play in Toronto.

I think I just "knocked" a hole right through my wooden desk.


I've kept my comments open and moderation-free for many years, but I've been forced to now review them before they post due to the actions of one member of my family. I apologize for having to take this stance, but that's the way the world is headed, sad to say. Thank you for your understanding.

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