Saturday, June 16, 2012

Father's Day: Triple Crowns, U.S. Opens, and Other Sports

Father’s Day: Triple Crowns, U.S. Opens, and Other Summer Sports

Let me define ‘summer.’  For me, as a life-long academic, summer begins around May 1, when second term ends and – in North Carolina at least – when the weather is consistently balmy and often downright hot.  Summer ends in mid-August, when school (and football!) begins again.  So I’m talking roughly May through August.

Summer is an odd ‘season’ for an omnivorous U.S. sports fan like me.  As opposed to fall/winter, when it’s all football all the time, or winter/spring, when it’s college basketball, bay-bee . . . summer is baseball and an assortment of other athletic viewing possibilities.  Unfortunately, if one is a patrilineal Chicago Cubs fan, baseball enthusiasm soon slides into the dispirited present and unrealistic future dreams of ‘maybe next year.’  This is such a predictable (over a century!) pattern that I’ve resisted purchasing a cable baseball package that would allow me to wax nostalgic about Wrigley Field but, ultimately, to subject myself to many inept, disappointing games. 

Over the years, I’ve fed my baseball jones by attending Durham Bulls games (great fun, it it’s under 100 degrees at game time) and trying occasionally to root for more competitive teams like the Phillies (my nephew is a Phillies Phanatic, who’s paid to whip up the home crowd by throwing treats into the stands and yelling loudly) or (this year) the Nats (many family member live in the D.C. area) . . . but it’s just not the same as having your life-long favorite team in contention for most of the season.  Thus, my attention has been drawn to alternate sports.

They begin with the Triple Crown.  I’ve often wondered why non-‘horse people’ watch the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont:  who cares about querulous mega-rich geriatric owners, arrogant dope-injecting trainers, and – for that matter – animals so inbred that they’re likely to break an ankle if they stumble over a four-leaf clover?  If you don’t count circling State Fair ponies, I’ve been on a horse only once in my life, and my mandatory girlhood infatuation with horses lasted less than two weeks (an older next-door neighbor had a collection of plastic horses that I admired and wanted to emulate, until the tiny plastic specimen I’d purchased with carefully hoarded allowance money was deemed beneath contempt).  Neither am I carried away by the beauty/nobility/whatever of horses – I mean, the gastronomically feted French eat horses, don’t they?  So what’s so special? 

Nonetheless, I fanatically watch all Triple Crown races – the Derby because it’s a lovely tradition among local friends to view and bet on together, the Preakness and Belmont (with or without viewing companions, depending on who’s in town) because I’ve convinced myself that I NEED to see these races.  What’s odd is that I’ve really enjoyed attending actual horse races, mainly because I like to bet – and there are few ‘sporting’ experiences more relaxing, enjoyable, and inexpensive than, say, spending an afternoon at a park like Santa Anita.  But watching the Belmont as I did this year . . . by myself, strangely disappointed that “I’ll Have Another” would not have a chance to win it all . . . has nothing to do with the pleasure of being at the track or wagering with friends. 

I’m not sure what causes my Triple Crown compulsion.  Some of it, no doubt, is the excitement of mano-a-mano (or equus-a-equus) races . . . I love to watch many Track and Field events as well, because the results are so unequivocal.   The fastest wins!  Done!  Hurray Usain Bolt!  Another aspect, I think, may be the spectatorial/fan generosity of the United States to all sorts of sports.  As a heterogenic society, and a technologically advanced one with a wide and hungry media presence, we have many sports traditions that once would have been culturally circumscribed but now are available to anyone with basic cable.  In the wee hours of the morning, it’s fun to follow camel races from Dubai and Strongest Man contests from Scandinavian countries.  If such contests were broadcast in prime weekend time, I might find them as necessary to watch as are the Triple Crown races.  Or . . . the golf majors.

Although the Masters’ Championship is the first golf major, it’s played in spring among the azaleas and gynophobia of the Augusta National Country Club.  The U.S. Open Golf Championship is the first summer (in my definition) golf major, and I always look forward to watching it.  Why?  Few would deny that professional golfers are among the most boring, self-involved people imaginable.  I mean, have you listened to the interviews after a major golf event?  They make you ashamed that you watched the event in the first place.

I could argue that I’ve actually played (quite badly) a fair amount of golf in my life, so I watch golf in a different way than I watch hockey (which I haven’t played, although I’ve certainly ice-skated . . . but the reason I don’t watch hockey on TV is that I can’t ever see the puck; I’ve loved attending live hockey games).  Theoretically, I can understand golfers’ decisions and feel in muscle memory the difference between a straight, solid shot and a monumental flub.  I could also argue that watching major golf tournaments is something I enjoyed doing with my father, after a series of strokes stopped him from playing the game he’d excelled in from childhood, a game that he’d taught me to play.

Both arguments are true, as far as they go.  But they’re counteracted by tennis.  I’ve played tennis badly (about as frequently as I’ve played golf badly), and my father also taught me tennis (he was a canny if not extravagantly gifted tennis player, able to psych out opponents more often than not).  But I don’t enjoy watching the major tennis tournaments.  I used to try to be interested, and it was easier when, for example, the Williams sisters were fresh and awesome.  (Let’s face it – men’s tennis is often a dull wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am first-serve-fest.) 

I’ve omitted comment about the NHL and the NBA playoffs, which also happen in summer.  Reason:  they shouldn’t happen in summer.  Hockey is a winter game (like curling, ice fishing, and dog-sled racing).  Basketball – at least in Northern Wisconsin, where I was raised – is also a winter game (the seasonal rotation, starting with Autumn, was football/basketball/baseball /swimming). 

So, as I finish writing this, I’m also watching the penultimate day of the U.S. Open.  Tiger Woods went into today (June 16, 2012) tied for the lead.  He’s now behind, although not irreparably so.  I’m glad he’s back in the mix, because as a person driven to watch major golf tournaments, I think they’re more interesting when Tiger’s in contention – even though his public persona seems to be getting increasingly unlikeable (did you see his stunningly ungracious answer to a question about the 17-year-old amateur who’s doing exceedingly well?).  I don’t know for whom I’m pulling . . . yet I know I’ll be watching tomorrow.

If you’ve read this far, you might reasonably be asking yourself if these ramblings have a point.  I’m asking the same thing!  When I started, my point was to be that U.S. sports fandom is more various than almost any other country’s because we’re exposed to so many different sports . . . and (although I didn’t really get to this) that our love of any and all sports has to do with a certain idea of ‘American’ individualism and ‘bootstrapper-ism.’  We can put ourselves in the tennis shoes, riding boots, or golf cleats of almost any athlete and imagine great things.  (Even soccer:  although I’d advocate two balls, a double-sized net, and Quidditch brooms, give me the FIFA championships and I’m there, even at 3:00a.m., Ecuador v. Cameroon).  We love to watch all sorts of athletic contests because, on some level, we’re able to believe that there, but for the crabby coaching demands of God, go I.  Such gratifying fantasies have little to do with whether we’ve ever played, much less seriously trained for, a particular game.

But as I’ve written this woefully meandering blog, I realize that at some level it’s about something else.  It’s about my father, and how much I owe to him, and how much I miss him.  My dad was a bright and charismatic man . . . and a very good amateur athlete in many sports.  He had no sons, but he tried to teach his daughters the sports that he loved – at a time way before Title 9 made it cool to do so.  When my sister and I did not turn out to be athletically talented, he didn’t stop encouraging us to enjoy sports of various kinds . . . and later, to enjoy watching and commenting on televised sports, to believe that sports could be an enriching part of life, no matter whether participation is actual or virtual. 

Happy Father’s Day, Dad.  Thank you for making sports a gratifying part of my life, even if I’m basically an abysmal athlete.  Without your example and guidance, I’d never have done some things I actually could do ‘athletically,’ such as help coach Little League basketball and baseball teams.  And thank you, and Mom, for supporting your daughters’ wide-ranging interests and ambitions . . . support that included being grammar police, allowing us free range to everything we could access and imagine, and encouraging spirited debates about subjects ranging from politics to . . . sports.

Resquiat in pacem, et in spem Catulis victoria, Richard Masduraud Baker, 1922 – 2000.

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