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TRUE BELIEVERS THE TRAGIC INNER LIFE OF SPORTS FANS
By Joe Queenan
HENRY HOLT AND COMPANY Copyright © 2003 Joe Queenan
All right reserved.
Chapter One FANS WHO LOVE TOO MUCH
IN A DARK CORNER OF MY KITCHEN, RIGHT NEXT TO THE radio, sits a hideous enamel turtle that has not budged from this position since October 1993. During that memorable year, or so I have come to believe, the turtle's uncanny telekinetic powers contributed in some way to the Philadelphia Phillies winning the National League pennant. Every night that season I would listen to the Phils' barely audible broadcast (I live in suburban New York, 125 miles from Philadelphia, so the signal was rather weak) and adjust the turtle's position according to the game situation. Much as I would like to credit Lenny Dykstra's adroit stick work, Curt Schilling's incendiary fastball, and John Kruk's infectious bonhomie for the team's unexpected success that fall, I am now convinced that without the intercession of the enchanted turtle, the Phils would have gotten creamed by the Atlanta Braves.
Though my reptilian talisman was oddly impotent in the face of Toronto's big bats in the ensuing World Series, and has been completely dormant ever since, I have never ceased to be grateful for the yeoman service it provided during the Phils' march through Georgia in the National League Championship Series that year. Moreover, I am firmly convinced that one day the turtle will reemerge from its paranormal slumber and bring the Philadelphia Eagles that long-awaited Super Bowl victory.
In the meantime, I have begun to see a therapist.
It was a long overdue decision. After years, perhaps decades, of denial, it had finally become obvious to me that an unhealthy obsession with sports was having a devastating effect on my otherwise perfect life. I loved my job, I loved my family, I loved my house, and my friends were no worse than anybody else's. The only thing out of kilter in my sunny existence was my addiction to sports. I watched too many games, listened to too many games, read about too many games, and argued about too many games.
Were it merely a question of following the teams I loved (while secretly believing that ordinary household items possessed supernatural powers that could affect the outcome of games being played 125 miles away), this would not have been a major problem. But I did not limit my passion to the Phillies, Eagles, Flyers, and 76ers. At least half my time was spent watching witching-hour games between teams I had no emotional connection with one way or the other. The Phoenix Coyotes. The Tennessee Titans. And yes, even the Columbus Blue Jackets.
What made things even worse was that I wasn't a gambler. It made sense to stay up till all hours of the night if you had SMU by six over Rice in the office pool. But what person in his right mind would cancel all his appointments just so he could watch Old Dominion plaster the Citadel without having a little something riding on the game?
One day I sat down to calculate how much of my adult life had been wasted on athletic events. Carefully differentiating between time spent watching sports and time spent on ancillary activities such as arguing about sports, I came up with the following jaw-dropping figures.
* Time spent watching teams I love: 7 years
* Time spent watching teams I hate: 4 years
* Time spent watching teams I don't care about: 4 years
* Time spent arguing, often with complete strangers, about who was better, Wilt or Bill Russell, etc.: 3 years
* Time spent sleeping: 9 years
* Time spent on marriage, kids: 6 years
* Time spent on eating, theater, laundry: 1 year
* Time spent on work: 39 weeks
The numbers chilled me to the marrow. Although I was reasonably happy with the way my career had turned out so far, it was clear that the many years I had wasted watching sports was time I could have spent trying to close the yawning talent gap between me and Anna Quindlen. Instead, I had pissed away my life watching the Canucks.
More worrying still was the realization that my compulsion had done serious harm to my family. Because the teams I supported had not won a championship since 1983, I had spent the last eighteen years of my life mired in one continuous foul mood. My daughter, who was born six months after Moses Malone led the 76ers to the NBA title in 1983, says that she can vaguely recall hearing me chuckle during her first birthday party. But my son, born in athletically fallow 1986, claims that he has never seen me smile.
With these troublesome facts in mind, I decided it was time to enlist professional help. Because I am tight with a buck, and because I was not absolutely sure this approach would work, I did not seek out a top-flight analyst. Instead, I found a cut-rate therapist who had taken out a tiny advertisement in the Village Voice classifieds. His fee: forty-five dollars for forty-five minutes of "short-term psychotherapy."
Arriving for my first appointment at the therapist's cluttered, tenth-story Upper West Side apartment/office, I diligently explained my problem. I wanted to be cured of my addiction to sports because it was a complete waste of time and invariably put me in a horrible mood and made it unpleasant to be around me. I vowed that I was now ready to confront my athletic demons the same way I would have addressed an eating disorder or a sexual compulsion or a heroin addiction. The toll it was taking on me was too great. I wanted to kick the habit.
The therapist was a diminutive, kindly Italian-American gentleman in his seventies who cheerfully confessed that he knew very little about sports and had no real interest in the subject. Still, he was no stranger to the sort of compulsive behavior I had described, and honestly felt he could help me. But first he would need to know more about my background.
We spent the first few sessions reviewing my generically abysmal childhood. Perhaps, he obliquely suggested, my implacable, lifelong commitment to the hometown teams was a subconscious response to the fact that my father was always changing jobs when I was young. Perhaps my murderous hatred of front-runners derived from early feelings of being betrayed by my uncle Jerry, a surrogate father and role model who stopped talking to me after I suggested to him that his beloved Richard Nixon was a fascist. Perhaps, we now extrapolated, I refused to stop rooting for mutts like the Eagles because I secretly sought stability and continuity in my life, even if this stability unfailingly culminated in defeat and disgrace.
But this made no sense; I loathed defeat and disgrace. I had always sneered at intellectuals who pretended that there was something gallant about the criminally second-rate Red Sox, forever condemned to play Salieri to the Yankees' Mozart. They had taken their cue from books like The Boys of Summer, in which Roger Kahn wrote: "You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat. Losing after great striving is the story of man, who was born to sorrow, whose sweetest songs tell of saddest thought, and who, if he is a hero, does nothing in life as becomingly as leaving it."
Roger, go to your room.
Far from finding nobility in defeat, I found it distinctly disturbing that the outcome of a single game could suddenly, irreversibly wreck an otherwise perfect day. Fall weekends tended to be the worst. I asked my therapist to consider an example. One evening I took my son to see The Mummy Returns. It was an amusing, serviceable sequel to a campy original; we both had a great time at the theater and a nice time at the diner; and when we returned to the house I was still in a cheerful mood: upbeat, confident, optimistic. Then I went into the den and fast-forwarded through a tape of the 76ers getting annihilated by the Raptors while I was out at the movies. Whereupon I began shredding magazines, smashing knickknacks, questioning the meaning of life. Yes, another typical Sunday night chez Queenan. And it wasn't even a playoff game.
Another time, in Los Angeles, I spent a paradisiacal weekend with my family going all the places you're supposed to go: Santa Monica Pier, Malibu, Venice Beach, Hollywood, the tar pits, Mulholland Drive, Universal Studios, the Cheesecake Factory, and, most important of all, the rooftop pool. As Sunday evening approached, I could not possibly have been more loose of foot or free of fancy. Then the feckless ne'er-do-well Bobby Hoying fumbled away a sure touchdown on the goal line against the Cardinals, and the Eagles lost another game they should have won. At this point I became so apoplectic, so convinced that life was one vast, terrestrial, personally targeted conspiracy, that my children asked me to leave the hotel room. Forever, preferably. Which I was more than happy to do, given their namby-pamby attitude toward my team.
As I recounted these unnerving anecdotes, the therapist merely listened, nodded, wrote down notes. He was clearly a seasoned professional, a sage and wizened veteran used to dealing with train wrecks like me.
"Maybe you have trouble dealing with euphoria," he calmly suggested after I told him about the night in college when I got so upset at a St. Joe's Hawks upset defeat by Villanova that I tore a washbasin out of the wall and smashed a mirror into a thousand pieces. "Maybe, watching your team lose is a way of bringing you back down from that state of euphoria."
Gosh, I'd never thought of that. Now that I set my mind to it, I realized that ever since I was a little kid my teams had been helping me deal with euphoria by getting massacred in Super Bowls they were favored to win, and blowing insurmountable leads to teams they clearly outranked. Maybe people like me could only thrive in a euphoria-deficient atmosphere, the same way people who were euphoria-tolerant seemed perfectly happy rooting for the Yankees, even though they had to spend their entire lives experiencing the same emotion over and over and over again. Except for that one time when Little Donny Baseball didn't get his ring.
In the weeks that followed, my therapist worked hard to peel away the various layers of neuroses that masterfully concealed what we both hoped was a fully developed personality. We talked about congenital alcoholism, family bankruptcy, and the role the Great Depression had played in shaping my parents' worldview. Much like fourteenth-century peasants who incessantly bellyached about the Black Death, my parents blamed the Great Depression for everything: badly cooked meals, crummy Japanese sneakers whose soles peeled off the second time you wore them, chronic alcoholism. But our conversations always came back to sports.
Looking back through the mists of time, I realized that my heart had first been broken the summer after JFK's death, when the Phils blew a six-and-a-half-game lead by losing ten straight games at the end of the season. In my mind, the 1964 Phils, America's first Irish-Catholic president, and Lee Harvey Oswald were all eternally linked in a Bermuda Triangle of neurasthenic, quasi-aphasic post-traumatic stress. But this still did not explain why I stayed up late at night watching Old Dominion whip on the Citadel.
The direction our conversations took provided me with much food for thought. Inevitably, we returned to 1964, the annus horribilis. In every other city in the United States, young people first experienced the devastating trauma of JFK's death on November 22, 1963, but then, just when they thought they would never get over it, the Beatles came out of nowhere and literally saved the world. But for Philadelphia fans, the brief emotional uplift provided by the Fab Four quickly gave way to the catastrophe of late September.
At the time of the collapse, I was attending the Maryknoll Junior Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, a nondescript hamlet roughly ten miles outside Scranton, a dying coal town. I was thirteen years old, I had been in the seminary roughly three weeks, and I already knew that I did not want to be a priest. And I certainly didn't want to be a missionary. The first night, after our parents had abandoned us to the clerics' tender mercies, one of the priests showed some of us a wound he had suffered in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. A second discoursed in grisly detail about the sort of treatment we could expect should we fall into the hands of the dreaded Mau Maus, the merciless Red Chinese, the fiendish Soviets. I was thirteen; I had only entered the seminary because of pressure from my father and even greater pressure from Maryknoll recruiters who'd started "scouting" me at age eight after I foolishly set up a mock "altar" in my bedroom; and I had already decided that I did not want to have my fingertails torn out, my ears cut off, or my sauteed liver fed to passing curs just to impress some omnipotent deity whose existence I now questioned. Viewed with the benefit of hindsight, the Maryknolls were a poor choice on my part; I should have sent my application to the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Meanwhile, the Phillies were blowing the pennant.
I do not know if defeat strengthens your character, but I know that it sharpens your memory. Yankee and Laker fans regularly misremember dates, eras, championships, putting DiMaggio on teams with Maris, putting Bob McAdoo on the 1986 championship team, but not the 1984 one. Less fortunate fans, those in Buffalo, Cleveland, Baltimore, Philadelphia, never forget anything. To this day, I can recall how the Phillies headed down the highway to hell during those last two weeks of September, the whole nightmare starting with a 1-0 loss in a game decided by a Chico Ruiz steal of home, with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson at bat. Yes, that Chico Ruiz.
Retroactive memory aids were provided by my mother, who would dutifully cut out Philadelphia Inquirer accounts of each game and send them off to me, much the way Spaniards living in 1589 Great Tunbridge Wells used to send their relatives in Madrid six-month-old newspaper accounts of the Armada's latest misfortunes. Thanks, Esteban; we heard. The neatly clipped articles would arrive two to three days later, by which point the Cardinals would have excised another two games from the Phillies' lead. Of course, I already knew the outcome of the games; I was the only seminarian from Philadelphia, and many of the other ninety-two students enjoyed waking me in the morning with detailed accounts of the Phils' latest tank job. The last clip Mom sent contained a heartrending quote from backup catcher Gus Triandos, a scrub who had toiled in the wilderness for eleven years since being shipped out of town by the Yankees in the biggest trade in baseball history (seventeen players changed teams). "Some guys want to guzzle the champagne," he told the reporter. "I just wanted a sip."
Excerpted from TRUE BELIEVERS by Joe Queenan Copyright © 2003 by Joe Queenan
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.