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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 withoutthe 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 Isupported 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 compulsivebehavior 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 tendedto 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 calmlysuggested 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 tenstraight 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 mein 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."
Me too. What I remember most clearly about that watershed month is that it was my first exposure to the concept of schadenfreude. None of the other ninety-two seminarians had any direct stake in the pennant race; none of them were from St. Louis, which eventually won the World Series, or from Cincinnati, which would have taken the flag had the Phils not beaten them the last two games of the season. Most of the students were from obscure burgs with names like Osprey's Redoubt, Wisconsin, or Gideon's Agot, West Virginia, and thus had no stake in the outcome of the pennant race. But they enjoyed taunting me anyway. Those few weeks in the seminary opened a rift between God and me that has never closed; while I am grateful to God for giving me my children, my career, and the ability to dance as if no one was watching, sing as if no one was listening, and eat as if no one was paying, I decided at the time that any deity that would let the Phils lose ten games in a row and then hire ninety-two mean-spirited cocksuckers to help spread His word was going to have to manage without me. I shuttered my religious career right then and there.
My therapist patiently listened to all this rambling, taking voluminous notes. As the sessions continued, I made immense progress toward understanding the nebulous substratum of mymeta-etiolated psyche. Unfortunately, this did not help with my addiction. Every week I would arrive at his apartment, revved up because the Phillies had just rattled off a string of wins, and my therapist would ask ridiculous questions about my mother. Or I'd try to explain my empathy for eighty-year-old Beantowners who had wasted their entire lives waiting to see the Red Sox win the World Series (even though I secretly hoped they would never win because jinxes are great for baseball, and the Celtics had already won sixteen championships), and he would counter with questions about my childhood dreams of becoming a priest. Or I would attempt to decode a recurrent dream in which the Devils' resident villain Scott Stevens gets decapitated by a fatal but otherwise clean check by Eric Lindros, and he would thoughtfully inquire about my father's drinking.
Of course, I understood perfectly what was going on. The therapist was trying to get me to talk about my formative childhood experiences and come to terms with a handful of "screen memories" that encapsulated a whole series of events rolled into a single image, thus becoming mental constructs so powerful they blocked out everything else. He was trying to get me to see not only who I was but how I'd gotten that way.
But I already knew who I was. I was the guy who believed that by positioning a small enamel turtle right next to a radio, I could materially affect the outcomes of baseball games being played three states away. I already knew that I was mentally ill. I didn't need a therapist to tell me.
Eventually, it became clear that my therapist viewed my addiction as a symptom of a deeper personality disorder, not as a disorder in and of itself. I, on the other hand, knew that I wascrackers. While he wanted me to come to terms with the causes of my dementia, then perhaps deal with the sports issue later, I was more like the guy who shows up at the doctor's office with a detached penis in his hand. It doesn't really matter how it got this way, Doc. Just fix it.
One day we had a falling out. The Sixers had blown an eighteen-point lead and lost game 1 of the first round of the playoffs to the decrepit, inferior Indiana Pacers, and the Flyers had been demolished 8-0 by the Buffalo Sabres and knocked out of the Stanley Cup playoffs. I arrived for our session in a black mood.
"How was your weekend?" he asked me.
"Putrid," I told him, citing chapter and verse. "Disgusting. Horrible. The worst weekend ever."
"I find it a little bit hard to believe that you can get that worked up about a baseball game," he told me.
"Basketball," I corrected him. "Basketball and hockey. The 76ers play professional basketball, and the Flyers play professional ice hockey."
"Well, I wouldn't give a rat's ass about a team losing a game like that. That's not the sort of thing that would ruin my weekend."
"What sort of thing would ruin your weekend?" I inquired. "What sort of thing do you care about?"
He had his answer all ready.
"Well, the destruction of the rain forest, or global warming, or something like that. Not a basketball game."
It was clear that our therapeutic liaison had reached a serious impasse. Stiffening, I stared at him with an expression of infinite contempt.
"How could you possibly compare the fate of the rain forest to the fate of the Philadelphia 76ers?" I said. "You need to get your priorities straight."
YET IN THE END I FOUND MYSELF POWERLESS TO CALL OFF our increasingly fruitless Wednesday afternoon sessions. Week after week, I faithfully turned up at his office/apartment. Why? Did I honestly believe that if we stripped away enough layers of self-delusion I would eventually isolate the roots of my neuroses? No. Did I seriously believe he could help me devise clever intellectual constructs enabling me to see sports for what it was: a pastime, a diversion, a leisurely distraction of no great consequence? No. Did I really and truly believe he would ever help me get this monkey off my back? No.
Why, then, did I continue going to see him? Simple. From the time I started seeing my therapist, my teams came on like gangbusters. The Phils got off to a great start and by June had an eight-game lead over the Braves. As our sessions rolled along, and the bills piled up, the 76ers continued their magical spring; first, the Pacers fell in four, then the Raptors went out in seven, and then the 76ers outlasted the Bucks. Why, I asked myself, after seventeen years of abject failure had the 76ers suddenly become world beaters?
The answer was obvious: It was because of my visits to the therapist. For whatever the reason, as long as I kept going to see him, the 76ers kept winning. Not to put too fine a point on it, the therapist had replaced my enamel turtle as the unexpendable amulet and all-purpose good luck charm that would fling open the gates to the Promised Land.
Such psychologically questionable behavior is by no means rare. In the otherwise unwatchable film Celtic Pride, there is a scene where the veteran hams Dan Aykroyd and Daniel Stern, playing die-hard Celtics fans, force everyone in their section to switch places because they believe it will increase the home team's chance of winning. Shortly thereafter, they ask a man to leave the stadium because he was in Boston in 1986, the year the Red Sox choked away the World Series to the Mets. Stern also expresses relief when his wife asks for a divorce because the last time she packed her bags the Celtics won the NBA championship. In these inspired sequences in a film that is in every other way ghastly, the director hit the nail right on the head. In their more lucid moments, sports fans know perfectly well that they cannot affect the outcome of games by wearing stupid hats, closing their eyes, turning down the sound, smearing the quarterback's face with their thumbs, or asking someone to leave the room. Yet they do it anyway.
Over the course of the years, I have indulged in many overtly superstitious activities. A firm believer in chaos theoryif a butterfly flaps its wings in Beijing, the refs will rule that the Flyers were offsideI act out innumerable game-day rituals. Not drinking the last dregs out of a coffee cup because as long as the beverage stayed in the cup, my team maintained their lead. Only entering the house through the side door, walking backward. Refusing to throw out a lucky Christmas tree until the playoffs were over. Sitting in a particular chair. Taking three trains, two subways, and a bus from suburban New York to Philadelphia on three consecutive Sundays to watch pivotal Eagles games on a "lucky" television set. (The appliance's luckran out when the Eagles played Dallas.) Telling my son to sit in a particular chair and then refusing to let him move. Sadly, in sixteen years of using my son as an intermittent good luck charm, all I have to show for it is that lone Notre Dame national championship in 1988. Yet I am convinced to this day that had I not spent that entire season squishing my son's pudgy forefinger against quarterback Tony Rice's helmet every time he appeared on the screen, the Irish would have finished out of the money. In this context, it is worth recalling that Shoeless Joe Jackson, whose glove was known as "the place where triples go to die," never took the field without sticking a bunch of lucky hairpins in his back pocket. Look where it got him.
FANS USUALLY HAVE AN AMBIVALENT, BUT BASICALLY unwholesome, relationship with God, their Higher Power, Allah, the Great White Father, what have you. In God's defense, He knows that even if He lets the Cubs win the World Series, it's only going to create a million new atheists in Boston or the South Side of Chicago; He also knows that all those Cubs fans' bottom-of-the-ninth promises to stop drinking or to be eternally faithful to their wives are not going to be honored no matter what measures He takes. God may be cruel, but He is not stupid.
As noted, my own relationship with God started to sour in 1964 and has never seriously improved. Whether complicit or neutral in the nightmarish Phillies meltdown, God has regularly impacted negatively on the fortunes of my teams, takingparticular delight in hamstringing the Philadelphia Eagles, often because of needless intrusions into contract negotiations. For example, after ex-Eagles defensive end Reggie White revealed that God had personally told him to sign with the Green Bay Packers in 1993, word leaked out that God had apparently made a similar suggestion to ex-Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham when he was being wooed by the Minnesota Vikings. It was both baffling and infuriating to me that God should only intercede in difficult contractual discussions after players had left my teams. Director Spike Lee hits the nail on the head in his film He Got Game, where high school superstar Ray Allen tells Denzel Washington, his jailbird dad who has suddenly got religion, "How come you never hear Jesus being praised in the losers' locker room, then? Huh? They're probably cursing that motherfucker out."
Because the psychoanalytic universe is so vehemently nonsectarian, my therapist and I never got around to discussing religion per se. It wouldn't have made any difference, because as April turned into May and May into June, it became evident that my experiment with psychotherapy was not going to bear fruit. Despite our mutual efforts, I did not cure myself of my addiction to sports, and my therapist's status as a good luck charm did not result in any championships. Still, he was not entirely to blame. When the 76ers were playing the Lakers in the 2001 NBA finals, I was out of town and unable to attend our weekly sessions. Stripped of my human rabbit's foot, I resorted to other measures. The night the Sixers hosted the Lakers in game 3, the pivotal contest they absolutely had to win but did not, I visited Christ's Church at Second and Market in the old historical district of Philadelphia and prayed thatAllen Iverson would score fifty. Christ's Church is a luminous, sun-drenched house of worship built in the early 1700s; it was the church where Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Betsy Ross used to attend Sunday services. It is not an accident that I prayed for Iverson while kneeling in Betsy Ross's pew; deep inside I did not really expect the Sixers to beat the bigger, stronger, better Lakers and did not want to squander the precious occult powers putatively emanating from George Washington's and Ben Franklin's pews this early in my life. I was saving them for a time when I thought the home team really had a chance.
The time may be coming soon. Donovan McNabb and the Eagles were picked by many experts to make it to the Super Bowl in January 2003. If they do, I plan to pray for them in Ben Franklin's pew in the first half, and George Washington's pew in the second. And before I head down to Philadelphia for the game, I intend to put in a visit to my psychotherapist with that hideous green enamel turtle in my pocket. I've already invested about $700 in psychotherapy; this time I'm pulling out all the stops.
Copyright © 2003 by Joe Queenan