The Land Before Hype

Posted on February 1, 2013


It’s that time again: Super Bowl week. I know this, not because I follow football in even the slightest way, but because I’ve noticed the potato chip and Coca-Cola displays at the grocery store. Built like shrines to the gods, these stockpiles of snacks will be inhaled by a hundred million people in six hours. This is just enough time to complete the pre-game and post-game shows, four fifteen-minute quarters of actual football competition, a forty-five-minute halftime extravaganza, and a lot of expensive commercials created to get you to eat potato chips and drink Coca-Cola.

I don’t have many positive memories related to the sport. When I was about eleven, my best friend got one of those electric football games that had plastic players and a metal field that would vibrate when you flipped the switch. We’d line up our teams with great care, and then sit there for a long time listening to this thing buzz and staring at our little men as they wandered around in all directions, quivering like mad and eventually getting stuck against a side wall or clustering in bunches in the corner like tiny bumper cars. It was, I imagine, not much different from putting on show tunes and watching termites attempt to perform Guys and Dolls. Every now and then my friend would announce that he’d gotten a first down, a development that always escaped my attention but that he never failed to see. Touchdowns and field goals would follow, along with other assorted scoring opportunities based on obscure rules that I was pretty sure he was making up on the spot.Football

Sometimes, when the older boys had a thirst for human blood, we played real football on an empty lot riddled with small rocks and shards of broken glass. We had only the ball, and no other equipment whatsoever. Helmets were for sissies, we decided, and complaining of pain after being slammed to the ground and crushed under a pile of snarling teenagers would just mean you’d be picked last the next time we played. If we didn’t call it the Stupid Bowl, we should have. We were a bunch of morons.

I preferred baseball. For one thing, in other sports the opposing team spent most of its time trying to take something away from you, inflicting physical harm and verbal abuse in the process. It was too much like real life. Football, for example, was nothing more than the offense bulling its way through, while the defense did whatever it could to knock you down and get you to fumble the ball.

Basketball was the same, except you wore shorts and were required to dribble and avoid committing a three-second violation. No one ever explained the three-second rule to me, or how the referees could possibly keep track of where everyone was and for how long. I got called on it a lot in gym class, usually because I had to stop and re-tie my sneakers in the middle of play.

SoccerIn both hockey and soccer, there was an infraction referred to as off-sides. Again, I’ve never been able to understand this rule, beyond the simple conclusion that it’s designed to keep you from wanting to score a goal too much. The result, often, was an unbearably long game that ended in a tie. Frequently, a scoreless tie. This was like going to a restaurant, ordering a meal, waiting for your dinner to be served, then leaving without eating anything.

I found myself playing lacrosse once, and like hockey, its bizarre regulations included something called a crease, which I think is an invisible fourth dimension that players either must stay inside of or avoid entering at all costs. I’m still not sure.

These sports seemed to have a common element: they all had commentators and coaches who rattled on and on about intricate strategies and match-ups, deep explanations of what worked and didn’t work, how they needed to go back to the fundamentals, and what they intended to accomplish next game or next season. The only thing I ever saw was a bunch of lunatics chasing after a loose ball or puck, unsure of where it was headed and knocking each other around to relieve their frustration.Baseball

But baseball was different. Baseball involved thinking, rather than reptilian-brain reflex responses. There was time to plan ahead. And there was room for real strategy, because there were just so many things that could happen, and each thing had a correct reaction.

My younger brother and I played baseball every chance we got. We played in the street, using flattened beer cans and manhole covers for bases. We played on concrete playgrounds, and on any available stretch of grass. We pitched to a rectangle we’d drawn with yellow chalk on a brick wall. In the winter, we played in the house, arranging the living room furniture like an infield and using a rolled-up sock for a ball.

We watched professional games on television. And once or twice a year, our father took us to see the Yankees or the Mets play in person. One summer, we went to the Mayor’s Trophy Game, an annual fundraiser in which the Yankees and Mets played against each other. My brain nearly exploded with excitement, but I’d also been backed into the corner of team loyalty, and chose to focus instead on eating as many hot dogs as I could. This was in the early 1960s, when you could sit in a box seat for three dollars, or the bleachers for seventy-five cents. When players had names like Ernie and Vic, Roberto and Duke, Sandy and Moose, and the very best of them made less than a hundred thousand dollars.

Of course, I had no idea about players’ salaries when I was a kid. I doubt I’d ever even considered the fact that they were paid at all. Baseball was a game, not a job, and I’d have paid them just for a chance to step onto that field and touch the bases. I dreamed of someday getting a close look at the three monuments in centerfield at Yankee Stadium, vertical granite slabs that looked exactly like the headstones I’d seen when visiting my grandparents’ graves at the cemetery in Queens. I wasn’t certain, but I thought the players might have been buried right there in the outfield.

At one game, Mickey Mantle hit a five-hundred-foot shot over the black screen in dead center. I may have seen it, but more likely I was looking around for a food vendor. Still, I was there. I remember standing and cheering about something; it had to be either the home run or the guy selling Dixie Cups – cardboard containers filled with half vanilla and half chocolate ice cream that you ate with a flat wooden spoon.

World Series games were played in the afternoons back then, in the first week of October, when you could tell the inning by how close the shadows were to the pitcher’s mound. There were two leagues, as there are now, but each had just ten teams. The best record at the end of the season got you into the World Series. No playoffs or division championships. No slipping into a side entrance off Wild Card Alley. You either won the pennant or you didn’t. It was pure, and it was fair. I remember running home from school to catch the last couple of innings. And sometimes, on days when I loved the world more than anything, the nuns would turn on the television and let us watch the game right there in our classroom.

The Super Bowl had not yet been born. The highlights of the year were Easter, summer vacation, the World Series, my birthday, and Christmas. It was the anticipation of each event that helped sustain me from one to the next. People say it was a simpler time, and I guess it was. Potato chips came in two flavors, and there was Coca-Cola and whatever it was other people drank. There was vanilla and chocolate, the Yankees and the Mets, baseball and all those strange, inferior sports.

And there was time to think.

On second thought, he explains it better.