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Some friends of mine are watching the baseball playoffs. But they only watch the games (in replay) when they know their team will win. More specifically, until now, only when the Yankees lose. They were cheering for Tampa Bay, not so much because they cared about the Rays, but because they wanted New York to go crashing down in fire and fury. 

I understand the animus against the Yanks. It is a longstanding prejudice in the South, for obvious reasons, but it is not just in Dixie that the Yankees are team non grata. Everyone loves to hate the pinstripes. Why this should be so is curious. 

Obviously, one reason is that for so many decades the Yankees were the bullies of the American League. They have more than twice as many World Series titles as any other team. Heck, they’ve lost more series than the second place team has won. (Twenty-Seven wins for New York, 13 losses; 11 wins for second-place St. Louis). And the Yankees have not been gracious about their hegemony. 

But more to the point is why people other than the players feel they have a stake in the won-loss record of a bunch of hyper-paid athletes. Yea for our team! But it is their team, not yours. You had nothing to do with their winning or losing. 

I wonder all this, not because I am so above this sort of silliness, but because I share it. There are teams I root against, too. I always pull for anyone to beat the Dallas Cowboys. Why I should despise the Cowboys is hard to explain. They are just another NFL team, and indeed the players on the field this season could just as well have been on a favorite team last year. It may have something to do with reviling the team’s owner — it’s easy to do — but it’s not as if other owners are less venal, greedy, and condescending.

The reasons for rooting are irrational. Yes, you may cheer the hometown team. But most people don’t live in a major-league city. When I lived in Virginia in the 1980s, the TV station broadcast Orioles games and I followed the team. When I lived in North Carolina, Braves games were all over the TV. I followed them as a kind of substitute home team. But there are so many other reasons people follow teams. Much has to do with history and trivial grievance, like the hatred of the Yanks. My old friend, Michael Johns, from Seattle, says: 

“At this writing (unless I jinx it), the Atlanta Braves are headed to a 2-0 lead in games against the Dodgers.  I approve.  In the American League, the Tampa Bay Rays are up 2-0 over the Houston Astros.  Again, I approve.”

“Unless it’s the Mariners, my loyalties shift from year to year,” he writes. The Dodgers “are like the Yankees of the National League. While not as clean-cut as the Bronx Bombers, they come close, and they have too many guys named Cody, Corey, and Justin for my taste.” And not enough Dizzies, Pugs and Catfishes, I might add. 

He’s rooting for Tampa Bay in the American League, because the Astros are “a powerhouse team that needs to be taken down a peg.” And besides, they were caught cheating. 

“Having been a fan for over 60 years, I have plenty of memories to share and grievances to air,” he says. 

We all have those “grievances,” although they are ultimately pointless, and they drive much of our fandom. I, too, am rooting for the Rays. I have always despised the Astros — even back to their days as the Colt .45s — and for three very substantial reasons. First, the Astrodome was truly ugly, and besides, baseball was meant to be played outdoors. Second, because Astroturf is a crime against humanity and it spread, like a virus or the designated-hitter rule, across too many stadiums. But most important to me — and silliest — because they had the stupidest uniforms in baseball — the equivalent of tie-dye and bell bottoms. For these sins, they have captured my eternal enmity. Reasonable, right? 

Those uniforms were substantially mooted by the later White Sox atrocities with short pants and collars. And then the San Diego Padres kept coming up with newer and worser ideas. Always a good reason to root against a team. 

I grew up watching hockey. I went to Ranger games at Madison Square Garden. There were six teams in the NHL. Maple Leafs, Canadiens, Red Wings, Bruins, Rangers, and Black Hawks. Then, the league expanded and because of my long-standing sports conservatism, none of the new teams ever seamed legitimate. I couldn’t root for any of them. To this day, I will pull for any of the originals to beat any of the newbies, even though the oldest of them has been in the league for more than half a century now. They are still interlopers and not “real” hockey teams. 

I have a similar prejudice against baseball expansion teams, although not quite as strong. It began with moving teams. My father — and I, as a little boy — rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers. When they absconded and went to Los Angeles, it took a piece of my Dad and me with them that we never got back. Then the Giants took Willie Mays away from us. The world was suddenly not permanent. Anything could change. The Braves moved to Milwaukee; the Browns moved to Baltimore; the Athletics moved to Kansas City; the Senators moved to Minnesota. What could we count on?

My father later shifted his loyalty to the Mets, but I never could. And then, other new teams began popping up. The Angels, the Colt .45s, the Mets and a revised Senators. Then the Seattle Pilots and the Royals, the Expos and the Padres. Where would it end? The Marlins, the Rockies, the Diamondbacks, the Devil Rays. How could you take a team seriously from Florida? 

Of course, none of this actually matters. It’s just sports. Yet the loyalty so many feel towards such an irrational attachment can be overwhelming. Consider the rioting that breaks out every four years during the World Cup. Soccer hooligans are not much different from Crips and Bloods. 

The National Football League went from 12 teams in 1955, when I was 7 years old and first becoming sports-aware, to its current 32 teams, with many bouncing from city to city like caroming billiard balls (Las Vegas Raiders?) The league merged with the AFL in 1960, but my loyalty remains with the original teams, even when they have shifted from the National Conference to the American. History has shown the supremacy of those original teams. In 2011, I wrote a story for The Arizona Republic looking at the history of the Super Bowl and discovered that original NFL teams held a two-to-one edge in Super Bowl wins: 30 wins for the old NFL, 15 wins for the AFL and all other expansion teams. (The ratio has shrunk some since then.)

I realized that watching football on TV, I root for the team that is older — that I root for any team that was in the original NFL before it became the NFC. Even the original AFL teams, which joined the NFL in 1960 seem like interlopers to me. And expansion teams since then hardly deserve notice as teams at all. Tennessee Titans? Give me a break: Real teams are named Packers, Giants, Bears.

Is there any good reason for this. No, and I don’t pretend there is. Its just stubborn cussedness. An unwillingness to accept change. 

I don’t have a team I follow. When I watch a game, football, baseball or hockey, my rooting interest is always based on which team I judge more “legitimate,” i.e., original. So, if the 49ers are playing the Ravens, I root for the San Francisco. But if the Giants are playing the Niners, I root for New York, since San Francisco didn’t enter the league until 1950. They are the junior team. If the Giants are playing the Packers, I have to root for Green Bay; they are four years older (1921) than New York (1925 joining the league).

(I pull for the Rays against the Astros only because my animus toward the Astros is so overwhelming. Those uniforms, I can never forgive.)

This may seem silly, but what other method can one choose for rooting? Hometown teams make sense, but on “any given Sunday,” as they say, for most Americans, there is no home team. You choose between Tampa Bay and Tennessee? Toss a coin.

But I bring all this up not to badmouth football or sports, but to discuss the impulse towards conservatism. It is something I discover in my own makeup that confuses me — the ineradicable desire for stability and a disdain of change.

This is, of course, the heart of genuine conservatism (as opposed to the radical loony movement that has coopted the name in the service of what is really a kind of anarchism frosted over with religious intolerance).

Political conservatism — as it was once formulated — is the belief what worked for generations of citizens before you shouldn’t be changed lightly. All that now-gone population in aggregate had a kind of multiplied wisdom, and the institutions and laws that have been in place for perhaps centuries  have a kind of legitimacy in numbers: A group is wiser than an individual. If change is needed, we should be slow to believe we are smarter than our forebears en masse, and be slow to adopt the reform until it can be proven the better route. Such conservatism never forbade reform, but took a cautious approach to it. 

One of the things it held onto in England was the primacy of the monarch. Kingship had served us well for so many centuries, why should we give it up? But even there, a parliamentary system eventually became the real government. The Windsors hold on out of sheer habit.

The conservatism of Bill Buckley or Barry Goldwater was more or less of this sort. Let’s not move too quickly. But even such a conservative as Everett Dirksen signed on the the Civil Rights bills because the change was truly needed. 

Now, of course, to be a conservative is not so thoughtful, but rather the same sort of autonomic response we have when rooting for our favorite sports team. There is very little conservative about the Republican Party anymore. It is merely a team to root for against that other team from across town. Especially in the Trump era, even policies are not notably conservative, but radical. Rather than “Let’s keep what we have until we can prove better,” we have “Let’s uproot everything and see what happens.” Grievance is a driving force, and surprisingly like the grievance I still maintain against the Dodgers for moving to California. It has little to do with reality. 

FootballOn tuning in to the Colbert show on Thursday, I became unavoidably aware that the new NFL season had begun. Each year, I swear I will not watch any football — It rots the mind. But it is inevitable: I end up watching anyway. There is something hypnotic about it. kursk battle 2

American football is a brutish game in which behemoths pound each other like the tank battle at Kursk, and, as my wife describes the game: “He runs with the ball, he throws the ball, he falls down with the ball.” It really is rather mindless.

And surprisingly dull. Most of the time is spent with nothing much happening on the field and while pickup trucks tell us they are tougher than the other guy’s, while beer tells us the way to a sexy woman’s heart (or pants) is through drinking swill, and through endless network promos for TV shows about terrorists, serial killers and clairvoyant crimesolvers.stopwatch

I once timed a football game with a stopwatch, starting it with the snap of the ball and clicking it off when the ref blew the play dead. In a three-plus hour game, there was, count’em, exactly 14 minutes and 49 seconds of actual playing time.

Why the American male has the patience for so much downtime, so much dead air, so much palaver by color commentators replaying minor points of how the quarterback is putting too much weight on his front foot — why this is taking up so much of our Sundays, Monday nights and now Thursday nights, is well beyond my ability to comprehend. But there you are, I wind up watching anyway. ebbets field

Perhaps my biggest complaint — aside from my own complicity — is that the beginning of the season steps on the feet of the retreating baseball season. Football is no Fred Astaire. Baseball is a game I can actually enjoy watching. I have been a baseball fan from the time before I even entered kindergarten. I would watch Brooklyn Dodgers games on TV when Vin Scully was the new kid, relegated to postgame interviews with the players.

Baseball is an aristocratic game, balanced, thoughtful, elegant. Football, in contrast is a bludgeon wielded by a mob enforcer. I have enjoyed boxing, even hockey, without finding the event as nasty, brutish and halting as an NFL game.

But I bring all this up not to badmouth football, but to discuss the impulse towards conservatism. It is something I discover in my own makeup that confuses me — the ineradicable desire for stability and a disdain of change.

This is, of course, the heart of genuine conservatism (as opposed to the radical loony movement that has coopted the name in the service of what is really a kind of anarchism tempered with religious intolerance).

It first came to me when I realized that watching football on TV, I inevitably root for the team that is older — that I root for any team that was in the original NFL before it became the NFC. Even the original AFL teams, which joined the NFL in 1960 seem like interlopers to me. And expansion teams since then hardly deserve notice as teams at all. Carolina Panthers? Give me a break: Real teams are named Packers, Giants, Bears.

Perhaps there is some rationale for this. In 2011, I wrote a story for The Arizona Republic looking at the history of the Super Bowl and discovered that original NFL teams held a two-to-one edge in Super Bowl wins: 30 wins for the old NFL, 15 wins for the AFL and all other expansion teams. (The ratio has shrunk some since then. In Super Bowls since 2011, only one old NFL team has won: The NY Giants in 2012. This still leaves the old guard with a 31 to 18 edge).

I don’t have a team I follow. When I watch a game, my rooting interest is always based on which team I judge more “legitimate,” i.e., original. So, if the 49ers are playing the Ravens, I root for the San Francisco. But if the Giants are playing the Niners, I root for New York, since San Francisco didn’t enter the league until 1950. They are the junior team. If the Giants are playing the Packers, I have to root for Green Bay; they are four years older (1921) than New York (1925 joining the league).

This may seem silly, but what other method can one choose for rooting? Hometown teams make sense, but on “any given Sunday,” as they say, for most Americans, there is no home team. You choose between Tampa Bay and Tennessee? Toss a coin?

This gets back to this unrooted conservatism. For me, there are only six hockey teams: the Rangers, Black Hawks, Bruins, Red Wings, Maple Leafs and Canadiens. I don’t know how San Jose ever qualified; it’s a joke.

In baseball, my first love, I always root for the older team, and if two old teams are playing, I root for the older league — yes, the American League is a parvenu, still. There are subtleties to this system; a franchise move bumps a team down several notches, so the Dodgers and Giants each have a penalty attached: They moved; if they were still playing in Ebbets Field or the Polo Grounds, they would still be at the top of my list, but they betrayed us (yes, I grew up in the New York area). But still, if the Giants are playing the Marlins, I root for the Giants.

This is a finely met system of game watching. One has to choose a team based not on current talent, but on history. It is a system prejudicial to Cincinnati, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cleveland and New York. And against upstarts such as Tampa, Denver, Anaheim and what? Arlington, Texas? Oy.

This all might be taken as ultimately frivolous. How seriously can you take sports teams? And rooting (quite apart from gambling on teams, which I never do) is completely irrational. Especially in these days of modern times when favorite players shuffle around the league in trades and free-agency, faithfulness to any one team no longer makes any sense.

Each year my team seems like the luck of the draw and any reason to favor them above any other team is quite unfounded. white sox 1976 Yet, there is this deeply imbedded need to root. One team over another, underdog against the bully, home team against the visitor, well-designed uniform against the cartoon version (how anyone can root for the brown camouflage of San Diego is beyond me, and remember the 1976 White Sox? — a travesty.)

And that is where this mysterious conservatism comes in. There is buried in me — as in many people — a desire to keep things as we have always known them. We are comfortable with the familiar, and what is more, they world as we came to know it when we were young seems to possess a legitimacy that novelty lacks.

This is despite the fact that change is often necessary and often makes things better for all of us.

A good deal of conservative backlash against things such as affirmative action have as much to do with the comfort of a familiar past than it has to do with overt racism.

I don’t deny the racism, but conservatism isn’t only racism; it is also a profound discomfort with change. Even change for the good.

And although no one takes precedence over me in my distaste for what I call “tin-foil-hat” Republicans, and the continued institutional racism of so many national traditions, I have to say that somewhere, deep down inside myself, I can have some inkling of understanding for the source of this disquiet.

I don’t condone it, but I share it.

NFL 1

We enter the second week of the pro-football season, and I have to make a decision: To watch or not to watch.

Like any red-blooded American male, sporting the mangled Y-chromosome that defines malehood, I cannot easily resist armored behemoths in a demolition derby of sinews and ligaments, with the prize being lifelong damage from accumulated concussions.

(A confession here: I am really a baseball fan, so my interest now is whether the Red Sox will be able to hold on, or whether they will collapse in the next few weeks. I care rather less about the NFL.)

I watch football, though, it’s just that I cannot justify the time wasted doing so. It is something like an addiction and just as fruitless and just as absurd.

After all, the game really can be summed up, as my wife says, as “he runs with the ball, he throws the ball, he falls down with the ball.” There isn’t much else that happens. Oh, yes, there is quite a bit of measuring.

Not that much happens to fill up that three-and-a-half hours on TV that a game takes. And, as a recent experiment on my part proves, even those things don’t happen much.

I timed a game.

What I actually did was record the game and play it back with a stopwatch in hand, fast-forwarding through the chaff, timing everything from each snap of the ball to the referee’s whistle ending each play.

To my utter amazement, three minutes and 25 seconds into the experiment, the gun sounded on the first quarter. Whoa, that was a rush.

In the three hours-plus that the game would have eaten up of  my Sunday afternoon, there was exactly 14 minutes and six seconds worth of actual playing time.

The rest was huddling, timeouts, zebras in confabulation, replays, reverse-angles, ex-jocks analyzing the fine points of the left tackle’s trap block and, most importantly, beer commercials with pneumatic women.

I have tried to go cold turkey. Last season I went 11 weeks into the NFL season before watching a game. I was a more productive member of society; I felt righteous.

But I finally caved in, sneaking a bit of a Giants-Redskins game. I watched till the end of the season.

This year so far, I have only watched one half of one game. I am hoping to avoid the steroidal monkey on my back.

But I have also found a way to enjoy the game without wasting my time waiting three hours for those few minutes of actual football: I have learned to dilute my drug of choice. I now put the game on and turn the sound off. I put some Brahms or Stravinsky on the stereo and I sit down in my favorite chair with the Sunday paper. I read, I listen, and when the ball is snapped, I can look up at the screen and catch all the action. And I mean all the action. It’s a great way to get something done and see those 14 minutes and six seconds that actually count.

bball trio

Basketball, when truly appreciated, is not merely a knock-down, drag-out testosterone-drenched form of male competition. It can also be a thing of beauty, a form of ballet that even tough guys can appreciate. 

Looking from one direction, no one who has watched ballet in rehearsal, with its sweat and grunting, with the sound of feet thudding on the wooden floor, can doubt ballet is as much athletic achievement as art. 

But from the other direction, neither should we be blind to the aesthetics of the NBA. At its best, the game gives us grace and transcendence. swan lake bball

One thinks of Michael Jordan, performing a grand jete, hanging in the air like a Japanese lantern, light as a skein of silk, delighting the crowd, connoisseurs of the art who can recognize a master when they see one. 

It’s like Baryshnikov: virility and grace combined. bball ballet arms

I’m not thinking of the goofy, arts-as-camp beginning of West Side Story, where the Sharks and Jets finger-snap their choreographed way through a bout of playground B-ball. A real fan would gag. 

No, I mean the muscled, sinewed power under complete control of an Elgin Baylor. 

Elgin Baylor

Elgin Baylor

 

Dance, after all, is nothing but graceful, controlled movement. A Baryshnikov could spin in the air and hit the floor with no noticeable impact and swoop into a demi-plie as if he had no weight at all. Every move contributed to the total effect of animal muscle tuned to the hum of an angel’s song. 

Connie Hawkins, for example. Like Nijinsky, he could hang in the air for what seemed like forever, but in reality was only seven minutes. Hawkins could, while in the air, switch the ball from one hand to the other five times before shooting. 

Connie Hawkins

Connie Hawkins

I came to Roundball in the 1970s and ’80s, listening to the Boston Celtics on radio with Johnny Most and his gravel voice play-by-play. And it was then that the issue of grace was first brought to my attention. My college friend who came to school on a basketball scholarship, approached the game esthetically, he said, and was put off by the win-at-all-cost jock attitude. Needless to say, he didn’t last long on the team. But he taught me the esthetics. 

He was enormously talented, and when we played Horse in the back yard, we had to have a singular variation to the game: I played Pig and at the same time, he played Archaeopteryx. He still won every time.  

Not every NBA player is a Baryshnikov, of course. Only a choice few stand out as danseurs nobles. 

The league has also had its share of Billy Paultzes and Manute Bols, the ungainly klutzes who have performed their tasks with spastic awkwardness. 

Billy ”The Whopper” Paultz, for instance, was one of the original wide bodies. He was there for rebounds, not shooting. When he did take a jump shot, his heels never broke contact with the floor. He had negative hang time. 

Or Jack Sikma, who was ”robo-center.” Although a fine player for Seattle, he moved mechanically. You could almost hear the gears whirring when he turned for his jumper. That’s not ballet. 

But that’s the esthetic bottom end. In between are the journeymen, who fill the lineups and can rise to the occasion in a good game and produce a memorable show. 

Wes Unseld

Wes Unseld

 

Unfortunately, it seems as if the NBA these days no longer values the esthetic side of the game. The heyday of the leaping danseur was the ’70s and ’80s. The best games then seemed more like aerial warfare than infantry slogging it out in the trenches. 

Jordan was the last — and greatest — of a generation of gazelles that began with Baylor, continued through Hawkins and reached critical mass with Dr. J. 

Since Jordan retired, the game seems headed toward a more earthbound and elbow-swinging muscle game. Hang time gives way to bang time. Intimidation counts more than style: Shaquille O’Neal wasn’t so much a leaper as he was a Sherman tank. 

Nowadays, I have a harder time keeping interest in the NBA. 

Critics of the game complain about what they call ”thugball,” but it’s always been part of the game, too. It’s just that too often these days, it seems to be all of the game. 

Jamaal Wilkes

Jamaal Wilkes

But even that aspect of the game has its art. One recalls Wes Unseld in his prime with the Bullets, built like a tree stump, immovable under the opponents’ basket, daring leapers to bounce off him. There was nobility in that. Like a sturdy Nureyev providing a rock-solid pedestal for the pinioned Margot Fonteyn. 

Yet, it is still Jordan whom one remembers most, or Magic Johnson, or Jamaal Wilkes, who never seemed to break a sweat while performing the most amazing acrobatics. His nickname, Silk, said it perfectly.