Saturday, January 06, 2007

A fan of the underdog

I know I’ve made the point several times about how professional sports, particularly baseball, no longer elicits the passion in me that it once did. While that statement is still accurate, by and large, I must confess that I’ve taken a shine to this winter’s version of the Boston Celtics.

Sporting an 12-20 record and minus their one marquee star, the very talented Paul Pierce, currently sidelined by injury, the undermanned Celtics are fun to watch. Young, passionate and appearing eager to learn the finer points of the professional game from coach Doc Rivers, one of the better “teachers” occupying the coaching fraternity, the 2006-2007 Celtics have a lot of “upside.”

I was recently musing with a friend about where my fascination with downtrodden teams comes from. I surmise that it may have originated back when I was 10 and developed a fascination with the woeful early 70s Texas Rangers, who had moved to Arlington, from our nation’s capital.

The years 1969 and 1970 hold resonance for me, as it was around this very time that my fascination with town team baseball and my uncle’s Roberts 88ers games began (which I’ve recounted in my book, When Towns Had Teams). Not only was I eagerly attending local town team games regularly, but I often spent Saturday afternoon watching the Red Sox with my dad, on our old black and white television. Even as a youngster, I was fascinated by the hulking star of the Senators, big Frank Howard, or “Hondo” as he was called. The 6’8”, 275 pound behemoth, was his era’s Bobby Bonds, swatting 40+ homers regularly. While those numbers pale compared to today’s steroid-enhanced homer totals, in 1969, Howard was “the man” when it came to power. Keep in mind that Howard played before the DH and regularly patrolled the outfield, until converting to first base, late in his career.

Unaware at my young age that New Englanders root solely for the Red Sox, I began to check the standings for the Senators, a perennial divisional bottom feeder in the American League. However, in 1969, under the tutelage of former Red Sox legend, Ted Williams, the Senators finished the ’69 campaign with an 86-76 record, resulting in Williams being named AL manager of the year.

The 1970 Senators resorted to their inept ways, as their record fell to 70-92. Word has it that Williams was a great hitting instructor, albeit a bit short on patience with his less talented players, but not much of a game manager.

In ’72, when the Senators relocated to the Lone Star State, I decided I’d order my own official Texas Rangers’ cap. Keep in mind that this was pre-internet, so one had to cut out an order form—in this case, courtesy of Baseball Digest—get a check from Mom and mail it off and wait eagerly, for four to six weeks until your package arrived.

That cap was my first official piece of MLB gear (to be honest, I don’t know if MLB had licensed their merchandise at that point—we are talking the 70s here, back before every iota of revenue was milked from professional athletics).

Around this time, I was following my own version of the underdog—our local American Legion team. This team was made up of a lot of raw 15 and 16-year-olds, who in another two years would form the powerful high school baseball team, the first of several that dominated the Mountain Valley Conference baseball wars, to each and every year, run into an equally more powerful Cape Elizabeth combine and fall in the Western Maine semifinals.

**[A bit of local baseball trivia here—who was the pitcher who finally beat Cape Elizabeth, in 1979, as the Greyhounds went on to capture the team’s first state championship in baseball? Answer to follow at the end.]

While following the Celtics isn’t quite the same as pulling for the 1972 Texas Rangers, the empathy for the downtrodden was firmly planted 30 years ago and still makes me choose teams that bring a certain futility to their sport.

Back in ’72, I had to rely solely on the newspaper, hand-me-down copies of The Sporting News, from my uncle and the ever-reliable, Baseball Digest, for my Rangers’ fix. Today, one can follow a club from the other side of the globe. Like my friend Dan, who can follow his beloved English soccer via the net, one is no longer limited by geography and distance for immediate information on favorite teams and players.

Just this morning, as has become my habit, I went online and read the Boston Globe’s articles on the Celts. It’s the same for any major professional sport that anyone follows. It’s made being a fan just a little less tough, but people’s passions for sports burn every bit as bright as they ever have. The argument could be made that as a culture, we’ve become too sports-crazy, although students of history know there are precedents for sports fandom that go back thousands of years. Hell, if the internet existed in the days of ancient Rome, one can only imagine the memorabilia that might have been the rage—I imagine someone would have been savvy enough to have auctioned torn and bloodied clothing from the Christians, after they were mauled by the lions in the Coliseum in Rome, all via eBay!

At some point, young players like Al Jefferson, Tony Allen and Gerald Green will become seasoned and maybe, just maybe, the Celts will provide Pierce with the supporting cast to rise up through the NBA standings and join the likes of current top tier teams like Phoenix, Dallas, the Lakers and San Antonio. Until then, I’m savoring the occasional victories, waiting for Pierce to get healthy and basking in the enjoyment of listening to my two favorite sports play-by-play guys, Celtic stalwarts Tommy Heinsohn and Mike Gorman, as they enthusiastically call each and every game.

The rest of New England can have their Patriots, Red Sox and even Bruins—just call me a fan of the Celtics and I’ll be happy with that.

[Trivia answer: That Greyhounds’ pitcher was none other than yours truly, who spun a complete game, one-hitter, as the ‘hounds beat the Capers for the first time ever in the Western Maine finals, 3-0--the losing pitcher, Bob Raftice would later become a draft pick and pitch briefly in the minors for the Yankees. Two days later, with the Greyhounds' ace on the hill, sporting a 7-0 mark, Lisbon beat Stearns, to capture the 1979 Class B State Baseball Title, 8-5. Honestly, where else can you get this kind of historical minutiae?]


Listmaker said...

the senators moving to texas broke my dad's heart. he loved big frank howard.

Rikki said...

After reading this post, there is no way I will again forget to pick up your book on my next stroll through the book store. I saw it - alas, too late -- from the snaking line of the SoPo borders on Christmas Eve, prominently placed in on a table near the line.

Incidentally, as a Scarborough High grad, you had me at "... beat Cape Elizabeth ..."

Jim said...

Scarborough, eh? Your former baseball coach, Phil Martin, was quite a pitcher for the old Ametek Redskins, during the 1960s and threw his famous "knuckle ball drop" pitch.

Borders (both in Bangor and S. Portland) has been very supportive of my book and support small presses in general.

I hope you enjoy the book--I know I enjoyed researching and writing it and look back at the accomplishment with a certain measure of pride and sense of accomplishment.