Monday, May 24, 2010

Provenance of a sports fan

As the Blackhawks are about to enter the Stanley Cup Finals, we come upon the rare prospect of a Chicago sports team entering a championship series. With that comes the uproar over who is a real fan and who is a Johnny-come-lately, a gate crasher, a poseur, or to put it in hockey terms, someone who thinks that icing is just something you put on a cake. This is akin to church at Christmas and Easter time when the regulars grumble over the gall of people who only show up during the holidays, taking up precious seating and parking spots.

I suppose there is something to all this. The die hard, be it a sports fan or church goer who pays his dues day after day, year after year suffering through losing seasons, or sermons, being inconvenienced by people who only turn out to reap the spoils. Or to use another hockey term, the cherry pickers.

Sadly I have to admit to being mostly a fair weather sports fan myself. My philosophy is that life is too short to put all one's emotional energy into a lousy team, especially one whose members are multi-millionaires whose loyalties lie with the highest bidder. The Sunday in fall when it becomes clear that the Chicago Bears have no chance always brings great relief to me as I no longer feel obligated to waste a perfectly good day off in front of the tube watching over-paid grown men play a kid's game.

The same is true for baseball, hockey and basketball, all sports for which I have a great passion, but not enough to live and die for a particular team as some fans.

Of course all that is out the window when one of my teams shows promise. I lose all perspective about the business of sport and concentrate on the drama, the beauty and the pure joy that sports brings to my life. Call it love of the game if you will. Few things are as exciting or as beautiful to watch as great athletes doing what they do best, whether it be a perfectly turned double play, an ally-oop pass, a sixty yard bomb, or a goalie stopping a 100 mph one timer from the slot.

So am I worthy to be aboard the Blackhawks' bandwagon now even though until last year, I admittedly had not given them much thought for well over a decade?

I asked myself that same question back in 1986 when the Bears won the Super Bowl, in the nineties when the Bulls won all their championships, and most recently in 2005 when the White Sox won the World Series. Those years I followed my teams closely, my life practically revolved around them. I shared in their ups, and died a little with the downs. Today in leaner times I still keep up with them but mostly only to listen for the score following a game.

I can't recall the exact time when I became a Bears fan, I remember listening to them in on the car radio in the late sixties and early seventies when broadcasting "legend" Jack Brickhouse and former player turned gossip columnist Irv Kupcinet were the announcers. Their scintillating commentary make today's counterparts sound downright Shakespearean. Every year the great Gale Sayers would have a few 100 yard games before getting hurt. Quarterback Bobby Douglas could throw the ball 90 yards but couldn't hit the side of a barn from 20. The immortal Abe Gibron who liked to give interviews while sitting on his throne behind closed doors (if you catch my drift) was one of the more memorable head coaches. I can't say I ever seriously followed the Bears until late in the Walter Payton era in the early eighties when they were a truly great team for one year at least. I became a Bulls fan in the early seventies when they made several serious attempts at the NBA championship. And as I mentioned in this space earlier, I became a White Sox fan in high school simply because they were way cooler than the Cubs.

In all three cases I came to these teams entirely on my own, I didn't inherit them.

This is definitely not the case with the Blackhawks. Thinking about it the other day, my very earliest memory is being in my first home, a small apartment on Humboldt Boulevard, watching the Hawks (back then they were the Black Hawks) on our black and white Zenith TV. For years that was our Saturday winter evening ritual as the Hawks played their five NHL "original six" rivals. Any worthy Blackhawk fan will have no trouble dating me as I mention the names Kenny Wharram, Pierre Pilotte, Ken Hodge, Phil Espositio and Glenn Hall, all Black Hawks at the time. Of course the real stars of that team back then and for many years to come were Bobby Hull and my first and perhaps greatest sports idol of all time, Stan Mikita.

Ice hockey was THE game in our house as my Czechoslovak father could not tolerate baseball or American football. To him those sports consisted of standing around, scratching and spitting, very briefly interrupted by moments of fleeting action.

My father loved hockey more than any other sport, especially the kind of game which was rare at that time in the NHL. He loved fast skating, crisp passing and skilled stick work, the kind of game he grew up with back home. Here hockey was much more physical, lots more body checking, dump and chase offense, and of course the fighting which he couldn't stand. Nonetheless my dad rooted for the team of his adopted home town and passed on a love of that team to his son. He was not in any way a home team booster, he called it as he saw it and was not at all interested in making excuses for them. None of this nonsense about blaming a loss on a blown call or bad bounce. If the other team was better, he'd say it point blank, even if the Hawks won the game. To him style and sportsmanship were more important than the score.

We'd go to maybe one or two games a year, almost always standing room in the much missed Chicago Stadium. It was there that we witnessed Bobby Hull's 499th and 500th goals, among other great moments. In those years, the Hawks were the toughest ticket in town. Unlike other sports franchises in Chicago in those very lean years, the Black Hawks consistently fielded a good team. They always made it into the playoffs, and made it all the way to the Finals in 1971, 1973 and 1992. Unfortunately they were never quite good enough to win it all. Then in the mid-nineties, their tightfisted owner "Dollar" Bill Wirtz decided to cash in and sell off all their stars. Wirtz's son Rocky took over the team upon the old man's death a couple of years ago and brought a new spirit and commitment to the team ending 15 years of misery for their loyal fans.

As I look at the current Chicago Blackhawks, my father certainly would have loved this team. They are the fastest skaters and the best puck handlers in the NHL, hands down. And by and large they are an admirable group of guys who are great team players.

My dad had very particular reasons for liking or disliking particular players. He'd certainly admire up front guys like Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith. He'd no doubt be a big fan of both the skills and personality of the tacitern captain Jonathan Toews. He'd have reserved Slavic pride in the Slovaks Marian Hossa and Tomas Kopecky but certainly would not fail to lament that the Czech Martin Havlat, traded away a year ago, was better in his opinion. While he'd be an admirer of the skills of Patrick Kane, he would bemoan his habit of wearing his mouth guard on the outside as well as some of his off ice behavior. Conversely he'd no doubt like the gentle giant Dustin Byfuglien as a person, but not like his style of camping out in front of the net screening the opposition's goaltender and waiting to be fed the puck.

I can just hear our argument:
"He reminds me of Phil Esposito who I never liked." he'd say.
"But 'Big Buff's' intimidation in front of the net was the key to the Hawk's success in the playoffs up to this point, besides he's just doing what's asked of him" I'd say.
"It is selfish to just wait in front of the net for someone to pass the puck to you" retorts Dad.
"So what if it helps the team?" I'd remark.
At which point he would stop speaking to me for about a week.

The Blackhawks' opponent in these Stanley Cup finals will be the Philadelphia Flyers. Back in the seventies their dirty play earned them the nickname the "Broad Street Bullies". This version of the Bullies was only a .500 team in the regular season but have played impressively in the playoffs, most notably coming back from being down three games to none against Boston, and a 3-0 score in gave seven to win the series. They have just beaten the Montreal Canadiens who had a magical playoff run of their own upsetting both the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and the team with the best record in the NHL this year, the Washington Capitals.

Still the Blackhawks will be huge favorites to win the Cup, which makes this lifelong Chicago fan more than a little nervous. Last season no one expected anything of them and they surprised everyone by making it to the Conference Championships. This year their motto has been "One Goal", clearly stating that anything short of bringing the Cup to Chicago for the first time since 1961 would be a tremendous disappointment.

But win or lose it has been a great ride and the team's success has given this city a reason to celebrate after a few dismal years of a terrible economy, an increase in violent crime and an overall feeling of discontent.

I'll be watching intently as this potential championship would mean more to me than the Bears', the Bulls' and the White Sox' championships combined. The Blackhawks are still my team as they have been my entire life. It would mark the first time that I share a Chicago championship with my own son who is now a huge sports fan, something I was never able to do with my own father. If in a week or two Messers Sharp, Toews, Byfuglien, Hossa, Kane, Niemi and the rest of the team who proudly wear the Indian Head sweater hoist Lord Stanley's Cup over their heads, we'll put "Chelsea Dagger" on at full volume, and looking toward the stars, I'll tip a glass of Czechvar in honor of my dad, toasting him with a hearty "nazdravy, Tati."

Friday, May 14, 2010

Ornithology, 'tis the season

Two great sites dealing with Peregrine falcons in Chicago can be found at Chicago Peregrine Falcon Blog, and the site of the webcam pointed at the now hatched chicks in their nest on the roof of the building 1130 S. Michigan Avenue.

Check them out and bookmark them as I just did.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Annals of the game...

As the boys of summer in the big leagues began their season last month, the little league boys and girls of summer in Warren Park on the far north side of Chicago began their season this week. This was the week where hope springs eternal for the little Derrik Lees and Paul Konerkos of all shapes, sizes and abilities.

My nine year old who began his love affair with baseball almost exactly one year ago is on the Cardinals. I suspect that the late comers to the league ended up on the more unpopular teams which the Cardinals certainly are, at least on the north side of Chicago. But a Cardinal he is and trying his uniform on for the first time at home produced a smile that, hard as he tried to hide, would have warmed the heart of the deepest cynic. In fact everything that's good about the greatest game ever invented could have been summed up by that smile.

Anyway these Cardinals are made up of a bunch of enthusiastic third and fourth graders, most of whom have little or no experience with organized ball. My guy played tee ball for one season but spent most of his time in the outfield gazing at the sky. Now he's a serious ballplayer who could spend at least 23 hours a day playing ball if we'd only let him, leaving an hour for a nap, snack, and bathroom break. All this enthusiasm has paid off as he can now catch, throw and hit well enough to be at least in the middle of the pack on his team. After each game or practice he wants to continue playing catch or take fielding and batting practice, long after his teammates have headed home, and long after his father is tired, hungry, and ready for bed.

As every other kid, he wants to win. He plays soccer on a team that has a couple of players who are so good they should really be in tougher leagues. Because of their dominance, his team has never lost a game. He loves this of course, but it's not a great learning experience as he expects to win every game, even if he doesn't contribute much to the outcome.

It's quite clear from the outset that this won't be a problem with these Cardinals. Our first game was against the Blue Jays. Clearly the Jays have quite a few experienced players. We Cardinal parents joked that we wanted to check some of the Blue Jays kids' ids.

The Cardinals faced the juggernaut of the Little League equivalent of Kerry Wood in his prime. Her name was Sarah. Now anyone who has ever experienced baseball at the level where the kids are just beginning to pitch knows that the outcome of a game is determined almost entirely on whether or not a pitcher can throw a strike. Most of them can't. This means that it's not uncommon for every inning to feature a conga line of batters walking one after the other. In our league there is a merciful limit of five runs per team per inning. It is not unheard of for a team to score the maximum 25 runs in a five inning game.

But Sarah could throw strikes. Not every pitch mind you but enough to strike out most of the batters she faced. Many of our guys including mine, never even took the bats off their shoulders before being called out on strikes. Plus Sarah had some velocity to her pitches meaning that when the Cardinals did swing, they usually missed. And when on that rare occasion one of our guys made contact, their infielders were able to throw our guys out, routine plays for big leaguers to be sure, but fantastic plays for the Rookie League. On the other side our pitchers struggled with some control problems but gave up a respectable 10 runs, normally few enough runs to win a game.

Unfortunately our Cardinals were shut out. My son was not quite reduced to tears but he came close. He had lots to be proud of in fact during the game, he caught admirably for four innings, holding on to pitches that were swung on by the batters, not an easy feat even for more experienced catchers. He had only one at bat, and not one swing. My telling him that it wasn't a big deal, the other team simply had more experience fell on deaf ears. He hates to lose.

This brings up a funny thing that I've encountered since he's been involved in organized sports. All of the leagues he's been a part of are instructional leagues, meaning that the competition part is underscored. Everybody gets a trophy in the end. This idea is appalling to some who have the idea that kids need to be taught to want to win. But in my experience, the desire to win is the one thing kids don't need to be taught at all, it's something as natural as breathing.

Game two was against the Mets. We played them already in a pre-season game and knew they were more at our level. The Cardinals had first at bats and our leadoff man hit a double and the batter after him hit a perfect drive, splitting the outfielders, good enough for a home run. Then came the conga line of walks and we scored the maximum five runs. Our pitcher this game was a pint sized fourth grader named Tristan. What Tristan lacks in size he more than makes up in ability and form. He has the sweetest swing on the team and on the mound it's clear he's watched a lot of big league pitchers as he has the motion down to a tee. He struck out two and made a great play himself by throwing out a runner at first, three up, three down.

We scored a bunch more runs in the second, mostly on walks, then in the bottom of the second, Tristan could not find the strike zone. The rest of the game was a succession of walk after walk on both sides, most innings ended after five runs instead of three outs. The game dragged on and on. It was getting dark and worst of all it was getting colder by the minute. Thankfully, the Mets coaches whose team was down by about five runs, suggested we call the game after four innings. This left one inning to play, an eternity to be sure but way less than two more innings. Walk walk walk, we score five then it's the Mets' last at bat.

In the bottom of the fourth, our closer Liam, another adorable little munchkin of a kid, was making his debut on the mound. Walk walk walk, they score five and we think, game over. Not so, their coach informs us. League rules state that the team with the last at bat gets a chance to tie, no matter how far down they are. Now at that point none of us really cared that this would be a serious challenge to our first victory. Everybody, including most of the kids just wanted to go home. But play on we did, walk walk walk. Somewhere in between all the walks, Liam managed to get a couple of kids out by swinging at pitches that were way out of the strike zone. The Mets were now down by only a couple of runs, all they had to do was keep their bats on their shoulders and they certainly would have ended up with the tie. Up comes a kid that I remember from our first game. His name, believe it or not, was Casey.

Yes the Mets' chances depended upon Casey at the Bat.

Unlike his namesake of lore, this Casey was not a big home run hitter. In fact I never saw him actually hit the ball. But his heart was certainly big enough to live up to that name. With Casey at the bat, the air was indeed shattered by the force of Casey's blow two times. Miracle of miracles, Liam has an 0-2 count on Casey, and the Cardinals are one strike away from scratching out their first victory. But Casey gets wise and takes the next three pitches for balls.

So here's the situation, Mets down by a couple of runs, the bases are loaded, their leadoff hitter on deck, two outs and a 3-2 count on the Mighty Casey. We know if Casey walks forcing in a run, the next batter would at the very least walk, to tie and end the game, and our hopes for victory. After two and a half hours of pure tedium, this ending couldn't have been more exciting if it had been the last game of the World Series.

"Come on Liam, just one more strike" come the calls from our bench.

"Protect the plate Casey" come the calls from the other bench.

"No pressure" I say under my breath.

All eyes were on Liam and Casey. Liam checks out the situation, he glances at the runners making sure they don't try anything. Liam goes into into his stretch, he delivers his best 20 mph fastball. Casey watches it go by, the ball popping into the catcher's mitt. Then silence in the park for what seemed to be an eternity.

"Strike three you're out!" shouts the umpire. Cardinals win. Bedlam breaks out. The Cardinals players are all over Liam who is hero of the day. The teams line up to congratulate each other on a good game. Our coach, with the diplomacy required for the job handed out (virtual) game balls to the entire team, even though everyone knew one real ball should have gone to Liam.

And how did my guy do? Well he didn't get much playing time in the field this game as the coach had more players than positions. But he did get to play shortstop in that tumultuous last inning and made a gallant dive for a ground ball. At the plate he walked of course, but only once. As one of the few batters on our team to swing at any pitches he got a solid single up the middle in his second at bat and another hit which probably could have been fielded but was not in his last at bat. He drove in three runs, and scored two. He was a perfect three for three yesterday making him 3 for 4 for the season which gives him a blistering on base average of .750 and a .667 batting average.

But who's counting?

You just gotta love baseball.