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We're going to do something a little bit different today. I am going to take you through my own life as an obscure sports fan in America, let all of you see how my brain operates on my day off and give you a little insight along the way as to how I get this column out every week and why I am non-traditional in my sports proclivities. I will be date-stamping this post and updating it throughout the day... all times are Pacific... so keep checking back periodically as I announce new installments. Hope you enjoy this non-traditional volume of A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America!

 

7:27 AM -- I sit here reading through KP's recent post about this site and how it has been mismanaged by Sports Illustrated. I woke up excited. I am going over to a buddy's house to catch the Germany-Croatia match from Euro 2008 before he has to go to work. I have an hour and a half, and I am more interested in preparing my wife's lunch right now than thinking about this match. KP put some real interesting thoughts out there... so true and so sad. I have come to value this site as a great resource for getting my writing to all you fans, and I would hate to see it devolve any further than it has. It could be such a vibrant and valuable place for us, but now talk centers around whether or not to leave. I for one, intend to stay here ranting away... I've battled SI once, I'll do it again...

Are you ready for some SOCCER?!But I don't feel like being militant. I haven't been able to catch a full match in ages. I am so thrilled that I get to catch a match -- any match, yes, but especially this premier tilt. I first fell for Croatia back in 1998, when Davor Suker was leading the upstart offshoot of the Yugoslav national team to third place over the Netherlands. Those red-and-white checkered jerseys, the panache on the field, the humility off the field... that team threw me headlong into soccer FANDOM. Before I had watched, enjoying the contests as pure sporting events. After 1998, I was irrevocably a fanatic...

This is usually the time of day when, before work or on a day off, I am sitting in front of the computer, banging out words of wisdom and/or wit. On Thursdays, this is when I am going through my notes taken throughout the week and reinvestigating the best stories from sport throughout the week. It takes a lot, indeed, to write a weekly sports column with a quasi-following. In the course of the week, I am usually reading news in sports (and in politics, current events, science, technology, business... I LOVE news...) and jotting down notes, trying to remember the freshest stories to bring to you here each week. For instance, this week brought entries such as "Nadal dominance Paris -- better than Borg?" and "Euro 2008 starting -- PAY ATTENTION!" and "gymnastics (from Sarah) -- look @ inre: column"... the first topic got turned into the deciding throwdown for the SIFS Championship; the second will be taken care of in the next hour... and the last is an ongoing project mentioned by a gymnastics-loving coworker which will gain more prominence looking ahead toward the Olympics...

One thought this last scribble had for me as I wrote it down yesterday was this: Why are so many of the sports in which Americans excel -- swimming, gymnastics, track & field, etc. -- given such little importance by the American sports media? This brings me back to KP's recent screed. These companies, the Sports Illustrateds and ESPNs and basically any television or print sports-news entity, are more focused on cashing in than on content and customers. They set the market, telling fans that DO care about these lesser-covered sports that fans, indeed, DON'T care about them. Guys like myself know better. I bring this to you every week because no one else out there is going to take this spin on sports for you. You as fans deserve more than just the big-box corporate view of this genre which has become little more than big business.

Here I am rambling. There's nothing new there. Next post I will have the instant recap of that glorious Germany-Croatia contest as well as more news from, as Jim McKay used to always bring us, that "Wide World of Sports"...

 

11:14 AM -- I am sitting here at Cafe Mam, writing this on their computer and getting an expertly-crafted vanilla mocha made lovingly by my wife as I put this down. I just got done watching the Germany-Croatia match from Klagenfurt over at my buddy's house... well, at least the second half of the contest. The reality of the sports fan, especially the obscure sports fan, is that the vagaries of real life often do not allow us to catch the events as they are occurring. This new age of digital media remedies this to a point. I can go online and get highlights from any major bicycle race from around the world; a slew of sites provide me with video, statistics, audio, and photos on just about any sport imaginable. I can hunt down footage from historic archives for most any of these sports, right in the comfort of my own home (or, in this case, my wife's office)...

Germany couldn't do enough of this...I'm being fueled with coffee that I know was raised with love in an ecologically-sound environment by people who are being paid a fairer wage for their commodity than at any other time in history... I have a wealth of sports knowledge right before me... and I am jazzed by the game I just witnessed. In a reminiscence of 1998, when then-upstart Croatia made its triumphant noise on the world stage by defeating Germany 3-0 in the quarterfinals of the World Cup en route to a third-place finish. Coach Slaven Bilic, part of that 1998 team which announced its arrival as a European powerhouse, had his team playing a brilliant game to take all three points. Darijo Srna beat Jens Lehmann in the twenty-fourth minute after beating Marcell Jansen to a cross curled into the box. Croatia pressed the pace through that first half... or so I heard. I wasn't there to see it, remember... the guy with whom I was supposed to watch the game had to run a new rental application to the management company -- the joys of being a college student...

In the second half, five of us sat around the television as Germany and Croatia traded barbs. Germany pressed the pace in attack, trying desperately to capture that tying goal. Ballack and crew missed several quality chances, no one seeming to be able to find the back of the net behind Croat keeper Stipe Pletikosa. A poorly-managed chance was quickly countered by the Croats at each turn, the flanks being patrolled swiftly by Prancjic and the rest of the underdog squad. Their counterattacking prowess was rewarded in the sixty-second minute when, after Mario Gomez failed to connect with Miroslav Klose, Dario Srna raced down the field. Whipping in a cross toward the box, it was deflected into the post behind Lehmann and spit back directly into the path of Ivica Olic. The striker connected and the Croatian side went up two-nil. A late, powerful blast by Lukas Podolski, the ball landing directly on his left foot twelve minutes from stoppage time after bouncing chaotically around Pletikosa's box in the gave the Germans late hope, but it was all for nought as Croatia hung on for the 2-1 win and now sits in the driver's seat in Group B...

And then it was all over. I'll go home soon, get some more coffee brewing there, and get to cleaning the house and keeping up with the Austria-Poland match online. Stay tuned... we'll get to other sports as well, I assure you of that fact!

 

2:17 PM -- Back at home now... have mushrooms, onions and garlic reducing down on the stove with some pinot noir and balsamic vinegar as well as a little vegetable stock for meatloaf. I'm freezing more of that stock, getting some food ready in advance of a crazy summer where I won't have time to be doing such things.

As I drove home from lunch with my wife after watching the game, I was listening to AM 1320, KSCR -- the local sports-talk radio station here in Eugene. The announcer was starting to talk about the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where first-round action is finishing up for the day. This story warmed this obscure sports fan's heart. Where all the talk was about Tiger Woods returning from an injury and being paired with Phil Mickelson for the first two rounds, we find a couple of unheralded qualifiers sitting atop the leaderboard after the opening round. Justin Hicks and Kevin Streelman are sitting atop the leaderboard, instant curiosities, as they rest in the clubhouse in advance of tomorrow's cut day.

Golf is indeed bigger than just these two...I have long said that the field is catching up to Tiger... and Woods' uncharacteristic double-bogeys are indicative that both the field is beginning to catch up to Eldrick and that getting those last few majors to break the record will be much more difficult as people follow the Tiger example than those first glorious years were. I, for one, am excited to see a new crop of players challenging the top players for a shot at titles on a frequent basis. Whether Justin Rose, Trevor Immelman, Zach Johnson or these two intrepid individuals, the sport of golf is immeasurably better when more stars than just Tiger Woods emerge on the scene...

A sport is only as good as its median -- and as the overall talent level of the playing field in professional golf improves, the sport as a whole gets more entertaining for fans and more lucrative for sponsors. Tiger was instrumental in reaching a new generation of golf fans; it is the rest of the field that are instrumental in MAINTAINING these fans and these ratings...

 

3:46 PM -- So Austria came back with a late penalty to draw 1-1 against Poland... it looks as though Croatia has a clear path to the group win. As we advance through June we come up on several big events for non-traditional sports -- Wimbledon, the Tour de France, and yes, those U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials due to take place here in Eugene at Hayward Field in just a few weeks' time.

Yet the underlying question remains... just WHY don't Americans care about these sports? They have excelled in the past in such events. Perhaps the stain of doping rests on the latter two as the dearth of current American talent tarnishes the former. American sports fans, however, have shown an incredible propensity for two-faced disapproval of some instances of performance enhancement even as they turn a blind eye to these indiscretions among their own preeminent athletes.

Barry Bonds goes out with a whimper. Shawne Merriman wins a Pro Bowl slot. Guys with information about steroid use in baseball and football are incredibly cast as outcasts with a vendetta rather than complicit witnesses and accomplices in crimes. Yet a guy like Justin Gatlin or Floyd Landis is instantly villified once the paperwork comes back positive. What is it in the nature of the American sports fan that lets him revile that which takes place abroad while celebrating and embracing that which takes place on home soil?

These paradoxes are startling. I, for one, will be celebrating every athlete that DOES take the start at the first stage of the Tour de France in Brittany; I will be cheering for anyone and everyone who braves the lawns of the All-England Tennis Club this season at Wimbledon. As for those athletes at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials... I will be a part of the catering crew which operates as the exclusive caterer for any and all events pertaining to these trials here on the University of Oregon campus. There will be media tents to serve, sponsors to appease, athletes to feed, hungry spectators -- all in all the population of Eugene is expected to swell by 75,000 people for this ten-day event. There is no rest for the weary here in Oregon this summer...

At least there will be some incredible sporting achievements to follow in those few hours of off-time from work. From cycling and tennis to the lead-in to the Olympic Games in Beijing, this summer will continue to offer timeless stories of achievement, agony and athleticism. I would hope, though, that people's skepticism is tempered with the realization that all those positive results are announced because these events have the most stringent testing policies in the world.

There are no ten-game suspensions or slaps on the wrists. There is only the rules which govern international sports. Painkillers, so prevalent in American sports (remember how many Oxycontin Clemens purportedly popped... or all those Vicodin Favre ate like Skittles?), are banned and will accomplish nothing more than a two-year ban for first-time offenders. Salbutamol, the chemical found in asthma inhalers, will land a person a two-year ban. Gatlin, who is on suspension for a second offense, was found guilty the first time for taking Adderol prescribed for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder by a doctor...

Sure, these test results come up positive more frequently... but that is because these sports test for more prohibited substances. They also have a longer history of conducting tests, they conduct these tests more frequently and athletes face real punishment for offenses. Keep that skepticism, certainly, but don't forget where some of that skepticism truly deserves to go... 

 

10:21 PM -- The day is winding down, my knees are pleasantly sore after a rousing game of tennis, and a late-night snack before bed is in order after I pen a few final words. As my wife and I played tennis, the culmination of this crazy sports day wound down with the realization of what this whole sports craving is all about. For this non-traditional sports fan it isn't all about who is winning and who is the superstar and who makes the most money. What pains me about so many sports fans is that they are actually spectators of professional and/or quasi-professional (i.e. Division I sports) sports. Don't get me wrong -- few have the opportunity to race down the road in a car at nearly two-hundred miles an hour to get the "NASCAR experience". But how many even get out to play a pick-up game of baseball or football? How many hit the tennis court simply for the joy of it, or ride their bicycle long distances just for the clarity of mind it can bring to a person?

These are my truest and most passionate sports moments. I find myself more impressed when my mediocre tennis ability drums up a slicing cross-court backhand which catches the line than I ever could be by Nadal or Federer winning Grand Slam after Grand Slam. Why? Because, for one play at least, I recognize the potential that I myself could accomplish such feats myself. Of course, the next point sees me scrambling on creaky knees and a wonky hip and the dream fades away until the next great point. Or perhaps I am toiling for what feels like eternity up a mountain pass on a bicycle. I feel more like the lanterne rouge (there's a little pre-Tour de France terminology for you -- the lanterne rouge is the last person still in a bicycle stage race, the person who crosses the line within the time bonuses without getting swept up by the sag wagon, which traditionally had a red lantern affixed to it so the riders could see its position relative to their own ignominy) than the maillot jaune as rivulets of sweat pour out forth from every pore. Yet, once the summit is crested, there's that opportunity again to feel like a superstar. Barreling down a winding mountain road at fifty, sixty, seventy miles an hour, one starts to realize that The Roots weren't too far off when they sang that "everybody is a star"...

We are constantly bombarded about this or that celebrity athlete and what he or she is doing outside of sports today. Do I really care that a washed-up Evander Holyfield is competing in Dancing with the Stars? What does it matter to me if Nadia Comaneci wants to go on Celebrity Apprentice? Yet it is stories like THESE which I have too often seen clog the front pages of sites like SI.com and ESPN.com while quality articles about meaningful competition in what are perceived to be less-popular sports get buried behind link after redirecting link. But it isn't even merely reading the news from afar about these obscure sports which is the important part...

It's all those childhood dreams of glory, tossing the ball around the front yard and sliding in the grass. It's kicking soccer ball after soccer ball at the house, or hitting tennis ball after tennis ball with aluminum bats over the short hill behind our back yard which served as a home-run "fence"... it is the thrill of skating on a clean, pristine sheet of ice, or carving virgin turns in a blanket of powder as the first person on the ski slope. Why do we love sports? I love them because of all the microcosms between what I see others accomplish and those steps forward I see within myself. That's what being a true non-traditional sports fan is all about -- finding the joy in observing new things, certainly, but also going out and attempting those new and strange things for yourself...

One final note before I bid you adieu for this week's column is a short farewell to Jim McKay, the brilliant ABC sports commentator who hosted their Wide World of Sports program all those years of its existence. So many of the sports I remember trying in my youth stem from this guy, who recently passed away this week after a fruitful life. The greatest memory I will ever have of Jim was him covering jai alai from... goodness, it was some Caribbean island if I am not mistaken. That evening, I went into the shed where my father kept all his tools and fashioned a crude jai alai scoop out of random bits and pieces of scrap. McKay inspired me through his spirited illumination of this quirky sport to spend hours outside the resort's service station in the offseason, flinging tennis ball after tennis ball with my self-constructed scoop at the high garage doors. Thanks, Jim, for everything you did to instill within this sports nut a love for EVERY sport, from the big-money American team sports to the jai alais of the sporting world. This man means more to sports than most will ever appreciate... 

 

So thank you one last time, Jim, for turning this guy into A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America... as we advance into the summer months, folks, you all enjoy sports whenever and from wherever you can, and be sure to get out there and try a few new things yourselves. You never know... you may discover that you are the next star of some sport you never would have given a second thought before you gave it a whirl on a whim...

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