Let's Sport Better Attitudes
The San Francisco Giants were in town the other day, and took two out of three from the local team. As a Washington Nationals fan, I was disappointed, but mildly, as it’s only June and baseball season lasts until late September. Also, it was the Giants, my boyhood team.
When I was a little kid in the Bay Area in the 1960s, if you had told me that I would root against my beloved Giants as a grown man, I would have said you were out of your mind. Times and circumstances change, however. Since leaving high school, I’ve lived in Denver, Boston, western Georgia, Southern California, and Northern Virginia -- embracing new teams and new players along the journey. I’ve sold beer on chilly days at Mile High Stadium while 70,000 Coloradans screamed for their Broncos, basked in the sunshine at Jack Murphy Stadium with a smattering of Padres fans, and shoehorned myself into a seat at Fenway Park, which was built when Americans were thinner.
One night in Boston, several beer-fueled Red Sox fans behind me were loudly heckling the Derek Jeter-led New York Yankees. After listening to variations of “Jetah! You suck!,” I told them that if they didn’t appreciate Derek Jeter’s game, they didn’t know anything about baseball. Over time, my youngest brother, Jackson, has rendered this in a pithier way: If you say you love baseball and you hate Derek Jeter, you’re lying about something.
What was I doing rooting for the Red Sox anyway? The short answer is that my brother, who went to Boston for college and never left, owns a bar near Fenway, and that I was spending a semester at Harvard’s Institute of Politics. The longer answer involves the Sox epic fail in the 1986 World Series against the Mets and a certain (lost) wager I had on Boston. But it was also because the widespread scapegoating of Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, who made a key error, struck me as unfair.
Feeling more forgiving toward our athletic heroes -- and less rabid in our partisan passions -- may be a function of growing older. I only wish some of us would apply it to politics as well. Veteran writer George Will grew up as a Cubs fan in Illinois and later became associated in fans’ minds with the Baltimore Orioles because Cal Ripken was the hero of “Men At Work,” his classic book on baseball. Although he has a rooting interest in the Nats, Will told me that he’s less than a Cubs fan or a Nats fan than he is just “a baseball fan.”
As the 2018 World Cup got underway this week, millions of Americans who love soccer wrestled with that concept because the United States didn’t qualify this year. Neither did Holland, the team I root for every four years. This is a convoluted tale, too, and involves my other brother, David.
Dave was a track star, not a soccer player, but in the summer of 1974, he went to Germany on a student exchange and came back a fan of the world’s most popular sport. Why wouldn’t he? The German team featured a host of stars captained by Franz “Der Kaiser” Beckenbauer. Meanwhile, I’d became mesmerized by the captain of another European team. His name was Johan Cruyff, and his innovative style of play -- “Total Football,” it was called -- led Holland to the finals and made “the beautiful game” even more sublime. I’ve been rooting for the Dutch ever since. It was a friendly quadrennial rivalry Dave and I had, which favored him. Holland lost to Germany, 2-1, in the 1974 finals, and although the Dutch advanced the finals again four years later, they lost to Argentina. On their way to another title in 1990, the Germans beat the Dutch by 2-1 again. Germany also won the World Cup four years ago, and though David loved it, it was his last World Cup. He passed away in 2016.
So, without Holland’s orange-clad team and without the red, white, and blue present in Russia, should I cheer for Germany for reasons of brotherly love? On Sunday, they play Mexico, the United States’ closest neighbor competing in the World Cup. Millions of Mexican-Americans will be rooting hard for “El Tri.” And Mexico is an underdog.
Naturally, politics play a role in such decisions, which is what makes the tournament a global spectacle. And international politics can get pretty raw. Nike announced as World Cup play began that it wouldn’t furnish shoes to Iran. And I suppose my liberal friends who loathe the very idea of President Trump’s proposed border wall wouldn’t mind seeing Mexico do well. Neither would the U.S. television networks, I suspect, with “Big Beautiful Wall” vs. “¡Viva Mexico!” being a marketable tension. Democrats obsessed with special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in U.S. elections probably wouldn’t want to watch President Vladimir Putin basking in a victory by the host team, either.
But sports can bring us together. Ideally, that’s the point. Our nation’s capital last week was the site of an enthusiastic victory parade, with red-clad Washington Capitals fans cheering their Stanley Cup-winning team. If you gathered downtown, nobody asked your party registration – or your country of birth. Good thing, because these Caps were very much a team of the world. The seven native-born Americans on the roster were supplemented by eight Canadians, three Russians, three Czechs, and two Swedes – along with a German, an Austrian, a Dane, and a Brit. It was captained by its star goal-scorer, Alex Ovechkin, a Moscow native who actually knows Vladimir Putin.
Ovi, as he’s known affectionately, could have his picture taken holding the Stanley Cup in the White House with the Donald and in the Kremlin with Vlady. Notwithstanding Russia’s awful human rights record, this represents progress. Hockey has come a long way since 1989 when star Russian defenseman Slava Fetisov informed Soviet athletic officials that he had signed with an NHL team. Russia has, too. Fetisov had starred on two gold-medal winning Olympic teams and was looking to attain new heights in his chosen field. For three centuries, all across the world, that desire has implied immigrating to America.
Fetisov’s coaches were hardly good sports about it. In an interview with the Hockey Hall of Fame, he said what happened next: “The Soviet minister of defense tried to scare me, demanding that I apologize for asking to leave. He gave me an ultimatum: 'Either apologize or be sent to Siberia where we will make life very difficult for you.'”
In the end, Slava called their bluff. He was followed by a spate of Russian stars who changed North American hockey, making it a more exciting and open game, creating what retired NHL coach Scotty Bowman has called “masterpieces on the ice.”
That’s what open markets and open minds, not to mention liberalized immigration policies, get you: vibrancy, competition, cultural enrichment, and new ideas. In the meantime, let’s make American soccer great again. Let’s bring in more foreigners.