Saturday, November 6, 2010

Flowing Beer & Clouds of Smoke: Sport and Community

By a very circuitous route of daughter and boyfriend, I ended up rooting for the San Francisco Giants in the World Series. And by freaks of nature and talent, they won! Iwould text back and forth with my daughter as the games wore on without the normal torture. Lo and behold I ended up rooting for a World Series Champion. Now Tim Lincecum has urged me to celebrate San Francisco style with "flowing beer and clouds of smoke."

As people lined up for 36 hours to get a place for the parade I enjoyed the celebration for the Giants and the region around San Francisco. 54 years is a long time to wait. Even more I enjoyed watching how a winning team can bring together a community.

It heartens me to know that a community that can be suffocatingly politically correct can revel in sport gaiety. The irony of political correctness, of course, is that if it works as a formal cultural constraint, it permits a much greater degree of diversity to flourish under its sometimes self-righteous banners. Anyone who knows San Francisco knows that you can find Halloween any night of the year on its streets, so the game did not need to be played on Halloween in SF.

But beneath the cosmopolitan city, and amid the burgeoning craziness and energy of its wild diversity, baseball brought together the various strains ethnic, cultural, gendered, class and whatever other categories we need. It created a social opportunity and space for all the denizens of  the city to enjoy themselves  with the quality of the team, but also with the quality of the players.

Unlike the corporate Yankees or the really corporate NFL that permits little deviation in acceptable public persona, baseball, like its ball parks, still permits a remarkable degree of individuality to flourish. On winning teams energized cultures will pick up mantras or identify avatars--remember Johnny Damon's prophetic beard and the bus signs, "What Would Johnny Do?" in Boston? I still wonder "what would Johnny do?" Anyway,  when he went to New York, he had to cut his hair and beard, so much for the prophet and the World Series was just not as interesting or fun.

Well the Giants brought back both with abundance. The Rangers were powered by great stories like the redemption tale of Josh Hamilton, Benji Molina's revenge and the laser  zen efficiency of Cliff Lee, but the Giants were powered by sheer weirdness.

A 23 year old catcher who looks 12 brought up at mid-season grows into a backbone star. A tortuous capacity to make games close and turn easy victories into excruciating adventures roiled games all year. A 21 year old pitcher who looks 16 pitched with preternatural calm. A panda bear exemplified my son's claim that baseball players simply do not look like athletes. And only the fans could take a meaningless corporate slogan, "magic inside" and turn it into signs painted "torture inside." And only San Francisco could turn flagellation into a joy, "we love the torture" said one sign. I get it, I think.

Players destined for heaps or where-ever unwanted baseball players end up like Edgar Renteria or Aubrey Huff have redemptive seasons all at the same time. While it is hard to beat the magic jeweled thong that Huff wore to ensure victory,  Fear the Beard  became a cultural rallying cry for the fans. Brian Wilson, the Giant's closer's beard can't really match Damon's, but Wilson's oracular pronouncements, fierceness and proclivity for creating jams and then escaping them added more fun to the torture. Wilson's antics spawned his own mini-industry in fake beards. Then, of course,  (truth in advertising I served as FAR when Tim Lincecum pitched at Washington), The Freak. If you add his hair to Wilson's beard, you do get Johnny Damon!

The Giants won with superb pitching and career years from journeyman players. The crown jewel of their pitching does not look like a pitcher, even when he's pitching--all arms, and elbows and ergonomically insane angles. Long greasy hair, bow ties, marihuana problems, and two Cy Youngs in his first four years. Lincecum gave an ease and edge to a team that patterned its own identity around its mismatched parts and slightly nutty mainstays. You can do this when you are winning and you can do this when you have Sanchez and Posey and others to offset Lincecum and Wilson.

Winning makes it possible. You can take what might be problems when you are losing--recalcitrant pitchers, close games, closers who come close to blowing games, mediocre hitting that does not come in the clutch--and  laugh and joke about them when you are winning. It all changes if you lose. Momentum and winning turn irritations into cute, even irresistible. Winning  turns heartburn into posters and fake beards.

I enjoyed this series because there were no bad guys. Both teams were good guys, so the good guys won. But the good guys brought along a great city with them and generated some fine madness, just what we all need before an La Nina winter.

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