Friday, March 8, 2013

Sacramento versus Seattle--Are Home Teams an Illusion?

Sacramento and Seattle are fighting over possession of a professional basketball team, the Kings. Seattle lost their Sonics to Oklahoma City five years ago. Sacramento stole the Kings from Kansas City twenty years ago. Now billionaires battle  to keep or steal the stolen Kings. Team roulette continues and the more I see between the tensions between capitalist ownership and community identity, I am amazed that I and we still care and invest our identities in "teams" that are nothing more than corporate shells. These shells hold our dreams. Dreams weave our reality and weave our identity into our loyalty to our teams. Are we all deluded in investing our loyalty in corporate creations. I think it fair to say put not your trust in corporate teams.

Governments battle to subsidize stadiums and provide tax breaks to keep teams because they believe teams will help support a fabric of community in cities.This is especially true for medium sized cities looking to make it to the big time. Owners extort these improvements and subsidies under the threat of taking "my team" to another city. In the Seattle versus Sacramento battle, Seattle has pledged to support a new arena largely financed by ihedge fund billionaire Chris Hansen.  Kevin Johnson mayor of Sacramento has failed twice to get a new arena but has put together another offer from a billionaire to buy the team and another billionaire to help finance a new arena.

These raw machinations remind us that our dreams make our teams, but dreams can be fragile. Only  money and capitalism builds the infrastructure of a dream. If profits fail or beckon, the team will abandon us leaving us with dreams and nightmares, like the Sonics.

Watching billionaires fight for the right to own a team and create a community of dreams and loyalty reminds me of the yearly game of the hot stove league.  "The game is not played in the newspapers, not played in the Hot Stove League. it is played on the field." That's how Jack Zduriencik, my Mariner's general manager, described his views on the status of the team after an interesting and frenetic off season of signing free agents, trading for high risk players and signing fine players to contract extensions. I love the Hot Stove League. Without the season around, I tend to go stir crazy and pretend to like professional football, but my heart  is not in it. The off season machinations of general managers trade, sign free agents and lose and gain players fascinates me. Football fans have the same fascination with 8 million people watching the rookie combine and others follow free agency signings.

But the hot stove league emphasizes how fragile and dreamlike the community around a team can be.

The moves and counters remind me that my home team is not really a "home team" in any deep sense. The Mariners, or any professional sport team, are not staffed by local players. The players are not long time players who live and play only for the "home" team. Only 7 players remain from the team of three years ago!!! Almost players play for the same team their entire career. Players come from four continents. Almost no players live in Seattle. They commute from Florida, California, Japan or Latin America.

The reality of modern professional sports is that home teams do not exist.

So in what way does a professional team like the Mariners or the once and future Sonics represent Seattle and the people who identify with the Mariners and Seattle as a "home?

Answer? They don't except as creations of our imaginations.

They are really corporate shells owned by others; sometimes the owners don't live at home. The Mariners are largely owned by Nintendo. Chris Hansen lives in San Francisco.  They are a shell in the sense that they are hollow of true connection to soil and people and area. Owners can sell teams and move them away. Owners can up and take their team elsewhere. If you go to an Atlanta Braves game, the outside murals and statues tell the story of their fabled migration from Boston to Milwaukee to Atlanta. Most teams, however, like Orwell's Newspeak, move and rewrite their histories and create new corporate identities and new homes.

On the other hand I can feel satisfaction or sorrow by watching the moves of general managers putting together a team of free agents and mercenaries. Let's face it, with very rare exceptions, the professional sports markets reduces players, coaches and front office folks to mercenaries. They can be traded, fired or removed at will for any reasons. I lived through watching a horrid General Manager Bill Bavasi literally destroy a team; now I am watching one pretty good putting together a good team built for the stadium and the future. The Seahawks have been resurrected by a new general manager and coach.

Maybe the guts of modern sports teams lie not in the players or owners but in the quality of general managers and coaches?

Does this  may mean that the Seattle fans can instantly embrace a carpetbagger team as their own just for the sake of having a team, any team, any corporate shell. Are we that gullible or that desperate? if players or local roots don't define home team loyalty, what does?

I believe our memories of past teams, or need to create a community of identity woven by strands of imagination and relations with our fellow fans leads us to give life to these lifeless hard-edged shells. They may spend the money to market the illusion of a home, but we collaborate and embrace that illusion, but we turn it into a collective dream.

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