Friday, April 24, 2009

Sports drunks

The last time I remember watching a football game -- or, come to think of it, any game -- in a bar that seated more than about 50 people was sometime during the fall semester of my sophomore year in college. For reasons that will be apparent in about three or four sentences, I can't quite remember if Tennessee, the university I attended my first two years, was playing Georgia, Notre Dame or UCLA. But I do remember -- very clearly, if that makes any sense, that the legal drinking age was eighteen. And, like almost every other of the 98,000 or so fans in attendance, I was enjoying whatever Southern Comfort or Jack Daniels-based concoction my friends and I had brought into the stadium to get into the football spirit. At 18 or 19 years old, there is a certain degree of "stupidity" freedom that goes with the age, especially at college football games. For my first two or three years of college, I looked forward to every "football Saturday" with great excitement. As strange as this might sound, these Saturday games served as a great motivating force to get all my work done so I could enjoy whatever it was I wouldn't remember by Sunday afternoon. I attended every Tennessee home game during my first two years, and, as best as I can remember, I didn't get thrown out of a single one. Nor did anyone that sat in my section. Then again, by the end of the third quarter, the chances are better than even that I had passed out or, as I prefer to remember it, nodded off for a quick, restorative nap, so someone -- not me, though -- might have been asked to watch the remainder of the game from the comfort of home.

My all-time favorite beer-driven sports story took place during the second semester of my freshman year at the End Zone, the perfect college beer bar. At the End Zone, you could not buy a bottle of beer, only draft beer in pitchers. And you drank your beer out of plastic cups, not glasses. And you sat at wooden picnic tables, not In 1980, you couldn't spend more than $10 in that bar if you tried, unless you decided to buy everyone in the bar a pitcher. Even then, it was still a close call.

As the only hockey fan in Knoxville, Tennessee by way of Atlanta, Georgia, I put together a floor outing to watch the U.S. vs. Soviet Union semi-final hockey game at the End Zone. Like everyone else who watched that game, I never, not for minute, thought the Americans would beat the Soviets. No sane person could have. So, as the third period wound down and it became apparent that the Americans were going to win and go to the gold medal game (Trivia question: Who did the Americans beat to win the gold? Hint: It wasn't the Russians), we did what all normal college students would -- and should -- do in that situation: we began drinking out of the pitchers, not the cups. And as we started counting down . . . "10 . . . 9 . . . 8 . . . 7 . . . " a dorm-mate of mine, a guy who, today, would be a dead-ringer for Kenny Powers from "East Bound and Down," dressed as he was in oversized jeans, work boots (not Timberlands), a belt buckle with some sort of gun on it, a flannel shirt with the sleeves torn off . . . the kind of guy that comes to rescue you and your car from a dark, deserted road in his tow-truck and, without prompting, starts talking about how mandatory seat-belt laws violate his constitutional rights . . .

anyway, he stood up on a picnic table he had commandeered for himself and shouted, pitcher of beer in hand, "Goddamnit . . . you communist bastards. We just kicked your ass in hockey. Now get the hell out of Afghanistan!" Sort of a strange sentiment, right? The Americans lucked out and beat the Soviets in a game they would easily lose 99 out of 100 times, so let that determine world politics. Fun, fun, fun.

* * * * * * * * * *

Earlier tonight, I sat in a bar of 18,277 people and watched the Washington Capitals paste the New York Rangers, 4-0. My season tickets have been in the same place for about the last five years, and I've come to recognize most of the faces around me. For hockey fans, they're all pretty normal. No one leans forward to block your view, drinks to excess, curses in front of small children or otherwise behaves like a complete idiot. Yes, there are some, like my long-time neighbor to my immediate right, Mr. Cranky, who is never happy with anything the Caps do, unless they win every shift of every period in every game. In the span of minutes, the Caps can go from the greatest team ever to "clowns on ice," his favorite phrase to describe play that does not meet his exacting standards of excellence. Even Alex Ovechkin, whom he once called "overrated" after he failed to convert on a what he perceived as a scoring chance from behind the opponent's net with three people on him, does not escape criticism. You gotta Mr. Cranky one thing though . . . at least he's sober.

By my count, at least twenty people were escorted out of our section from rows that began about eight back from where I sit (the second row in the upper bowl). During the second period intermission, I got up to take a walk around the counter-clockwise walk around the concourse, a ritual of mine when the Caps are ahead. As I walked through the portal, I looked up and saw a guy, wearing a Rangers jersey, asleep with beers in each hand, with one more in the drink holder on his seat and another one in the drink holder in the seat next to his. Walking around the concourse, I saw lines twenty and thirty feet deep at the beer stands, with eager semi- or completely drunk men and women, most of whom were holding a stack of empty cups to let the world know, much like we did our freshman year in college, how many beers we had already consumed that evening (or morning). waiting for yet another opportunity to gulp down another $7 beer. And on and on it goes.

Later in the game, I witnessed Rangers coach John Tortorella throw a water bottle at a Caps fan seated a few rows behind the bench, then pick up a stick and start brandishing against some other Caps fans who were heckling the Rangers. After Tortorella did his thing, a fan dumped half a beer on him, further infuriating the tempermental coach and leading a couple of players to turn around and start yelling at the fans. The Rangers would later defend their behavior by writing a letter to NHL commissioner Gary Bettman that -- are you ready for this? -- "throughout the game, several people seated immediately behind the visitors’ bench took advantage of the looseness of the glass panels and the unusually wide gaps between the panels to assault the Rangers with some of the most obscene language imaginable. Because of the way the glass is installed, the patron sitting behind Coach Tortorella (the gray-haired, bearded man in the white T-Shirt) could literally scream into the coach’s ear. According to Rangers trainer Jim Ramsay, one patron was screaming at the team, in graphic language, about whether Dan Girardi and Marc Staal have a sexual relationship. This was within earshot of several children seated nearby. Several other fans also made repeated homophobic remarks."

And in the department of unintended irony . . . a Rangers official demanding that opposing fans tone down their language. Have John Tortorella or Glen Sather, the Rangers GM, ever sat in the stands at any New York sports event?

In the third period, I saw the police escort numerous people out of the stands, not just in the cheap seats where I sit, but from the expensive seats in the lower bowl (which, with the exception of the last 10 rows between the blue lines, are not a terribly great place to watch a hockey game). I couldn't see if they were Rangers fans or Caps fans. Even without a good luck, I'm fairly certain they were drunk.

For me, the biggest problem in professional sports isn't what the athletes make or whether they use steroids or visit sick children in hospitals or win every game or choke in the playoffs. Since I've always preferred playing sports to watching them, I don't get that emotionally invested in the outcome of any game, regardless of who is playing and for what stakes. Sure, when I was younger, much younger, I rose and fell based on how my favorite teams were doing. But never for long. Now, I watch sports purely for entertainment, although that doesn't mean I don't have great admiration for what great athletes do. I've watched some of the best athletes ever play their chosen game from anywhere from five feet (Tiger Woods at the Masters in 1995) to five yards (dugout seats to Game 1 of the 1991 World Series) to the stratosphere (1989 NBA conference finals between the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks). I've been close enough to see the facial expressions of such great athletes as Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax, Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretsky, Mario Lemeiux, Jaromir Jagr, Alex Oveckin, Dominique Wilkins, Pete Maravich, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Pete Rose, Cal Ripken, Bo Jackson, Joe Frazier and many more. I was attendance when Gene Garber ended Pete Rose's hitting streak at 45 games, when Ryan Minor replaced Cal Ripken in the Baltimore Orioles line-up, when Orel Hershiser pitched innings 37-46 of his 53 consecutive scoreless innings streak and when Hank Aaron hit his last home run in Atlanta Fulton County stadium as an Atlanta Brave.

No, the biggest problem now is attending a game without some sports drunk ruining it, whether at the game, in the lobby or on the Metro home. There is a temptation, naturally, as you get older to see problems that have always existed as somehow worse they were before. Stupid, immature and generally moronic drunks at ballgames have always been with us. Still, I see this problem getting worse and worse. And not worse before it gets better. Just worse.

1 comment:

Nathan said...