Sports, the `Chinamen’ and me

I have this strange malady.  I can’t become a sports fan.  More specifically I can’t become a Cardinals football fan. It is constitutionally impossible. Only the gods know how hard I’ve tried. Only the gods know why the Kool-Aid can’t be swallowed.

The scene of my most recent malady

The problem only gets worse.  It arose again yesterday at the Arizona Cardinals stadium in Glendale as the home team pummeled one of the most pitiful National Football League teams imaginable, the St. Louis Rams.  I was miserable.

I sat there in my seat near the end zone, my irritation growing amid the tumult and the shouting.   “Defense, defense,”  the fans around me roared, imploring their team to stop the Rams from scoring, even though the Cardinals led, 24-7, at the time, well into the fourth quarter.   What’s the point? I thought.  The game is won, the Cardinals in minutes will have recorded their 10th victory, the most wins in a season since they arrived in the desert more than two decades ago from St. Louis.   The point is this.  Fans can never get enough of a good thing.  Even if the score had been, 100-7, those Cardinals fans would’ve begged for more.

There was a time, and maybe it is still that way, that some football coaches and sports writers sneered at the hardcore fans.  They called them Chinamen.  One well-known college coach invited the writers to a social event at his house to have drinks “and talk about the Chinamen.”   It was common useage.

I’m uncertain where or when “Chinamen” originated as a term for fans.  I’m even uncertain of what it truly means.  A sports writer friend of mine said it began with “How much rice can a Chinaman eat?”  I assumed the answer was, “The Chinaman has a bottomless stomach.  He can eat rice forever.”   If I were asked to translate,   I would say “Chinamen” means that vast sea of fans have an insatiable and irrational appetite for their teams and that it is an incurable condition, perhaps brought on by a missing component in their own lives. 

Four years ago, when the Cardinals moved into their new stadium, I bought season tickets for Nebra and me.  The tickets came at a dear price which has now risen to almost $1,500 a year for the package of 10 games.  At the time, I thought I could make the transition from sports writer to fan.   After all, I’d been out of journalism a long time, a trade that preaches dispassionate observation.  And, in that first season, 2006, I did pretty well.  I stood up numerous times and yelled until I was hoarse, using my rolled-up program as a megaphone, “Dee-fense,  dee-fense.”   And I was shocked and somewhat disappointed when the Cardinals imploded and lost in ways I thought nearly impossible. 

The highlight of my adventure into FanWorld was the lowlight for the true Cardinals fan.  Without doubt the most entertaining game I’ve witnessed in the stadium so far was the so-called Monday Night Meltdown against the undefeated Chicago Bears on national TV in 2006.   The Cardinals blew a 20-point lead in the final 15:05, yielding three touchdowns on two fumble recoveries and an 87-yard punt return.  Afterward, Nebra and I stuck around in the near-empty stadium to watch on the big screen as coach Dennis Green went ballistic with the now-famous rant, “They were who we thought they were.”   I love it when coaches lose it like that.  It’s a side of their personalities you rarely see as a fan, an outsider.  I do not think the true-red Cardinals fan valued the moment as I did.   To most fans, winning is the only elixir, and the bigger the spread the better.  They miss, it seems, the human side of the game.

From that game three years ago my career as a potential Cardinals fan has steadily gone downhill.  Each season the Cardinals have become more successful under Green’s replacement, Ken Whisenhunt.  And each season  my enjoyment has decreased.   And now decreases with each game.  I tend to like the underdog.  That’s only part of my problem.  I also have a great deal of cynicism regarding anything that is big and successful.  As the Cardinals are becoming.  Here in the arid lands, they have become like the big banks, almost too big to fail. And yet . . . .

My one moment of enthusiasm yesterday came in the fourth quarter.   It was at the moment the Cardinals rookie running back, Chris Wells, took a pitchout, turned on his after-burner and sped easily around the left side and into the end zone for the final touchdown.  I got to my feet, punched my right arm into the air twice, and yelled, “Yes, yes.”   A few nearby probably thought I had completely lost it. 

I of course was not cheering another Cardinals TD.  I was cheering for Wells.  Almost everybody in our section is in awe of  him and uses only his nickname, Beanie.  He is very popular.  “Come on, Beanie,” I often hear muttered.    Beanie is a No. 1 draft pick and has great potential.  He is arguably the most exciting player on the team.  And yet, he does not start.  He alternates with an inferior player.  The coach does not allow Beanie to get into a rhythm, and he has designed no special plays that would quickly get him into the open field.  A quick-pitch would be nice to see now and then.  Anyway, to my mind, that makes Beanie an underdog and something I can root for. 

There is a reason, I’ve rediscovered, for a press box and sound-proof glass that separate the sports writer and the fans in the stadium.  They are two different species.  Or they should be.  The writer, by training, covets a dispassionate view of the game, and writes a review, a game story, that reflects his own honest opinion of what is seen hundreds of feet below on the field.   It is a view unlike the fan whose world is heated and black and white.

So the way I’m thinking at the moment I may not renew my season tickets next year.  I want the melody of life to return and the malady to go away.  It will be hard to do.  Nebra has become a fan.  “You’ve created a monster,” she says.  Unlike me, Nebra knows every player by his number, knows his tendencies.  She thinks Larry Fitzgerald, the wide receiver, walks on ocean water.  

I could buy just one ticket next year, one for Nebra.  Or we could stay home and watch the Cardinals on TV.  Or I could revert to baseball.  It is a cooler sport, little of this loud, angry fan madness that pervades football.  So I do have options.  My malady is not incurable.  It is just football-fan specific.

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