Sports And The City

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The habit of believing

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I’m reading Gary Taubes’ “Why We Get Fat.” Carbohydrates, my friends, are the devil. Have you seen Travis Snider?  The Meats Don’t Clash diet works.

Anyway, I came across a quote in the book by Umberto Eco, Italian all-around smarty-pants, which Taubes uses to help expose the flaws in the widely accepted calories-in/calories-out paradigm. It’s fantastic. Fucking fantastic. Witness:

I believe that you can reach the point where there is no longer any difference between developing the habit of pretending to believe and developing the habit of believing.”

I had to put the book down. Actually, I read the quote again, twice, and then put the book down.

That’s me. That’s my fandom. Of the Toronto Blue Jays, Toronto Maple Leafs, Buffalo Bills, Toronto FC, and Toronto Raptors. Of every awful team I support. There’s nothing really rational about supporting those teams. Then again, there’s nothing really rational about sports; rationale doesn’t factor into rooting for a specific team, or player.

I’m sure Kansas City Royals fans, and Pittsburgh Pirates fans, and even Calgary Flames fans, can relate to that quote. Why, year after year, do we go on? Why do we stick around, after all the abuse? The answer’s in the quote: we believe. It’s no longer a habit of pretending to believe, as Eco says. We actually believe. That this year, whichever year it is, is actually the year. Even though it’s probably not.

The Maple Leafs last took part in a playoff game thousands of days ago, in 2004. Literally thousands of days ago. Two-thousand-something days. I don’t remember the actual number, but the CBC was kind enough to point it out last Saturday, during the final Leafs/Habs tilt until October. I don’t even want to begin to think about how many more thousands of days it’s been for the Blue Jays. Almost two decades. Yet every April, I find myself thinking, “Wow, I haven’t been this excited about the Blue Jays since, well, last year.” I say the same thing about the Maple Leafs in October.

In years prior, I’ve still been bout it bout it for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Nothing better than the first round, and playoff overtime, I’ve always said myself. Wednesday night, as the playoffs began, and Vancouver welcomed Chicago, and the Rangers and Capitals treated folks to overtime, I watched baseball. Dodgers and Giants, from San Francisco, with Vin Scully in the booth.

I don’t know what that means, exactly, but I know something’s changed. I chose baseball. It’s definitely got something to do with listening to Scully, something I haven’t done enough of in my life. He’s absolutely brilliant in the booth, a one-man team. But another part of me simply isn’t interested in the playoffs if the Leafs aren’t involved. I don’t care anymore. I’ll be watching tonight, Montreal and Boston, but that’s only because I’ve got to live-blog the game for The Score. Pay me to watch it, and I’ll do it. Gladly, of course. But between hockey I’m not emotionally invested in, even though it’s intense and awesome hockey for the most beautiful trophy in professional sports, and Scully’s baseball poetry, I chose the legendary Dodgers broadcaster. And I’d do it again.

Back to the quote: the believing is exhausting. But I guess, in the end, the believing is also what makes it worthwhile.

Image courtesy The Best Part.

Written by Navin Vaswani

April 14th, 2011 at 1:25 pm

The thrill of victory

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Ninety-six hours later, and the above photo still gives me chills. India, and, finally, Sachin Tendulkar: World cricket champions.

I am, first and foremost, Canadian. Raised, not born; Kuwait City, Kuwait takes that honour (tongue planted firmly in cheek). I speak Hindi, but don’t consider myself Indian, or from India. I’m not. My ancestors are. My parents are. And my folks, along with my brother, would be the first to admit that I don’t relate much — and never have — to the Motherland, though I visit her frequently, especially in recent years. Unlike most people from the subcontinent, I am the furthest from religious. I eat beef. We — Hindus — aren’t supposed to; cows are sacred. I love beef.

Now, please, don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of my roots. India is a beautiful country, with a fascinating history, and a place everyone should be lucky enough to explore. Like any country, she has her positives — world’s biggest democracy, yo — and her negatives. The poverty, especially when experienced firsthand, is indeed crippling. But enough about my identity struggles. Long story short: I’m quite certain I’ve never felt prouder of my Indian heritage than after watching India win the Cricket World Cup over the weekend.

I can’t, with only words, explain what cricket means to India and its people. I can’t stress enough the role it plays on India’s psyche. The success of the new IPL — Indian Premier League, 20/20 high-quality cricket — speaks for itself. Cricket’s their hockey. Sachin Tendulkar, the greatest cricket player to ever grace the planet, is India’s Wayne Gretzky. And Bobby Orr. And Mario Lemieux. And Patrick Roy. Combined. Times about, oh, a thousand. In such an incredibly religious country — that’s what sticks with you when you visit, the intense religiosity, especially amongst the poor — Tendulkar is truly a living deity.

For a country with over a billion people, it’s shocking, and a touch embarrassing, how unathletic Indians are. Not for lack of trying. Indian’s, at least this is how I see it, want to succeed at sport. It’s just not easy, considering, according to numbers from 2001, India’s rural population accounts for more than 70% of the entire nation. Not to mention the poverty, and a lack of sporting infrastructure. You think Canada has it bad when it comes to amateur sports?

I spent the summer of 1996 in New Delhi and watched, along with the rest of the country, Leander Paes win a bronze medal in tennis at the Atlanta Olympics. Overnight, Paes became a hero, and a celebrity. There were “poojas” — prayers — held in his honour. He returned home to a hero’s welcome, only the second Indian to ever win a medal at the Olympics, and the first since KD Jhadav at the 1952 Helsinki Games.  Sports permeates in India, it does, but nothing like cricket.

That’s why Saturday, and the World Cup in general, was so important. It’s not just that India won the tournament for the first time since 1983. It’s how they won the tournament, and the circumstances surrounding their victory. It was, and I say this with certainty, Sachin Tendulkar’s final World Cup appearance. And his sixth. Tendulkar — The Little Master, only 5’5″ — has re-written cricket’s history books. But the World Cup title eluded him. It was the only trophy he hadn’t won. And in the final vs. Sri Lanka, looking to record his record 100th One-Day International century (100 runs in a one-day, 50 overs per side match), Tendulkar was caught out after only 18 runs. I can’t imagine India has ever been so silent.

But Tendulkar’s teammates weren’t going to let him down. They picked him up, led by their captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, Gautam Gambhir, and Yuvraj Singh. India didn’t just win the Cricket World Cup on Saturday. No, they won it in style. They walked it off. Dhoni, in the final over, needing four runs to win the game, and deliver the trophy to Tendulkar, and his cricket-mad country, sent a towering six into the crowd. A no-doubter. It sailed into the seats, far above the boundary line, and set off literal fireworks in the sky, mayhem in the stands, and euphoria in the smallest, and most remote, Indian villages. The camera panned to Dhoni’s face as he watched the ball disappear into the Mumbai crowd. As Yuvraj, his batting partner, ran towards him, along with the rest of his Indian teammates, Dhoni collapsed to his knees. India had become the first country to ever win the Cricket World Cup on home soil. Tendulkar had finally won everything there was to be won as a cricketer, coming full circle in the city of his birth, where his unbelievable journey began, his first century coming as a 15-year-old in what was then Bombay.

In the immediate post-game interviews, Virat Kholi, 22-years old, one of India’s youngest players, and representing the next generation of Indian cricketers, spoke words I will never, ever forget:

[Sachin Tendulkar] has carried the burden of the nation for 21 years. It was time we carried him on our shoulders.”

It’s Kohli’s shoulders whom Tendulkar is on in the picture above.

I think, if my memory serves me correctly, I let out a huge sigh after hearing listening to Kohli’s words. He watched Tendulkar play growing up. He played road cricket — I’m assuming that’s what they call it, just like we call it “road hockey” — growing up, surely pretending to be Tendulkar. So young. So poetic. So goddamn on the money. Tendulkar, 38, had done it all. All. And it was the next generation, the Dhonis, the Yuvrajs, the Gautam Gambhirs, and the Kohlis, who made sure he left the game the ultimate champion.

Could a better script have been written? Other than Tendulkar walking the match off himself with a massive six, I don’t think so. At the same time, it was so fitting the way it went down. In a country where family ties are valued like nothing else, where joint families are as common as a pick-up cricket game on the streets, it was the youth who lifted the elder statesman Tendulkar, literally after the game, parading him around the stadium, and figuratively in the match, in order to get him the title. To a man, they all said it: We did it for Sachin. We played for Sachin.

I couldn’t help but think of the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. I’m haunted by the sight of Wayne Gretzky sitting alone on the Canadian bench, Canada having lost the semi-final to the Czech Republic in the shootout. Ninety-nine was only the greatest goal scorer ever, but Gretzky didn’t get the tap on his shoulder. He knew, like we all did, that as a player, he’d never win Olympic gold. It wasn’t right. Watching Tendulkar hoist the Cricket World Cup trophy, I was overjoyed with emotion that he’d avoided a similar fate.

Along the way, India dispatched Australia, the defending champions. They defeated Pakistan, their biggest rival, their nemesis. In the semi-final, no less. Playing at home, under what was surely incredible pressure, India put their poor 2007 World Cup finish behind them. They regrouped. There was never any panic. Not even after Tendulkar was retired for 18 runs in the final. Champions. “Windia.” I trust India’s still celebrating. I am.

One of my fondest memories from my jaunt through parts of India last year was joining a game of pick-up cricket on the beach in Palolem, South Goa. I was fielding, my feet in the water. The youngish batter, on a ball inside, close to his legs, opened up and smacked it my way. I dove, half-heartedly, and missed. As I got up and went to grab the tennis ball, I heard the batter’s friend say to him: “Sachin jaise, yaar.”

“Just like Sachin, friend.”

Congratulations, India. From an ocean away. Or, as they say back home, “Chak De India!”

Image, such a damn fine one, courtesy of Reuters, via daylife.

Written by Navin Vaswani

April 6th, 2011 at 12:51 pm

NotGraphs: Where were you when …

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To give you an idea of what you might find from me every Tuesday and Friday over at NotGraphs, I’ve cross-posted today’s entry. It’s about hall of famer Roberto Alomar’s 1992 ALCS game four home run. The home run that changed everything …

For a generation of Toronto Blue Jays and Canadian baseball fans, it is the home run. The home run that forever changed Toronto’s baseball destiny. The home run that represents, perhaps defines, one’s fandom. And I’m not talking about Joe Carter’s 1993 World Series-winning walk-off.

What made Roberto Alomar’s call to Cooperstown this week so enjoyable for me was the reliving of past glories. Up here, they’re all we’ve got.

I was 10-years-old when Alomar sent a 9th inning 2-2 Dennis Eckersley pitch into right field for a two-run home run, to tie game four of the 1992 ALCS between Oakland and Toronto at six apiece, completing a rather miraculous 6-1 Blue Jays comeback. I don’t remember watching Toronto take an early 1-0 lead on a John Olerud home run, or watching Jack Morris get tagged for five runs in the Oakland half of the third, but for some reason, I remember Alomar’s home run. Vividly.

It was a 4:00 pm Sunday afternoon local start in Toronto, the game being played out on the west coast, on October 11, 1992. When Alomar went yard, it had to have been after 7:00 pm Toronto time. I was in the backseat of my parents’ car, being whisked away somewhere. I remember hearing Alomar’s heroics on the radio, listening to the call as the ball sailed over the right field wall, Alomar apparently raising his hands in the air in triumph, and going absolutely insane with my older brother, who was sitting in the backseat with me. Without looking at the box score, I couldn’t tell you how Toronto won game four, or whether I saw it happen live on television or heard it on the radio. I only remember Alomar’s home run.

Time is funny. I can see myself in the car, bouncing around the backseat with my brother. But in my memory, it’s daylight out, bright and sunny, which it couldn’t have been at the time. I asked my older, and much wiser, brother if he remembered, and he said: “I think we were at home.” Which one of us is right, we’ll never know. But I like to think it’s me.

The next day, I probably didn’t even read the newspaper. I was too young at the time to understand the magnitude of the home run, or the comeback victory. I was too young to realize that the Toronto Blue Jays were exorcising their past playoff demons; putting 1985, 1989, and 1991 to bed, and shedding the label of playoff chokers.

In the aftermath of the home run, it all came back to Eckersley’s antics: His dramatic fist-pump to end Toronto’s 8th inning, when Oakland was on top 6-4.

Jack Morris, quoted in The Toronto Star, pulled no punches:

The best part was that we knocked Eck’s butt off.

But Morris saved his best quotes for The New York Times:

I think Eckersley’s Little League gesture to us really inspired us. He wheeled and looked at us and did all that stuff you do when you’re in Little League. He got it today. It finally came back to haunt him.

Years later, these quotes amaze me, and take me right back to the backseat of my folks’ car, when Alomar made history. Roberto, quoted in The Los Angeles Times, seemed to understand the importance of what he and his teammates had done.

Everybody is always talking about Toronto choking in the playoffs. We’ll see.

Candy Maldonado chimed in as well with this gem:

Sometimes you can’t wake up a sleeping dog because he might bite you.

Preach on, Candy. Preach on.

When Alomar stepped into the box, Toronto shortstop Alfredo Griffin, quoted in Sports Illustrated, and a Dodger in 1989, knew what was going to happen:

I saw Kirk Gibson all over again.

While I didn’t see it live, I’ve watched that ball sail over the right field fence in Oakland a thousand times. Probably more. Alomar’s iconic arms-raised pose is one that every Blue Jays fan remembers, just as much, if not more, than Joe Carter leaping at first base at the SkyDome in October 1993.

Alomar, of course, wasn’t trying to show anybody up. Like me, like the rest of us, he was simply caught in the moment.

I’m a little guy. But I guess the little guy became a big guy.

Time can play tricks on the mind. But it certainly can’t change the facts. And Alomar’s home run remains one of the reasons I’m more in love with baseball today than ever. Because I want to feel how I felt in the backseat of that car, all the way back in 1992, again. Just one more time.

Image courtesy of RobertoAlomar.com. Alomar himself loves that photo!

Written by Navin Vaswani

January 7th, 2011 at 8:58 am

Rough Weekend

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Four games, two each for the Maple Leafs and Raptors, Friday evening through Sunday afternoon. Four losses. Another shutout of the Leafs’ so-called “offence.” Another broken foot for Reggie Evans. His other one, believe it or not.

I miss the Blue Jays. No, they didn’t make the playoffs. They weren’t even close. But they won more games than they lost. And that fact wasn’t lost on my mental health.

I picked the wrong time of year to quit drinking for six weeks. But, deep down, I know the truth: There’s no right time to quit drinking. Not when you’re immersed in Toronto’s postseason abyss.

Jay Triano, fast becoming the best quote in town, with the final words:

“You go one-through-five. I’m not going to pin it on DeMar. DeMar got outplayed by Joe Johnson. Jose got outplayed by Mike Bibby. Andrea got outplayed by Josh Smith. Sonny got outplayed by Marvin Williams. Joey got outplayed by Al Horford. Fuck. Okay?  … I mean, I’m not picking on our starters for getting outplayed. Amir didn’t outplay anybody on their bench either. Leandro didn’t… They beat us. Every single position. Every single guy got beat.”

Drink.

Image, most apt, courtesy of Reuters, via daylife.

Written by Navin Vaswani

November 28th, 2010 at 3:57 pm

Perspective

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“It is conventional to call ‘monster’ any blending of dissonant elements. I call ‘monster’ every original inexhaustible beauty.”

        – Alfred Jarry

Jonas Gustavsson’s save percentage is up to .922, good for eighth in the NHL among goalies who have started eight or more games.

Five-on-five, it’s a marvelous .945. Few goalies are better.

Jarry’s all poetic, but I call Monster a number one goalie.

Image courtesy of Reuters, via daylife.

Written by Navin Vaswani

November 23rd, 2010 at 2:12 am