Friday, January 22, 2010

Sports Allegiances in my life

Brett Favre on the Vikings. What a crazy season. I was not surprised by the sheer number of bandwagon jumpers this year onto the Brett Favre/Minnesota Vikings bandwagon. It's a completely normal phenomenon in these parts for all sports. The Twins suffer from the same thing, and the Timberwolves bandwagon is about as low as it's ever been. Even I jumped off that ride after KG bailed (I wasn't really on it too hard to begin with). Truth be told, I'm still a Bulls fan. Hockey actually seems to have the strongest consistent support of any sport in this state, and it's probably stronger at the collegiate level. But I've even heard some Gopher fans questioning that this year.

I was talking to my brother about the history of our sports fandom - the first 18 years of mine were largely shared with him and we still have a lot of the same allegiances and dislikes of sports teams. My sports loyalties are largely shaped by geography. My dad was a corporate executive when we were kids and we moved a lot because he was re-positioning his career with a series of acquisitions dictating where he worked. I spent my most formative years living on the east coast. I was actually born in Philly and lived there till I was almost 5 years old. Really not old enough to ever be a fan of anything there. Even though, I remember having an odd assortment of Phillies and Flyers gear and a Philly Fanatic Doll, I did not live there in any state that I'd remember sports.

My earliest memories of sports are really with baseball and the Mets. I played little league when I was a kid and had an early infatuation with the sport. I grew up in Trumbull, Connecticut - a working class town that was in the sports fandom very close to the border of New York and Boston sports. My brother and I always veered towards New York sports - we were geographically closer, after all - but I also remember having childhood friends that were also fans of Boston sports. It tended to go like this: if you liked the Yankees and Jets, then forget about anything from Boston. If you were a Mets fan, then you might also be a Sox fan. This was also in the days before inter-league (although - 1986 probably did a good job of setting up those lines more distinctly). If you were a New York football Giants fan, then maybe you also took pity on the Patriots. This was in the mid-80s, long before the Belichick era Patriots. This is the Patriots you took pity on in Superbowl XX. They were not a great team for a big bunch of the decade though.

1986 was a magical sports year if you were a New York fan of a certain persuasion. I don't remember exactly how I became a Mets fan that year - most of my family was either sports agnostic or firmly entrenched in the Yankees camp. Several of the neighborhood kids that I hung out with came from huge Yankees familes (The woman in this video was my neighbor from across the street!) But the Yankees sucked in the 80s. In my romanticized remembered of this era, I'd like to think I was a Mets fan because it was the opposite of what everybody else liked, but really, I think it was just that they were damn good in 1986.

I think what's helped me through as a sports fan over the years is that I got a taste of the good life early on because of that 1986 Mets team. They won the world series and the hearts of millions of fans that year. I remember my first week in college in Minnesota in 1996 when I met a dude from Connecticut while possibly slightly inebriated at a party. And we proceeded to reminisce about the '86 Mets and the series for no less than an hour. It was beautiful. They were that kind of team, one that you could reminisce about 10 years later as if it had happened yesterday.

Another funny thing happened in 1986 - the New York Giants had a kick-ass season. And I was also starting to get into football. Unlike baseball however, I don't remember any doubt about this team in my family- I came from a NY Giants family. None of this Jets stuff. And they had a great year, Sims had a career year, the great defense with LT, Harry Carson. They beat the Broncos in Super Bowl XXI. And my brother was on his way to lifetime of NY Giants fandom.

Those of you that know me today probably would pause here and wonder what happened. My fan tastes, as you'll start to see, are decidedly less loyal than that of my brother's, at least when it comes to football. What happened was that a few years after the Giants won the Superbowl we were on the way out of the east coast for good. I haven't lived anywhere but the Midwest since. And that definitely shaped my sports fandom forever. I have no doubt if I had remained in the New York area that I would to this day be a Giants and Mets fan. Either that, or better technology as we have today. It's so much easier to move today and still follow your teams of choice with the internet, blogs, dish/cable packages, ESPN ad nasuem and DVRs. I will probably be a dedicated fan of the teams I am now forever. It's just so much easier.

Back in the early 90s, it wasn't that easy. We didn't even have cable for the one year we lived in Orono, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. Only an antenna. New York Giants? Maybe I could see one or two games a year, usually a Monday night game or the odd national game on one of the Networks that wasn't an NFC Central battle when the Vikings were not playing. My brother held fast, but I bailed - sort of. I actually remember it being more of an agnostic thing towards the NFL. If I could not watch the Giants, I was certainly not going to watch this team in Purple that wasn't all that good.

But I did end up watching it, and that was the foundation for my fandom. 20 years ago this year was when that occurred. So I tell people I've been a Vikings fan for 20 years, though it really started with a more solid passion in 1996. I remained somewhat disinterested in football during high school.

The Twins were a team I could get behind, though. There wasn't any conflict with being a fan of theirs and the Mets. I remember going to a lot of games in 1990 and 1991 before we moved to Chicago. The North Stars had a good run in the Stanley Cup playoffs that year too, which was really my first Ice Hockey fan experiences. And lo and behold, the Giants won the Superbowl again. My brother and I got to watch them a lot in the playoffs and the Superbowl of course, so I was, at least temporarily, back in that arena.

I couldn't complain too much about moving to Chicago from a sports perspective. Chicago had a lot to offer for the sports fan. We moved in the middle of the Twins run towards the world series, and I remember watching the end of game 7 of the '91 series on the 13 inch hand me down TV in my bedroom in our house in the Chicago suburbs. That was a team I wholeheartedly embraced and probably why I'm still a Twins fan today.

So, by the age of 12, I had tasted 4 championships in 2 different sports of teams that I cared for. That's not a bad track record. But it was about to get even better. Living in Chicago in the 90s was a treat as a sports fan. I didn't have any prior NBA alliances - I wasn't really a wolves fan when we lived in the Twin Cities in 1991. We did manage to go to their first game ever at Target Center (at the time, I remember it seeming like an awesome stadium, but almost 20 years later, it's a dump!), but otherwise, they were an expansion team with a long way to go towards relevance.

The Bulls. We moved to Chicago in June of 1991, just as the Bulls were winning their first NBA championship. I remember going to Chicago to look at houses with my parents in the spring of 1991 and it was Bulls fever EVERYWHERE. Madness. Jordan. Pippen. This was not a bandwagon it would take much persuasion at all to hop onto, particularly if you had no prior NBA allegiances. The whole city, heck, a big chunk of the country was hopping onto this thing. And it was a great run. They were unstoppable. They were a team you never lost confidence in, you knew they'd get it done, that push come to shove, Jordan would come through in the clutch. It was a beautiful thing. And I was right there for a front seat to it.

Bulls games became a regular event for my family. We watched every game, every night they were on. To this day, I cannot say that about any sport with a regular season schedule longer than 16 games. Except for the 94-95 Jordan Baseball years, it was a dominant stretch for a great team anchored by one of the greatest ever. I recall watching nearly every game in 1995-1996, the 72-10 season. That was nearly as perfect of a season and team as any ever in any sport. Or so it remains in my mind, at least.

I left for college in the latter half of 1996, and it was back to the Twin Cities, where I live to this day. Solidly in the Bulls camp, I'd also picked up an appreciation for the Cubs. I loved going to games when I was in high school - this was before the resurgence of Wrigley as the "it" destination and it was easy to get tickets to many day games in the summer. I remember going with friends to a number of games where we walked right up to the ticket window and sat in the first row of the upper deck. Those days are LONG gone. That Cubs fandom has only intensified as I grow further and further from 1986 and the Mets.

My football allegiances were decided less figured out at this stage in my life. The Giants were still lingering but the Vikings picked up a new attractiveness now that I was again a resident of the Twin Cities. I don't recall watching all of their games during the 96 and 97 campaigns, but by 1998, I had my own apartment, and my own TV. And I squarely remember watching ever game that season. And I've watched pretty much every game since that season. I consider myself something of a diehard. I've stuck with them through 8 years of the Mike Tice and early Chilly era. I was even a season ticket holder for the 2006 season. That was something of a failed experiment as my friend I went in with on a pair of tickets decided to buy a house, and I decided that I liked watching the games better on TV. But it was still a fun season, to go to every game. And sit there till the end through some really bad games. I'm as loyal as ever today. I struggled with Favre last summer, more because of how he yanked everybody around for a couple of months. But it didn't take me long to let him into the fold. I'm a Vikings fan first.

The Twins creeped into my consciousness as they had a great run in the first part of the decade. They've been fun to watch and I'm happy that I'm a fan of their ballclub. 2003 was an interesting season as the Cubs made it pretty far in the playoffs, ultimately losing after the Steve Bartman debacle, but it was a season that helped renew my devotion towards them as my National League team of choice. The twins also made it into the playoffs that year and several others but it's always ended in heartache.

It's been a pretty good run for championships and I'm ready for some more. I've been in the Twin Cites for 10 years. We're due for something. This could be the year. I'm a believer.