Friday, June 17, 2011

The secret to my sports relationships: Spending time apart

Entering the sports media was a natural step for me. I am a writer by nature but took this job as a copy editor because I wanted to limit my days outside the field as much as possible. Sports has been a muse to a wealth of my creative endeavors, and has spawned personal insight in math, philosophy, physics and other areas of study that sound more suited for Aristotle’s lazy Sunday than that of a football enthusiast.

It seems odd then that in my time spent at the sports desk, I have watched less televised sports than any time in my life outside of the year and a half that I spent in basic training and stationed in Japan without American cable or much internet access. (Was 2003-2004 that long ago that I could on monthly internet access?)

Granted, we have a television in the sports department. It sits on a filing cabinet 10 feet from my head at about a 110 degree left turn from my line of sight and plays whatever basic cable game the most devoted fan in the department wants to watch. I have even been able to, on occasion, see rugby sevens, my beloved Newcastle United and the U.S. National Team when they were broadcast early enough so as not to interfere with the office’s regular prime time viewing of a Big 4 sport. It is one of the finest perks I can imagine for any job.

Yet my focus is never really on those games. At best, I can generate a glance at the score, or catch a replay after hearing a cheer that I feel has warranted one between my duties at the desk. It is something we need to do to get a better understanding of the games so that they can be better packaged for the reader. (Did Wright just hit a home run? Get a picture of him from the AP so we can lead the MLB roundup with the Mets.)  I can regurgitate most of what happened from around the sports world (not to mention everything that happened locally) and read recaps and box scores constantly, but the things I most often miss are the flow of games, the tempo and momentum.

That separation has been the key difference of my sports digestion since joining the news desk. Games are broken down to a stat line and a highlight, a headline and a photo, a quote and a score. The difference is that of an appetizer buffet, much like you would find at a cocktail hour before a wedding reception, against a sit-down dinner. At the appetizer buffet, you can sample many foods and may even fill up or think ‘My god this shrimp-stuffed avocado is divine’, but you move on to the next delicious treat and no one thing is broken down and savored.

I find myself in a regular search for that savory meal game, and find it most often overseas. Thanks to the brilliance of recordable digital television, over the last 11 months I was able to record English Premier League games, International Hockey matches and whatever you call Australian Rules football games (skirmishes?). Since the games are not local and Saratoga’s residents have little interest in the competitions, they serve as the games whose score is least likely to come up during my work day, and I can watch the old games in blissful ignorance of the rest of the world’s knowledge.

It seems odd though, that in a digital age, where my occupational quest has led me to be on the front lines of sports news, that I should now work so hard to ignore it in my down time and again immerse myself in sports the way I did up until a year ago. I do not dislike being someone who passes scores and highlights along. In fact, I cannot imagine pushing myself so hard in a career that lacked in that category. But I need to experience it from both views.

On April 19, Newcastle United hosted Manchester United with five games after that remaining in the regular season and with Newcastle still in place to finish in the top half of the table and ahead of rival Sunderland. The game was being broadcast on ESPN2 in mid-afternoon. Being an overseas team, I can only read about Newcastle, and do so almost daily. In my lifetime I have seen their games televised three other times. (Once against Manchester United where Newcastle lost, 6-0, and I painfully live-blogged the whole thing, once while I was in England, again a loss against Manchester United, and once against Aston Villa early during work hours, where I could only turn around when I heard cheering. That too was a loss.)

This nearly meaningless late-season recorded game took on the value of the Super Bowl to me. I can imagine this is how Americans tuned in to watched the recorded version of Team USA playing Russia in prime time during the 1980 Winter Olympics, blissfully unaware of the outcome. I analyzed every play, every first touch, how the defenders moved off the ball and how my goalie, Tim Krul, was positioned. I took long looks at the players’ faces and took great pride in recognizing so many with only fleeting pictures to go by. The outcome didn’t matter (a 0-0 tie that was much more invigorating and spirited than the score suggests) only that I got to see my favorite team play.

In a way, my position at this job has made me view some of my other favorite teams the same way I have traditionally viewed Newcastle. It has put a barrier up for me that would otherwise have taken an ocean. Now, I’m back to reading about Curtis Granderson’s home run tear and how he is succeeding against lefties in a way he hadn’t before, and how the Yankees are working to fix their depleted pitching. When I get to watch them play on off-nights from work, I focus on the game more than I used to, because it is a rarer treat. In a way, stepping back from watching the games has made me a better and more appreciative fan.

Being away from a friend tends to make you miss and appreciate them more, makes the time with them that much better and builds the anticipation for the next time you see them.

The Yankees do not play on a day that I have off until June 24 when they host Colorado. I can’t wait.


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