Thinking about the sporting life in Northern California, USA
12.09.2007 - 16.09.2007 18 °C
Northern California. Truly a land of milk and honey sandwiched between the blue Pacific Ocean and the majestic mountain ranges of the Sierra Nevadas, with beautiful scenery and gorgeous weather, assuming, of course, you don’t mind the stop-and-stop-some-more traffic, totally unaffordable housing prices and killer earthquakes. I have loved Northern California since my first trip here back in 2002, when I was working south of Oakland in the sunny Livermore Valley to the east of San Francisco Bay.
I was back in Northern California again for a training course, south of San Francisco in Mountain View, sandwiched between Palo Alto, home to the prestigious Stanford University, and San Jose, California, unofficial capital of the Silicon Valley, the name given to the concentration of high tech companies that inhabit the cites and towns in the southern San Francisco Bay area.
At the end of my three day course, I pulled up my tent pegs and moved north to San Francisco for a weekend of R&R. Mostly the first R (assuming that’s the one that means Rest), as I am recovering from a cold and during the week had to get up at 5:00 am local time every day to take 3 hours of conference calls from the east coast of the USA before my classes started. I mostly slept and napped for a couple days in San Francisco, with a few quick trips out to the fantastic seafood restaurants that flourish in the city by the bay.
Picture taken in 2002 because I forgot my camera, but you get the general idea
Mostly, though, my mind was on sports. More specifically, it was on professional sports.
It’s natural to think about sports when in the San Francisco Bay Area. With the 10th, 14th and 44th largest cities in the USA (San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland, respectively) within an hours drive of each other and a total population of 7.2 million people in the area, there’s a lot of money out there for professional sporting franchises. That’s why there are a total of 7 professional, tier 1 sporting teams in the area. The Bay Area has two professional American football teams with the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers, two major league baseball teams with the Giants and the A’s, The Golden State Warriors of the NBA in Oakland, the San Jose Sharks of the National Hockey League and the soon to be reinstated Earthquakes of Major League Soccer. In addition, the cities have teams in the USL Soccer League, two professional Lacrosse teams, an Arena football team and a minor league baseball team. None of that even counts the numerous collegiate programs with University of California at Berkley and Stanford leading the way.
The other reason my mind was on sports is with the arrival of autumn, a number of sports are starting up their seasons. The NFL American football league started their season a couple of weeks ago, NHL hockey is about to get underway soon and the NBA basketball season will soon be in full swing. Those sports that have been running through the summer, like Major League Baseball, MLS Soccer and the Canadian Football League are gearing up for their season ending playoffs soon. Autumn really is the best time for spectators of professional sports.
More than just watching sports, though, autumn is the time to think about betting on professional sports. I’m not talking about calling up the local bookie and putting money down on games, but rather the traditional “office pool,” where friends, co-workers and occasional sworn enemies sit down over a plate of chicken wings and a pitcher of beer and make selections for a season long opportunity to gloat to your friends how much you know about sports. (Or, conversely, spend the season as the goat in last place taking all the ribbing).
During my time in California, I completed an NFL draft, where I selected 16 players from across the league in hopes that the 16 I choose get more points than the 16 players the 10 other friends of mine chose. Of course, given that I was in California, I didn’t have a plate of wings in front of me, but rather a computer, as the draft was run online via Yahoo Fantasy Sports, one of the many websites that have sprung up to feed the estimated $6 billion dollars that is bet in office pools in the USA alone every year. In between my picks in the football pool, I was online researching my upcoming hockey pool. After the pool, it was off to the bar to catch a few of the last baseball games of the season as teams try and make the playoffs.
It’s been a tough few years for professional sports, though. The NFL is currently under a lot of fire, with star player Michael Vick recently arrested on charges of running a dog-fighting ring, former star O.J. Simpson arrested for a break-and-enter at a Las Vegas hotel, players like Pacman Jones and Tank Johnson being suspended for off-field thuggish behavior, and star coach Bill Belichick of the New England Patriots being fined for stealing opponents sideline signals. It’s hardly the image of heroic on-field deeds and role-model behavior that most sports try and portray.
One of the joys of my travels has been the opportunity to see sporting events live at the places they take place. From watching the Chicago Cubs in historic Wrigley Field to catching a Sumo Wrestling match in Japan, watching sports has connected me to the places I have been. It’s a connection that I share with the locals, who in many places feverishly and devoutly follow their local teams every move. I know what it is like to be in Busch stadium in October, wearing a red t-shirt and praying for the St. Louis Cardinals to take the lead, because I have been there. I’d hardly call myself a St. Louis Cardinals fan, but I was that day. While I may not understand the sport any better (I certainly can’t talk intelligently about Sumo or Cricket), I have felt the power of watching it with people who do.
The other connection that watching sports has with travel is thanks to the multiplication of TV channels that came with the introduction of cable and satellite television. With so much time to fill, sports that otherwise would be unknown to the world are beamed into our living rooms 24 hours a day. I find myself watching kite surfing or rock climbing shows, not so much because I have an interest in the sport, but because they end up being half travelogue. These are sports that take place in beautiful and natural settings in far flung locations, and watching a group of Swiss youth tackle the mountains of Malaysia ends up piquing my interest in a trip to the Malay Peninsula.
Two of the sports I have started following, though I’ve never seen live, are Formula One racing and the Dakar Rally. Partially it is because I grew up with my parents being involved in car racing, so the appeal of cars going really fast was bred into me at an early age. The other reason, though, is that they hold their races in far-flung, exotic locations. Formula One just finished up the Belgium Grand-Prix after swings through Italy, Turkey and Hungary, and then they are off to Japan and China before ending the year in Brazil. The Dakar Rally runs from Lisbon, Portugal to Dakar, Senegal, though the Atlas Mountains and Sahara Desert.
Neither event is without controversy though. As global warming and climate change grow as key issues in the public’s minds, the environmental costs of moving the large amounts of equipment required to support these events, in additional to the carbon thrown off by the vehicles themselves, become of greater concern. In addition, the Dakar Rally, racing through the towns and villages of some of the poorest countries in the world, exposes the local population to some danger, and in 2006 a 10 year old boy was killed when trying to cross the path of the race, the fourth documented case of a local being killed, though it is assumed that more have died during the race and have gone unreported.
The “international” sport that I watch that is under the most fire is the Tour de France. The Tour was riding high back in 2004 when I first started watching, with Lance Armstrong on his way to winning what would be his sixth of the seven consecutive races he would win. I started watching mostly for the travelogue aspects of seeing the French country-side, and in 2005, after my first trip to France, it was an opportunity to relive that trip.
Then, in 2006, the day after American Floyd Landis won the Tour, it was released that his blood sample showed increased levels of testosterone, and he was stripped of the tour win. 2007 has been even more disastrous for the tour, with 1996 winner Bjarne Riis admitting to using the banned substance EPO throughout his career, including during his win, and fellow 1996 rider Erik Zabel admitting using EPO as well when he won the Green Jersey (the points leader). Within the tour itself, riders Alexandre Vinokourov and Cristian Moreni were caught doping, and their respective teams dropped out of the race. Then the race leader Michael Rasmussen was fired for lying about where he was training.
The French media decided to kick the tour while it was down - Liberation, the national newspaper, announced "La Mort du Tour" - The Death of the Tour - on its front page and said the race had been “emptied of all sporting interest”, and France Soir ran an obituary notice announcing the Tour's death at "the age of 104, after a long illness".
All this talk of dope brings us back to San Francisco, and America’s pastime, Baseball. As I stated earlier, two Major League Baseball teams are in the San Francisco Bay area, including the San Francisco Giants. The Giants most famous player is Barry Bonds. Barry Bonds just this year surpassed Hank Aaron as the all time leader in home runs, and currently has 762 home runs. Barry’s chase for the record has been mired in controversy, and many people in the media and the general public have been very negative towards Mr. Bonds.
Back in 1974, when Hank Aaron was close to surpassing Babe Ruth’s all-time home run mark of 714, there was a lot of controversy as well. The controversy in 1974 though, was the question of whether an African-American should break the home run record, and Mr. Aaron even received death threats. Barry Bond’s chase is getting a negative reaction due to the accusations of using banned substances like Human Growth Hormone and steroids. There have been accusations that the “witch-hunt” against Bonds is racial motivated, as other players like Mark McGuire or Jose Canseco who likely took banned substances didn’t have negative reactions when they were banging out the homers, but I’m inclined to think that it’s more a matter of timing and the visibility of the home run record that has brought the negative reaction down on Barry.
Barry Bonds isn’t alone in being tarred by accusations of steroid use recently, though. Most recently, Toronto Blue Jay Troy Glaus has been accused, as has Rick Ankiel, previously 2007’s baseball feel good story of the year. Ankiel was a pitcher who after flaming out, refocused himself on hitting and became a home-run slugger for the St. Louis Cardinals. It was a happy story about a boy who, despite setbacks, worked hard and got to live his dream. Then Ankiel was named in the same report that named Glaus to have received human growth hormone, and the previous feel-good story became another black mark on baseball.
The public hasn’t turned their backs on baseball yet, and hopefully they won’t. There is something really special about the relationship between baseball and America. Football and NASCAR may draw more fans and sell more merchandise, but I love going to see baseball games when I am down in the USA. There is a feeling, when sitting in a ball park on a sunny afternoon, eating a hot dog and drinking a beer, of connecting with over 100 years of American history (which is almost all of it, when you consider how young the country is). The slow pace and the smell of the grass remind me of picnics. The jovial chatter between fans is like a Sunday dinner. The national anthem playing as a slight breeze lazily wafts the Stars and Stripes out in center field call to mind a gentle kind of national pride.
Baseball is America, and it is a sport that is connected deeply to the spirit of that country. Watching a game, live and in person, is an experience is the essence Americana. As a traveller, I can think of no better way to connect with the American psyche then sitting an uncomfortable chair on a cool night and listening for the crack of the bat.