Monday, August 01, 2005

For the Love of the Game

I became a baseball fan at age five, when my parents took me to my first game. The sparkling green grass, the satisfying sound the bat makes when it hits the ball, the awe-inspiring vision of towering home run shots – I fell in love with all of it. As a Cleveland Indians fan, I lived a life of dogged devotion and disappointment, even in ’95 and ’97 when they did so well. (In our house, the ’97 team is referred to only as “The Team That Broke My Heart”. Jose Mesa better hope that I never meet him in a dark alley.)

With the Internet and satellite television, I could probably remain a big-time baseball fan. But I know that the isolated nature of long-distance fan-dom would get to me. It’s not like I’d be able to go into work here and taunt (or, more likely this year, get taunted by) White Sox fans. So, when in Ireland, do like the Irish do.

I investigated the sporting options available to me and quickly eliminated soccer. I couldn’t figure out the league systems, it seemed like there was always a championship game going on, and the trading deals sounded even more messed up than baseball. Plus, I cannot take any sport seriously that has as one of its premier players David Beckham. I just can’t.

Rugby….well, don’t tell my father-in-law, but all rugby looks like to me is an opportunity for uber-macho guys to grope each other and not get called gay for enjoying it. Cricket seemed like it might provide a natural baseball replacement – and the rules aren’t that complicated once you wrap your mind around the basic premise – but it just seemed a poor substitute.

Then I investigated the GAA – Gaelic games – and it looked like I might have found my home. Football, GAA-style, looks a little like the demented love-child of basketball and soccer. Players use their hands, but cannot carry the ball for more than three steps, so they have to bounce it off the ground, drop-kick it back up to themselves, or send it on to another player. The goal area is like a football goalposts, with a soccer goal attached. It’s a point if the ball goes through the goalposts and a goal if it goes into the goal. Goals are worth 3 points. The game is fast and aggressively played. But it was not quite exotic enough for me.

My wanderings through the available sports finally led me to hurling. I suppose it’s sort of similar to field hockey. Players use a stick called a hurley, the business end of which reminds me of a large, flattened wooden spoon. The object is to hit to the ball, called a sliothar, into the opponents’ goal. Like Gaelic football, the goal has two section and it’s one point for getting the sliothar into the top area and a goal (worth 3 points) for getting the sliothar into the bottom area.

Yesterday, I went to my first hurling match. We saw Tipperary take on Galway in the quarter-finals of the All-Ireland Championship. We were sitting in the second row parallel to one of the goals. They were great seats for the close action although we were at a disadvantage when the play was at the other end of the pitch. But since we were right by the Jumbotron, which carried the game live, we were able to catch what we were missing.

It is impossible to describe how fast the game moves. One whack with the hurley and the sliothar can travel nearly three-quarters of the length of the field. The players were mostly tall, lithe and incredibly graceful. They have a great move for running with the sliothar that reminds me of that silly race where you balance an egg on a spoon.

The other thing about the game is how quickly the momentum can shift. Your team can lead by three points, but if the other team scores a goal, the game is suddenly even. We rooted for Tipp, for no other reason than that their colors were nicer. (That was my reason at least.) We had an entire family of die-hard Galway fans behind us. The one woman totally cracked me up. She looked like a pleasant mom-type – you could picture her driving the carpool or participating in a sewing circle. But did she ever have a potty mouth. “Aw Jaysus! Can you not just f--- it in there boys? Get it over the bar!”

Tipp had a good lead, about five points, going into half-time. In the middle of the second half, Galway scored a goal, then a second goal. They also had two decent goal-shots blocked by the Tipp goalie. A couple over the bar on each side and suddenly, the game was tied. Galway scored another point, to pull ahead by one, and that’s when Tipp fell apart. They went from concentrated passing and careful shots to just flailing the sliothar around. Galway took advantage and ended up winning by 2 points.

After the game was over, the two teams met in the middle of the pitch and started taking their shirts off. At first, I thought they were just warm after 70 minutes of running themselves ragged, but then I realized they were trading shirts with their counterparts. Peter said it was just one of those things that gets done from time to time, a show of good sportsmanship. It had been a good game, fairly played.

I’d been fairly certain before the game that I’d found my new sport. I left the game completely in love. And I still haven’t told you the best part. The G.A.A. is an amateur athletics organization. The players get reimbursed expenses for travel (and I think they might have endorsement opportunities) but that’s it. No multi-million euro contracts. No incentive clauses. No private jet privileges. They all have day jobs. All they play for is pride, enjoyment and the love of the game. Imagine that.


At 3 August 2005 at 00:52, Blogger Lyss said...

I went to a Bruins v. Rangers hockey game in Boston a few years ago. I am a Rangers fan. We sat nex to a pleassant looking mom and her 2 kids. Each time the Rangers scored goal in the first period she would give me the death ray stre. Eventually I had to switch seat with my friend cine the Rangers won 6-2 or soemthing.

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