Friday, September 14, 2007


The first english football match I ever attended was last season at Stamford Bridge when the Addicks traveled west to take on Chelsea. Ignorant of the nuances of the sport when compared to U.S. spectator sports, I was excited to pick up four tickets for the match from Chelsea's web-site and more than a little stunned to read the conditions on the piece of paper when the tickets were issued. Ejection for supporting the visitors? Well, no problem, I picked up a three lions shirt, the other three people going with me were neutrals, and this was my first match, so we should easily have been able to passively take in the spectacle.

I was even more surprised when arriving at the stadium. I've traveled all over the United States going to sport events and, because I no longer live in Chicago, I tend to be cheering for the visiting team. But not one of these little sojourns could have prepared me for a modern english football stadium. The whole set-up is menacing. Giant metal/iron turnstiles, little freedom to move around the stadium, and security at every turn. And then we are at our seats. And we are surrounded by supporters that, like me, appear to be tourists, out to get a taste, however removed, of english football. No chanting, no singing, just taking in the game. And when Carson saves a penalty, the only sound from my section was my cheer, quickly stifled. And then the game is over. We linger inside momentarily before we are authoritatively ushered out of Stamford Bridge and out into Chelsea. And I am thinking, this is it? This is the english game that instills such passion and enraptures the world?

The next Saturday, we take our first trip to the Valley, freshly back from Bergerac, on our way to Keflavik. This time, the heavy metal-iron turnstiles are more familiar and there is greater berth to wander the grounds. We sit next to the West Stand and there is considerably more energy than the previous week. Nevertheless, Pompey beats up on a listless Addicks squad and we've managed to travel a great distance to witness our side get pummeled on successive Saturdays. On the way out of the Valley, heading towards the Thames, a little bit of a window opens: a Portsmouth supporter, equipped with black, shin-high, steel-toed boots, heavy piercings, and tatoos over the length of his body, finds joy in menacing a twelve-year old boy who has briefly wandered from his father's side. The curtain rolls back slightly further: a little further on, a group of Portsmouth lads sit in an open, empty lot cursing the red clad families that walk by, launches the occassional projectile, and rejoices in the cowardice of the home side's supporters who are unwilling to invest the time or energy in dislodging them from their roost. They have taken Charlton ground. Good on them.

At home, I read the hue and cry for a return to terraces and enjoy the bastardized version of them created at RFK by Barra Brava and the Screaming Eagles. These fans keep the games vibrant and energize the team. But time passes on and this season my enthusiasm for the mini-terrace created by these fans is diluted in the antipathy reflected by the casual toss of smoke bombs into sections crowded with revelers simply trying to take in a game.

It is, I believe, impossible for an American to understand what took place in the European game twenty years ago. The inane wistfulness for those days on this side of the pond is devoid of any understanding of the chaos that reigned with absurd regularity at football matches throughout the region. We have no context for any of this. As a child, my brother used to regale me with stories of the disco demolition at Comiskey, he'd bring golf balls and batteries to games to wing on to the field. He was a Tigers fan and, in Chicago, his sympathies lay with the Sox. And that is just how Sox fans behave, or at least some do. And, admittedly, Lincoln Financial has a jail built into the grounds. But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, in this country that even comes close to approximating what Bill Buford describes in the remarkable "Among the Thugs." And it is Buford's account of what took place at Hillsborough that brings sharp focus to the layout of the modern english football stadium, to the easily understandable trade-off made to achieve the security and peace offered by all-seaters versus the chaos of the terraces.

I no longer have any sympathy for the pleas for the return to terraces and I no longer have any interest in being in close vicinity to those that would try and transplant the culture to DC. I am, at base, a now fully-converted, fully-devoted soccer fan. I want to witness Emilio's brilliance, Gomez and Moreno's skill, and Gros and Burch's interminable hustle. That's release enough for me. I don't need the faux violence to feel alive. Punch-ups can be had for the cheap in a bar, where there is only the furniture, the pint, and the odd-tv to distract from pent-up frustration. Soccer is performance art of aesthetic beauty, one that need not be marred by a moron with a 0.10 BAC, a lighter, and a small incendiary device. And if the expansion of the violence can threaten the game in a league as established as Argentina's, then f*ck the romanticism of the crowd. I'll sit behind the benches.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Gross Allegiance

For Bears fans, the NFL season starts tomorrow with a tough test against the very talented Chargers in Jack Murphy/Qualcomm. The beginning of the season is bittersweet given the loss in Miami last season and the fact that nearly all NFL commentators are chomping at the bit to denigrate the team's prospects for this season with Rex Grossman at the helm. And, certainly, given his performance against the Colts and his disastrous miscues in the preseason, this is a story that writes itself.

For football fans -- and for Bears fans in particular -- the focus on Grossman makes little sense. Like with every other team in the NFL, success or failure will largely be contingent on the health of the team. Unlike other NFL teams, the Bears' season will be substantially impacted by the type of production the squad gets out of its running back and secondary positions. Cedric Benson and, to a lesser extent, Adrian Peterson and Garret Wolfe have huge shoes to fill with the departure of Thomas Jones and it is unlikely that the running game will be nearly as effective without TJ. At safety, letting Chris Harris go and leaving the safety position to the somewhat fragile Mike Brown, Archuleta, Danieal Manning, Brandon McGowan and Kevin Payne may turn out to be a disastrous offseason move. The Bears not only gave away Harris, but also lost the underappreciated Todd Johnson and special-teams standout Cameron Worrell at safety. How Babich's Cover-2 scheme works with the Archuleta/M. Brown/Manning/McGowan/Payne combination in the Chargers game should be a good indication for what can be expected from the Bears' last line of defense throughout the season.

So why not be concerned about Grossman? Because Bears fans are used to getting little or nothing at the quarterback position, and Grossman has already proved that he can do much more than we would have ever anticipated. Last season, Grossman completed 54.6% of his passes, threw for 3,193 yards and 23 touchdowns. He also threw 20 interceptions -- 16 of those came in just five of sixteen regular season games started by Grossman last year. When he was bad, Grossman was terrible (Arizona; Miami; New England; Minnesota (2); and Green Bay (2)). And when he was good, he was phenomenal -- in the first Green Bay game, the first Detroit game, and the games against the 49ers, Giants, and Tampa Bay, Grossman was 108 for 156 (a 69.2% completion rate), for 1,388 yards, 13 touchdowns, and two interceptions.

Historically, Grossman presents a luxury that Bears fans are not used to... the ability to field a dangerous offensive team that can blow out any opponent with a suspect defense (the Bears scored 30 points or more in seven regular season games last season, in 1985 they scored 30 points or more in six regular season games). The 23 touchdowns that Grossman threw last year were the most that a Bears quarterback had thrown for since Erik Kramer's phenomenal 1995 season (60.3% completion percentage; 3,838 yards, 29 TDs with only ten picks). After that you have to go back to 1949 when Johnny Lujack threw 23 touchdowns (with 22 picks) to find as effective a scorer at quarterback. Since Sid Luckman took over as the Bears' quarterback in 1940, only four men have thrown for 3,000 or more yards in a season: Grossman, Kramer (who did it twice, in 1995 and again in 1997), Jim Harbaugh, and Bill Wade. In '97, Kramer threw 14 touchdowns and 14 interceptions. In '91, Harbaugh threw 15 touchdowns and 16 picks. In '62, Wade threw 18 touchdowns with 24 interceptions. At the same time, only six other Bears' quarterbacks have thrown 20 or more interceptions in a season: Vince Evans, Rudy Bukich, Bill Wade, George Blanda, Johnny Lujack (who did it twice, including the 1950 season when he followed up his 23 touchdown effort with 4 touchdowns and 21 interceptions), and Sid Luckman (31 to accompany 24 touchdowns in 1947).

Grossman is being asked to navigate Bears fans through uncharted waters: he is a high-risk, high-reward quarterback that we have little to no familiarity with. And while many are quick to assert that Grossman will not win the Bears a Super Bowl, the claim misses the point that Grossman doesn't need to. Every single Bears fan knows that last year's game with the Colts is completely different if a healthy Tommie Harris lines up on the other side of Jeff Saturday. And if the team decided to recklessly roll the dice at safety, they did not do so at defensive tackle. A line featuring Harris, Dvoracek, Darwin Walker and Anthony Adams is vastly improved over what the team trotted out in Miami at the beginning of this calendar year. As such, whenever Grossman struggles, the Lovie and Ron Turner should have the ability to convert to a conservative smashmouth offensive gameplan that wins games. Grossman may not win the Bears a Super Bowl, but that observation is irrelevant to the question of whether they will win one. And in the interim, Grossman is going to win the Bears more games than he loses.

Can't wait until kickoff. Go Bears.

Monday, September 3, 2007


Cubs fans have developed the nasty habit of turning bitterly on certain players that put on the blue and white uniforms. The anger and vehemence that some spew seems to largely be fueled by stathead drivel on fan web-sites from people who, if they only were able to run the team, would call an end to the team's century-long vacation from titleland. This phenomena, augmented to demented degrees over the last five years, is my least favorite aspect of being a Cubs fan.

Certainly, some Cubs players deserve to be booed and derided (Felix Heredia). More recent targets of fans' spite, however, are not as defensible. At spring training the year that Maddux returned to the Cubs and Todd Walker was unveiled as the new second baseman, Walker spent a lot of time with fans at HoHoKam. After one game, he stood around, signed autographs, and chatted leisurely with people in the stands. While near us, a fan behind me screamed out that had Walker been playing shortstop and not Alex Gonzalez, the Cubs would have played in the World Series the year previous. That claim is, obviously, idiotic and, to his credit, Walker responded simply that the fan was not correct. AGone was certainly not the best shortstop I've ever seen in a Cubs uniform, but he did nothing to deserve the emnity of any fan of the team (because, of course, as any true Cubs fan knows, fault for Game 6 lies squarely with Bernie Mac and Fox). In the NLDS and NLCS, AGone hit four home runs, knocked in eight runs, and had an OPS of .966. AGone had the game winning rbi (a solo home run off of Mike Hampton) in Game 5 at Turner Field that resulted in the first postseason series win that most Cubs fans had ever seen. He deserved to be remembered for those contributions, not damned for a botched double play ball.

That same spring training the Cubs unveiled another prominent free agent signing, LaTroy Hawkins. Never has a relief pitcher with a 2.63 ERA been more reviled by North Siders. LaTroy's sin was that he blew three saves at Wrigley and six saves on the road. He would blow nine saves in 2005 as well, (cumulatively, as a Cub and a Giant, after the Cubs dumped him for Jerome Williams and Aardsma). The hatred for LaTroy, however, was and remains inexplicable given the horrid performances of many other Cubs players during those two years. In 2004, I traveled significant distances to watch two of Hawkins' meltdowns, the Rob f'ing Mackowiak double header at PNC Ballpark and the Victor f'ing Diaz debacle at Shea. And I remain one of Hawkins' biggest fans. Hawkins didn't fail because he wasn't trying, he put everything into his job, and sometimes it just didn't work out. The fact that LaTroy is African-American should have made the vile spewed towards him even more reprehensible for the rest of Cubs Nation.

Fast forward to 2006 and the Cubs' brass acquires Jacque Jones. The GM starts off Jones' tenure by throwing him under a bus by informing dissatisfied Cubs' fans that Jones is sure to improve at Wrigley. JJ puts up decent numbers in 2006. In fact, his offensive numbers are the best for him in any single season outside of his career year in 2002. And yet, Cubs fans hated him. Annoyance with Cubs management for trying to plug a hole (one of three) in the outfield with Jones is aimed upstairs, but largely rains down on Jacque from the bleachers. When Jones struggled during the first half of 2007, Cubs fans called for blood both at Wrigley and on the internet. Many openly mourned when a deal giving Jones to the Florida Marlins for nothing fell through. Needless to say, I've remained one of Jones' biggest fans, largely because of who he is (thanks also to Sam Walker for confirming my thoughts on Jones in his excellent book FantasyLand) and because he works harder then almost everyone I know to be good at what he gets paid (handsomely) to do. And so it is with great joy that I watched Jones lay out today in centerfield -- on a ball that Soriano probably would have caught -- to insure an out that would maintain a one-run deficit that could be erased by one swing of DLee's bat. And it was with great joy that I watched and listened to Cubs Nation, short-term memory fully in action, give Jones a hardy ovation for his efforts while he lay on the grass with the wind knocked out of him. And it is with great joy that I can go back to the fan sites that I frequent and ignore the blowhards who still claim that we would be better off with Pie in centerfield.

The Cubs are in first place. In August, with Soriano out for the bulk of the month, Jones hit .349, knocked in 21 runs, stole four bases, played a good centerfield and posted an OPS of .909. Jacque Jones has carried this team. And when this hot streak cools, when the boos start to begin again, I hope that most Cubs fans will remember what Jones has done for our team this last month and tell their drunken neighbor to shut the hell up and drink his beer.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

Spring Training

On Thursday night, the Cubs beat the Brewers 5 to 4 at Wrigley. The stadium was electric and marked an amazing turnaround from where the team was three months ago. Without question, the credit for the team's perseverance and vast improvement goes to Lou Pinella, who has played whoever is playing well regardless of service time (unlike, say, another manager who might have played certain really horrible veterans -- like, say, Jose Macias -- over younger players who would have undoubtedly contributed more). A 3-3 tie was broken with back-to-back homers by Matt Murton and Alfonso Soriano, but the real excitement was watching Carlos Marmol pitch. Check that, the real excitement was watching Marmol K five Brewers, including a transfixed and beguiled Corey Hart on a nasty, nasty slider (who cares if it was six inches off the plate?).

Watching Marmol overmatch the BrewCrew's batsmen, including Ryan Braun, was a pleasant reminder of one of the more enjoyable places to take in a baseball game in the country: Fitch Park. This spring, we made our second trip to spring training in Mesa, Arizona. This time, however, rather than follow around the major league team, when the Cubs went to Scottsdale, we walked over to Fitch Park to watch the minor league teams practice and AA and AAA games with the Brewers. It was the most fun I have had at a ballpark as an adult. It helped to have the chance to watch Sandberg coach and the opportunity, however fleeting, to talk to players. But, as this season has progressed, what really sticks out is the AAA game we watched that featured Sean Marshall starting for the Cubs, Gallardo starting for the Brewers, Carlos Marmol relieving Marshall (after a frustrating start), and Ryan Braun ripping balls for Milwaukee. At the time, few would have imagined how much of an impact these players would have on their respective teams during this season. Marmol, in particular, looked like he was too raw to provide any major contribution this season:

Fast forward to Thursday night and Marmol is perhaps the Cubs' best option out of the pen. The impact that he is having on the team is comparable to what Zumaya did for the Tigers last season. And none of it could have been anticipated. How unanticipated? While Ryne Sandberg and Eric Patterson were mobbed for autographs, after Marmol got done with his session in the spring training game, I was the only person there who approached him and asked for his (asking for autographs at my age is pathetic but, well, there it is). Marmol was kind enough to stop, attempt to communicate, and afterwards leisurely walk back to the clubhouse to whispers of "who is that?" and "he's the converted catcher" echoing around him.

Great day, great time, and best of all, it was free. If you are a Cubs fan and ever find yourself in Mesa during the spring, go to Fitch Park to take in a game (or two).

Good Day

Cubs win with inexplicably rare blasts from DLee and Aram; D.C. United torches the Hoops in Dallas as Fred continues to find the net; FoxSoccerChannel broadcasts the incredibly enjoyable North London/South London challenge between Tottenham and Fulham (to be known in the States from here on out as "Clint Dempsey's Arrival") and Charlton takes the South London derby to inch further up the league table.

My history as a supporter of the Addicks is too recent to be able to lay any claim to the joy that appears to have prevaded throughout SE7 from the result, but I have certainly enjoyed reading others express their thrill. I was not impressed by Todorov's early contribution to the squad, but am once again happy to learn the limits of my analytical ability. Wonderful way to tide over the two week break.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Dropping Points

For the second year in a row, the trek to the Valley led to an unsatisfactory walk back to the River Thames. Last year, we witnessed Pompey's early season victory over Charlton, and this year we watched the Addicks open up with a pathetic draw with the (not-so-mighty) Iron of Scunthorpe. It was hard to find much good in the match. Marcus Bent, Charlton's only goal scorer, is now (thankfully) off to Wigan and Todorov was not impressive (although he has, apparently, impressed lately). Showing what little I understand of the sport, I greatly enjoyed the performances of both Lloyd Sam and Yassin Moutaouakil, who were both active and creative on their side of the field.

Otherwise, the squad just looked confused and discombobulated and, no doubt, supporters felt much akin to our captain:

In any event, the injury sustained by Yassin is most unfortunate as the right back looked quality. The seven goals allowed in the last three matches are a testament to how much needs to be improved in the back line and, with luck, the additions of Mills and Sodje will stiffen their resolve.