I love attending live sporting events. Anything from a World Cup Final to a local Sunday morning men’s pick-up softball game. My wife says I would watch a spitting contest if I could find one. In fact, I imagine it would be very similar to lingering in a small Italian or French village watching the local elders in a spirited test of bocce or boules, or sitting poolside in an old Catskills resort watching the alter kockers playing shuffleboard, all of which have engaged me from time to time.
There are many critical elements to the enjoyment of live sporting events. First is the anticipation. One of my most vivid memories is sitting in geometry class in eighth grade watching the minutes tick away on the clock waiting for 10:45am. I was holding a note from my Dad excusing me from school for the rest of the day so that I could join him to go see the New York Mets play in their first World Series. They played day games in those days. The Amazin’ Mets, as we all know, won their first championship that year and I will never forget it because I got to play hooky. Another great build-up was when I was invited to a corporate client event at Windows on the World in the World Trade Center to watch the Mike Tyson-Michael Spinks heavyweight championship bout on closed-circuit TV (in the days before we all had pay-per-view at home). There was a huge buffet, open bar, a betting pool and several preliminary bouts leading up to the main event. Inevitably, all of that preparation led to several trips to men’s room, where I found myself when the big fight started and Mike Tyson knocked out Michael Spinks in the first 91 seconds of the first round. That wasn’t the last time the men’s room would play a big role in my life.
The second critical element in properly participating in a live sporting event is attire. Yes, the fans are participants. Our visible and vocal support is crucial to providing our team with the home field advantage, so it is very important that we dress the part by wearing some form of team wardrobe or, at least, tribal colors (never wear red to a Chelsea game). My favorites are baseball hats and soccer shirts, both of which fill our closets vying for space with my wife’s shoes and handbags. It is not sufficient to just wear any old team hat or shirt. You have to pick the right one. The first question is whether you are supporting a particular player or the team as a group. Generally, soccer shirts are not considered complete unless they have a player’s name and number on the back, so you have to choose wisely. My daughter’s strategy is to pick a player that few other people support so that he can be her special pet. This is usually a doomed strategy. These players often run the risk of not playing very much or, worse, getting cut or traded. A good example was Moritz Volz of Fulham. Volz was a stubby little defender who rode a folding bicycle around town. Unfortunately, shortly after purchasing a Fulham shirt with Moritz’s name and number, my daughter saw him eating burgers at a local gourmet burger restaurant. She later found that he had a food blog. Not a good sign for a footballer. He didn’t last. Even if you pick a well-known and highly-regarded player, you run the risk of poor timing. For example, I thought John Terry, England and Chelsea captain, was an excellent investment a few years ago so I bought both England and Chelsea shirts with his name and number. Then he went and had an affair with one of his teammates’ wives, got stripped of the England captaincy and hit a very poor run of form at Chelsea. I had to put those shirts away for over a year before I was brave enough to wear them again.
Even if you own the right shirts, you have to consider whether they are lucky or unlucky before you wear them to a game. Making the wrong choice can have disastrous consequences for your team. This past season at Chelsea has been a notable challenge for my shirt collection. I have a treasure trove of lucky Frank Lampard shirts that have served me well over the past several years. All of a sudden they started becoming unlucky around November. Unwittingly, Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich thought there was a problem with the team, so he went out and spent £50 million on Fernando Torres in January. Unfortunately, Torres has not been able to overcome my unlucky Lampard shirt collection and has scored just one goal (against last place West Ham) since joining Chelsea. Abramovich could have saved alot of money if he had just sent me a few new lucky shirts. It is equally important for your personal safety not to wear the wrong shirt to the wrong venue. A Jason Varitek Red Sox jersey at Yankee Stadium will attract flying cups of beer and unshelled peanuts. I learned this lesson particularly well when I wore a Brazil shirt to the Finals of the 1998 World Cup in Paris. France beat Brazil that night to win their first and, thus far, only World Cup and the entire city was in riotous celebration. Needless to say, my journey to the hotel from the stadium attracted a lot of unwanted attention.
Of course, no game day experience would be complete without the appropriate food. For my father, it is the traditional hot dog dripping with mustard and greasy onions. The more mysterious the ingredients, the better the dog. When I was young, my friends and I would have hot-dog-eating contests (our game within the game) when we went to Shea Stadium for Met games. It was not uncommon for one of us to eat 8-10 dogs in a nine-inning game. My daughter and I have adopted certain game day traditions, such as Nando’s grilled peri-peri chicken before Chelsea games and, our favorite, Sunday lunch at River Cafe before a Fulham game. Then, of course, there are the special occasions: tapas in Barcelona before seeing Ronaldinho destroy Chelsea’s Champions League dreams; bratwurst with my daughters in Kaiserslauten before Italy v USA at the 2006 World Cup; a burrito with my niece and nephew at AT&T Park watching the San Francisco Giants trying to clinch the pennant; cuban sandwiches in Miami before seeing LeBron whip Kobe; a Michelin-starred lunch at Guy Savoy in Paris before the 1998 World Cup Final; pulled pork barbeque after a Vandy-Tennessee basketball game….no game memory is complete without an accompanying meal.
Finally, there is the camaraderie. Usually, I go to games with my friends as a way to stay in touch, but often I go alone. In fact, I have had a single season ticket to Fulham for several years because I could rarely find friends to join me. So I have become friends with the people who sit around me, many of whom also have been going alone for years. The woman who sits next to me has been going to Fulham games since 1954. We have become great friends. She always looks forward to seeing me, and I worry if she isn’t there. Of course, my greatest memories revolve around my family and our great history of watching sports together. One of my first sports memories was attending a Mets game at the Polo Grounds with my father and grandfather. The Mets were a new team in the National League then and were terrible. They were created to replace the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants who had both moved to California several years before. As former Giant and Dodger fans, respectively, my father and grandfather had joined forces to support the Mets and handed that legacy to me (I was too young to know better). We watched many games together over those early years, and I can remember my grandfather constantly yelling at all the players, “You’re a bum! You’re a bum!” I couldn’t understand why, if this was our team, he would always be calling them bad names. Now I go to Chelsea games with my daughter. She is an avid supporter who even has a Chelsea bathrobe. Nevertheless, whenever Chelsea loses a big game, she yells at me, “Chelsea suck! Chelsea suck!” She never really knew my grandfather, but he seems to have somehow inspired her.
As it turns out, there is an Annual Cricket Spitting Contest at the Wisconsin State Fair. The world’s record for cricket spitting is 22 feet 8 inches. I understand the secret to cricket-spitting success is not to swallow the cricket. I am planning to go this summer. I hear they also have excellent cheese!