by Robert Jonas - Center Line Soccer
One of the finest narratives on the game of soccer comes from British author Nick Hornby and describes his relationship to sport using the Arsenal Football Club as his chief muse. Titled Fever Pitch, the book was later adapted into a romantic comedy film of the same title with Colin Firth as the protagonist. Years later, an American re-make was made with the same title, but the sport was changed from soccer to baseball, and used the 2004 Boston Red Sox championship season as a backdrop. Both films were entertaining, but strayed too far away from Hornby’s original story and failed to capture the author’s deep passions for the sport.
I thought back to when I first picked up the book in the late ‘90s and was riveted by the personal tales and match descriptions that weaved together a portrait of a man’s love of soccer. I, too, have allowed sports to play an ever present role in my life and my relationships. Oddly enough, and similar to the two sporting fraternal twin films based on Hornby’s book, many of the most memorable life moments for me have featured the background symphony provided by soccer and baseball. I played both sports throughout my childhood and attended numerous MLB and NASL games in my native Southern California. When professional soccer fell by the way side, baseball took center stage for many years, but I still watched the occasional soccer game on TV — usually in Spanish — since the interest was still there. I continued to play both sports on a recreational basis well into adulthood, and still play soccer once or twice a week to this day. An interest in looking back at the effects of these two sports on my life was recently kindled, when I heard the announcement that filmmaker Ken Burns had a new documentary coming out — a sequel of sorts to his groundbreaking 1994 series Baseball — called The Tenth Inning.
Looking back to the summer of 1994, two tremendous events transpired — one in soccer and one in baseball — that forever changed the course of my sporting passions. And where baseball was king for me going into that year, soccer gained the momentum necessary to eventually vault to the top as my new national pastime. A brilliant party descended on the United States in the form of the FIFA World Cup, and matches were going to be played in my town of Palo Alto. My casual interest in soccer would soon explode into a mixture of excitement and opportunity. Seeing live soccer has very few comparisons when the game is played at the highest level, and sensing the responsibility I had as a soccer fan in America, I immersed myself into the event like nothing I had down in the sporting world before. Partying with Brazil fans in nearby Los Gatos; witnessing Oleg Salenko’s historic 5-goal afternoon against a dispassionate Cameroon squad, waving a World Cup goodbye to Cameroon’s 42-year old hero Roger Milla, and watching Spanish language TV coverage of many of the other matches at a local taqueria. As the tournament rolled on, my passion for the game reached the same grand heights I reserved for baseball.
And then, just four weeks after Roberto Baggio missed his penalty kick in front of a sun-drenched Rose Bowl Crowd, my other sporting love was rocked to the ground. Major League Baseball players went out on strike, just as pennant fever was seeping in and replacing my waning World Cup high. The San Francisco Giant’s Matt Williams was hitting home runs on a pace that would have topped the 61 hit by Roger Maris. The buzz around Candlestick was cautious about an impending work stoppage, but still optimistic that the players and owners would find a way to resolve their differences. Even I thought the strike would wipe out a few days worth of games at most and then the Giants could get back to business. However, a month later, acting Commissioner Bud Selig was looking back at me from my television and telling me that the remainder of the season and the World Series were cancelled.
I was devastated, and swore that I was done with baseball. No more hours spent on those overpaid prima donnas. I was ready to move on. But my other summer love, soccer, was also gone, along with all the colorful banners celebrating the World Cup that adorned the streets of Palo Alto outside Stanford Stadium. I was suddenly spiraling down into a sporting limbo in mid September of 1994, with little idea on where I would land and on what to focus my sporting attention. Transitions abounded in my personal life too — one’s twenties are often a turbulent time, mine were no exception — making any interest in sports seem so trivial and fanciful. I cleared away my mental desk with one deliberate sweep of the arm, and got back to work. Everything else could wait.
I knew in my heart it wouldn’t last, and I didn’t have to wait long to realize the first sign that my sporting music was back. It was clearly evident I had returned when I made the commitment to invest countless evening hours watching Burns’ Baseball on PBS in late September and early October. Spanning the whole century-plus long history of the sport up through the 1992 season, I realized that my love of the game was not so much rooted in rules but in the emotional ebb and flow of each day, each month, each season that drifted past. I couldn’t forgive the MLB players and owners for their arrogance in cancelling the 1994 season and would for years refuse to attend a live game, but I did realize all the compelling reasons I learned to love following baseball in the first place.
Major League Soccer was still a year-and-a-half away from starting as Burns’ epic documentary played on television that autumn of ‘94. I couldn’t yet turn to domestic professional soccer to be a salve on my sporting wounds, and in those days before the internet and myriad sports channels on television, following the international game was next to impossible in the United States. I made due by having conversations with relatives back in England where I listened to their tales of the travails of poor old Pompey as they tried to stave off relegation to League Two. It would be many months before I could talk about the arrival of my new local club, the San Jose Clash, and our unique brand of American soccer — complete with hockey styled shootouts to settle regulation draws — to a mildly amused overseas family. But there I was, attending games at old Spartan Stadium — instead of slightly newer Candlestick Park — and cheering on my new favorite, soccer.
Fast forward 14 years, and both sports still hold great interest for me. I still frequent soccer matches much more than baseball, but I follow each over the course of the summer with an attention to detail that borders on OCD. The emotional and sporting flow from each is very similar to me — a comparison I’ll save for another day — with an annual story rhythmically in lock step with the progression of Spring into Summer into Fall. Not without their share of speed bumps through the last decade and a half, soccer and baseball have persevered as the soundtrack to my life.
And so, with much anticipation, I await the latest Burns’ documentary. I wonder what tone the filmmaker will choose in covering a period in baseball overshadowed by accusations of performance enhancing drug abuse. Not that MLS was without problems during that same time period — remember the contraction of the Florida teams and the crippling financial losses suffered by the remaining owners — but baseball falsely elevated itself on the steroid strengthened backs of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa during the season long home run derby of 1998 before being shouted down as fraudulent for years afterward. I expect Burns will not focus solely on that ignominy, and instead will balance his story with accounts of a renewed Yankees/Red Sox rivalry, the remarkable hitting of Ichiro, and the recent emergence of a host of charismatic young pitchers.
But the anticipation for the show will come up against a pretty heady foe during its broadcast schedule in the form of MLS. You see, next Wednesday night, I will be recording the whole spectacle of The Tenth Inning to my DVR, because I do not plan on missing a minute of the San Jose Earthquakes midweek clash with the Chicago Fire at Buck Shaw Stadium that same evening. Even the lure of an inevitable Burns masterpiece will not keep me away from soaking in the environment of a live match. It is 2010, and soccer is my sporting king now. Baseball, even with a pennant race for the Giants in full swing and a visual documentary treat beaming into my living room, will just have to wait. Still, with both sports building to their October crescendos, this autumn looks to unfold as another memorable chapter in my sporting life story — one that is truly running at a fever pitch.
Robert Jonas is a writer and podcaster at Center Line Soccer and a frequent contributor to CSRN’s Around The League MLS show. He can always be reached on his twitter @robertjonas.