Hat trick

Sorry about not having posted much recently, but I’ve actually been busy with a lot of writing. It’s getting back on track (good), which means I’m really distracted from the real world; it’s hard to drag myself back into real time to start cooking dinner, to brush my teeth or to remember that I’m supposed to give someone a ride (bad).

I also signed up for a food writing workshop: I haven’t had to think critically and analyze what I’m reading since, maybe, college? Having to flex long-unused muscles in that part of my brain is a good thing. Read “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” helped the literary workout. Unlike “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”, which took me a night to breeze through, “Lolita in Tehran” took me a whole week to read.

We were spectators at three different ballgames in one week: San Jose Earthquakes, San Francisco Giants, and the San Jose Giants. We’d never been to games for Major League Soccer or minor league baseball before. As it happens, Spartan Stadium (Earthquakes) and the Municipal Stadium (SJ Giants) are a stone’s throw from each other south of downtown San Jose. Both are low-key, reassuring unglitzy, with a cosy feel from being smaller, and not spiffed up or monsterized. Neither has Jumbotrons for instant replays or flashy ads. The scoreboards are simply lightbulbed affairs.

By dumb luck (and thriftiness) on my part, we got the best seats for the Earthquakes game: North side, behind the goal. They were the cheapest seats; but the only two goals scored in the entire game were against Chivas-USA in the second-half. So we witnessed the action up close. The Earthquakes booster section was next to us (including drummers), completely decked out in blue and white Earthquakes logo’d outfits, including soccer scarves.

The baseball cap is the sartorial symbol of America’s favourite pastime, which fans wear to proclaim their allegiances. The soccer scarf is likewise the herald of an individual’s faith in their soccer club. While the baseball season is in the summer in North America; the soccer season straddles the winter in Europe. Not only does the neck need to keep warm, the throat needs protection from hoarseness as you cheer, on your feet, throughout the entire game. Major League Soccer season runs April through October in the US: they sell licensed scarves and baseball caps.

Chivas-USA is an expansion team based in LA (where Galaxy is the primary MLS team.) The owners of the Chivas team in Mexico decided they wanted to expand in the US. There were quite a few Chivas fans throughout the crowd (mostly Latinos). They had their own booster section in the south, complete with red and white streamers, and were jumping and cheering throughout most of the game.

There was a decent sized crowd at the Spartan Stadium for the Earthquakes game, about 21,000 people (they had given out free soccer balls to the first 5,000 ticketholders.) It seemed to be half soccer moms/dads and their AYSO progeny; half Latinos (also with families). Which as you’d expect are the main American demographic groups with an interest in soccer.

In the San Jose Mercury news, the Earthquakes get scant coverage, even though their champions of their division. I guess it’s not just because it’s one of the few professional men’s sports that’s of minor interest, but the team’s owners are trying to get rid of the team. (Oddly enough the Anheuser group owns two other MLS teams.) The team has not received much support from their front office, no investment in better facilities, recruiting, little advertising. Landon Donovan, the marquee player got traded away, and Lalas who was made manager with much fanfare was transferred elsewhere a while ago. In spite of it all, this Cinderella team keeps winning with its plucky coach and no star players.

The players seem to range widely and equally on both ends of the 20 to 40 year old age range. And ethnically diverse: there’s two players of Asian descent, and no, they’re not imports, they’re born in the USA!

More Thais follow European soccer than American basketball (less interest in NFL, and almost nil in baseball). I used to like watching soccer because it’s a simpler game to follow, the rules are less complicated, less fixation with statistics. Soccer is imbued with the Greek ideal of natural athleticism, just running and controlling the ball with your feet and head/chest. The professional players in front of 30,000 screaming fans could simply roll out of bed and just add shin guards and cleats. American football is more Roman, all pumped-up gladiator, and military formations. Anonymous inside the helmet and armored with all sorts of protective gear under those oversized jerseys and clinging tights. The defense and offense teams are specialized and never on the field at the same time. A soccer game is 90 minutes of playing time and lasts at most 110 minutes. A football game is 60 minutes of time keeping spread over 4 hours.

And need I say anything about the Yankee obsession with statistics. It’s P.E., not math.

Watching the San Jose Giants at a home game is a throwback the wholesome 50’s. It’s so real, you have to pinch yourself that you’re not on the movie set of Back to Future. The Municipal Stadium is about the size of a high school baseball field. The announcer even has that auctioneer’s twang: his announcements were punctuated by an organ music, and were echoed bouncily from the speakers in the outfield.
The billboards advertising the sponsors are handpainted; the slightly uneven have a retro-charm that SBC Park can only hope to achieve with its brickwork (although they do include the sponsors’ 21st century web addresses.) On the walls inside the women’s restroom, there are logos painted of the women’s teams from the WWII leagues.
The concessions are very reasonable priced: on par with the snack stand at the beach. Turkey Mike’s BBQ boasts not only ribs and chicken but burgers and beer, which patrons can enjoy at banks of picnic tables shaded by patio umbrellas. It’s the only place I know of in the Bay Area that’s like the beer gardens in Europe – it’s got a very welcome, family-friendly vibe. The ribs weren’t bad, but the chicken looked better. The philly cheesesteak looked alarmingly like school cafeteria food, but tastes pretty good. The baked beans on the side were too sweet. There are even players who are designated beer batters: if they strike out, beers are half off for the subsequent 15 minutes. Fans streamed down for the stands for it, even though half-price beers were limited to 2 per customer.

Best of all was the family entertainment throughout the inning changes, top and bottom. There was bingo (someone had won by the 5th inning.) Two little boys raced around the diamond in opposite directions. One man was made three attempts to drive his golf ball into the hula hoop on the field. A blindfolded woman scrambled to grab as many dollar bills on the grass around her in 60 seconds. Best of all was the three-horse race, which started along the back fence at first base and ended at third base. You could only catch glimpses of the horses between the billboards in the outfield. During the seventh-inning stretch, ‘Take me out to the ball game’ was preceded by ‘God Bless America’. I awkwardly mumbled along, since I’ve learnt the words to that song.

As you can tell, I’m just there at the games as a social excursion. I really couldn’t tell you if the pitcher seemed to aim too high when he pitched strikes, or the midfielder’s dribbling was formidable in keeping the ball away from the opponents. But you should really go check out a Giants game (next year) or Earthquakes game (season is drawing to a close) in San Jose for yourself. They’re really fun.

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