A Good Sport

By Mat Zucker

Essay

The question I most dread on Monday is: “Did you watch the game on Sunday?”

Not because I didn’t see it. I usually do witness the last minutes of the game, especially since football consistently runs late and bleeds into my Sunday tradition: “60 Minutes”. This throws off our dinner plans and any DVR recordings on CBS the rest of the night. So, sure, I know who won and lost, but it’s more out of irritation and impatience than joy of victory or crushing disappointment. I also find it disrespectful to the newscasters, who — like their audience — aren’t exactly young with unlimited time for extra time outs. During the show’s opening credits, each seems to introduce him or herself (“I’m Morley Safer”, “I’m Lesley Stahl”) as if it’s the last time. The courteous thing for the football teams to do would be to start earlier or finish their game within their allotted time slot. I don’t want to say that players are big, dumb and stupid but if you can memorize a few plays off a chalkboard and push each other slowly back and forth across a field, throwing a ball just a few yards but command a lot of drama, then you can figure out the concept of time.

I am not anti-football. In fact, I wish I enjoyed all of the big American trifecta (football, basketball and baseball) and could chat about them throughout the year over beers, whisky sours and cigars. There’s something about guys getting into heated and elaborate conversation about sports. The debate over the data and details. The leagues and the records. The rhythm of the conversation when they passionately agree or vehemently disagree. How they dismiss each other with their hands like they’re Italians stuck in traffic in Rome. And guys bring other guys into conversations very generously. If I sit down with two guys who are mid-conversation about the game, eventually they will turn to include me. “What do you think?” Problem is, I never have anything to add. In these circumstances, I do one of two awkward things: I either blink politely waiting for it to pass,  or more often, I insert a barely relevant fact. For example, if the topic is baseball, I might work in that one doesn’t stand on the dirt while the pitcher is warming up; it’s rude. Or instead of bragging of a fact I know, I might engage them by asking why only the American League has a designated hitter. “Doesn’t the National League get jealous?” But I’m not a complete idiot. I learned long ago not to debate which teams have the best uniforms (Yankees– classic, Cardinals — cute birds, Boston Red Sox — typography.). Fans don’t think that’s fun — nor funny.

To get a sport into your bones, I think you have to start at a young age, much like taste in fashion or enjoying pot. Since for me, it’s too late in life to pick up most sporting rules (except perhaps golf which I’m avoiding until I am 50+ and monied), I’ve decided to create my very own sport. This way, I can have a substantive conversation about it, right down the details of the rules and the story of the players. I could yell and scream about it, bad mouth players and coaches with conviction, and even bet some real dough on it. Maybe I could start a pool.

I decide to base my sport on something familiar, so it’d be a surefire hit. At first, I was going to propose a modified version of European soccer and insert two balls instead of one. But then it would just end up being soccer but with multi-tasking. Another idea was Shoe Golf, which my friend Adam and I got our college campus playing our first year. You just loosen your shoelaces and kick off your shoe. The answer, however, came while my dad was remembering his college fraternity days at Cornell. He and his roommates would stay up all night playing, what else — bridge. Yes, the card game. Bridge, after all, is social but competitive. You have use two hands. You have to tap strategy. There are tricks and dummies. And there’s North, South, West, East — my childhood hobby was geography.

I just need to make the sport version of bridge much more modern and, of course, athletic. Then I could call it “Phridge” — a mashup of “physical” and “Bridge.” In Phridge, there would be two teams of four, eight in total, like a perfect dinner party. You can win tricks, you can pass, you can build alliances. The physical part can be grabbing each other’s hair. Teams could be named after hip design neighborhoods, such as South Beach, Soho and Westlake. But it might be even more interesting to name teams after great chair and furniture designers, such as The Beidemeirs, the Bakers, the Bahaus. The tournament trophy could be a matching set of inspired seat cushions.

Matches would be on Sunday and would end promptly on time before the iconic sound of the “60 Minutes” stopwatch. On Monday, we’d gather around the watercoolor and could be mortified together how “Bobo Robinson slipped Deidre Mansly (Phridge is co-ed of course; it’s modern) a nasty Jack of Hearts, poisoning her hand for rounds.” Over a glass of Sauvingon Blanc at the local wine bar, I could pull up a stool and share the news that “Rit Bunnykeeper just signed to the Starcks for a cool $15 million.” You’d throw your hands up. “Where do they get the money?” And in a moment of weakness (or, one could argue, strength), I could pull out a $50 and slide it to the center of the table next to the crudité: “Who’s going to wager the Eames beat the Chippendales to take the Pennant in three?” Everyone knows that Eames have staying power.

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MAT ZUCKER is chief creative officer of a big ad agency in New York City, but more importantly is a small time writer of memoirs, essays and fiction on the side. He has published in The New York Press, Our Town, The West Side Spirit and nthWord and is currently the advertising correspondent for The Faster Times. Cornell graduated Mat with a B.A. in English/Creative Writing. One vaguely interesting thing about Mat is his Oral Allergy Syndrome, which prevents him from eating apples, pears, peaches, plums, berries, carrots, cucumbers, celery, nuts, snow peas, tomatoes and red wine — though gratefully not white. He lives in Manhattan with his partner Bryan and their dog Ezra Pound and tweets regularly. He is from Springfield, New Jersey, but you're sure to hear plenty about that.

6 responses to “A Good Sport”

  1. M.J. Fievre says:

    “To get a sport into your bones, I think you have to start at a young age, much like taste in fashion or enjoying pot.” I totally agree with that.

    I’m with you, Mat. I’m a gal, and even I get The Stare when I admit that I don’t know anything about the most popular sports.

  2. Becky Palapala says:

    Well, I can say this: Because I grew up in MN, I did start playing hockey at a young age and was told pretty consistently that it was the thing to be interested in. But somewhere in my pre-teen years, having never really gotten into it and turning into an arty teenager, I lost interest.

    Until my hockey-obsessed sister (who is a PhD in NT studies, of all things) called to ask me to be the commissioner on her fantasy hockey league. She needed one more player and one who had time to run the thing, and I was a bartender with little going on during the day. I protested that I knew nothing about hockey. She said she’d draft my team for me and a good one. I just had to keep score. I was 22. She caught me hungover. For some reason, I agreed.

    At any rate, I got (re)acquainted with the game in a hurry. Suddenly, with a personal investment, I was into it.

    I remain into it. Something primordial. I think people manifest it in different ways. Maybe people get very territorial and opinionated about politics or music or writers or whatever, but everyone is, in some way or another, a sports fan.

    Anyway. This is all just to say, I resent the implication that only guys engage in fascinating sports discussions. 🙂

  3. Gwyneth says:

    That whole territorial thing is exactly what I don’t get about sports, politics, music, religion, literature, etc. Getting evangelical about subjective personal tastes indicates a fundamental insecurity about them, not conviction. If you had no doubts about the superiority of your team or band or party or book or religion, why the heck would you care whether or not anyone else agreed with you or want to waste your time arguing about it, unless you were really trying to convince yourself? And how did we all get to be so intimidated by differing opinions that we feel we have to defend ourselves from them? If we actually got what we act as if we want–and everyone had exactly the same tastes–commerce would collapse, because there would be no room for innovation or new markets to develop. Now that really would be scary. That said, I vote for reviving Triple Cranko, the game the doctors invented on an episode of M*A*S*H when they were all bored out of their gourds. It involves, simultaneously, chess, checkers, cards, backgammon, and shot glasses. Need I say more? P.S. The other thing I don’t get about following sports is, even if I cared who won, I just don’t have the capacity to remember the vast amount of minutiae required to talk about it.

  4. This sounds like an excellent idea for a new game. I once worked for a summer camp where we invented a sport to be played in a full size gym, with 2 teams of 30 or so.

    Each team defended one improvised soccer goal at either short side of the gym, and two baskets along either long side of the gym. A half dozen red rubber kick balls were used. It was fairly impossible to keep score, and the infirmary was full of injured kids by the end of each game. We uninvented it just short of a lawsuit…

  5. Simon Smithson says:

    Mat, it’s cool. I saw my first baseball game at the age of 28, and suddenly, I care about it. Age is no barrier!

    Especially not to squirrel fishing:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squirrel_fishing

  6. Mat Zucker says:

    Wow, Simon — I didn’t even know about squirrel fishing, that’s how outside the normal culture I am. My dog would love it too.

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