Archive for the ‘Fanatico Special’ Category

The previous week’s thaw combined with the recent freeze to make large potato chips out of the frozen sections of snow and thin layers of ice. The crunch of every step would break multiple sheets, but never so much as to leave an imprint on the eighteen inches of ice below. It felt like you could see forever on the frozen lake, but look back after trudging for ten minutes and your starting point was immersed in fog, illusory curtains covering the recent past.

The plan was simple. I’d leave Saturday morning, and my brother would meet me halfway. From there, we’d travel to his ice fishing hut that was less than an hour’s drive from his home. In the days leading up to our excursion, my brother would send pictures of the inside of the hut. It had a heater, fishing rods, tools I’d never seen before and whiskey. It also had a tiny grill.

I asked him if it was for cooking the fish that we’d catch, and he let me down gently, “Oh, we won’t catch any fish to eat.”

My brother and I lead drastically different lives. He’s country. I’m city. The population of his town is under 10,000. Mine is over 2.5 million. He has cross-stitching and family photos on the walls of his house. I have movie posters and art work on mine. He can build stuff with lumber. I worry about splinters. He owns a fully stocked chest freezer. The inventory of the freezer atop my fridge consists of ice cubes, vodka and a couple of dark chocolate bars I’ll never eat.

Despite the overwhelming amount of differences between us, we share a similar outlook on life. Generally content to watch it unfold, we’re spectators deriving no shortage of amusement from all of the hullabaloo that others cause. This characteristic occasionally extends beyond a healthy detachment, but on the whole it seems a better perspective than most alternatives.

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The email chain lasted for four years. After graduating university, most of us – friends from high school and college acquaintances – started our careers in positions that took about a tenth of our brain power. We fried a good portion of the remaining percentage every night on the type of substances that single men in their early twenties often acquire when they find a disposable income being added to their bank accounts following four years of student poverty. Any leftover creativity that wasn’t wasted on pleasing bosses or succumbing to peer pressure was spent on writing emails to one another.

That’s how it all began.

The messages were awful. We mistook crass – misogynistic, homophobic and sometimes racist jokes – for being clever. We were cynical and cruel, imagining ourselves to be smarter than we actually were. We corresponded throughout each day about the most mundane topics, trying to one up each other with sarcasm and bitterness, all for no apparent purpose. We wrongly considered ourselves too smart to be appreciated by the general public, and so, found appreciation in the inboxes of one another, never considering for a moment that we might not be nearly as unique as we supposed ourselves to be.

For the purpose of the narrative, it would be nice to pretend that it all fell apart because of the Toronto Blue Jays. However, truthfully, we got older, more mature. Our responsibilities at work and in life increased. Nonetheless, it was at the insistence of other members of the email chain that Andrew Stoeten and I take our baseball conversations elsewhere. Days later, I received an invitation from Stoeten to join a newly created blog called Drunk Jays Fans.

We blogged and blogged, received a little bit of notoriety, then a little more and a little more still. We’d grow giddy over gaining mentions on local sports talk radio, and get even more excited for thinly veiled references to our work popping up in newspapers. I think our proudest moment was learning from a journalist covering the Beijing Olympics that we were banned in China. Eventually, a television sports network contacted us about working together, and in a real-life meeting, an executive with the company spoke about us lending them our cool-factor. We were so serious about our future in sports media that we proceeded to mock the term the very next day in a post. So punk rock. So stupid.

Thankfully, the executive looked past our juvenile behavior and allowed us to record a podcast and associate ourselves with something that was a little more credible than Blogger. After a year, they hired Stoeten to write for their website, and a couple years later, extended a job offer to me to write about baseball. We sold our website to them. It went from Drunk Jays Fans to DJF, and we found ourselves writing about sports as a profession.

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Pius Heinz of Germany holds up stacks of cash after beating Martin Staszko of the Czech Republic to win the championship bracelet and $8.7 million in prize money during the World Series of Poker main event at the Rio hotel-casino in Las Vegas

Tonight in Las Vegas and (near) live on ESPN, the final table of the World Series of Pokers’ Main Event begins. Though the tournament began in July, the “November Nine” resume play after a three month lay-off – competing for more than $8 million in prize money. This concept – whittling the full field down to a final table of nine, determining the winner live on TV in November – is a relatively new one, an idea unthinkable even ten years ago. Why would anyone care about the outcome of a single poker tournament so much as to wait months to decide a winner?

A lot can change in a decade. In the world of professional poker, ten years is enough time for a tidal wave of money to crash across the landscape – establishing poker as a sports entertainment force and changing the game forever. It took ten years for the poker bubble to stretch and expand across the globe before it finally burst. Slowly, widespread interest in poker declined, receding like the flood waters which forever re-shaped this pop culture juggernaut.

There is still solid interest in the World Series and professional poker in general but nowhere near the incredible heights it once reached. Attention has turned elsewhere. But why? The same factors that contributed to poker’s meteoric cultural rise undercut its popularity and eventually relegated it back to the margins where, fairly or otherwise, it belongs.

Across the last decade, the factors that fueled the unprecedented growth of the World Series of Poker (WSOP) contributed directly to its ultimate flameout. A classic bubble that progressed through all the stages before bursting in spectacular fashion. Before the 2013 WSOP Main Event champion is crowned, look back on the poker world’s trajectory and how the game borne from smokey casino cardrooms ended up as an area-style TV special with lights, analysts and months of all – filtered through the lens of one man whose interactions with the game closely follow a nearly identical trajectory.

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uspw_918186 2There’s a certain pleasure to be gained through the discovery of metaphors. It’s a quirky bit of nature, but we seem to understand ourselves better from a perspective that excludes us entirely. Without this, parables, poetry and playwriting likely wouldn’t exist, or at least wouldn’t carry as much significance as they do.

The amount of amusement we derive from piecing together parallels between narratives and our own lives is enhanced when those analogies seem almost accidental instead of crafted. It’s one thing to read a novel that’s meant to be an allegory, and quite another to come across something that’s not intended to mirror anything, but does so in a fashion that causes reflection.

Matching the sports we watch to the culture we inhabit is hardly new. It’s been done many times before. Perhaps the best example is the book Brilliant Orange, which rationally ties so many aspects of Dutch culture to voetbal. In Canada, before gift buying holidays like Christmas or Father’s Day a new book is released tethering hockey to what it means to be Canadian. Meanwhile, the United States has long stood by baseball as its country’s pastime, a connection that was most exhaustively made by documentarian Ken Burns, who dedicated more than 18 hours on public television to explaining the relationship between the sport and the nation.

The Emmy Award-winning series was broadcast on PBS in 1994 – not an especially good year for baseball – but even as Burns was preparing his epic ode, the rankings of relevance had shifted. Not so long before Baseball first aired, the tenure of National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle concluded. Under Rozelle’s three decade long stewardship, the NFL blossomed: Attendance increased by almost 600%, and every subsequent Super Bowl set new records for television viewership. It all combined to create fertile ground for his successor, Paul Tagliabue, to reap an even larger harvest in increased television coverage and the accompanying lucrative contracts from broadcast partners.

Football is enormous, it’s become far bigger than baseball in terms of popularity. Nonetheless, baseball still clings to tradition, backed by its long standing connection to America’s history, and all of its struggles, conflicts and contradictions.

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espn-body-issue-gary-player_r640When the subject of sex is broached within the confines of sports, it’s usually followed by snickering. Our false sense of what comprises proper decorum combines with the remnants of fossilized puritanism to create a nervous laughter over the outlandish tally of contraceptives given to Olympic athletes or the reported abstinence of a national soccer team before a pivotal World Cup match.

We seldom discuss the obvious. The strange relationship that sports fans have with athletes – which combines pageantry, pedestals and vicariousness in an unholy trinity – grows more peculiar when we consider the overt voyeurism inherent to the role of sports spectator. We gain pleasure through watching toned muscles and tight flesh exhibit elite physical ability in unison and competition with others.

Fortunately, the typical heterosexual male can remain blissfully ignorant to this portion of his enjoyment thanks to the overcompensation of the generally accepted norms provided by scantily-clad cheerleaders, commercials reinforcing our manly love of Kate Upton’s breasts and the general masculine bro-ness associated with cheering on a sports team.

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Sao Paulo Indy 300 - Day 3I don’t believe in fate or destiny, but I understand why others might. Sometimes, seemingly unrelated circumstances coincide so perfectly to form a singular result that it’s difficult to not believe in an unseen and powerful guidance shaping the outcome.

Like many Canadians of a similar background and age to my own, I loved open-wheel racing before I even understood that it was open-wheel racing that I loved. Also, like many Canadians of a similar background and age to my own, my love for North America’s premier source for open-wheel racing came to an abrupt halt in the mid-nineties when the departure of Jacques Villeneuve from the Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) series conspired with the introduction of the Indy Racing League (IRL) – and subsequent desecration of the Indy 500 – to reduce the relevance of the sport on the entire continent.

Eighteen years later, the IndyCar Series is haunted by this past, even as it strives to return to a time when its brand of racing attracted new fans and captivated long-time supporters. Leading the charge to fight these ghosts and bring the sport back to an era of increased public interest is a 26-year-old driver from Oakville, Ontario – James Hinchcliffe.

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MASHGameOh, sure. You never played MASH. You were far too cool to imagine a life with your grade five crush, in which you lived in a house with five children and drove a submarine around. You didn’t purposefully pick a number between one and twenty that would mathematically ensure Natalie Anderson’s name would be the last one remaining. And you definitely didn’t ask your friend to tell Natalie how the MASH game went, gauge her reaction and then report back. No way.

Grade school crushes, much like sports, were of the utmost importance to us as children, but as we matured, our relationships to both altered. Crushes changed into attraction, and sports – depending on how much you’ve managed develop – went from being an obsession to a distraction, an outlet to plug in and recharge.

Nonetheless, despite our supposed level maturity, we occasionally revert back to grade school crushes and attaching too much importance on the outcomes of sporting events. Typically, this leads to disaster in our personal relationships and levels of disappointment to which we were previously unaccustomed.

Fear not. There is a safe way to regress back to childhood when crushes were everything, and the results of games were meaningful. All you have to do is click on the Vines below, and wherever it stops will inform your destiny as a sports fan.

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