Saturday, July 30, 2011

Back To Your Regularly Scheduled Programming

Alright everyone, you can stop worrying. I'm back in the U.S., we can all breath sighs of relief, the world is back to normal. You'll have to excuse the lack of updating over the last three weeks, but as I mentioned before leaving, I was busy running around Europe for a while. Over an 18 day stretch that ended with an interesting 24-hour period in which I dragged a 25-pound bag of chocolate through four countries, I saw five countries, 11 cities, some 25 museums, 20 Cathedrals and spent more money in ATM fees than I'd really like to admit.

Naturally, as you can imagine, this trip left me somewhat out of the loop as far as the sports world is concerned though I kept as regular tabs as I could on the major things, namely the Women's World Cup, the NFL lockout resolution (which, if you pay attention to logic, should have been no surprise whatsoever), the Mets and the Carlos Beltran trade. At least those were the events important to me. So in between my attempts to figure out how screwed I would be on the exchange rate if the U.S. debt talks continued to go south, whatever twitter could tell me is whatever I got.

But what I want to talk to you about is a particularly interesting phenomenon that I experienced on Sunday night, July 17, and that was the experience of watching the United States in a national sporting event among fellow citizens in a foreign country. You with me? I speak of course about the positively brutal experience that was watching the U.S. Women come up short in the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup. For a while I had started to believe the Women's World Cup might be a defining aspect of the trip in general. Sitting in the Airport in Boston I saw the U.S. take an early 1-0 lead in its quarterfinal against Brazil and then boarded a plane. Then I landed in Philadelphia, walked off the plane and right up to a sports bar as this thing happened.

Not that I want to tell any sort of tales out of school, and I don't want to give the impression that I'm a soccer expert by any means, but that just may have been the most dramatic moment in a American soccer that I've seen -- and maybe ever -- which is a tough slot to take given Landon Donovan's amazing goal a year ago and the U.S.'s dramatic penalty kick-victory over China in the 1999 Women's World Cup Final. With the eventual win in penalty kicks against Brazil to move on I was in an upbeat mood on my way to Europe (though a disastrous plane experience would change that) and I knew there was a chance I'd have to watch the U.S. potentially win the World Cup while on Germany soil.

I was in Berlin the night of the Final, not in Frankfurt where the game was being played -- and I would have bought tickets if I were -- but I and my cadre of American cohorts numbering a total of four found an American bar in the ground floor of a Belushi's hostel in northeast Berlin off the Rosa-Luxemburg Platz U-Bahn stop to watch the game in hopes we would be among friends, or at least countrymen. For the most part, this went off without a hitch as we were indeed among Americans, many sitting in chairs in front of a big projection screen, and we managed to snag a booth with our own TV. To boot, the beer and food were stunningly cheap for Europe, though hamburgers in Germany have a bizarre, overseasoned meatloaf-like quality to them.

What we saw was, for the most part, a dominant display of chances, goal posts and an awful lot of bad luck for the U.S., but we thought we had finally reached our deliverance when Alex Morgan finally slotted the Americans ahead in the second half. This, understandably, brought up many cheers in the bar, and some camaraderie among the patrons, but what was interesting was that when Japan would equalize, there were more cheers coming from around the bar. Were they Japanese this might have been understandable, but it was actually a group of Brazilians who had gathered to watch Brazil's men's team face off with Paraguay in Copa America. After Wambach's extra time header put the U.S. ahead again there was more cheering, which was responded to by even more cheering from the Brazilians after Japan's dramatic equalizer four minutes from time.

Whether the Brazilians were doing this out of vengeance for the quarterfinal loss or pure schadenfreude I couldn't say, but when Japan stunned the world by taking the championship in penalty kicks, thanks in no small part due to the U.S.'s shocking difficulties from the penalty spot, there was uproar from one side of the bar, and it wasn't ours. It is a sobering feeling. One that is particularly unique when you're in a highly charged group of several nations in a foreign country. With alcohol. I had been looking forward to the moment of watching that game all week in hopes that we would drunkenly be singing the Star Spangled Banner through the streets of Mitte, but it wasn't meant to be. And being in a place that wasn't decidedly friendly to your jingoist sporting aims was an unusual experience.

We got a measure of some revenge when Brazil dropped its own penalty kick showdown to a lesser foe, and considering they didn't even cash in on one spot kick, one American patron casually pointed out that the American Women's team must be better than Brazil's men's team. We cheered obnoxiously to each foul-up, attempting to deliver the same cruelty, rewarding hubris, but for me the same zeal was not there. I don't generally take the same joy in the pain of others -- unless they play in Philadelphia I suppose -- but even then it's not out of joy so much as relief that I won't have to hear about the conquests of a foe.

It was a new sporting experience for me, and while it will stick out prominently, it won't define the trip -- there were dozens of other great, positive experiences. But that might have made the trip just a little bit better.

As for the Mets, some of you may have noticed the last blog post I wrote where I described how the Mets always seem to do well when I'm in Europe. Prior to my trip they were 16-2 all time when I was on the mainland continent. They did not repeat the success this time around, or at least not to the same lengths. The Amazins were 7-6 while I was on European soil, which is not terribly impressive, but still a winning record nonetheless. The far bigger news was the Mets playing for the future (though as of today they've won five straight and are only 6.5 back of the Wild Card) by sending Carlos Beltran to the San Francisco Giants.

Supposedly, Zack Wheeler, the prospect received in the deal, has the potential to be a solid Major League starter, but watching Beltran go is an odd feeling for some of us. His legacy will inextricably be linked with Game 7 of the 2006 NLCS, a game that featured the greatest defensive play in franchise history, but also Beltran striking out looking on an impossible curveball to end the game. To much of the fanbase this has made him look like a whimpy disappointed who couldn't deliver on his seven-year $119 million contract. But lost in that is that during his tenure as a Met he made four All-Star Games (including both his first and last season with the team), won three Gold Gloves, two Silver Sluggers and finished fourth in MVP voting the same year he struck out to end New York's World Series dream. As a Met he hit .280, had a .369 OBP and an .835 OPS.

In short, he was the most underappreciated player in the franchise's history, almost entirely because of one strikeout, which, ironically, happened in his finest year with the team. One day, Mets fans will realize how lucky they had it.

Now that you've all stopped reading, I will leave you with one final note. I like Aussie Rules Football, and in particular, I like a team called Geelong FC, or the Geelong Cats. They are pretty good, having won two of the last four AFL Grand Finals, most recently in 2009 when they beat St. Kilda, 80-68. Last night, or early this morning, more accurately, they played Melbourne, a team not quite as good as them. Geelong won, but that wasn't surprising. What might have been surprising is that they outscored Melbourne by 114 points.

In the first half.

Yeah, you read that right. Most of you, I know, have no real grasp of just how many points that is since you don't watch much Aussie Rules Football, but let's try to hammer out a rough equivalent to the final score which was 233-47. Granted, this was the second-highest halftime margin and fifth-highest total score in the League's history, but that doesn't quite do justice to the dominance. AFL is somewhat more prone to high wild scores than American sports but not quite on this level. So for Geelong to beat Melbourne 233-47, were this American football let's take a guess at what it would be like. My guess is that you'd be looking at something like the Giants beating, oh, let's say the Browns, by a rip-roaring score of 140-10. Or perhaps it would be like the Marlins falling to the Mets 35-1. It's that kind of dominance.

I doubt we'll ever see anything quite like it in American sports, but perhaps we can hope. In the interim, now that I'm back in the States, I'll be watching for it. At least until the next Women's World Cup when I might leave the country again. Fortunately, that one is only in Canada.

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