Monday, March 30, 2009

Fremantle v Western, 29/03/09

It isn't entirely uncommon that people note their surprise in hearing what a sports fan I am, and some friends even find it odd or perplexing. I very much enjoy sport (and believe that within twenty years it will be studied in universities as a humanity) for a number of reasons that would be very difficult to explain outright. I think an example is the best thing I'd be able to muster, and I've recently had such an experience that likely serves adequate to chart my enjoyment of sport, or really, all public competition (see: politics, which ironically is probably every bit detachment and escapist competition that sport is). Sunday I went to opening day for the Fremantle Football Club (they were the Fremantle Dockers before a lawsuit v Pants) of the Australian Football League. Still, everyone knows them at the Dockers. Their logo is an anchor, and the news and whatnot still say Dockers. Good, pants be damned, I say in this one. Essentially the same argument as MLB vs Cape League over team names, but a bit more inter-disciplinary. Anyway, it proved to be quite an experience. I will document it here.

Fremantle hosted the Western (in reference to Western Melbourne, Victoria) Bulldogs yesterday at the Subiaco Dome, home to both the small market upstart Dockers and the posh West Coast Eagles, who are quite a bit more popular around the region. Market comparison between Freo and West Coast (read: not Western. West Coast is team they share the Subi with, Western is team they played this night. Slightly confusing.) might be San Francisco to Oakland. Freo finished last season third from the league's cellar. Western (now we're on the Bulldogs, the night's opponent) meanwhile is an interesting case. Apparently they're small market. However, the fan base they do have is rabid. I sat near a supporter tonight and he was loud, though very friendly. They also came in third place last year, putting them into the current manifestation of the upper echelon. They had a lot of fans traveling from Melbourne. I'd probably say the Medlbourne team seriously gave the host Perth team a run for their money crowd-wise, perhaps 60-40, the advantage to the Dockers.

I arrived at the game early by virtue of extremely convenient public transportation timing. I thoroughly enjoyed my trek on the train and bus though. It starts when you get to the first stop and see a few people in the purple, or whatever the team color is. Then with each stop it begins to fill up. Stop by stop you're surrounded in it, the sea that a fanbase represents. When it gets big enough they even say nation. By the time you get there you're a unit, everybody is getting off at that stop and you're all making your way in one direction as a single entity. It's especially interesting on Opening Day. It's been a long summer in football, basketball, hockey and footy (AFL terms) terms, winter in baseball, etc. There's an anticipation, even for a team like Freo, of wonder and hope. It sounds stupid, but it's new. The whole thing is new, and sometimes it turns out to be an epic and great narrative like the Red Sox gave the Yankees and history in 2004, or the greatest ever told, like the Giants gave the Patriots in the early days of 2008. You get plenty of just good stories too. Like the Rays last year. Or the Celtics. Or individual stories like Jon Lester's cancer comeback or Josh Hamilton's comeback from cancer-causing agents (though what isn't?). And players that are superstars by the end of the season that nobody's heard of now. Or just spectacular single games in the long season. For a new fan, there's the adventure of discovering the game. And for the old, the experience of coming back to it.

I got there with plenty of time to take care of the essentials of arrival at any new ballpark. I walked around the outside and felt the hustle and bustle of getting around and getting in. I bumped into people (literally and not at all figuratively) and walked through security guard checkpoints. I also got a feel for the stadium on the inside. They all tend to be the same. Concrete and dim but hosting an enjoyable atmosphere. This was the same at the Subiaco Dome. You can stick with it for only so long before it becomes logical to check out the seats.

IFSA set us up pretty well this time. I found the printing for my section and moved through and out this designated tunnel. Immediately, the grass struck me. This is especially neat for a person seeing the given sports' field the first time, however, it is always a great image regardless. To arrive at the site of the battle. The Fenway green, the footy field, massive and oval in its span and quite green itself, the Colliseum in Roman days. Crazy people, I'd reckon. I followed the bleachers to my seat. I kept following it. Usually I don't realize where the numbers on the ticket are particularly taking me until I've gotten there. Like buried treasure, X marks the spot. When I look up, I realize how the seats are. I mean, you can look at the maps online or on the program, but there's no actually knowing how the view will work for you until you get there. And it's definitely the case that view is secondary to atmosphere and crowd, too. The seats IFSA got us were second row and just off behind a set of goals. They proved quite solid.

This period of time in a match invokes some serious emotion. There is a building anticipation even as the stadium is still mostly empty. There is music blasting. Oftentimes the music is bad (though I always commend the Red Sox on their selection, they do pretty well) but you still get into it while you watch the players warming up well before game time. They are joking around with each other and you get to see them at the most personal you likely will that night. And it's the anticipation and excitement of the game, and in Sunday's case the season, to come. It's much more pure than the typical "GETTING PUMPED" feeling. It's just excitement and the understanding that you are in for a spectacle. I'd imagine that many people have fallen in love during this portion of an athletic experience.

Before the rest of the IFSA folk came along, I participated in another excellent aspect of game attendance: I got to know the neighbors. Seated to my left were a middle-aged man and his nephew who'd just flown in from Melbourne, a Bulldogs fan. The uncle was a West Coast Eagles fan and had no investment in the match but to protect his sister's son from being assaulted by Freo fans. The youthful Bulldogs fan was already yelling obscenities in a very loud voice during warmups. The uncle gave his nephew a lot of guff, which was fun to watch. I suppose that that's the Aussie way, I've picked up on. The more you're made fun of, the more they like you, and these guys were family. But anyway, the older fellow, who played the game non-professionally in his youth, was great. He helped me understand what I didn't already about the game and taught me things to yell and how to act and react throughout the game.

The park continued to fill over the next hour and a half, getting louder and louder and then louder still as the original loudness's coming on required that everybody up their voices a bit. The game started at 4:10, and around 3:55 the buzz of an incoming game was taking over the park. By the time we got to 4:09, the players had taken the field and the umpires were preparing to get the game started. The Oval was loud in the last few moments of the offseason until the ball was bounced and both game and season were on.

It's something to see a sport live for the first time. It gives you something that TV and Youtube can't, and that's a really up-close understanding of not just the workings and physicality of the game but also the tactics and strategy. Footy is an interesting game. I'd liken it to several of the American/American-known variety, but it's totally unique...In any case, I'll give it a try. It has the violence of football (American), the constant movement of soccer, the reliance on finding wide-open space of hockey, and a scoring system not totally unlike Quidditch, minus a snitch and quite different so not really like it at all. Two teams fight over a ball, when they have it they can advance it by hand-balling it (essentially volleying it) or punting it. Like lacrosse, you are true to your position, meaning the guys up front can't go back and vise versa. You can run with the ball, but if tackled, it's a turnover. Turnovers otherwise come as a result of poor volleying or strips. It's a turnover-centric game, like Ultimate. At the end of the field, there are four poles in a line. The middle poles, if the ball is kicked through, get you six points. The two outer sets get you one point. That's all I'll say for the game's technical aspects.

There was excitement in the air as Freo got out to a fast 13-0 start, including the first goal of the team's top prospect and most highly-touted draft pick, the 18 year old Stephen Hill, which started Freo's season scoring and his own career-spanning narrative. The nephew-Bulldogs-to-my-left fellow was yelling things such as "Rubbish! Unacceptable, Dogs!" However, this fell apart. By the end of the first quarter, Western was on top by a wide margin. I suppose I just skipped a big part of the story, but that's part of what I love about sport too. You lose yourself to it. It's very organic. It's like the grass and the pitch consume you body and mind entire and time goes out the window and it's the game, just the game, that takes you to later hours. Anyway, by half-time, the Bulldogs were up by 41, and their fans were the only ones making noise.

Halftime is a good thing because it counteracts what I just described. It's a moment to break away from the consumption of the game and go get something to eat or shake yourself back into reality and have a casual conversation. It serves the same purpose of comic relief and it is a good thing for doing so.

The teams came back from the half and the Dockers started playing well. They were outhustling and out-thinking Western and it was showing on the field even before it started to show on the scoreboard. Then, as these things tend to, it started showing on the scoreboard. They went on a run, scoring frequently. Before long, they had brought their deficit from 41 to 16, prompting loud strong words from my Western-supporting neighbor and lots of noise from the Freo fans. The goal that brought it to sixteen created a stadium-wide wave of purple as the fans jumped from their seats in a roar.

And that was the height of it. That was all there was to celebrate for Dockers fans. In the fourth quarter it fell apart entirely. Western scored frequently at will, their fans began singing songs, and they won by 60. Freo fans hurried out of their own stadium quietly while the Bulldogs were able to celebrate nationalistically on enemy turf. The sea of purple swept out the Oval and through the streets with quiet and humble smiles on their faces. Hey, they were there, and they still wore their hats and their jerseys and their scarves with pride. Hey, they saw their team play on opening day. Hey, it was silly to think they'd end up atop the standings this year anyway (and somewhere in the back of their head a voice is telling them it was only the first game anyway and there were positives to be taken) but at least it's back. The game is back. The players are back. The Dockers are back. And the sea makes its way onto the buses and the trains and it splits up more and more as the routes get further and further away from the stadium until the sea is a sea no more.

So what have I described here? A blowout wherein a good team destroyed a bad team. And still what? An experience that I will always hold close to me. Like I said, I cannot with ease describe exactly what it is I love about sport. But when I am near it, I know that I am taking in an experience that is much more meaningful than muscle-heads in silly costumes trying to assert testosteronal dominance. No, it's something more than that. It's the smells and the sights and the sounds and the rise of the wave when things are going good and the looks exchanged when things are going bad. It's all that there is to the game and what the game is to the community and what all the games are to the world at large. Whatever the reasons are for my affinity for sport, it is through footy and the Dockers that I've been able to realize it once more and for this I understand it, even if I can't describe it, all the more.

1 comment:

  1. Adam, ever consider going as a sports columnist? For I would read it religiously. Beautiful words sir, I was sucked in from beginning to end and it felt as though I was there, too. Kudos, Capt'n.