S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Fat Chance,” Park talks about seeing sports in person versus watching sports during COVID.
In her last years my mother was a real curmudgeon, and I fear I’m becoming the same. I’m reminded of this watching sports on television, as I absolutely love the no-fans-in-the-stands experience. Before The COVID made it necessary I thought that’d ruin sports (for players and viewers alike), that football, basketball or baseball in empty arenas was simply inconceivable.
Instead it’s the best thing that’s happened since they broadcast that NFL game in the Eighties without announcers. For openers the sound effects they pump in are so well-timed and convincing you wouldn’t know they’re just recordings. It also eliminates the halftime bands, insipid giveaways, flashing lights and blaring music of modern sports venues, not to mention spitting in baseball. (What was more off-putting: the fountains of chewing tobacco or the streams of sunflower seeds?)
Best of all, though, there’s no cameras panning the crowd, no reminder of America’s ravenous descent into gluttony, i.e. row after row of ponderous fat people, gulping down so many snacks and drinks you wouldn’t be surprised if, suddenly, they all belched at once, bringing the stadium down on top of them.
I know fat kids were rare growing up. Then shortly before I left Portland in 2013 I was standing at a dog park beside a young guy I’d met there. We chatted a bit as our mutts played, then turned our attention to the field across the way, where an eighth-grade girl’s lacrosse team was practicing.
The longer I watched the greater my horror.
“My God!” I said finally, “there’s forty or fifty girls out there and they’re all overweight! And those are the exercisers in the class! They’ll be big as whales by eighteen and dead of diabetes at thirty.”
“Oh yeah?” said the guy. “And I bet you blame their parents.”
“Who else? They must feed ’em at troughs.”
“Uh huh. See number fifty-one?”
I looked around, spotted a chubby blonde kid near the net.
“Yeah,” I said.
“That’s my daughter, ass wipe.”
Most people get banned from dog parks for their pet’s behavior. In the meanwhile telecasts focusing on the game instead of the crowd are a real luxury to me. (When did it become obligatory, for instance, for fans to dress up as clowns? Wigs, masks, jerseys, hats, face paint … even as most of them are middle-aged or older?)
My mother had a hand in my fat aversion, too, as obesity was her pet peeve. As kids we might be trailing her on a downtown sidewalk, for instance, when we’d have to step aside, let a fat woman pass.
Once she was safely out of range my mother (the pitiless ascetic) would render her verdict:
It was powerful imprinting and became the go-to slang in our family. You’d get off a chair lift when skiing: “Hey, Ben, saw you rode up with a porker.” Or maybe tell mom about a new friend at school: “Is that the kid whose dad is a porker?” she’d ask. Or complain (as we often did) about how thin we were: “Well, it could be worse, you could be porkers!”
She ground her porcine prejudice into us so deeply it persists to this day. I didn’t think much of it at the time because, like most of my generation, I assumed we were all getting the company line, anyway. (We’d come with identical instructions, after all, Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, and was there ever a handier book? You could blame it for everything later, even the Sixties.)
I know I’ve preferred televised sports to attending games since the end of my drinking days. By then I’d been to hundreds of them, starting with my first Niners game in 1950. They were events in themselves in the Fifties because: (1) the 49ers and Giants played in cozy, colorful old venues like Kezar and Seals Stadium; and (2) the times predated television sports generally, so there was rarely more than one game a week on the tube (and most of those were Eastern teams).
Then they built Candlestick Park and eventually both teams moved there. I distinctly remember Opening Day 1960 for the Giants, in fact, when Richard Nixon (or the “Weasel from Whittier” as my father called him) threw out the first pitch. Dad had bought season tickets in the bottom of the Reserved section, just under the overhang, and because it was sunny my brothers and I didn’t bring jackets along.
Like the stadium planners we’d grossly underestimated the icy Spring winds off the Bay (they’d prove to be much warmer in the Fall, oddly enough, when the Niners played), so we were frozen stiff by the time the game began.
Dad pointed to the concrete floor, said we had to be patient.
“They’ve installed radiant heating,” he claimed, “but they haven’t turned it on yet.”
“What’s radiant heating?” I asked.
“It’s pipes with hot water running through them. I read in The Chronicle this morning that they were laid in all the concrete here, and once they’ve fixed the kinks and started them up there’ll be warm air rising from below.”
I believed him: he was a plumbing contractor, after all, so he should know, except they’d bullshitted him, too. I attended games at Candlestick for another thirty years and—not only didn’t they “fix” the radiant heating—it never actually existed.
The games at Kezar in the late Sixties, though … those were the most intensely alcoholic episodes of my life. The Bay Area was the ultimate cocktail culture then, and my school mates had literally been weaned on booze (fortunately I moved to Portland at fifteen, had a normal teenage experience before returning), and a group of us had a block of Niners season tickets from ’67 to ’70 (at which point they were summarily revoked for “conduct unbecoming”).
I blamed it on the gin fizzes: our ritual was to gather at a friend’s place at eight in the morning, drink round after round of them. Then smoke a few joints and (at least in my case) take psychedelics before heading for the stadium around noon.
At which point we’d switch to whiskey or beer (or both), and often brought pony kegs in with us. (How is it, I wonder, that I’m the only one who ended up in a mental ward later?) Even more notable: our incoherent, rubber-kneed inebriation was par for the course at Kezar. I liked to stand on my tiptoes at the beginning of games (if I hadn’t passed out already), use my height to scan the crowd, soak in the noisy, fervent boozing from one end of the stadium to the other.
Then Kezar’s last game arrived in December of ’70. My seat mates and I had hidden hacksaws under our jackets so we could cut up our seats for souvenirs. I was vaguely sober at the time and, along with a hit of Orange Barrel acid, had limited my pregame partying to a few beers.
So my heart was heavy as I scanned the pregame crowd for the last time. These shitfacers were the real Tower of Babble, this was my rummy tribe, and we’d never gather like that again. (Candlestick, though drunken, was much more civilized.) They could have blown up the stadium right then, cut the local alkie population in half.
Which got me wondering if I could find a fan who wasn’t drinking an alcoholic beverage. I’d nearly given up when the National Anthem began and I spotted a gentile older woman in the section across from me. She wore a luxurious camel hair coat and had her hands clasped demurely in front of her.
Now there’s a sweet, respectful old granny, I thought. At least somebody here will remember the game.
Then the anthem finished and she reached inside that coat, pulled out a pint of whiskey, unscrewed the top and took a long glug.
Wiped her mouth afterwards and looked across at me.
It might might have been the Orange Barrel, but I swore she winked.