Saturday, April 25, 2009

There's More to Sports than the NFL

Anyone who pays the slightest attention to the sporting media in the United States will have noted that in recent weeks, a tremendous amount of attention has been given to a sport that is not even being actively contested right now. That sport is the monster of all sports, American scrimmage Football, and the reason for the attention is the annual National Football League draft.

Personally, I find the energy spent analyzing and debating the NFL draft to be excessive, but I'm not necessarily interested in slamming it or those who follow it. Hey, if you're an interested fan, knock yourself out. Still, one must wonder at the narrowness of field of view exhibited by a sporting culture when it focuses so much attention on a game that has not been played for months and will not be played for months to come.

Must our sporting palate be so limited? Even when we finish discussing the just-underway Major League Baseball season, and the NBA and Stanley Cup playoffs, or the early races of the NASCAR season, is there truly so little else going on in the world of sports that we feel obliged to pass hour after hour arguing about who the Minnesota Vikings will take with their first-round draft pick?

I submit that there is much else going on, if only we would take the time to see it.

* * * * *

On Friday night, I saw one of the best baseball games I have ever personally attended...along with 401 other paying fans.

The game pitted the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers against the visiting Purdue Boilermakers in the Metrodome. Seating was general admission ($8) with all the sections roped off except the ten or so behind home plate. Even so, this tiny sliver of the Dome represents thousands of seats, and with the four hundred of us scattered hither and yon the stadium seemed very empty indeed.

But as the evening progressed, it seemed less and less empty...not because more spectators arrived, but because the game itself turned out to be close, interesting, and exciting.

Both starting pitchers turned in exceptional outings. Few balls were hit hard--most of the scattered base hits were ground balls that skidded through the infielders on the slick Metrodome turf. No runs were scored until the bottom of the fifth, when the Gophers pushed across a run with the old Runners-at-the-corners-Guy-on-first-gets-picked-off-Guy-on-third-steals-home play. It was thrilling ball and it energized the Gopher fans in attendance. The Sabermetricians can say whatever they want about the futility of small ball, but to me a game decided on the basepaths is more exciting than watching home runs any day.

The Boilermakers manufactured the tying run in the top of the seventh, scoring on a sacrifice fly. To the benefit of the overall atmosphere, there were a handful of Purdue fans at the game, some of which exploited the peculiar acoustic properties of a nearly-empty Metrodome to direct individual taunts at the Minnesota players, addressing them by their uniform numbers. Close game? Check. Rival fan blocs? Check. Now all we needed for a true classic was a little controversy and a fantastic finish.

In the top of the eighth, the Boilermakers scored their second run, again on a sacrifice fly. Then, with two runners on, the next Purdue batter drove a double into the gap. The first runner scored easily, but the second runner was thrown out at the plate on a close call. The Gopher fans roared. The Purdue bench and their tiny group of supporters erupted in dissent. The home-plate umpire could be heard warning the Purdue players to remain in the dugout.

Controversy? Check.

The Purdue starter pitched extremely well, but in the end the game was an inning too long. The first two Gophers reached in the bottom of the ninth, and the next batter hit a ball very hard to the left-center gap. I found myself hoping it would make it out for a game-winning dinger, then, when it became clear it would fall short, hoping that it wouldn't bounce over the low fence for a ground-rule double. Happily, the ball stayed in the park, and both runners scored easily.

That marked the end of the night for Purdue's starting pitcher, who received applause even from some of the Gopher fans (myself included) for his excellent performance. The reliever loaded the bases with nobody out, and even though he got the next guy to bounce a grounder right to the drawn-in infield (resulting in a force at home), the next batter hit a rope of a liner to right. Although the ball was caught for the second out, the runner on third tagged and sprinted home, perhaps calculating that his odds of making it were better than those of getting a two-out base hit. The throw from right field was errant, obliging the pitcher to grab it and quickly shovel it to the catcher. Too late--the runner from third slid in under the tag, and the Gophers won, 4-3.

Fantastic finish? Check.

You wouldn't think that a crowd of 400 could cause a building that seats 50,000+ to explode, but I've seen it happen. M-I-N-N-E-S-O-T-A! Minnesota! Minnesota! He-e-e-e-e-y, Gophers!

* * * * *

Last night, accompanied by my girlfriend, I attended my first professional rodeo. (Six bucks for each of us, so $12 total.) The event was held in conjunction with the 2009 Minnesota Horse Expo, and was contested in the Warner Coliseum, a pleasant if old-fashioned venue on the state fairgrounds that seats a little over 5000 people in an oval around a pitch of soft, brown dirt that is about the size of a hockey rink.

A rodeo is a collection of horse- and/or livestock-centered events, all of which are ultimately derived from the requisite skill set of the Western cowboy. For instance, team roping is a timed event in which a pair of competitors, each mounted on horseback, attempt to capture a running steer by using what I would call a lariat (I'm not positive that's the correct term, but you know what I mean). The first rider must rope the steer's horns, then pull the rope taut and alter the steer's run enough for his partner to rope the steer's back feet. If you're thinking that this must involve timing the throw of the loop precisely so that it surrounds the steer's feet while they are off the ground, and that this must be really hard, you're right on both counts. (When my girlfriend first described this event to me, it sounded so improbably difficult that I concluded I must have misheard, and asked her to repeat herself.) In fact, the first several teams failed to rope the steer (you only get one chance) and received no score at all. But then we witnessed several successes in a row. You couldn't help but feel thrilled for the successful riders. I'm certain it's harder than it looks, and it looks hard.

Barrel riding is a pure speed event that is contested by female riders. The objective is to ride around three barrels in a prescribed order, then charge back to your starting point. A time penalty is incurred for knocking the barrels over. The layout of the coliseum added to the drama; the riders actually commenced their attempts outside the arena, away from the gaze of the spectators, building up a head of steam, then exploded out of the entrance tunnel and into view as if shot from a cannon. If you imagine the course as a baseball diamond, the horse and rider start roughly at home plate, then circle first base, then third base, then second base, then gallop across the pitcher's mound and back to home plate. The top times were just above sixteen seconds.

The most awe-inspiring events, however, are those that involve attempts to ride animals referred to as roughstock--broncos, both saddled and bareback, and, in the finale of the rodeo, bulls.

The procedure for these events is as follows. An enormous, angry animal that is determined not to be ridden is led into a small pen, with a door that opens onto the earthen pitch. A rider then climbs onto the animal's back, at which point the pen door is opened and the animal explodes into the arena, bending all of its energy to throwing the rider. If the rider can hang on for eight seconds, he receives a judged score that is a function of both the quality of his ride and the determination shown by the animal in attempting to unseat him. (It is not to the advantage of the rider to have the animal turn in only a halfhearted performance, as this results in a lower score for fact, if the animal's bucking is disappointing, the judges can grant the rider an option for a re-ride on a different animal).

The danger is immediate and obvious, not just for the riders but for the various rodeo officials who are also on the pitch, such as the guys who open the door to the pen and the mounted pickup men who are charged, amongst other duties, with helping the riders dismount safely. Should the rider be thrown, the probability of landing adjacent to or amongst the hooves of the roughstock is quite high--the riders, quite sensibly, wear protective equipment, such as a stiff torso protector and, in some instances, a helmet with a football-like facemask.

But even with the safety equipment there can be scary moments. In fact, one of the bullriders last night was thrown and landed in the dirt, stone still. Although he eventually left the pitch on his own feet (albeit with assistance) there was a frightening interval of several minutes when he was being attended by several paramedics, and it transpired that he had in fact been knocked clean unconscious.

Bullriding is the marquee event of the rodeo (if you watch a rodeo on Versus, this is the only part you will see). The bulls themselves are majestic animals, and their power is evident even from hundreds of feet away. I can only wonder what they must be like close-up. One was introduced with the announcement that it had only been ridden twice in its career. It promptly threw its rider, then trotted around the arena, lowering its horns threateningly to the pickup riders and rodeo clowns, then trotted off, muscles rippling beneath its skin, satisfied with its conquest.

* * * * *

Neither of these events, it goes without saying, were mentioned during last night's SportsCenter, or even on the local news here in the Twin Cities. Yet they were each dramatic and exciting sporting events that captured what Wide World of Sports called the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat, and the human (and animal!) drama of athletic competition.

So if you're a sports fan, I encourage you to make the following resolution: I will, this year, attend a sporting event of a type I have never attended before. Check out the non-revenue sports of your local college or university...look up the schedule for the gymnastics meets, or the women's softball team. If you are fortunate enough to live in a community that is visited by a rodeo, or an NHRA drag race, or the World Bandy Championships, make time to check it out. It is helpful if you can find a guide (I was fortunate to be accompanied to the rodeo by my girlfriend, who is knowledgeable about the sport and in fact has competed in barrel riding) but if you can't, don't let that stop you.

Who might just be better than watching the NFL draft.

1 comment:

  1. hi guys. The Vikings just drafted Percy Harvin as the first round pick! thought you would all like to know. Go Vikings!!