Snowdens of Yesteryear

by Ryan

The worst day of my life as a sports fan started with a pitch from Tim Wakefield.

Aaron Boone sent the knuckleball into the bleachers before the Fox broadcast could even come back from a commercial, and I went off to bed feeling sick to my stomach knowing what would come next.

Vancouver’s descent into madness last night isn’t the product of a single entity. Where individuals are intelligent and rational, groups of people are dumb, crude and volatile at all the wrong times. Lost in the chaos are thousands of people who went downtown ready to celebrate, looking for a joy that never came.

I like to think of 2003 as the year I really started loving the Red Sox. I’m no longer ashamed to admit that’s when it all really started. I got into things after the All-Star break and it just escalated so quickly from there. I was a sophomore in high school and it was time to finally fall in love with a team.

Then Tim Wakefield threw it all away.

When I think of big crowds I remember the silence.

I wasn’t outside HSBC Arena rooting for a miracle during Game Five. I was inside sitting next to my dad when Daniel Alfredsson’s shot got through Ryan Miller and the Senators won the Prince of Wales. The dream of a city died right there on home ice, and as thousands streamed out of the building in shock so many more watching outside followed suit.

It was quiet. No yelling or honking or chaos, just murmurs and the hum of engines powering a great escape.

I went to school the next day with a feeling I’ll never forget. It wasn’t fear or shame or dread, but something even darker. I was sad, sure, but more than anything I felt terribly alone.

I had exactly zero friends who could really understand what I was feeling, the new emotions that come with the gut-wrenching sorrow the Red Sox provided so often back then. Every baseball fan I knew rooted for the Yankees, and so I walked around that Friday like a ghost.

Late that night I sat alone in my basement and read Bill Simmons. I had just discovered Page 2 and was eating up anything they posted there, but Simmons quickly became my favorite writer because, well, he wrote like me.

The truth, of course, is the converse of that statement; but reading it was a revelation nonetheless. Not only were there other Red Sox fans out there but they felt the same way I did, and as thousands wrote him emails I got to experience for a short time what it’s like to be with a group of Boston Red Sox fans in mourning.

Sometime that night, well after the solace wore off, I pulled up a Word document and started writing. For the first time in my life I wrote without a due date or a word count. A few hours later I was satisfied, and the remainder of my weekend was spent debating what to do with it.

The 2006-07 Sabres season was very much a communal experience. I had a ticket package with a group of friends and we watched almost every game together in some regard. We went to the wildly successful house party for Game Four as the Sabres extended the season, and the plans were in place to go for Game Six once the Sabres got there.

Even in the hours after the Sabres lost we together at a friend’s house for a birthday party. It was a more somber affair than we were expecting but the decompression happened, the conversations usually held on the ride home finally took place one last time.

Hours later, of course, was when the real emotion came to life in a room lit only by the glow of a computer monitor.

I don’t remember exactly what I wrote that first night but I know the echoes of that first draft are all over the posts I’ve written here. That night, in the wreckage of my first baseball love, something changed in me. Writing became about more than just grades and assignments, and sports became a way to tap into a duality I wasn’t aware of.

It wasn’t just the hat I wore that made me different, and in that isolation something wonderful happened.

Every Buffalo sports fan has fantasized about the night their team finally wins it all. The immediate desire is to be in downtown Buffalo to take it all in, whether the Bills win the Super Bowl in some sunny city or the Sabres clinch at the foot of Washington Street.

What does the crowd do? It’s impossible to answer, but since 2007 my logic is clouded by that silent march out of downtown Buffalo. Fans that day seemed too preoccupied by the moment to express any real anger, and it’s scary to imagine what could have been.

Buffalo fans might be known for rowdy tailgates and Sunday afternoon brawls at the Ralph, but rarely does that brand of chaos spill into the hockey world around here. Knowing it’s there, though, makes the day they finally win it all that much more uncertain.

In sports it seems I’m not so alone anymore. I know dozens and dozens of Red Sox fans, and even a few Arsenal supporters now that I’ve discovered soccer. Boston has won a pair of World Series and I’ve cried tears of joy that make that dreary journey through the halls worth every damn step.

But I’ll always appreciate the way I learned to cope that day, the way I found my voice. I’ve found that sporting failure and disappointment can be transformed into something great if you give it a few quiet hours. Writing provided a way for the darkest parts of losing to escape my head and become something productive, something good.

I feel bad for those people in Vancouver who never got the chance to cheer. The cityscape we see as the sun rises out west isn’t the logical conclusion of a fascinating hockey season. Something else happened downtown after the final whistle sounded that’s much more than hockey and more primal than a single human being can muster on its own.

I’ll never understand what drives a man to flip over a car or break a window because of sports. There is pain and anguish and disappointment, but I’ve always come here when the monsters in my head need a place to run free for a while.

One Comment

  1. Mike

    I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about your post. The facile reaction is to say that Vancouver, rightly or wrongly, is perceived as a town full of dirty hippies. They do this sort of thing. But it’s obviously a lot deeper than that, and I think it’s naive to think it could never happen in Buffalo, as Scott Michalak said. I do think Buffalo’s reaction is generally different.
    I remember trudging out of a silent Memorial Auditorium in 1991 (or was it 1993?) after another loss to the Canadiens. Occasionally, you’d hear someone make a joke echoing off the ramps but I just remember the uniform expression on everyone’s face. There was no anger, no frustration. Just sadness, resignation. Keep in mind, this was also during the Superbowl runs. The time would have been prime for the losing to spill out into the streets, but it didn’t happen.
    I honestly believe that it’s become part of the regional character to expect less, to demand less, to be satisfied with less. That the best of actions when something goes wrong is to endure, to cope. Is that better than rioting? I don’t have an answer. But I do know that the urge to riot comes from a different emotional place. It comes from anger. It comes from entitlement. The sense that something that was yours was taken away. I don’t think Buffalo is a town that feels entitled very often, for better or for worse. Vancouver, on the other hand, had the Olympics. The Canucks have built steadily over a long time to become a Western powerhouse. I think the fans there might feel like there should be a natural progression to the Cup. I think that the way the Canucks lost also plays a role. They were never really even in that Game 7. Luongo was gone when they needed him the most. The way they played last night, it made you wonder how they even got that far. And it was that effort during Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
    In a way I feel lucky. My team also had a game 7, about a month and a half ago, and they played their guts out in it and got killed anyway, mostly due to them being woefully undermanned. Even though Vancouver made the finals, they won’t have that feeling this summer.