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My best (and worst) live sports experiences

Or, "I'm tired of editing this thing, it's better than some sportswriting out there, I can live with it, hit the button already"

Toronto Blue Jays play the New York Mets
Hopefully, this enthusiastic child did not have a Mean Dad. If so, there ain’t a damn thing I can or would ever do about it.
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Greetings, fellow lockout readers! I’ve been sitting on this article for a few years, and figured now’s as good a time as ever to finish/publish it for your polite perusal. As Brandon said, it’s TwinkieTown, where we get to do whatever the hell we want (always the guiding principle, more so with no boss now!) So here’s my contribution. Sorry about the length. That's actually why I'm publishing it, now -- because if I keep sitting on it, it will only get longer. (I cut A LOT from the soccer parts.)

These are the absolute entertainment values of a live sports-watching experience, ranked worst-to-first. And they are strictly my opinions, based on my experiences. Except that I’m right, and everyone else is wrong! Anyhoo:

Football (NFL)

I’ve seen one NFL game live. A Vikings game, naturally.

Vikings tickets are pretty expensive, so even though I was a fan of the team back then, I’d never been to one. But they had a special deal; bring a case of non-perishable food for donations to a food bank, get a free ticket. Alright, I thought, that’s way cheaper than a regular ticket, and for a good cause. I’m in.

I bought a case of chili, because who doesn’t like chili? Plus beans are good nutrition and meat has lots of calories. We depended on food banks sometimes when I was little, nutrition and calories are the best.

I show up to the thing, it’s crazy early, in the cold, and half the people in line had cases of Top Ramen. What the ****? Poor people can already afford Top Ramen. This put me in a bad mood.

Then — the game. These were upper-level end-zone seats, of course. If you’re sitting where those teams are scrounging for yards, it’s only 99% worse than watching it on TV. If they’re on the other side, it’s big people mashing each other for five seconds once a minute, followed by whistles and an eventual punt. Football on TV gives you the close-up view, making every ten yards seem like an absolute contest of skill. Football live looks like a stuck snowplow backing up and going forward again one inch at a time. For 3 1⁄2 hours. Surrounded by screaming drunks (because you’d have to be drunk to tolerate this level of boredom).

I’m glad for the chili donation, but whomever came up with the idea for 50,000-seat football stadiums with occasional Poor Folk food drives for tix deserves a case of Top Ramen in one of those awful flavors that didn’t take, like Pineapple Lime Shrimp or such. It’s horrible.

Basketball (NBA)

An advantage of basketball is that they run back & forth all the time, so it doesn’t matter which side of the arena you sit on. A disadvantage is that anything above the lower deck, you might as well be watching square dancing from a blimp. You get no sense of the creativity involved in individual footwork, as you would on TV. It was one thing, in Portland, watching games in the 12,888-seat Memorial Coliseum. A game in the cheap seats at a cavernous modern NBA arena, which they all are now, sucks.

Plus the last game I went to, at Target Center, had this really annoying dad behind me who was a surly jerk to his 9-ish year-old son. The kid had obviously never been to a game before, and kept asking very sensible kid questions. Like: “how come sometimes they shoot two free throws and sometimes they shoot one?” Quite logical question, and it’s an easy, fun one to answer.

Not this grumpy twerp. “Because that’s how it is,” was his standard response, or some variation thereof. I deeply wanted to move up two rows and start leaning forward to answer the kid’s questions. But you don’t mess with somebody’s parenting skills, they might punch you.

Maybe it wasn’t a dad. Maybe it was a bored uncle, or something. He gave off major “ex-husband on mandated divorce settlement father/son time” vibe, though, and I hated him. I did enjoy writing a silly recap on the train home, for a now-dead TrailBlazers website. Otherwise, the experience was gunk.

Soccer (American, men's)

At least, in the cheap seats at a soccer game, while you’re missing the footwork, that blimp’s eye view lets you watch plays develop. The huge field and player spacing means it’s harder to see this aspect up close.

What’s irritating about American soccer is that a certain contingent of the fans (not all, by any means) are rich yuppie twerps whose main interest in the sport is how sophisticated and “European” it is (they never seem to mention soccer from other continents), as opposed to those uncouth peasants who enjoy boring American sports like baseball and basketball (both of which have numerous non-American superstars). Excuse me?

Of particular annoyance is the “supporter’s section,” something common in geographically-small countries where fans often make road trips to watch their favorite team. They have a separate section because, in other countries, soccer fan fights can and do break out in the stands. If you flew from Seattle to Minnesota to sit in the “supporter’s section” and pretend like you’re a poor-yet-passionate Leeds United fan from 1975, you have entirely too much disposable income and I will vote for politicians who vow to tax All Of It.

Granted, there are also luxury suites at Target Field, and every other modern American sports facility -- that's a primary reason owners demand new facilities, swankier luxury suites. These have separate entrances and escalators, however. The rich do not want to sit near the likes of me. Well, right back at ya, babe.

Rugby (American, as referee)

OK, this takes some explaining. I was at a military school that’s not really a military school (it’s a long story), and in such schools if you get busted for some offense like a surly attitude or being caught with booze in your dorm room (surprise, I did both), you get X many hours of chores to do as punishment. These can be the truly horrible, like polishing statues in the winter with a toothbrush, so if you can swing it, you try to get assigned less onerous chores. I managed to get a gig refereeing some of the school’s less-popular sports, the ones they didn’t pay referees to officiate.

I didn’t know **** about rugby, and still don’t. I didn’t really need to, as the athletes basically played by an honor system, like pickup basketballers will. Still, I had a whistle, and players told me when to blow it, and when to hand the ball to one team or another or whatever. I was mostly a symbolic presence to make the game "official," although they might as well have draped a referee's vest on a fire hydrant, for all I was worth.

I was blown away by the polite intensity and sheer crazy gumption of the game. However, I was terrified by everything in it. It was like watching a documentary about rock climbers; fascinating, impressive, and "are you people nuts?"

Hockey / lacrosse at Xcel Center (tie)

I saw the Wild when somebody gave me free tickets. I saw the Swarm (a now-defunct lacrosse team) when the NHL was having a massive labor dispute, and Wild ownership was pimping lacrosse games to make up for lost revenue, and somebody gave me free tickets. Basically, the Xcel Center is a fine place to watch sports in (and the rules are vaguely similar, after all).

Hockey is by far the more athletically sophisticated sport — lacrosse players don’t skate backwards faster than I can skate forwards. And even in hockey cheap seats, you can watch complex plays develop as they happen, like in soccer.

The advantage of watching lacrosse is they showmanshipped (real word???) the hell out of game presentation. It was constant music and crazed PA commentary (if my ears were to be trusted, provided by the then-Saint Paul Saints PA guy). Total entertainment value with no attention to the strategy involved whatsoever. Also, no bone-crushing body-slams drawing appreciative “oohs” from the crowd. They knocked each other over, often; it didn’t seem as dangerous as hockey.

So, tie.

Women’s swim meet (as referee)

This gets even more personal. At that proto-military school, my punishment chores once involved refereeing a women’s swim meet. Kind of. All I did was blow the start whistle and write down who the winners were. There was a little electronic sensor gizmo that was set up to record who finished in what order for the various events. This gizmo was as technologically sophisticated as a garage-door opener.

The thing was, this blew my mind in a few ways. First off, I was an awkward 26-year-old virgin, and here were toned athletes in swimwear. Second, the school had a crazy male-to-female ratio (all such schools do, even the real military ones), and it was impossible not to notice the constant, humiliating sexism women had to endure. It was something else, and a large reason the gender ratio of students at such schools is so unbalanced.

I was one of the only men in the building, a shy nerd in the fifth row with a clipboard/whistle. None of the aggressive, suggestive macho presence these women usually had to endure. In their swimsuits, they were amazing, sensual physical presences, yet utterly relaxed about their varied body shapes; athletes, not objects of gawkery/mockery.

I think this one sticks in my head because, afterwards, I had a much easier time talking to girls.

Fodboldturneringen, (AKA soccer, Denmark)

When Mrs. James left home for college (not far — from Prior Lake to the U of M), her dad got serious empty-nest syndrome, and had a succession of Danish exchange students until the fourth one, who was a dullard. Mrs. James became friends with the others, and still is; they’ve visited here, we there (alas, not for several years now, since money). These are old friends. We're kinda responsible for the birth of one of their children.*

On one trip to Denmark, walking about (that’s all we ever really did there; walk around and talk with friends, no thrilling travelers we), I noticed that one of the couples lived near a soccer stadium. I expressed an interest in going. The couple had recently made some social-climbing friends, and poo-poohed the idea; in Denmark, it’s the dirty peasants who like soccer, the hipsters prefer American sports.

During our next visit, a few years later, circumstances had changed with our friends, and hell yes, one would go to a soccer game with me. He admitted he’d gone through a snob phase; it was over (to my great relief). Lower-level midfield ticket prices were comparable to upper-level American soccer tickets, and so was the talent level, so far as I could tell. Plus, in this case, the “supporter’s section” (or whatever it’s called in Danish; likely some unpronouncable consonant stream like “bfflurdnhvn”) were normal road-tripping fans, like Royals fans you’d see at Target Field, not overpaid tech-company twits. The local team came back from 0-2 to finish things 2-2, the crowd went wild after that anemic start. We got to see people run real fast and do really cool foot moves from a close vantage point. It was terrific.

The only thing is, we neglected sunscreen, and both of us got fried so hard, I was convinced for weeks my ears would shrivel up and fall off. Note to outdoor sports fans; never do this.

(* -- A different story for a different day.)

Basketball (WNBA)

This is colored, somewhat, by having seen the Lynx in their heyday, when they were one of the most talented teams in recent US sports history; they’re not as dominant, now.

They closed off the upper level of Target Center for these games, as ticket sales don’t match Timberwolves crowd sizes (although the team was far more successful on-court), and this makes all the difference in the world. Basketball, up close, watching a brilliant team dribble and dance step and pass, is a truly thrilling sport. The crowd was absolutely electric. They yelled louder at a fantastically-executed team play then they did at an easy basket, even if on the fantastic play the Lynx didn’t score. These were serious fans of the game; they appreciated the subtleties.

And talk about family-friendly! They sell beer and wine at Lynx games, but nobody is drunk. Why would they be? There’s a magnificent team to watch. Kids were all over the place in their Moore or Whalen jerseys, doing Pop-A-Shot games in the concourse, having a great time. Beats live NBA basketball all to hell.

Baseball (outdoors)

I’m not knocking those who love outdoor baseball — I’m just not one of them. Again, I'm from Portland. Where it's considered almost mandatory to be into Outdoor Things like hiking and skiing and such. You're not a Real Oregonian unless you adore such activities. This gave me an early propensity to prefer the quiet company of a good book. It was also one of several reasons I left Oregon. Minnesotans are inside for six months a year, as winters are brutal. I agree. My only complaint is that, you're inside six months too short. I'd probably be philosophically suited fine to the life of an Antarctic scientist, cooped up indoors all the time, except I'd panic whenever the light so much as flickered. "Oh, no! What if the power goes out and we all freeze!" Then the engineers would grumble, "it's fine, we got it, will you please stop bugging us," and I'd soon be kicked out of Antarctica.

Rankings within this post’s rankings of outdoor Minnesota baseball I’ve known:

CHS Field: shiny building. Bad PA system. Saints not as fun, anymore. Tickets too expensive. Blah.

Target Field: shiny building. Decent PA system with nothing worth hearing on it. Tickets too expensive. Fans more impressed by shiny building than Twins baseball for several years,* after which I stopped going. Best feature: watching parents walk kids from parking spaces to stadium past strip clubs.

(* -- Given how lousy the Twins were from 2011-2014, this was understandable.)

Midway Stadium: rathole. The concourse smelled like pee, and the kids’ “petting zoo” had animals so sickly-looking you were pretty nervous they might be Patient Zero for the next bubonic plague. However: cheap tickets, always available as a walk up option. Great, silly promotions, like “The Death Of Rasputin,” and that fantastic PA guy. If you really needed outdoor baseball, this was the best, most economical option, and they were less pissy about you sneaking away for a smoke or popping a beer outside the stadium.

One favorite Target Field thing: getting introduced to the idea of a Cubano sandwich. I never bought one (too expensive), but I learned how to make one at home. If you’d like to make one yourself, here’s an interesting description of that sandwich's history. I vary up how I do it, based on what ingredients I’m hungry for and/or have handy; cooking, like sports, should be fun. (And I also make Chicago Dogs -- thank you, Metrodome! Minus the weird neon-green relish, which I believe gets its color from being buried next to a leaky missile silo.)

Roller derby

This has all the total presentation awesomeness of lacrosse, all the non-objectified sexuality of a military-college swim meet, the speed of hockey, the raw mayhem of rugby, it’s got everything.

The rules of roller derby are hard to explain succinctly in writing (never one of my skills!) But, unlike that unfortunate kid who was confused by the rules at a Timberwolves game, after watching a few rounds, you’ll intuitively get it.

A brilliant thing that’s done at roller-derby nights is, the lesser teams in amateur competition skate first. This is fun for fans who simply enjoy the vibe, and it helps newbies grasp what the rules are (again, hard to describe, but they make quite a bit of visual sense).

Then, the top semi-professional teams go at it. You can immediately see how much better the players are. Since most fans don’t have a particular rooting interest in which team wins, they just want to see some badass style, half will cheer for the team with a focus on methodical strategy, half for the team with a focus on individual excellence, depending on personal preference. Nobody goes home disappointed, as there’s such great entertainment all around.

It’s a little less kid-appropriate than WNBA games (there’s a lot of skaters body-slamming the hell outta each other, that violence would be scary for smallest ones), but it’s just as welcoming for older kids and all adults. The night I went, Saint Paul firefighters were there selling fundraising beefcake-pic calendars to women who loved the sport for how it showcased tough girls, yet still enjoyed sexy photos of toned men. Not a few men were in lines for those calendars, either, and at a roller-derby match, nobody cares about such bedroom-preference trivia. Obviously, the whole sport has an element of Formerly Closeted Gay Women’s Cathartic Power Hour, although you don’t need to be gay to enjoy it like crazy.

The thing is very, very white, but that’s often the case with things in Minnesota, and they’re working on that.

Side note: I became curious about attending when a bar I hung out at near the Roy Wilkins auditorium had several ladies with luggage, laughing. I asked why they were having such a good time, although with suitcases (the luggage confused me). They explained they were roller-derby skaters from opposite teams, having a good time over beers, before they each got on the bus to their next road-trip destination. I became determined to see a roller-derby night, I did, and I was not disappointed. If I ever attend a live sporting event again, it’ll be be roller-derby over anything else on this list.

Baseball: the Metrodome

Sunburns in Metrodome: not a problem.

Sitting through bad games in bad seasons with semi-freezing drizzle testing your endurance powers of "I paid for this, might as well watch some late-inning reliever whose name I won't remember in three months show his stuff?" Didn't happen.

I'll tell y'all a fun Dome story (off the top of my head, I can think of more if you press me). Some game I was at, the Twins were getting whomped, it was boredom city. A kid was having a birthday party there, and rather bummed out by the Twins losing. Suddenly, a card magician showed up! The parents had hired a card magician! All kids love card magicians, as do all sensible adults, and not only was the kid cheered up, so were all of us nearby who preferred watching his act to the Twins losing.

By the time that card magician finished his routine... lo and behold, the Twins were right back in the game! Did they win? I don't remember, and who cares? I just remember it was fun as hell.

Which is the entire point of this post. Sports. Should. Be. Fun. Your self-worth is not contingent on whether strangers in nifty pajamas do better than other strangers in different-colored pajamas. These are the times I had more fun, or less fun. If your favorite live sport is Vikings games, go with God. But, please -- bring something better than Top Ramen to a food drive.

Well, that’s my article! Sorry I haven’t done more, but I got my own worries to worry over. Congrats to the people who made it all the way through! You are readers of fine taste and distinction, and I'd probably enjoy meeting you at a baseball game. Although that'd mean being outdoors. Is there a way to chat with fun people during baseball games without being outdoors? I'll look into it.