Rivalry, vexation, and the limits of hatred
I HATE THE NEW YORK YANKEES. Always have. I have hated Aaron Boone, and Alex Rodriguez, and 27 World Championships (though I have only been alive for seven of them), and all the pomp, entitlement and hot air that surrounds those pinstriped megalomaniacs[i]. This is certainly related to them sharing the AL East with my Blue Jays, and probably has to do with with envy too, but it is further complicated by the fact that extreme success makes me uncomfortable; I have trouble squaring it with my Presbyterian upbringing. “We hate it when our friends become successful,” sang Morrissey, and for proof we need look no further than the Sox, who were loveable when they were perennial losers, but became insufferable once they’d beaten the Curse.
But for all my hatred, however complex its origins, the sight of Mariano Rivera writhing about on the warning track in Kansas City, his ACL shredded, his career almost certainly over, did not fill me with glee. Such are the limits of hatred, at least within the safe confines of the sporting world. No, I see Mo squirming and rolling and gagging in the dirt on a spring afternoon in Kansas City, and the impulse is not to cheer. When an opponent suddenly becomes human, subject to pain and pathos and the fickle whims of fate, it is as though a veil drops and we are reminded that these games are just that. Though we invest in them to unreasonable degrees, our allegiances don’t supercede our humanity. Or not usually, anyway.
WHEN WE WERE YOUNGER and had fewer cares, my wife and I would go to hockey games. We lived in an apartment just a few blocks from the Civic Centre in Ottawa, where the Ontario Hockey League’s 67’s played. We’d go on Friday nights to get our fill of fights, lusty booing and thrown objects (sticks, water bottles, helmets, gloves, hats, teddy bears), then retire to the pub down the street. It was a good way to end the week.
The scene was an entertaining one. The team was competitive and the games were fast and thrilling, in that way all hockey has of seeming to teeter on a brink of chaos, especially Major Junior hockey, where hormones are a significant factor. But what I remember most is the carnival of souls in the stands. We usually bought tickets in the home end, the better to see the regulars. The season ticket holders who sat there brought cowbells and always entered the 50/50 draw. One man, dressed in the 67’s iconic barber pole jersey and a too-small white helmet, would run the entire circumference of the concourse when the team scored, a flag draped across his back and his little plastic clapper clack-clack-clacking along.
On the ice were the teenage brutes, drafted at 15, removed from their families and billeted in local homes. They were growing into monsters, distended, bulging. They stank — this you knew if your seats were near the bench — and their faces were discoloured and contorted into the rictus of effort and rage and pain. They cut their hair as a team, and often dyed it as one too. Green mohawks, or bleached mullets, or striped red-black-white buzzcuts, mimicking the jerseys.
Nearby there was a regular cadre of teenage girls in oversized jerseys, screaming and preening, seemingly desirous of being dragged off by one of these brutes. There are all sorts of unkind names for girls like this, in arenas large and small across this country, but I’ll spare you those names here. You probably know them anyway.
And the hatred. The boos raining onto the ice filled the air like a fog. It was the clearest connection to gladiatorial spectacle that a modern sporting event has for me ever evoked. Bread and circuses begat nachos, popcorn, beer and the OHL playoffs. Progress!
We jeered Jonathan Cheechoo of the Belleville Bulls because his skill was undeniable and he always seemed to beat us in the playoffs. There may have been other reasons too. I hate to imagine it. We called out anyone who wronged us on the ice. We despised their goal scorers and we detested the defensemen who denied ours. The rafters rang and shook with our loathing. We would bring the whole building down, and the football stadium atop it. So much hatred!
But the player I hated the most was one of our own. Could I have been alone in this? Does this suggest I was an observer instead of a true fan? Lance Galbraith was a pest, and having him on the team was akin to what it must have been like to cheer for any team with Sean Avery on its roster. Galbraith was Avery-like. I don’t know if they’d have hit it off over beers, or tried to kill one another. Possibly both.
Galbraith led the team in penalty minutes. He led the team in gloves in opponents’ faces. He was smallish by hockey standards (5’10”, 190 lbs) and elfin in appearance, but apparently strong. He was fast enough to rocket the length of the ice to lay a hit or pull someone down. His gloves were the first ones shed. The PA system would thud away with “Beautiful People” by Marilyn Manson and a terrible grin would creep across Galbraith’s jutting face. You could see it from the back row, the grin and the murder in his eyes. Fists swirling, bleached hair poking out from beneath his helmet like white flames, he was all in. The ref and linesmen would close in and form a circle around the combatants, and Galbraith would pounce. The fans in the Civic Centre would become anything but civil. They would call for blood. I don’t need to tell you what they shouted. You’ve heard it before. He would clutch and flail and jump and bite and claw, and eventually Galbraith and the other guy would be ushered toward the tunnel at the end of the ice, Galbraith raising his arms in victory for his adoring public before disappearing into the darkness there.
In the long years since, he has bounced around the AHL and the East Coast Hockey League, performing the same role for a number of teams, but never displaying the skill set required to make the big jump. A career journeyman, a blue collar labourer whose sustenance likely comes in the form of those shouts, the crowd rising to their feet, first in the corner where he was trapped an opponent, and then spreading across the entire arena. The PA system fires to life and the hockey game stops and he does his job and is then herded into the dark labyrinth beneath the stands, his night over.
But he was ours then, and still I hated him. Did I ever cheer for him? I don’t remember. If I did, it was a clear example of mob mentality, and would have run counter to all my better impulses. But I was always happy to see him escorted from the ice with his jersey pulled over his pads and his shit-eating grin fading from view.
WHAT IS THAT FEELING, that joyous heat that rises within my gullet and at the base of my skull when the object of my hatred, be it a team or a single player, takes the ice, or stands in the batter’s box, or tosses chalk into the air in the moments before tip-off? Do we have an adequate word for it?
Hating Lance Galbraith was not the same as hating LeBron James, or all of the Miami Heat. Galbraith was not the best player on the ice. He was not spoiled and deluded and possessed of the greatest natural ability in a generation but lacking a killer instinct. I suppose he was admirable in his loathsomeness in that he did exactly as he should have done with the abilities granted him. He knew he wasn’t the greatest player on the ice. He knew what he could contribute, and he did it night after night.
The Miami Heat are a very good basketball team, at times historically good. Watching your favourite team play them is like sharing a room with a tiger. It feels dangerous. It feels as though the tiger could pace back and forth for an hour before snapping and devouring your windpipe in the blink of an eye.
And then there is LeBron James. He’s the current MVP because most of the time he appears to be the best player on the court. Sometimes it looks like he’s toying with lesser beings. His is a talent we should celebrate more than we do, except that he left Cleveland and announced it on a ridiculous hour-long ESPN special, and he assumed he would roll to title after title in Miami, and he takes dives and he doesn’t take the big shots[ii], and perhaps worst of all he wants everyone to like him. All of this makes him quite hateable. But should LeBron James ever suffer genuine physical harm, would my resolute heart soften and falter at the sight of him on the floor, a ligament popped or a bone snapped, the way it did for Mo Rivera on the warning track in Kansas City?
I’m reasonably certain it would, because sports hatred, in all but the most extreme cases, is a proxy hatred. A simulated hatred, or a stand-in. It is true that there are times when the reality and the fantasy become blurred and confused — soccer riots, Vancouver after the Cup is lost, when a Giants fan wears his jersey to Dodger stadium — and those are regrettable moments. For the most part though, we keep those lines straight and our hatred in check. We use sport as a screen onto which we project our frustrations and passions so that against these things we may rail and rant and fume. Sport explicates our anger, clarifies it, gives us a place to house it. This is the agreement we have with our teams and players: that they will stand emblematic of our best and worst desires both.
But when a player’s body suffers trauma and that player falls he lands outside of this contract, becomes once more human and not a symbol, and he is either forgiven or forgotten, our hatred transferred elsewhere. When Rivera’s knee popped and he cried he stopped being a Yankee and became instead a man in pain. A second basic impulse takes over in such cases: empathy. We admit that player back into the human tribe, wish him a speedy recovery, and redirect our hatred toward his replacement.
If Mariano Rivera never again dons the pinstripes, never again takes the mound in the 9th inning, I will enthusiastically celebrate his career and his accomplishments. If however he is successful in rehabbing his 42 year-old knee (the odds against this are not insignificant) and rejoins his team in a year’s time, he will once again become a New York Yankee. And I hate the New York Yankees.
[i] Here I must concede that some players almost – almost – threaten to transcend their association with the Bronx Bombers to become guys I root for. Members of the Yankees whom I have had some trouble hating include Rivera, Jeter and Curtis Granderson. Rivera is a first-ballot Hall of Famer who never did any talking, he just threw cutters. Cutter after unhittable cutter, racking up save after save. Jeter is all class, and pretty exciting to watch. I just wish he wasn’t automatically handed so many Gold Gloves simply because he does that jump-turn-throw thing. Granderson is another peach of a guy and a beautiful ballplayer who I was disappointed to see get traded to the Yanks after five or six good years with the Tigers. Yes, in a different world I could cheer for Curtis Granderson.
[ii] In game 2 of this year’s Eastern Conference Semifinal against Indiana, down by 3 with time expiring, with both James and Dwayne Wade on the floor, it was Mario Chalmers who took the desperation shot for Miami. Mario Chalmers!