Friday, September 03, 2010

This is a Great Sports Town, the Spencer Hall Edition

If I had a nickel for every debate I've gotten into with a Yankee about Atlanta's merits as a sports town, I'd be Midas. Inevitably, the debate progresses along the same lines: "you don't sell out your Braves playoff games." "Georgia football versus Boston College, what what?" "But, but, baseball!" I've made the same arguments over and over again, but I never quite phrased them this well:

Telling someone the exact charms of Atlanta is difficult, particularly if you're talking to a transplanted Northeasterner repeating what everyone outside of Atlanta says: "This is a terrible sports town." They would be right in a certain sense. If I went to New Orleans I could say "This is a terrible restaurant town," since all the typical easy signs of modern food civilization are gone from the landscape of the Quarter. There is no Applebee's sign, no easy Olive Garden beckoning the eater in, only a series of stand-alone cafes, diners, and restaurants where you will not eat quickly, and where you may be denied entry for not wearing the right thing.

This assumes correctly that the outsider has a fundamental lack of understanding of the situation, and bad taste. This is true, since sports fandom in Atlanta is almost wholly dependent on college football, the one thing suturing together the disparate group of people who come here for work, love, or because several months into a lengthy layover at Hartsfield, they decided to just stay and make the best of things ...
Go to Taco Mac in Decatur on a fall Saturday, and you will step into a football United Nations. There is a guy who brings his own Brutus Buckeye doll, plops it on the table, and then attempts to singlehandedly drain the place of its Bud Light. A contingent of Michigan fans usually occupies a table along the wall, including a doctor who treated me for a health scare a few years ago and, in the middle of an EKG, asked me about Michigan's prospects for the year with all seriousness. I have a running, years-long tauntfest going with a Florida State crew who sits by the streetside windows. On the whole, they've behaved a lot better than I have. Then again, my team's been doing all the winning, so it should be that way. Occasionally, on special nights, you will see actual Pac-10 fans there. They're real. I touched one just to see.

It's funny that Spencer mentioned the Taco Mac in Decatur, because I cite that same restaurant as an example of what's great about Atlanta as a sports town. (In fact, Mr. Hall, I think that the UN line is mine. This will represent the first and only time in which you will take one of my bon mots, as opposed to the reverse.) Watching a game there is a little like spending time on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange: there is shouting coming from ten different directions and you always have to figure out which fan base is shouting to know what's going on. Someone has lost his fortune; someone else can retire.

The downside to watching games at the UN/NYSE is that the potential for humiliation is maximal. When a bunch of Bostonians get together in a bar to watch the Sox in October ("not anymore" says Dr. Lecter with a smile), they are all happy or sad together. Everyone is pulling in the same direction. When one goes to a bar in Atlanta to watch the ol' alma mater play, there is the potential to be miserable around others who do not share that misery. When one's alma mater comes into the season ranked #3 and loses at home to a I-AA team, there is the potential to be unexpectedly and completely miserable and humiliated while everyone else is joyous as a result of the event that just made one miserable. There's no shared misery or sympathy, only the rest of the crowd pointing and laughing like Nelson Muntz while one's cell phone is blowing up with texts from "friends." One might choose to respond by hurriedly putting all of the money in one's wallet on the table to cover the bill because one has to get out of there as fast as possible (leaving what must have been a 300% tip) and then walking two miles home, jersey in one hand (after all, one cannot be identified by cars passing by as that would only increase the humiliation) and cell phone in the other, shouting at one's college friends "Lloyd is a military history buff, he should know that the general resigns as a matter of principle after a defeat of this magnitude! Right now, he's not even McClellan; he's Gamelin!"

(Funny thing about that season: I started the season watching Michigan-Appalachian State with Spencer at Taco Mac, wondering why I ever became a sports fan. I ended it by getting misty-eyed as the Wolverines carried Lloyd off on their shoulders in Orlando and calling Mssr. Hall to say "you know, you were right about Wondy Pierre-Louis." That reversal of fortune is what keeps me warm when I think about Michigan being 3-13 over the past two years in the Big Ten and entering this season with a secondary that has Brian Cook asking "what's the point of anything?" and most Michigan fans hoping for seven wins.)

If you are a college football fan, this is the greatest place in the world. It refutes the notion that college football is a regional sport. Sure, it's fun to spend a fall in Tuscaloosa or Lincoln or Blacksburg to experience the euphoria of a season seized by the local team, but is that really so much better than a summer in New York City when the Yankees and Mets are good or a fall in Green Bay when the Packers are in contention? No, what makes this market unique and great is that it's a melting pot. Everyone is from somewhere else. The downside of that is that the Braves have empty seats in October. The upside is Taco Mac tomorrow at noon. It's just hard to see that upside when Shawn Crable blocks the outside rusher and lets the inside rusher go free.

One final anecdote that I couldn't work into this post, so I'll just stick it here as a useless appendix: the Platonic ideal for an Atlanta sports moment comes from when I was 12. My Dad took me to a Hawks game at the Omni. We sat about midway in the upper deck to see the Hawks play the Jazz. This was when the Hawks were the one good team in Atlanta, so the crowd was fairly lively. The Hawks overcame an outburst from Darrell Griffith (I still remember my Dad telling me after Griffith got blocked on a fast break "they never would have caught him when he was at Louisville"), got a dramatic three from John Battle in the left corner at the buzzer, and won in overtime. At one random point in the third quarter, a guy stood up about eight rows in front of us, apropos of absolutely nothing, and shouted in every direction at once "War Eagle, all you Georgia fans! War Eagle!" That's Atlanta, the place where no one cares about sports.

1 comment:

Jason Kirk said...

Last night at the Chick Fil A game, a guy in front of us stood up and did the War Eagle thing out of nowhere. Might have been the same guy.