And now we come to one of the two main seasonal junctures in my life as a sports fan: the intersection between the end of baseball season and the midpoint of football season (the other being that terrible desert between the Super Bowl and the beginning of Spring Training). Since I've been following sports in any serious or devoted manner, the transition from baseball to football and back again has never been a smooth one.
It's not because I prefer one to the other; in fact, being divided evenly, cleanly, right down the middle in my loyalties to both sports (and both my teams, the Patriots and the Red Sox) probably makes it tougher. For me, they're apples and oranges, oil and water, two equal but completely separate concepts.
Last year, after the trauma of Game 7, there wasn't much of my heart left to give my football team, at least, not at first. In fact, it wasn't until the goal-line stand in Indianapolis last year that the Patriots completely erased the Red Sox from all but my subconscious mind.
But when they did perform the erasure, they did it completely. Last year, the Red Sox' Cowboy Up DVD was released just in time for the Christmas season, and of course, I bought it and watched it dutifully. But what I remember feeling, in the midst of the stoicism and bloodless perfectionism of the Patriots' season, was a sense of alienation from the entire concept of baseball, and the Red Sox. Watching Nomar run from third to home, stripping off his batting helmet and burying himself in a mob of his teammates left me nonplussed. What's the big deal? was my general reaction. It was as if I'd passed into some other phase of being. The raw emotion on the baseball diamond struck me, suddenly, as silly.
By the time the Patriots' victory parade had stopped rolling, I could only think of returning to the Red Sox with a groan and rolled eyes. Another season, I thought miserably. Another long, grinding season with way too many games and no parity, no salary cap, no even playing field, another long, grinding season on a Quixotic quest without the limitless opportunities and possibilities of football...
So now, here we are, suddenly creeping up on Thanksgiving and the Red Sox victory parade is, well, at least winding down to a dull roar, and now I'm on the other side of the cycle of the sports seasons. And I can tell you that approaching football as a baseball fan, especially when your team just won the World Series--to say nothing of just having won their first World Series since World War I--is no way to live.
For one thing, I miss the Red Sox terribly. I miss them like they're a place I'm homesick for. I miss their stupid hair and their sloppy uniforms and their little dugout dances. But I also miss their focus at the plate, the sweet dramas they wove this season of happenstance and luck and a little bit of magic. I miss how naked and accessible their faces were, how you could watch Billy chew his gum slowly, meditatively, at the plate, or giggle at Trot Nixon's raised-eyebrow pugnacity, or indulge in a huge, languid "FUUUUCK!!" from Curt Schilling. I miss the geometry of baseball. I miss the routine.
In contrast, the Patriots seem straight-laced, buttoned down, swaddled in pads and helmets and other distracting acoutrements, like toy soldiers played like a foosball table from the sidelines. And you have to wade through an entire empty week to see just one game, my God.
Suffice to say, I need to get acclimated to football again. I need to get used to the idea that a Milwaukee-Brewers-esque squad, the Buffalo Bills, could take down the team from New York in an "even a stopped clock" type of performance. Or that the Cardinals, football's answer to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, could rob the Dolphins with a last-minute drive.
And after the Patriots' lackluster showing against the Steelers the week before, I was skeptical at best when it came to watching yesterday's matchup with the Rams. For one thing, Cory Dillon remained questionable. Most of our defensive secondary was missing. And mentally, they were fresh from a demoralizing loss.
But then Cory Dillon was announced as active. The Steelers brought the high-flying Eagles back down to Earth, and suddenly the Patriots' loss by only 14 points with so many injuries (something the Eagles couldn't claim, and they lost 27-3) didn't look so bad. Plus, Boston owns the city of St. Louis, at least when it comes to sports.
But still...eh. Going in, the Patriots game was something to do while I waited for my laundry at my parents' house. I just couldn't get into it.
The Patriots opened the game by mounting two lengthy drives, only to have them end in field goals. I tell you, there is nothing worse about football than the entire concept of a team marching downfield and managing three renewed failures to score before giving up and sending the kicking unit on. Nothing more boring, more disappointing, more hollow than a field goal to cap several minutes' worth of bone-crushing effort.
Meanwhile, Asante Samuel, among the last of our remaining cornerback-capable players, went down with a shoulder injury. Then, the unthinkable: wide receiver Troy Brown trotted out onto the field to fill in as a defensive back.
Are you kidding me?
The Rams are hardly the Rams of three years ago. But still. When we're playing a team that relies on the deep pass, and we put a wide receiver in at corner, we're not only asking for trouble, we're asking for an embarrassing, relentless, disastrous ass kicking.
Instead, the Bizarro World continued, as Mike Vrabel, sent in at tight end to reprise a trick play from Super Bowl XXXVIII, this time made an eye-popping, fingertip catch at the far corner of the end zone, even managing to drag his feet, wide-receiver style, on the painted grass to make sure the touchdown counted.
Okay. Now I was starting to get interested.
But wait: now here we were in the third quarter, and once again, a Patriots' drive was ending with a field goal. The ever-reliable Adam Vinatieri was trotting out, buckling his chin strap; you couldn't fault him for doing his job, but his presence annoyed me nonetheless. Adam, hero of the Super Bowls though he is, many times embodies the consolation prize.
Dammit. I wish...I wish...
What happened next was a jumble, as even the cameraman didn't grasp what was happening until it was too late. Punter Josh Miller crouched at Vinatieri's feet, and the ball was snapped...
To Vinatieri, who patted the ball once, seeming to want to savor the feel of it in his hands for once, and then lofted it over to where Troy Brown was standing, nonchalant, at the goal line. While the collective jaw of the world dropped, Brown stepped into the end zone and the referees put their hands up.
That was the moment. That was when you knew this game was to be another Patriots masterpiece, another death-defying coaching opus aboard the flying injury trapeze.
Even Ron "Wrong" Borges is impressed:
The Patriots had a linebacker catch a pass for a touchdown, a kicker throw a pass for a touchdown, and a wide receiver, practice squad player, linebacker, and rookie free agent all play defensive back at various times without serious consequences. It all symbolized what has made the Patriots the most resilient team in the league.
And Dan Shaughnessy appears to have made his transition between the Sox and the Pats fairly easily, and with giddy incredulity:
Look for the drop-kick next week. And while they're at it, don't forget the Statue of Liberty play, the fumblerooskie, and the time-tested "everybody go long" that's worked so well in schoolyard playgrounds during recess through the years.
As for me, I'm finally in. Hooked. Caught up. Captivated. I can't wait to see what Belichik pulls out of the hat next week. I'm enamored of the Patriots' creativity, their virtuosic mastery of the ultimate team medium, their redefinition of the sport in which they play...
Welcome to football season. Better late than never.