A Town Chained To Itself

27 10 2008

The fine and educated people employed at the Philadelphia Art Museum tolerate the runners, the daily thousands who, for some reason or another, are in Philadelphia and because they’re in Philadelphia, succumb to the compulsion to sprint up the Museum’s steps and turn around, staring down into the core of Philly, jump in the air, hands shot skyward, and yell ‘Adrian.’

It’s either a pity or a triumph – much like the city itself – that the most famous sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is outside of it. At the base of those famous steps, hidden often in shadow, it stands eight feet, six inches tall, and is more than two millenia younger than its bronze brethren inside. It’s the statue of Rocky, Stallone’s character, the character that’s come to represent, for good and for bad, the Philadelphia identity, the Philadelphia spirit.

And in a time when the nation’s turning its eyes to Philly for reasons other than its position as the ugliest city in America, we see just how pitch-perfect and, thus tragic, Stallone’s distillation of the Philadelphia soul was, and we wonder, if the Phillies do manage to break the curse tonight, will Rocky still ring as true? Without a curse to symbolize the role of underdogs, must Philadelphians start to re-define themselves?

Rocky meant, and means, so much to Philadelphia because of its essential compression of the pain of being Philadelphian. Inside the Stallion’s steel jaw and widowmaking blows were packed the accumulated suffering and disenfranchisement and down-and-out futility of living in a city that’s done nothing but crumbled over the past half-century, a city of perpetual underdogs. Philadelphia’s poet would never be a writer; it would have to be a fighter, the tragic figure of American sports, a colossal rat in a maze whose successes are momentarily cheered and then forgotten as he gives his brain, his humanity, his life to the crowd.

Rocky gave Philadelphians a way out of this decay, a ticket from South Philly to center stage at Caesar’s. It was the Springsteen story, the one where getting out is all that matters and as long as you can keep pushing back the sunrise, you’ll be ok. More, it was the Alger rags-to-riches, up-by-your-bootstraps, American Dream story, which has become the most dangerous allegory in our time, as it postulates a virtual impossibility yet implies falling short of The Dream is unforgivable, a mark of weakness and inferiority.

Most dangerously, Rocky told its audiences that all you had to do was work hard, work harder, and one day you’ll be there – an idea that, painfully, no longer has resonance. Nowadays, having guts just isn’t enough.

But what Rocky captured above all and, in turn, perpetuated, is the all-consuming acceptance in Philadelphia of the underdog mentality, the stoic acceptance of a difficult, disappointing fate that manifests in crude hatred. Of other regions. Of other people. Of themselves. Those axes-to-grind sublimate into booing and cursing and fighting fans – sports, of course, offer an easy black-and-white crystallization of a greater phenomenon: Boston vs. Philly, per se, is a gimme, with Ivory Tower vs. Row Home – the same fans who dump nacho cheese and beer on kids without hesitation.

But a city of underdogs also manifests itself in a lack of civic progress, a crime rate that hastens every year and a sad, sad sense among people in the city that they are not, and won’t ever, be destined for greatness.

“Nothing ever gets done here – nothing ever gets better,” said our cab driver, bringing us to West Philly after going out in Center City after Game 4 of the World Series. “It’s that god-damned underdog mentality.”

Playing the role of underdog is at once empowering and devastating. At first, it unites against a common enemy, the single greatest agent of cohesion in a group. It’s easy to hate yourself less if you can project that anger somewhere else, say, Mets fans or Apollo Creed. Underdog status

But at the core of an underdog is the quiet, unspoken acceptance that you’re not quite worthy of where you are – which, of course, makes doing things like playing in the World Series seem like you’re stealing a car. As an underdog, you understand that you don’t belong at the cool kids’ table. So you act out.

There’s a scene in Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground in which unnamed the main character attends a party in honor of an old classmate, a soul generally beloved by all but, of course, despised by The Underground Man. At the table, the other guests, who had begrudgingly invited him, attempt to lavish praise on the guest of honor, Zverkov. The Underground Man, his hatred rising up in him like hot tar, lashes out at everyone, holding them all accountable for society’s failures and positioning them as symbols, acting brutally on the occasion of celebration.

Dostoyevsky uses this character for a multitude of reasons, of course, but the two reasons most applicable here are to reveal the unspoken madness inherent in a society (polite conversation being one of them) and to illustrate – and possibly warn against – the danger of inertia, ennui¸ on the part of those kept underground.

This last point is the one our cabbie referred to. Her example was how she couldn’t make a living because, in Philly cabs, it takes 5-6 days to receive the money owed a cabbie from a credit card transaction in the cab, and how, despite her efforts to galvanize support, she found nothing but resignation and a brick wall. She was livid at how few people would wrap their heads around this cause – New York cabs, for example, don’t have this truly absurd problem – and just how impenetrable the fortress of bureaucracy, within which the Powers That Be squash ideas daily, is.

It’s so sad to see these people, these good, hard-working people that are referred to by politicians as The Backbone of America or The Salt of the Earth or America’s Soul or any other trite, condescending term, feel trapped. You see them ending up, like Springsteen said, like a dog that’s been beat too much. And after a while, they just give up. New Yorkers, Bostonians, Chicagans demand progress. Philadelphians demand paychecks, because they don’t have much of a choice. No one fights for them – they’ve stopped fighting for themselves – so they just push on, basking in the reflected light of the underdog.

That’s the saddest part: underdogs are complicit in chaining themselves to mediocrity and dereliction. Considering one’s self as an underdog means feeling uncomfortable when one is not an underdog. Imagine a runner taking a 10-meter lead in the 400-meter dash. Now see him lose sight of the finish line and start looking over his shoulder, veering around the track. See him slowly lag, as everyone overtakes him – and see him cross the finish line with a smile.

It’s a great feeling, yes, in sports, to knock off a juggernaut – ask the Giants from last year. But when that feeling, so powerful in context, seeps into culture, it rips apart a town.

It spawns problems like abandoned youth sports programs, underfunded and nearly useless after-school programs, never-filled pot holes, gun collection programs that rise and fall in the time it takes to empty a clip, politicians who are more concerned with just keeping their jobs than the well-being of those they represent and the certainty among those they represent that these goddamned politicians aren’t gonna do anything anyway so I better scrape together anything I can to get by because we’ll be up a creek soon no doubt, and low voter turnout, ensuring those eunuch politicians get a free ride into office for the next term, until you see a town that’s famous for its murals and its crime and nothing else, because what else is there?

When there’s no vision, there’s no progress. That’s the curse of the underdog. You never see beyond the next game, the next obstacle. You, from the first day of your life, have been sold short, and you will, for the rest of your life, continue to do so, reveling in infrequent, modest success.

Rocky told its audience they’d be liberated by perseverance, and in the years after the War, that was true. It’s a pretty idea, the supremacy of hard work, and one that levels the playing field – you don’t need to be big or brilliant to work hard. And people believed it, just like they have since their parents told them that that was the only way to get anywhere, believing always in the criminal fable of the Big Break, as powerful as religion.

But as the century wore on, hard work lost its capacity for elevation. Those jobs on the assembly lines, the ones that created a thick, hearty middle class, have gone abroad. Those that haven’t sure as hell aren’t in Philadelphia, just as they’re not in Newark or Peabody, Mass. Hard work requires getting a big break. But no promoter for no heavyweight champion boxer is going to be paging through the Philly phone book any time soon. And without that break – or an education, or a vision for something greater – all that hard work does is dig a deeper hole.

And even though Philadelphians did realize that no promoter would be dialing ‘215,’ Rocky became more than a fictional story. It became an allegory.

He symbolized everything Philadelphia wanted to be, and he stood, unfalling in the face of everything afflicting the city. Each blow delivered to Philly during America’s transition from a country of industry to a country of lawyers and waiters found its articulation in the fists of Apollo Creed.

Boom. Take away our jobs. Left jab. Boom, right body shot as the kids start dropping out of school at record numbers because the schools can’t afford to teach them or hold them and then take refuge in drugs. Bam, left hook – a haymaker this time – as the welfare state fails and they re-zone neighborhoods and kick people out onto the streets.

Rocky could withstand those punches, and his fighting style was no arbitrary point. He would stand, teetering like a tree in a storm, absorbing everything until he finally fought back and won. Philadelphia was to be the same – it was to swallow those reverberating blows and then, finally, fight back and deliver the winning shot.

But now, we see a town content with absorbing those blows. We see a town of sparring partners, of good, strong and capable people who could have been contenders.

And we see a town, just like every town that’s had its heart ripped out, full of people who believe in the same myth that’s kept other good, strong and capable Americans down: that if you just put in an extra hour on the line, if you just get by, your break will come.

And tonight, in Game 5 of the World Series, if the Phillies do indeed win, this town needs to re-define itself. Nothing so pulls Philadelphians together as their baseball team, not even their football team. And if their baseball team can patch together something beautiful, something better than anyone else did this year – something that hasn’t happened in Philadelphia since 1983, a combined 100 seasons between the four major sports – maybe they can get the courage to do the same.





The Fall Classic

20 10 2008

What one of my favorite baseball bloggers, a Mr. Tim Malcolm of philliesnation.com, remembers most from the 1993 World Series isn’t the crowd fizzing in Veterans Stadium, or the way the runs were scored or the atmospheric rip of a bat connecting with a ball on a late October night.

What he remembers most, as he writes in the blog, is the bunting (not the offensive strategy) – the flags draped from the rafters all around the stadium, dressing the game with the aura of regality.

We lost that year – we lose every year – but the sense still lingered in Malcolm and the scores of the kids who gave their lives to baseball that year (myself included) that they’d been part of something bigger, a chapter in the ever-changing novel of American existence.

I can’t ever imagine feeling the way with the Super Bowl, the grand and almost invariably disappointing culmination of the American machismo, compared to the World Series’ culmination of the American soul. If the Series has an air of royalty, the Super Bowl has an air of carnival, with everything ballooned up to epic, almost cartoonlike proportions, providing you with the sense that you’re part of something prefabricated. For all of the innocence that baseball has given up, it still remains the main attraction at its own event; it stands for itself. For all the ground it’s lost to football in terms of popularity, baseball can still boast the certainty that it’s a bigger deal to win the World Series than it is to win the Super Bowl.

First, there’s the link to history. World Series champs are tied to all who came before. And in terms of history, there’s no comparison here. Winning the World Series puts a team in the company of the 1927 Yankees or the 1906 Cubs, whereas winning the Super Bowl puts a team in the company of, at best, Lombardi’s Packers or the 1972 Dolphins. But you know who Lou Gehrig is, you know who Babe Ruth is and you might even know who Tony Lazzeri is. Who, exactly, (without checking Wikipedia) did Bart Starr throw his passes to?

Baseball is woven into the American existence in a way that football may never be. The best football players are celebrities. The best baseball players, even now, are heroes.

Second, there’s the basic requirement of consistency. To win the World Series, you have to win often. To win the Super Bowl, you have to win once. And while, yes, those stakes mean that the Super Bowl has greater ramifications than any individual WS game, save Game 7, they also ensure that more often than not, we’re left with a wretch of a game purported to be the sport’s pinnacle. With the Series, you have to string together performance after performance; no series comes down to a fluke, not even Buckner in ’86.  A city seethes one night and rejoices the next, undulations of emotion that are, at the most generous, compressed for the Bowl.

Psychologically, the Series represents, above all, the end of summer. With it go our long, warm nights and our barbecues, our summer flings and our conversations that run on until morning, our softness of being and our tanned skin. Baseball keeps us young – when it ends, we roll back into adulthood. When the Super Bowl ends, we wait for baseball.

The Super Bowl represents, above all, unabashed commercialism.

The event has been so stuffed with hyperbole that it’s actually reduced the game itself. The sideshows – the commercials, the halftime show (and the nipples involved), Media Day, gambling, the Puppy Bowl – have overshadowed the main act, like bringing in the Stones to open up for MGMT. Save last year and a few other anomalies, the games themselves have done little to warrant anything more than their relegation to secondary status. They play merely the role of host.

It’s along the lines of an entourage, where a cluster of clingers-on get their one chance to shine because of the prominence of one central figure. The same thing goes on whenever a Wal-Mart drops on a town, as a Cold Stone, a Quizno’s and a dry cleaner’s aren’t far behind. Thousands of events crop up in the week before; supermarkets start stocking more queso dip and advertising products for the Perfect Super Bowl Party, and so on.

With the World Series, the games happen so often – most importantly, plurally – that they remain the story. A series produces myriad subplots, like acts in a play. Here, we see Curt Schilling’s bloody sock and a comeback from down 3-0 in a series, or Josh Beckett and the rest of his overmatched pitching staff in Marlins teal out-dueling a Yankees lineup that pelted balls off the Yankee Stadium façade all year. A one-game event doesn’t have that luxury. So, the media and other profiteers are forced to create them. See: Namath, Joe and his prediction; or Peyton finally getting over the hump and winning a championship (the hard and fast media barometer for athletic success, providing Trent Dilfer the ability to flip off Dan Marino at NFL alumni cocktail parties).

So what it all comes down to, for the Super Bowl that is, is foreplay and then no follow-through. And it’s not that hype doesn’t exist in baseball. It’s that whereas the Super Bowl has 5,000 people instructed to dance around the stage during the halftime show and mouth the words to the song, baseball has bunting.

The games take care of the rest.





The Boston Red Sox, Your 2007 World Series Champs…and what that means

29 10 2007

In the final breaths of October in 2004, Boston broke down. Offices closed early and started late and TV sets hummed deep into the night. On the Prudential Center, 20 floors collaborated to leave their lights on at night to write ‘Go Sox’ on the side of the building.

Our professors understood — in a way they never had when the excuses were lies to cover hangovers or still-drunk mornings — not showing up to class. Some even canceled them, revealing a rare glimpse of realism and context within academia. And for so many reasons beyond the shutting-down of a major US city for a sports team, it was so easy to be a Sox fan back then.

It seems like a long time since the Sox represented what they did in 2004: workingmen, the down-and-out, the accursed, those without access to the higher circles. In short, losers. And losers tend to be lovable. Especially when they make strides to cease to be considered losers. And in 2004, nobody was making strides like the Sox, who shattered an 86-year-old curse that seemed to not only color the character of the fans, but of the city as a whole — an underdog mentality that composed a significant part of the Boston identity.

Now, another World Series title later, just three years after the last one, the contradictions in Bostonian identity abound. Back in 2004, we became ephemeral Sox fans because it was so cool to join them and their city in their assault on history and those who had oppressed them for the majority of a century. It was like slumming it. It’s only American to root for the downtrodden. But now, the 2007 World Series champions have lost the hunter title. They’ve become what the Yankees were when everybody either loved or hated them: the ones expected to win. A dynasty.

And instead of being the eccentric, weird, not-at-all-self-conscious yet endearing little guys, Sox fans are now becoming the eccentric, weird, not-at-all-self-conscious big guys. Sox fans, who lead MLB fans in their fervor and knowledge, also take the cake in quirks and, as my ex-roomie Anthony would say, corniness. Fever Pitch was more right than it was wrong. 

Thus, it’s time to re-evaluate what it means to be part of Red Sox Nation, a state of hyper-reality that’s more along a tribal level (they even held elections this year to instate the president of RSN).

“The Red Sox tradition has been clouded by the taste of victory,” said my buddy Anthony Piscionere, a Yanks fan. “They’re now an evil empire!”

This Red Sox dynasty, as it now certainly is, was founded on being the anti-Yankees. If you hated the Yanks, the Sox were the next option because they were, it appeared, the only other choice. They were the US to the Yanks’ USSR, and we were the rest of the world during the Cold War, afraid to forge the Third Way. 

And the dynamics of this baseball duality appear to be taking the same shape that the superpower duality did.

It was easy to love the Sox (and the US) for all they stood for — goofing around, liberalism, scumbaggery, general happiness, youth — in the face of what the Yanks (and Soviets) seemed to represent — scowls, drudgery, diligence, straight-lacedmanship. No fun.

Steinbrenner forced Yankee players to shave their beards and cut their hair. The Sox took shots of Jack before ALCS games. The Yankees were pros. The Sox were Idiots, with slogans like Cowboy Up and Manny Being Manny.  

So we tolerated things like Red Sox Nation. I watched my freshman year buddy Joe get brownout drunk during Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS — the Aaron Boone game — then berate an elderly lady wearing a Yanks hat outside of BU’s West Campus. We tolerated the self-congratulatory culture, the fact that the fans found themselves to be just as important as the team on the field. We tolerated the exclusivity that gave way to come-one-come-all when Red Sox Nation took shape. We joined in when the “Yankees Suck” chant arose pretty much anywhere, from Fenway to Faneiul Hall to churches. And most of all, we understood the smug closed-mindedness that turns virtually every conversation about the Sox into an argument.

Hell, it beat rooting for the Yankees.

But the Berlin Wall came down and so, it seems, have the Yankees. So what we’re left with is an honest appraisal of Red Sox Nation the same way that the world began to look at America after the Soviets went capitalist. And we can see RSN the same way many see America: bloated, strident and smug.

With two Series titles in four years, this is absolutely a matter of sour grapes. But resentment takes many forms, and only gets sharper and more widespread as the object achieves greater and more sustained success. And Red Sox Nation, so proud of itself, has the outside attractiveness of flag-wavers or Wall Streeters.

Deep down, I love the Sox. But every year, I’m feeling more and more guilty for doing so.





A Diamond-Shaped Vacuum: The Fall of the Yankees, and the Unipolar World

16 10 2007

Hundreds, thousands, millions of eulogies rang out last Monday night, booming from bleachers, newsrooms, basements, living rooms, conducted by wires and waves and the wisps of wind. As the Yankees slinked off the field, finished in the first round of the playoffs for the third straight season — a loss this time administered by the nascent Cleveland Indians — the same feeling seemed to descend upon all denizens of the baseball world.

Joe Torre sat in a room with the most carnivorous press in the country, answering questions with the careful, deadpan candor just like he’d done thousands times before, and that he was doing for perhaps the last time. If George Steinbrenner follows through with his promise to fire Torre, the highest-paid manager in Major League Baseball after making the playoffs in each of his 12 seasons with the Bombers, chances are that the next time he’ll be talking to the media, it’ll be for a biography or during a pro-am.

Torre finished with class, the same composure and dignity that has characterized this Yankee era since he joined up with the club. The same composure and dignity that’s made them so damn easy to hate.

Perhaps none of them were as poignant as Howard Bryant’s tome on ESPN.com (link courtesy of Nick Williams), which either must have been prepared beforehand or the result of stealing everyone else’s muse. He packaged the moment into around 800 words, each of them necessary, each one of them befitting a dynasty that now deserves its due.

If you don’t want to read the whole story (you should), here’s an excerpt:

‘And perhaps it is time, for all dynasties ultimately crumble and decay, and losing to the Indians seemed as much a disappointment for the Yankees as it was the recognition that they have witnessed the end of something larger, something grander. For years, when the future beckoned, the Yankees reached back into the past, a futile attempt to stop time.’

For the past decade and a half, almost a generation, the Yankees have been even more Yankee than usual. No matter how badly the season begins — and this one did start horrendously — they’ll always be around when the postseason rolls around. And this Yankee dynasty’s signatures have been many: Capitalist ball, disregard for the salary cap, Jeffrey Maier.

But none have had greater resonance than the Sox-Yanks rivalry. It was Cold War esque. Two sides that blindly hated each other, based almost entirely on faulty information and the fact that nobody else offered any real competition year in and year out. Right, they didn’t always win the Series, but there was always the feeling that if there wasn’t a Sox-Yanks playoff, we were cheated.

The Yanks won’t collapse. They are, after all, the New York Yankees. The greatest team in history. But with more teams playing the Billy Beane method of team-building, has this era come and gone?

With Steinbrenner on the way out of coherence within the next decade or so, possibly bringing with him the throw-whatever-money-is-need-at-talent ethos, will it be hard to hate the Yankees?

And on that note, after USA Today ran a story about how the Sox are America’s new team, will they assume the position of loathing that the Yanks have for the past 10 years?





It’s More than just 10:30 p.m. First-Pitches

10 10 2007

The only thing that kept the first round of the 2007 Major League Baseball playoffs from lasting for the absolute minimum amount of games — 12 — was an impossibly far-struck shot by a one-handed swing from the Yankee’s Johnny Damon in Game 3 of the Yanks-Indians ALDS series.

It was a cruel, cruel home run.

This has been a postseason best presented concisely, due directly to the manner in which TBS has delivered it to our televisions. Turner’s cable flagship, for whom syndication is the sinew, has ventured headlong into live, very national TV. And that was a tragic, tragic mistake. Not only have the games been stacked on top of each other all day long, to the point where great portions of the working world are excluded from watching these games (two Phillies games started at 3 p.m., other games started at 9:30 p.m. or later), almost every voice involved in the broadcast detracted from the game. Maybe you can’t do much about the scheduling (outside of, say, staggering the games as much as possible), but you can work with the second part.

Even the New York Times weighed in on the particularly awful job that the announcers, with this truly compendious dissection, a must-read (at least for the purposes of this post).

Yes, they broadcast the Braves. Yes, they do have that show “My Boys” that seems to appeal to people who enjoy getting slapped in the face by punchlines.

Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, Frank Thomas — these ex-players all could translate their truly astounding talents on the field into behind-the-microphone careers. They’ve been good, at times.

But TBS, these guys, aren’t ready for primetime. They’re ready for Atlanta. Maybe Milwaukee. But bringing this show to the stage is like a fast-tracking a middle-school musical onto Broadway. Cute. But deeply flawed and just terribly embarrassing.

You should let kids watch this broadcast when you want to teach them the value of silence. Let them know that noise isn’t always necessary, that sometimes the situation speaks for itself.

Or, perhaps, use it as a parable to let them know that, given the choice between saying nothing at all versus a string of things not true, intelligent, insightful, researched, helpful or at least minimally thought-out (like, say, the outright lie that “The Yankees led the world in home runs”) don’t say anything at all.

And please, don’t say it twice.





Victory at 1309 calories per minute

15 09 2007

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Having just spackled his blood vessel walls with an off-white, viscous paste known scientifically as low density lipoproteins — contained in flaky, cinnamonny tubes by the 17 Palermno cannolis he had just stuffed down his digestive tract in six minutes — Crazy Legs Conte was in a hurry.

“I’m currently employed at the Penthouse Executive Club, and I’m still on the clock,” he said. “So I’ll head back to a swanky strip club. Now, it’s mostly natural digestion — it’s the anaconda diet.”

He had cannoli shrapnel, the bulk of which was white, ricotta-based cream, embedded in his goatee. Some fragments had even flown past his face and now clung to his brown dreadlocks, which seemed to be more a hairstyle chosen by sloth (hair will naturally dread when chronically unwashed) than aesthetics. And he was smiling.

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When he did so, it was immediately clear that he had not quite chewed everything all the way through.

“A Palermo cannoli — very dense, rich food, tough shell — in a way they’re meant to be enjoyed perhaps one in six minutes,” Crazy Legs said, spitting a little. “Eating 17 in six minutes is a bit much. But at the same time they settle well. I had a little coffee, but as crowded as the San Gennaro Festival is, my lower intestines are that crowded.”

But in the 6th annual Cannoli Eating Contest, sanctioned by Major League Eating and a part of the 80th annual San Gennaro Street Festival in Little Italy, NYC, the only concrete thing he toted back to the strip club with him were the 6358 calories and 289 grams of fat. He’s won in the past. But today belonged to, for the second year in a row, a young man by the name of Eater X, who downed 21 — five shy of the record he tied in 2006 — to beat the six other contestants. Behind Conte finished Allen Goldstein and Nate Biller, with 16. (EatFeats.com has the final tally)

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(On the right, comparing cannolis with the MC, who called himself Aquafresh)

X, at a pace of more than 249.3 calories per minute (.8 cannolis) faster than Conte, took home the trophy and, as the officials advertised, ‘Eternal Glory.’ At this point, you can start referring to the components in larger units; grams just won’t suffice. X, also known as Tim Janus, the fourth-rated eater in the world in the International Federation of Competitive Eating rankings, took in more than three-quarters of a pound of pure fat, a third of that saturated. At this point, calories aren’t convertible energy: they’re sandbags.

To burn off such intake requires, according to CalorieKing, 36.03 hours of walking. Eight-hundred, ninety-two minutes of straight jogging (Marathons, mind you, take trained runners around 240 minutes, on average). More than 350 minutes of swimming. Not even a great purge — which, if done within minutes of the competition disqualifies the contestant — could undo the damage levied on the human anatomy by this barrage of a delicacy that, even on the most generous food pyramid, is recommended to be eaten sparingly.

 “I didn’t do anything [to train],” Janus, who started competitive eating three-and-a-half years ago, after coming to New York to work on Wall Street, said. “It’s tough to train for these things. I don’t think there’s much method to it. It’s just a chaotic food to eat, so you just go willy-nilly and shove it in and see what happens.”

But stats only extend so far in descriptiveness. Even these numbers, which seem to lop months off lives as they climb higher don’t tell the story. The scene, which transpires and passes with both the human destructiveness and pace of a tornado inverting a village, is both horrific and mesmerizing. And the sight wasn’t made any less absurd by the juxtaposition of “Don’tcha (Wish your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me?)” in the background.

When the gun goes off, pairs of hands dive into a plate of brown pastry cylinders with white bulging from both ends. Specks fly into the air and drift gradually down to the stage, tossed into the air by the upward thrust of the non-eating hand on the cup. In the early stages, etiquette inexplicably reigns. It’s eating, just in fast-forward.

Eater Six had six, Crazy Legs, five. But around the turn, things grow sloppy. And slower. Cannolis aren’t hot dogs. Nor are they burgers, hot wings, jalapenos, cabbage, french fries, Polish sausages, Italian sausages, German sausages, sauerkraut, pizza, lasagna, ribs or any of the other more substantive matter consumed in these feats of feast.

They’re like nothing else, really. They’re vein-bombs of soft, sweet cheese stuffed inside crispy shells, seemingly harmless and benign. And that’s where the problems start.

 

“It’s very rich,” said Don Lerman, one of the pioneers of competitive eating and the head judge for the Cannoli competition. “It’s not made for speed.”

 

The pros worked on a pace, gorging to an imagined beat. They came equipped with water or coffee — the only two liquids banned on the stage in any event are alcohol and soup — and dunked, chased and/or primed each tube of lard.

 

 “The dunk is a long-honored tradition in sports, from basketball to cannoli-eating,” Crazy Legs said. “So I do try to honor that. But at the same time, a lot of it is mind over stomach matter. Your stomach can fill up, but your mind can’t.”

 

But even the professionals — I’m not sure where one transitions from avid glutton to professional — were caught off-guard. The day’s weather, an overcast and crisp 74 degrees on the cusp of fall, was a positive for everyone but those on the stage.

 

“A lot of it has to do with the humidity,” Crazy Legs said. “Last year, it was very humid. A lot of times we’ll bring litmus paper and do a pH balance on the air just to gauge how tough the shells are gonna be. This year, slightly overcast, they stayed hard and firm, as if the cannolis were revolting against the fact that 70 of them were gonna be eaten in six minutes.”

 

“When this contest starts, you’re gonna see an eating frenzy like you never saw in your life,” Lerman said. “Except maybe in the shark tank at feeding time. I caution the general public, please don’t attempt this at home.”

 

The Judge

 

The last four minutes differentiated the professional from the sane. Although Janus and Crazy Legs slowed, they maintained their technique: sip, stuff, chug. The less-trained resorted to picking apart the cannolis or dividing the cannolis (ala the Kobayashi hot-dog style) or smashing the cannolis and eating the bits or letting a cannoli sit in their water or coffee cup for 20 seconds before cramming it.

 

Biller, the man in the orange, employed all of the styles:

 

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At the halfway mark, Janus was a cannoli off his record pace from a year prior. But by that time, everyone else was so far off his pace that he could have virtually skipped the last minute and won.

 

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In an age of sweeping democratization, where anybody can be heard (like Chris Crocker, for one), one could be forgiven for assuming that this is another indication of everything’s extension to everyone: a ‘sport’ for the masses, if not the massive. A practice brought down to the lowest and fattest common denominator. A discipline for those without it.

The world of competitive eating has assembled an impressively bureaucratic structure, under the umbrella of the International Federation of Competitive Eating and its child, Major League Eating.

The Nathan’s Hot Dog-eating contest remains the highlight of the season’s schedule, the point when every major eater stands in front of the world and finds new pockets of his or herself into which they can cram food.

“It’s our Super Bowl,” Janus, Eater X, said.  

But it’s more along the lines of a major horse race. All year long, contestants compete in lesser, more fringe events to make their stomachs more elastic and dispostions more masochistic and create stir for when the Fourth of July comes around. Each week offers a new competition in a different ‘discipline,’ some more important than others, all leading up to the main event on the Fourth.

There’s a small debate over whether competitive eating actually qualifies as a sport. It’s a small debate, one that occurs only in small pockets of daily American dialogue, because the overwhelming majority of the planet cannot imagine such a thing occurring.

A Tokyo reporter named Noriaka Takada competed, promptly eating only four cannolis and finishing dead last, a feat for which he was awarded a Luciana Pavarotti ‘box set.’ (It was a cardboard box with a picture of Pavarotti on it and a picture of a shirtless Hasselhoff on the beach inside)

“He doesn’t know why anyone would ever do this,” his translator told me.

But the practice is as much a freak show as it is a sport. The same vernacular — ‘push through,’ ‘prepare,’ ‘practice,’ ‘get mentally ready’ — that’s used in sports permeates competitive eating. And certainly, the words come with a bit of an ironic tint. But they don’t finish that way.

It requires some immense concentration and will to fight the impulses that have been native to humans for their lifetimes, namely the urge to stop. You can’t stop, just like sports, until the whistle blows. And where the body can be trained to run very fast and jump very high and run into other objects as hard as possible, so it can be trained to expand beyond its prior limitations to accept punishment in the form of food. The Romans in their orgiastic vomitoria had nothing on these guys (or girls).

So it is that human nature, basic physiology, becomes a nuisance. An unforgivable weakness.

Sonja “The Slender Sickle of Death” Thomas ate 11 pounds of cheesecake, which amounts to more than 10 percent of her body mass. One of the judges at the Cannoli contest once ate nine pounds of cabbage in five minutes — it wasn’t said whether it was in or out of competition.

“I love food so much, and the one thing I’ve found is I really hate to be full,” Eater X said. “Now more than ever.” 

“You know, in most competitions, that’s all I eat in a 24-to-36 hour period,” Crazy Legs said. “But in the San Gennaro Feast, I consider this pressert. Now I can move onto maybe an Italian sausage.”

Such self-brutality invariably spawns characters. And so you have personalities like Crazy Legs, Eater X, Kobayashi, Joey Chestnut and the currently retired Eric “Badlands” Booker, each a promotion in his self. Booker, who retired to work on a hip-hop album inspired by competitive eating (he told me to make sure to include the link: myspace.com/badlandsbooker), performed before the spectacle:

Bill Myers, 341 pounds of him, stayed a cannoli behind the leaders the whole time, eventually finishing fifth. The man, whose knees resemble uncooked, toppling dough, speaks to what’s happened to this discipline. He’s a relic from time gone by, when eating a great deal quickly was the preserve of those who did so for pleasure. But in recent years, sparked, of course, by Kobayashi, men with builds that belong to athletes have taken control.

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So if it has the discipline, focus and pain-denial of a sport and competitors who look like athletes, competitive eating has evolved, indeed, into something that resembles a sport. And if we can call car racing a sport, can we not, this?

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Eh, maybe not.





Tipping Point

13 09 2007

Every mountain and every wave, every steeple and stock has one. And, more pertinently, so does every empire. Peaks are at once a cause to celebrate and a cause for concern. They lull us into an intoxicating feeling of well-being, of permanence and infinity. Yet at the same time, they signify the exact opposite.

The highest point, means, of course, that every time after that will be a little bit worse. The path may not plummet from there — it may even plateau or rise again — but from there, it’s a generally downward thrust.

The Greeks and Romans appeared, at their apexes, to be flawless. For the Greeks, strings of battles and eventual Roman conquest signified the end. For the Romans, it was over-extension and barbarian blows.

And now, the New England Patriots, the modern American sports dynasty, may have come upon theirs, with the accusations that the Pats illegally videotaped opposing teams’ defensive signals (a bit like taping the catchers’ signs in baseball), under the watchful eye of coach Bill Belichick.

The Patriots achieved, through no explicit cheating, an almost perfect team this off-season. Landing Randy Moss — still one of the top-5 most-dangerous receivers in the NFL — for a third-round draft pick isn’t quite Babe Ruth-for-a-sack-of-money territory, but it’s a bit like acquiring a Chateau Brion filet for American cheese on Wonder Bread. Donte Stallworth, my Eagles’ best wideout in 2006, seemed to just slip out of our organization’s back door and crawl into the Pats’ locker room. The receiving corps had amassed such talent that the Pats’ best receiver from the year before, Reche Caldwell (61 rec, 760 yds in 2006), didn’t make the squad.

Moss was on the discount shelf because of a disposition that people agreed lacked enthusiasm, motivation and any fragment of interest in being a teammate. But, we all figured, all Moss needed was to be part of contender and have a reason to play, and we’d be witnessing a rebirth of a man who used to singlehandedly dictate the way that other teams organized their weekly defensive meetings. Statements such as “I might want to look forward to moving somewhere else next year to have another start and really feel good about going out here and playing football,” which he said on a Fox radio show in 2006 while with the Raiders, gave us this inkling.

Week 1: 9 catches, 183 yards, 1 TD. More yardage than the entire Jets passing offense (167 yds).

He was feeling good about playing football again. And we were all feeling very, very much oppressed by the entire Patriot organization.

They were, in almost every sense, airtight. Bill Belichick was robotic in front of the media. Terse, unembellished answers. Only giving them what they ask for, at the very most. His was such wheat-bran personality that a story about obtaining and bankrolling a New Jersey-based mistress lost steam immediately because virtually every reporter found him impossible. He was a famous motivator, the man who seemed to be able to convince a piece of grass to stand up at the right time to slow down an opposing running back. The only coach to ever win three Super Bowls in four years, he was a rock, above reproach. He seemed to be fused with the Patriot empire, the same man inside and outside that haggard cut-off sweatshirt. He was the kind of coach that books were written about — books that became How-To’s for coaches and aspiring businesspeople together.

As if Tom Brady didn’t need more public coddling, Rick Reilly — the man who probed my boy Nick Williams last year for 40 minutes to get one indemnifying quote — wrote a piece in Sports Illustrated that a saint would have written about Jesus. The crux of the story? Tom Brady is a cool guy, citing his ability to have a chin and date two supermodel-calibre women.

Thanks, Rick.

If the Yankees or Sox are America’s teams, then the Pats are America’s Dream. A franchise that appeals to the common man as much as it does the luxe-box-seaters. Businesses can admire the team for the way that no one ever says anything bad about them, about how there’s a defined hierarchy and every member seems to feel entirely comfortable being a cog in the greater works. This is Boy Scout stuff. But it’s also Fortune 500 stuff. Every year they’re successful, and every year after, they seem to come out better. People want to play for the Patriots because they know they’ll be associating themselves with greatness and professionalism through and through.

There were so, so few cracks. The Belichick scandal wasn’t even one. But this is.

Now, the waves from this could be disastrous. The media are trained to investigate every lurid lead, and you can expect that this story will unleash a rush of iconoclastic enthusiasm, dedicated to bringing down the team. Perhaps Belichick and the boys will be able to handle all the unusually negative press – they probably will.

But the shockwaves could grow dramatic. Soft waves against the beach can steadily erode a sea shore or, even, create a canyon. If the Pats do lose a first and third-round pick, as was the initial insinuation, it’ll hurt. It won’t be a crushing blow, because you’d have to squeeze the new guys into a phenomenally complete team anyway.

But it’ll be a blow nonetheless.

And if the American media’s history is any indication, the blows will keep on coming. We are not a country good at forgetting, but we do excel at pack-attack. Take Britney Spears at the VMA’s.

The Pats are on a pedestal, which makes them a prime target. Now, when the media feeding frenzy fades out, the Pats may have weathered the storm. But this is mark that will linger, like a corked bat or doping for a biker.

Said LaDanian Tomlinson, a past critic of the way the Pats played football: “I think the Patriots actually live by the saying, ‘If you’re not cheatin’, you’re not trying,’ ” Tomlinson told San Diego reporters with a laugh Tuesday. “You keep hearing the different stories of people complaining about stuff that they do. So I’m not surprised.”