Cities And Their Sports Teams Finally it’s here. The much anticipated football playoff game between the Saints and the 49ers will start in less than three hours. The game will be played in classic Northern California January weather: Sunny, cloudless skies with temperatures near 60. Sports fans watching from back east will once again see a sun-drenched field and camera shots of boats on San Francisco Bay. They’ll have one more reason to reinforce their hatred (read: jealousy) of all things Californian. This city is excited. Even my wife, not a big sports fan, is into the drama and anticipation. It never ceases to amaze me how a sports team captures a city when its citizens can proclaim that “their” team is doing well. It’s ridiculous, really, to think that the hometown team is a reflection of who we are – individually or collectively. Yet, that’s what happens – to sports fans and non-sports fans alike. We’re all in. It’s almost like the Santa Claus myth. As kids we believe in Santa almost without question. Then, as we grow up, we still allow the magic to happen – the lie to masquerade as truth – if only for the sake of our own kids and their pure, unbridled joy. In the case of a playoff football game, (yes, it’s just a game), we allow ourselves to be represented by a group of young men in their 20’s and 30’s. Ideally they have a strong-minded leader in their coach as the figurehead. The 49ers had that in their glory years of the 1980’s with grey-haired Wise Man Bill Walsh. They’ve got a mad-genius leader now in Jim Harbaugh, the 48-year old, first-year coach who’s exceeded all expectations. His team’s remarkable success this season, with a 13 Win 3 Loss record, is virtually unheard of for a rookie coach. Even the great Walsh was 2-14 in his first season and 6-10 in his second before winning a Super Bowl in his third year as coach. Coach Harbaugh’s visage is blown up on the front pages of this morning’s Bay Area newspapers. As I found myself staring not only at his countenance, but at his “sports” wristwatch, which happens to be like the one I wear. I thought I must be pretty cool to have the same wristwatch as Harbaugh. See how that “identity” thing can get out of hand? Perhaps the funniest thing about this whole notion of a city tying its identity to its sports teams is how every city does it. Not only the perceived “world class” cities of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, but also for smaller, industrial oriented cities without the cache of their glamorous big city cousins. Indeed, I have lived in both Pittsburgh and Cleveland, two of America’s most belittled big cities, (unfairly, I must add, as they’re both great places), and believe me, their residents are every bit as passionate about their sports teams as any other city’s. Maybe even more so. When the Steelers do well, as they usually do, the city goes crazy. You almost get the sense that the deliriously happy Pittsburgh fans are saying,“See! We’re not only as good as you are, we’re BETTER! The other comical aspect of big sporting events is that inevitably, there’s a winner and a loser. God forbid if the 49ers lose today. How scandalous of me to even consider it. But just in case they do lose, we will watch the collective air pour out of the city’s psychic balloon in a very short time. When the game ends, the angry sports-talk radio callers will be jamming the phone lines with a vengeance. These need-to-get-a-life types will find every reason imaginable to fault Coach Harbaugh and his players. How quickly we forget. Games where the winners and losers are separated by only a point are especially fascinating. That fine line between winning and losing, often coming down to a single play, makes all the difference in how the hardcore sports fan feels after the game. They’ll either feel triumphant, perpetuating their “superiority” identification, or upset and bloodthirsty for someone to blame. Yes, it’s an inappropriate identification, yet it’s the essential dynamic between a city and its sports teams. When you think about it, it’s somewhere between being surreal and foolish, but it’s just the way it is. You can see why the monetary value of owning a sports team just keeps going up. Seemingly more than any other investment. There’s not a single National Football League or Major League Baseball team whose value hasn’t risen substantially in any five-year period in my lifetime. It just shows the deeply seated fervor of sports fans. It’s also indicative of the identity virtually all of us assume, at least on some level, with “our” city’s teams. When our team does well, after all, it sort of justifies our living there. When I wake up tomorrow, it won’t really matter whether the 49ers will have won or lost today. But now, in anticipation of the first playoff game in San Francisco in nine years, you could cut the local excitement level with a knife. Go Niners! JH 1/14/12

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Jim Hudak

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