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In Sport and War, All Is Love

What fires up those crazy manboys in the stands? Love or bloodlust?

Dorothy Woodend 15 Apr

Dorothy Woodend is the culture editor for The Tyee.

She has worked in many different cultural disciplines, including producing contemporary dance and new music concerts, running a small press, programming film festivals, and writing for newspapers and magazines across Canada and the U.S. She holds degrees in English from Simon Fraser University and film animation from Emily Carr University.

In 2020, she was awarded the Max Wyman Award for Critical Writing. She won the Silver Medal for Best Column at the Digital Publishing Awards in 2019 and 2020; and her work was nominated for a National Magazine Award for Best Column in 2020 and 2021.

Woodend is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle. She was raised on the East Shore of Kootenay Lake and lives in Vancouver. Find her on Twitter @DorothyWoodend.

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Yogi Berra was fond of saying, "Baseball is 90 percent mental -- the other half is physical." But then he was also fond of saying, "It ain't the heat; it's the humility." Both statements apply equally to romantic comedies. Fever Pitch, the newest film from the Farrelly Brothers isn't packing much heat, but the humility will kill you.

Ben Wrightman (Jimmy Fallon) is truly a humble hero, mumbling, shifty eyed. As a nerdy buck toothed kid, he is taken to Fenway Park and falls head over heels in love, "becoming one of nature's more pitiable creatures, a Boston Red Sox fan." Twenty three years later, young Ben has become a math teacher, and while taking his class on a field trip he falls in love again, this time with the institution that is Drew Barrymore Inc.

Barrymore is the winsome star of many utterly forgettable romantic comedies and this one is only the newest rookie on the team. Ben asks her out, and she accepts, while her pack of friends are trying to figure out what his deep dark secret is. Even if he isn't hiding a giant bag of hair in his closet, there's a reason he hasn't been shot and tagged. It's because like other shy woodland creatures, the soggy eyed sponge monger, or the blue balled sapsucker, he's been hiding out in Fenway Park watching the game.

Seems Ben has a little problem, he loves baseball more than life itself. At first, his intended finds this charming, as it allows her to pursue her own workaholic pursuits. But the high wears off like cheap steroids, leaving their romance sagging and deflated, much like Jose Canseco's biceps.

Put me in coach!

Love is just a game after all. But games are generally more fun to play than to watch -- which is especially true in the case of many recent romantic comedies. You know exactly what you're going to get: two beautiful people meet and fall in love, they're parted by circumstances, but overcome adversity to live and love happily ever after. Even sports is more romantic than that, at least on the field that is. Which is where the only single exciting moment in the entire film takes place, with Lindsay running about on the outfield, trying to outdistance the security and reach her beloved in the nick of time.

Fever Pitch, is the American adaptation of Nick Hornby's memoir about his own soccer obsession. Hornby's book doesn't have much to do with the screenplay by Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz, which transposes the action from Arsenal in England to Boston's Fenway Park. Everything I know about Boston and Fenway Park, I learned from Jonathan Richman songs. Jonathan is nowhere in evidence here, as he has been in other Farrelly Brothers' pictures. But the central conceit, that a love affair with a sports franchise can be as heart rending as the most torrid of emotional entanglements, remains true for both national past times: soccer and baseball.

Nick Hornby describes his obsession with Arsenal this way: "I fell in love with football as I was later to fall in love with women: suddenly, inexplicably, uncritically, giving no thought to the pain..." His love of soccer is like a marriage, day in and day out, season after season. Like most relationships, sporty love has its up and its downs. And sometimes those downs end in bitter divorce (just ask the Montreal Expos, and many NHL fans). Both Hornby and his fictional American counterpart begin their obsession with sport after their parents divorce. In marriage and sports, it's all about the commitment.

Violent reactions

These days, however, you'd think it would be harder and harder for the pure hearted sports fan to commit. Baseball, for example, is not so innocent as it once was, given the steroid scandal and Canseco's memoir Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant 'Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big. The ball boys get up to all manner of hi jinks, including doping, juicing and smacking their wives around . . . and trying to break a losing streak by sleeping with the most unattractive woman they can find. I believe the term is slump buster.

In Juiced, Canseco quotes teammate Mark Grace who defined a slump-buster as "the 'fattest, gnarliest chick you can uncover, and you lay the wood to her.'" Not a whole lot of romance here, but then sportsmen aren't noted for their sporting behaviour much anymore. Take the story of Katie Hnida. As the only woman to ever score a point as a kicker in Division I football, she suffered at the hands of her teammates.

All's fair in love and war, and often sports has more in common with the second than the first.

Hooligans, which captured both the Best Narrative Feature Award (audience and jury) at SXSW Film Festival, stars that bad widdle hobbit Elijah Wood as a Yank who takes up with a bunch of soccer mad hooligans and gets in lots of fights. Supposedly the director, Lexi Alexander, is a martial arts expert who based the story on the gangs of her youth. But the film doesn't stray far from the evening news. Detroit Pistons basketball players brawled with fans earlier this season. At a recent match between Inter Milan versus Ac Milan, fans bombed goalkeeper with flares, until the match had to be called off. Soccer violence has become almost a law unto itself, as a recent story from the BBC indicates. And just the other day a real life Boston Red Sox fan took a poke at a Yankee trying to field a ball.

Field of lovey dovey dreams

Against this brutal backdrop, Fever Pitch expects us to accept Ben, emotionally frozen at seven years by baseball worship, a manboy complete with the physical jitteriness of a preadolescent and a wardrobe to match. Like most boys, his interests remain simple: Sox and sex. Could it really be that there is an entire stadium full of people just like him? Ben states that his devotion is about being a part of something that is bigger than you, the Holy Church of baseball. And sometimes it does seem that the great big screen writer in the sky must have a hand in things.

Up until last year, the Boston Red Sox had been operating under an almighty curse: not God's, the Bambino's. The curse of the Bambino dates from owner Henry Frazee trading Babe Ruth in 1918 to finance a production of No No Nanette. A week later, the Titanic sank. What those two things really have to do with each other, I don't know. But like any truly great love story, a miracle can occur. After so many years of pain and perseverance, the grandest form of love occurs with a big old trophy and the title of World Series Champions. And they lived happily ever after, or at least until next season.

When the writers of Fever Pitch began adapting Hornby's book, they had no way of knowing that the Boston Red Sox would finally win the World Championship for the first time in a 100,000 years. This is what makes sports better than film in some circles. It's just so damn unpredictable.

Dorothy Woodend reviews films for The Tyee on Fridays.  [Tyee]

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