NCAA Football

Shi: Closing Time

May 31, 2016

I don’t do endings very well. I never have, which is ironic because I’ve had to write an awful lot of them – leaving Sports for Ops, stepping down from Ops, my last Instant Replay tactics piece, my final football column, my retrospective on my four years at the Daily, and this final Sports column. Six goodbyes in four years, and I haven’t even written my final opinions column yet. I don’t like endings, but I celebrate them anyway because they aren’t even endings at all. I really am a drama queen.

In other words, I was made for sports.

Like Christianity, where the liturgical calendar cycles around every year, but personal sanctification is supposed to deepen with every day, sports merge the timeless and the evanescent – and it shouldn’t feel coincidental that nothing is likened to religion more than athletics. Playing and watching sports teaches you that everything has a beginning and an end, but that no end is truly permanent. Sports gives us both the pageantry of accomplishment that comes with an ending – Kobe Bryant only got his title trophies at season’s end, after all – and the promise that glory will last into eternity. Kevin Hogan will live forever in Stanford lore, and yet like any player, he only got to play four seasons here.

We’ve heard all the stories, all the invocations, all the tales. We’ve watched Mike Trout make grown men look like boys, we’ve watched the video of Kirk Gibson’s miraculous homer in 1988, we’ve seen grainy pictures of Willie Mays making “The Catch” against Vic Werth. Field of Dreams was right: “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.”

Everything in sports comes and goes and lives forever.

***

Nevertheless, everything I’m saying has a tinge of post-facto justification to it. The truth is that I liked sports back when I didn’t know that they could have an almost spiritual quality to them. Cheering for the Lakers and the Dodgers, as I’ve said many times, helped me feel more American when I was living abroad and America was thousands of miles away. And more selfishly, I liked sports because back when everybody in elementary school was young and unathletic, I was good at them.

Although few people have had the opportunity to live abroad at a young age, my experience is deceptively typical. In general, sports fans note that they often love sports for reasons utterly divorced from the present. Discussing the NFL with Bill Simmons, the writer Malcolm Gladwell remarked that he was still a Buffalo Bills fan, even though “the very thing that attracted me to the Bills in the first place – that thrilling offense – has completely disappeared.” (You can almost imagine Gladwell shaking his head.)

Does the answer really matter? Do we keep on bringing up new answers when the old ones become irrelevant? Not really, because like the proverbial immortal with a mortal memory, sports’ curious relationship with timelessness causes it to conflate the past with the present. Nothing draws us to fandom more than the alchemical mysteries of memory that surround our favorite players and our beloved teams. And as every mixture of motivation and memory is unique, we all are able to feel that we, uniquely, have been initiated into these ancient mysteries.

***

For somebody who has spent as much time thinking and writing about Stanford sports as I have, I’ve noticed that my archive has precious little discussion of what Stanford Athletics as an institution actually means. I’m not sure why that is. But I would hazard a guess that covering sports as closely as the Daily does encourages us to miss the forest for the trees. If you have to put out a sports section every day, it’s not surprising that you focus on the accomplishments you can see.

Nevertheless, my Stanford fandom runs deeper than box scores and press passes to Stanford Stadium. I love writing features because unlike standard reporting, they force you to take a look at the sum of a person – and that’s also why I’m sad that I never got to profile Dick Gould or Randy Hart or Tara VanderVeer or John Dunning or any of the other legendary athletic figures on campus. Stanford Athletics is supposed to be the program that allows its fans the opportunity to see the players and staff as real people, not just aloof divinities. I like to believe that it’s people like Shannon Turley and Lance Anderson that made me a Stanford fan.

In the most general sense, part of being a Stanford fan is believing that Stanford Athletics is supposed to be the program that will save sports as a whole – and that is why Stanford sports fans love to talk about the Cardinal. We believe that Stanford does not cheat, that its players play fair, that the commitment to both personal and academic excellence comes before the sports – above all, that in an era of collegiate athletics marked by cheating, crime, and dirty tricks, Stanford can be a model for the world of intercollegiate athletics. Stanford fans believe that their university is a shining city on a hill. David Shaw claimed that Stanford football can change the world.

We’d all like to believe him.

We’ve also had the deck stacked in our favor in ways that other programs cannot hope to imitate. We get Stanford, and we get a $500 million athletic endowment, committed alumni donors, a winning tradition in nearly every sport we field, and, of course, the most valuable degree in Division I. We aren’t a model for intercollegiate athletics. We’re our own thing.

But even if the main arguments in favor of Stanford sports aren’t necessarily fair, let’s go back to the beginning. Stanford doesn’t need to be a trailblazer to be worth our love. And although Turley and Anderson are two of my favorite coaches in the world, I was a Stanford fan before I met them. I fell in love with Stanford Athletics during the Arizona game freshman year when, for a moment, Josh Nunes became a demigod. Back then I didn’t even know who Shannon Turley was!

Stanford Athletics is fun. I watch Stanford’s teams because I like them.

And why not?

***

The last sports event I saw at Stanford was baseball’s season finale. Stanford beat Oregon 3-1 behind 7.2 strong innings behind Chris Castellanos and seventh-inning home runs by Alex Dunlap and Austin Barr. Recap aside, it was a good game. The seniors wanted to win their last home game. I wanted Michael Peterson to have a good time calling his final Stanford baseball game.

I am first and foremost a football writer, but baseball is perhaps the most timeless sport because the game is so fundamentally similar to how it was a hundred years ago – there are more home runs, faster players, and a statistic for every concept that can possibly be quantified, but the fundamental architecture of the game is still the same, and you can still imagine Xander Bogaerts running the same bases that Ted Williams circled so many years ago.

And Stanford baseball is beautiful because while LSU and Texas may play in grander venues, Stanford plays in the very best one. Stanford might not be replicable, but – athletically and academically – in many ways it was the perfect place for a sports fan like me. It has nice athletes and perfect grass and clean white uniforms and gloriously pure sunlight and the freshest air in the world. Like Stanford, Sunken Diamond is immaculate, and while there are things you could conceivably add to the place, it’s hard to imagine it being better.

What a time to be alive.

Contact Winston Shi at wshi94 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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