Half of this post is months later than I intended it to be, but I’m not often a timely writer, and when I am, usually the coincidence works against me. But maybe it’s timely in a different fashion because this week, word hit the hockey streets that the ECHL’s San Francisco Bulls are in some dire financial straits. This makes me incredibly sad because I hate to see any team (anything, really) struggling, but I was really hoping the Bulls were going to thrive. I was rooting for them. I mean, the whole team released a You Can Play video, not just a few token players from a variety of teams put together, but a seemingly unified voice, which is still something of a rarity at the professional level. The team has been playing for two seasons, and they’ve held two LGBT nights (with these pretty excellent jerseys). A team like that makes me want to love them. Back in August, in Classical Magazine Issue Four, Chris Collision, writer of many fine things, wrote an essay I have to talk about, an essay I’ve been meaning to talk about since it came out, and two San Francisco Bulls playoff games create one of the essay’s hinge points. So, here we are.
“The Old Ways of Defeat” is, for detail junkies like me, a joy. The ambient sounds of the minor league sporting event–perhaps in their most Platonic guise at a hockey game played in a place called the Cow Palace–are everywhere, and sharp, and right. The situation of the team, the league, and the circumstances of these particular games are clear and purposefully placed, rounding out a personal experience with knowledge that is effortlessly conversational–“the ECHL will, for example, teach you things like ‘there is an Ontario in California'”–and self-aware in a traditionally (and I mean this as a compliment of the highest order) Montaigne-like fashion.
How easily this essay communicates is one of its strengths and ironies, as the piece starts in a moment of isolation, the alone-in-a-crowd feeling that is so difficult to handle–on the page and in person–as it’s eroded here and there by the strange charms of the minor leagues, the fans, the trappings, the unlikely Bulls-versus-Alaska-Aces playoff matchup. In this essay, the erosion is only partial, so much in the way that the verve of these particular games are: highs, lows, no definitive Moment, a point best illustrated in an incredibly brief, mostly elided hockey fight that means essentially nothing in the course of a lopsided game and the Bulls’ season’s imminent close. The fight gets no glamor on the page, a writerly restraint I admire, and it’s also an illustration, I think, of a final separation: “There is watching it, and there is doing it.” We’re just watching, most of us.
But there’s something arresting in that, too, and I have to give you the whole final paragraph because I can’t bring myself to carve it into anything but itself:
And then there are these live events—moments shared and unrepeatable, in all these shabby but life-full places that pull a poorer and more diverse crowd. They are not glamorous or even particularly beautiful, and there are whole buried rivers of disappointment running under all of it. But these can all be a step towards a life that’s less lonely, less canalized through phones and less inert in front of a screen. It’s a fight. But Kris Belan fought B.J. Crum, held him accountable for a smallish transgression in an essentially meaningless AA game. He fought harder for less.
My interest in the San Francisco Bulls is bandwagon-y at best, due mostly to “The Old Ways of Defeat” and their work with You Can Play. I can’t name a player on the team without going back to Collision’s essay or Googling something, and I’ve never seen them play. I wanted to, and I almost had the chance: in October of 2012, my husband and I made a mad weekend scramble to San Francisco over my fall break so that he could see his beloved 49ers play in Candlestick before they moved on to what will be their new, shiny stadium in Santa Clara. It was not a good trip to San Francisco. The point of being there was only the football game, all of it already an extravagance, so we were staying cheaply, far away from any of the San Francisco I’d seen the year before (the piers, Golden Gate Bridge, great food) while road-tripping with a friend. It didn’t feel at all like being any place anyone would want to go–just a chain hotel, chain restaurants, and a sense of rushed alienation: not quite thirty-six hours in the city, all told.
Twenty-four hours after we arrived, it would be clear that the trip was a disappointment in many ways. At the top of the list was the fact that the San Francisco 49ers got shellacked by the Giants. It should have been a good game, in terms of 2012 competitiveness, one the Niners had a good chance to win. The Niners did not win, and the experience itself wasn’t pleasant. We got the only tickets we could get: in the endzone, in the very top row, at Candlestick Park, where the giant concrete bowl gathers only the coldest air from the bay and slings it back around the rim. The sheer size of an NFL stadium and the distance from the game–something I’d not experienced before–made me want a ridiculous jumbotron uglying up the place, if only so I could see what was really happening. My reading glasses weren’t cutting it. The one-sided game drained all of the live-sports-experience out of it, too; the Bay was quiet. The Niners Noise drum line was basically the only life in the place, and they stood in our endzone far too little. But that would come later.
We arrived in San Francisco on Saturday evening, and the San Francisco Bulls were due to play the second game of their inaugural season against the Bakersfield Condors that night, too. But there was no permutation of flights that would get us from Wyoming to California in time to make the game. The BART train we took from the airport toward our hotel actually passed the Cow Palace, probably sometime early in the first period, and had we not also been toting our suitcases, I would have lobbied that we go, anyway. Then the train ride was long, and we walked a long ways afterward to actually get to where we were staying. Even if we’d simply dropped our bags, turned around, and headed back to Daly City, the game would be over before we arrived. Still, as we ate our burgers from In-N-Out, I ended up following the third period from my phone for no other reason than being more near to that game than anything else familiar, which was one version of being connected, in some small way, to everything happening there.
Here’s hoping the San Francisco Bulls can hang on.