Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, August 16, 2004

Letter from California-August 16, 2004

If you come to Los Angeles in the summer, I strongly suggest a visit to Dodger Stadium. The place looks great after 40 years and the weather’s so nice that it feels like your skin melts right into the air. In a good way. More than that, Dodger Stadium remains one of the few in the League that hasn’t turned the place into ToonTown. Homer Simpson doesn’t appear on the JumboTron every time one of the Blue Crew knocks one out of the park. Every achievement by the Dodger players does not cause Austin Powers voice to come over the loudspeaker with the words, “Yeah, baby!” Instead, there’s a woman named Nancy B. Hefley playing familiar old tunes like “Camptown Races” on an organ. It’s downright old-fashioned. Sure, you can buy an andouille chicken sausage or a chicken teriyaki bowl instead of a hot dog, but most people stick with the familiar.

A couple years ago, the Dodgers had posters all around the stadium emphasizing that traditional experience, and I particularly liked one of them. It said: “Hollering Encouraged.” Just think, for just a few bucks, you can sit in the sun and shout at total strangers at the top of your lungs. Maybe you could do this for free elsewhere, but not without running the risk of being dragged into a special white van by a man holding a syringe and speaking to you in an overly soothing tone of voice. At the ballpark, periodic shrieks of happiness and disappointment don’t make you crazy; they make you a good fan.

Of course, this isn’t true in every sport. Tennis and golf, for example, strongly discourage taunting from the sidelines. No one says, “Hey, Tiger, Tiger, Tiger, Hey, Tiger, Tiger, Tiger….Swing!” as Tiger Woods steps up to the tee. It wouldn’t be the done thing among the preppy set. But for most sports, “rambunctious” is the watchword. In soccer, for example, if you’re not drunk enough to start a pointless brawl with the other team’s supporters, you’re nothing but a seat number. If you slash a few tires in the parking lot and throw up in the water fountain, so much the better.

Of course, that’s mostly in other countries. Here in America, we do things a little differently because of the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), founded 40 years ago right here in California and now the nation’s most popular youth sports organization. For millions around the world, soccer represents a dangerous and depressing way to vent the rage and frustration they feel in their normal lives on people who happen to root for the other side. It’s very, very important. AYSO, on the other hand, has taken this game and tried to clean it up, dragging it like a dirty-faced street urchin into church on Sunday.

One region of AYSO (not in California, believe it or not) will be trying to preppify that urchin even more. Later this fall, they’re having“Silent Saturday,” where, you guessed it, fans, coaches and parents will be required to be completely silent as they watch the action unfold. The philosophy, believe it or not, is that children are distracted by all the hubbub of coach’s instructions, encouragement from fellow players, and the pitiful cries of parents living out their fantasies of soccer stardom through their children. Those last noises would only come from foreign parents, of course, since “fantasies of soccer stardom” is a concept so fundamentally un-American that I don’t even know where to start.

Of course, some might argue that without a little white noise during a soccer game, people might start dozing off. I spent a day being trained to coach in AYSO this weekend and did a little dozing off myself. First, let me say that I played soccer as a child and enjoy the game. In fact, I co-captained my high school team, so I feel free to make fun of the game as much as I want. It’s out of love.

On the other hand, I have no particularl love for the fact that I spent half of a perfectly good weekend day being “trained” in such matters as “appropriate touching” and “how to deal with physical hazards in the environment.” Objects left on a field during a game can be dangerous, we were taught. Ever the rebel, I said that I felt it depended a lot on the specific object in question. For example, empty Fritos bag, maybe not so dangerous. Rusty staple gun pointing face up in front of the goal, more dangerous. It was also pointed out that there are several potential dangers that nature can throw at a youth soccer coach. For example, a “wet field” can be slippery; on the other hand, a “dry field” can be dangerous. “Hot days” can lead to heat-related illness, but of course “cold days” have their bad points too. These were, no kidding, reviewed in some detail.

Of course, what’s sad is that AYSO has learned, from experience doubtlessly, that this provides them with necessary protection from the litigious. After all, AYSO is an all-volunteer organization whose only goal is to provide a fun environment for kids to learn the game. Normally, these aren’t the kind of people who would imprison large groups of adults on a perfect summer weekend afternoon for the crime of volunteering their time. Still, after a couple hours, common sense had basically gone out the window. The trainer asked the group, about 50 new coaches, what they should do if a child is injured and down during the game. The group, fearful of potential inappropriate touching or voiding AYSO’s supplemental insurance policy somehow, was stumped into stony silence.

“Go make sure he’s alright,” the trainer said. Coaches scribbled notes in their pads.

“What do we do if the child wants to hug us?” someone asked.

The trainer said that hugs are still ok, so I guess I’ll let them hug me if they want.

I’ll just get them to sign a waiver first.