I was in my car on my way to work yesterday afternoon when I heard the news about Junior Seau. I was listening to Jim Rome around 11:45 a.m., near the end of his show, when he usually takes the time to recap what he talked about for the previous hours. But yesterday, of course, the final fifteen minutes took on a somber and chilling tone.
He relayed that Seau was being reported as dead from an apparent suicide. As he read from different sources, it became clear to him and his listeners that this terrible tragedy had actually happened.
For some reason, I felt much more affected by his death than I thought I would. I was never really a football fan growing up—I was much more attracted to basketball and baseball. Part of that might have been because I grew up in Los Angeles, where after 1994 we had no pro football team. Even before the Rams and the Raiders left, however, if I was a fan of any team it would have certainly been the San Diego Chargers.
On his way to dropping me off at school in the mornings, my father would always listen to sports talk radio. At first I hated it, changing the dial to an FM station whenever the opportunity presented itself. But after a while I grew to love it, and now it’s all I listen to…unless my wife is in the car with me, of course.
The primary station we listened to was Xtra Sports 690, which was a San Diego radio station. We religiously listened to John Ireland (now the radio voice of the Lakers), and Steve Mason who, after years apart, have re-teamed for their own show on ESPN Radio in Los Angeles. But back in their San Diego days they would regularly talk about the Chargers, have them on as guests, and even get occasional insights from Chargers play-by-play announcer Lee “Hacksaw” Hamilton.
From all this San Diego exposure, the Chargers became my favorite football team without my knowledge. I fondly remember the 1994 team, the only squad to make it to the Super Bowl. They were led by the old-looking quarterback Stan Humphries, wrecking-ball running back Natrone Means, and of course the lynch-pin of the defense whose name struck fear in the hearts of opposing players, Junior Seau.
Because of all this, I had seemingly become a Seau fan through osmosis. Admittedly I was unaware of Seau’s previous post-football troubles, so that could be another reason why this came as a total shock. But I was definitely surprised that the news affected me in the powerful way that it did.
Part of the benefit of being a sports fan is that you grow attached to certain players. You watch them play, listen to their interviews, proudly purchase their jerseys. After a while, it really does feel like you know them.
So when a tragedy happens, like it did yesterday, it causes you to question your fandom. You ask, “why do I care so much about these people that don’t even know I exist?” Luckily in sports, the answer to that question is never too far away.
Fast-forward to 9:07 p.m. last night when, while watching the Clippers lose the Grizzlies, I received an ESPN mobile alert saying,
Angels P Jered Weaver hasn’t allowed a hit through 6 vs. Twins; only runner passed ball on strikeout.
I immediately took notice, first because I love no-hitters, and second because the Angels are one of my hometown teams. Not only that, but Weaver and I are roughly the same age, and I remember watching him pitch in a winter league game (that’s right, we have baseball winter leagues in Los Angeles) right before mine when he pitched for Simi Valley High School.
But still, no-hitters through six innings, while pretty rare, get spoiled more often than not. So I decided to stick with the Clippers.
Ten minutes later I got another alert. He was through seven. I felt it was time to turn it over to the MLB network, where Mitch Williams, Harold Reynolds, and Matt Vasgergian were giggling like school girls with anticipation of what they could potentially see.
From the time they went to a live look-in in the 8th, I didn’t change the channel. I watched with the rest of my fellow baseball fans as Weaver floated in breaking balls, painted the corners with 88-mph fastballs, and pitched to contact while he continued to get out after out.
We watched as Weaver entered the dugout, with no teammate daring to touch him or even speak to him, continuing his between-innings ritual of placing down his glove, then his hat, then slowly unwrapping a piece of bubble gum before placing it in his mouth and taking a seat.
Then of course there was the sudden disappearing act Weaver pulled just before it was time for him to take the field in search of the final three outs and his first no-hitter. The MLB Network guys were outraged, saying there’s no way you can break your routine like that. What was the reason for the sudden disappearance? As Weaver put it after the game, “I had to pee so bad!”
As Weaver recorded his final outs, Fox Sports West kept cutting to his parents and wife in the stands. His mother had her face in her hands, almost unable to watch, while his father, a burly man with a handle-bar mustache, kept taking larger-than-average swigs of his $10 beer.
And then there was the final out, where the Minnesota Twins‘ diminutive Alexi Casilla hit the ball as far as he is physically capable of hitting it, but it was tracked down by Torii Hunter, or as Weaver called him after the game, “Spiderman.”
Weaver celebrated, jumping up and down with his teammates, before his parents and wife made their way down from the stands. He walked over to them and gave them all a big hug, and that’s when the emotion overwhelmed him. Tears came flooding down his cheeks as he smiled and hugged the family that had supported him for all these years.
And just like that, I was reminded of why we grow attached to these guys. On the same day I saw one of my childhood idols meet an untimely end, I saw another one at the apex of joy.
People often talk about “the gods” when they talk about sports, especially in baseball. If a pitcher gives up a couple of broken-bat hits and loses a big game, he’ll often say “the baseball gods just weren’t with me today” to explain his poor fortune.
Well the gods, whoever they are, were certainly pulling for Weaver last night. Chris Parmelee‘s looping liner earlier in the game missed being fair by mere inches. Trevor Plouffe‘s hard line drive down the left field line narrowly hooked foul at the last second. And of course the final line drive to right field by Casilla went towards one of the best defensive outfielders in the history of baseball.
Not to mention the fact that last year Weaver elected not to become a free agent and instead took considerably less money to sign an extension with the Angels. Because of that, and the fact that it was a home game, he was able to pitch the greatest game of his career in front of his hometown fans, his parents, and his wife.
Sports shouldn’t have such a gripping hold on our emotions, but they do. Sometimes the fact that we are fans will lead us into anxiety and even depression, but you can always rely on a forthcoming moment that will lead you out of that cavern and up to a mountain top.