I have a problem. I don’t like to admit it, but it’s a big one and it’s been plaguing me for years. Decades even. I didn’t notice it at first. No one did. But as the years passed and the incident reports piled up, it became hard to deny. All the subtle signs were there; some not-so-subtle ones, too. And before long I was wearing it on my sleeve, right out there in plain sight. That’s when I could suppress it no longer. I had to own up to my true identity.
I’m a sports villain. Always have been. Always will be.
I’m a sandlot Iago. A gridiron Captain Hook. A Professor Moriarty of the frozen pond. I’m the kind of guy that prompted Sherlock Holmes, the greatest detective in literary history, to say, “My horror at his crimes was lost in my admiration of his skill.” Except I’m the sports version. I’m the guy you embrace as a teammate and dread as your competition.
Yes, it is true. The guy who rips a bases loaded double down the line on a 3-2 pitch with two outs in the bottom of the ninth is the same guy who rips umpires with the kind of foul language only Earl Weaver could love. He’s the same guy who will spear you in the ribs while you’re pinned against the boards, take a dive when you retaliate, and then have a Coke and a smile as you’re falsely imprisoned in the sin bin. Sherlock Holmes would call that the “adder’s smile” as he affectionately referred to Moriarty’s trademark sneer that signaled he was up to no good.
But I can’t control my villainhood. I am who I am. Once my spikes dig into wet clay or catch on the grass, or my blades click down on a fresh sheet of ice, a Hyde-like transformation overtakes me. And before I can regain my civilian consciousness I’ve already racked up a pair of goals, an assist, and twenty-seven penalty minutes. Or six ribbies, a pair of stolen bags, and the old heave-ho from the crew chief. Or even the sweet taste of inciting a picnic-table-clearing brawl at a backyard Wiffle Ball game. There’s really no telling how far I’ll go, how much I’ll help or hurt a given team, or what the fallout will be for my unlucky associates. But I guess we’ll just have to live with my affliction, because it’s all part of being a sports villain.
I’m not the first of my kind and, by no means, will I be the last. There have been many fine specimens before me. There was the original agitator, Mr. Ty Cobb, whose name in the record books is cemented in a lifetime .366 batting average, 4,189 hits, and over two thousand runs scored, but who was also known to disrupt ballgames with unruly verbal attacks on umpires and outright physical assaults on opposing players and even fans. There may not have been a shortstop in the league who didn’t have an ankle or a kneecap impaled by one of Mr. Cobb’s hand-sharpened spikes on a routine double play.
There was the old curmudgeon, John McGraw, who managed the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds from 1902-1932. To put the villainhood of a man nicknamed ‘Little Napoleon’ into perspective, one must consider the words of renowned sportswriter Grantland Rice: “His very walk across the field in a hostile town was a challenge to the multitude.” Hall of Fame pitcher Christy Mathewson once said, “I have seen McGraw go onto ballfields where he is as welcome as a man with the smallpox.” And yet, to the Polo Grounds faithful, John McGraw was a tactical genius and a hero who brought ten pennants and three World Series titles home to New York.
There are also annoying, buzzing, little flies out there–guys like legendary Canadiens’ winger Claude Lemieux or the Buffalo Sabres’ infamous grinder Matthew Barnaby–who build entire careers on their seemingly innate ability to piss people off and then smother them into submission. A quick elbow to the ribs when the ref’s not looking or a scratchy hockey glove raked across an opponent’s face during a scrum, maybe a forearm shiver or two when you’re caught in a pile, and the next thing you know one of these toothless bastards is top-shelfing the go-ahead goal while you’re pleading your case to the stripers.
There are the peacocks–villains like John McEnroe and Dennis Rodman, both of them on-court anarchists whose antics fuel the competitive fires within their sporting souls, but also draw additional ire from those who resent the colorful plumage they present.
There are the evil scientists, like Bill Belichick, who boil up devilish creations in their sporting labs all day and then unleash a bubbling brew of shock and confusion on their opponents on Sunday afternoons. On the holy day. All while shrugging off the painful precision of diabolical, football madness from the comfort of a cutoff hoodie someone left in his dorm room when he was twenty–which, if you think about it long enough, is Einstein-level chilling.
And don’t forget the phenoms. Oh, never forget them. Those villainous heathens like Sidney Crosby, whose celestial skills and the bloody audacity to know he’s got “it” are the sole reasons for a castigation into villainhood.
That’s all it takes. Nothing more.
Because we all love to hate these eyesores of the sporting world; these abominations of an unwritten sportsmen’s decorum; these harbingers of our own personal failings; these annoying, buzzing, incessant, little flies always swirling about our faces. Oh, how we wish we could swat you away.
But we can’t. And we shouldn’t. Because we need you.
We need you in the same way Luke Skywalker needs Darth Vader, and in how a rainbow depends on a storm, and in the way that dark heeds unto light. We need to rise from our four-dollar bleacher seats and toss popcorn into left field when you fire one high and tight on our three-hole hitter. We need to shout obscenities at our TV sets when we see your stupid face in the cutaway as you glide in for a faceoff. We need to be the first voice in a stadium-wide chant in tribute to your latest airball. We need all of these things to keep our passions burning white hot.
But most of all we need you, trusty sports villains, to be the tiny grains of sand in our oyster shells; to irk the living hell out of us until we simply can’t take it anymore. And then if we push back hard enough, we shouldn’t be surprised when we find a pearl.
Frank Morelli is a writer, an educator, and a beer league extraordinaire. His fiction and essays have appeared in Philadelphia Stories, Jersey Devil Press, Cobalt Review, and Indiana Voice Journal, among others. His story “In the Pen” was shortlisted for the 2015 Earl Weaver Baseball Writing Prize. He has a debut novel, No Sad Songs, forthcoming from Fish Out of Water Books.
READ MORE WORK BY THIS AUTHOR: