What follows is the new and never-before-seen Introduction to my upcoming ebook, "It's Not Just a Ballgame Anymore," which will be available at an online retailer near you very soon (as soon as I get a permissions thing covered). It is comprised of a collection of articles originally published here at Newsvine between October 2006 and February 2008, about sports, politics and family, with a dash of hedonism and recklessness.
By the fall of 2006, I had already spent a year and a half of my life without the comforting words of Hunter S. Thompson, and I was obviously feeling the pain. We were two years deep into the despair that set in after George W. Bush was elected for the second (first) time, just a year out from Katrina, and more mired in the Middle Eastern conflicts than we’d ever been.
On the upside, the Buffalo Sabres were about to embark on one of the most exciting seasons in their history, the Mets were looking good, and the football season—well, the football season was sinking into unprecedented violence, but that was nothing new. I had a cushy corporate job in an air-conditioned office, my custody situation had settled to the point where I could enjoy my two young sons without worrying too much about being stalked by crazy ex-in-laws, and just that August my girlfriend and I were married in an intimate setting at a shady bed and breakfast in a little village near the Susquehanna River. Things were looking up. I had even started writing again.
And maybe that was my mistake.
But the story really started in Buffalo, NY. That’s where I was born, went to college, and began my career. My family spent all our holidays in Buffalo, where grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins lived. Even though I didn’t spend all my childhood in Buffalo, the city’s history got through to me. It was packed with the schools all my elders attended. My uncle worked at Bethlehem Steel. My cousin grew up to work at the Ford plant (which, by the way, is misplaced in the scene in Buffalo 66, which is nevertheless a terrific film about the pain of being a Buffalo sports fan). I loved the time I lived there as an adult and, to be honest, I probably would have stayed there forever—with my friends and family—had my first wife not so despised the place. Because I loved it. And I went to a lot of games.
During my last years of college and into my “regular life,” the Bills were losing their four straight Super Bowls. And not in random fashion, either. People remember those games. Most of all, I remember the first one and the last one—the only two the Bills could have—should have—won.
Meanwhile, the Sabres were mired in mediocrity. I was too young to remember the 1975 Finals loss to the Flyers, but I rooted for the Sabres for just as long I could, and back then it wasn’t a complete failure to make it to the second or third round of the playoffs.
Then came 1999. It was enough to make us forget about the half-assed best of times of the past twenty years, even those things which made us proud—Pat LaFontaine, Clint Malarchuk, Alex Mogilny, Brad May. In 1999 it was different. They even opened the Finals series with a road victory, and that is something that is supposed to be a good sign. After four games, the series was tied—still great news for a scrappy blue-collar team with the best goalie in the world.
But then it happened, just like it happened to the Bills against the Giants, except this was worse.
Three overtimes into Game 6 on Buffalo ice, Dallas Stars forward Brett Hull placed his skate inside the goal crease and then shot the puck into the net, which was as categorically illegal a goal as the NHL had at the time. The two-word mantra that came next, “No Goal,” is the only justice that remains from that night, but bumper stickers and whining don’t put the Stanley Cup in your hands.
It had been a reckless ride as a Buffalo sports fan. I can’t explain it, other than it’s there, just like most of my family is still there.
On October 9, 2006, an earthquake was detected in southeast Asia that was actually North Korea’s first nuclear test, and the Sabres were three games into a ten-game undefeated stretch to open a brand-new season that promised to be even more exciting than the year they lost the Cup without giving up a game-winning goal. I watched nearly every minute of it, but I wrote about it less frequently—afraid to jinx up the works. But as the season became the playoffs and the playoffs grew more tense and exciting, and as we almost started to taste it, I couldn’t help myself. Maybe it was my writing that finally caused them to lose again. That’s the kind of superstition that Buffalo fans don’t forget, even well after they’ve thrown all their saints and crosses out in the trash.
I don’t know if there will ever be redemption for Buffalo fans. It’s no consolation to point out to naysayers that the Bills won the last two AFL Championship games, just before the merger. It’s no consolation to insist, rightly so, that the goal was, let's be clear: No Goal at all.
And having a little package of essays is no consolation, either. But I don’t have to ask myself if I would trade them for a Stanley Cup, because when and if that Cup finally comes, part of the joy I feel will be a result of many of the things I explored during their run. They didn’t all have to do with hockey, but being a tortured but optimistic fan inspired them all.
This is a road diary of sorts—the scribblings of scenery and prose sketches from a writer who happens to be a huge Sabres fan but who was so far from home that the only remaining connection was on the page. It’s also the notes of a disillusioned American. Because amidst the sad and chaotic decline of the Bush administration, the anguish after the Sabres’ fall from grace came just as this country was preparing its one shot to grab control of the swirling wreckage. And we failed at that, too.
But there’s always hope, as long as there’s another game to play. And, while the helicopters may loom, and the poor become poorer and keep dying in our streets, and Congress keeps cashing its payroll checks from Wall Street, it’s not over until you hear the whistles. I’ve seen enough Holocaust films to know that that’s when you’re really fucked, and we’re not there yet. The evil empire may keep punching us in the gut, but even the Red Sox won eventually, and so will we.