Home Game

The need to play is a trait shared by everyone, and although each culture has it’s own unique traditions, every culture plays.

That’s what Home Game is about. It’s not box scores and statistics and salaries and all the many things that estrange us from the essence of sport. It is about the fundamental desire, the need, to play. From the time we are kids, we just know how to play. Maybe it’s in our DNA, but the fact remains we all like to do it.

Home Game seeks to showcase the endless examples of this around the world. To show the deep connection between a game, a place, its people, and their culture.

Stickball in The Bronx, hurling in Ireland, rodeo in Brazil, kendo in Japan, sepak takraw in Thailand, polo in Pakistan, jai alai in the Basque region; the list goes on. In every case, there is a story to be told about culture and the life of a society that many of us never get to see. Hopefully, after reading these stories, you will either feel like you’ve been there, or want to go there yourself.

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Gaelic Games

All-Ireland Hurling & Gaelic Football Club Championships – Dublin, St. Patrick’s Day 2009

“You might say it’s the beating heart of Ireland itself.”

The beating heart in this case is Croke Park, an ultra-modern, 82,000 seat stadium on the northern edge of central Dublin. Simon, my enthusiastic tour guide who uttered those words, and with whom I am standing in said heart, is being completely serious.

And who am I to dispute that? Established in 1884, over the decades Croke has hosted countless championship clashes in both hurling and gaelic football, a Muhammad Ali fight, a legendary massacre, and of course, Neil Diamond.

It is mid-March and I am in Dublin to visit friends. Unlike North America, where St. Patrick’s Day is the most convenient excuse to spend a day getting blind drunk and pretending you don’t hate U2, Dublin stages a week-long festival of music, culture, and yes, sport. During the St. Patrick’s Festival the pubs are full, music is in the air, and there is plenty to see and do for visitors and locals alike, making Dublin even more fun than usual.

On this rainy afternoon, I have made the trip to Croke Park on a non-match day to take in the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) Museum, and now to be in a group led around the cavernous stadium by Simon.

He gives us various facts and figures as we tour around the place, but the most notable thing about Simon is his obvious passion for his subject matter.

“This is a real dream job for me.” He confesses. “I grew up playing these games, as did a lot people in my family. Most folks know a player or two in the GAA, or have been one themselves. They’re not like multi-millionaire footballers and all that. They’re regular folks who love the game and keep it alive.”

Yes, after 125 years of the GAA, both of Ireland’s wildly popular national games are still ‘all amateur’, and proudly so. These top-flight athletes have day jobs

Wait. You say you’ve never heard of hurling or gaelic football? Fair enough. First off, these games are ancient. Literally. Hurling is said to predate recorded Irish history and was likely invented by the Celts. Hurling and gaelic football have had a lot of time to become enmeshed in the Irish psyche.

Gaelic football (locals just call it “gaelic”) is easier to understand at first glance. Similar to rugby, but with forward passes and less rough stuff, it is a smooth, flowing game of speed and passing.

Hurling, on the other hand, is much more exotic to the uninitiated, looking like a strange hybrid of field hockey and lacrosse. Players use a 3 foot wooden stick that ends with a flat paddle of sorts, called a hurley, to hit the baseball-sized ball, called a sliotar, on the ground and in the air to each other and, with any luck, into the goal or between the uprights above it. Simple, right?

Not from where I was sitting. Speaking of which….

Skip ahead to St. Patrick’s Day itself, and through my first class connections (my host’s friend’s father), we have scored 4th row seats right behind the goal in the south end of Croke Park, known as the Davin Stand. In fact, three sides of the stadium are named for famous figures in GAA history, and the fourth, well, that’s a story of it’s own. The north end stands, and they are standing room only, are known as Hill 16. It is built on a pile of rubble that used to be houses on Dublin’s traditional main drag, O’Connell Street. Those houses were destroyed by a British gunship floating on the River Liffey during the Easter Rising of 1916. Perhaps due to their bloody origins, or their rather military name, Hill 16 is typically where you’ll find the most, shall we say, enthusiastic fans on match days.

Like many places in Dublin and throughout Ireland, Croke Park is defined by history, struggle, and great national pride. Case in point, the stadium was the scene one of the more tragic events in Ireland’s recent past – The Bloody Sunday Massacre in 1920. In a reprisal attack for IRA assassinations earlier in the day, British forces fired on a gaelic football crowd in Croke Park, killing 14 innocent civilians, including player Michael Hogan, for whom the west side stands are now named.

Knowing Croke Park’s past, and being there on the national’s saint’s day, it was easy to feel an extra sense of spectacle and meaning as we approached the stadium surrounded by a buzzing crowd in various team colours. I wouldn’t be watching a game, I would be watching Irish history and heritage in the flesh. What can I say? Ireland makes me wax poetic.

Once seated, I surveyed a Croke Park much more full of life than my last visit. The upper deck is closed since it is the All-Ireland Club Finals today (and not the more prestigious All-Ireland County Finals, which take place around Labour Day), but the lower bowl is completely packed with a raucous crowd of supporters. In a way, club level matches are more authentic. Unlike the county level teams that are made up of regional all-stars, the clubs are basically groups of pals from the same town or neighbourhood representing their home, and it shows in the stadium. It’s as if a few small towns have simply moved into Croke Park for the afternoon.

The hurling definitely lived up to my expectation. Known as the fastest team sport on two feet, hurling puts a premium on speed and superhuman hand-eye coordination as the ball is plucked off the ground, balanced on the end of the hurley, then batted out of the air to a teammate across the field, all while running full speed and being harassed by an opponent. It can at times look like a lightning fast, occasionally violent egg-and-spoon race.

In the end, Galway County side Portumna defended their title and took home the trophy after a see-saw battle. Knowing no shame, my friends and I rush the field in true bandwagon-jumping style to celebrate with the real fans. There are hugs and high-fives from strangers all around. We did it!

We returned to our seats in time to catch the on-field GAA ‘pageant’ that serves as an intermission before the football finale. While I can’t say with great accuracy what it was about (the PA narration was all in Gaelic), it did feature people walking the boundary of the pitch carrying on their backs these giant papier mache sculptures of potato sacks, a sailing ship, an earth-mover and various other things while a group of teenagers executed a synchronized dance routine with 30-foot hurleys in the centre of the field. Looking around the stands, I don’t think I was the only person feeling befuddled by the whole thing.

The gaelic football final is a joy to watch and is won by the local heroes (Simon’s home side), the Kilmacud Crokes, in a spirited match. And did I rush the field again? You bet I did. And did it feel right? It sure did.

I felt spent from an afternoon of cheering and celebrating, my voice raspy but my spirits high. To have spent this auspicious day in the “beating heart of Ireland” watching ancient traditions come to life, I felt truly blessed. Taking my cue from my hosts, I retired to a dark-panelled pub off Grafton Street and raised a pint (ok, maybe more than one)of dark stout in salute to Ireland, her people, and to that most holy of men, St. Patrick.

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Prague Favourites

Prague Favourites

I don’t have to tell you that Prague is a renowned destination, and deservedly so. Chock full of beauty, history, and atmosphere, the Czech capital has a lot going for it as I’m sure its throngs of visitors would agree. After living there for a couple months, it became one of my favourite cities, and a great place to wander and get lost, since there’s almost always something interesting around the corner.

So, while I wouldn’t dream of discouraging you from taking in the Charles Bridge (more on that later), Prague Castle, the Vltava river cruise, Wallenstein Garden, the many cathedrals and other well known marvels (i.e. pubs), I humbly submit this list of some of my favourite places to see and things to do in this charming city.

Petrin

Not at all an “off the beaten path” location, Petrin Hill is tough to miss, rising up over the western bank of the Vltava River, topped by its signature Eiffel-esque observation tower. Although a funicular tram will take you up in effortless style, I highly recommend the walk, not just for the exercise, but for the multiple vantage points to see the city as you ascend and the wonderful scenery of the heavily treed hillside.

And yes, do go up the tower. The views of the city are unmatched.

National Museum (Narodni Muzeum)

Ok, so this is another well-known destination, but to me its allure is in its weirdness. Located at the top of Wenceslas Square in the heart of the city, this baroque masterpiece is a sight to behold from the outside, and somewhat gloomy den of curiosities on the inside. Ideal for a grey, rainy day, the museum houses a series of collections that appear to have been art directed by a Slavic Wes Anderson.

Avoid crowds by going later in the day, and do not miss the exhibit, “Europe, Cradle of Scientific Obstetrics”, on the lower floor. Somewhat unsettling (warning: graphic video!), it can’t be beat.

Literary Café on Tynska (Literarni Kavarna)

Although Prague’s Old Town Square is almost constantly jammed with tourists, if you take a walk behind the Tyn Cathedral to this watering hole, it will feel like a million miles away. Set along a narrow laneway, passing though the broad wooden door puts you in a different place. Cellar-like but cosy, and with a lovely enclosed courtyard, you will find all types here. Travellers, lovers, writers, people with cool eyeglasses posing as writers, they all stop by for the rich coffee, hearty dark beer, and a helping of  old-world charm.

Stop by the Bric-a-Brac shop around the corner while you’re there. If you’re lucky, Milos, the proprietor, will treat you to some conversation and a fresh pot of green tea.

Olsany Cemetary (Olsanske Hrbitovy)

At the risk of sounding morbid, I say this is one of the most beautiful spots in the whole city. Covered in ivy and packed with a few centuries of Prague’s finest citizens, Olsanske is a refuge of serenity just a short subway ride from the city centre. In places, it’s like a mystical forest that they happened to bury people in. The various monuments and crypts cover an array of artistic and architectural styles, and it is a fascinating look into the history of the city and it’s people.

Zizkov

If you want to get a feel for the “real” Prague, the neighbourhood of Zizkov would be a good place to start. Still saddled with a now undeserved reputation for being shabby and a little dangerous, Zizkov is largely untouched by tourists. Home to countless bars, restaurants and shops, it is less dense and more lightly            trafficked than the hipper Vinohrady ‘hood on it’s southern border. You can also see fine examples of coloufully painted, centuries old apartment blocks that line the hilly streets of this quintessential Prague district. Not to be missed is the dominant landmark, the Zizkov TV Tower, notable for it’s space-age design and giant baby statues crawling up it’s sides (I kid you not).

On your way back to the city centre, stop to watch the sunset from the hillside in Riegrovy Sady park. Making out with a special someone is optional, but encouraged.

Prince Hotel (Hotel U Prince) rooftop restaurant

Sometimes, a popular place is popular for a good reason. Perfect for a lingering dinner on a summer evening, this is one of those places. Right on the Old Town Square, the hotel’s rooftop restaurant offers a magical view of the city centre at close quarters. Two friends who came to visit me hated their first brush with Prague after wading through the “human zoo” that is the Old Town on a weekend. Dinner on the Prince Hotel roof changed their tune in a hurry.

Oh yeah, the food is good, too.

Bike ride down the Vltava

For my money (and I don’t have much to begin with), this beats a river boat cruise hands down. You can rent a bike for a reasonable rate from a number of shops in the Old Town and you’re off to the races. My preferred route followed the Vltava south, past the elegant buildings lining the banks in the city centre and into the idyllic countryside not more than an hour’s ride away. Wildlife, parks and village houses pass by, making for a relaxing and scenic afternoon trip. When you get tired, pop in at a roadside tavern for a pilsener and catch your breath, then head back, watching the city unfold on your return.

Local Football

Now, I know that not everyone is a sports fan, but I do recommend the festive atmosphere to be found at a match of the smaller, local clubs dotted through the city. I prefer my old home side, Viktoria Zizkov (est. 1903), or the equally venerable Bohemians, whose logo is, for some unknown reason, a kangaroo. Playing in small (3-5,000 seat) parks, with boisterous and loyal supporters, a match at these grounds offers a small scale spectacle with a homey feel that you won’t get watching Prague titans Slavia or Sparta play. Nice way to spend a Saturday afternoon.

Charles Bridge

If you are gonna do it, I say do it at dawn. Lined with elegant statuary and devoid of motorized traffic, Prague’s oldest bridge (finished in the early 15th century) is a stunning landmark and an industrial strength magnet for tourist hordes. That said, if you are there at the end of a looong night (my experience), or at the crack of a new day, it’s pretty nice watching the sunrise from this famous spot. Most other times of the day, it feels like a cattle drive.

Get out of the city

Alright, this one is cheating a bit, but I stand behind it. There are myriad day trips to be taken from Prague and the Czech countryside is very rewarding no matter your preference. Mountains, forest, castles, quaint villages, you can find it all just a short ride away by rickety, Soviet-era local route train.

As far as any of these go, a quick bit of research of your own goes a long way, so I’ll leave it to you to make your own picks.

Happy travels!

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Stickball

New York Emperors Memorial Day Stickball Classic 2008 – The Bronx, NY

The Bronx. Growing up, just the name brought to mind images of urban rot and street crime. To me, it was the kind of place you didn’t go unless you lived there (or were going to a Yankees game). Dangerous, decaying – The Bronx had an outsized reputation in my mind, and in all my visits to New York, I had never even thought to go there. One call to Richard Marrero, president of the New York Emperors Stickball League, changed all that.

“It’s all about family.” He reassured me, describing the annual Memorial Day Classic, “Everybody’s included. Come on up. You’ll have a good time.”

So, on a perfect early summer morning, I hop the 6 train to New York’s most northern borough, leaving behind the more familiar confines of Manhattan. I get off at Parkchester & 177th St. and after a short walk through a neighbourhood of tidy row houses, mom & pop shops, and mammoth project buildings, I am greeted by the festive proceedings on Stickball Blvd. A two block stretch renamed by the city in the 80s after the league had made it their regular venue, on this weekend (and each Sunday from April to October) it is closed to traffic, and a block party royale is in full swing.

True to Marrero’s word, “everyone” seemed to be there. Young and old, men and women, whole families crowded the scene. Salsa and hip hop boomed from a DJ’s speakers while the crowd watched the games already in progress, eating, laughing, catching up with friends old and new.

Approaching an older gentleman who looked to be in the know, I asked “Excuse me, do you know where I can find Richard?”

He sized me up, then shouted down the block “Hey, Richie! Come over here! Someone wants to talk to you!”

Richard walked over, and I shook his hand. “Mr Marrero. Nice to meet you. I’m Jason, we spoke on the phone earlier about coming up to cover the tournament.”

“What? No, I’m Richie Mojico. But if you wanna know about stickball, you talk to me.”

Minutes later, I am welcomed into Mojico’s modest townhouse a couple blocks away. We sit in his rec room, listening to old salsa records and sipping ice tea as he flipped through old scrapbooks and photo albums, telling me the story of the game’s origins and what it means to the neighbourhood and it’s largely Puerto Rican residents.

Stickball is a street game, a “poor man’s game”, that is basically a rudimentary form of baseball that you play on the block. Starting in the early part of the 20th century, New York City kids with no access to parks and real equipment improvised their own version of America’s pastime.

“We would sneak a onto neighbour’s fire escape and steal a broom handle or a mop handle,” explained Mojico, “but it was too long, so we would stick it part way down a hole in the sewer cover and break it off so it was the right size.”

As for the ball, “there was a sporting goods store around the corner that would sell us reject tennis balls for cheap, and then we were ready to play.”

The layout of the playing surface was simple – the sewer cover at one end of the block was home plate, the one in the middle of the block was 2nd base, and a car or a fire hydrant on either side of the street stood in as 1st and 3rd. From this set up came the term for a homerun length hit, known as a “3 sewer shot.”

The rules were similar to baseball, if a bit less forgiving. The hitter bounced the ball in front of him and hit it, a style known as “self-pitch”. If the ball was caught you were out. If you swung and missed, you were out. And if the cops came by, Mojico confesses, “you chucked your stick down the sewer or under a car and ran before they nabbed you.”

Back on Stickball Boulevard, the sun is high in the cloudless sky and the carnival is in full swing. The tournament is clearly a beloved event, and while it has brought everyone here, it seems to be just one element of what is a certifiable community party.

Getting into the spirit, I head to the food tent, where another insanely friendly local resident, Millie Guzman (“What can I get you, baby?”), is serving up bacalaitos, a deep-fried codfish flatcake that is the perfect compliment to my ice-cold beer.

One hour into my day, I already feel like part of the family, with everyone I meet genuinely pleased to have an outsider in their midst who is interested in their tradition and more than happy to tutor me on the finer points of the game.

I wander around the scene, munching away and watching the kids league players taking lessons from the old guard. The older folks see it as their job to make sure these kids play the game “the right way” and stay out of trouble.

Flanked by a school on one side, a park and tennis courts on the other, and surrounded by a giant apartment complexes, the tree-lined Stickball Blvd. is an oasis in the midst of this dense urban setting.

Finally meeting my intended target, Richard Marrero, who is also the captain of the defending champs ‘The Gold’, I get more history.

“Most of the fellas you see here have been playing since they were 4, 5 years old. And their fathers before them played stickball. And their father’s father played. That’s how we keep the game alive. It’s all family.”

And so the game has survived, with generation after generation of New Yorkers making something out of nothing and then passing it along. That was the genesis of the Emperor’s League.

Marrero is called away to play the next game, but summons another league elder, Frank Sanchez Jr. (“Hey Frank-ay!”) to explain further.

“Well, it was my father, Frank Sanchez Sr., and his friend Frank Calderon who started it. They played stickball all their lives and in the 1980s they organized the Emperor’s League.”

He points to the middle of the street and I see that stenciled on the asphalt behind the home base of each of the 2 “fields” on Stickball Blvd. are the names “Sanchez” and “Calderon”, a tribute to the men who made it all happen.

Over the course of the weekend, teams from The Bronx, Manhattan, and out of town squads (led by old neighbourhood residents who moved away and took the game with them) from Florida, California, and Puerto Rico will battle it out in hotly contested games for the coveted Memorial Day championship. It’s a veritable World Series of stickball, and a great excuse for a party.

As dusk falls on first day of games, a 10-piece band has assembled on the sidewalk in front of the adjacent P.S. 182. We are to be treated to a free concert by a true legend – Orlando Marin, the 70-something  “Last of the Mambo Kings”.

But first, Richard Mojico takes the mic, toasts Marin and presents him with a beautifully decorated, handmade stickball bat.

The spry Marin, clearly touched, offers a playful boast “I just want you all to know….I’m still the best hitter on Stickball Blvd.!” and with that the band flies into a blistering set of mambo and salsa that keeps the people dancing into the night.

………………..

The next day, I am back for more. Watching two Bronx sides (the Royals and Stem) face off, I see the game’s humble roots are kept alive in many ways. I get the low-down from the lone woman in the league, Stem team founder Jennifer Lippold, who is (very vocally) coaching rather than playing this year due to being 8 months pregnant.

“Yeah, we still keep score in chalk on the asphalt. And you can see that everybody makes their own bat out of a broom handle.” She explains.

Indeed, each player’s stick is personalized with colourful grip tape, painted designs, and even nicknames (“El Diablo”).

Jennifer continues, “I’ve been doing this since I was 3 years old, that’s over 30 years! I give birth next month, so I’m coaching this time around, but I’ll be back next year!”

Our conversation is halted periodically by passers-by saying hello and inquiring about the impending birth.

“It really is all about family.” Says Lippold. “Every year, we get to have a weekend with people we haven’t seen in a long time, and teach the kids how to play. You know, I’m the only woman playing right now, but my (13 year-old) daughter is coming up, and I like to say that I’m giving birth to new stickball player!” she says as she pats her belly.

Just then, an argument erupts at first base over a safe/out call. It’s heated, but tempers are kept in check and it’s resolved pretty quickly. That’s the thing that I notice again and again about stickball culture – it’s very competitive, and the players and spectators alike give their all, but in the end it’s rooted in mutual respect and a deep camaraderie they all share and instill in the next generation.

Nas, a local I met the day before who is here to watch and never misses a Memorial Day Classic, saunters up and hands me a small paper cup filled with what looks to be a white shaved ice.

“Here, man. It’s a cocito.

I take a bite off the top, and it tastes even better than it looks. It’s a delicious, thick slush mixed with coconut milk and sugar and the combination of mid-afternoon heat and baking blacktop makes this feel like the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me. I am beginning to feel guilty that I ever thought of The Bronx as uninviting. Can these people be any friendlier?

The day continues with the knock-out stage of the tournament, and the tension on the field has risen noticeably. The Bronx Ravens, featuring the father/son duo of Angel Quinones Jr. & Sr., can’t hold off borough rivals The Gold in the semi-finals. It’s another year without any hardware for the Ravens and you can see that Angel Jr., one of the ‘stars’ of the league, is taking it hard.

Angel Sr., a NYPD detective who has the look and voice of someone you don’t want to mess with, has clearly passed on the true spirit of the game to his son. Angel Jr. exhibits a competitive fire (sliding into the home base asphalt in shorts!) and a sense of heritage and responsibility, as he spends a lot of time mentoring the kids who look up to him.

Fresh from the loss, he is still gracious. “You know, it’s tough. No one likes to lose, so I’m disappointed. But the weekend is about more than that. Keeping the game alive, teaching the little kids. Everybody coming together, you know?”

With the late afternoon sun setting, the overflow crowd gathers for the championship finale. In a bit of anti-climax, the game is a rout, with The Gold winning an unprecedented 3rd straight title in a 19-2 win over the San Diego Whompers. As after every game, the teams shake hands and there are smiles all around.

The crowd spills onto the street and all the teams gather for the extended prize ceremony/photo opp/playful ribbing that goes on overlong without anyone seeming to mind.

As the weekend wraps up, people slowly say their goodbyes and begin to head off.  I shake hands and trade farewells with what seem like a hundred Richies and Frankies, getting one last dose of their generosity and warmth. Tomorrow, we all head back to the ‘real world’ of jobs, responsibilities, and pressures, but for this weekend – it was all about family.

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