№ 6

Long-Suffering Fan Gets a Few Things Off His Chest

Edmonton Journal, July 20, 2003

True Believ­ers
The Trag­ic Inner Life of Sports Fans

By Joe Queenan
Hen­ry Holt, 236 pages, $33.95

Fear and loathing seem sec­ond nature to Joe Queenan. After you’ve fin­ished read­ing True Believ­ers, you’ll nev­er accuse him of being a hap­py man.

Joe Queenan labours under a curse. Born into this world a Philadel­phia sports fan, his entire life has been side­tracked by an unend­ing series of doomed sea­sons sup­port­ing teams that invari­ably fail — from baseball’s Phillies to football’s Eagles, from basketball’s 76ers to hockey’s Fly­ers. Each year, his absolute loy­al­ty is reward­ed with angst and suffering.

Near the start of True Believ­ers, this some­time con­fes­sion­al, some­time road map to “the trag­ic inner life of sports fans,” Queenan asks the all-impor­tant ques­tion: Why do we per­sist? Isn’t watch­ing sports, he writes, “a mas­sive­ly time-con­sum­ing activ­i­ty that inex­orably leads to inor­di­nate misery?”

It may very well be, he says. But he’s obsessed and he wants to show just why so many of us are, too.

This isn’t some semi-lit­er­ate oaf speak­ing. Queenan writes reg­u­lar­ly for the New York Times and the Wall Street Jour­nal and he’s also writ­ten sev­en books, about every­thing from for­mer U.S. vice-pres­i­dent Dan Quayle to the movies.

But True Believ­ers isn’t a gen­teel ode pulled from The New York­er; this is South Philadel­phia stuff, Rocky coun­try. For­get about the high road. Like any good sports fan, Queenan loves to hate — maybe even more than he loves to love.

And this man’s ani­mosi­ties are Olympian. He despis­es New York sports cul­ture. TV announc­ers. Women (what about the men?) who sing nation­al anthems. Pre­sea­son games. Mas­cots. Fair-weath­er fans. Band­wag­on jumpers (“front-run­ners,” he calls them). And, of course, the New York Yan­kees, the Los Ange­les Lak­ers, and the Dal­las Cowboys.

He’s also pre­oc­cu­pied with sports movies. To him, Buf­fa­lo ’66, Vin­cent Gallo’s 1998 film about a Bills fan out to mur­der the place­kick­er who threw away the Super Bowl, is a pic­ture-per­fect glimpse into the human soul.

Gal­lo,” he writes, “has cap­tured exact­ly what most sports fans feel about ath­letes who screw up. They want to go gun­ning for them.”

Queenan isn’t jok­ing. Lat­er on, in a chap­ter titled Fans Who Mis­be­have, he writes: “If you ask the aver­age male to describe his dream sce­nario, it would be the chance to beat some­body sense­less and know that he could get away with it.”

Here, Queenan relates his own ragged impuls­es. He’d love to throt­tle dozens of fans who’ve annoyed him at sport­ing events over the years. Only the fear of ret­ri­bu­tion (and some­times his bet­ter judg­ment) has stopped him. He’s still wait­ing for that “blind, one- armed midget Klans­man” — his ide­al prey — to emerge at the ballpark.

Dur­ing spells like this, True Believ­ers becomes dan­ger­ous­ly off-putting. Queenan can be very fun­ny; he’s rarely charm­ing. And when he’s pry­ing larg­er truths about “the intran­si­gence of the male pri­mate” from a scene at the con­ces­sion stand, things begin to crum­ble. You end up crav­ing some­thing more sub­stan­tial, a kind of coher­ence beyond the lurch­ing anec­dotes and pop-cul­ture debris. Wit­ty Top Ten lists — Guide­lines for the Per­fect Fan or Things Sports Com­men­ta­tors Should Nev­er Say — only go so far.

True Believ­ers is like a sim­ple, hyp­not­ic riff turned into an entire CD, a Sat­ur­day Night Live skit blown up into a film. For 13 min­utes or so it’s very fun­ny. Then it just conks out.

If the best sports books make you tug on your cap a lit­tle tighter and root, root, root for the home team, Queenan makes you feel slight­ly psy­chot­ic. He also reminds you that if the Fly­ers are in town, watch your back. That guy gun­ning for your head might just be him.