A howling storm threatened to erupt at any moment last Friday evening. There were tympanic booms and crashes. The whole atmosphere seemed to be electrically charged.
And the weather outside the Arena was a little frenzied too.
The city’s first big-league team, the Nashville Kats, staged its first regular-season football gamewell, maybe it’s better described as a football variety showlast Friday night. And in spite of tornado watches and black, ominous clouds that forced the club to bail on plans for a mack-daddy pregame street party, nearly 12,000 people showed up, drawn by football zeal, curiosity, an enthusiasm for high-decibel music, or whatever.
As new-product launches go, the Kats didn’t quite surpass Windows ’95 or Beanie Babies. But in Nashville, where blasé attitudes are flaunted like Gucci handbags, filling three-fourths of the Arena for anythingmuch less some newfangled sportis nothing to snort at.
Wisely, the Kats’ management ensured that the event offered something for practically everyone.
You like the WWF ambience of lasers and of machine-generated fog? They got your lasers.
You like to crank your stereo up to Noriega-flushing levels? No problem there.
You say you feel more involved in the game just knowing that squads of gyrating, video-accessible cheerleaders are shaking in the end zones? Well, dude, grab a seat.
You like heads being slammed against walls? They got your head-slamming right here.
You look forward to seeing yourself on the giant overhead scoreboard monitor, dancing like a rhythm-enslaved fool? Jump on up with your booty-shaking self.
And if you’re merely interested in seeing some football, well, you’re still in luck. Somewhere, shoehorned into the whole entertainment package, there was a gamewon, incidentally, by the Kats, 47-21, over the mighty Sabercats of San Jose.
A robustly entertaining contest it was too, judging from the reaction of the youngish-looking crowd. It should have been; after all, arena football with its multimedia, never-an-unoccupied-moment approach could hardly be better suited for the sensibilities of a generation that came of age with MTV.
Slightly more surprising was the number of curious football traditionalists who, to their apparent surprise, came away Friday with an appreciation for arena football, even if the entertainment package required some getting used to. “It was pretty wild, but, you know, I kind of liked it,” one white-haired Vols fan said, speaking in a low, confidential tone.
Though it sounds heretical to gridiron purists, the arena game may represent football’s logical evolution. It combines the wide-open, sandlot quality of rural eight-man football with the speed and gleefully malevolent hitting of ice hockey.
Nashville fans found something else to like the other night too. Unlike other summertime pro-football leagues, such as the now defunct USFL and the moribund World League of American Football, arena football dares to be different.
Where else can you see a team attempt a field goal from its own end zone, as the Kats did on Friday, and salute them for making the logical play selection? Where else could your team enter the fourth period clinging to a precarious 19-point lead?
Not that the arena game is some unrecognizably mutated strain of football. Actually, in some ways (such as the limited substitution rules that require most players to line up both on offense and defense) arena football is a welcome throwback. Those who’ve grown disenchanted with the NFL’s overpaid and overindulged millionaires may also find it refreshing to learn that only the biggest dogs in the Arena League earn more than $100,000 per season.
If you want to be anally historical about it, the first arena game was played 75 years ago. In Chicago. By the Bears. For the championship of pro football. Really.
Da Bears were set to play Portsmouth, N.H. (we are not making this up), for the title. But a December blizzard left Chicago’s primary football venue, Wrigley Field, useless under 48 inches of snow.
The Bears’ young owner, George Halas, frantically scrambled to find a field. In the end, the title game was played in a hockey arena, the old Chicago Stadium. As in today’s arena game, there were no sidelines. From the stands, spectators could often overhear the teams discussing upcoming plays in their huddlesjust as one amused observer at the Arena last Friday heard opposing players exchange “Bleep you mother-bleeping bleepers” along the boards.
Still, if the arena game can trace a wild root back to Halas, the father of the NFL, the stodgy, buttoned-up old league today would find it impossible to embrace the AFL’s upstart, Wild West ethos.
As the Kats closed in on their first official victory last Friday, the team’s general manager, Billy McGehee, was observed dancing in the end zone when the Arena’s massive sound system cranked up the old AC/DC piledriver, “You Shook Me All Night Long.”
Try to imagine a similar scene at the new East Bank Stadium, with the Oilers’ GM Floyd Reese and Mayor Phil providing the choreography. We didn’t think you could.
And justice for Al
It happens about as often as a perfect alignment of the planets, but every once in a great while the last really do become first, and the first, at least for a while, become last.
And so this season it has been particularly gratifying to see Jim Leyland, one of baseball’s most talented managers, finally escape the skinflint Pirates organization to run a Florida team that can legitimately challenge the Braves for National League supremacy. For years, Leyland languished in Pittsburgh after the Pirates’ bean-counters pawned away all the high-priced pieces of the pennant-winners he had managed.
Then, after last season, the Pirates announced plans for an even more bottom-line-conscious restructuring. Mercifully, however, they allowed Leyland to go free. Now, in the Marlins’ dugout, you can actually see him smile again.
Meanwhile, you can’t help but smile at the heinous play this year of baseball’s reigning horse’s patoot, Albert Belle. Over the past several seasons in Cleveland, no slugger has been more productive than Belle. Of course, neither has any slugger been more dangerous to opposing infielders, reporters, photographers, trick-or-treaters, or the public decency.
This year, sporting a fat new free-agent contract and a White Sox uniform, Belle’s batting average has plummeted to the anemic .220 range. Whether as a result of his problems with hitting baseballs or his problems with hitting other people, the hometown fans in Chicago have made it unanimous: Now Belle gets booed in every park where he plays, not just on the road.