THIS SPORTING LIFE
There has been so much speculation surrounding the Arizona State University and Phoenix Cardinals football teams that I decided to see for myself.
I drove over to Tempe to see the ASU-UCLA game hours before it was scheduled to start. It was a sunny day with temperatures in the 80s. I arrived in less time than I expected. Downtown Tempe was bustling. There were even policemen assigned to cover intersections so that nobody would dare cross against the traffic signals.
I pulled into the press parking area and then doubled back down the street to the courtyard outside the Mission Palms hotel. It was like a bazaar. There must have been a dozen different ASU shirts for sale. There were also various caps. Almost everyone going to the game was dressed in an ASU shirt and cap. The only suit coats I spotted were those worn by the two TV announcers from CBS.
I went to Changing Hands bookstore. The place was crowded. I have always been a sucker for anything that promises to make me a better writer.
For this reason, I immediately picked up a copy of a book called Tools of the Trade, edited by Dodi Schulz. It promised to be "an indispensable reference guide for making the writer's task easier." Why am I such a sucker for this kind of thing? The only thing that helps a writer is to sit down and begin plugging away. There is never actually an inspired moment.
"Remember to get the weather in your goddamned book," Hemingway once wrote to his friend John Dos Passos. "Weather is very important." Conversation overheard on Fifth Street while walking to the stadium:
"I've been a Hawkeye fan for 42 years. When they lose, I die. But since I left Iowa to live in Arizona, I've been a season-ticket holder for Sun Devil games. I've been coming to these games for ten years. I like to see the Sun Devils win. But it isn't the same. When the Sun Devils lose, I don't die. The sun will come up tomorrow. It's the same way with the Cardinals." I am almost certain I read a story describing this mental state in an article in the Arizona Republic this past week. I am familiar with the sentiment. I sometimes feel the same way.
Sight seen in press parking lot: The license plates on a new white Cadillac read "VOICE." This must be the car of a radio or television announcer. But who?
The press box is only half filled. I notice something that always hits me upon getting off the elevator and reaching the three rows of press seats.
The press box is so high you can't see the field very well. Far below, the players look like ants. I think this also affects television because the cameras are set up too far away to get a good picture.
The declining attendance in the press box is a direct reflection on ASU's current status. It is regarded as being an ordinary team with limitations. One sure tip-off is to see how many scouts for bowl games are present. There were just a few and they represented smaller bowls. It's clear by the turnout that this year's ASU ball club has already been written off.
Overheard in the press box, these words from a Sun Angel official clearly disappointed by the small turnout for the game:
"Our fans aren't used to coming out to day games. I remember when you couldn't get a seat for a game against UCLA." He is putting it kindly. The sense of urgency for Sun Devils fans has been removed. It's as though they were merely biding their time until ASU football coach Larry Marmie is fired and replaced by a big-name coach.
But perhaps a lot of fans are like me. They have stopped reading everything in the newspapers about the Sun Devils. The football season is passing them by even before the World Series has been played to its conclusion.
The crowd is announced as being 46,872, but it seems to be much less than that. As it is, the stadium is only about half filled.
"That's what is really putting the nail in Marmie's coffin," I overheard someone say. The athletic department is losing money. At this rate, the school is actually losing money on football.
Once the game starts, I'm surprised by the players ASU has recruited. Some are outstanding athletes.
Eric Guliford is as fine a wide receiver as you'll ever see. During the loss to UCLA, Guliford was superb. He made nine catches for 134 yards. He must make tremendous leaps because he is only five-feet-nine. But after he catches the ball, Guliford is as tricky and explosive a runner as you have ever seen.
The Sun Devils quarterback, Bret Powers, had been out with an injured shoulder. But Powers played well, too, connecting on 28 of 48 passes for 295 yards.
Two fumbles turned the game against the Sun Devils. The critical one came late in the fourth quarter when Powers and a running back, Parnell Charles, messed up a hand-off and UCLA recovered.
The other mistake was something I had never seen before. Kelvin Fisher, a senior, caught a pass from Powers and was running for the goal line. He was only inches away from stepping across the white line when a UCLA player tackled him and slid around, knocking the ball from Fisher's grasp.
The ball hit the ground. It was recovered by UCLA and ASU lost a crucial touchdown.
I followed Fisher to the bench with my field glasses. He walked slowly and sat down heavily against the fence. He removed his helmet and stared down at the ground.
Only one other Sun Devils player came over to offer condolences. After a while, Fisher got up from the bench and stood on the sideline, where Marmie could see him and perhaps send him back into the game.
The call from Marmie never came. For at least one Sun Devils player, it was a game he would never forget.
I have seen a lot of college quarterbacks, but I don't remember one who showed as much savvy as UCLA's Tommy Maddox. He completed 18 of 24 passes for 219 yards and three touchdowns.
Maddox was teamed up with Sean LaChapelle, a six-foot-four receiver with excellent hands. LaChapelle caught 11 passes. He made it all look so easy.
ASU lost 21-16. All week long the daily newspapers had been writing that this could be the turning point of the season for Marmie. It probably was--for the worse.
Down in the interview room, Marmie entered, looking very solemn. He stepped to a lectern looking haunted. He was like a man about to give a funeral oration.
"We were doing what the other team let us do," Marmie said. Marmie's brand of cautious football drives people out of the stands and on their way home. During this game, the mass exodus began shortly after the start of the first half.
But no one bothered to ask Marmie whether he now realized that his job is on the line from week to week. Then again, nobody has to.
The next morning's edition of the Mesa Tribune carried these words by columnist Mark Emmons:
"And when we look back on this most pivotal game of the season, it may come to be recognized as the one that ultimately cost Marmie his job. The bottom line is the fans in the stands have lost confidence that Marmie can get the job done." Bob Hurt of the Republic was much more circumspect:
"Would a 6-5 season lead ASU to renew Coach Larry Marmie's contract, which expires after this season? Danged if I know. Look for speculation to start to heat up." Driving home, I listened to the KTAR sports call-in show for people frustrated by the Sun Devils' fall from grace. The disappointed fans were venting their anger at John Mistler, a former wide receiver for the Sun Devils and the New York Giants.
"This team has as much talent as any previous Sun Devil team," a caller said. "I blame the coaching staff. Their offense has no imagination."
Mistler either misunderstood the caller or didn't want to be caught rapping Marmie.
"You shouldn't be down on the players," Mistler said.
"I'm not knocking the players," the man said. "I love them. It's Marmie who we all want gone." I remembered something Mark Emmons noticed.
He spoke of ASU Athletic Director Charles Harris sitting in the back of the room, staring at Marmie without expression.
"Harris looked as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders," Emmons wrote.
I remembered seeing Harris in the back of the room, too. It's funny how two people can differ in their assessments. I think Harris must by now realize that he and Marmie are an entry. If one goes, they both go.
Unless Marmie can create an unlikely miracle such as successive victories over Washington, California and the University of Arizona, you can figure that Marmie is gone.
They may lose all three of these big games. But then again, they actually do have the talent to do much better than they are doing right now.
I couldn't help myself. By the fifth inning, I was glued to the television set watching the game unfold.
Who am I rooting for? That was a real problem in this series. I found my allegiance kept switching to whoever was on the losing side.
But when Kirby Puckett hit that sweet home run in the bottom of the ninth to win it for the Twins, I found myself smiling and shaking my head at Puckett's dramatic feat.
MDRVSunday, October 27
Once again, I arrived in Tempe two hours before the game. The weather had changed. There had been a heavy storm that began about 7 a.m. It was to be followed by another one around 1 p.m.
The courtyard at the Mission Palms hotel was under water at one end. This time, the crowd was much older. The people all wore shirts with Cardinals logos and one man even wore an oversize replica of a Cards helmet.
The crowd somehow didn't seem as large as the one the day before. The weather conditions almost certainly changed the numbers that would turn out.
There was a big crowd in Changing Hands bookstore. I went to the secondhand section downstairs.
There was another big crowd down there. This time, I bought a copy of a book about the Civil War written by Bruce Catton and a biography of James Joyce's wife Nora.
By the time I got to the press box, lunch was being served, and it consisted of potato chips and some kind of unidentifiable, dark-brown meat in a spicy red sauce. It was the kind of meal that makes it possible for people to stay on their diets quite easily.
If you were a Cardinals fan, this was the kind of game that could break your heart. It might also cause you to hiss and boo, which is exactly what the Cardinals' fans began doing in the second half.
The Cards were inept on offense. They gained only 32 yards the entire afternoon, while Tom Tupa was indescribably bad as he completed only 15 of 35 passes with two interceptions. They are saying now that it's time to try a new quarterback. Tupa will never be a winner. He is merely a stopgap until the Cards' number-one quarterback Timm Rosenbach returns next season.
The most amazing thing about watching a pro football game these days is that a man upstairs in a booth decides what shall happen down below him. The replay is something that has the power both to lengthen the game and to turn a great spectacle into a boring exercise.
The Cardinals were never in it.
The Republic's Bob Hurt, who the day before was so kind to Marmie, turned on Cards coach Joe Bugel.
"This was how bad it got Sunday," Hurt wrote. "The referee was more offensive than the Cardinals."
I walked around the stands because it had grown too quiet in the press box.
Wherever I went, fans kept asking themselves why they had even bothered to come to the game.
"This is awful," said one man. "This was the game when our players were going to get even. No wonder people don't come out for the games.
"There's no fun unless you win. We never see these guys do anything good. I'm getting fed up."
I walked out into the parking lot late in the fourth quarter. Most of the fans had already left. There would be no traffic jam after this game.
I spotted the same Cadillac I had spotted the day before. The license plates still read "VOICE" in the late afternoon sun.
I wondered what the "VOICE" was saying right now about our Phoenix Cardinals.
Once again, I got caught up in the World Series. I kept telling myself I didn't want to watch anymore. But something about Twins pitcher Jack Morris' intensity kept me glued to the set.
I kept waiting for Kirby Puckett to blast another home run. When the game finally ended with the Twins winning in the tenth inning, I heaved a sigh of relief.
Some were saying it was the most exciting World Series ever played. Who knows? They might even be right.
I do know one thing. It was as exciting and well-played a series as I ever remember. And I'm certain of another thing. If the seventh game had been played in Atlanta, it would have been the Braves who did the celebrating.
So baseball is gone from the screen for now. Football will become more manageable now that the Cardinals have pulled another collapse.
It's clear by the turnout that this year's ASU ball club has already been written off.
Down in the interview room, Marmie entered, looking very solemn. He was like a man about to give a funeral oration.
If you were a Cardinals fan, this was the kind of game that could break your heart. It might also cause you to hiss and boo.
"This was how bad it got Sunday," Bob Hurt wrote. "The referee was more offensive than the Cardinals.
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