Once upon a time, there was a city. It was not the largest city, or the smallest. It was not the richest or the poorest. But this city had a reputation, nonetheless. It was known throughout the land as dry and inhospitable -- heated to unimaginable temperatures for several months of the year, ruled by a witch of a governor and a cruel sheriff, a cultural wasteland. The people of this city knew the truth. Yes, upper management could be rough, and at first the landscape wasn't easy on the eyes, but past the strip malls and the cookie cutter subdivisions, a wonderful metropolis burgeoned: bartenders poured the craftiest of cocktails, world-class chefs cooked, there were sports teams to cheer for, boutiques to shop at, and clubs where you could dance the night away.
Once a year, the kind-hearted souls at the city's alternative newsweekly gathered the finest of what the place had to offer, presenting it in the hallowed pages of a book called the "Best of Phoenix." This year's edition features "Tales of the City" -- true stories told and legends explained.
Our chapter on sports begins with an essay by Arizona writer Michael Grady.
See also: Legend City: Best of Phoenix 2014
See also: Best of Phoenix 2014
Once upon a time in Phoenix, the most critical life-and-death news had to be shared in code.
"Let's go over the signals again," my friend Joe said.
This was November 2001. Most Americans were enjoying a World Series that salved the horrors of 9/11 for a little while. But for Diamondbacks fans, the series was a gut-wrenching exercise: a "hey-we-won-one!" at home, then another (with the whiff of immortality to it), followed by three consecutive Bronx beatdowns. Three nights of wordless horror watching giddy pinstripes run counter-clockwise around Byung-hung Kim, while commentators rewrote us as foils for Yankee greatness. When we bucked the narrative long enough to force a Game Seven, Bank One Ballpark became Main Street in Gary Cooper's in High Noon: Your best. Our best. The whole world watching.
Well, almost. My friend Joe was teaching a writing class in California that night.
"During Game Seven?" I asked. "Why would you do that?"
"Because it's a paying gig -- it was booked months ago -- and because life is cruel," he said. "But I'll need to know how it ends, from a friend. Because I have a feeling it won't end well."
We came up with a one-if-by-land-two-if-by-sea type of deal. "I'll have my phone on vibrate." Joe said. "If the Yankees win, let it ring once, and I'll know."
"And if the Diamondbacks win?"
"What if you miss the first vibrate?" I asked.
"I won't," he said. "I'll have the phone in my pants pocket."
"So you'll be standing at a podium trying to count how many times your pants go off? That doesn't sound like a good classroom experience."
"All right, all right," Joe said. "If the Diamondbacks win, just keep ringing."
These days are hard to remember now. This Diamondbacks season "went Hindenburg" in early April, and the most pressing local sports stats this summer have been blood alcohol levels and arraignment dates. But sports is a kind of community-bonding agent. A social glue. In seasons like this, where we suffer together, it does us good to remember when each of us suffered alone.
"What about Boston?"
"Boston's cold," my girlfriend said.
Even in the early '90s, hardcore fans saw Phoenix as a pass-through community: a place to earn your degree or start your career before moving to a real sports town. Over breakfast, I'd crack open the paper to look at the standings, and we'd look for our Promised Land. " "How about Toronto?"
"You'd leave the United States?"
"They have pitching. What about Cleveland?"
It wasn't snobbery. (People who build their own mascot heads are many things, but not elitist.) Phoenix just lacked that community lightning rod you'd see in places like my previous home, Chicago. In 1989 -- the night the Cubs won their first division title since 1731 -- people walked off their jobs. We clogged the streets around Wrigley Field, screaming and hooting and daring a guy in a Batman suit to jump off the roof of a sports bar. (Beer made this important, somehow.) The Cubs themselves were not there that night -- they'd won their game in Montreal -- but we didn't need them, really. We were a sports town.
Jelling as a sports community can be a brutal process. Because the first few times you rally around your local franchise, you're usually playing Don Quixote to someone else's windmill.
My first communal Phoenix sports experience occurred in the spring of 1993, when Horace Grant of the Chicago Bulls scooped a Scottie Pippen pass out to a waiting John Paxson at the three-point line. Charles Barkley, Danny Ainge, and every other purple-and-orange soul tried frantically to reverse field, but if Paxson were any more alone, he'd have written a country song about it. Sound and motion slowed. Ainge's hand splayed toward the shooter, like mine and 3 million other Valley hands, and a curious atonal "Nooo!" sounded as Paxson fired, the net danced, and destiny drifted away.
I felt terrible. My phone began trilling with friends from Chicago. I had to get away. I drove to the Camelview 5, bought a ticket for Strictly Ballroom -- the most un-basketball movie they had -- and sat down in a full auditorium. Just before the feature, they aired a physical fitness PSA. A claymation Phoenix Suns team filled the screen and the entire crowd writhed groaned in raw, communal pain. As a clay Charles Barkley told us "Don't be a spud," several people shouted back:
"We had it won!"
"Cover the three-point line!"
"What happened, Charles?"
I still felt terrible. But I didn't feel alone.
People say professional sports is too powerful, its athletes too wealthy, its followers too oblivious to pressing issues in the world. They'll get no argument from me. But I have hugged Chicago police officers, laughed with many a stranger, and sung "Kansas City" with a whole Tucson bus one magical March. These days, two things empower us to connect with our neighbors: tragedies and championship runs. I will take the latter, win or lose.
And the cruelty of Paxson's shot -- or Robert Horry's mugging of Steve Nash, or Santonio Holmes' last-second catch -- is more than redeemed by the night an "excuse me" single squirted off Luis Gonzalez's bat. I watched it wobble over an infield drawn in for the death-and-taxes certainty of a Mariano Rivera save -- and bounce, serenely, into history. "Call Joe!" my wife shouted.
Ringing once. Ringing twice. Jay Bell is mobbed at the plate. My wife is crying and laughing. Ringing five times. Ringing six times. My face cracks its first post-9/11 smile. Ringing eight times. Ringing nine times. At home and onscreen, people at home are jumping up and down. Our dogs are getting motion sickness.
On the 10th ring, I'm ready to hang up when my telephone screams:
"Are you fuckin' kidding me?!"
"Are you fuckin' kidding me?!"
"Gonzo walk-off single. Randy Johnson wins in relief."
"Are you fuckin' kidding me?! This didn't fuckin' happen!"
"It did!" I assured him. "How'd you get out of your class?"
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"My class . . ." He remembered. And then the phone fell silent a while. "I'm going to have to call you back."
About the writer Michael Grady is a local writer, performer, and frustrated Diamondbacks fan. His plays have included Past History, White Picket Fence, and The Harmony Codes. He has written for Times Publications, the East Valley Tribune, and Phoenix Magazine, and his upcoming eBook, Death Calls a Meeting, is either a funny murder mystery or a comedy with a body count, depending on your point of view.
About the artist Scott Biersack is a letterer, illustrator, and designer based in Phoenix. He's a strong believer in the sayings "practice makes perfect" and "follow your bliss." As cliché as they might sound, he has found from experience that anything is possible. "Through hard work, determination, and lack of sleep, I have truly grown to love what I do." See also: Legend City: Best of Phoenix 2014