Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How Could I Not Fall In Love With This Team?

at Giants Stadium
by Dick Mac

Continued from Becoming RBNY

We dutifully made our way to the dreadful Giants Stadium for every home match.

We continued to make friends in our section, and spent time in the pub after every match so my daughter could meet more players and I could take more pictures, and she could collect more autographs.  She was so devoted to the players that she knew all their names, many of them remembered her from week to week, and eventually it seemed that they all knew her by name.

with Jozy Altidore
I began to enjoy chatting with the players a bit as things would quiet down.  They were all charming, and enthusiastic, and grateful for our support.  They were candid about their careers, the team, even their families and personal lives.  We met wives and girlfriends and even some parents of the players.  It was really nice.  We were part of something bigger than a sports team.  This was a community of people who were so culturally isolated from the outside world that a unique, if odd, intimacy developed among fans, players, office and support staff, and the pub workers.

with John Wolyniec
The team had succeeded in creating a product that none of us would ever stop consuming.

Things looked up as former Colombian striker Juan Pablo Angel, who had played at River Plate and Aston Villa, took the league by storm, and drove the team to a new level.  The artificial turf was rough on his knees, but he was a leader and he marched through all adversity.

in the tunnel for the 2008 MLS Cup
In 2008, the team went to Los Angeles for the MLS Cup final against Columbus.  I flew out there for the match, but did not take my daughter.  I had secured rather nice seats on the field - literally on the field, six feet from the action.  Unbeknownst to me, the facilities and services for those of us in these seats were through the tunnel where the players would enter the pitch.  My date and I made our way to the bar and on the way back to our seats, the Red Bull players were lining up for the march out.  They were right there with us, stretching and chatting.  I made small talk with some of them, and three separate conversations were identical.  The player would smile and wave or shake my hand and ask:  "Where's your daughter?"  I'd explain that she was too young for me to manage on such a long trip.  "Oh," they would say, turn and walk away.  They had no interest in talking to me, they wanted to see her!

We lost the MLS Cup final, and I have always suspected that we would have won if she had been in that tunnel to wish them well.

The following season was filthy with talk of the new stadium.  Rumors and facts and facts and rumors and pictures and projections and rumors and more rumors.  It was exciting.

Then it happened!  In 2010, Red Bull Arena opened.

with Seth Stammler
The team used the opportunity to do some charitable work, including a silent auction of team-specific items to benefit The Sporting Chance Foundation, a charity started by player Seth Stammler.  We supported his charity as best we could.  We aren't wealthy, but we attended fundraisers and purchased items and entered raffles and we participated in the silent auction.  An earlier charitable event had been a tour of the nearly-completed stadium, escorted by a player, to see all the behind-the-scenes stuff and luxury boxes that regular folks never see.  Seth was there when we arrived, and Danleigh Borman was our tour guide.  We had a wonderful time.

The new stadium was beautiful.  It was comfortable.  The players were excited about it.

And good stuff kept happening!  Halfway through the 2010 season, Thierry Henry arrived at Red Bull Arena and signed a contract.

with Juan Pablo Angel
My all-time favorite athlete was going to be on my team!

Then he bought a home in SoHo.  He took the subway to work.  He bragged about being a New Yorker.  he was in the media and showing-up all over town.

And more kept happening!  Henry convinced former teammate Rafa Marquez to join him from Barcelona and we had two amazing international stars joining Juan Pablo Angel on the Red Bulls!  These two additions to the team raised the quality of everyone's play.

I had totally forgotten about the silent auction, and I received a call from a woman in the front office reminding me that I had won a private meet and greet with the team after a match.  Since the season was drawing to a close, she needed to book a date as soon as possible.  I explained that it was actually an event for my daughter, but wasn't sure it would be OK if two of us were there.  She didn't know me, but when I told her who my daughter was, she knew her!  Everyone knew her!  There would be no problem for the two of us to attend.
Red Bull Arena construction

We picked a Saturday in September.

We planned our visit.  My daughter is required to donate ten percent of her holdings to charity, and she chose Sporting Chance Foundation would be the recipient of her largess.

After the match we went to the pub, and were met by a woman who gave us passes and a brand new children's size jersey.  We were escorted to the press room and we waited with two women.  I handed over my camera to one of them and we waited.  We posed for pictures at the podium and in front of the team logo.

Eventually, the door opened and a group of three or four players arrived.  They all knew her and there were heartfelt greetings all around.  We posed for a picture, and I instantly realized that I did not need to be in any of the pictures, that this was her event.  She gave Seth her check and I thought we would all weep.  We chatted and they all signed her new Red Bulls jersey.

As time went by, the door would open and another player would arrive.  They were all thrilled to see it was a little girl waiting for them, and not a fat old guy like me.  Well, I was waiting for them, too, but they were there to see her.  Some sat and chatted for awhile, especially the guys with kids.  They told her she was beautiful, and they were happy to see it was her waiting for them.  As always, they were charming.

with Rafa (The most
handsome man in the world?)
Rafa Marquez arrived with his foot wrapped in an ice bag.  His English is a little better than my Spanish, but the universal language of fan adoration needs no words.  He did not want to sit, explaining that it felt better to stand.  He was downright flirtatious with her and we all blushed.

Juan Pablo Angel arrived and said he remembered her beautiful eyes from an event earlier in the season.  He picked her up and gave her a hug.  He is always pleasant and chatty.  Each time I have been in a social event with him, he has been a regular guy talking about regular things.

This went on for some time, and there was only one player left:  Titi.

with Thierry Henry
We learned that he would be delayed, so we went out to the field where a reserve match was happening and we took pictures.  We eventually made our way back to the press room, and it happened.  Thierry Henry walked through the door and was standing right there in front of me.  He instantly greeted her and exclaimed how nice it was to meet her.  I stood there in my #14 Henry jersey, unable to make a sentence.  I stammered and stumbled through some greetings as the two of them chatted.  He took pictures with both of us.  I was so flustered I forgot to have him sign my jersey.

The night is etched in our collective memories and we each remember different details.  It's an event we will talk about the rest of our lives.

The season ended and we renewed our seats immediately.

The 2011 season included more wins and more heartbreak, the departure of Juan Pablo Angel, more meet and greets, and the MLS All-Star match.  We saw Titi, David Beckham, and the rest of the MLS-best play a match against Manchester United.  It was impressive.  It was amazing.

The team hired a new president of operations -- a former executive from the NBA.  The promise of improvements was in the air.

Change was in the air.

Loving The Move, Hating The Change

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