Anyone familiar with the high school sports culture in this town knows how unruly the scene can get at rivalry games involving the Royals of San Marcos, the Dons of Santa Barbara and the Chargers of Dos Pueblos. It's not quite as severe as an NCAA showdown between Duke and North Carolina in Durham or Chapel Hill, but it's up there. It's enough for county sheriff's deputies to wait outside at the San Marcos Thunderhut to prevent teenage hooliganism from erupting after basketball games.
A decade ago, as a senior at San Marcos, I was ejected from my last game in the stands before tip-off for booing the DP cheerleaders. Ex-football coach turned athletic director Bob Archer escorted me out.
Overcome with shock and dismay, I nodded and left the Thunderhut as he asked. I would write Coach Archer a letter of apology the next week, which he accepted.
School spirit was something I was obsessed with back then. I went as far as painting my face blue and red once. I was a brash 17- going on 18-year-old. What happened that night warned me to be careful with that obsession.
Since then, I've gone away to college up in San Francisco, moved back to Santa Barbara after I graduated and now work at UCSB as an office professional. The days of Max the Royal fanatic are now a lifetime ago.
It's not that I've never professed any other rooting interests. A friend sharing San Francisco Giants season tickets near home plate at AT&T Park with me made it hard not to. I was a huge Los Angeles Lakers fan growing up. Shaquille O'Neal was larger than life to me when I was 12 or 13.
To have been kicked out of that high school game wasn't the only epiphany that transformed me into the more nonpartisan observer of a sports fan I am today.
To name one film or TV program that has influenced my life the most, it has to be Ken Burns' Baseball documentary. It made me laugh and cry as it enlightened me on the national pastime. As a kid, I would check it out from the library on VHS inning by inning, multiple times. A few weeks after high school graduation, I made a pilgrimage to Cooperstown when my brother played in a PONY league tournament there. Baseball, more than any other sport, captivated me without needing a team early on, and I was just getting started.
For affordable travel thrills, summer vacations of my 20s have involved gallivanting to spots around the country on a quest to attend a game in all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums. So far, I'm almost there. I've been lucky enough to pass through the turnstile at Fenway Park, the friendly confines of Wrigley Field and Yankee Stadium, "The House that Ruth Built." I've been mooned by the Phillie Phanatic. Between innings in Milwaukee, I took in the Brewers' sausage race and sang along to the "Beer Barrel Polka." I've visited the sites where Hank Aaron hit his 715th home run in Atlanta and Pete Rose singled for hit No. 4192 in Cincinnati. Last year, I stopped at the spot where first base at Shea Stadium used to be, right next to the New York Mets' new digs, where the ball went through Bill Buckner's legs in 1986. Once I sat in the right-field bleachers of Dodger Stadium, where that surprise homer from Kirk Gibson landed in 1988.
Experiences like these instilled in me a deeper connection to baseball.
The defining moment for me may have been in 2012, when I stopped in Indianapolis for a minor league game on a detour between Cincinnati and Detroit. At picturesque Victory Field in downtown Indianapolis, Santa Barbara's own Dylan Axelrod was the starting pitcher for the visiting Charlotte Knights, the White Sox's AAA affiliate. The old Max might have thought he was an enemy because he was a Santa Barbara Don. Instead, I marveled at how, via the great game of baseball, the guy was from my hometown and we crossed paths way over there in Hoosier land.
Or it could have been my former boss, she is now retired, a loyal Dodgers fan married to a Bay Area-bred Giants fan for years. I also think back to a muggy night in St. Louis, in June 2011, when few saw the St. Loius Cardinals' dramatic World Series run that fall coming. Up in the Busch Stadium mezzanine, I chatted with a friendly face so typical of Cardinal Nation, her longtime husband sitting next to us — a Cubs fan. Baseball alone helped bring these folks together. A Yankees-Red Sox romance, though — those are probably rarer.
Sure, I've been partial to the Lakers before, but these days, as long as Staples Center tickets stay so outrageously priced, not so much. Even in the nosebleeds way above where Jack Nicholson sits is difficult for me and most other middle-class patrons to afford. I have seen NBA games in person but never in the state of California. I've had better luck in New Orleans with the then-Hornets and visiting my rabid Suns fan relatives in Phoenix.
Maybe it would be different if I were related to a player on a particular team. Even so, what if he or she transfers to another school, gets traded, released or becomes a free agent? It would be tough not to change allegiances. If I were a father, I definitely wouldn't be one of those obnoxious parents who bad mouth the opposition or harass the coach for not playing my kid.
Die-hard team fans, I do acknowledge, have more than a place in the scholastic and pro ranks. After all, teams need seas of face or belly-painted, jersey- and cap-clad faithful to survive. Heck, if you are this type of fan, I need you, because you give me something to talk about. You could be the Latin teacher from Pittsburgh ecstatic about the Pirates finally posting a winning season after 20 years of futility. Or maybe you're my great aunt in Seattle hopeful of the Mariners' chances thanks to the offseason splurge on Robinson Cano.
All I want to say is that rooting for the game objectively and still having fun is possible, too.
I like to think that the advantage of not picking sides as a fan is that you win more often. For every exhilarating photo finish, overtime, extra innings, buzzer beater, bases loaded with two outs and a full count, you win. For every March Madness, Fall Classic, Olympics, Stanley Cup or World Cup extravaganza, you win. A disadvantage is missing out on the kinship one can have with a team, win or lose. Yet, just like the bleacher bum Cub fans do, I'm always waiting until next year.
— Max McCumber is a Santa Barbara resident.