King Of Sports Fans

San Francisco 49ersHe was a square chunk of man, Mr. Edward Merchant. With arms like crowbars, he was a figure actors could study to learn how to act tough. He stood about five feet five, maybe a little less in width.

As a Merchant Marine he’d been around the world more than Magellan and John Travolta combined. That he was a Merchant Marine named Merchant seemed funny, though he didn’t encourage it.

One subject ran through his day. Sports. Every day. It was the first thing in his morning and last thing at night.

This was a man who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. He remembered the young Cassius Clay running and dancing on the sidewalks before he went to Rome to win the light-heavyweight gold medal, before he became Muhammad Ali and the world agreed he was The Greatest.

Eddie said older men would block the sidewalk to make Cassius run around them. He said Clay used to talk as much then as he did later, the difference being the audience. Kentucky was a tough crowd for The Louisville Lip.

I met Ed when we both worked for the Oregon Historical Society. He was old then, maybe early seventies, old enough to be a grandpa, and was, but there was nothing retiring about him.

Ed was the Sports Guy, on top of breaking news and record books for every sport we talked about. He knew everything. We had a running bet for a decade. I had the Cowboys, he had the 49ers. The decade was 1980’s.

Was it a good bet? San Francisco is the Team of the 80’s with four Super Bowl wins, and a bad decade for the Cowboys, but we never changed teams. We shared the sports fan’s honor of sticking with our teams. The bet was for an eight-pack, or ten-pack, of little Wild Turkey. The winner always shared, just never 50/50.

The worse the Cowboys got, the greater sympathy Ed showed. We switched the bet to a mini-rack of Old Grand-Dad.

The more we talked about sports, the more we planned the ultimate goal of every sports fan: A road trip to a big game. Since it was springtime in Portland, a big game road trip meant Seattle and the Kingdome.

Eddie got tickets for the first inter-league game between the Dodgers and Mariners. During his sea-going days he transferred ships in New York to catch a few Dodger games in Brooklyn. He said Ebbets Field like everyone knew what it was.

We drove up on the big day, parked close. Our seats in the Kingdome were in middle of a group of Mariner maniacs who knew each other well enough to share sandwiches. Once Eddie started talking Brooklyn Dodger-smack our group turned on us. They were still nice because Ed was so old, but no one shared any peanuts or Crackerjacks.

When it looked like the Dodgers had it in the bag, we left to beat the crowd. Our new friends threw a little popcorn our way in a less than good sportsmanship gesture.

Since we had such a great parking spot, we listened to the rest of the game on the car radio while we left town. On my way around the block I made a wrong turn and ended up on a causeway with nowhere to turn around. About halfway across the lake, the Mariner third baseman (if I remember correctly) ended the game with an extra inning homer.

We heard the crowd go wild on our way to Canada.

Eddie seemed pleased, so I had to ask, “Eddie, why do you leave early?”

“Well, Dave, y’see, at my age I don’t want to get a push in the back and fall down the stairs. And that Kingdome had lots of stairs. You wouldn’t want that. I wouldn’t want that. Not the friendliest fans, either, you know. So here we are.”

It made enough sense to let it go. Like a bad throw to home plate, you either let it go or that’s all you remember. Sports encourages athletes, and us by proxy, to ignore failure in our shared short-term memory. That’s where the saying ‘Wait until next year’ was born. That’s how long-term sports fan memory works. Next Year.

When Eddie retired, the Oregon History staff gave a party and handed him an envelope. Inside were two tickets to a Blazer game. It was more than just a game though. He had tickets for the Bulls vs. Blazers with Michael Jordan in the house for the last time. Eddie nodded toward me.

We did it right on game night. I picked him up at his place in NE Portland and headed out for ribs and beers and basketball. We got to the Rose Garden and showed the tickets. The usher pointed us to the top of the 300 section. The steps looked like a smaller version of Mt. Everest.

Our seats were just below the cement wall. A group of screamers had the top row. When they weren’t screaming they said things like, “We can stand and scream all game long and won’t be in anyone’s way.”

And they did.

With an odd sense of ‘been here before,’ Eddie said we ought to think about leaving halfway through the fourth quarter. The Blazers were ahead, the steps looked formidable, and I said, “let’s go now.” (Tip to those walking down steep steps with the elderly: walk in front. If they fall, they fall on you.)

We made it out of the building and into the parking lot. Walking toward our bus, every radio blasted the same thing along the way. The Bulls were coming back, but time was running down. It was a great night to be a Blazer fan.

Then Michael Jordan got the ball for the last shot, the winning shot, and we heard it through a speaker. The crowd went dead, a dead respect for the greatest player of all time. The dead noise sounded like, “He’s Michael Freaking Jordan and he just did to us what he’s done to everyone else. And we like it.”

Eddie and I got on the bus. Others followed, talking about witnessing greatness and what it felt like seeing the game on the line with the ball in Jordan‘s hand. They called it the thrill of a lifetime.

I sat beside Eddie, listening together.

“Sounds good, doesn’t it?” I said. “We could have seen that.”

“Sounds like they forgot who won,” he said. “We had it. Who did the Blazers expect to get the last shot?”

With that, Ed Merchant, sports fan of a lifetime, takes his last shot against Michael Jordan. And he drains it.

About Arran Gimba

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