Be on top, Down Under?

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Wednesday July 14, 2004. It was a day that for all intents and
purposes should have gone down as the most boring day of the year.
But it didn’t.

The day after the mid-summer classic, Major League Baseball’s
All-Star Game, just so happens to be the only day of the year
devoid of any major sporting event. If ESPN can claim to “put the
sport in Sports Bar” then July 14 can claim to suck it back out.
But, this time, it didn’t.

It was after work on that fateful Wednesday when I unwittingly
found myself in a so-called “sports bar” with a couple of fellow
grunts, and every television in the place was tuned to a channel
breaking down either the first inning of the previous day’s
All-Star game, where they accused Mike Piazza of “tipping” Roger
Clemens’ pitches to the opposing American Leaguers, or even the
“Super Retriever Series.”

But at about 7 o’clock, a rush of men wearing what appeared to
be rugby jerseys rushed into the bar, ordered a round of pints and
had the bartender tune the large screen to a television station
that was also, coincidentally, the area code for a remote part of
Minnesota and, lo and behold, I was re-introduced to the great
sport of Australian Rules Football.

A brief run-down of Aussie Ball: It’s played on an oval field,
165 meters end to end and 135 meters across the middle. There are
four posts on each end: the two in the middle are the “goal posts,”
and the two on the sides are the “behind posts.” If a player kicks
the ball (which is a lot like a rugby ball) through the two goal
posts, it is worth six points. They call that a “goal.” If a player
kicks the ball between a goal post and a behind post it’s worth one
point. The same goes if a player kicks a ball and it hits the goal
post, no matter where it ends up going. These are both called
“behinds.”

There are 18 players on the field for each team, and they can
move the ball in one of two ways: either by gripping the ball in
one hand and hitting it with a clenched fist with the other hand to
a teammate, or by punting the ball. If you punt the ball to a
teammate and the ball travels more than 10 meters, then the
teammate may have possession of the ball without being impeded upon
by an opposing player.

To stop a player from scoring, the other team can do almost
whatever they want as long as all of their hits are administered to
the opposing player’s torso. Clothes-lines are commonplace, as are
getting spiked while you’re on the ground.

Those are the basics, except for one final, yet integral part:
There is no such thing as a send-off, or an ejection. If you punch
a guy in the face you’d better be ready to deal with the
consequences. Far from it, you are being kept in the lion’s den,
anxiously awaiting a retaliatory punch to the face, or worse, by
anyone on the opposing team.

Penalties and free-kicks are handed out like Pez and the packed
stadiums continuously chant inflammatory remarks, and I mean
ALWAYS, without fail, the referees are booed as they leave the
pitch for the halftime break. It’s the Australian version of the
seventh-inning stretch.

The game I saw that fateful evening was a re-run of a game
between the Brisbane Lions and the Western Bulldogs. The game was
actually played the weekend before, and everyone in that bar knew
the outcome already, Brisbane won 136-68, but then again they are
the best team in the league. Still, I saw two Australian men, in
the bar I was at, actually get in a fight with each other about
which team was better. After a RE-RUN!

Following a rousing evening of watching the national pastime of
a former criminal colony I reluctantly came back to my humble abode
and tuned in to the 11 p.m. version of SportsCenter only to find
that Linda Cohn had moved from outlining the trajectory of Fido’s
flight into the lake with a telestrator and was now intuitively
deducting the many facets of bass-fishing: arm motions and casting
techniques. Aussie ball probably won’t be infiltrating the mecca of
American sports culture any time soon, but I hope at least a small
part of it is: booing the officials for the sake of sport.

That’s something that’s been needed around these parts for a
long time.