The Gold Rush: Unplugged
ByBLS columnist, Justin Goldman
It’s not exactly hard for sports fans to stay up to date these days. Between the mainstream media, the blogosphere, and social media, there’s no shortage of ways to get info on your favorite teams and players. The obsessive fan used to be at the mercy of daytime sports talk radio for his fix, but now there’s no need to tune into the Mikes and Mad Dogs of the world. There’s an ocean of content out there that you can access without the filter of some schmuck with a microphone: Any stat, any anecdote, any analysis you want, someone out there has it for you. Hell, if you want to know what LeBron James is doing RIGHT THIS VERY SECOND, you can probably figure it out in just a few clicks.
The flipside of all this is that it can start to feel overwhelming. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve wasted on Fangraphs, Hoops Hype, Grantland, and a dozen other websites that you, if you’re reading this, surely know the names of. Sometimes we need to take a step back and get a little perspective.
I had that opportunity, or so I thought, the week before last, when I spent eight days in Guatemala. While it’s stunningly beautiful, Guatemala is one of the poorest countries in Latin America (in 2014, the United Nations Development Program ranked it 17th in the region, ahead of only Honduras, Nicaragua, and Haiti), so it should come as little surprise that Wi-Fi can be a little hard to come by there. Even at the relatively posh hotels where I stayed, the Internet was painfully slow. Which was fine by me—I didn’t go to Guatemala to sit in my room and stare at Facebook.
But on my second or third night in Guatemala, after a long day of wandering the colonial city of Antigua, I flopped down on my bed and flipped open my laptop. I was greeted with a rush of messages from friends. “The Niners have lost their God damn minds since you left,” said one. “I feel like someone stabbed me in the heart,” said another. Hmmm. It turned out that over the weekend, Frank Gore had signed with the Eagles (actually, it later turned out, the Colts) and Patrick Willis had retired. And Justin Smith was probably going to retire. And maybe Colin Kaepernick was on the trading block? Oh, and Bruce Miller was suspected of domestic violence. (And then later there was the Chris Borland retirement, which deserves its own column, but I had already written this one when that announcement came out, so this is what you get.)
It was, of course, those first two items in that list that spurred the strongest reaction from my friends. If you’re a fan of another team, you may not understand how important Gore and Willis are to Niners fans. The post-Montana, post-Young, even post-Garcia years were brutal for fans in San Francisco, littered with incompetent coaches, Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers decisions, and so, so many losses. I know we were spoiled by two decades of success, but all that winning made the losing of 2004-2010 all the more torturous. And during that time, we had just two shining lights to give us hope: Gore, the third-round draft pick with two surgically repaired knees who ran for almost 1,700 yards in his second season, surpassed 1,000 yards in every following year but one, and would go on to become the team’s all-time leading rusher; and Willis, who, in a story that deserves its own Blind Side treatment, rose from utter destitution and poverty to become a first-round draft pick and then the best linebacker in the world. Willis in particular, was a favorite of so many of ours because of his fiery pregame huddle speeches and his ability to do things like this:
Willis also starred in the amazing K-Swiss Kenny Powers ads, which gave birth to the line I shouted across my favorite sports bar every time he made a big hit: “Kill that motherfucker, Patrick Willis!”
Analytically, as I write this now, I can see what’s happening. Trent Baalke has won the organizational power struggle and sent Jim Harbaugh packing for the Big House in Ann Arbor, and he’s gradually turning the team over to the players that he drafted and moving away from Harbaugh’s guys. It makes sense with Gore—he’s a 31-year-old running back, after all, and the Niners have Carlos Hyde in the wings. And while I’m sure they didn’t want Willis to retire, at least they thought they had NaVorro Bowman and Borland to step in.
But I was saved from both the emotional reaction I felt at the time (a shouted “Godfuckingdammit!) and the more rational one I feel as I type now (a shaken head and a muttered “Godfuckingdammit) by my shoddy Internet access. My instinct was to go flying around the web, to Tim Kawakami and Bill Barnwell and the guys at Niners Nation, to get the scoop behind all this. But the pages were taking too long to load, and I said, fuck it, I’m going to Lake Atitlán tomorrow, and I closed my laptop. And the rest of the week I didn’t think about the Niners.
If I had been in the States, the news about Gore and Willis would have ruined my week. Instead, I got to enjoy living in the above picture. I guess the point is, as much as we’re all so plugged into the sports world, as awesome as it feels to be a fan when something like this happens:
Sometimes we’re better off unplugging for a few days and remembering there’s a world out there beyond the sports universe.
Now, do me a favor and remind me I wrote that when I start breaking things after Baalke trades Kaepernick.