A dreary November evening in San Diego had three of the members of MJN Air seated together in the bar of their hotel. It was nowhere near bedtime yet, but their flight the next morning was early, so Carolyn had suggested rather firmly that the crew remain at the hotel. She had managed to stare down Douglas and prevent him from running off on his own. When he complained about the sheer boredom of having to turn in early and do nothing until then, she had placated him by suggesting the hotel bar.
“At least nursemaiding the other two will give you something to do other than staring at the ceiling of your room,” Carolyn said. “Now stop complaining and be elsewhere. I shall retire to my room and be out of your company for what little time I am afforded.”
Martin was having a beer at the bar. Arthur was happily downing some orange juice (and hadn’t batted an eye when told the bar did not currently have any pineapple juice). Douglas, upon entering the bar, had opted for one of the booths after declaring that he had a severe case of cabin fever and needed to see some unfamiliar faces. Soon, he was chatting away with some of the men in the bar who were watching a football game.
Martin sighed into his beer after a short conversation with the bartender. He looked at Douglas out of the corner of his eye, wishing he could be as outgoing as him sometimes. How was it that Douglas always managed to fit in with people, no matter where they went? Right now, Douglas was whooping and cheering for something that happened on the television, alongside the other bar patrons.
“Did you see that?” one of the other men shouted.
“What a play! Nice interception!” Douglas affirmed. Turning slightly, he caught Martin’s eye and waved him over with his apple juice. “Come on over and watch the game, gents!”
Martin and Arthur gave each other a “why not?” shrug. The two of them stood and walked over to the corner with the television. When they sat down, introductions were made all around.
“Men, this is Captain Martin Crieff,” Douglas began, with great emphasis on his words and an amusement in his voice that did not go undetected by Martin.
“Yes, well, I am the Captain. What do you mean by that?” Martin said with a scowl.
“Nothing, just wanted to say it before you did,” Douglas replied. “And Arthur Shappey…”
“I’m Andy, this is Pete, that’s Jeff, and that’s Charles.”
The men chowed down on chili cheese fries, chicken wings, and other bar food as the game continued, with cheering or booing appropriate for whatever was going on at the moment. Douglas followed the action rather well, while Martin was hopelessly lost. Arthur seemed to just enjoy being amidst such good cheer, as the home team was winning.
At halftime, the other men that Douglas had befriended announced that they had another group to meet up with, and excused themselves, shaking hands with the crew as they left. Andy gave Douglas a hearty slap on the back and waggled his finger at him. “Never met a Brit who knew so much about football, man! You’re all right, Douglas, you’re all right.”
“Go Chargers!” Douglas shouted loudly as the men left.
Martin just shook his head. “Douglas, how do you know so much about football?”
“Oh, Martin,” Douglas scoffed, waving his hand for emphasis. “You ought to know better. I know nothing about American football.”
“What I do know all about is the art of faking your way through absolutely anything. Now, taking American football as an example...”
“Yes?” Martin said, indicating for Douglas to go on.
“You pick up a few key phrases here and there – you know, listening to what the announcers are saying and repeat things like ‘pass interference’ or ‘sacking the quarterback.’ Who cares what that actually means? You make a note of what city you currently are in – a task which I’m sure even you are capable of not mucking up – and match it up to one of the teams playing, pick that one to cheer for with an unusual sort of enthusiasm, and hey presto: you’re an expert. And one of the gang.”
Martin was skeptical. “It can’t be that easy.”
“For you, most things aren’t,” Douglas purred with his usual smugness.
“Douglas -” Martin began sternly, but was cut off before he could finish.
“I’ll give you some help. Why don’t you have a go right now?” Douglas said, his voice just a touch kinder. Douglas’s memory flashed to a warm evening back home in Fitton, when he was pretending to drink whiskey at a makeshift pub at the airfield and Martin had tried to pretend his favored football club was Nottingham United.
“What, you mean – like with American football right now?”
“Yes, this game. I’ll even start. Nice pass by Rodgers, wasn’t that?”
“That’s the… bloke from the other team though, isn’t it?”
“Yes, good eye. You see? You’ve already got how all you have to do is read the backs of their jerseys.” Douglas then resumed his commentary with, “Nice pass, but let’s see if Rodgers can manage that again!” He turned to Martin again and, breaking character, continued in a stage whisper. “Notice how I used a touch of derision in my voice there, however, as though daring the quarterback of the opposing side to do well again. I’m implying that I’m doubting that he could.”
“Ahhhh,” Martin said agreeably, raising his beer in acknowledgment. “All right then. I’m starting to get it. Now, that was a… that was quite a run the receiver made!”
“Well done, Martin!”
“But I was just repeating what the announcer just said.”
“And that’s how I do, Martin,” Douglas assured him. “It is that easy. Or you just bring up something you’ve got in the back of your mind from before as a conversation filler. Say, for instance – remember that amazing 80-yard run that the Chiefs running back made awhile back? That was certainly something, wasn’t it?”
When Martin just looked confused, Douglas explained, “Just something I heard some people talking about when we were in Madison. Just say it next time American football comes up in mixed company. Or the next time you’re stuck in a hotel bar in the States with a game playing in the background, I suppose. You can have that one for free.”
“Can I have it for free too?” Arthur piped up.
“Of course you can,” Douglas said, with only the slightest touch of sarcasm.
Martin brightened for a moment, and then turned his eyes back to the screen. “You mean you’ve actually got away with just… re-wording what they say on the telly, and ended up looking like you know what you’re talking about?”
“Go on and give it a try yourself,” Douglas told him.
“Well… all right.”
Soon, Martin and Arthur were having a grand time pretending to be American football experts and San Diego Chargers fans. Getting into the mood was easy. It was simple enough to tell when the home team had done something good, so the MJN crew cheered happily whenever that happened. A pretty girl smiled at Martin from a few booths over, and Douglas elbowed Martin. “Nice tackle, wasn’t it?!” Martin shouted, a bit louder than he would have if he hadn’t been drinking. He grinned. If this was Douglas’s own bizarre way of apologizing for saying he was tired of seeing their faces, well, then, he’d take it.
It was funny – none of the three cared at all who won or lost that particular game, but they couldn’t deny the sense of camaraderie that came from cheering for something together. When the receiver of the Chargers scored a touchdown, Martin stood on his chair and whooped, and Arthur joined him. Douglas shook his head and tried to look exasperated, but ended up cheered anyway, and clapped for the home team.
The bar cleared out quite a bit once the game was over, although a few people remained. Arthur, Martin, and Douglas continued their chat now that the place was quieter, snacking on peanuts as they talked.
“It’s hopeless. I mean, you know I can’t even get things in football straight – I mean, our football – and I’m supposed to, otherwise you can’t socialize properly in these days,” Martin said with an eye roll. Wistfully, he added in a much quieter voice, “I’ve never got the hang of football. This wouldn’t really work back home when I can’t even tell people which club I support. Or the basics of how the game works.”
“Oh, Skipper, football’s easy. It’s just ‘put the ball in the goal.’ Like how basketball is ‘put the ball in the basket,’ and hockey is ‘put the puck in the net,’” Arthur put in helpfully. He gave Martin a sympathetic look. “Those are all so simple, though. American football though, that makes no sense.”
“I’m with you there, Arthur. That was fun, watching the game with everyone, but I still didn’t know what was going on,” Martin agreed.
“Well, it’s not your fault, because it doesn’t make sense. It’s got all those downs, and yards and things. If there’s downs, how come there aren’t ups? Or maybe there are ups? And so many numbers with the yards and the keeping track of how many downs you’ve got. I mean, who wants to do maths when you’re watching sports?”
“As a matter of fact, the Arthur Shappey School of Thought For Oversimplifying Team Sports does apply to American football, surprisingly. It’s ‘put the egg-shaped thing on the other side of the field.’ As far as I can tell, anyway,” Douglas said.
“Oh, right. Something about end zones or whatnot. Still, there’s just too much to keep track of. What about when that one chap said they were putting the special teams in? Is that like when that engineer who doesn’t work at the airfield anymore asked if I was special, and then Mum called him a – well, you heard what she called him,” Arthur babbled.
Martin chuckled at the memory, and Douglas replied with a hint of laughter in his voice, “I’m not too clear on what they meant by ‘special teams’ either. It’s a confusing term at best. Perhaps it is the same meaning as intended by that engineer who, rightfully so, does not work at the airfield anymore.”
“Right. But you know what the main problem I have with American football is it’s just so dull,” Arthur declared.
“But you were having so much fun!” Martin said with a good amount of surprise in his voice.
“Only because I was with you two! You guys make everything fun,” Arthur said. “I loved cheering the team on with you two. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t annoying every time they’d stop the play. On its own, American football is dull.”
Martin was suddenly overcome with the confusion of how Arthur, who found everything to be brilliant, could say that anything was “dull.” This was mixed with the faint pleasure of Arthur’s compliment. In all, Martin couldn’t figure out how to respond, so he just said nothing. Douglas was too much in agreement with Arthur’s assessment of American football to be as conflicted. His response was a simple, “Oh?”
“Terribly dull, yes. They always stop and start every minute! See, they’re doing it right now!” Arthur frowned and gestured angrily at the television.
“That’s a replay.” Douglas wondered if he would have to remind Arthur that they had just been celebrating the end of the game moments prior.
“Oh. But… they’re doing it in the replay!”
“Fair enough,” Douglas conceded.
“Once something gets going, it just all stops again, and then the players are milling about, while the coaches talk about something.” Arthur groaned loudly at the television. Martin and Douglas each gave him their own version of a funny look – their happy-go-lucky steward did whinge about things sometimes, but American football would not have been their first guess for “things that annoy Arthur Shappey.”
“You know what would make American football better? If it was somehow, I don’t know, more interesting to watch. Like, maybe there could be a puma,” Arthur said brightly.
Martin sputtered into his beer.
“Could this perhaps be another one of those instances where a word doesn’t mean what you think it means?” Douglas asked.
“Erm… does ‘puma’ not mean ‘big scary mountain lion’?” Arthur asked.
“It does,” Martin assured him, having successfully held back his laughter. To Douglas, he said, “Looks like it’s actually just another one of those instances of Arthur being Arthur.”
A faint smile played at Douglas’s lips as he said, “I’m always grateful for a reminder that I will never understand the way your brain works, Arthur. Nor do I ever wish to.”
“No, really! Think about it! When you’re dashing down that field doing an 80-yard run, how on Earth could you justify blowing that whistle and stopping the play… when there’s a puma chasing the running back?”
“I… guess you couldn’t, Arthur. Right you are,” Martin agreed hesitantly.
“I’m impressed. That sounded rather convincing,” Douglas said. There was a strange sense of pride in him – muddled together with disbelief – that Arthur had somehow managed to memorize a part of his random sports trivia. Apparently, when Arthur had asked to have it, he had actually intended on keeping it.
“So, you’d just have a puma, set loose onto the football field, to… what, do as it pleases during the course of the game?”
“Yes, and the players would have to still play by the rules whilst avoiding the puma,” Arthur insisted.
“Would there be a puma per team?” Martin asked.
“Hmm…” Arthur thought for a moment. “Now, that is an interesting point. Perhaps you could either have one puma on the loose, terrorizing both sides, or you could have two, and you’ve trained your own puma to only go after the other team.”
Martin burst out laughing, and even Douglas let out a chuckle. “The field of sports medicine would enjoy a sudden boom if this gets introduced,” Douglas said.
Arthur wasn’t finished. He added, “And then, as you said, since the point of the game is ‘put the egg-shaped thing in the end zone,’ what if you get to the end zone, but the challenge isn’t over yet? There’s still another puma to be dealt with. You can’t score a touchdown until you’ve avoided the final puma.”
Martin cracked up, and let out an enthused “Yes, of course!” Then, he gasped as an idea came to him. “But what if the final challenge wasn’t to avoid the last puma? What if you’re meant to meet it head on, and actually tackle the puma in the end zone?”
“Yes, brilliant! Absolutely, Skip! You don’t score your touchdown until you’ve tackled the last puma!” Arthur shouted with a big grin.
“I like it,” declared Douglas. When the other two nodded their agreement, Douglas took a sip of his apple juice, and added, “That, by the way, is an up. A down is a whatever the hell it is, and an up is when you’ve managed to tackle a puma without becoming eviscerated by it.”
“Hmm, what else? How would you go about making rugby more interesting?” Martin mused when he finally finished laughing.
“I don’t see how rugby could get any more interesting than it already is, when you consider the mid-air whiskey thefts and the thrill of not knowing whether or not our tips are going to come through,” Arthur answered, his face open and honest.
Douglas and Martin laughed, any blame for lost tips far behind them at that point. “I take your point,” Martin said. “How would you make hockey more interesting?”
“Hockey’s already fairly interesting with the fighting,” Arthur began, “but… hmm, let me have a think.” He furrowed his eyebrows as he sipped his orange juice, and then said, “You would have to use the ice to make it interesting, right? Maybe if – OH!” Arthur gasped with excitement. “Brilliant! Polar bears! Polar bears are brilliant, and if you had polar bears on the ice too, then what could be better?!” Arthur’s voice had risen a few octaves just from the mere thought of polar bears and how brilliant they were, so several of the other bar patrons turned to stare at them for a few seconds.
“Sounds dangerous,” Martin said, raising an eyebrow.
“How is that any more dangerous than the puma?” Douglas countered. “Plus, you can go faster on the ice skates.” Turning to Arthur, Douglas went on, “Now, how would game play work here? How many polar bears are we talking about?”
“At least five. The object of the game would be to weave in and out and around the polar bears while still managing to put the puck into the net,” Arthur said confidently. “Like a sort of obstacle course.”
“A polar bear obstacle course,” Martin repeated with a nod. “And maybe you have to toss some fish to each of the polar bears while still keeping a hold of your hockey stick so they’re not tempted to make a snack out of you.”
“Good one, Skip,” Arthur agreed.
“Tennis,” Douglas challenged.
“Hmm…” Arthur mused for a few moments. He drummed the tabletop with his fingers while he thought, and then finally answered, “Could it be like a hot potato game, where the tennis ball explodes after some time? And neither of the players know when it’s going to explode. Except, it’s not a real explosion, of course. It just bursts open and paint flies out, and whoever gets covered in it, loses!”
Martin let out a laugh, and said to Douglas, “You know, this could be our flight deck game tomorrow morning. How to make boring sports more interesting.”
“And Arthur’s surprisingly a natural at it,” Douglas admitted.
“All right, then. I’ve got a good one. How would you spice up the most boring sport I can think of… baseball?” Martin said.
Without missing a beat, Arthur very promptly had an answer. “Sword-fighting.”
Now even Douglas was laughing heartily. “How in God’s name did that pop into your mind? And so quickly?”
“Well, now, this one comes from the actual rules! Because, that last time, when we were in Philly, we watched a bit of the baseball game, remember?”
“I don’t think any of us were actually paying attention, but yes, there was a game on in the restaurant,” Martin affirmed.
“Well, I was paying attention! And they were talking a lot about swords! And sword-fighting, or something… or something like it, anyway. But they were only talking about it, and not actually doing it, so actually, that must just be a thing with baseball. There is a lot of discussion about sword-fighting, but no actual doing it, which is sad because that would make baseball a whole lot more interesting.”
“Arthur,” Douglas began, but then paused momentarily to close his eyes and gather his composure. When he returned to the conversation, he had his “dealing with Arthur” look on his face and spoke slowly and deliberately. “Arthur, no. You are mistaken. You heard something and thought it meant something else. I barely know enough to fake my way through a baseball game, but I still can assure you that… no. Just, no.”
“Perhaps you merely thought you were paying attention,” Martin suggested, holding back a little laughter.
“No, I was paying attention! Baseball definitely has something to do with swords! I think the pitcher must use swords or something, because they kept on talking about the pitcher going on holidays, and what they mean by that is, he practices sword-fighting when he’s not at work, and somehow it helps him with when he’s doing baseball.”
“Arthur, you are most definitely mistaken,” Douglas repeated.
“No, really! Something about the pitcher going on holidays, and swords!”
“Absolutely not!” Martin said, hiding his grin by taking a large swig of beer.
“Then… maybe it’s just a thing in Philadelphia? Like some sort of odd local custom.”
At this point, Martin and Douglas could only look at each other, bereft of speech.
Suddenly, the girl sitting the booth behind them turned around, slung her arm over the back of her chair, and offered some insight. “Couldn’t help but overhear, guys. He means Halladay. Roy Halladay, pitcher for the Phillies. And he’s right, you know… but they’re not swords. They’re sabers. Look it up.” With a wink at Arthur, the girl turned back around and returned to minding her own business.
The three boys of MJN Air were stunned into silence for a moment. Martin was the first to speak. “Oh come on, now. She’s just taking the mick out of the silly Brits who don’t know anything about American sports,” Martin said, waving his hand dismissively. Then, after a short pause, he added, “Surely.”
Douglas had no choice but to type “baseball sabers” into his smart phone. After a moment, he looked up. “Google would kindly like to ask, ‘Did you mean SABR?’ As in, S.A.B.R.,” Douglas said, reading out the letters individually.
In answer to the very confused look on Martin’s face, Douglas continued. “According to Wikipedia, ‘Sabermetrics is the specialized analysis of baseball through objective evidence, especially baseball statistics that measure in-game activity. The term is derived from the acronym SABR, which stands for the Society for American Baseball Research’… You were taking the mick,” Douglas growled the last bit over his shoulder at the girl, who merely shrugged innocently.
Martin then shook his head, and gave Arthur a sardonic smile. He repeated, “Sabermetrics. And from that, Arthur, you remembered it as swords, and came to sword-fighting.” He couldn’t hold it back any longer. Martin dissolved into a fit of laughter, and was soon joined by Douglas.
Undaunted, Arthur simply smiled brightly. “Still. Imagine if the baseball players went out onto the field wielding sabers, and dueled each other. You’d watch that, wouldn’t you, Skip?”
Martin smiled at Arthur – a genuine smile, this time – and had to admit that he would.