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red_sox_logoI am a Red Sox fan.

This is the year that I, a lifelong baseball fan, was finally willing to come out and admit that fact. It’s been something I’ve hidden from everyone but my wife for many years, and my decision to come out of the closet this year was a difficult one. I’m not joking. It got me reflecting on how complicated our sports allegiances can be.

As a rabid baseball fan in Western Canada, I’m somewhat of an anomaly, and it’s because of my mother. I was born in Toronto; though I’ve spent almost all my life in Vancouver, my parents are still, in many ways, Torontonians through-and-through. While hockey is secondary to me as a sports fan, I am a Vancouver Canucks fan and have little interest in other teams; no doubt my parents would be fervently rooting for the Leafs in a Vancouver/Toronto Stanley Cup match.

My parents are both baseball fans; while I know my father got his early interest in baseball from his older brother’s love for the Brooklyn Dodgers, I’m not sure when my mother became a fan, but it’s her influence as a baseball lover that I’ve felt most strongly over the years. I know that from the time I was 3 years old, I was under the umbrella of the Blue Jays, which as far as I can remember was my mother’s influence. One of my early memories about clothes as a kid – probably only 6 or 7 years old – was my pride in my Blue Jays baseball caps and T-shirts.

I played baseball as a kid as well, and it was the only sport I played I actually loved to play. My baseball obsession really didn’t blossom until I was 13 years old, though. That’s when we moved back to Toronto because of my dad’s job. While it was a short-lived move, while we lived there we began attending baseball games. I can remember my first game in the brand-new Skydome (now Rogers Centre) and feeling the rush of cheering, along with 40,000+ people, for George Bell to hit a home run to win a game. I don’t remember how important the game was, or even who we were playing (though it would have been late in the season and they were in a pennant race) but I’d never in my life felt that amount of energy and passion, all of us on our feet screaming for that home run we needed. He smacked that dinger over the left-field fence and I was never the same again. It felt like we’d willed it to happen.

For the next several years, I was a major Blue Jays fan. I lived and died by their win-loss record. When 1992 came around, I was watching almost every game. I fought with people in bars and restaurants to turn it to every game I could see. Our family headed down to Seattle when the Jays were in town any time we could, and we stayed in the same hotel as the Jays. And when Timlin threw the last out of the 1992 series to Joe Carter, it was one of the greatest moments of my life, and I still remember it as vividly as if it was yesterday.

The following year the Jays were right back in it, and I loved every moment. Quickly after his acquisition I fell in love with Paul Molitor, still one of my favourite and, IMO, one of the greatest players in the game. My signed, framed photo of him that was a gift from my wife is still one of my most prized and prominently displayed possessions. I skipped – and ultimately, in a few cases, flunked – my first-year college classes to listen to the ALCS on my car radio. When Joe Carter smacked that homer for only the second walk-off World Series home run win in history, I really could have died fulfilled.

Then the dark years. The 1994 strike-shortened season. My interest in baseball waned. They expanded the league and stuck the Jays in the most difficult division in the newly split American League, along with the Red Sox and the Yankees, killing the traditional Jays rivalry with the Detroit Tigers. They sold the Blue Jays to a European beer conglomerate as part of a deal for Labatt’s, and they had no interest or experience in maintaining a MLB team. Their salaries slashed, they became perennial division losers, despite occasional high points like Pat Hentgen’s Cy Young award (my only fully authentic baseball jersey is a Hentgen jersey, and proud). I even found myself cheering for the despised Yankees in the 1996 World Series against the only other team I could possibly hate more, the Atlanta Braves.

Then my baseball world changed. In 1997, I watched Ken Burns’s superb Baseball documentary on PBS, and I found out that I loved the history of baseball even more than I loved the modern game. And, more than anything, though Burns tended to focus on the New York franchises, I found myself falling in love with the Boston Red Sox. The Royal Rooters. Tris Speaker. Teddy Baseball. Yaz. Fisk. Rice. Pedro. I read Halberstram’s “Summer of ’49” and fell in love even more. I wished I was born a Red Sox fan. I couldn’t cope with the knowledge that the team I’d been raised on had no history of its own – how could it, when it was years younger than I was? Where was the history, the traditions, the legends that really make a baseball fan’s world?

I became a Red Sox fan that year, in truth, though I didn’t want to admit it. I died a little every year the Babe’s “curse” fell on our heads, but also thought of the curse in a semi-amused way, as I was reading deeply enough to find out just how manufactured that was and how much more sordid the real story behind blaming Frazee and the sale of Ruth was. I watched the Jays play the Sox with my family, while secretly memorizing names and stats and numbers of Sox players.

The 2004 season cinched it. The 2004 ALCS was one of the most depressing, then exciting weeks in sports I ever saw. From Ortiz in extra innings to Schilling’s bloody sock, any last vestiges of Blue Jays fandom I had were shed away.

It’s taken a few years since then to admit it to my family and friends. My mother thought I’d about lost interest in baseball entirely; I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was still watching, just not her team anymore. There’s a lot of pressure among Canadian baseball fans, not just my family, to root for the only Canadian team in baseball. On the bright side, many Sox and Yankees games get carried on the sports stations because they’re the two most popular teams, with widespread viewership, so it wasn’t as tough to follow them as a National League team like the Dodgers, of whom I’m also fond.

So, I’m now out of the closet. My father, also a baseball history fan, gets it; my mother, sadly, does not, and I don’t think really believes that when the chips are down in a pennant race I’ll root for the Sox over the Jays. If any questions remained, last night, I watched the first Jays/Sox matchup of the season. Wakefield pitched a masterful 8 innings, with Pap shutting down the 9th for a 2-1 win. I didn’t know many Jays players, and it never felt odd to cheer against a team who thrilled me in 1992 and 1993. The conversion is complete. Go Sox.

1vs100-logoWhen Microsoft first unveiled their plan for the “live” 1 vs. 100 adaptation of the NBC game show for XBL a year ago, I was a little dubious, as I suspect many were; certainly the announcement was greeted with a wave of relative apathy. I’ve never watched the NBC series, but I gather it’s something like this: One player plays against 100 players in a multiple-choice trivia game. If the single player gets a question wrong, he’s finished. Each time they answer a question, those in the 100 who got it wrong are eliminated. Every 10 people who are eliminated move the single player a rung up the prize ladder, and they’re given the choice of continuing or cashing out. There’s some sort of “Lifelines”, which are de rigeur in these modern game shows – use the 100’s most popular answer, or the player with the highest score’s answer, etc. If you can beat all 100 you win the big prize. If you fail, the prize money is split among the remaining members of the 100. If you cash out, you get to walk away.

Maybe I’m missing some of the subtleties, but that’s the gist; truthfully, I hate these overwrought game shows with their dramatic pauses, and never watch them. But playing them is different, it turns out, and all I learnt about it I gathered today from playing the Canada-only (more on that later) beta of 1 vs. 100 on XBL, and I was absolutely blown away. This is the first thing I’ve really seen that embraces and explores what the modern age of online consoles could bring us that is unlike what we’ve experienced before.

The XBL version of the game is quite unique; it runs at scheduled times a couple times a week for a couple hours at a time, like a show. A live announcer hosts the show and comments on the action; XBL members playing are sometimes interviewed over their headset mics. It provides an astonishingly community-rich experience, and it does it in a simple way; everyone is playing the same game, but not everyone is necessarily on screen or vying for prizes. Because, yes, you can win prizes in the game – and they’re not insignificant, but cold hard cash – or Microsoft Points, which are pretty much the same thing to a gamer. I should point out that in the beta they aren’t actually awarding the prizes (though participating does enter you into a prize draw), but I’ll discuss my experience as if they were, because I can’t see how the experience would be any different other than that minor point.

When you start playing, you have the choice to play in public or private mode. In private mode essentially you’re playing along, but it’s just a trivia game, and misses the point. If you play publicly, you are randomly selected to be either part of the Crowd, who just play along; the Mob, who are the 100 that the single player plays against; or the One, who is centre stage. I was very impressed that it auto-grouped me with other friends that were playing the game, so we could have a little fun competing with each other for points even if we were just in the crowd. Both Lisa and I were playing on the couch together, and we were both selected for the Mob once; one of my online friends was also in the same Mob that I was. I was never selected to be the One, so I can’t speak for what it’s like from that perspective, but the only difference it really made to us gameplay-wise when a part of the Mob was that we were in the running for prizes, and a wrong answer took us out of the running instead of just causing us to fall behind our group in points. But the neat thing (as I saw on Twitter) is that everyone in the crowd is watching the same 1 player vs. the same 100, instead of us all in our own 150-person game rooms having isolated experiences.

The prizes displayed in the beta are significant. When I was a member of the Mob, the player decided to cash out at a paltry 800 MSP (around USD$10), around 45 people left in the Mob; had she instead given a wrong answer, I stood to win the XBL Arcade title of the evening (N+, about a USD$10 value) and 80 MSP along with the other 45 players. I saw a One cash out at about 20 players left in the Mob for a prize of (I’m pretty sure, I’d just entered) 5000 MSP; that number of points will run you USD$72. I never saw it get close to a 1 vs. 1 battle for a big prize, but at this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was in win-a-360 territory. And just so the members of the Crowd don’t feel left out, the top 3 points-scorers in the Crowd also win the XBLA title of the evening. This is for every round, and I’d guess they could run 10 rounds in a 2 hour block or so.

The questions themselves were relatively easy on a question-to-question basis; a couple were as easy as “What kind of vehicle would you find a banana seat on?”, and more than a few were an easy process of elimination for a logical person. But some were on remarkably obscure bits of recent scientific news and pop culture; the real trick with the game isn’t answering a lot of hard questions, but scoring maximum points based on reaction speed and keeping a streak of correct answers up. And of course the questions don’t come from a disc-based database but should be entirely different every game, keeping the challenge up.

The funniest part of the evening was watching the Americans who created false accounts to try out the Canadian beta. While I’m minorly miffed that these 0-gamerscore impostors were taking up spaces that Canadians could have used, it was just too funny to see 18 people in a supposedly Canadian-only beta get knocked out of the Mob for being asked which major restaurant chain sells something called “Timbits”. For American readers, that’s akin to nearly one out of five people in a US-only game getting the question “Which restaurant chain sells the Big Mac?” wrong.

As for the gameplay itself, it wasn’t without hitches – I lost the live announcer for about half the game – but this is an early beta, and it was actually pretty remarkably stable and effective for an early beta based on past experiences. A friend had a tough time getting in but no problems once she did; we arrived to the game about 15 minutes late and had no problem getting or staying in, more than I can say about several XBLA games which I’ve bought in full release.

The best thing about it is the thing hardest to explain; how exciting it was to be part of the Mob, and to be in the running to win real prizes and have my (beautifully integrated) XBL avatar slowly become more visible to thousands as the number in the Mob dwindled, and the possibility that I’d be centre-stage if chosen as the One. It’s a totally different experience than any I’ve had on a game console; I quite felt like I was on the stage of a game show and not sitting in my living room with the flu.

I can’t wait for the full release of the game and plan on making every beta game possible. It’s extremely accessible to players of almost all ages; though they do caution that there’s a bit of raunchiness which may be inappropriate for the very young, the very old can love this game and its simple three-button gameplay. I’m more excited for this game to hit full release than almost any other this year, and that’s saying quite a lot.

iPhone gameI’ve been exceedingly busy over the past few weeks, and even more busy this month, what with getting married at the end of it. Many of my friends have noticed, as a result, my relative absence on Xbox Live the past few weeks, and mentioned it to me. While I can’t deny that having a very busy schedule has kept me away from my 360 these days, there’s another cause to my absence; the explosion of great games that have appeared on the iTunes store for the iPhone and iPod Touch.

I just want to briefly recommend a few of the iPhone games that have most sucked up my gaming time in the past few weeks.

First are the old-school games I’ve been most addicted to; Yahtzee, Monopoly, and Texas Hold’Em. The iPhone versions are all incredibly well done, with variations and online capabilities that thoroughly surprised me.

When it comes to more action-oriented games, the Iron Man tie-in game is astonishingly fun, though the difficulty may be somewhat high for people unaccustomed to rail shooters. The iPhone port of Wolfenstien 3D is a terrific trip down memory lane for older gamers, and sports a first-rate interface adaptation to touch screens that many other games could learn from.

TapDefense and Fieldrunners have hooked me on the tower defence genre like no other games of their sort previously; the former is free and a must-have for any iPhone user, and the latter is more than worth the couple bucks it’ll cost you to play a more traditional, open field which requires maze-building skills in addition to the usual careful choices of towers and upgrades.

Flight Control – where you need to guide a barrage of landing air planes and helicopters to their runways without collisions – is much more challenging than it sounds, and is all the addictive fun that it’s hyped up to be. Touchgrind is a brilliant and novel adaptation of the skateboarding genre to the iPhone, with your two fingers acting as your feet on the board and an impressively open-ended game world. And FlickFishing, maybe my most-played app these days, is an incredibly well made and addictive fishing simulator.

The free games, such as TapTapRevenge 2, Anaconda, and LightBike Free are all must-haves. The Oregon Trail game is a terrific update of the educational old-school game which both teaches and entertains. And not enough can be said of Pocket God, the frequently-updated, inexpensive simulator that lets you torture or reward islanders in an ever-increasing array of ways, from feeding them coconuts, fish, and letting them use the bathroom (rewards) to lightning strikes, tosses into hungry volcanoes, and being fed to fire ants (tortures) that are all funny and perfectly suited to wasting a couple minutes when you need to.

These are just a few, brief introductions to some favourite games on the iPhone; I’ve played far more than this, have some experience with them, and plan on coming with some more specific reviews once the road trip, stag and wedding-filled days get behind me.

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