I met the love of my life as a small child, and despite an often rocky relationship that has mixed joy and anguish with frequent doses of frustration, it endures to this day, stronger than ever.
But before the more romantically-inclined of you start tearing up over a good ol' fashioned love story, it should be pointed out, sadly, that the object of my affection is not a childhood sweetheart who grew up to be a swimsuit model while retaining her girl-next-door charm.
It is sports.
I have always felt that my marriage with sports has been a healthy one, providing me with pleasant distractions from the trivialities of life and, for the past 10 years, a career writing about some of the greatest events in the world.
If only my personal unions were so seamless. With a divorce already behind me, a recent break-up with a serious medium-term girlfriend has left me single at age 32 and feeling back at square one.
The latest relationship was much like a New York Mets season, beginning with optimism, before ending with a cataclysmic collapse that brought heartache and disappointment.
When the final rites were being delivered and the news filtered out through my social circle via the incendiary gossip fuel that is Facebook, my phone's little green dot flashed permanently for a few flurried days.
There were some messages of sympathy from those who knew both of us and some who didn't, a few misguided offers to set me up with friends of friends (too soon!) and only one note that I paid any real attention to.
It was from ThePostGame.com editor Eric Adelson, and it is the reason you are reading this column.
Sorry to hear about your recent breakup. Apologies if this is a little insensitive but now you are on the single scene again, I wondered if you might be interested in a story about which pro sport is the best to take a "first date" to.
At that point my mindset was such that the mere thought of jumping back on the dating bandwagon felt about as welcome as a LeBron statue in downtown Cleveland, so I set the email aside.
But during the nightly ritual of my single-man gym workout -- you know, the one where you take an eternity between reps to delay your return to a dark and empty apartment -- I got to thinking.
Could it be that I'd had it wrong all this time? My ex-wife is a lovely woman and an excellent mother to our nearly three-year-old son, but neither she nor my ex-girlfriend has more than a passing interest in athletics. Instead of trying to balance a relationship with my obsession with sports, why not try to mix the two? And could the love of my life be the thing that turned around my love life?
The more I thought, accompanied by the monotonous drone of the treadmill, the more indignant sense it made. After all, didn't sports owe me something for the years of devotion I had given it?
I'm not a Yankees or Lakers or Manchester United fan. I didn't live through the champagne days of a dynasty. The biannual failings of the England national soccer team and the general wretchedness of the Miami Dolphins have been a poor reward for my dedication.
It was time for sports to give me something back.
Date 1: Baseball
Dating, according to Steve, perhaps the most pessimistic of all my friends, is like a three-headed monster. "And all three heads have fangs," he says cheerily. With this merry advice ringing in my ears, I head off in search of my first date. Turns out, Steve may be right.
I walk into a Southern California bar and I see only three girls who either aren't with men or are out of my ideal age bracket (which, for the record, is 24 to 36, although I have heard about a mathematical formula that can be used to work out an optimum range). They all sit together at the bar with their backs to me. I am filled with self-doubt.
Perhaps I shouldn't have come on a Monday, I should have brought a friend, I shouldn't be doing this at all, blah, blah, blah. I quickly go over Adelson's ground rules in my mind -- four sports, four girls, four dates -- and take the plunge. It should be noted, before I begin quoting myself, that I speak with a British accent, the product of spending most of my life living in London.
"Which of you ladies can tell me what a base hit is?" I blurt out, using the idiot-Englishman-in-need-of-advice tactic that worked so well for a vacationing friend that he is now living with his stunning American girlfriend in London.
Two of the girls, rather fierce-looking platinum blondes, seem to regard me with the kind of revulsion usually reserved for a pile of dog waste they'd had the misfortune of stepping in.
"Why don't you buy a book?" says one.
"Or ask someone who cares," squeaks the other.
Just as I am about to head for the exit with a singed ego, the third girl, farthest from me, pipes up and asks me where I'm from. She's a pretty brunette, and I recognize her as a successful former athlete. She's asked me not to name her in this story and I won't, but let's just say that a few of you might have had her poster on your bedroom wall if you were a teenager a decade ago.
Thankfully, the blondes with fangs disappear toward the restroom and I'm left to start up a conversation with the brunette. Eyes on the prize, I manage not to embarrass myself and keep her entertained long enough that she accepts when I ask if she would accompany me to a baseball game the following week.
Maybe this won't be so tough after all.
I chose baseball first because I wanted to get off to a flying start. I had done some research, contacting Glenn Lehrman, head of communications at online ticket broker StubHub, about which sports were most popular with daters.
"Most people buy tickets in sets of two and a large proportion of sports spectators are people on dates," Lehrman says. "Many couples don't enjoy watching sports on television together but like attending it live.
"We have found that baseball tends to be the best couples sport. The action is not continuous, which allows for time spent talking. It has the widest range of food options and there are plenty of natural breaks in the action. If you are looking for a winner on a first date, you can't go wrong."
He was right. As dates go, the Los Angeles Angels vs. the Cleveland Indians at Angels Stadium is just about perfect. The Big A is a nice place to spend a few hours, with a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere and, even in spring, pleasant California weather.
In such a setting, and aided by a couple of beers each, conversation flows easily, without the need to shout over booming music or rowdy fans. The former athlete is good company and has amusing stories to tell. We laugh at the rally monkey and the dancing gyrations of a possibly intoxicated fan two rows in front, and I teach her a bizarre pre-drink beer cup tapping ritual I inherited from my college days.
Ever the journalist, in the ninth inning I drop in a question about how baseball stacks up as a location for a first date, and I'm pleased with the response.
"I loved it," she says. "It is a good place to talk and hang out and it was all pretty chill. We should definitely do it again soon."
Thumbs up. God bless baseball.
We remain in contact for the next several days, emailing and texting and so on. I'm in danger of becoming a bit smitten, and the whole story idea threatens to hit the blocks after part one of the experiment.
However, the former athlete has work commitments that would take her out of town for a while, and so do I. It's time to hit the road, and get on with the job.
Date 2: Hockey
Vancouver, B.C., is one of my favorite cities, an appreciation that began at the Winter Olympics last year. A trip north of the border to cover the Vancouver Whitecaps' first-ever game in Major League Soccer is one I had been looking forward to for some time, and now I have a date to go along with it.
Taking a date to a soccer press box would not exactly be the height of professionalism, but luckily the NHL's Vancouver Canucks are playing at home the night before my assignment. Hockey it would be.
My partner for the evening is April, a business development consultant whom I had befriended during the Winter Games 12 months earlier. She seems excited, having never been to a game at Rogers Arena, the Canucks' superb downtown stadium, despite living in Vancouver most of her life.
The crowd atmosphere is electrifying, far more intense than the hockey games I had seen in Anaheim or Los Angeles. The passion for the pastime that Canadians hold so dear is palpable, and as a sports fan, it's a thoroughly rewarding experience.
But it doesn't really feel like a date.
Perhaps because we already know each other, perhaps because of the noise or the sheer excitement of the game -- the Canucks rally from a two-goal deficit to beat the Colorado Avalanche 4-2 -- but it feels like more like an event to relish with the boys.
April and I would remain friends, but any spark between us won't be ignited in the icy surrounds of Rogers Arena.
Date 3: Basketball
Next up for me is New York, the Big Apple, the City That Never Sleeps. To borrow from Sinatra, if I can't make out there, perhaps I can't make out anywhere.
My New York date for an NBA game is Connie, a petite Asian woman whose demure looks belie the fact that she is a high-powered sports executive with a leading agency. This date is particularly enticing as it involves watching the Knicks at that Mecca of sports, Madison Square Garden. It's also scary because I have never met Connie, having only been shown a photo by the mutual friend who set the whole thing up.
By this point several of my buddies have become aware of the dating project and demand regular updates. Foolishly, in the case of my friend Tony, I oblige. Outraged by my flameout in Vancouver, Tony emailed me a series of tactical hints for my meeting with Connie.
I remember only the last one: "Get out of the friend zone!" he ordered. "You are more likely to date a girl if she hates your guts than if she sees you as a friend. Once you are in the friend zone there is no way out."
Like a misguided idiot, I decide to take his advice, concluding that the best way to avoid "friend zone" is by not being too nice. Given that Connie was a die-hard Knicks fan, I figure that shouldn't be too hard.
I enjoy sporting banter as much as the next man, so when Brandon Jennings of the Milwaukee Bucks starts lighting up the Garden I decide to jump on the Wisconsin bandwagon. I have never been to Milwaukee, never previously watched a Bucks game, and my only connection with the team is that I once played ping pong against Andrew Bogut's cousin.
But for the next two hours my heart bleeds purple, as I cheer every basket and waste no opportunity to taunt Connie about the total ineffectiveness of the newly acquired Carmelo Anthony. At halftime I text Tony with a progress report, and receive an encouraging reply indicating that I am firmly on the right track, and that Connie would soon start warming up.
Not so much. She spends most of the third quarter talking to a heavily muscled guy in a tight T-shirt to her right, most of the fourth in stony silence, and she stands up to leave two minutes before the end. Before she speeds off I ask, "How was basketball as a date?"
"I've been on basketball dates before," she snaps. "They were great."
Ouch. Thanks, Tony.
Date 4: Soccer
The disaster in New York is a severe blow to my already fragile confidence and solid confirmation that I shouldn't listen to my friends. Work was demanding, I wasn't going out much, and when I did it felt cheesy, effectively bribing girls to go out with me by offering sports tickets.
I go on a non-sports date with a friendly girl and take her to sushi, but she uses chopsticks the wrong way round, I spill wine on her purse, and the whole thing turns out to be an expensive dead end.
I'm on the brink of giving up when I get a Facebook message from my friend Turk, who lives in South Africa. After years as a bachelor, he recently found a delightful girlfriend named Nyaki at a speed dating event.
You can probably guess where this is headed. The next night I rock up at a bar in Irvine, Calif., having signed up for "pre-dating" -- where 15 guys and 15 girls spend six minutes in each other's company before moving on to the next one.
Figuring that I have 15 chances at securing one date for a soccer game – the only sport left on Adelson's list – I feel my odds are good. But 90 minutes in, the pace is so frenetic that I can barely remember any of the girls' names, let alone anything about them.
However, one girl sticks in my mind. I can only remember that she's named Hayley, she has a pet Rottweiler, and that she likes soccer. Good enough for me.
The fact that Hayley accepts my invitation isn't a huge surprise. That's not me being arrogant, but given that the guy seated to my left worked putting stickers onto apples and the guy to my right admitted he was just looking for a Green Card, I figured I might have looked dateable in comparison.
So that is how my great dating adventure comes to its conclusion at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., home of MLS Los Angeles Galaxy. Hayley arrives wearing a David Beckham jersey, which I take to be a good omen. I waste no time in shamelessly talking about the number of times I'd interviewed Becks and showed her a photo of me with the England midfielder and style icon.
She seems suitably impressed, and her mood is further improved by the Galaxy's excellent form, as it romps to a 4-1 win over Sporting Kansas City, including a spectacular Beckham free-kick to close out the scoring.
Most importantly, the night has a real "date" feel to it, and I notice dozens of couples in the seats around us. Striking up a conversation, a fan named Karl tells me, "This is where I bring all my first dates. Get them a beer and wait until Beckham takes his shirt off. That keeps them happy."
The chat with Hayley flows easily too, helped by our mutual love of soccer and a lively discussion about the impact Beckham has had since arriving in the United States. We agree to meet again and even make plans to go to the Galaxy's next game the following week.
Until she texts me two days later to tell me she's gotten back together with her ex-boyfriend.
So there I was, dating adventure over and without a whole lot to show for it. And if I had been writing this column a week ago, the story would have had a pitied and sorrowful conclusion.
However, the fingers don't grace the keyboard with quite such speed anymore, and the several days it has taken me to piece together my article has allowed for some interesting developments.
First of all, the former athlete got back in touch and we have spent time each day talking on the phone. Call me mad, but I just don't think that one is meant to be. Maybe I have put her in the friend zone.
That's because I have met someone else, on a random night out in a sports bar with a bunch of friends. When I first saw Mary there was, indeed, something about her. She was cute and was screaming obscenities at a hapless official on television while a bewildered bartender nearly dropped a pint glass. We hit it off immediately. After a couple of hours of watching, talking and arguing sports, asking for a date didn't seem like a test of nerve, but a natural progression.
Last weekend we watched the NHL playoffs at lunchtime, then she berated me for suggesting we see a movie instead of catching the second half of the Oklahoma-Dallas NBA playoff game.
My kind of girl.
Send Martin an email at email@example.com.
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