A Summer Evening With Sam's Army, Picone's Platoon

The Nielsen tally totaled 24.7 million viewers for the draw between the U.S. and Portugal on Sunday evening, the most ever for a soccer match here in the States. ESPN eclipsed ABC’s old mark, the 17.9 million who saw Brandi Chastain’s moment during the 1999 Women’s World Cup at the Rose Bowl, with 18.2 million viewers. Univision and Univision Deportes Network simulcast their way before another 6.5 million, the Spanish-language media leader’s top measure for a game involving the U.S. men’s national team. The previous record, the combined 24.3 million watchers on ESPN and Univision for Spain's win over The Netherlands at the 2010 World Cup, is now a stat of the past.

But what about the countless thousands/millions who watched beyond Nielsen counting houses? The audience is said to get a 15% bump from out-of-home viewing.  Surely, that’s nowhere near enough judging by the masses crowding restaurants, neighborhood pubs, bodegas and Chicago’s Grant Park -- or the lawn party at the Clark’s in Larchmont.

There, an estimated 50 adults and children gathered to raise a glass, or a soda, to the exploits of Picone Sausage, 2014 regular-season runners-up in the Green softball division of Larchmont Mamaroneck Little League. But as emails throughout the week detailed RSVPs and who would bring what items for the party, words of worry began sifting through about the match, and that its kickoff coincided with the planned festivities. But ultimately fears of a futbol-free evening were calmed.  Accommodations were upgraded from streaming to a television hook-up, resulting in an Insignia model transporting the action from Manaus to the patio.

Although FIFA and ESPN officials may not want to hear this, the first half was not the focal point of the proceedings. And rightfully so. As the adults talked about summer plans, the interminable replacement of the Jefferson Avenue bridge and how much the Picone Sausages had improved under the tutelage of Coaches Sam  (my daughter) and Chrissy (some were even kind enough to mention my meager contributions to their diamond brainstrust), the nine-year-old contingent – Caroline, Amanda, Maddie, Cailin, Anya, Allie and Carlie, among them --  engaged in a makeshift softball game amidst the shrubbery on the Clark's beautifully contoured backyard.

In play: a giant bounce ball, hula hoops standing in for bases and a whiffle bat that somehow caught our highly competitive Julia, who weeks earlier guided me as the kids sang 'Happy Birthday' duing a practice. Fortunately, they didn’t get into the second part of the song. Actually there was little need: Our talkative outfielder Sam had already pondered aloud if I had been conceived during the Renaissance.

Indeed, during the first half few stood sentry by the TV. The mother of Erin --  the only member of this garrison of Sam's Army sporting U.S  Soccer gear and the kid most likely to one day become an accomplished middle infielder -- reported that the U.S. fell behind in the fifth minute.

It wasn’t until just after intermission when the team-photo-topped cake was gorged – our best hitter and eater Sylvie chewed on my picture – that match momentum truly elevated among our assemblage.  Jermaine Jones' bending the equalizer into the side netting drew milld, perhaps stunned applause.  But after more Leinekugel Summer Shandys, Buds (the official brew of FIFA) and glasses of wine and sangria were quaffed, the cheers and laments ratcheted up thereafter.

I asked the party-goers whether they would continue to watch the World Cup-- as ESPN president John Skipper confidently predicted -- even if Sam's Army didn’t emerge from the Group of Death. The query drew quizzical looks, perhaps the optimism of the guests’ collective belief that U.S. passage was manifest destiny.

All of the Clark’s neighbors certainly knew when Clint Dempsey put the U.S. ahead in the 81st minute. From there, it was literally nail-biting time for the daughter of our hosts and Picone’s primary catcher Hannah  -- exhibiting externally what the coaches and parents felt inside when Evelyn -- our fireballing southpaw and team namesake -- rallied to strike out the side after loading the bases in the top of the sixth to secure our playoff win 15 days earlier.

As commentary clamored about the vagaries and slowness of stoppage time, my noggin-wringing in the 95th minute informed our hostess that something had gone horribly wrong as she returned from giving a restive young one a quieting tour of her home.

Although the affair was timed to end at eight anyway, Michael Bradley’s midfield miscue, Cristiano Ronaldo’s cross beyond a seemingly transfixed Geoff Cameron and Silvestre Varela’s header past Tim Howard metaphorically took the air out of the softball balloons festooned around the tables.  Although the U.S secured a point and moved closer to advancement, the tie felt like a loss, leaving many of the adults disconsolate (if the soccer gods are like those presiding over softball -- we twice came up empty after loading the bases and paid the price in our semifinal exit -- the U.S. is in trouble). Were we wiser, we would have looked to the children who quickly moved past the deflating draw to the snack of the moment and talk of playdates to come.

Nevertheless, Sunday’s on-pitch and party outcome were memorable -- as was Picone Sausage’s campaign.  Very glad I was a member of that platoon.