Editor's note: Jim Caple is spending two weeks on Page 2's dime, traveling through Europe for a firsthand look at, to name a few, Wimbledon, the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and how far he can carry his wife.
PAMPLONA, Spain -- In the late afternoon of that day, the sun finally blazed through the clouds and the spectators raised the dust as they waited outside the old bullfight arena. It was so hot, the intense rays could have given the big bust of Hemingway a sunburn if the statue had not been in the shade instead. And it felt good.
I could tell you that we took the train from Paris to Pamplona with Lady Brett Ashley on our way to Africa, where we planned to hunt lions and see the snows of Kilimanjaro and we drank absinthe in the bar of the Hotel Montoya until we got tight and had to fight Germans with our bare knuckles. But none of that is true. Lady Ashley is a character from "The Sun Also Rises," which is the Hemingway novel that made Pamplona and the running of the bulls famous, and that is why we are here for the final stop on my Lost in Translation tour of European sports. And we are not staying at the old Montoya but at a modern hotel outside of the city with Ikea floors and a wireless connection, though the signal strength is very low. And I do not hunt because I am a sensitive, modern man who gets squeamish just walking through the meat section of the grocery store.
And we drank mostly sangria and diet soda, not absinthe, but it was good.
The bullfights are held at 6:30 p.m. each day of Pamplona's Festival of San Fermin, and tickets are sold out long in advance to the good, honest citizens of this city, like the older man who tried scalping his tickets to us for $150 apiece. He insisted the seats were in the barrera near the edge of the ring and they were the very best tickets, but we did not buy them, even when he lowered his price to $100. We are Americans who do not appreciate the bullfight and instead want to spend our money on colorful, $20 T-shirts depicting cute cartoon bulls and not the real dangerous animal that weighs half a ton and is bred to kill. He continued to pursue us even when we said no to $70 apiece, for he was as patient and determined as the old man and the sea, though his hair was not white like Spencer Tracy's. But eventually we found some women who sold us tickets in the cheap section for $20 apiece and it was good.
The seats were in the sun, but this is where you must sit if you are to truly enjoy the spectacle. For the stadium owners do not worry about revenue streams and it is here the patrons bring in great chests of beer and bottles of good, cheap wine and sandwiches made of the hearty bread you find in Europe. If you ever attend the bullfights in Pamplona, you must buy tickets in this section, for you will not have to eat or drink again the rest of the festival unless you are David Wells, in which case you might want to bring your own cooler. But wear an old shirt because they will throw the food at you and spray you with the wine, for this is their tradition, which I suppose is not so different from a Detroit Pistons game.
|LOST IN TRANSLATION|
Take a look back at Jim Caple's European vacation thus far:|
While England slept
Strawberries, cream and Maria
Get off my back, honey
The amazing race
French fried over Olympics
A pit stop at the Tour de Lance
Riding a bike ain't easy
A woman offered me a glass of liquid and though I did not know what it was, I gladly accepted because it is a great insult in this part of Spain to turn down a drink. Or at least I assumed it was a great insult, and besides, the lines at the concession stand were very long. So I took the drink and swallowed. It tasted of lemons and sugar and alcohol and it was good. And then a man standing beside me offered a can of beer and again I accepted and it was good. And then a man standing in front of me offered a bottle of beer and again I accepted and it was good. And then another man offered me a glass of red wine and it was good. And then a young beauty offered me a sip of absinthe from her bottle and it was good. And then a woman offered me some of the local chorizo and another gave me a plate of beans and ham, and this is when I finally said enough, for I was now worried about hepatitis. All this is true -- except for the part about the absinthe.
The bullfight is not a sport between equals; rather it is a tragedy in which there is danger for the man and certain death for the bull. At least, that is what Hemingway wrote in "Death in the Afternoon," but he was a strong, manly man who was twice wounded in the Great War and fished for tarpon off Cuba and hunted lion in Africa and could make the Earth move when he lay with a woman. For me, a soft, modern man who cries at Lindsay Lohan movies, it looked like a one-sided fight, like the White Sox of the great Midwestern city of Chicago and the Royals of Kansas City, where Papa worked as a reporter for the Star -- but long before George Brett played.
I would have made this observation to the man standing next to me, but I suspect the people of the Navarre region care little for the American League East and know even less of the AL Central. Instead, I asked him if we were seeing a good or a bad bullfight.
"Very bad," he answered, and though he did not spit with disgust I could easily imagine him doing so. "This is the only arena where you may drink alcohol or talk. If you want a real bullfight, go to Madrid or Seville. It is a serious affair there. Not here."
And though I have made up some things in this story, this is also true. Or at least he said it is so and he had no reason to lie unless he was simply a bad man.
Americans assume that a bullfight is a contest between a single matador and the bull, but in truth the matador has a bench as deep as the 1939 Yankees, for whom the great DiMaggio played (I would have liked to have seen him play). The matador is armed with many assistants, so many that LeBron James would be jealous of such a large posse -- and being able to bring it onto the court with him. Some of these assistants are on horseback and hold long spears and the others spend much time hiding behind a wood barricade until needed like a baseball closer, but I do not know if this is where we get the term "bullpen." Maybe Peter Gammons knows.
There are three acts to the bullfight. First, the men on horseback who are called picadors jam the spears into the bull until he bleeds, and then the assistants who are called banderilleros stick four more sticks into the bull so that he bleeds some more and cannot raise his head high. And then the matador is alone with the bull wearing those tight brightly colored pants and vest as if he were Liberace, and by this I mean this is what the matador wears, not the bull because I doubt you could get a bull to hold still long enough to put the pants on him, even if you could find his size. At least you could not if the bull is very brave. And the bulls are brave if they are good bulls. Or so Hemingway wrote. Personally, I do not know if the bulls have much choice in the matter.
The matador struts and poses and plays to the crowd and he does this to make for a better, more dramatic fight and perhaps because he hopes he may get on "SportsCenter." Eventually the matador takes the red cape and the curved sword and plunges it into the bull's spinal column and kills him, and they drag away the bull with a team of horses and everyone cheers. It is like how the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry used to be, but no more.
All this takes 15-20 minutes total, and if the matador has fought well, he may slice off the bull's ear, or two ears or even the tail. But sadly, none of these are sold for $200 in the team store next to the game-used capes, so we had to make do with our T-shirts. When six bulls are killed in this fashion, everyone leaves to drink more beer and wine and discuss the fights, though I do not know if there are fantasy leagues.
There is a lot of blood in a bullfight, so much so that they must rake up the bloody dirt into piles at the edge of the ring and by the end of the afternoon you can see blood splattered on the wood barricade circling the ring. Many people are offended and disgusted by the bullfight and the blood and find it terribly cruel. But bullfighting has a long tradition in Spain where it is still popular, even though I doubt it would catch on in America -- except maybe with Oakland Raiders fans.
Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is on sale now at bookstores nationwide. It also can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.