You have to understand that there are only about twenty five hundred of us in our Village. This time of year, when the city folks go home and we get our Village back, it’s impossible to walk downtown to pick up the mail or drop into a shop without enjoying two or three warm conversations. Even those we don’t know are recognized and acknowledged with a greeting or wave. Consider that when picturing me wedged into a folding chair that was a little too small within a concrete bowl that was altogether too big. Last Saturday I attended a Toronto Blue Jay’s game.
After two or three innings I found myself pondering the existential: “Why am I here?” In fact, why were any of the 47,093 other people there? That crazy number meant that you could shoehorn my entire Village into the little blue seats 20 times and still have room for the rich folks in the plush boxes up top. What could possibly attract so many people?
Part of it is the sport itself. Like the others, I assume, I love baseball. I love that unlike every other sport the defense has the ball. I love that there is no standard size park, no standard game time, and no sudden death. I love the metaphor of each pitch where every player determines what will happen next and that nearly everyone is always wrong. I love baseball’s long history and that Jackie Robinson’s number is retired in every park in the league. I love the arcane statistics. I love baseball so much that it is the only sport, other than solitary running, that I still play. I am the worst player on what this season was the worst team in my league but I still love it so.
What I don’t like is watching baseball. I read about the games the next morning and occasionally listen on the radio but last Saturday was the first game I’ve watched all year. I find sports on TV boring beyond belief. The commercials make me mad. The mindless chatter is infuriating. I don’t watch any sports. I don’t watch the Olympics. So, again, last Saturday, in the ugly, sterile old Roger’s Centre, which I still call the Sky Dome thank you very much, I pondered what in hell I was doing there.
A couple of years ago Eric Simons attempted to answer my question with a book entitled The Secret Lives of Sports Fans: The Science of Sports Obsession. Simons goes immediately to what I felt last Saturday: gathering in great numbers at great expense and becoming emotionally charged while watching grown people play a child’s game is irrational. And yet, it’s not.
Simon’s found that when even a nominally conversant spectator watches a game that the motor cortex of his brain – the part that sparks movement – fires with the same rapidity and intensity as a player’s. So when the ball is hit, we actually live the experience of tearing off to first or diving to catch it. He found that watching a sport increases hormone levels. The men fist bumping each other as if they had just hit the home run feel a measurable and significant testosterone and adrenaline rush. People love those feelings. They are more intense, Simons concludes, when at the park and so folks return like drunks to the bottle to feel them again.
Sociologist Stephen Rosslyn takes my question further by arguing that cheering for a particular team allows us to locate a part of our identity. We feel a little better about ourselves because we are a part of a group. It’s what the folks who really sing their anthem or chant USA USA are feeling. It’s why a guy I know tattooed the Detroit Red Wings symbol on his chest or why so many license plates sport team logos.
The need to feel part of a group is related to something called a social prosthetic system. That is, we voluntarily invest ourselves in an outcome over which we have no control and become addicted to the risks and rewards. The investment is fun because unlike in love or at work it has no real costs.
Finally, there is the primal urge, down deep in our brains where reason goes to die, to gather in tribal celebration. Last Saturday I looked around and pictured folks at Rome’s Coliseum watching lions devour Christians. Add ridiculously overpriced beer and the spectacle, emotions, cheers, separation of privileged and cheap seats, and the slow going home to the ordinary concerns of every day lives when it all ended would have been the same.
So there I was last Saturday telling my dumb old brain to stop pondering such thoughts and just shut up and enjoy the game and its attendant craziness. It was great. I loved it. My granddaughter loved it. She ate way too much junk food but that’s OK. She giggled as we watched the sneaky guys on first trying to steal second. She jumped and cheered long fly balls and danced so heartily at a Bautista home run that she was shown on the giant Jumbotron. After the game she waited with her Mom in a Disneyesque long line and ran the bases. She slept all the way home, another warm memory secured deep in her being.
Okay. I know why I was there.
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