Why Do We Watch Sports or Why Am I Here?

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?

Why Am I Here

(Photo: jaysjournal.com)

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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The Legend of the Six Inch Triple

It was the top of the last inning of the championship game and we were down by a run. We had players on first and second. The count was three and two. Everything hung on the next pitch. The park fell into a silence as ominous as the inky, dark clouds roiling overhead. We held our breath as an apparently equally enthralled Mother Nature held her rain. Finally, after chicken scratching at the mound, the pitcher released the ball. It seemed to hang at the top of its arc for a long, lingering moment and then Val stepped into a mighty swing. Her aluminum bat kissed the top of the spinning lime green ball which dropped with a thud at her feet – but fair. Val didn’t care. The bat flew and she was off like a rocket. The catcher leapt forward, snatched the ball but then, inexplicitly, sailed it two feet over the first baseman’s outstretched glove.

Our bench exploded. Our base coaches screamed. Our man at second did not slow down over third and passed home. Their right fielder’s angle must have convinced him that the ball was out of play for he was ambling toward it with a cool casualness, but we could see it. The ball lay clearly within the chalk line and so like the Monty Python villager it was not quite dead, in fact, it was still very much alive.  It was their bench’s turn to scream but Val was already sprinting to second as our other runner rounded third.

Their fielder finally awoke to the moment, ran to the ball and with a long stride hurled it toward home. Our runner from first was puffing toward home and nearly there. The ball was nearly there. The catcher’s glove smacked and the umpire yelled, “Safe!” We had done it. Really, Val had done it. She stood on third base breathing hard and beaming. We were jumping and cheering and high-fiving each other, but, it was not over.

We were soon on the field for their last at bats. We were up by a run but earlier in the game they had scored seven in a single inning and so we respected their speed and power; we feared it. We knew they were younger and stronger than us. As one of our team mates had noted earlier: “They don’t even jiggle when they run!” A one run lead was nothing.

A long loping hit to left field put a man on second and with a bloop single he advanced to third – the tying run. Two quick outs and a couple of pitches later they were same spot in which we had found ourselves only minutes before. There were two strikes on the batter. It all came down to this pitch. He swung hard but spun the ball into a high pop fly in foul territory just a couple of yards from third base – my base. I edged carefully forward and to my right and moved my free hand to the back of my old black glove. I could not drop this. I had time to think: “Don’t drop this. Do not drop this!” I felt it find my glove and squeezed as tightly as I’ve squeezed anything. I heard the cheers. I heard the shouts. I stood with the ball in my glove still held high above my head. We did it. We won.

It was the second year in a row that our team, the Black Plague, had won the championship. This year was even sweeter because a dear friend of ours, a giant of a man who lived meagrely and gave generously and whose laugh sparked laughter in all he met, had died. One of his many nicknames was spray painted on the snow fence that delineated the outfield. Another was on the shoulder of our new jerseys. We had dedicated the season to him and now we had won.

Black Plague

The Black Plague is one of eight teams in the Trent University slo-pitch softball league that has been playing for fun for thirty years. Everyone involved works at, attends, or went to Trent. The weekly games on soft summer nights bring hearty cheers, good-natured jeers and shouts of, “Yay Dad!” and “Way to go Uncle Mike!” During the season the diamond has neither lines nor umpires. The arcane rules that no one seems to fully fathom are enforced by mutual consent. Hit the plywood board and it’s a strike. The catcher calls outs and foul balls. No leadoffs. No stealing. There are occasional discussions but never arguments. One of the rules states that a team must have at least three women on the field at all times. I think it must be a hold-over from another era because nearly all the women are terrific players; many are a lot better than a lot of the men and nearly all are better than me.

You see, I love baseball. I love listening on the radio and following the season. I love the pace, the strategies, and the fact that it is a team sport that comes down to individual moments. I love that there is no clock, no regulation field size, no best way of doing anything and I love the game’s rich and storied history. It’s great that statistics say it all but the legends say even more. I love that every season starts as a story, slows to a paragraph and ends as a sentence.

My grandfather was a Yankees fan and so as a boy I was too. While I cheer for the Blue Jays now there’s still something about the Yankees that moves something within me no matter how much I try to dislike them and their pennant-buying, celebrity-driven ways. I’ve been to Yankee Stadium and Cooperstown. I saw the Expos at the Big O and saw Ripken play at Camden Yards and Griffey hit one into the Sky Dome’s third deck. But loving something does not automatically make you any good at it. In fact, despite loving the game I am really no good at it at all.

I take my turn at third base and most times I can stop and sometimes even catch balls coming my way. Most times I can make the long throw to first but I occasionally bounce them. My hitting is laughable. I try so hard. I try to ignore the ball jumping erratically every time its trajectory carries it in and out of my bifocal range. I desperately try to be patient and to wait for the ball to fall into the strike zone and to keep my elbow up and to swing level and to follow through and to turn my hips and to do everything else that jumbles my brain at the plate – at the board, that is. I have hit a few doubles and a couple of triples and a slew of singles but far too often I just pop it up or smack a toothless grounder to the short stop.

My lack of prowess is sometimes embarrassing but my team mates are as patient as they are kind. They coach. They tease a little, but they never criticize and I always get my turn. Despite being so bad at it I have fun. And that’s the point.

Because you are good at something does not mean you have to do it. Consider that upon the birth of his second child, John Lennon retired from the music business. He didn’t publicly sing a note or record a song for five years. He wrote, “I’ve already lost one family to produce what? Sgt. Pepper. I am blessed with a second chance.” He baked bread and changed diapers and read stories and took his son for long walks in Central Park. Finally, right there at home, he found what he had been seeking for so long – peace.

Because you are bad at something does not mean you should not do it. It would be a quiet forest indeed if only birds with the sweetest voices sang. So I look forward to next spring’s baseball season. I will try harder but probably not be much better, but so what? For now, the Black Plague has received not a single challenge from any other team on the planet. That makes us World Champions. A few months from now, in the depths of a cold, Canadian winter, that thought and memories of Val’s legendary six-inch triple, will offer a little warmth. And could we all not use a bit of that from time to time?