Sports are like religions. They choose you, you don’t choose them. Of all the sports out there, this one will grab you — or maybe not — and you can’t say why. It’s a sort of love, a sort of fit to the soul. Something in who you are is met by the something that is the sport.
For me it was baseball.
Not always. I drifted, sportless, for years. I was a Super Bowl watcher, trying to care. I enjoyed boxing for awhile, in a queasy sort of way. I learned to like tennis. Tried hockey and failed. The Olympics, yes — at their presidential pace.
Then the stars aligned. I tuned in. The time was right. And baseball hooked me.
It was a pitching duel, Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens, a one-run game. I remember where I was, the color of the couch, the lighting in the room, the town, the year. I remember how that one run was scored. Remember who won. This is my conversion story, and for me it’s as true as Paul on the road to Damascus. Not as deep, maybe. Not as world-changing. And maybe not your religion. But a true conversion it was.
Of course it wasn’t just that one moment. The ground had been prepared in my youth, watching the Dodgers and Tigers on a black-and-white television. Tuning in to Ernie Harwell. Playing Wiffle ball in the back yard, and Pee-Wee league as a boy. But I had drifted far away, losing touch with the game for over a decade for no particular reason. A whole raft of greats I’ve hardly heard of. Later, when my enthusiasm was rekindled, I had the support of other fans; a baseball-crazed city. Just enough community to reinforce my budding fandom.
Like other fanatics, I’ve done my share of scoffing at rival faiths. Some of that comes from genuine bafflement. You know the beauty of your own first love. And this other? Well, it’s not that. And so you find it strange, misguided, unnatural. But the truth is that other sports just aren’t your sport. That’s even part of the point. If they were like yours, they wouldn’t be what they are.
I get it, though. Because your sport fits you, is almost an extension of you, a sport so different from yours is almost an affront to all that is you. But, you know–it ain’t. The affront is all in your head, or maybe your gut. But it isn’t real. Because, for that other fan of that other sport, it isn’t about you. And the thing they like about their sport, it just isn’t something your sport does or cares about. And that’s okay.
For some fans, that scoffing seems to come from another place altogether: a place of insecurity. Some fanatics seem to think love for another sport is an insult to their own. I’ve seen it most often with football fans, mocking baseball. What those fans are saying is that baseball isn’t football. Nobody gets hit. There isn’t any rushing around. Not enough people are running all over the field. Who knows. And a baseball fan, provoked, could return the critique easily enough. In football, you don’t have to outwit a batter. You don’t have to hit a small ball with a round stick. You don’t need baseball sense. And more nonsense of that kind.
What that argument lacks in coherence it makes up for in bluster. But it comes out of insecurity: the idea that your love of that sport denigrates my love of this one. And to that I say: nonsense. Enjoy your football. I don’t ask to understand your love for that game, nor do I ask you to understand my love for this one. I don’t even understand my love for this one. It just is. I like a game with bats and bases, pitchers pacing around the mound, batters tightening their gloves. I like the slow, Stoical pace, the sudden burst of chaotic energy, the physics-defying throw to first, the stolen base, the morality of a bunt or a sacrifice, the brawn of a homer, the finesse of a base hit. And the pitching heroics — nothing, to me, can top that, in all of sports.
That’s why I’m a fan.
Yes, in some way it puzzles me that not everyone can see the beauty and poetry of this game, or thrill to its story lines. It saddens me that more fellow fans don’t hang on the acute athleticism of the World Series, no matter what teams make it there. That’s because I love the game, not just one team. I wish more baseball was on network television; not many years ago we lost fifty percent, when ABC dropped their Sunday game of the week. Now we get just a couple dozen games in any given year. And you can argue about ratings and “America’s pastime,” and nostalgia, and steroids, and overpaid athletes. But at bottom it’s about the game itself.
I can prove it, too. Less than a mile from my house there’s a minor league park. During summer nights, a beautiful game happens there, with underpaid athletes, most in dead-end careers. A small crowd gathers, more interested at times in the food or one another — or their cell phones — than the action on the field. But some cheer, and others just watch, and some score every out. They’re the fans. They know it’s about the game.
Down the street is a little league field. Boys play there in rain or shine, standing in, hustling after slow rollers, snagging miracle catches of their own. For them, and their parents, and their coaches, it’s about the game.
Closer to home, there’s my yard. Here a stunted form of the game transpires on afternoons. I bring out the rubber bases and arrange them around the yard. My son stands in, and I pitch. It’s a small gesture, but it’s pregnant with love. It is his catechism: in this he learns to stand in, and strike, and strike out, and sometimes hit. It is our father-son ritual. In it he learns the tradition. Already he’s infected with the love of the game. Who knows if it will last? But if not, in some part of his soul, the substance of this will be implanted: the time his father treasured with him. So I believe.
For another father it’s tossing a football, or putting on the green, rock climbing, running miles, filming a skateboard maneuver … the possibilities are there. It doesn’t hurt my rituals that you practice your own, and that they’re different from mine in no way denigrates what I do. When they come out of love, they carry love in their wake.
For now, for me, the rituals of baseball fill that certain space in my life. Maybe others lack that space completely; or they might find another sport, or some other activity that isn’t a sport, to fill it. Maybe it’s reading, or debate, or star-gazing. Whatever it is, why fret? Why compare? I could sooner count the hairs on my head as explain my love of baseball. How could I condemn someone else, when I don’t get myself? Because like love, or faith, a sport chooses you. As Blaise Pascale put it, on a topic possibly more serious than this: It has reasons that reason cannot know.
Examples of what I’m talking about:
- Why Baseball Needs to grow up (nickhalaby.wordpress.com) – in which the author argues that baseball isn’t basketball or football, and therefore is boring
- Postseason TV ratings for baseball up 9 percent (cbssports.com) – in which the ratings and “pastime” arguments make their appearance (though in defense of the game, here)
- Oak Hill community works to clean up baseball fields (kvue.com) – in which 400 volunteers prove they understand the importance of those public fields
- A love letter to baseball, by Steve Safran (eastmeetsbreast.wordpress.com) – this Red Sox fan gets it, naturally
- Sorry, NFL: Baseball Is Still America’s Pastime (theatlantic.com) – a nice balanced treatment, in which we discover that the debate is mostly silly