‘Splaining Sports

It’s the first week of April, and, if you’re a fan, you know that means it has been 155 days since the end of the World Series. I was going to entitle this “The Crack of the Bat” and talk about how the smell of freshly mowed lawns and hot dogs reminds one of baseball. About how doing yardwork is better while listening to an afternoon game on the radio. About MY team’s savvy trades in the offseason, or how my favorite player’s scooter had once again been stolen (#HunterGate2). But it does occur to me that not everyone likes baseball, which puts me in a quandary. Perhaps I need to explain baseball. But suppose you don’t like sports it all? It might be necessary to explain Why Sport? in the first place.

Sports premise number one. You are more likely to enjoy a sport if your local team wins, if your local team won when you were a child, if your college had winning sports teams, or if you or a family member played. If you are unlucky enough that there’s never been a good local sports team near where you live, and your parents/college didn’t follow sports, and you never played any, then it is possible — just possible — you are not fond of sport, any sport. The libraries and museums are just waiting to receive you. Note also an important corollary: If you love a sport, it does not follow that your spouse will love it. Spouses can often find better ways to use their time.

Sports premise number two. Any sport can be interesting if it’s the only game in town. Different countries are as slavishly devoted to their sport as the US is to its big three. Cricket & field hockey are huge in India, badminton in Indonesia and Malaysia, gymnastics in Romania, cross country skiing in Norway, and let’s not even start on the rugby rivalry between New Zealand and that other “island” nearby. The star power of Irene Wust, Valentin Yordanov, or Yama attest to the ability for any athlete to be a household name in their country’s favorite pastime.

Which leads to a third sports premise that I freely admit. Professional sports in the US are entertainment vehicles run by business people with rules designed to maximize the interest of paying customers.

No matter how much I wax poetic on the topic – about how the music swells and fireworks go off during the majestic home run or how the crowd roars over a winning touchdown or slam dunk — truly, MY sport will not be any more elegiac or patriotic than YOUR sport. Sports are games, spectacles with overpriced tickets and often overpaid players, not manifestations of our lost youth or proof of national pride or reasons for deities to favor our team over others.

Having clarified these key premises, let’s ask which sport might be the right pastime for you? Each one has a different pace and set of characteristics, and not all may seem equally entertaining. Here is my metaphor of the difference between the primary American sports.

Baseball is a soap opera. It is leisurely paced, full of multiple mini-scenes that string together into an overall plot with key drama that builds to magnificent moments. It is much more interesting if you know the characters, if you understand how that person’s two-timing and this brother-in-law’s secret gambling losses and that doctor’s daughter’s youthful indiscretions all culminate in the Big Scene. That’s why when this pitcher is pitching to that batter, it matters what happened earlier in the game, or earlier in the season when they played against each other, or even last year. And who is on base, and who is coming up to bat, and whether they are left-handed or right-handed and if so-and-so glowered at whoozis before striking him out. All that feeds into the drama. It can be inherently interesting if there are runners on base and two outs in the ninth with the score tied, but it is much MORE interesting, if there is a history there. (See photo of great baseball moment 2003 where Rich Aurilia, after hearing an insult from the opposing manager, hits game winner.) This is one reason why baseball is often memorable for things besides scoring: the bloody sock, pointing to the outfield, the flipping of a bat, or even a players’ farewell speech.

In contrast, football is a string of music videos. The action is explosive and intense, but short, with frequent pauses every few minutes. There is much more going on during each play, and the involvement and execution across far more people is key, even if there is a lead star. There’s a lot of pause, reset, repeat, move on to the next song. It’s no accident that football movies tend to portray the action set to music; it’s already designed that way.

Basketball is all energy with continuous action, focused on a central theme with multiple variations. I’ve not been much a fan because it was not a big sport where I grew up (translation: my local teams were lousy). To me, accustomed to the soap opera pace of MY baseball, basketball often seemed somewhat monotonous. And, forgive me for the metaphor, but it always reminded me of porn films. The action is continuous, the underlying plot doesn’t seem to matter much, and it’s one variation after another – we do it here, we do it there, this position, that position, and then it’s over.

Circus or….something else?

However, since MY local team, at the moment, is now one of the four GREATEST basketball teams ever (at 69-9, trying to break the record of 72 wins in a season)…. I do feel compelled to alter the metaphor slightly, perhaps to justify so-o-o much basketball I’ve watched these past two years. Let’s just say it’s more like a circus. The action is continuous, acrobatic, and fun to watch when there’s some spectacular play; the merger between entertainment and sport is clear, since it lends itself to players taking a bow after a slam dunk or no-look pass.

Soccer is a Henry James novel. You have to watch the whole game, or you will miss the key pass, the slight glance, the pregnant dialogue delivered between the main characters … if you miss it, you’ve pretty much missed all the action.  Hockey takes a similar level commitment; it’s an epic; you have to watch the whole game.

Golf – well, I’ve never understood golf.  I understand why people would play; it is fun. Miniature golf is fun, too; hit a drive down the fairway, sink a putt through the windmill, what’s the difference?  But watching it? (Obviously watching a phenom like Tiger Woods was interesting at the time; could someone unlike all the other people beat them? The answer was yes, but only for a time.) Golf seems to me like long epic poetry, particularly medieval poetry. It’s technical and slow; if you are an expert in it, you would understand why it’s interesting. I was an English major but would stick red hot pokers in my eyes rather than ever read Spenser’s Faerie Queene or Tennyson’s Maud again.

Golf reminds me of that great quip by Miss Jean Brodie: For people who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.

So this is where we are as of April 6th. The professional basketball playoffs start in two weeks; go, MY team. The men’s college tournament ended with a dramatic win, and if you went to Villanova, you will be strutting for several days. Football preseason will be in late summer, after Wimbledon and the Tour de France, but before the Olympics. And MY baseball team is undefeated at 2-0, with only 160 more games to go for the season, woohoo!

Good thing because there is a lot of yardwork to be done.

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