If you’ve seen the pictures I’ve been tagged in, you probably saw that family was in town this week and that I went to several ballparks. They were very gracious to bring us along. Writing because we just said goodbye and it’s hard being away from all of them already. But I want to talk about sports for a second because I relearned some things this week I had forgotten and then learned some things I never knew.
You need to know for context that Dad and Micah are trying to hit up all 30 ballparks and they’ve gotten to like 20 — they did five this week: Citizens Bank Park, Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, Citi Field, and Nationals Parktonight. They bought Tara and I tickets to the middle three so that we could tag along. It’s the gift I don’t deserve, but the one I needed right now.
This is the part where I explain myself, then apologize, then make a reflection, so bear with me for the first bit in the next paragraph — I PROMISE in the end that this is a piece written out of joy and deference to the big time sports fans in my life. But first, I need to explain the reason I’m writing this:
I joke about #sportsball often. I joke about it partly because I don’t really participate in any sport anymore (last official sport I participated in was shotojitsu with Travis and before that, it was 300 hurdles with Darren and football with guys like Alex). But I also joke about it partly because I truly, deep down, think that most sports work as a sort of hegemony to keep 50,000 people or more at a time occupied in a fabricated, but otherwise meaningless regional conflict so that real issues in society get ignored and managed by a handful of people. It’s part of manufacturing the consent of those you govern — what Roman Caesars called “wine and circus” as in “feed the people and entertain the people and then you can do whatever you want with their government.” Largely in America, that’s played out verbatim the way it played out in Rome. One could argue that America has perfected what Rome invented by adding the vote to the equation.
That’s the background. Here’s where I apologize:
My mistake, however, was to direct my anger at the average sports fan, rather than at the system that oppresses him, and to overlook the things that sports gave me early on in life. And I relearned all of that this weekend through an interaction with a nameless man at Fenway.
See, this dude was from New Hampshire and loved the Red Sox — that’s pretty much the team for northern New Englanders. And I could tell by the look in his eyes, by the deep folds on his brow, the work boots, the hammer loop on his jeans used for more than fashion — I could tell this guy had a hard life and barely scraped by. I know his type. Grew up around his type. Have a deep fondness in my bones and a warming in my heart every time I spend time with his type. He came over while I was eating what I’d purchased and watching the screens for the play-by-play. This older blue collar worker looked at me timidly and I invited him to join me.
“Didn’t want to bother you,” he said.
“Oh, it’s my pleasure,” I said. “Come on over.”
“Where you from?” he asked.
“New York City.”
“All the way from the big city!” he said. “Wow, New York City. I’ve always wanted to go.” NYC is like a four-hour drive from New Hampshire, shorter than it is from Joplin to St. Louis. If you want to road trip to all 50 states, I recommend starting with the east coast: they’re crammed in up here. Anyways, this guy hadn’t been south of Boston in his whole life, kind of like how many people haven’t been outside of Southern Illinois except to cross the river for a ballgame.
“Yup,” I said, “it’s awesome. You?”
“New Hampshire. Oh man I love coming to games. I love it. I try to do it as much as I can. Perfect night, you know? Just cold enough.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess so. Yeah, I guess it is.”
“Who you here with?”
“Family. They’re trying to hit up all of the fields across the country. Doing Yankee and Citi tomorrow.”
“Now Yankee, I hear that’s a ballpark.” This is a Sox fan talking, mind you. “I hear that’s a beautiful place to watch a game. Tons of cover. And the blue and white. Just handsome, you know?” He took a sip of his beer. “Handsome stadium. It’s crazy with the Cubs this year, huh?”
I didn’t tell him I was originally from Illinois or that I grew up in the house of diehard Cards fans. “Yeah, I can hardly believe it.”
“Me neither. Me neither. You almost want to root for them even if you don’t care about them.”
His friends came and he waved goodbye and some of the worries returned to his face but for that one moment, he had been relieved. He had been *welcome* with me and we shared something. For that one moment, he had shared in humanity with me and had talked about something small, something he could handle, something he could wrap his mind around and take in one whole bite like an appetizer.
That’s what it really gets down to for me: small talk. I’ve always seen it as a strength that I hated small talk, but perhaps it’s an egregious weakness of mine, an enormous oversight. I’ve always seen small talk as an apathy for things that really matter on the part of whoever I’m talking with, but perhaps it’s a way of building common ground, wrangling something you can wrangle together, practicing with digging post holes before you decide to go into business together — that sort of thing.
I will always believe that sports on the scale we see in America is a form of hegemony that keeps you from engaging in meaningful, local change.
BUT now I’m no longer mad at the average blue collar sports fan. You see, for some of them the weight of life is so hard they cannot fathom a way out to solve the world’s problems through uniting. And even if they could, the way they test the waters to even see if they can do that is to have a team they care about and someone to talk to about said team.
Which reminded me of all the things sports *did* teach me. Things like courage and determination, things like collaboration and cooperation, things like discipline and dignity (what many call “pride” but is much more in line with “stand as tall as you can stand and no taller”). In other words, sports can be a way to virtue ethics, to training kids in the Rule of the Knight.
…which I’ve read four times since Dena gave it to me for Christmas. And now all of its connections to sports are glowing red-hot in the wake of my family’s departure.
The way I see it, there really are two kinds of sports fans.
The first kind is the kind I’ve been pushing against for years. This kind rants about the problems of the world and then does nothing to fix them. This kind will literally hate you if you oppose their team. This kind will literally weep and gnash their teeth if their team loses as if the trump of God had sounded and a plague of pestilence had fallen down upon their house. They worship, in other words, and build literal altars to their team. And then when their team loses, especially if their team loses badly or a loses a crucial game, their primary strategy for receiving joy in their life fails them — then what have they left? Only to try and take away joy from those whose joy strategy never fails. And their failed attempts only anger them further.
The other kind is, in many ways, the family I received as my wife’s dowry. Micah is one of the finest sportsmen I know, operating with integrity and grace on every basketball court and baseball field I’ve seen him on, operating with perhaps more integrity and grace than any player in any game I’ve encountered. And though I dress it up and pretend as if it’s otherwise, I have put in a ton of games in my life so I’ve had a fair sampling of teammates and fellow dodgeball champions and sparring partners. Even when Micah did basketball camp years ago at Ozark. And he gets that from Dean who would constantly teach boys self restraint in the driveway while playing HORSE or in the backyard while having a whiffleball tournament.
The first kind use sports as an excuse to ignore their neighbor, as an outlet for everything they hate and tear down in this world. For them, sports is the end.
The second kind use sports as a method by which to build bridges with their neighbor, an outlet for everything they love and build up in this world. For them, sports is the means.
The former is like the brigand of the middle ages who used the blade to intimidate — even kill — and then pillage his neighbor. The latter is like the knight of the middle ages who knew he must sharpen the edge of his character before he ever touched whetstone to blade.
You see, I was right to push against the first kind. But as I often do, I overreacted and pushed too hard against the second kind, which is a shame because most of the great sports fans in my life are cut from the second cloth. In fact, in thinking about the lessons I learned from sports early on and the people who actually strive to make those virtues a reality, I got strangely nostalgic about sports in a way I never get. Dad used to buy season tickets for the Cardinals and we witnessed most of Mark Mcgwire’s home run season from right behind first base — he and Dean both have a copy of a photo of me bare chested right under these signs dad made that could be changed on the fly from 60 all the way to 70, kind of like dice. And while that was happening, Tara was at home watching the game on TV. The engineer mind of my father-in-law kicked in and noticed the way the sign could be switched on the fly. He pointed it out to her and the boy holding up the sign beside his father and grandfather and brother. That boy was me and that was the first time my future wife laid eyes on me. Barechested. Almost as if it were meant to be.