I am no athlete. I don't even come close. When I was in kindergarten, I didn't know how to skip because no one had ever shown me how—it's not an innate act, you know. But my teacher thought it was and suggested to my mother that my inability to skip might be a sign of mental retardation. I think that moment scarred me so that I could never do anything even remotely sports-like ever. With that in mind, here is my opinion piece as it appears in today's edition of Small Town Newspaper:
Cleveland sports fans have suffered yet another loss, a big one, apparently; and now there are mumblings of a citywide sports curse. So many of the avid fans I know—whether it’s basketball they love or football or baseball—are now beyond disappointment and have gone as far as anger and bitternress. If they aren’t hanging their heads in shame, they are banging their fists as they shout out the mistakes the coaches and managers and players have made to deliver us all to this pathetic state of loss.
I’m sorry for their displeasure, but try as I might, I cannot see the reason behind such intense emotion. It’s sports, what Howard Cosell once called “the toy department of human life.” We’re talking about amusement, here; games, fun—toys.
My lack of passionate interest doesn’t stem from lack of exposure to sports. I was raised by a mother so devoted to various teams, she was an active armchair-coach for just about any sport you can name. And we watched all the big games as a family, even roller derby broadcast from Chicago on Saturday afternoons.
Later in college, I occasionally cut classes for a Cubs game. Wrigley Field was a short train ride from my school, and tickets were cheap. At the neighborhood ballpark filled with the most hopeful and forgiving fans in the country, you could sit in the hot sun yet be cooled by the lake breeze. You could watch the game as an enjoyable pastime, and you could share a row with businessmen drinking beer and eating hotdogs while still in their suits and ties.
Scores of fans would watch from the rooftops of the surrounding buildings and hope for a well-hit ball to land at their feet. Harry Caray would open his window for the seventh-inning stretch, and the crowd would stand to join him in singing, “Take me out to the ball game. Take me out to the crowds. Buy me some peanuts and cracker jacks”…you know the rest.
I would sing that chorus with gusto and mean it, but enjoying an afternoon in the spectacle of a baseball stadium was where my enthusiasm ended. I could never seem to muster up a level of interest that would take me from fan to fanatic, like Katie Casey, the subject of the first verse of that famous baseball anthem. “Katie Casey was baseball mad, had the fever and had it bad. Just to root for the hometown crew, every cent Katie blew.”
Caray once said, “I look at baseball as a game. It's something where people can go out, enjoy and have fun. Nothing more.” But if all baseball, or any other sport, was merely fun for spectators, then we could all go home after a game and not be eaten alive by our team’s failures. We could all sing a song, eat a hot dog, drink a beer, have a laugh and call it a good day.
Since we can’t all be so nonchalant about sports, I am inclined to believe our love for games runs much deeper, at least for some of us. Choosing to support a particular team or athlete can be a way to claim an identity. You can align yourself with one side or the other and enjoy camaraderie with like-minded fans. You can wear sports jerseys championing a team or a player and say, “This is the team I’m on. These are my people.” When they win, you win. When they lose, you feel beaten as if you had been defeated on the field or the court or the racetrack yourself.
“Sports is a microcosm of life,” is another of Cosell’s sayings. When seen in such grander terms, I suppose it’s understandable how some fans would take their teams’ winning and losing to heart. The athletes aren’t just playing with toys; they are living, breathing metaphors for daily life; and they provide us with a ready alliance, a tribe of sorts.
As for me, I prefer to view sports with a playful perspective and to take it all in stride. Just let me offer a hopeful phrase to the disappointed fans of Cleveland sports, one every good Cubs fan knows by heart—there’s always next year. Holy cow!