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The Sporting Life

Root, root, root for the home team; if they don’t win it’s a shame. ’Cuz it’s one, two . . . yadda, da, dum . . . at the ol’ blah, blah.

I’ve been thinking about baseball recently, which is kind of odd because I don’t give a toss about baseball. But I’ve been reading Phillip Roth’s The Great American Novel—a truly funny, truly mean book—and, reliant as it is on an almost unquestioning assumption of the primacy of organized professional sports to the American experience, the American character, it’s got me pondering my own lack of ability to vicariously enjoy athletic endeavor.

In great part, it’s true that my disconnect is due to ignorance. I have a mostly remedial understanding of the Byzantine statistical intricacies of baseball—without which, the game is, even fans must admit, almost exactly as exciting as watching tubby guys stand patiently in a field. It’s my own fault: I managed to play a couple-few years of Little League without learning a thing about the game, except that right field was where the inept were sent to die—the pre-teen equivalent of the gulag—and that the precociously gifted athlete is usually a preening goon whom the girls will nonetheless prefer to the Solzhenitsyn in the outfield.

I did enjoy the handful of professional games at Yankee Stadium I attended with my dad, usually around the time of my late summer birthday, but I managed to better preserve an appreciation of Amtrak and hot dogs than of the—legendary, I’m told—likes of Reggie Jackson, Graig Nettles, Thurman Munson, Catfish Hunter, et al.

In fact, my feelings about the game itself were probably best given voice by Marc, a Belgian kid working one summer for my grandfather, whom we took along one August. In the uncompromising glare of the late-summer sun, Marc slammed down a dozen or so beers—as my dad vainly attempted to explain to him the onfield “action”—and then, somewhere in the fourth inning, fell soundly asleep. When several innings later he woke, flushed and a little disoriented, he looked out at the game and, with what sounded like real desperation at his inability to discern any difference whatsoever from the pre-slumber tableau, he asked, “Why is this game so slow?”

Word.

And, I’m sorry to say, I’m not much more conversant in any of the other major organized team sports either. Again, I’ve tried my hand—and foot—at a bunch of them: After Little League, there was an abbreviated year of junior varsity football (I was motivated by a coach who didn’t like my smart-alecky backbench driving to take an early retirement); a year of junior varsity soccer (to this day, I have no clear idea what side is the offside); and then a year of intramural lacrosse (the insane violence of which fascinated me as much as any love of the sport itself—“I get to hit that guy? With this stick? A lot? Are you shitting me?”).

Honestly, the two sports that most appealed to me were tennis (at which I am so bad that I can’t assign to my game the designation sport, it remains stalled at pastime), and rowing. I spent one summer rowing crew with a private club and, man, that was great—but, though there were seven other people in the boat working to row faster than some other eight in some other boat, it didn’t really seem a sport, per se. Focused striving toward the mechanistic perfection within a limited range of motion is an inward, almost meditative practice—you’re working near someone, rather than with. It was trancelike.

Or maybe I’m just self-involved.

But, the point is, I’ve experienced the joy of sport as neither a participant nor as a spectator. And I wonder if I’m missing out on something. There’s some scientific evidence to suggest that—all other things being equal—people with strong affinities for sports teams live longer and more satisfying lives than those without such connections. It’s a type of community-building, I guess. Honestly, I’m a little unconvinced by the salutary effects of sports spectation, what with all that beer and those hot dogs, but still I feel a little left out. You know: Homo sum et nihil humanum a me alienum puto, and all that.

So, instead of trying to drive myself to the sport, I’m going to bring the sport to me—or rather make sport of that which is already there. For example, in the neighborhood where my office is located, there’s an angry, drunk guy who has recently taken to attacking the municipal garbage cans. He screams vulgar challenges and then goes at them with the gusto and determination befitting a champion offensive lineman. Hitting those cans right in the numbers. I’m rooting for that guy now. You could call it pointless—you could just as easily call it Quixotic, but I digress—but it’s hardly less arbitrary than the objectives of other athletic activities. If at first blush, the obvious intoxication seems out of place, I’ve got three words for you: North Dallas Forty.

But, your point is taken: It’s a little imperial to be cheering on such an obviously self-destructive pursuit. So, when I get to feeling guilty about my appreciation of this alternative sweet science, I’ll head down to the other end of the street for the exhibition performance by Dancing in the Doorway Guy. Rail-thin and plugged in, he stands in the doorway, Walkman going, hand weights pumping, twisting in the lowest-of-low-impact floor routines. And what a smile, Jim, what personality. Above the quiet precision and fluidity of his form, that’s what the judges respond to. I’ve got to agree with you, Jane. In a word: charisma. This guy’s a real competitor.

—John Rodat


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