Let us now pause and give thanks for an odd-numbered year. For me, the best thing about this “off-year” November was that I could mostly ignore a trivial election and concentrate on what truly matters during the last weeks of October, the World Series.
Yes, baseball. I’m saying baseball affects me more deeply than politics, and I’m not alone. Nobody says “I live and die with the Democrats.” I’m a Democrat and I sure don’t. The Giants occupy that place in my heart, maybe for you it’s the Cubs, poor soul. Somebody just won a mayor’s race in Boston; can you remember his name?
Me either, but all of Red Sox nation knows who won the 2013 World Series. And what I have to say about baseball applies to sports in general, if you’re not a fan of the greatest game in the world.
Notice I didn’t say the most popular game; that would be soccer, as its fans are always at great pains to remind us. The implication being that we Americans are unsophisticated hayseeds for being less than intoxicated by the “beautiful game.” To which I say, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and the most popular condition of humanity is extreme, grinding poverty, whereupon I declare myself the winner of the argument by the archetypical soccer score of one to nil.
There was a time, when I was coming of age, when interest in sports was decidedly uncool. Maybe it’s always that time for people of a certain age. Every generation has a world to change, a war to fight or stop, a glaring injustice to right.
Sports, especially spectator sports, are for the Great Unconcerned, the square Johns, the beer drinkers and frat boys. That’s what all the hip kids thought during my post-teen years.
I was a freak and a geek in my time. My crowd—let’s be honest, it was more a squad than a regiment—was into Dylan records, dressing like beatniks and pretending to read William Burroughs. I was one of that tiny cadre, no better nor worse.
But I had a secret shame. I loved baseball.
During the terrible turmoil of the Vietnam war, I’d go to the demonstrations with all the rest. I lived in DC, the heart of the machine; we’d march on the Pentagon, get chased by the cops, maybe catch a whiff of tear gas, and go home feeling like heroes.
The next morning we’d grab the newspaper off the front steps (newspapers were an ancient form of information transfer, made of trees) and check to see if we’d made the news.
And I’d check too. Somewhere, buried in the blurry half-tones of the Washington Post, circa 1967, no doubt my grainy image lurks amongst the myriad. My fantasy was that the FBI had a file on me, the absolute pinnacle of success for a young protestor.
But when the news was read and the inevitable inaccuracies pointed out and simmered over, I would skulk away with the sports section. And while my comrades were debating the revolution, I’d be studying … box scores.
I knew some numbers. I knew that 1917 meant Russia, 7 was the protest prisoners in Chicago, 4 the martyred kids at Kent State.
But I knew some other numbers, too, like 60, 714, 56 and 511 (Babe Ruth and Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Cy Young, for you of another persuasion.)
If you asked me, back then, which was more important, I would have given you the “right” answer. War before home runs, civil rights before consecutive hitting streaks, politics before pitching wins, of course. I was baseball mad, not mad in general.
But ask me now? I’m not so sure. Human conflict seems inescapable, tribalism a sad, inevitable part of the human condition; nothing I’ve seen in a lifetime of searching seems able to deny those cold, hard facts.
And yet, sports has a sweeter story to tell. Sports has a magical effect on the human psyche. It transforms our primitive instincts towards the “other.” Where we once had enemies, we now have rivals. An enemy is someone you kill, once. A rival is someone you play, again and again. Sports is a giant step up on the Darwinian ladder.
If we must gather into tribes and compete, what better way than sports? Is it not a blessed evolution, from war and blood to bats and balls?
Maybe it comes down to this. It’s either “Root, root, root for the home team,” or “Bombs away.” Wrigley Field or the Fields of Flanders. Take your pick.
I made mine half a century ago. There is an important election coming next year and I won’t shirk my duty. But the day I have circled on my 2014 calendar isn’t election day. It’s Opening Day.