Thursday, July 17, 2014

You Can't Script This Kind of Drama and Other Thoughts on Sports

The World Cup finished last weekend, and while I wasn't particularly interested or invested in it myself, I totally got why people got swept up in it. I was reading some tweets during one of the matches and someone tweeted, "you can't script this kind of drama" and at first I got annoyed because well...that's hardly something novel to the World Cup, that's all sports (I'm one of those Americans who resents being told by the rest of the world that I don't "get" the best sport etc) but then the more I thought about it, the more I decided to just appreciate the sentiment. After all different sports are a bit like different genres, we don't all enjoy the same ones, but in the end we do sort of get the same thing out of it. It's only a path to a similar destination, etc.

My genre is baseball. There's really no reason why that I can understand--none of the sports fans in my family like baseball, playing it (or softball) I'm pretty terrible at, but I did grow up in St. Louis which is very much a baseball town. And while the Cardinals were pretty terrible when I first became a fan, the franchise rebuilt itself into something pretty successful over the past decade. But when I first discovered that I loved wearing red and going out to the ballpark, and overpaying for souvenirs, and collecting baseball cards (yes I did that), they were not great. I didn't really care, I just loved it. My best friend loved it, we obsessed over them together. (I was really lucky in that when growing up I was always able to drag my best friends into my obsessions with me or we naturally shared them--one of the weird jarring things about adulthood friendships is how hard you have to work at common ground.)

As Billy Beane says in Moneyball, "It's hard not to be romantic about baseball." This is so true for me, I love baseball, the rhythm of the game, the memory of being out at the ballpark and all the smells and sensations that go with that, the rich sense of history and nostalgia that just exists in the word itself. It's pretty darned romantic and there's a little tiny part of me that just does not understand how it is possible anyone doesn't love it. You know we all feel that way about the things we really love, it's inherent to love itself.

And being a Cardinals fan, I've been pretty lucky. It's a historic franchise, second (even if it's a distant second) to the Yankees in World Series wins, with one of the most epic and delightful World Series wins having happened just a few years ago. I often see Cardinals fans (who may have a bad reputation in larger baseball fandom, but oh well) express how lucky they feel to be Cardinals fans and I feel just that way. Lucky. St. Louis is a smaller market that has worked hard at remaining competitive, that cares about continuing to cultivate and nourish the fanbase, that is generally admired in the league, and has made four World Series appearances in the last ten years. I feel I couldn't ask for more.

But I don't just want to gush about my team, but instead about being a fan of spectator sports. There's this tiny part of me that understands that it's strange in a way, to root for a uniform as they say, or a team because of the city. These guys, a lot of them, get paid the big bucks and ultimately nothing matters to my life directly. If they win or lose nothing really changes. The amount of nerves and care I feel are all for...entertainment's sake, it doesn't really matter.'s a lot like falling in love with a good TV show or a great book. We need these opportunities in which we can be swept up in stories that aren't our own...when we can love and care about something and give it our hearts and attention precisely because it doesn't matter.

For me baseball is the ultimate experience. It's been a long time since I followed a season closely the whole way through, by which I mean paying attention to what happens in every game, reading the daily news and analysis, and this year even getting caught up in baseball as a whole. This year I got into it again, and let me tell you something. "It's hard not to be romantic about baseball."

If sports are likes books, baseball is like War and Peace. The team that leads in the beginning may well be out of playoff contention come October, much like Tolstoy's couples shifted and changed throughout the years of their lives. Players get injured and new stars emerge. There are always games, 162 of them, the daily grind and yet each 9 inning meetup manages to be special and contain a narrative all of its own. If one game is terrible, the next might be amazing. There are flashy stars in baseball and then there are the guys that just go out there and steadily do the work.

Baseball fans often say baseball is like life. And it's so true. It's the perfect life metaphor. The games are long. Sometimes you really are just sitting around waiting for something to happen and then it does and it's spectacular. And sometimes you watch your team play their hearts out and have unbelievable things happen and they still lose the game. But those moments, man, those moments are special.

Baseball is very mathematical and the fans are the biggest nerds of all analyzing things to the death. But even in the middle of that baseball is delightedly unexpected.

And for those of you still stuck on "rooting for a uniform" well yes. There are lots of trades and shifts in the game. But there are also lots of players that will stick with their team for a long time and as a fan you get to know them. You aren't just following a team, but also players. You know what their struggles are and what their strengths are and what the prevailing media narratives about them are and you care. And when good things happen to them, it's like good things happen to you and when bad things happen, your heart breaks just a little bit.

But above and beyond all of this? Sports aren't scripted. There's not a man behind the curtain, no one knows what's going to happen when the players step out onto the field. You can't google spoilers or study filming pictures. This doesn't stop people from speculating or placing odds, but there's really no way to know what will unfold. It's just like life and watching spectator sports gives us that chance to fully embrace the unknown, ride the highs and lows, see events unfolding and vicariously experience the greatest and richest lessons life has to offer. Sometimes you will fail even when you are spectacular. Never give up, there's always hope until the last out. Things may start badly but you can turn them around. It's this very sense of the unknown and the wholeheartedness with which so many of us embrace sports that makes them so heartbreaking.

I thought a lot about this line, "you can't script this kind of drama" as the All Star Break approached. My team had been struggling all season in a fairly distant second to the leaders in their division. They fell 6 and a half games out of first place and TIMES WERE DARK. And then, suddenly, the leaders started losing and the Cardinals started winning in ways they hadn't been winning all season long. AND IT WAS SO MUCH FUN. In the span of a week, they caught up within two games of the leaders and the final series to be played between the two division rivals. No one could have scripted this. It was so much fun and while they didn't manage to overtake first place, they are only game out heading into what some people call "the second half" but I think of more as "the back 9" being a TV girl and all :)

The All Star Break is over today. I actually enjoyed the slight reprieve....everyday following a sports team is pretty emotional business as it turns out. If you're me. But I'm so excited to see what will unfold.


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