I have a confession make, I haven’t watched more than an hour of sports since game four of the ALDS between Oakland and Boston. Part of it was the disappointment of watching the A’s blow yet another first round series. Part of it was frustration with the umpires. But mostly it was the fact that I scared my self during game four. I cared too much. Game four was one of the most exciting games of one of the most exciting playoff series ever. Every game came down to the last at bat. Every ninth inning was a save situation. Two games went to extra frames. This is what baseball fans dream of. So why was I so upset? The anxiety, the angst, the depression, the ecstasy, the euphoria, all coming and going with such force for three hours was too much. Part of it was the hope. The A’s had a chance in game three and threw it away. They had a chance in game four, a one run lead, then a one run deficit, then a tie game, then a two run lead, then a loss. The ups and downs were too much, I didn’t even watch the ninth inning, I was too depressed. I vowed not to watch game five, I didn’t think I could take the strain.
There is a problem with sports. Not a problem in sports, or a problem that is sport related. There is a problem with sports as an entity. Why do people who are not players, coaches, or owners get so emotionally involved in sports? What is it that makes us vilify a man trying to catch a foul ball to the point where he needs to placed in protective custody? Why does it matter? The truth is, it doesn’t, and that’s the problem; especially for men.
Sports should be about all idyllic things we say it is. I’ve always said that baseball is about tradition, fathers and sons and brothers and friends going to the ballpark. Some of my greatest childhood memories are of me and my Dad at ballgames. The excitement of watching warm-ups and BP. The rainbow Astros unies back before they were “retro.” Wearing my hat loose so it fly off like Dwayne Murphy’s even though I sported a much less prodigious fro. I tried to give my little brother the same experience, until last year we made it to six straight opening days. But somewhere along the way something changed. Following sports stopped being fun.
I have a friend, (no really, I do) whose boyfriend is a long-suffering Red Sox fan. The last few weeks have been hard for her. Not being a sports fan herself she has been asking me about guys involvement with, and reactions to sporting events. Her last question got me thinking. She asked “Why is it that my boyfriend doesn’t cry when we have a bad fight, but he’s inconsolable when the Red Sox lose?” The implication for me is this, what’s more important, your wife or girlfriend, or “your” team? Sure, chances are you’ve got almost as much emotion invested in both, and you’ve been with the team far longer, but what does the team give you? If you didn’t show up to the next game would they notice? If you left your significant other for three days without calling would they notice?
So why do we do it? For one I think it’s the same instinct that makes us hold on to anything we loved when we were kids. When I was five years old I was convinced that I was going to take over for Freddie Solomon and catch touchdowns from Joe Montana. I wanted to smother grounders like Walt Weiss and fire bullets across the diamond to Big Mac. Jerry Rice was larger than life when I was eight years old. My love for the 49ers was irreversible when I was four years old and I got to go to some awards banquet and meet the team. They played with my stuffed bunny and signed a bunch of stuff that my Mom threw out. Athletes capture our imaginations as children, and for some of us they never let go. As kids we see our father figures being passionate about sports, and we figure that that’s how adults act. At that age we don’t know about beer, or point spreads, or the over. At that age its less about the game, and more about time with the family, and playing catch in the street.
Later, as young adults, sports are a bonding experience. We’re still kids in a lot of ways, but now we can hang out and drink and watch games and talk shit. We have parties, Sundays at my first giant communal house were an event, it was fun. Steve Young and Jerry Rice had “Sooooo many weapons.” Still at this point it’s less about the game, and more about hanging out with your friends, and making friends out of strangers. So we become emotionally invested in our teams, their success feels like our success, their failure makes us feel sorry that we couldn’t somehow affect the outcome. Eventually our sadness, feeling sorry for “our boys” becomes hatred for the umps, or the refs, or the system, or the coach. We get consumed by an impotent rage caused by watching something we care about go wrong, and not being able to do anything about it.
The second reason we can cry about sports is because it’s OK. As men we are socialized to hide our fear, and our sadness. Caring and sensitivity are construed as weakness and are beaten out of us by some a-hole by the time we reach fourth grade. We can’t cry when we fight with our lovers, or when we’ve had a bad day at work, or at school because society tells us it’s not manly. We’re supposed to swallow it all, all the stress, all the pain, all the worry. We’re supposed to present grit our teeth and do something about it. The tough get going, and if you’re not tough you’re useless. We are supposed to be able to handle anything, we are not supposed to break down under emotional strain. If we fight with our spouses we’re supposed to be able to remain stoic. But we’re allowed to care about sports. Sports allow for an emotional release. Look at Bill Romonowski, and tell me he’s not dealing with some childhood trauma. Sports the only place where most men are not only allowed to invest and express all of their emotion, they are encouraged to do it. We have to have “heart”, play with “fire and emotion”, and most importantly, we are supposed to “leave it all on the field.” When we get too old or to busy to play. We invest ourselves and our emotions as spectators. We can’t show weakness, we have to be strong, but we can care about sports, so we do. That’s why he cries when the Sox lose, and only gets mad and yells when you hurt his feelings. That’s why he’ll yell at the TV on Sunday, but won’t share his frustrations about work on Friday. And that’s why I haven’t watched sports for two weeks. It’s crazy that something that I’m only very remotely involved in can stir that kind of emotion. It’s crazy that I have begged out of hanging out with my wife to listen to an A’s game on the radio. It’s damn insane that I’ve done it more than once.
Often, when a coach or payers retires they’ll offer some version of the following statement, “I’m walking away because it’s not fun anymore. The lows of losing far out way the joys of winning. I just can’t do it anymore.” That’s how I felt two Sundays ago. I’m not done with sports, and I don’t think anyone should stop watching sports. I’ll be back, watching games, cheering. I’ll bring my kids to the Oakland Coliseum and tell them about Dwayne, and Ricky, and Mac, and Miggy. But I had to take a step back. I had to gain some perspective. I hope you will too.