My son is nine years old and can throw a baseball unaccountably hard. In his first league game, swimming in the smallest uniform his coach could produce, he struck out almost every batter he faced. He then scored the winning run in the bottom of the last inning and was mobbed by his happy teammates.
What would you say if I told you that that moment meant more to me than any success I enjoyed in 18 years as a practicing lawyer? Half of you would need no further explanation; you understand that games are important, especially those played by one’s children. The other half, however, would likely think that I’m a middle-aged man of diminishing physical capacities living vicariously through his child. All of you would be right.
In childhood, we first encounter the social division between the aristocracy of those who play sports surpassingly well and the plebian rest of us who do not. Athletes recognize this difference early. Physically, they mature sooner, and they soon face pressure to perform that the rest of us do not. If they are especially gifted, they confront the privileges and snares of celebrity as teenagers. Indeed, the entire shape of an athlete’s life changes. The athlete often peaks early, with the rest of his life turning into a long diminuendo.
As spectators, the pattern-making of sports offers greater appeal to some of us than to others, the way some people hear music with greater acuity. We all have personal stories about the roots of our loyalties—identification with a father or uncle who rooted for the Redskins or Notre Dame or the Chicago Cubs; an indelible sports memory at Soldier Field or Madison Square Garden. These stories indulge our drive toward personal mythmaking. It’s not clear that they mean what we think they do—the avidity itself, not its object, is the essential part.
Today, sports remain universally popular because they offer authenticity in a world comprised equally of the ersatz and the sham. Political and cultural life is honeycombed with fraudulence. Most of what passes for leadership involves talk rather than action, but sports are different. You can either throw your slider for a strike with the game on the line or you can’t; you can either make the open field tackle or you can’t; performance trumps performativity.
The gap between sports lovers and those who are loftily indifferent—let us call them the exquisites—is eternal, and it’s not so much intellectual as imaginative. The two cultures regard each other with mutual incomprehension. The division cuts a diagonal across familiar dualities: the material versus the spiritual; the tribal versus the cosmopolitan; the pragmatic versus the utopian. The exquisites cannot understand why the fans are so interested in what, after all, are only boys’ games; the fans, in turn, cannot imagine why the exquisites are not.
All sports fans have mini-crises of the soul. We periodically lament the endless hours devoted to spectatorship, time that might have been spent mastering a foreign language or the oboe. But, in general, my conviction has only grown that my time as a fan has been well spent; indeed, an hour spent watching baseball is among the surest investments of time that I can make, second perhaps to spending time with my children. On my death bed, I might regret the years I had spent in my twenties writing two unpublishable novels; I know I’ll regret the dolorous hours I have spent commuting. But I doubt I’d ever regret much of the baseball, the football, or the basketball. So long as I can be propped up in front of the television, the shape of the Yankees roster come April will remain a matter of interest to me.
There is a paradox at the heart of watching sports, which is that sports are serious even as the outcome of the games—even the highest-stakes ones—clearly is not. Though I would like my storied alma mater to win its football games, I can’t pretend that it’s important that they do. The strivings of individual athletes are often fascinating as parables of self-mastery, but those strivings are not my own. The meanings we search for between the lines are sometimes elusive. What brings us back is that sense of hope and renewal that a new season, like the birth of a baby, can provide.
In time, my son’s MLB dream will end, and with the conclusion of that dream will come perhaps his first intimation of life’s finitude—the fact that the universe doesn’t bend to our will. I made that disappointment inevitable when I bought him his first baseball glove, and it will be my duty to share it with him. Meantime, we will enjoy the games together, his own and those of the athletes he admires. Sometimes, they are the only things in my life that seem real.