Why We Love Baseball

Note: This post was originally published on September 29, 2011 (the day after a wrenching Red Sox loss that kept them out of the play-offs), on a different blog site that is now out of business. I’m reposting it here so that it will have a more permanent home.

Red Sox World Series

Although it always comes when predicted, the end of a baseball season is nevertheless surprisingly unexpected and shocking in its finality. It’s like the long-anticipated death of a elderly grandparent or dropping off a child at college – you know it’s coming but can’t be emotionally prepared for the void that opens afterward.

This year, the end of the season was even more brutal that usual for Red Sox fans. After a month-long collapse, it appeared that the Sox might eke out a play-off spot in the last game of the season after all. But in a sudden reversal, the odds of which were statistically infinitesimal (see: http://bit.ly/qP5rFd) the Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon coughed up the game with the two outs in the ninth and almost simultaneously the Rays rallied from a 7-0 deficit to beat the Yankees and vault over the Sox into the play-offs.

My own feelings of loss at the end of the season are magnified today because, for the first time in decades, I’ve been watching the Red Sox every night on my living room TV. Thanks to the miracle of Apple TV and MLB.com, I’ve been streaming the games onto my HDTV. In a flashback to my childhood, I had developed the inflexible routine of turning on the games after dinner and sticking with them for three hours. Now, with one swing of the bat, all that is over. No more Jerry Remy, Don Orsillo or Heidi Watney.

I watched so much baseball this summer that I began to question my priorities. Why was I sitting in that chair, night after night, watching some guy throw a small ball, again and again, to another guy?   Why was I so despondent at the losses and so euphoric at the wins? Was there really no more productive use of my time? The games didn’t truly matter to me in the way that family or work do, but they created the same intense response – and on a nightly basis too.

And why do we root for a team anyway? As the devoted Mets fan Jerry Seinfeld observed, we’re basically rooting for laundry because the players have no direct association with the cities they represent and move from team to team anyway.

On my Facebook page last night, I wrote “Human existence is tragic, futile, miraculous and joyful. Which is why we follow baseball — for the catharsis.” Catharsis is “the purging of the emotions or relieving of tensions, especially through certain kinds of art, as tragedy or music.” But sports provides an even deeper catharsis that the arts, because the outcome of a play, an opera or a ballet is pre-ordained. There is a narrative arc that is determined by the creator and once set it stone it will not change; no matter how many times you see a play it will always end the same way; but in sports, the outcome is never truly known. We accept freakish and implausible endings in sports that we would never believe in the arts. That’s why sports are a truer reflection of life: because anything can happen.

It’s hard to unpack the emotional baggage that comes from rooting for a team, but for me there is the fact that the Red Sox are the one constant in my life. As a little boy I went to Fenway Park with my parents – always the most exciting night of the summer.  As a teen I went there with friends and girlfriends. I brought my wife there, and then in a proud moment introduced my own son to Fenway Park. One of the highlights of my life was attending the 2007 World Series there. Strangers live in my childhood home, my church has been torn down and my elementary school has been converted into condominiums, but Fenway endures in all the key essentials.

Baseball brings out the best and worst in people. It’s a cliché, but I love seeing fathers playing catch with their young sons and daughters. The ball is small so baseball comes earlier to kids than football or basketball. In our small town of 16,000 people, there are 1,000 Little League and Babe Ruth participants, making baseball one of the few common experiences in our community. And when a kid becomes a fan, baseball becomes the lingua franca of a family. However estranged you may become when your kids grow up, you’ll always have baseball to bridge the gap. I pity those families (and I mean that literally) in which people root for different teams. I’d hate to be on this emotional rollercoaster alone.

On the other hand, sports does bring out a dark side. And I don’t mean just the riots that occur after championship games.   I mean the way fans turn on players who have disappointed them.   A batter who strikes out or a pitcher who gives up a run must have a character flaw. No guts, doesn’t care, a quitter and all other allegations of moral turpitude. No one exemplifies this more than The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, who turns on players with a viciousness that makes you wonder why anyone would want to play in Boston.

Shaughnessy aside, even on a day like this, after a troubled night’s sleep and a deep sadness that the season is done, I remain grateful that I was born into Red Sox Nation. To have something to care about so passionately is a great gift. How passionately? Here are three somewhat embarrassing confidences:

  • I freely admit to everyone that the happiest day of my life was October 28, 2004, the night the Sox won the World Series. And I say this as a person who has witnessed the birth of his son and celebrated a very happy wedding day. Those other days are obviously more important to me in the long run, but for sheer exhilaration and joy, nothing beats the World Series win.  I’m pretty sure my wife and son understand.
  • Under my bed is a plastic bag containing the clothes (including underwear and socks) that I wore on the aforementioned October 28, 2004. They have only been disturbed once, when I wore them again the night the Sox won the 2007 World Series. If they don’t’ disintegrate first, I hope to wear them a couple more times.
  • The last time I sobbed uncontrollably was after a Red Sox game – a game that they won! This was Game Five of the 1986 championship series versus the Angles, when, with the Red Sox facing elimination in the ninth inning, Dave Henderson hit a two-out, two-strike home run that tied the score. The tension was unbearable as the Angels threatened to score again and again in extra innings. When the Sox finally did win that game, I went into the bathroom, closed the door and burst into tears of relief. I never cried so hard at a funeral.

Every October I swear I will take a break and not care as much next year, but inevitably I get sucked back in during the spring. The days are short now and the cold is coming. No more Red Sox this year. It’s all over but the recriminations and the purging of a once-proud team. Maybe last night’s horrible loss will be good for the team in the long-run, if it drives away the fans who signed on after 2004. In any event, I’ve had enough of a catharsis for now. I need some rest.

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