Thursday, September 14, 2006

September Song of a Sports Slug

From "Play's the Thing," Woodstock Times, September 14, 2006:
September is the best month. Summer’s heat is spent, winter’s chill is distant, and a man of a certain age can breathe deeply of the crisp air and see sharply in the long-rayed light.

Bookish sorts embrace the cold months, when the demands of the outside world, including friends and relations, may be put off without giving offense. Schoolchildren will tend to prefer summer, with its hiatus from learning and restraint. Young adults are energized by spring, with all its promise, but for those who recognize the seductive glimmer of hope, April may indeed be the cruelest month.

For the football devotee, the training camps of July and August set the mind to racing with transaction rumors and cattle-call tryouts euphemistically called preseason games. The baseball fan’s heart lifts with the Capistrano-like migration of ballplayers to Florida or Arizona in February, and there is nothing in all sport like the deep gratitude one feels for Opening Day.

But September is the most strangely Saturnalian time for sports fans of all stripes. As the weather energizes, the television enervates, yet the lure of the latter will prevail. Tennis and golf are in swing and football is in full flourish. Baseball’s pennant races make every night’s results count. Hockey and basketball warm up for the winter. A man could watch, read, care about all of it, without leaving his armchair.

He would go crazy, of course, if he were not previously certified so. While a rational person would choose to be out of doors in these last weeks before sweater weather takes hold, a sports slug will draw the blinds and reach for the remote. That’s what I did last weekend and, as much fun as I had with the Jets and Mets and Giants and Yankees and Federer and Sharapova, I feel worn out and bleary-eyed. Did I mention Notre Dame and Ohio State?

I won’t pretend that I haven’t done this before. The vice grips me each September, when I willingly suspend my disbelief in the prospects for our local football teams and pretend that I like tennis at night on artificial surface with space-age rackets as much as I used to enjoy Rosewall and Laver, wielding wood, on the sun-dappled grass of Forest Hills. I watch the Mets play meaningless games in September as they proceed inexorably to the postseason just as I watched them play meaningless games in previous Septembers on their way to inconsequence. I fret over which of the football Mannings will win the Sunday night matchup, just as the junior account executives at NBC hoped I would.

In September I am the willing victim of the sports gods, gladiators, geeks, and gurus. I return to the emotional landscape of my youth, when caring intensely about sport — not only the outcomes but every detail of every play — enabled me to shut the world out and my self in. This was neither singular nor profound: escapism is a time-honored pursuit, and not only of solemn children. Men who are crazy about sports and wouldn’t miss an “episode” of ESPN Sports Center will deride women for their devotion to Project Runway or romance novels. Of course the aim is the same for both genders: not merely to be entertained but also to escape life’s cares ... to be for a while what your parents used to call you: irresponsible.

At the ballpark or before the tube, common people with dim knowledge of the demands upon professional athletes exert an imagined perspicacity to offer opinions on the merits of a coach’s strategy, the wisdom of a player’s maneuver, or the prospects for victory if only their feelings could be telepathically communicated to those in charge. “By taking militant sides on matters of which we have no firsthand knowledge,” John A. Kouwenhoven wrote in a different context, “we satisfy a deep need to feel like responsible citizens without really having to be responsible.” Sport allows us to mind other people’s business and let slide our own.

Despite evidence of a religious revival in some sections of our fair country, in red states or blue the real opiate of the masses is sport. It lets us guys retreat into our shells more or less happily if we are alone and, if we travel in packs, mumble incantations indecipherable to most women and emit tribal whoops that make us feel like, well, players. Sport forms our religion, offers us places of worship at home and away, and provides sanctuary wherever we are.

For children, sport offers a sometimes frightening peek into adulthood; for adults, it offers a fleeting recall of youth or a passive-aggressive relapse into childhood. Maybe it is too harsh to see potty-training resistance where nothing more is intended than a few hours’ relaxation. Maybe baseball is just about baseball, and football just about football, and maybe they are both just games. I don’t think so. Sport is ritual on both a personal and a communal plane. It is full of magic and mumbo-jumbo — that is what explains its grip. And that is why I love it, why it has never failed me.

So what sanctuary do I seek each September as I indulge in my weekend-long orgy of voyeurism? I haven’t figured that out yet; the object of my recoil may be ever shifting, or it may stay the same. All I know is that it feels good to retreat from the world, to step back into my self, and maybe to step back in time, connecting with the boy I once was and surely still am. I feel good about my lost weekend, but also lazy, irresponsible, a bit dirty and a lot guilty.

Sports slug or sports slut, I may be counted on to draw the blinds again next September on the weekend when the NFL, MLB, the U.S. Open and college football call to me.

--John Thorn


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