Karl Marx had it wrong. Religion isn’t the opiate of the masses; sports is. Let’s define our terms here. Opiates reputedly are mind soothers that calm those whose worldly burdens weigh too heavily upon them. For many people, including me, interest in sports does that, providing periodic escape from pressures of life. To be specific, interest in my home teams provides a short nap for my growing premonitions of a looming national plunge into the abyss of disunity. Without sports as a diversion, I’d be obsessed with visions of inescapable disaster.
As I write, the goodies provided by this particular recess from despair are uncommonly inviting. Currently, Philadelphia is in a state of sports ecstasy. The Eagles have the best record in the N.F.L., and the Phillies have advanced to the National League Championship round. As a long-time fan of my city’s teams, I can scarcely believe this is happening. Conditioned from childhood to expect repeated and ignominious failures of virtually all local teams, I approach potential success warily. I’m like a junkyard dog accustomed to trying to survive on practically meatless bones. Now, having been tossed a filet mignon, I circle it suspiciously, cautioning myself about the probability of this being a one-time feast. Besides, no championship has been delivered yet. For most fans, the mere prospect of one causes them to salivate.
My wariness notwithstanding, being glued to the tube for a recent Phillies play-off game was mandatory. That three-plus-hour slice of time could be spent no other way. In fact, if I’d been a diplomat on the verge of securing an international peace agreement, I’d have adjourned the meeting to plop before the TV set. So Elaine and I followed the game intently, adhering to our usual division of attitude: she praised any action even remotely deserving of praise; I did the exact opposite, finding some aspect of even well-executed plays to criticize. Being a couch grouch seems to be a tendency buried in my DNA.
Elaine is a model fan because, while she always hopes for the best, she’s undismayed by its opposite. Regardless of score, she’s into the game until the last out. In her tolerant view, players who strike out in crucial situations or who commit errors at key points simply substantiate the reality that sometimes we’re all betrayed by our inevitable flaws. She steadfastly maintains that the culprit (my word, not hers) feels worse than we fans do. Characteristically, she focuses on what really matters, the sheer athleticism of the game, the barely believable acrobatics behind dazzling fielding plays and the grace and strength leading to mammoth home runs.
Unfortunately, I do not share Elaine’s admirable perspective on sports. I don’t admit this with even an ounce of perverse pride. I wish I could consign my negativity to the kind of dark basement the Phillies and my other teams occupied in the years of my childhood. But I’m an uncompromising disciplinarian who, long adjusted to my own imperfections, somehow expects perfection from “my” athletes. Actually, I’d be happy if that were the only quirk that marks my fandom, but it’s not.
When my teams play particular opponents, I catch myself rooting more strongly against those outlanders than I root for my hometowners. The New England Patriots and the Houston Astros are cheaters whose rule violations have been confirmed. Fans of the Atlanta Braves are habituated to the racist “Tomahawk Chop.” I try to cut them slack because, knowing little about baseball, they have to do something to avoid getting bored at games. And it should be obvious I’m vehemently against all Florida and the rest of Texas’s teams because I assume Governors Abbot and DeSantis would, if they weren’t involved in acts of political chicanery, support them. Connecting sports and politics, both highly emotional enterprises, seems totally natural to me.
Obviously, I’m not the kind of guy I’d want to watch a game with. My running commentary contains little that is elevating or informative. Actually, I’m secretly happy when some of my critiques are pointedly ignored by Gill, Alan, and Elaine. They simply chalk up my analyses to me being me. My family, myself excluded, of course, are deeply savvy fans, gifted with unwavering perspective I confess I envy. Sometimes, I seek to explain away my peculiarities by taking refuge in memories of those kid days when combining “Phillies” and “pennant” was just an obscene joke. All of us are products of what happened earlier in our lives. Most people manage somehow to overcome the negativity of the past. Where being a fan is concerned, I haven’t. I’ve struck out. But none of the Phillies better do that!