We just had the NFL kneeling thing and the baseball season is heading to the playoffs and again I feel like an alien in my own country. Sports bars seem like Scientology centers or Christian Science Reading Rooms, places I am unlikely ever to go. I flip through the sports pages every morning (why? I have no idea, maybe a tic engendered by male DNA?) and names and games without meaning briefly occupy my gaze. I’m interested mainly in the scandals; those I can just about understand. It’s certainly not that I have contempt for sports or their fans. I have a friend who says that sports are one of the big human things, as significant to the species as art or technology or politics, and I agree. And like anyone else, I appreciate and admire humans who can do remarkable physical things.
It’s just that I can’t get myself to care which team wins. I am not a fan.
This puts me in a weird place, because the rooting gene seems to have been excised. It’s like a version of autism. People are laughing or expressing feelings and the poor guy doesn’t get it, he can’t join in. I happened to be in Chicago the night the Cubs won the pennant for the first time since the Pleistocene era, in a sports bar no less, and even I could feel the crackling energy and the ecstasy that resulted and I felt like a fish bowl guppy in a room where a party’s going strong, a chilly non-participant of the wrong speciesI thought at the time: I will never have these feelings.
This was not always the case. From the age of about eight to age fourteen I was a fanatic of a team that no longer exists, the Brooklyn Dodgers. Yes, a team with the same name still plays baseball in Los Angeles, but I believe no one who ever rooted for Brooklyn thinks it is the same thing. In 1972 Roger Kahn wrote a book called The Boys of Summer about this particular team, the Dodgers in the period from the late forties of the last century to the mid fifties, a book that was quite successful and which I did not read. It seems stupid to say so, but the shock and horror remain too keen to this day.
I was probably about fourteen or so, when the news came. I was sleeping and I awakened to the sound of my red clock radio, a technological wonder of the time. (The radio could turn itself on!) As I came up from dreamland, it took me a few moments to register what the man was saying, and my first thought was that it was the set-up of a joke. The Dodgers were leaving Brooklyn for Los Angeles? The moment remains burned into memory still, after sixty years.
Which is sort of dumb, if you think about it. Who cares where a team plays? This is not how I felt back then, however. Back then it was like a death in the family. It had never occurred to me that Walter O’Malley, the team’s owner, who I had always regarded as a kind of hero for his role in breaking the color bar in baseball, would steal the Dodgers from Brooklyn. It had never occurred to me that my team was a property, like a house or a car, that could be sold to make a profit. I thought it was like my mother.
Endless are the reminiscences of what baseball was like before television, “when it was a game,” as the saying goes, and of course baseball more or less is reminiscence. I am disinclined to add to them, except to recall that it was once possible for a solitary ten-year-old kid to ride public transit to a major league ball park, buy a ticket for the bleachers, purchase a doubtful hot dog, see the game, ride home and have change from a two-dollar bill. I did this all the time at Ebbets Field, just the kind of comfy ball park that Camden Yards tries to imitate.
From time to time I get the opportunity to see a live baseball game, and I find I still enjoy the actual experience. I can’t watch it on TV, with all that information clogging the screen and the camera zooming around. Baseball is the only team sport I really understand, because I was raised in an era where baseball was the only team sport that counted and the only way you could see a game was by being in the stands. I’m not entirely sure why I never got back into fandom. Maybe it’s If you’re away from a sport for a while, you don’t know the players, there’s a gap in the history, something particularly important when the game is baseball.
There are people who fall in love at seventeen and have their hearts broken and for them, ever after, that kind of love never comes again and they turn their lives onto a different path. A couple of years ago I was coming back to Seattle on the Mulkiteo ferry and it was a game Sunday for the Seahawks football team, and the boat was full of Seahawks fans, with their jackets, jerseys, whistles, and banners. Some of them had their faces painted green and blue, and it was clear that this was a big event for them. At first I was a little envious—how great to be consumed by a collective, to be transformed by vicarious victory, to experience the joy of victory without anyone necessarily getting killed! Then, after a while, I thought of Brooklyn, and I wasn’t anymore.