It is incredible as I look back on it how much the energies of my youth were taken up with football. From the time I was twelve until I was seventeen, I played that game in the fall, went out for sports in other seasons that would help me prepare for it, trained with weights, did roadwork and sprints during the summer; most of all, throughout the year, I thought about it, spent hours staring into space envisioning exploits in various games. A counselor has suggested that I was using football to prove myself to my father. I would generalize a little further and say that it was the means I chose for making myself a man. I did eventually achieve most of what I had dreamed of, but I have often wondered, rather wistfully, how it might have been if I had chosen some other means of achieving manhood.
I have a much fonder memory of games I played in childhood, football then too but also basketball and especially baseball, the backyard games that might start in the morning and wouldn’t end — though the teams would change, kids departing and arriving — until it was too dark to see the ball, in the narrow yard where first base was a gnarled tree and a line drive to left would scatter both teams, since short left field was the front yard of Old Man Repp, the neighborhood grouch. Baseball has been a much more important game to me, and is the only sport I am presently rabid about. (“Our baseball game is the drama of a small boy,” Paul Goodman says in The Empire City. “Each player stands up alone, at Home, as a batter, seeking to leave home and prove himself, achieving something against the obstacles of the field. But he wants to return full circle, to Home.”) I remember even now the breathtaking sensation of emerging from the dark lower corridors of Forbes Field — scents of hot dogs, popcorn, cheap cigars — and seeing the sudden surprising green of the field. I saw an All Star game there, and was in the bleachers on the day that Bill Mazeroski hit a ninth inning home run to beat the Yankees in the seventh game of the 1960 World Series, as famous a baseball game as has ever been played. For many Pittsburghers — others have told me as much — the death of Roberto Clemente, who had roamed the Pirate right field for as long as I had followed the game, was as much a landmark event in their lives as any of the other tragic deaths of recent history; I am not an easy weeper, but when, out on the turnpike, I heard the news on the radio that cold January day, I stopped the car and sobbed uncontrollably.
I like my athletes to be eccentrics, not the slick modern businessman who endorses three-piece suits but the country boy who carries a banjo and dribbles tobacco juice out the corner of his mouth. I like to hear that Luis Tiant smokes cigars even in the shower, Dizzy Dean once stopped a game to watch an airplane fly over the park, Babe Ruth — a great one for such stories — displayed among his other mementoes a trophy for first prize in a farting contest. I love all that is childish and adolescent in sports — players addressing each other only by nicknames, jockeying umpires, spitting tobacco juice on sportswriters’ shoes — and am disappointed at a game if there is not at least one first-rate temper tantrum: I love the grand baseball tradition of the outlandish childish argument.
I think that, in a world where there are no longer many worthy tests, young people do use sports to prove themselves, to come of age. They use them also as a means of dreaming (my frankest jogging friends admit that they, as I, often plod along imagining themselves stride for stride with Shorter at Munich). People find their heroes and legends in the world of sport. Rules exist there, the boundaries are clear, and we know how the game should be played. It is comforting somehow to expend our best energies freely, carelessly, in games, things of no final importance.
For a few years in my early twenties I was too mature to follow sports. I have not been that old since. When I was a boy I used sports to make myself a man; now I use them to remain a boy.
I sit bowed in cold sweat and sour smell, as the aches pound a toneless rhythm and the mind peals a trophied past. An athlete has aged.
Everyone has his own frustrations and problems and innumerable ways to deal with them. The most completely cleansing release for me is sports. It is so obvious and natural until I wonder: what is the magnetism of these spherical leather balls I’ve thrown, caught, hit, and kicked all these years?
Translating mental energies to physical actions works as a release, better than marijuana or aspirin or contemplation. The chance to react to motions is a welcome change from balancing books. You’re either trying to put an object to a goal, or trying to stop the opponent from the same. In essence, a singularity of purpose exists, very similar to the purpose of meditation.
You must deal with losing, which can be harsh. To minimize building new frustrations because of losing, it’s best to feel that games played competitively are for amusement. That doesn’t mean you can’t be intense. When I play badly and am not liking losing, I let it out. Whatever “it” is, needs to come out.
Man creates sport to relieve acquired ailments, so take advantage. It’s an easy way to make new friends. And as Bill Cosby says, air was made to pump up volleyballs.
As they would say in Louisiana, Bert Jones is a good ole boy. After all, here’s a guy who comes into a nationally televised football game against the Redskins, hurts his throwing arm so badly that he looks like Raggedy Andy every time he puts the ball up, and the next week takes a vicious tackle that sends him to the sideline. Down home in the bayou, that constitutes heroism.
Not a few sports fans across the country (as well as Frank Gifford and Howard Cosell of ABC) sang plaudits to the crippled Colt quarterback. Not me. I thought he was crazy, risking his whole career for one game. Bert Jones is a great quarterback, but he won’t be for very long if he continues to play injured. Still, football fans loved seeing him lead his team like some kind of possessed Confederate general at Gettysburg. Which may not say a lot for fans.
Sports in America has grown into one giant cattle industry, where athletes are herded around from one grazing spot to another. We memorize the new names, particularly the blue-ribbon winners. We are given owners who scream about outrageous salaries being paid these prize specimens, but then jump at the first chance to own one. Soon after signing the big boys, those same owners announce diplomatically, “Sorry, folks, the price of a ticket will have to go up AGAIN this year.”
Sports, of course, is television — that unblinking electric eye that tells the sporting establishment exactly when and where it wants its games played. And the owners bow in humble agreement.
But more than anything, sports is the fan. The fan has become as important as the game. He is cursed and praised, described as a representative amalgam of what our times are all about, and generally treated like both an angel and demon.
My first experience with fan mania came in the third grade, when baseball gloves were too big and I bought baseball cards more for the stick of gum than the players. It was October and Halloween was coming.
School was letting out when all of a sudden kids came screaming out of the school building like midget bumper cars yelling, “Mazeroski did it. He did it.”
“Who’s Mazeroski?” I asked.
“You don’t know? He plays for the Pirates and he just beat the Yankees with a homerun in the last game of the World Series. The Pirates are the champs!”
Well, now, I knew what a homerun was, so after reading about that 1960 Series I began what has been a continuing love affair with baseball. In those younger days, being a baseball fan meant getting conveniently sick one school day every October (the opening game of the World Series). But this innocent mischievousness is a thing of the past thanks to television, which told the baseball establishment that it had to move weekday games to grab those prime-time addicts. So now the only Series day games are played on the weekends, and it doesn’t pay for a kid to get sick on weekends.
Despite my protestations, my parents wouldn’t let me go to a football game until I was 11 years old. In retrospect, they were right in keeping me away from the crowds at football contests for so long. Because it was at football games (the best imitation of the Roman Coliseum that we Americans have created) that I began to learn about the negative element of the fan: the racial bias, verbal abuse, unrestrained hatred for people you’ve never met (called a rivalry), and strangely enough, the male chauvinism that hovers about the football fan. The picture is still vivid in my mind of middle-aged men at halftime REALLY using their binoculars to get a good look at the thinly-clad Southern belles parading the field with the band. The hoopla concerning nearly naked women bumping and kicking on the sidelines of pro games is not a surprise at all, if one takes into account what football is all about — a Middle Age festival of men smashing the hell out of each other and their ladies waiting, lovely and demure.
Atlantic Coast Conference basketball is the nearest thing I have seen to The Agony and the Ecstasy all rolled into one crazy package — a year round involvement; a celebration of misses and near misses.
Crowds are so important at ACC games that teams often prepare for road games by pumping crowd noise over the loudspeaker system. By game time, the typical ACC fan is some sort of Charles Bronson, a protector of his beloved team. He is a Rolling Stones fan gone straight. Only thing is, the ACC fan takes home that mad-eyed, screaming-meemie edge that the Stones fan leaves at the concert.
In Denver two years ago, a man killed himself because the Broncos were constantly losing close games. He should have waited a year — his team made the Super Bowl.
One friend told me that he got so exasperated with a close Redskin-Cardinal football game that it took him four valiums to calm down.
In Cleveland, on a beer night, the drunken spectators got so out of hand that players from both teams had to protect each other from the wild fans. In Minneapolis, a referee at a Minnesota-Dallas football game was hit in the head by a bottle thrown by a fan.
Before coming down too hard on the fan, it would be remiss not to mention that most fans are good and orderly folks who just enjoy watching a contest and shouting in support of their team. These are the fans who give positive reinforcement to their favorites and are what the escape from life’s harsh reality into the sports world is all about.
But the ever-increasing fan violence does not bear out that this will continue. Instead, as fans grow more willing to involve themselves, personally, in the games, bad things are bound to happen. The future of sports will include an athlete or athletes being killed by overzealous fans. As it is, all the athletes have to do now is dodge bottles and cherry bombs. As a result, fans will be pushed farther away from the action and security for games will include being checked for weapons. It is not a pretty picture.
Laser will be combined with film-viewing techniques to come up with sports coverage that will be presented to us in three-dimensional effect. Fans will buy tickets for a game, walk into a booth, switch a button, and watch as they are magically surrounded by the very action they are paying to watch.
America will always have sports. But whether America always has the kind of fans sports needs is questionable. If people are willing to have a good time at games without pushing themselves off on the athletes in a violent manner, then sports will allow the fan his place in a team’s success. Otherwise, games may by staged for television without fans, with the same noise that fills ACC practice sessions being used for the real thing. Then the fan will have beaten himself.
One would hope we are above all that.