A scuffed white wiffle ball, a canary yellow plastic bat, and a patchwork of dirt and grass for a playing field: those are my first vivid memories of sports and games in this life. My next door neighbor Joey and I would have season long backyard tournaments from late June until early September, play ball for hours, until our Moms would join in a chorus of “SUPPER!” calling us in from the fading light of dusk. What games! Two boys, eight year old best friends, trying to hit a winning home run at Fenway Park, a rusted chain link fence our Green Monster.
It was just a game. And we loved it.
No adults to set the rules or pick the teams. No fancy uniforms. A travel game meant we played two streets over. It was always pick up. Who ever showed up joined in. Other times of the year we switched from one pastime to another. Basketball in suburban driveways, shirts versus skins. Touch football on the town green, with cries of “one Mississippi, two Mississippi…” Street hockey in a church parking lot with a green tennis ball for a puck. Pond hockey on frigid winter days in the marsh behind our house. Then back to baseball again.
We marked the turn of the seasons by whatever games we played.
We worked hard to win, wanted to win, but in the end I think we knew somehow in our young wisdom that it was always just a game. A joyful activity which allowed us to burn off the frantic energy of childhood and to test out our growing bodies. Later when I played organized sports, I loved those games too. Savored the hits and drama of football and I played into high school. But still, for me, it was always just a game. A diversion to take my mind off of school and whatever other stresses ailed my teen life. Then one day when it was no longer fun, when it no longer felt like a game, when it became more like a job and less like play, at the end of that last season of youth sports, I left the team.
But I never lost the fun of playing games and sports.
Watching games and sports for fun too: the Red Sox, Bruins, Celtics, and Pats. Like most New Englanders I went crazy when the BoSox broke “the curse” ten years ago on a full moon October evening and finally won the World Series. THEY DID IT! Sunday afternoons in the fall and winter are often about the couch and football and then turning to the sports page on Monday mornings for a recap. Offer me tickets to any game and I am there: a Coke in one hand, a hot dog in the other.
Professional sports as fun. Games played by overgrown kids.
At their best, spectator sports entertain; provide a respite from work and all the real news in the rest of the world, which weighs so heavily, the outcome of which actually matters. For me that’s what makes fandom so enjoyable. If the Pats or Sox lose there’s really nothing at stake. Nothing. No one dies. Nations don’t totter and fall because of the final score, and there is always the next game to get excited about.
Because for me, finally, sports are just that…sports. Games. Nothing more.
Competition played between the lines, a gift from God, to give us the pure enjoyment of playing and watching games. I think our world needs to remember that truth every once in awhile, the purity of play for play’s sake. We need to keep sports in perspective. We need to teach our kids that sports are an important part of growing up and so too is family, community service, school, work, God and just being young and having fun. We need to stop feeding the sports media monster which creates false idols out of the players and teams and then tears them to pieces when they end up disappointing. Plenty of that happening these days. We need to learn again, that before sports became big business and big time, it was played by kids and amateurs, for the love of the game.
Because I do love sports: playing, watching, cheering, and competing. Sports make this life better. But in the end? It is only a game.