Somehow I married a jock, which puts me in a mixed marriage. I was the English major who scorned the sports crowd; to our clique, jocks were way down there, below, oh, caterpillars. (We didn’t particularly care about what they thought about us.) My wife has made it clear that the jocks felt much the same way about us dorky creative types; when she hears about my college antics, she groans, I can’t believe you were one of those people! Exactly how I feel. In so many ways, we are a very unlikely pair.
As in any mixed marriage, my jock and I try our best to accept the other’s incomprehensible culture—and turn to others for understanding. My longtime best friend and I together buy season tickets to performances from the local troupe, the Actors' Shakespeare Project; we're perfect companions as we analyze and assess performances in detail, analyzing whether this Lear or that stage set compares well with the other one we saw a decade ago. On game nights (which, to my shock, is every night), my wife and her best friend text back and forth constantly, deriding coaches and players with an intensity I don’t understand at all. How can you feel all that about a game—especially when the players on your team could so easily have been on another team?
So I was grateful when Adam Sternbergh explained all this for me this past weekend in the New York Times Magazine, writing precisely about my wife’s beloved Red Sox and their recent collapse. After acknowledging that sports are absurd, he says:
As a fan, you will feel actual joy or actual pain—this is precisely what non-sports-fans usually ridicule about being a sports fan—in relation to events that really don’t affect your life at all.
In this context, consider the epic collapse. It’s crushing, maddening, unfathomable—and yet it means nothing. Like a shooting-gallery target or bickering sitcom family, your team will spring up again same time next year, essentially unharmed. (Give or take a jettisoned manager or scapegoated G.M.) And so will you.
The epic collapse, then, is an opportunity to confront an event that’s bewildering in its unlikelihood and ruinous in its effect, yet to also walk away entirely unscarred. It matters, deeply, and yet it doesn’t matter at all. It’s heartbreak with training wheels.
Reading that, light dawned. Perhaps sports are not that different from Shakespeare, or The Wire, or any great piece of literature. There’s beauty—even I can see the grace of a perfect baseball play or hockey shot—and catharsis. There’s a predictable structure (nine innings, three acts); a special venue that encloses and highlights the performance’s artificiality (baseball diamond, proscenium arch); a series of events that are predictable and startlingly fresh, with bits of repertoire that are reinterpreted with each performance; rehearsed behaviors that are executed well or badly. Anyone can do it, but only a few are brilliant. Sometimes the fastball or the monologue falters frustratingly, but sometimes it pierces the heart with pain or joy.
But—and this is just a hypothesis, so argue with me—isn't there still a way that theater, literature, and the other fine arts are superior to sports? Shakespeare, to pick the best, opens the heart to every living creature. You feel the agonies of misunderstood younger sisters, equivocating murderers, foolish young lovers. You feel for the bar-crawling Falstaff and the ambitious (and, later, agonized) Lady Macbeth. You widen your sense of who matters in the world. The arts offer not just "heartbreak with training wheels" but also training in compassion and understanding.
Meanwhile, sports emphasizes tribal passions and teaches you to feel keen distinctions where there are none. Those teams are awful while our teams are vigorous and manly (yes, that includes the women's teams--cf "the masculinity patrol"). I regularly threaten to buy her The Onion’s t-shirt, "The Sports Team in My Area Is Superior to the Sports Team in Your Area." To quote an Onion classic, You Will Suffer Humiliation When The Sports Team From My Area Defeats The Sports Team From Your Area:
How could you believe that your sports team could beat my sports team? It is clear that yours is inferior in every way.... There are many reasons for this, starting with the inferior physical attributes of the players representing your area. Strength, speed, and agility are just three of the qualities that the players on the team from your area lack. The players representing my area, on the other hand, have these traits in abundance.
Or perhaps it's the opposite—you learn to feel distinctions and then to forget them, treating New Yorkers (for instance) as full human beings despite their allegiance to the hated Yankees? Good sportmanship, teamwork, all that? I don't know. Please tell me.
But I do know that in these pursuits there is a way in which my jock and I are very much alike. She spent her youth throwing a baseball against a wall and then catching it, hour after hour, day after day, until she became her state's all-star catcher (on the boys' team, not the girls'). I spent hundreds of hours hunched at a typewriter sharpening my sentences (yes, children, we also cooked over an open fire, back before electricity and indoor toilets). We were both driven to achieve perfection. Now we watch others who have achieved it. Maybe this mixed marriage can be saved.
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