Stephen Baker

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Being a sports fan: Religion or addiction?

October 7, 2011General

I've been a fan of the Phillies since the '60s. They have a crucial playoff game tonight. I might watch it. I might not. Haven't decided. Of late, I haven't been enjoying the games at all. The team has been playing bad and boring baseball and it's frustrating to watch. They swing at bad pitches and go hours on end without mounting rallies. I've told this to my best friend, who's been an ardent Phillies fan for nearly as long as I. He finds my stance very disturbing.

The way he views things, my behavior is cowardly and disloyal. I have a duty to endure Ryan Howard's strikeouts and Brad Lidge's torturous innings on the mound. And for this, I may be rewarded: A dramatic 9th-inning homer might provide an unforgettable moment, one I'll never recapture if I'm at the movies or out to dinner. Yes, I could watch replays, but it won't be the same. Watching baseball as it happens, a fan can experience despair that turns to exhilaration in the space of three seconds. My friend thinks that by avoiding the game, I'm forgoing a vital drama in my life.

He doesn't say this, but baseball, for him, is a quasi-religious experience. It has the ritual and tedium of a Latin mass. It brings together a community of believers who have "faith" in their team. They cheer and clap in unison. (Good ones don't need a scoreboard to lead them.) And like a religion, baseball places certain demands upon its followers. Fans must be true to the team. They must pay attention. And they must not entertain negative thoughts, or overly positive ones. Either way, they could jinx the team, be it with loser vibes or hubris.

Now I'm not impervious to these religious feelings. I'm sure they run up and down my bones and light up all sorts of circuits in my brain. But, like a baseball atheist, I resist them. In my more modern view, I prefer to see baseball as a business. It markets an addiction. This addiction provides highs and lows, like any drug.

Needless to say, I try to manage my addiction by maximizing the pleasure, minimizing the pain, and reducing my emotional vulnerability. (Odysseus attempted something similar when he had sailors tie him to the mast so that he could pass the island of the Sirens and enjoy their songs without succumbing to their sorcery.) I would argue that I resist not only to reduce suffering, but also as a matter of pride: When a business successfully manipulates my emotions and desires, I feel like a loser. (This, I might add, also goes for the company that makes the sleek laptop I'm typing on and the rectangular phone in my pocket.)

If tonight's game can make me as miserable as Yankees' fans were last night, why put myself through it? These days, we addicts have tools that allow us to medicate ourselves in many different ways. These might be the informational equivalents of methadone. If I choose, I can consume the game as series of balls and strikes popping up on the screen of my phone. Or I can pretend it's not happening and watch it later on TiVo (skipping the boring innings, or simply erasing it without watching.)

For my friend, this amounts to sacrilege. But, as far as I'm concerned, I'm managing my addiction the best I can. Unlike many other areas of life, baseball is supposed to be pleasure, an area free of debts and duties.

But now I see I've been overlooking something. Perhaps my friend wants me to watch so that he can have some company to share the experience, for better or for worse. Looking at it that way, I guess I'll watch the game in real time and use my phone for messaging, and even talking--not the baseball datafeed. Maybe next year I'll figure out a better way to manage my addiction.

Update: Now I learn, minutes after posting this, that my friend--the same one who views baseball as religion--is skipping the game to go to a Yom Kippur service....Second update: After reading this, he tells me that he's not skipping it, but DVRing it, and will start watching the game at 9, soon catching up to me.


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