Next Monday my son and I will be playing hooky from our respective schools to watch our sixth consecutive Mets home opener together. My legacy to him is a passion for a profoundly inept team. He reached sports maturity just in time to watch the Mets get awful; since his seventh birthday they've gone 453-519. The most memorable moment of these seasons occurred when their second-baseman dropped a game-ending pop-up against the Yankees that a Little Leaguer could have caught.
When he's asked his favorite team, as twelve-year-olds inevitably are, upon hearing his answer the questioner generally offers him a look of pity, which must be familiar to Cubs fans, and directs at me an accusatory glance, as if I've purposefully infected my son with measles. How could I have done this to him when we have a geographically convenient alternative object for our affection, which is relentlessly committed to excellence whatever the cost?
I can't help but wonder how much angrier it would make them to know that my wife and I made this choice purposefully, fully aware of data showing that kids tend to be loyal to their favorite teams for life. I see this commitment to an underdog -- and underdogism -- as a gift, and a means to transform athletic contests into teaching moments. Most of my first serious conversations with my son about society, law and morality have focused around sports issues, and there are important things that I want him to learn.
In my experience under-resourced, systematically disadvantaged individuals and groups have more compelling claims on our sympathies than the elite. One can find exceptions, of course, but I want my kids' instincts to gravitate to the have-nots, and to listen carefully to the claims of the advantaged. When wealthy baseball teams oppose a salary cap by saying the system isn't broken, they're not making a moral claim, they're merely defending the status quo. While these arguments aren't intellectually sophisticated, their power illustrates why it's so difficult to effectuate change and makes it easier to understand how Americans accept a CEO earning $141 million when the average teacher makes about $60,000.
Most people live life on a budget, but there's virtue, not shame, in that reality. Limits foster efficiency and innovation, and from a fan's selfish standpoint, rooting for individuals and organizations operating under constraints can be extraordinarily fun. Has there ever been a more compelling baseball moment than Jim Abbott's no-hitter or a more inspiring running highlight than Team Hoyt finishing its 32nd Boston Marathon? If you're into the hot-stove component of sports, as I am, is any story so riveting as Billy Beane's crusade to keep the Oakland A's competitive despite having one-third of the Yankees' payroll?
Wealthy clubs are often collections of individuals. Sports become compelling when teams -- the San Antonio Spurs come to mind -- become more than the sum of their component parts. Sports become transcendent when individuals band together for a perceived common cause, overcome disadvantage and defy the odds. Then you have the Miracle on Ice and Jim Valvano's 1983 Wolfpack.
The Yankees say they expect to win every year, but no individual or group succeeds all the time and it's unhealthy to create an expectation that they should. Berkeley's Paul Piff's research has vividly demonstrated how privilege can dehumanize people, and, as anyone familiar with the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment knows, the ability to delay gratification correlates with better life outcomes. It also helps one savor positive experiences. Cubs fans would say they've delayed their gratification too long, I'm sure, but I can't help but think that nothing will ever compare with that first World Series victory once they get it, and how much sweeter it would have been if they'd managed to hold on in 1969, during devoted Chicagoan Ernie Banks' last productive season, than it'll be if they win with the hired guns they brought in this winter.
Different people will find different virtue in athletic contests, but generally speaking in my experience we expect too little from professional sports. I watch a lot of Little League games and listen to more sports talk radio than I care to admit, and I'm often struck by the contrast between our expectation that youth sports teach fair play and teamwork, but that in pro sports only winning matters. Perhaps this latter claim might be true for a coach or general manager, whose jobs depend on producing results, but I doubt it's true for many owners, most of whom have phenomenal independent wealth, and I'm sure it's not true from a fan's standpoint. How someone wins matters -- both in an ethical sense and to our experience of the game.
Announcers may say "it's all about what happens on the field," but the competition and background narrative can never be separated -- one is integral to the other. Unless you happen to be a fan of an Olympic sport, it's likely that your favorite sports memory is of an unremarkable physical act. Mine is Jack Nicklaus's putt at the seventeenth hole of the 1986 Masters. Though hearing Verne Lundquist's "Yes sir," still gives me chills, I'd be hard pressed to imagine something more physically unremarkable than putting a ball eighteen feet. It's only the context of a great champion-turned underdog defying expectations about the limits of age, which rendered a mundane act sublime. Context always matters.
Social context matters. It matters whether A-Rod or Roger Clemens took steroids because cheating is bad and drugging oneself to gain a competitive advantage sends children the wrong message about their bodies. It matters even more that Ryan Braun and Lance Armstrong vilified others to cover up their cheating because it sends kids the message that privileged people aren't accountable for their actions.
Institutional context matters. I stopped rooting for my beloved Knicks after they condoned sexual harassment and signed selfish players and because we don't owe anyone our unquestioning loyalty. I'm pulling now, though, for Phil Jackson to succeed in what he's described as an "experiment," and what I understand as an effort to change a corporate culture and foster an environment of team play. That's a sports story I can care about.
Human context matters. It's unconscionable that one in three professional football players suffers brain trauma. I'm joining the growing legions who won't watch football until the NFL implements a plan that makes the sport not inherently dangerous, and I'm guilting my son into joining the boycott. Perhaps one can rationalize watching football as consensual activity, but no one can rationalize the blind eye the NFL has turned on the problem of domestic violence.
What athletes stand for matters. I care that LeBron James advocates for social justice. I care that Dean Smith fought racial discrimination. I care that Kobe Bryant delivered a quick, forceful message of tolerance when Jason Collins came out last year.
An athlete's comportment matters. I care that Tim Duncan reads widely and conducts himself with quiet dignity, that Steve Nash's retirement announcement was elegantly written, and that David Wright supports law enforcement officers. I care that at spring training the Mets' Eric Campbell signed my son's baseball, looked him in the eye and spoke with him about experimenting at catcher. I care whether athletes embrace the reality of their status as role models.
I care about all this because I want my kids to understand that winning isn't the direct object of sports, but rather an artificial construction through which honor sometimes can be achieved, and is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition of greatness. Tim Smyczek, ranked 112th in the world, achieved greatness when he overruled an umpire's call against his interest in a match against Rafael Nadal, as did Pee Wee Reese when he placed his arm around Jackie Robinson at Cincinnati's Crosley Field, as did the Florida Southern College girls' softball team when they carried Eckerd's Kara Oberer around the bases, though the act cost them the game. These are the moments from which movies are made.
Understanding this makes greatness accessible to everyone, not just the most extraordinary athletes, and transforms our kids' understanding of what it means to be a hero. I want my children to grow up emulating Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King, not Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan. I want them to know that Robinson, Roberto Clemente and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were and are great men, but that Clemente's 3,000 hits and Abdul-Jabbar's six championship rings were and are incidental to their greatness. I want them to root for great people and great teams, even if that means delaying gratification.
And, whatever, I'd rather do it with them -- family, of course, is the greatest virtue of sports. I know from past experience that by next year I won't be able to remember which team the Mets played at the home opener or who pitched or even who won the game. But I'll remember being there with my son, what we ate, and, if Eamon's lucky enough to catch a foul ball, as he has been twice, exactly where we were sitting and how it happened.
Our favorite player is R.A. Dickey because he overcame physical limitations, related his struggle with eloquence and, when he met my son at a train station near where we live, stopped, took a picture and generally acted like a gentleman. The Mets shipped him off for prospects, some of whom have us feeling optimistic about the upcoming season. So on Monday we'll be sitting in the stands looking for our new hero. He won't necessarily be the one who hits the most home runs. He'll be the one who plays with the most class, and if he helps our team win, that'll be fine too.
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