I wouldn't say that I hate sports. I would say, instead, that nothing has ever made less sense to me. The world of competitive sports has always been one in which I have felt terribly confused and out of place.
When I was still in the single digits, my mother and father decided that a good family activity would be the local Pony League baseball team, a modified version of the great American pastime. The idea was to bring the family closer and give us something to talk about at the dinner table. My little brother and I played on the team, my father signed up as head coach, and my mother happily took on the scorekeeper/assistant coach role. My father's strategy was to pretend that we weren't his sons at practice and games, which was not only to treat us fairly but to not have to identify with how terrible I was. My mother's strategy was not to tell us the score at any point during the game, so that we did not become frustrated and give up. Fortunately, we were young enough not to be able to keep up with the math ourselves; unfortunately, we were old enough to know that she would tell us if we were winning.
The first year we joined, we were placed in the T-ball group, in which the batter would hit the ball off a large, adjustable rubber tee standing anywhere from 3 to 4 feet high. If I was lucky enough to hit the ball instead of the rubber tee itself, I felt like I'd hit a home run. The next year, we graduated to the level in which our own coach would deliver a nice, slow underhand pitch to us. Even at that age I thought they could save some time and effort by simply having him close his eyes and throw the ball randomly into the outfield.
Often, it was my own father I'd be staring at from beneath an enormous batting helmet. He would smile, nervously but encouragingly, and mouth something like, "Keep your eye on the ball," or, "Choke up on the bat," neither of which made any sense to me. At best, I'd hit a grounder and remember to drop the bat before scrambling frantically toward the little white pillow in the dirt. Once out of about every five times at bat, I would find myself having reached the little pillow called "first," panting and holding the bat while my mother tried to surreptitiously retrieve it before the umpire noticed.
If I didn't do well at batting during the game (which was almost every week), we would all head to the park on the weekend for batting practice. We'd find an empty field, or at least a wall or fence I could stand in front of so that my mother wouldn't have to go running too far after the balls I missed -- a fairly high percentage.
"Just pretend it's a green bean!" my mother would suggest enthusiastically, hoping my distaste for the awful vegetable would translate into at least a base hit. But I was pretty sure she didn't want me to casually drop the ball into my lap and let it slide onto the floor, hoping that the dog might snatch it up before she cleaned up after dinner.
At some point my parents realized that baseball was actually having the opposite effect on the family than they had intended. At dinner we found ourselves avoiding the topic altogether, which is eventually how we dealt with quitting the team; the following season, when it was time to sign up again, no one brought it up.
At some point in my early teenage years, I decided to give sports another try. I tried out for the Sacramento Dolphins Pee Wee Football League. All my friends were doing it, and I didn't want to feel left out. Somehow I made the team.
Football made even less sense to me. At least with baseball I had a decent idea as to which direction the ball was supposed to go. But I had no idea what we were trying to accomplish with this football. All I knew was that when the guy in the middle yelled "hike!" I would try to run in the right direction and avoid eye contact with him so that he didn't throw the ball to me. Eventually I was cut from the team. I worked up a few tears when I announced it to my father.
Besides the sports themselves, the idea of being a sports fan has always baffled me. I cannot figure out why my father and his side of the family are diehard Dallas Cowboy fans; we don't know anyone on the team, and we are all from Sacramento. I don't know if any of them have even been to Dallas. And please don't try to talk to me about Fantasy Football. However, I will attempt to engage in a fantasy in which I do not pity your choice in pastimes.
My Grandpa Hutch led the pack of Dallas Cowboy fans until he died after a long battle with heart disease. After his funeral we all headed back to what was now just my grandmother's house to watch the Cowboys play the Giants on television. I thought it was a strange activity for the occasion. We sat around the living room, the huge recliner where Grandpa Hutch used to sit remaining empty. I nibbled absently at a little triangular tuna fish sandwich from which Grandma Hutch had trimmed the crust. I almost dropped it to the floor as my family burst into cheers around me. Grandma stood slowly from her usual spot at the end of the couch, near the empty recliner.
"That's right, boys!" she said. "We got someone on our side up there now." She kissed her thumbnail and pointed up toward the sky, then glanced at the recliner as she slowly sank back into the couch. We all laughed at an appropriate level for such an occasion. And we knew that Grandma Hutch was going to be OK.
And for the first time, sports made a little bit of sense to me.
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