Do you require experience playing the game to truly appreciate it?
A fact of the modern sports world is that whenever a paid reporter issues a diss of a salaried jock, the offended athlete’s default response is to denounce the critic as an irredeemable layman, someone unforgivably guilty of never having played the game.
The criticism rests on the premise that a stranger to the kinetic feel of a sport, especially as it is performed at its highest level, cannot possibly possess the physical empathy, as it were, essential to sincere appreciation and legitimate critique. If a writer hasn’t hit—or tried to hit—high cheese from Justin Verlander, or covered Calvin Johnson on a 40-yard fade route, or been posterized by Blake Griffin’s airborne crotch, or flailed at 129 mph bombs launched by the lats of Serena Williams, or weathered the Sunday yips on the 18th at Augusta, or been embarrassed by an Abby Wambach header, then he or she is necessarily disqualified from issuing potshots that could damage the psychological Samsonite that every athlete drags along.
Once, while mired in a truly miserable slump, the normally fair-minded slugger Albert Pujols responded to critics with the typical declamation, saying that “(s)ometimes it’s easier to write a story than it is to go out there and hit a baseball.” While ignoring the irony that it is probably easier to issue a condemnatory quote than it is to write the story that includes that quote, Pujols went on to say that most of his detractors had “probably never even played the game. They probably never threw a baseball before.”
Well. Though it’s probably false and possibly slanderous to say on the record that sportswriters have never thrown a baseball, it is no doubt true that they have never handled the cowhide quite as dexterously or hit it quite as powerfully as Pujols and his check-cashing peers. Of course, to deny the sportswriter his commentary because he never played pro ball is also to deny the movie critic his reviews because he failed to become Martin Scorsese, but still, no matter how petulant his demeanor or strident his tone, the athlete is hardly wrong to conclude that his critic will never quite grasp the kinesthetic mojo and athletic aptitude necessary to hitting a two-strike slider, down and away and with the game on the line, 400 feet to right-center field.
Then again, the athlete might also realize that it is this very disconnect—the distance between the future writer’s desire to hit the outside slider and his consistent inability to do so—that first made clear the painful fact of the feat’s confounding challenge and thus compelled the awkward lad to become a sportswriter in the first place, thereby inviting the occupational hazard of haughty condescension issued by very large men in shower shoes.
Implicit in the sportswriter’s career choice, in fact, is his humble concession to the mastery of more-coordinated men and women, and his subordinate role to the alpha-dog preeminence of the professional athlete, especially a stud like Pujols. Indeed, were the scribe capable of hitting the ball in Pujolsian fashion, he probably would have hit the ball in Pujolsian fashion, at something like a .330 clip for the better part of a decade—a statistical triumph that merits a paycheck far more handsome than that of the scribe.
Instead, true to what he’s deemed his calling, the sportswriter explains in declarative prose a sport he could never command, and judges its finest practitioners with an acumen earned as much through observation as through experience, or at least through expertise. His occupation is nothing if not a public acknowledgment of his athletic shortcomings, and a capitulation to the civilizing forces that converted certain genetic traits—say, the capacity for clubbing to death a six-ton woolly mammoth—into the ability to hit a fastball, and others into a talent for putting what is otherwise ineffable—say, bashing a fast-moving sphere with the truest part of a hand tool—into words.
It stands to reason, then, that in keeping with the Pujolsian declaration that it is a harder to hit a ball than it is to write about hitting a ball, scribes will continue to file reports without ever having to face a wicked spinner down at the knees. Slumps, always troubling but never so grim that Peter Gammons issues a live report from the writer’s iMac, will stem from the repeated failure to find a decent synonym for the “surprising A’s,” not from the protracted inability to hit explosive inner-half heat. In other words, simply by virtue of his place on the sidelines, the scribe will always acknowledge that the Fourth Estate is a far more manageable venue than the professional field of play. So believe what I write, Mr. Pujols: Most of us know exactly how hard it is to hit that ball. We tried, and failed, back when it was easier.
The next and most vital component of the professional-sports triad—the thing that makes it professional—is the polycephalic collective known as the paying customer, a creature to whom both the athlete and the sportswriter appeal for a paycheck and to whom the benefits of bilateral criticism are conferred.
Yes, it is this familiar animal, at home with his laptop and his flat-screen and his hot sports opinions and his bum left knee, who earns by way of hours invested the permission to bitch and moan, about both the professional athlete and the wordsmiths who are paid to cover him. It is this everyday creature, out in the reserved seat of knowledge between the press box and the playing field, who, as often as not, supports his bitch-and-moan authority with a résumé that includes practical experience with both the baseball and the alphabet, one that’s proved pretty useful when it comes to describing an “effective bunt” or just a “feeble attempt” at a bunt, the kind “I could have laid down in Little League, you no-good overpaid freakin’ prima donna.”
After the game, when he opens his laptop to read the account of what the hell just happened, the fan will spot a glaring narrative omission: Sure, the writer has mentioned the failed sacrifice bunt— of course he has; it was a pivotal moment, and the team went on to lose by a run—but only in the factual, dispassionate language of Sgt. Joe Friday at a public reading of the 1967 Sears Catalog. Indeed, like all the other instances when the writer went simultaneously soft and disappointingly objective, the account is just a dull demonstration of bloodless reportage that forgives the hitter of his Olympian sins and fails to lynch him publicly in a manner appropriate to his crime, or, in other words, lets the summabitch off the hook for screwing up a simple sacrifice bunt—and BUNTING, the fan will write in the message boards, was something I could do in seventh goddang grade because Coach made us practice over and over and over because he really CARED about playing the game the right way, and we cared, too, because we played for the LOVE OF THE GAME, goddangit, not for money or women but, you know, because we loved the game and we played it for free and we still would!
And so it is. The average fan exists at the awkward intersection of what he knows he could do—wield a pen, for one thing, and also put down a bunt—and what he knows he never could, which is to hit a slider, down and away, 400 feet to right. His frustration is dual in nature and equally derived, from an impotence he inherits from the slant of his history and the power he has to see it. Nature and nurture, in addition to that ol’ bum knee, have combined to deny him the respective powers of the commercial keyboard and the mercantile at-bat and thus to put his ass in the seats, between the objects of his twofold contempt (and occasional if grudging admiration): the player he wishes he could have been and the scribe he is certain he could be, holding to account with appropriate language the stud who ignores the fundamentals.
And yet it’s this same “love for the game”—a rhetorical weapon, borrowed from the baseball canon, that the fan can wield against the apathetic icons of America’s pastime—that will keep him bound to his seat, yoking the writers who provide description and the athletes who wish to defy the most toxic of its demonstrations. The pertinent question, then, is one the writer might ask of the fan: Beyond a fidelity to hackneyed notions of the sport’s sacred virtue, what sort of love—what nature of passion—do you really have for the game? From what supply chain of emotions does your love really arrive?
If the answer expresses a partisan and even aggressive devotion to the hometown team, and thus to a misguided display of municipal allegiance, it might not be love the fan is feeling but rather a kind of pathology, or even a sad compensation for the voids in a life not wholly and independently lived. If it stems from a desire to see competition, to watch contemporary warriors sublimate primal violence into codified sport, then perhaps the fan is a closet voyeur whose bloodthirsty palate has been refined, ever so subtly, toward a taste for the modern clash – one whose winners and losers embody the pecking order that nature intended, before there were all these bloody rules.
If it emerges from a visual appreciation of the sport’s intrinsic beauty, and, even more, of the artistry demonstrated by its finest practitioners, then it might be the stuff of the beauty-pageant junkie who for whatever reason is incapable of “true love” but who compensates with an ongoing commitment to the talent portion of the contest—the game-ending dingers and the key double-plays—without ever really knowing how it feels to hit and throw.
If, however, it comes up from a powerful kind of muscle memory, steeped in neural sensations and drawing from personal history an appreciation and even a longing for that old kinetic feel, then yes, it really might be a love for the game—a love that a fan might express by simply watching, without a rooting interest, a lopsided contest or a brilliantly contested match.
In the fall of 2011 my wife began taking tennis lessons, and within the span of a few weeks she had begun competing in local match play. I joked that if she tried really hard and believed in herself, she just might qualify for Wimbledon, though in reality she harbored no delusions of a late-blooming pro career. She simply enjoyed, and still enjoys, the act of playing tennis.
She says she loves the way it feels—the sensation of hitting a solid shot down the line, the way the connection seems to travel from the hand through the shoulders and then to the eyes that make it matter, or the way she’ll rush the net, just like they do on TV, and then “bop it right over” for the point.
In mid-January of 2012, even after learning of the outcome and the six hours necessary to produce it, my wife sat down to watch the men’s final of the Australian Open (whose 2013 edition begins Monday, Jan. 14, and runs through Saturday, Jan 27). She had never watched a tennis match before, but she was watching it now—from the beginning, at love-all, to the end, at 7-5 in the final set—staring with quiet regard as the two men combined the grace of principal dancers with the power of bouncers at the door while staging rallies that in past years might have been the pendulum that put her to sleep.
For my part, I kept glancing at the glow of my wife’s eyewitness—a subtle reflection of the game she now loved to play—before returning to my keyboard to write what I could about the writer, the athlete and the fan.
Image credit: Tulane Public Relations/Flickr