What does a guy do if he knows nothing about sports? Fakes it, of course.
I am a man. Sometimes I’m also a dude, guy, buddy, and on special occasions a chief. Not to be too tribalistic about it, but being a guy involves membership into a club where the initiation is being born with an outtie instead of an innie. I have, however, a crippling disorder that often bounces me from this brotherhood, like a suburban teen trying to buy Jager. It is a condition that has plagued me all my life.
I don’t know how to talk about sports. I’m completely sports-illiterate.
Let me set the scene. My wife and I are invited to some friend’s house to ostensibly drink alcohol-based beverages and eat foods of a deviled or toothpick-speared variety. Upon entering I am immediately struck by the reality that there is a game on: a football game, baseball game, women’s field hockey—it doesn’t matter. The plasma-screen TV glows menacingly. Immediately my body breaks out into a sheen of cold sweat. My vision blurs. My left arm goes numb. I taste copper. No, I am not having a stroke. I am just in full tilt panic because I know what is coming next. Someone hunched near the screen will say something like:
“With the Diamondbacks going around the horn on that last one it hardly matters if Quentin is on the DL for a hammy.”
But all I can hear is the sound adults make in Peanuts cartoons: WAH-WAH-WAH-WAH-WAH.
If a guy approaches me wanting to chat about sports I’ll launch into a thoughtful dissertation on what is arguably one of Huey Lewis and the News’ finest albums. Go looking for me at a bar and you won’t find me huddled around the big screen with the fellas. That’s me gossiping with a gaggle of girls about how Patrick Dempsey so totally grew into his looks.
I suppose I can’t talk the talk because I never walked the walk. When I was young, I rarely engaged in sports. A fat kid who bruised easily, the only time I broke a sweat was when I leaned too close to the toaster oven waiting for my pizza bagels. I was so fat my parents had to rub Vaseline on my thighs to keep them from chaffing (I wish I had not just written that). At Christmas, as I sat holding the brand-new baseball mitt I knew I’d never use, my greedy, coveting eyes trained on my sister’s freshly unwrapped Easy Bake Oven. Oh, the brownies I could make with that, I thought.
In instances, like recess, when forced into outdoor activity, I drew toward the four square or tetherball courts—low-impact games, or girly games, as they’re also known. But my date with the ladies was never to be because I’d inevitably get called over to play football. The other boys mistook my girth for athletic prowess. It was my job to disabuse them of this notion. Besides having no speed or coordination, my biggest obstacles in football were catching the ball, and my complete lack of desire to do so. Whenever a ball came hurling toward my face I automatically (and rather healthily, I think) swatted it away. Often this swatting motion was accompanied by an involuntary squeal of unbridled fear, like “Meep!” Over time the other boys stopped picking me for their teams and discontinued talking to me in general.
Worse than football was a little something called “Smear the Queer.” If you are not familiar with this delightful pastime, please allow me the honor of introducing it to you. The game begins with a cluster of boys. I know it would be PC to say a “cluster of boys and girls,” but let me just say, ladies, I am giving your gender credit by leaving you out of this. Besides, once we’re talking about a game called “Smear the Queer,” I think we can throw any pretense of political correctness out the window. To continue, you have this cluster of boys. In the middle of this huddle there is a ball. All eyes watch this ball with great intensity. Finally, one boy swoops in and snatches it.
This lucky devil has become the “queer.” Now the only goal of the rest of the boys is to “smear”—i.e. tackle, pile on, and beat the holy hell out of—the queer. What’s more, the primary goal for the boy with the ball is to hang onto the ball and endure as much punishment as possible. There is no other reward for the queer other than getting crushed beneath a squirming mass of boys. Don’t you just love a game that is both homophobic and homoerotic at the same time? Eventually the ball is given up. Another lad dashes by to yank it and, viola, a new queer is born. Smear the Queer has no system of scoring. It is not a game you can win. The only purpose of the game was to explore your awakening bigotry.
So no, I didn’t care much for sports. Had you met my thinner, teenage self, he would have told you that sports are nothing more than a mindless, brutish distraction. Of course, while I said that, I would have been wearing a snug turtleneck and matching black beret, and sipping espresso from a cup that apparently came from Barbie’s Dream House. Once the day came when the espresso ran dry, the turtlenecks shrunk in the wash, and a girl scout made fun of my beret, I realized that to get along in this world I needed to at least have a fake interest in sports.
By piecing together sound bites from sports-recap shows, I patched together a sort of pidgin sports talk. I’d catch a game now and then; maybe glean something from the commentators. I knew just enough to get me in trouble. One day, armed with a couple key phrases pulled from SportsCenter, I initiated sports talk with a coworker.
“Hey,” I said, “that Johnny Damon had a hell of a grand slam the other night.”
To which my conversation partner replied, “Oh yeah, Damon’s come a long way since hitting .149 with a .568 slugging percentage back in the Gulf Coast League, right?”
To which I replied, “Um. He has pretty hair.”
When happening upon a scene of guys watching a game, I boldly and fool-heartedly broke out my sports talk, sounding like a 19th-century English dandy: My word, what is this, my good fellows? Could this be a game of footing-ball? Why, I could watch footing-ball for a fortnight. What a ballyhoo! Did you just witness how that green-helmeted gentleman just sacked that red-helmeted gentleman? That must be good for me, for I have followed the doings of the green-helmeted gentlemen ever since my days at preparatory school. It is my sincerest wish they succeed in overcoming those reds or I’ll have to cry into my kerchief.
It may sound like I have brain damage when I talk about sports, but a funny thing happened while faking interest in them: I developed actual interest in them. Beneath the statistics, jargon, and convoluted rules, there is something at the core of sports that attracts me: passion without consequence. Sports fanaticism is a kind of real world Valhalla where Packers fans and Bears fans can come together and vicariously beat the living tar out of each other. The winners rejoice like they actually accomplished something, and the losers grow back limbs and heal their wounds in time for next Sunday. Plus, is there anything more relaxing than watching other people work hard?
So if I come to your house to watch a game, please do not judge me too harshly. For are we not both engaged in that time-honored tradition of watching stuff instead of doing stuff? That, I believe, is a language we can all understand.