sports fan I am not. At least not in the conventional sense. I don’t follow the Minnesota Vikes, Twins, or Timberwolves, and I’m often grateful for one less section of the newspaper to read, fewer TV channels to surf, and Sunday afternoons free for other passions. This doesn’t make me feel good, however; it makes me a little sad.
I used to love watching basketball or football, when I knew and cared about the players. When our high school team was pitted against our arch rival, I loved the tension in the hallways as game time approached, and the thrill–or dejection–we shared when the game was won or lost. I once was devoted to a ritual every spring, when I’d attend at least one Twins game, not so much to see baseball as to soak up the sun, the smells, and the sounds: bat on ball, ball on glove, loudspeaker crackling, fans cheering. I liked being one among many; it seemed worthwhile.
Looking back, I see my detachment as slow and insidious. Maybe it began when I quit playing basketball because the girls rules limiting us to half-courts and three dribbles made it no fun. Or perhaps it was when I chose instead the cheerleader route, but discovered that boosting the team felt empty compared to making the points. Or was it when baseball moved inside, exchanging fresh air and community for a suffocating cocoon of bright lights and loud commercials?
One seed of distaste clearly was sown on a Saturday afternoon in Yokohama, Japan, where I was home for the summer during college. I stopped by the ballfield, where our Little League team was playing for the Far East Armed Forces championship. It was hard to pass up not only the excitement of the game–whoever won would return to the U.S. to play in the national finals, a very big deal–but also the chance to climb the rickety old bleachers and sit looking across the field to the Pacific Ocean, glistening under a rare blue sky.
I happened upon the classic moment: bases loaded, two outs, bottom of the ninth. A slight blond boy, smaller than his teammates, picked up the bat, walked to the plate, and took his stance. As the tension mounted, I became aware of rustling around me, parents raising their voices, some moving down to the field to argue with the coaches. It seemed that this boy was known for striking out; if allowed to do so now, the game would be lost.
The scene, 30 years later, is vivid still: Adults shouting and gesticulating, shoving each other and stomping their feet. In their midst, head hanging down and bat slumped against his side, waited a silent young boy, forgotten.
When the boy was sent back to the dugout, I left the game; for me, it had already been lost. And in the years since, I’ve found little reason to celebrate sports, although I did peek at women’s soccer coverage in the newspaper last summer and sometimes even read far enough to turn the page. But the novelty of women leading the sports section can’t mask the lack of connection between the people and the pros, can’t resolve the primary question we address in this issue’s cover stories: How can we reclaim sports?
So, I find myself looking closer to home for the answer. Debbie Cullen, our office manager, made participation in her Wednesday morning bowling league a job requirement when she started working here 15 years ago. As a Lucky Striker, she got to do something athletic along with other young mothers while the bowling alley provided free day care for her infant daughter, Molly.
Now her team is called the BBs (“We haven’t quite decided what that stands for,” she admits. “Beautiful Babes? Big Bitches?”), and often her teammates are women in their 70s and 80s, some of whom play until they die or have to go into a nursing home. Grandma Helen is still an active favorite, although an extra hole has been drilled into her bowling ball to compensate for her arthritic fingers. These dedicated athletes have begun recruiting their daughters: Molly, now 15, has bowled for three years and averages 130–not quite her mother’s 157, but getting close.
What, then, will be the future of sports? New stadiums for the disenfranchised masses? Young people banished due to parental interference? Or games we can–somehow–make our own? I still wouldn’t call myself a fan, but I’d cheer for Grandma Helen.