➤ (Blogger’s Note: Tumblr’s inability to post photos with text entries continues, so my photo to go with this blog was uploaded in my preceding post. The site also no longer allows Rich Text editing (italic, bold-face, etc.) so please use your imagination in italicizing and bold-facing the lyrics below before getting into the main post. Thanks.)
❝And there used to be a ballpark where the field was warm and green
❝And the people played their crazy game with a joy I’d never seen
❝And the air was such a wonder from the hot dogs and the beer
❝Yes, there used to be a ballpark right here❞
★ Opening lyric from “There Used To Be A Ballpark,” a song written by Joseph Raposo ★
U.S. sports at all levels — youth, high school, college and professional — have grown and grown and grown over recent decades.
Meanwhile, strangely, my interest has dwindled and dwindled and dwindled with each passing year, at least as an active watcher or in-person fan.
What the heck is going on?
My observation is that I am unusual in this regard. From what I see and hear, a lot of men my age (in decade seven of life) still attend or watch sporting events as often and avidly as they did in their youth.
But I rarely attend games now and cannot even watch many, start to finish, on TV, even with the sport I’ve followed longest and closest: professional baseball. I feel funny admitting this, although it’s been true for some time now.
Before I suggest possible reasons, some quick bonafides:
I grew up in a New Jersey suburb of New York City and thus followed all its major professional sports from as early as I can remember. I couldn’t get enough of the Yankees (from the era of Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra forward) and loved the Giants (Y.A. Tittle, Frank Gifford, Don Chandler, Sam Huff), Knicks (Willis Reed, Dave Barnett, Walt Frazier, Dave Debuschier, Phil Jackson, Bill Bradley), and the Rangers (Eddie Giacomin, Jean Ratelle, Rod Gilbert, Brad Park, Vic Hadfield) And then there was Notre Dame football (from my Catholic family, which included an uncle who was a priest and taught at the university).
In college, I developed a passion for college hockey as my school, Boston University, won two national titles during my four years, two of which were spent living next door to the team’s brand new Walter Brown rink.
My own organized playing days were limited to Little League baseball (through Pony League, about age 16) and Pop Warner Football. But there were always pick-up basketball, football, softball and street hockey games right through college.
Even immediately post college, I played catch and shagged fly balls with friends right through my early post-college days.
All along, I was in the grandstands for as many games as I could get to for all my favorite sports. I constantly listened to games on radio and watched hundreds on TV. And I went sometimes went to extremes.
When I lived in Tennessee, I strung up a radio antenna high up in a tree so I could pick up Yankee games on a shortwave radio — from stations that came in only after dark. I would lay on the floor, with my ear up against a stereo speaker, to hear the play-by-play.
A few years before that, I got so excited while watching a Yankee playoff victory, I jumped up and smashed a light fixture in my future wife’s apartment.
When my wife and I settled in Upstate New York, we bought a 10-foot satellite dish that could pick up the New York City TV station that then carried Yankee games. I kept the team’s schedule — updated after each game — on the wall next to the layout table where I put together our weekly newspaper for 10 years.
This passion continued, and even intensified, through my two sons’ involvement in sports. There were many more Yankee games and BU hockey games to go with tons of local high school contests.
In the boys’ early years, these were fit in around our intense workweeks at the newspaper.
Then, when we sold the paper, we did some traveling to visit family – and did a tour of the Yankees’ minor league affiliates in Greensboro, N.C.; Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.; Prince William, Va,; Albany, NY; and Oneonta, NY. Got the hats, players’ cards and a few autographs from each to prove it. All of those teams are now history, at least as part of the Yankees.
That was followed by more total-sports immersion in Little League baseball, youth hockey and AYSO soccer, plus a little figure skating and lacrosse, followed by high school teams in each season (baseball, hockey and soccer).
As any parent can tell you, life presents no greater blood-pumper than rooting on a son or daughter. At times, I lost control and acted the fool (especially at hockey contests). But, in my partial defense, I saw far worse conduct among other parents — and grandparents.
Then came the empty nest.
So, that’s reason number one for my waning interest, at least in local sports. I continued to follow the town’s youth and high school teams for several years after my sons no longer were around. But with fewer and fewer of the participants being children I know, or offspring of people I know, the fates of the teams’ lost relevance for me.
At the same time, major sports leagues were expanding. Baseball, hockey, basketball and football all added more teams. More teams meant more players. Many began coming from foreign countries. And with the growth, each sport became difficult to follow or connect personally with, so I slowly began to lose interest.
Of course, I do recognize that caring deeply about professional sports or even big-time college athletics has always required some suspension of common sense. These are men and women who are largely interchangeable; they are chosen from the same pool and then move temporarily to that team’s area, as opposed to being born and raised in a specific city or state and playing for the sports teams that represent them. Any relation to their team’s geographic area or institution of higher learning is usually pretty thin.
Why root for one team and not another? It’s a purely subjective and irrational decision.
In the modern-day era of free agency, this has reached almost farcical levels, particularly in baseball. Today’s hero of the New York Yankees could be tomorrow’s stalwart on a hated rival, and vice versa.
Can I root hard for the guy who just last year tried his hardest to defeat my favorite team? The answer in 2014 has to be “yes” or it’s time to stop caring about sports.
Long-standing personal allegiance to a team also has dropped in college sports, at least for men’s basketball and football. Top players leave early for the pros, giving their college towns short shrift. It’s all about the Benjamins, and there are billions of them now available to these skilled performers. It’s difficult to feel passionately for a group that has a limited commitment to the institution they’re representing.
Now, as I detailed in an April 2012 post, “Best in the World,” I have found an oasis in that college dessert: women’s basketball. To summarize: These are true student-athletes. They are among the best in their sport while also being part of their schools in mind, body and soul. When you root for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team (as I do), you get players who stay four years, get their college degrees and forever retain their loyalty to the institution. In turn, that builds fan loyalty, at least this one’s.
The ND women and their coaches represent what college sports are supposed to be all about — and they win games. It’s fun to watch their games and follow their careers.
So, in sum, a major factor governing my interest in sports is the players — whether I can relate to them and follow them and care about them. The less I care about who’s playing, the less I care to put time and effort into watching them play. And I have grown far less interested in local youths — due to my post-parenthood distance from the community as a whole — while the interchangeable athletes at the professional and major college levels also are have become less watchable.
Still, I do continue to read about and follow nearly all sports, partly out of habit, partly out of genuine interest in this major aspect of life and partly because I’m simply more of a reader and TV viewer in my geezer years. In addition, I still become excited by the big sports opportunities, like my bucket-list trip for a Notre Dame football weekend with my mom in 2012, my attendance at Yankee games with my son’s family in California and the new Yankee Stadium in recent years, and a possible trip to New Jersey this fall to see another Notre Dame football game with family.
However, even those are limited or tempered by the final factor reducing my active involvement with sports: advanced age.
As my years of following sports have piled up, so has my awareness of the repetitiveness, silliness and crassness of much that goes on.
The expansion of media coverage and attention to sports just produces more mindless banter about trivial aspects. There’s a whole lot of worthless speculation connected to all sports — tons of talk and predictions that are senseless endeavors, serving no other purpose but to kill time or space between actual athletic contests. So few of the projections (pre-season polls, pre-game or pre-season forecasts, basketball playoff brackets) prove to be accurate. As I noted in my March 2012 post, “Good, Old College Football,” these are just vehicles for fabricating storylines (“pre-season no. 1 comes up short in opener”).
How sports seasons or games will play out cannot be reasonably foreseen. We just have to wait and see. God forbid. But fans and sportscasters just cannot sit still and wait for the games to unfold. They have to talk about it and talk about it and talk about it, regardless of the lack of substance or valuable information.
As my tolerance for fabricated sports storylines has dissipated, so has my stamina for the build-up to the final result. I pretty much just want to get to the concluding minutes of clocked games or the last few innings of baseball games.
I’ve seen enough games to know that much of what happens early is meaningless. Teams regularly come back from early deficits. Many teams simply don’t put the pedal to the metal until near the end of their contests. I don’t have the patience to await the outcome or interest in how the teams (or individuals) got to that point (with replays or internet clips, one can always catch up anyway).
Beyond individual games, I’m also less likely to get too excited by early-season trends or standings. Likewise, the highs and lows of games or entire seasons are far less likely to touch me.
When you’ve been through a few hundred bitter losses and incredible wins by your favorite teams, new ones no longer produce the utter joy or disappointment like I felt in my early fan years. Old saws now govern: “This, too, shall pass.” “You’re never as good as you look when you’re winning and you’re never as bad as you look when you’re losing.” “Been there, done that.” “I’ve been through worse.”
I do miss that exhilaration. I can still get goose bumps remembering some of the great thrills I’ve experienced as a fan — the playoff home runs by Bucky Dent or Aaron Boone being prime examples on the professional level.
And I’m not saying all excitement is lost. Big wins by my favorite teams remain exciting. But often my reaction is more along the lines of, “Whew, at least they didn’t lose.” Relief. At least I won’t be disappointed or unhappy that day.
However, I can tell you that if the Notre Dame women’s basketball team — this dedicated, talented group of STUDENT/athletes whom I’ve had the chance to follow and get to know from a distance, three of them for four years — were to win a national title this April — knocking off the mighty UConn team in a battle of the unbeaten former members of Big East — the old me will return for a few minutes, at least.
No overhead light fixture will be safe.