As I write this piece, the Philadelphia Phillies lead the LA Dodgers 2-0 in the National League Championship Series (NLCS). Full disclosure: I am a fair-weather fan riding the bandwagon. Two months ago I could not have named half of the Phillies’ starting players, and I didn’t know who Brad Lidge was. But here I am cheering them on like the best of them.
Now by contrast, the Eagles send me either into euphoria or depression for 24 hours after every game. (I’ve been thinking about asking my doctor for some medication to help me with this problem.) But the Phillies – I just can’t get into watching baseball on a regular basis. I loved playing baseball as a kid and even coached baseball and softball for years, but I have always found watching baseball to be something of a yawner. I’ve been to two Phillies games since they opened the new park three years ago, and one of those was paid for by someone else. I have taken in a few minor league games, when invited by others, but even there I left early. Usually, I can’t bring myself to paying the exorbitant price for a ticket and since we don’t have cable TV, I don’t see many games. I actually think baseball is best “watched” on the radio, when you can be doing something else at the same time. And as much as I love football, I am too cheap to even pay for Eagles tickets at $80 a pop.
Thinking of ticket prices, there is something surreal about people paying an average of $250 a ticket to watch a NLCS baseball game (and $500/ticket if they make the World Series) while the world is plunging into a financial crisis. One would think that if we are going to cut back, frivolous activities like watching live sports might take a back seat. Yet the stadiums are packed and the prices keep going up. What is even more ironic is that all the new stadiums across the country (including Citizen Bank Park and Lincoln Financial Field) were built to accommodate more luxury boxes for the very companies and CEOs who have been lining their own pockets, manipulating the mortgage rates, cashing in on the oil crisis, and causing the stock market to dive. Yet somehow in a sports town like Philadelphia when the team is going well, it doesn’t matter if you are a CEO or unemployed, a McCain or Obama supporter, black, white, Hispanic or Asian, Christian, atheist, Jew or Muslim —there is one thing that binds us together – our sports teams. It is the great diversion and the great unifier.
Now purists could easily and justifiably call me a hypocrite for such statements –and I agree, but I have often felt consistency is overrated. There is no question that professional sports are as exploitative and elitist a business as there is. How else to professional sports teams routinely get public money to build stadiums so they can rake in millions at taxpayers’ expense? We may decry having to pay for welfare and education and health care, but politicians line up to support the building of a new stadium. We may think teachers are overpayed, but $80 million for that star player, hey that’s a bargain! Moreover, sports can be used to divert our attention from the very kinds of activities that have gotten us into our current financial mess. I remember the 1980’s move “Rollerball” starring James Caan. Rollerball, a combination of hockey and roller derby, was used by the power elite to divert the populace from the oppression and fraud they were creating in a divided and suffering society. I get it. Sport is a huge diversion, but…what about them Phils!
Somehow these diversions, like sports, help me realize how much of a game the rest of life is. Finance, politics, business, and even war are all games with all sorts of posturing and roles, and people playing to win or lose. Unfortunately, these games have dire consequences, but nonetheless they are games. And just like with any game, after its over, we can move on, pick ourselves up win or lose, and face tomorrow. I get depressed after another Eagles’ loss and feel elated when the Phillies win, but win or lose, after my emotion passes, I still have tomorrow. The game is not the beginning and end of life; it’s only a game.
Now there are folks who mistake the game for life. There are sports fans who invest too much emotion or gamble too much money on sports. There are business people who really think they can rule the world. There are politicians who begin to believe their own exaggerated PR clippings. There are generals who forget that every “casualty” in war is not just another chess piece on the board but a precious human life. When that happens, then we need to halt the game and remind people that they really aren’t in control, and that they need a major dose of humility or even humiliation to cure their hubris. So for instance, those AIG execs who went on a $400 million junket after they were bailed out by the government, ought to be paraded out in every major city and publicly chided.
But if they and we can keep things in perspective, then we can enjoy the diversionary games when they bring us together. Lord knows, we could use a bit more unity, and frankly every once in a while it’s nice to have a diversion. So fair-weather fan that I am, I will cheer the Phillies hopefully into the World Series and a championship. Now we Philadelphians have been conditioned not to get our hopes too high when it comes to championships. So if they win, we will celebrate and have a parade. If they lose, we will gnash our teeth for an evening. But either way, the next day we will get up and get on with life. Because in the end, as my Dad always reminded me after my team lost a close one, it’s only a game.