Well, that seems rather silly. Clearly it’s more to do with President Garfield’s murder, yes? A bad event which has given an entire city a complex which causes poor play to grow even worse as the team and its fans realize that, sadly, bad things will always befall them?
If you think that’s crazy then you haven’t been watching ESPN’s Bill Simmons diagnose the entire city of Memphis, which he believes grows pessimistic about their Grizzlies thanks to the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination. Really:
“I didn’t realize the effect [The MLK assassination] had on that city…I think from people we talk to and stuff we’ve read, the shooting kind of sets the tone with how the city thinks about stuff. We were at Game 3. Great crowd, they fall behind and the whole crowd got tense. They were like, ‘Oh no, something bad is going to happen.’ And it starts from that shooting.”
These comments have led to a lot of fun on the Internet this morning, with folks making increasingly tortured explanations for a given city’s sports pessimism. “…and it starts from Mrs. O’Leary’s cow …” is maybe my favorite so far.
I have this feeling that, upon some reflection, Simmons will admit he was a bit off base on that and I’m sure that, by the light of morning, he would like to have that one back. But, even if it was just a moment of hyperbole, and even if it doesn’t have anything to do with baseball, it is worth thinking about what leads one to say stuff like that and to realize how that same impulse infects a lot of sports writing, baseball included.
Simmons has, in very large part, made a career out of (a) making broad generalizations of what a given city’s sports fans think and feel; and (b) connecting sports to positively everything. He has written thousands of words about the psychology of Bostonians. He has compared every bit of pop culture with which he is conversant to sports and vice-versa. That’s his very popular, very successful shtick.
But underlying that shtick is either a conceit or a miscalculation: that sports ARE life. Or that they are the most important thing in it. That sports reflect human reality in ways they really don’t and have a deeper meaning than they really do.
On occasion sports do transcend entertainment and have real meaning. Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. The 1980 U.S. hockey team. Jackie Robinson’s triumph. Billie Jean King schooling Bobby Riggs. These moments do occur and when they do sports become something greater. Or, at the very least, serve as a microcosm of or a complement to something greater.
But it’s very rare that such things happen. For the most part, sports are a wonderful diversion. Games which may make our lives better, but after which life — real life — actually resumes. And they are just games.
So much bad sports writing — and bad sportsfandom for that matter — is the result of thinking that these games are more than just games. It leads Simmons to say silly things like he did last night. It leads beat writers to spin out horribly tortured metaphors when setting the scene of the previous night’s action. It leads columnists to make character judgments about ballplayers because of what they do on a diamond. It leads fans to become overly-invested and find heros, villains, bums, gods and frauds around every corner. And all of that noise alienates people who would like to simply enjoy a game once in a while.
We should be careful of making too much of sports. We can take them seriously in the moment. We can be passionate about our teams and the players we love. We can immerse ourselves in them and talk about them from morning to night. But we must never forget that, in the end, they are just games and that real life is something else altogether.