RUSS ROBERTS

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Only a Game

From the St. Louis Post Dispatch

[Thanks go to Lenny Alford for making the opening paragraph possible.]

The Redbirds are in Beantown. The year is 1967, I’m thirteen. A friend of the family, Lenny Alford, in a kindness that should never be forgotten, has given me his ticket in the bleachers for the sixth game of the World Series. Lou Brock hits a ball that I can still see. It’s rising up and up and up and it looks for a moment as if it will keep rising and carry out of the park altogether and land miles away in Boston Bay. But it comes down near me for a home run that keeps the Cards in the game.

Unfortunately, I am rooting for the Red Sox.

I like the Cardinals. I’ve always liked the birds on the bat. A diversified portfolio is a healthy thing and the Cards are my National League team. But Cardinals-Red Sox? My heart turns eastward. I was raised in Lexington, Massachusetts. Cradle of the American Revolution and birthplace of Red Sox fans. So for the last two nights and again tonight, I’m rooting against the Cards in this distasteful inter-league play we fans must live with.

Why do we care so much about our sports teams?

There’s something unseemly about caring so much. Or even caring at all. When we buy or sell a product in the marketplace, both sides win. If you don’t like the deal you can walk away. But sports? Sports is what economists call a zero-sum game—for every winner there’s a loser. You can only triumph by bringing defeat.

There are so many more important things to care about. And so I wonder whether to encourage my children to care even remotely as much as I do. Wouldn’t they be better served to grow up thinking about baseball the way I think of symphony orchestras? It’s nice to have a good one in town, yes. But when we lose a good cellist to a rival, I don’t comb through the paper for information on who’s going to take her place. Surely it is better to love Shakespeare and root for a cure for cancer and peace.

And yet baseball and sports have their rewards that do not come easily elsewhere. There is the drama of the unexpected that the greatest drama on the stage can never match. Lady Macbeth washes her hands every night unto eternity. But Roger Clemens’s fate this weekend is up in the air.

Then there’s the feeling of belonging that is part of sport. We rise as one when the ball goes out of the park, high five the stranger next to us and add our voice to the communal roar. That feeling of belonging taps into the longing in our souls for a cause greater than ourselves. It’s a belonging based on an illusion. Rooting for the home team is not a fight for justice or holiness—it doesn’t top singing “We Shall Overcome” at a civil rights rally or singing in a house of worship with people you see every week. But at the same time, it’s relatively harmless. There are worse things than the cameraderie of strangers in the stands.

Finally, there is the ineffable relationship that sports plays in our lives with our sons and daughters. I can still see my Dad standing on a dusty mound in a deserted field, trying to sneak a fastball past his ten year-old son who’s trying to improve. I’ve thrown thousands of pitches to my daughter and three sons. With God’s help, thousands are still yet to come.

Alas, my oldest son is a Cardinals fan. Unlike his Dad, he was born and raised in St. Louis. He likes the Red Sox. But only as his American League team. I blame the Post-Dispatch sports section. Should have kept it out of the house. Last weekend he rooted for the Yankees! He was hoping they would help the Cards by beating the Cubs. What is the world coming to?

They say it’s only a game. They’re right, of course. But it still gets into our hearts and bones.

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