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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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06/13/2004 Archived Entry: "The meaning of "The Meaning of Sports" review"


I was raised on baseball.

The Meaning of Sports: Why Americans Watch Baseball, Football, and Basketball and What They See When They Do.
By Michael Mandelbaum
Publisher: Public Affairs Books
IBSN 1586482521

Reviewed by Ginger Mayerson

Reading this book reminded me of sitting on the couch with my late father, watching sports. These were some of our happiest times because we could be together as a family without trying to communicate. The Dodgers' long-time announcer, Vin Scully, seems like a member of the family.

Anyway, in an effort never to have to really do any real fathering, not only did my father watch ALL sports on TV, including golf, we even watched programs about the sports, which ran before and after the actual sport. Needless to say, I don't have a real fondness for spectator sports, so I was intrigued by Michael Mandelbaum's book and actually enjoyed reading it.

In a nutshell, Mandelbaum sums up the spectator of sports experience thus:

Baseball - our lost agrarian past and innocence as a nation.

Football - WAR!

Basketball - the postmodern specialist working as a component in the team but not really being of the team.

I am not a big basketball fan. I find the continuous action overwhelming. And now I know why our team is called the Lakers (I only know of one lake here), which I never wondered about in the first place. What I learned from the book: basketball most closely resembles soccer (it does now that I think about it); it is of urban origins, whence springs its main source of players; due to the simplicity of equipment and compression of the court it's played on, basketball is the most played game in the inner city; inner city, black-top, pick-up games foster no allegiances or team spirit because of the shifting dynamics of the players, it's a pick-up game, after all, thereby expressing the alienation of our modern metropolis (or something); it is played professionally in a completely artificial and enclosed environment; of the three, it is the one women's leagues have had the most success in; it is currently the most popular sport in America. I wonder about that last because as far as I can tell, football and baseball seem to be doing all right.

I have always had trouble understanding what the hell was going on in a football game. After reading this book, I feel I have a better grasp on it - it's all about the clock - but the action is too broken up for me. Stop. Go. Stop. Stand around for a while. Go! Stop! And then it's over. Football, as the representation of antique infantry in battle rings true for me as an observer of the game. However, I think I'd rather watch the battle scenes in Spartacus or Ran over and over to get the same experience and there's less stop-and-go in those "real" battles. Interestingly, Mandelbaum makes the point that with the (previous) demilitarization of our society after Vietnam, football because less popular. Also interesting is that President Eisenhower played football for West Point, went on to be the Supreme Allied Commander and a two term president. Vice President Gore was captain of his high school football team, did his military service in Vietnam, and should be president. Our current "president" did none of these things. So, I have mixed emotions about football. However, I think I will enjoy it more next time it's on at the nail salon while I'm getting a manicure and pedicure.

Did our Zeus-like former President, William Jefferson Clinton, play football? Does it matter?

If I had to pick one sport to watch while stranded on a desert island, it would be baseball. It's the one I understand the most because my father played it, watched it religiously, and then he coerced my little brother into playing little league so he could coach it and thereby wring all the joy out of the game for all us until he bolted off with another woman and could no longer be bothered with his abandoned wife and children in any way, shape or form. Don't get me wrong; at the very worst, this was a mixed blessing.

But, although we don't spend any time talking about it, my brother and I still like baseball: he actually watches it and I think about it.

Mandelbaum's theory of baseball differs slightly from mine. His vision is that it is a game of individuals competing against each other in a natural setting: pitcher vs. batter; runner vs. fielder, und zo on. Equality is expressed by the uniforms and because only the best make it to the pros, meritocracy and racial harmony are triumphant on the playing field, even if that is no longer the case in our society (if that was ever really was in the first place).

My vision of baseball is that it is the individual acting within and without the group. When fielding, he's part of the team, group or even society; when batting, he stands alone against the group to prove himself or fail all by himself. Even if there are men on base, the batter is still on his own; he has to best the pitcher by hitting the ball and then - if it's not out of the park - he has to best the group in the field - one of whom will be wherever he hits the ball - to first base, where there is another member of the opposing team waiting for him.

As individuals and members of various social groups, we face little hurdles almost everyday, often without realizing it. Watching baseball, we can very leisurely see an abstraction of our lives performed for us. Many people find this relaxing, many other people would rather watch a Star Trek marathon. We are lucky to live in a society where, as long as we can afford it, we can do both or either, and no one really cares very much if you do.

Mandelbaum touches on the money aspect of all three sports and, most tellingly, the infamous baseball strikes, one of which either seriously delayed or cancelled, I think, the 1994 World Series. Now, I am a daughter of baseball and I can remember being outraged by the strikes, which were millionaire players demanding more money from millionaire owners. You'd think millionaires would have more perspective. I mean, who's paying for these people to be millionaires? The fans and communities, that's who. Robert Reich blundered into the middle of it; he took his son to a ballpark and while talking to one of the owners he noticed the press asking his son what he thought about the strike. Rushing to rescue his kid, the justifiably proud father heard his boy child say: "I don't know about the strike, we just want to see the guys play." Is that too much to ask? I think not. I also think this is why actors never or rarely strike: they want to play perhaps more than people want to see them play.

And, lastly, the whole greed thing bothers me because if were supposed to be seeing the best of ourselves as a nation out there on the playing field, I ask you: why arenít we all making countless millions a year? And for those who don't make $25,000,000.00+/year like Alex Rodriguez, why aren't guys like this, on and off the playing field, funding college scholarships, job training, healthcare, small businesses, etc. for people who need them? People who might even be their fans.

I highly recommend The Meaning of Sports, I was entertained, enlightened and occasionally outraged by it. That's three for three and as good as it gets for me.

***

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