Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Metaphoric Reading of Competetive Sport in America Today, or Treadmill Delirium

What, you say?  Is this really BadSadBlog, talking -- voluntarily, no less -- about... sports?

Yes, I'm afraid so.  But before you go calling the experts, and demand that Mr. BadSadBlog be given an immediate physical examination, to uncover the tell-tale evidence of an obvious brain transplant, let me attempt to explain.

I was at the gym, toward the end of my pathetic excuse for a workout, and I lucked into the use of the one free treadmill in the place (Sundays being murder for aerobics).  Usually, I prefer an elliptical trainer -- or what John and I have dubbed 'the Bizarre-a-Tron' -- but all of those were being energetically put through their loopy paces.  So I began my twenty-or-so minute trudge to nowhere.  Trudging and trudging.

Of course, there were the hovering TV screens, plus the smaller tv screens (cute, huh?  TV and tv?) on each and every other possible device in the place, with the exception of the water fountain, and I think they're working on that.  And I'm pretty sure all the screens were showing scenes of one or another athletic competition, mostly at what I assumed was the professional level, judging by the apparent sizes and ages of the players.  Of course, I could be wrong.

And that's what made me start thinking along these lines -- the screen directly in front of me showed a football game, and I couldn't tell who was playing.  It was too far away for me to discern team names (I only use my drug-store glasses for reading, or for playing hide-and-seek with myself.  Which I always lose) (There will, incidentally, be a huge drop in the price of men's reading glasses when I die.  My next of kin will begin excavation, hundreds of pairs of perfectly good reading glasses will resurface, not having heard my Ally-Ally-In-Free...)  The only thing I could tell for sure was that one team -- I think it was the Baltimore Ravens -- wore white uniforms, with some symbol on their helmets that looked like a squashed piece of blank paper.  The other team was the one I was interested in -- not because of anything in particular they were doing, but because, at least with the help of the TV cameras, their uniforms were an incredibly rich, deep blue-violet color that ancient Roman senators would have sold their own children into slavery to be able to wear to the Forum.  That's all it was.  Just my lust for color.

But of course, because I had three freaking miles to walk on that stupid treadmill to nowhere, I couldn't just stop at wondering which team had employed such a discriminating design team.  I began to compare -- desperate for something, anything to think about -- the differences between the various forms of professional athletics.  Which train of thought led me back to some metaphoric observations I'd flippantly made, once or twice, here and there, to one person (usually a guy-type person) or another, about the major American team sports of baseball and football.  And to my great surprise, the response has often been a pause, and then a thoughtful, "You know, I've never thought of it that way."

So.  Here goes.

(Now, please don't be hurt if your sport love is basketball and/or soccer and/or golf and/or bowling.  I would probably have something harsh and penetrating to say about them too.  Just follow along, and apply the general principles as necessary.  Following the bouncing ball, if you will)  (Except for golf, which was invented by Presbyterians as a punishment, and as incontrovertible proof of an ultimately uncaring Supreme Being.  Otherwise, why would the balls be so small, with so many utensils for hitting them?)

Baseball will be first, as the sport with which I've had the longest connection, including attendance at an actual professional game, in what was at the time a world-class stadium.  Sometime in the late 1950's, or very early 1960's, and for reasons completely unknown, my step-grandfather took me into downtown Pittsburgh, to Forbes Field, to watch the Pittsburgh Pirates play... some other team I didn't care about then, and don't care about now.  He parked his big maroon Packard far, far from the arena entrance.  It was a hot, hot day, and we walked and walked until, for a brief moment, we were in the shade, handing over our tickets.  Then, inside, we walked and walked and walked some more -- I forget whether our seats were in Wisconsin or Massachusetts.  It really doesn't matter.  When we finally arrived, I felt more mature, and somewhat the wiser for the journey, but otherwise couldn't grasp our reason for being there.  (It was... sort of like... that treadmill...  come to... think of it...)

Out in the remote distance, toward the West, my step-grandfather pointed to where small animated objects were posted.  Every once in a while, one of them would move.  There was an occasional muffled whoop from the one place in the stadium with overhead shelter, and then... there was silence.  The sun made its slow, cruel progress across a flawless expanse of sky, with no hope of a cloud for months to come.  Then, inexplicably, all the little objects ran away, and other similar little objects ran out, and stood in exactly the same places, more or less, and then...  nothing in particular would continue to happen.  Except for the sun, of course.  (Either hot dogs and ice cold soda hadn't made it as far as Pittsburgh yet, or the refreshment vendors had better contracts than the players, and only plied their mouth-watering business in the shade) 

Then, suddenly, the mysterious process seemed to be over.  Both sets of little objects went away, and away over in the sheltered place, what I supposed were people began moving for the exit.  I breathed a little sun-baked prayer of gratitude.  My step-grandfather was disappointed because I hadn't been more excited, or interested, or grateful.  As I generally disappointed most people most of the time right about then, I wasn't that surprised.

Much later, in 1986 I think, the NY Mets were in the running for the World Series championship, and I really started thinking, to any extent, about baseball.  John and I had just met, and he wanted to see a live game, at Shea Stadium I think  (all stadiums seeming the same to me, like cats in the dark). But now, I could actually clearly see the activities on the field, and being in the stands was a lot of fun, with shouting things to the players, and eating peanuts, and making the wave.  None of which having anything to do with the game itself.

Meanwhile, John was focused on keeping a little mystery score card, with arcane markings for when someone did something different from what someone else had just done what seemed now to have been a few days ago.  And while we all waited for something concrete to happen on the field of play, he rhapsodized about the beauty of baseball, and the clarity of a perfect game.  Then he would go back to marking his score card with errors and bases stolen, that sort of thing.  It was much more complicated than keeping score in the bowling alley, that's for sure.

But watching the game, and thinking back to others I'd been unable to avoid seeing on TV, I was developing a broader picture of baseball, beyond its perception as simple sport.  And it goes something like this:

In baseball, the ball is poison, and if you touch it, you die.  Each inning, one of the two teams is mysteriously granted temporary immunity -- a kind of anti-cow-hide vaccination -- which allows them to handle the baseball to no ill effect.  But this temporarily-immune team must, according to the rules, threaten the vulnerable team with the poison ball, by throwing it at them, one at a time.  And there are only a certain number of opportunities for the vulnerable team to get the poison ball as far away as possible.  For this purpose, they are equipped with bats.

But even this task  of using the bat to distance oneself and one's teammates from the deadly ball isn't direct and straightforward.  Even missing an attempt to remove the ball from the immediate vicinity can bring penalties which can result in the feared game death.  Besides an unassisted triple play, the very best thing to do is to hit the poison ball completely out of the physical confines of the arena.  Everyone loves it when somebody does that.  Otherwise, there's the hitting, and running from being touched by the ball, which if it happens, you are dead, that kind of thing.  The teamwork, to me, is remote and clinical -- kind of like the dental hygiene of sports.  There is occasional spitting, but usually not unless the TV cameramen get bored.

Then, there's football.  My personal experience with football, on any level, is even more negligible than my exposure to baseball.  I played exactly one game of touch football, during gym class in my sophomore year of high school.  During which game I learned that, just because the rules say that being touched means you have to stop, it doesn't mean anyone really pays attention, unless the gym teacher sees you and yells at you.  And he can't possibly see everyone who's ignoring the rules.  (As it happens, this approach seems also to hold sway over, and strongly informs, the general underpinnings of the worlds of business and high finance, I discovered)  In addition to that one disillusioning game, I attended one high school football game, in Elizabeth PA, but other than the fact that it was a night game, the only other thing I remember was my amazement at having actually been allowed to leave the house, like a normal teenage boy.  And it never happened again.

While I was in undergraduate school, at Penn State, my friends and I used to toss a football around from time to time, out at the farmhouse we all shared for a grand total of $43 a month.  The house sat at the edge of 160 acres of crop land, planted in crown vetch, and unless the huge harvesting machines were on site, threshing over the low hills and into the shallow valleys, we had the run of the place to ourselves.  (Quite incidentally, the bottom of the crown vetch market -- which you probably didn't even know existed -- fell out rather early in the game, when potential buyers realized that, once they'd planted a little of it, it continued to seed itself.  End of purchasing cycle.  This, long before Monsanto's rise, and the era of profit-motivated genetic manipulation.  But I'm really supposed to talk about football...)

To my amazement, I enjoyed tossing the old football around, and was surprisingly good at it, for someone who'd never touched one until he was 27.  Every once in a while, though, when I made a series of bad throws, or missed some easy tosses, I tromp off angrily through the vetch, back to my room, where I contemplated castrating myself, because I was obviously a complete failure as an American male.   Of any persuasion. 

Finally, there's the one other football-related memory.   Sitting in the Student Union building, in the corner where the weirdos and hippies hung out (and of course, you know where I was), maybe I'd head across the hall to the cafeteria, and see what nourishment I could afford with what little pocket change I had.   Then the football team would arrive.  Like Atilla and his Huns, but without the horses.  They swarmed in, these huge young men, grabbing cafeteria trays, and sometimes utensils, and then loading those trays to the groaning point -- with sliding heaps of beef, and ham, and chicken.  And then more beef and some cheese, and potatoes with gravy.   A groaning cyclone of edibles whirled past -- enough to keep the hippies and freaks in a stupor for a month -- and then it disappeared, to be devoured in a separate dining area, by these Appointed Gods of the Moment.  And nary a cent changed hands.  While I -- an actual honorably-discharged, Vietnam-Era veteran with a service-connected disability -- tried to make the difficult choice between the tapioca or a stewed limas in tomato sauce.          

Of course, now I know it's all about millions of dollars, blah blah blah, as though that made any difference to me then.  I just thought at the time that it would be nifty to have an art stadium for just one semester.  And let the football players scrounge for grilled cheese on whole wheat for a few measley weeks.

But, again, the metaphor.

For me, football is The Game.  As with Abner Doubleday's sport, the psychic power of American football rests with the ball itself.  Here we have, not the small, hard, medicinal sphere of baseball, but a nice-sized, squeezy and inflated, ovoid object of stitched leather.  It's comfortable in the crook of one's arm -- like a little decapitated, limbless baby that one is bound to protect at all costs.

And in football, the baby is everything.   The most massive of men, muscle atop muscle, and further armed with helmets and shoulder pads, gather together in a conspiratorial huddle, to plan their single, unified objective -- get the baby home, safely.  To keep the baby out of the enemy's hands, and to deliver baby to the beautiful spreading expanse, the Eden of the end zone, while thousands of relieved and excited surrogate parents cheer.

We see great, crushing, tectonic formations of masculine might, bone and sinew crashing together, recalling of the rise of mountains, the formation of continents.  And still, hidden safely in the midst of all this rending tension, this heaving struggle, one of these titans... has... the baby.  But where?  Is it secretly being passed, like the crown prince in disguise, from one noble rescuer to another?  Will it, in a moment of calculated desperation, be sent aloft, sure and straight, high above the surging struggle, to descend at last and be barely grasped by another huge hero?  Grasped and pulled in close, cradled protectively against the improbably immense chest of another member of the honor guard?  And then, the final push toward safety and salvation?  Or... no!  The baby has been kidnapped, and is being borne, hopelessly, toward the waiting haven of the opposing team!

Well, of course, the imagery does tend to break down a bit, what with the end-zone dance, and the mighty dashing of the game ball against the Astroturf -- talk about shaken baby syndrome! -- but we can overlook these occasional excesses.  After all, metaphorically speaking, baby is safe.

So.  There you have it.  My interpretation of American sport, from the perspective of the symbolic.  And in barely the time than it took me to 'walk' 2.5 miles, and still end up at exactly the same geographic spot as when I started.

(The only other thing I'll say is this: metaphors aside, I've always thought it would be a much better idea, in all cases, if they gave both teams a ball, so they wouldn't always have to fight over just the one.  (This excepting  golf of course, which we all realize to be sport on an entirely different level, and is always, according to strict Calvinist doctrine, completely predetermined)          

It would also be terrific, if the games were between actual dolphins and, say, giants.  Or rattlesnakes and steel workers.  Then we could really talk metaphor.

©   2012    Walter Zimmerman

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