Author’s Note: This is a piece I started and stopped about a hundred times since last fall. All this is long past now.
We’re going to bury my grandfather on Sunday.
He wasn’t my “real” grandfather. That is to say, he wasn’t the father (or stepfather) of either of my parents. He was about as real as it gets though, in the ways that matter. He and his wife helped raise me. When it came time for me to go to college, I chose my school partly on the basis that it was near them. I’d say he was largely responsible for the man I have become, but he doesn’t deserve that kind of blame.
His death was not unexpected- he suffered a stroke several years ago that left him debilitated in both body and mind, and he’s been in predictably ill health since. My grandmother passed away two years ago after more than 60 years of marriage, and it usually seemed like he was just running out the clock after that.
But not when the Cardinals were on.
After the stroke, baseball was one of the few things he could engage with for any length of time. Especially when he was hospitalized or in the in-patient rehab facility, sitting down and watching a game was one of the few ways I felt I could really connect with him.
God, he fucking hated Mike Matheny.
I’m sorry, you were expecting some heartwarming Field of Dreams bullshit about how baseball and sports in general are the embodiment of some grand social ideals? Some Peter-King-meets-George-Will ejaculathon about Loyalty and Teamwork and the quiet heroism of Doing it The Right Way? Sorry kids- wrong author, wrong story.
No, what brought out a bit of the old fire was pure, unadulterated disdain for a man he had never met and whose actions had no (direct) effect on the quality of his life. Every pitching change, every replay challenge, every banal between-the-innings interview; when Matheny was on the screen, the fog dropped away and my grandfather was himself again, growling and doing the universal “ah, to hell with it” hand wave. In a situation where “good news” meant he was only getting a little worse week over week, these were stolen moments of normalcy.
Yes, brothers and sisters, I am here to talk to you today about the Healing Power of Hate. Not real Hate, mind you, not going Full Tilt Bozo because someone else’s color/ethnicity/brand of pickup truck differs from yours. That shit is obviously Destructive in Unamusing Ways, and therefore contrary to Commentarianism. No, I’m talking about good, clean old-fashioned Sports Hate.
“But Reverend,” you may say, “you are preaching to the converted! I already hate [insert team/player/owner/mascot’s name here]!” And you would be would be half-right.
You may dislike Jerry Jones and the cheap-jack used car salesman YEEHAAAW I’M CRAAAAZY ownership style he pioneered. You may root against Shittsburgh because of its rapey, rapey quarterback and it’s Doing It The Right Way holier-than-thou narrative nonsense that is so deliciously unraveling with every InstaFaceChat post by a disaffected player. You may even get upset when the Fucking Red Sox win another goddamned World Series.
But you haven’t fully welcomed Sports Hate into your life.
Sports Hate is pure displacement. It is a safe space for us to vent the anger and frustration and negativity that builds up in each of us on a daily basis. William Dement tells us that dreaming “permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.” Sports Hate, in turn, allows us to be safely psychopathic for 16 games a season.
Over the last 180 years, the middle and upper-middle classes of our society have been slowly dragged into a kinder, gentler, better world by campaigners and by our own consciences. We are now taught that people different from us are not per se bad, and that one person owning another person is Not a Good Thing. We are socialized that disagreements are to be settled with words instead of fists or duels. (Note to Self: consider bringing back formal dueling in the Glorious People’s New Regime). We all basically agree that smacking around spouses and kids is a Bad Thing, even if a whole goddamned bunch of us can’t seem to actually live by that.
But the urges that we have worked so hard to suppress and control are still there. The evening news is 75% a chronicle of people letting their shit get out of control. (The remainder is: 9% intentional evil deeds, 7% bullshit fearmongering about what new trend might be endangering your child/teen/elderly relative, 5% sports and weather, and 4% water-skiing squirrels). We take them out on each other in a thousand tiny, socially-acceptable ways, like yelling at the incestuous shitgoblin who cut you off in traffic or slow-playing a deadline at work because fuck Dave, that pudding-stealing bastard can fucking wait for my TPS report. The alt-Nazi (fuck you, “alt-right” is as bad as using “white nationalist” as a way to make the reprehensible sound respectable) movement is built on tapping into these base emotions of fear, anger and frustration.
But Sports Hate can set you free. Sports Hate enables you to put a leash on the slathering antisocial beast inside all of us and take it for walkies.
Sports Hate means that even after your team has bombed out of the playoffs, you still pay attention because maybe this is the year that the meteor finally does hit Yankee Stadium.
In any other setting, yelling at strangers about their mothers’ sexual proclivities while wearing nothing but shorts and full body paint in 30 degree weather would get you locked up. At a Jets game, it gets you 30 seconds on national television- something that advertisers and political candidates pay dearly for.
Sports Hate can also bring people together in a way that mere fandom cannot. I am a Bills fan. The odds of me finding another Bills fan here in this corner of the Midwest on any given Sunday are vanishingly small, and so I am cursed to wander the Earth eternally alone, cursing Frank Wycheck and the Immaculate Deception. But if I wander into a sports bar and mutter “Fuck the Cowboys,” I am suddenly part of a brotherhood, vast and numberless. There is common ground on which I and the drunk Iggles fan wearing a Vince Papale jersey on the next stool can build a castle of temporary friendship. He and I, we may disagree on everything from Making America Great Again to choice of Girl Scout Cookies (Team Tagalong, yo) but at least we’re not two of Those Fuckers.
So, friends and neighbors, I urge you to open your heart to the healing power of Sports Hate. Embrace its cleansing fire. Accept it on its own terms, so that it does not burn out of control and wreck your relationships because Matthew Stafford just threw a game-ending interception to seal another playoffless season.
Just kidding- no one is a Lions fan.
So we’re going to bury my grandfather on Sunday. And then we’re going to sit around in our somber suits and yell at the television whenever Dexter Fowler takes a rip at a hanging curveball and dribbles it out to the shortstop with men in scoring position. It’s what the old man would have wanted.