I have long been embarrassed around my more sophisticated and artsy friends for being a fan of sports. And not cool sports like lacrosse or jai alai—I like baseball, football, and basketball. I binge out on the Olympics. I have my limits, like golf. But I like the major sports, and I root for my home state teams like a child.
Others have pointed out how trivial sports are, not to mention sadly mainstream. “There is more to life than watching the game,” a good friend once said to me, and he meant well, but he failed to see that life was already breathing down my neck pretty good. Life waits patiently at the end of the game.
And there have always been sports in my life. My family watched sports together—playoff baseball especially, but other sports, too. I watched Monday night football and Tuesday night fights with my Dad, saw the great Doug Flutie touchdown pass against Miami with my mom and brother in real time. Sports were part of the background of existence.
But sports are for hairy, beer-drinking dopes! The government wants you to watch sports, man! I guess I just grew up around some smart, tuned-in citizens who enjoyed games and sometimes, beer. Women and men who cared for and served others and remained playful. And if, as has been suggested, sports are the new opium of the people, thank you for the opium, bitches, because much of the world is a nasty, boring, hateful machine from which I need some relief.
I want to make a difference to the world around me, but I might just try to do so with an eye or an ear on the Tigers game so as to not start sobbing.
And at least as a diversion, sports avoid the horrendous writing of most television shows and movies. They are not entirely predictable, and don’t require the same attention as most narrative. I can watch or listen to a baseball game and play my guitar and write a little, try to figure out a poem in the abeyance. The mood of baseball announcers speaking conspiratorially about the majesties of June and infield defense is the mood for which I yearn.
As a kid, I read books about baseball that filled me with a sense of that sport’s poetry and mysticism. W. P. Kinsella was my favorite—Shoeless Joe and The Thrill of the Grass made it seem like baseball could connect you to the deepest of understandings. The trajectory of a ball in flight, a young wife’s kiss, a child sleeping through extra innings. I read and reread baseball biographies about Mark “The Bird” Fidrych, who had crazy curly hair like me and ran around hugging his outfielders between innings and talked to the ball on the mound, and about Sadaharu Oh, the great Japanese slugger, who incorporated Zen practices in his approach to the game.
They made me want to participate in the beauty of sports. I wanted also, to be accepted by my peers, who thought football was far cooler than playing the cello or writing poetry, and although I did these things almost daily, I pretty much agreed with them. So, I tried church league basketball and softball. I played Junior High football and ran track. Mostly, I just got my bell rung by bigger, stronger, tougher kids. I liked being in the locker room and being part of a team, but I never realized the hope of mattering much in a game.
Sport as a celebration of the body has come most truly to me in backyard sports. Like Whiffle Ball. Games that depend less on strength and aggressiveness. Games where it’s almost always your turn. The purest and most consistent of these for me has always been the simple game of catch.
My brother Matt, my only sibling, and I have been playing catch together for most of our lives. As kids, we would throw anything to each other: footballs, Frisbees, racket balls, soggy nerf in a pool, but mostly we got out our carefully broken-in gloves and hucked the baseball. We stood in the back yard on either side of the weedy concrete patio and threw pop-ups, grounders, liners, each throw an arc of congress. It was something to do, a way to be together, and there is something marvelous about catching a ball—to pluck it neatly from its course. We loved to purposely throw bad tosses so we could dive for the ball. I wish I still loved to dive for the ball, to feel it hit the webbing just before the solid, welcoming connection to the ground.
We still play catch every chance we get. We take our kids to the park so they can play, but invariably we end up throwing something back and forth, making a web of new connections. The kids run around and scream with the force and immediacy of being six and seven, while their dads feel tired or nostalgic or sad. But not just those things. Their dads have the memory of other summers in their bones, and the desire still to move and snare. They are in the phase of life dominated by work and worry and loving service, and they lose themselves in the physical beauty of throwing a ball, in the smooth uncoiling of limbs that happens between gathering in and letting go.
After the thrilling first weekend of the NCAA basketball tournament, we’re proud to kick off our Sports issue with Kevin Catalano’s short fiction, “Overtime.” This beautifully felt piece tackles the nature of grief, brutal factory work, the redemptive potential of great sporting moments, and the poignant love of a father for his son. “Overtime” stayed on my mind for days after I first read it.
“Danny Dove’s Guide to Method Acting” by Christopher Bundy tells the hilarious story of a “former South Atlantic League relief pitcher, ex-husband, boyfriend, and motorcycle enthusiast” who gets a bit part in a local musical and has a transformative experience with the original Lone Ranger. Bundy achieves just the right voice—earnestly ridiculous, but real and engaging—and his timing is impeccable.
Jacob Euteneuer’s flash story, “Rotation,” nods to the great nostalgic element of baseball as a reflection of a fourteen-year-old’s baffling summer. The use of the curve as compositional element balances with the clear, resonant narrative like a pitcher winding up.
In her creative nonfiction piece, “Workout Partner,” Amy Binns-Calvey brings us a detailed session with her horse, told with great rhythm and restraint. Her horse, Vinnie, comes alive as any human, and his relationship with Binns-Calvey has all the emotional complexity of the best creative nonfiction.
Baseball and life intermingle again in Nathan Kemp’s poem, “Greenness,” a kind of ode to the game and to innocence. His couplets swagger and reflect, are at once rugged and gentle.
“Plumpy Threw Up,” the first of two sports-related narrative poems we’re running by Dave Newman, delivers a tremendous character and reminds us of the improbable machine that is the young body. Our second Newman poem, “A Middle Aged Drug Dealer,” introduces another great cast, while his collision of muscular art and fringe outlaws reminds me of golden era Steely Dan.
If sports at their best represent a celebration of the body, they also reveal our struggles, and this duality lies at the heart of Ellen McGrath Smith’s powerhouse poem that concludes our Sports issue, “Resurrection Gym.”
Photo By: Paul-W