Fidelity and Infidelity in Love and Sports: Is Being a Fan Like Being in Love?

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I’ve known serially unfaithful men who were also among the most loyal and devoted people on the planet. A contradiction? They were untrue to their spouses but lifetime cheerleaders for a different “one and only”: a sports team. Please follow along as I consider this paradox. Perhaps we can learn both a bit about romance and about being a dedicated male fan in the process. I’ll use baseball as my example, but you are free to substitute the competitive team physical activity of your choice.

Most of us fall in love for the first time with a ball team. One of our parents, usually the dad, leads the way. We bond with him, try to please him, want to become him. He takes us out to the home field and we are dazzled by the immensity of the stadium/stage for the physical theater about to unfold. Our innocent devotion to the parent leaches into an attachment to the team he also loves. Virtually every die-hard fan can remember the first time he went to the ball yard and with whom. The experience, like meeting a first-love romantic partner, is unforgettable.

Before long we join our playmates in some version of the same game, all the more to identify with our fathers, older brothers, and the players on TV. We bond to friends through shared love for the sport and being on the same team, pulling together, praying to the same baseball god. Sports is like a civic religion, as many have written: something bigger than yourself, outside yourself.

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The crowd’s roar is intoxicating. Goose bumps. When we play the game, the full-bodied effort of running, stretching, leaping, diving, sliding, and swinging is as “in the moment” as life gets, as love gets. The day is warm, the wind is cool. The physicality of the in-person experience, whether on the field or in the stands, is not sex, but consumes the body and enlivens us, as sex does. They both involve a sweaty intensity.

Fandom and romantic love put us in jeopardy, as well. We give our heart to someone or something else. In a sense, we have no control, certainly none in the case of our team’s performance. Well, at least if you are in love with a person you can sometimes influence the destiny of your affair or marriage. Ecstasy and agony are part of the standard rations of fans and lovers.

Remember those early dates with your heart-throb — the anticipation and the preparation, the clock-watching as the time came closer? Not so different from a fan’s mental state before a big game. The urgency of seeing the hero, being next to the young gods, hoping to get an autograph or a photo proves the preoccupation.

Unlike love, however, the worshiped participants on the playing field are forever young. Even when fan favorites age and retire we transfer our loyalty to a replacement, but still a member of the same squad. Our spouses, however, are not ageless. Nor are we, of course, yet we delude ourselves into thinking so. Listen to the out-of-shape, middle-aged fan saying, “Oh, I could have made that play!” somewhat indignantly.

You take your children to the park and bond with them, as you did with your father. We display pride in carrying the multi-generational torch, either to repeated visits to the Promised Land of World Championship or, for the long-suffering fans of forever losing teams, toward a first time experience of becoming vicarious champions.

Material objects take the place of a genuine fiery beacon. I once had a baseball caught by my grandfather in the Wrigley Field stands, just as I own a scorecard dad got signed by the legendary Rogers Hornsby. There is more shared energy and positive emotion and identification among the united Chicago Cubs Nation than the fraught relations within the United States or the United Nations.

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How interesting that we never betray the multi-generational pact we have with our relatives, friends, and fans by quitting the “team,” but some do cheat on a spouse. Where else in the world can you be #1 except by identifying with a team of élite magic-makers? Not at home, where our foibles are on display and beg forgiveness. The world of a sports fan, by contrast, means never having to say you are sorry.

Perhaps part of the reason some flee the spouse is that we can do all the complaining we want about the men on the field, quite unlike an actual mate. Criticizing a beloved human is more costly. The partner tends to push back, the players don’t. You can berate the young men, they don’t berate you. The only cost is the price of a ticket.

Where else can you tell someone he isn’t trying hard enough? Maybe at home with your kids, but you will easily alienate and injure them. Rarely is the boss or the spouse fair game unless you want to corrode the relationship, lose your job, or sleep elsewhere.

Another difference: baseball, whether playing or watching, is recreation: the “Great American Pastime.” Marriage is not. Marriage takes work if there is to be ongoing reward.

A relationship, of course, offers many benefits not provided by fandom. Requited love, sex, offspring, consolation, trust, understanding, and shared intimacy. A sports team will not reject you (unless it moves to another city), but it provides no meaningful looks, tender embraces, quiet confidences and shoulders on which to cry. Most fans would not give up on the idea of ever having a partner, despite the complications. A sports team, by comparison, is like making love to a blow-up, plastic woman. Put differently, sports — in this fan’s opinion — should be taken for what they are, not the dearest thing on earth: a good and loving woman.

There is no escape from heartbreak as a fan or a spouse, however. Indeed, athletics, particularly if you are on a Little League losing team or simply the youthful fan of the Major League variety, is a preparation for life. Yet we seem to mate for eternity with a uniformed bunch of men, not necessarily with a spouse. An able-bodied squad, significantly, is a sometimes thing, an observed entity, not a person you live with in-season and out. Ballplayers go home for the winter. Fans, in a sense, do too. Partners don’t.

I met only one faithless sports fan, ever. Or, perhaps I should say, he was the wisest man on the planet. Many of you know that the Cubs have reached the World Series for the first time since 1945, when they lost in seven games. Lost, I might add, the World Championship that has eluded them since 1908. My friend was rooting for the Cubbies and was more than disappointed at the result. Soon after he made a major decision: he would never cheer for the Cubs again, never ever.

As a consequence, the gentleman in question enjoyed the ensuing 70-years far more than the rest of the Wrigley loyalists.

Talk about good timing and superb judgment!

He was eight-years-old in 1945.

The top photo displays Maurie and Flaurie (named after the original owners, husband and wife) of Superdawg, a Chicago drive-in and landmark. The W Flag is similar to the one that hangs from the Wrigley Field scoreboard after a Cubs victory. It is a practice going back many years, before the time we could consult our phones to discover the outcome of the game. Two different elevated train lines passed within visual distance of the flag, thus alerting fans of the day’s happy or sad tidings. The third image was taken by Arturo Pardavila III on October 22, 2016 before the sixth game of the National League Championship Series. It is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The second photo requires no explanation.

A Most Unlikely Christmas Movie

 

When friends bring up their favorite Christmas movies, I never name the ones they mention.

Not for me, It’s a Wonderful Life or A Christmas Carol or A Christmas Story, much as I like them all.

Return with me to the night before Christmas, 1955, the only time I ever spent out with my folks on Christmas Eve. Perhaps then you will understand.

I couldn’t have been more excited.

My folks and I were going to the new movie Ulysses starring Kirk Douglas; more famous these days as Michael Douglas’s father, or the father-in-law of Catherine Zeta-Jones.

I would have my parents to myself. My little brothers (much too small to go) were in the charge of grandparents. More remarkable, we would be eating out, a rare treat for the Stein family, where memories of the Great Depression forever justified frugality, stay-at-home meals, and the second-best of everything else.

I was nine-years-old.

But, of course, the real excitement would continue into the next day — Christmas Day — and all the presents I hoped might come my way. Things like electric trains, rocket ships, and other gifts beyond imagining.

No tree was planted in our two-flat because no religious connection to the day existed there; not Christianity or any other faith. Christmas was simply an occasion for the purpose of showering me (and my brothers) with presents within the limits of our family’s ever-present budget consciousness.

I was well past the belief Santa existed — I understood from whence the loot came: my dad’s departures paid for everything. His work was then vague to me, but his time away vivid to all of us. Milt Stein worked four different jobs in a typical week: his full-time position as a postal supervisor, part-time labor as a bookkeeper for my Uncle Sam’s business; dad’s own small cigarette lighter-repair enterprise which (with my mother’s help) became the object of his after-dinner attention, and one weekend day spent serving as a security guard at some factory or other in the Chicago area.

My Father During His Stint in the Army During WWII

My Father During His Stint in the Army During WWII

Being out with my father was always special. Sometimes, to spend a little more time with him, I’d walk from our place at 5724 N. Talman to the Lincoln and Washtenaw bus stop: the final destination of my father’s journey from work. I’d wait for him to come off the bus in search of an extra five-minutes togetherness walking back. I never felt desperate about this or lonely. Instead I acted without much thought to do what appealed. At nine I was no psychologist.

Once home dad put down the satchel he carried with him, took off his coat and hat, washed up, and sat down to dinner at the kitchen table with mom. I’d then shared him with mom and my brothers; and with the work he removed from the carryall soon after dinner. He laid out the cigarette lighters needing repair on the dining room table, the tools my mom used to fix the most difficult items, the protective tins and cardboard boxes in which he shipped these incendiary devices back to their owners, and the paper trail of invoices intended to produce a little more money for the family.

A rapid completion of the repairs might allow dad to watch TV. We then enjoyed time sitting close to one another on a living room sofa covered in a clear plastic couch-protector designed to make furniture last. I bathed in the warmth of my father’s presence and the glow of the 26″ Muntz TV, one of the few things my parents bought representing any sort of luxury: a behemoth for its time, the largest television screen then available.

Dad would go to bed around 10 PM, and was back up before 5:00 for his 7 AM clock-in at the giant postal facility on Canal Street downtown, repeating the cycle in-perpetuity.

My father survived a heart attack in November of 1958, then three years ahead of us. Some part of me never thought of him or life the same way thereafter. His cardiac nemesis caused me to cherish even more the time we might yet spend together, worried he might be snatched away. But this Christmas Eve would be special and his heart problems were unforeseen. An action movie awaited with swords and spears and bows and arrows and monsters and everything! The treat of restaurant food and the anticipation of the next day’s Christmas haul beckoned!

Ah, the best laid plans …

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Ulysses is the Roman name for Odysseus, the famous Greek hero who is credited with the idea of using a “Trojan Horse” to achieve the fall of Troy. The tale rendered by the movie is Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus’s difficult return from the Trojan War to his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus on the isle of Ithaca, his kingdom.

Well-fortified with a tasty spaghetti dinner at the restaurant, I readied myself for the movie’s action.

I thrilled at the Cyclops named Polyphemus who Odysseus and his men defeated, the Sirens, and all manner of trial and nemesis he encountered on the way back home. There, Penelope and Telemachus waited for him for 20 years in total — 10 while he fought at Troy and 10 more for his delayed return. Penelope had the additional job of fending off the advances of suitors who wanted her surpassing beauty (and Odysseus’s estate) for their own. The suitors, in fact, lived in Odysseus’s palace, eating his food, drinking his wine, and lusting after his wife, who fashioned excuses to make them wait. The suitors’ incivility is Homer’s comment on what happens when sons are raised without fathers. Their fathers, at Odysseus’s side, fought in the 10-year Trojan War. Some came back, some did not.

My stomach was rumbling a little by the time our hero, disguised as a beggar, revealed himself to his son and enlisted his help to defeat the unwanted, savage house guests. The actual carnage, when Odysseus and Telemachus killed every last man occupying his home, began as my belly full of pasta was turning South. I’ll spare you the gory details of both the final disposition of my meal and the suitors. Neither was pretty.

With My Father in the Albany Park Neighborhood of Chicago

With My Father in the Logan Square Neighborhood of Chicago

I made it to the movie’s end and back home before the inevitable catastrophe, kneeling at the bathroom’s porcelain alter, the most religious position I had assumed in connection with the holiday. The physical event sucked every bit of life out of me. I wished for nothing but to be carried to bed, tucked in, and allowed to sleep off my body’s betrayal.

Sleep I did, in a good enough state of health by morning to enjoy the Christmas gifts. I remember nothing of the presents themselves, only the night before, including the movie and the time with my folks. Christmas 1955 remains the single holiday of my youth, other than generic recollections of July 4th, that stands out in my memory.

As childhood went on I continued to take almost every chance possible to be with my father. Once a week, always on Sunday afternoon, his mother would come to our house and, at dinner’s end, I tagged along as dad drove her back to the apartment she shared with her sister, south of Riverview Park. I couldn’t pass up the dual summer treat of watching the Silver Flash roller coaster as we passed the amusement park on Western Avenue and having my father to myself for the 30-minute drive back home.

Whenever dad and I would take an elevated train ride after his heart attack, catching the Ravenswood rapid transit at its Western Avenue stop, we were never alone: his mortality took the ride with us. Walking up the stairs to the southbound platform, my father stopped at the first landing to take a breather, reaching into his pocket for a nitroglycerin tablet to make sure another cardiac arrest could be forestalled.

On Top of the World with My Dad

On Top of the World with My Dad

Many years passed before I realized that The Odyssey had a personal meaning for me: the homecoming of my father. No, dad never was mistaken for a warrior from Troy. He returned, instead, from whatever adventures he encountered on the road to making a living — a thing that the Great Depression ensured would define him.

Like Odysseus’s son Telemachus I waited for him and kept the faith, as did my mother and little brothers. We knew eventually he would come, if not as soon or as often as we liked. When I needed books for a research project or a book report, he gladly borrowed them from the Downtown library. He often brought a Planter’s Peanut bar with him, too, because he loved peanuts and thought I would. I never did come to like peanuts, but I can tell you I tried hard to enjoy them, as I tried fishing with a bamboo pole (and later with a rod and reel); enough to go out on several frigid Saturday mornings before dawn, bored out of my mind and short of sleep, to do the thing he loved and I hoped in vain to grow to love.

I couldn’t will myself into a fishy rapture, much as I wished to. Does effort alone ever generate passion? Not surprisingly, we both gave up on the project. Still, I am touched by the thought he wanted me to share the thing he enjoyed, even if, in the end, it wasn’t in me. Thankfully, we did share a love of baseball, something that bound us together until death finally took him at the considerable age of 88, almost 42 years after its foreshadowing in the 1958 heart attack.

Christmas for me means (as it does for so many) family and memories. And, very particularly for me, spending time with my dad, even if my stomach was upset, or we watched a very un-Christmas-like movie; or I waited for him on a street corner, or shivered on a lake early in the morning hoping to fall in love with his favorite hobby.

My memory of that long-ago Christmas Eve is now 61-years-old. But at least in my memory, my unsettled insides on December 24, 1955 didn’t make much difference.

In the end, all that mattered was that finally, like Telemachus, I was at home with my dad.

Of Fathers and Children and Stories of Old Ball Games

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Dreams, like spider webs and hard-hit softballs, are difficult to hold on to.

But sometimes those dreams and the stories of those hard-hit balls connect us to both our past and to our posterity.

In my case, to my father and my children.

Let me tell you a story…

On a recent morning I awoke in the midst and the mist of a just-ended dream, thinking about something that happened a long time ago. An event of no particular importance, but just about the most intense moment of my life.

I was playing right field in a game of 16″ softball at James Park in Evanston, Illinois. The team was called the Psyclones, a pun on the fact that most of us were graduate students in the “Psyc” department at Northwestern University. A pretty good team for a bunch of educated guys, one that won more often than it lost.

Sixteen-inch softball is a game played almost exclusively in the Chicago area. Everywhere else a softball is 12″ in circumference and caught with a gloved hand. But “real men,” as Chicago males fancy themselves, favor a game with a bigger ball caught bare-handed, one that is rock hard at the contest’s beginning and softened, but never really soft even after it has taken a pounding from wooden and metal bats.

In truth, the ball is your enemy. Sixteen-inch softball — Chicago-style softball — is a game that leaves you with broken or dislocated or jammed fingers if you play it for any length of time.

On the day in question the Psyclones were playing the best team in our league, the outfit that had won the first round of a two round championship season. But as the second round drew to a close these two teams were tied. If only we could beat the other guys, we would win the second round and face the same team once more in a single contest to decide the league championship.

As the final inning began, our team was ahead 3-2. We were three outs away from victory.

Their first batter took a ball. Then, on the second pitch, he hit a low line-drive like a laser headed for the right-center field gap. It was clearly mine to catch if it was to be caught, but I didn’t know if I could get to it in time to prevent it from going for a home run and tying the score.

An outfielder learns to gauge the flight of a batted ball — the speed, the distance between himself and the ball, the effect of gravity, and his own movement — so as to intercept it just before its return to earth. You do this instinctively. It is all reaction, no part thought, entirely based on experience, all the while running, straining, and preparing for the intersection of your body and the “Clincher,” as those softballs were called.

I was not prepared for this particular line-drive, however. No one had informed the ball that gravity was supposed to get the best of it. And as I neared the spot where I might have a small chance to catch it, the nervy Clincher had the audacity to proceed in the most irresponsible way.

The ball was actually rising. It had been hit so hard that it had not yet arced.

My path had taken me to my right, but also away from home plate. In order to intercept the spheroid I had to twist my body back to my left (so that I could more nearly get in front of the ball), turning and leaping and reaching simultaneously.

Wham!

The ball hit my hands as my body faced left field, even as I was moving in the air toward deep right center field.

The Clincher started to bounce free, but I grabbed it a second time, then hit the ground and staggered, running fast, tilting toward the turf, aiming to take a header.

But instead of eating dirt and watching the ball bounce away, I kept my balance.

In another moment I was finally stationary.

And amazed.

I was still on my feet with the ball in my hands.

Shouts of congratulations and encouragement sounded out across the field from my teammates. Other than a few friends and those of the opposition, the grandstand could not have held more than a couple of dozen onlookers, but a few voices called out from there, as well.

Simultaneously, a chemical charge ran through my body, a wonderful exhilaration, a tingling flush of adrenalin. And with it, a tremendous split-second, unrealized urge to cry that took me by surprise.

And almost as quickly, in the time it took for the next batter to come to the plate, all that was gone and the game continued.

The following hitter walked, but then we retired the side and the game was ours.

It wasn’t the very best performance of my exceedingly modest athletic career. I’d played games in which I’d hit two home runs and even a basketball contest where I scored 2/3 of my team’s points on 10 consecutive jump shots. I’d also made “circus” catches before — other successful leaping-diving-acrobatic maneuvers, sometimes to save the game.

But nothing in my life ever came close to the super-charged voltage of “the catch,” the flood of emotion to the point of tears, not as experienced in sadness or joy, but for the need of a kind of fluid outlet for all that high-octane chemical “juice.”

If you’ve played sports with any significant level of committment, then you know how the game becomes more than a game — sometimes becomes a thing that feels like life or death. But realistically, in the big picture, or even a pretty small picture, this game meant nothing. Winning the championship (we didn’t) meant nothing.

All of it was part of a “pastime,” something we do to enjoy ourselves and test ourselves, both at once; something to show what we can do and exorcise all the demons inside of us that are waiting to be purged; a play we act out just because we are human and we need the outlet and the (hoped for) mastery of a physical and psychological challenge.

Why did I think of it just now? Why the dream?

I can’t say for sure, but maybe (in part) it’s because my youngest daughter recently sent me and my wife an outline for a video and oral history that she proposes to do soon with each of us separately. And, of course, she wants to know about all the important moments in our lives. Which would necessarily include this particular athletic episode, an instant of no objective importance other than the feeling it produced; something of value because of the sensation alone. It didn’t mean anything, but it felt meaningful.

Carly, the aforementioned young woman, has watched the same kind of video I produced of my dad that she hopes to create with me; something I did about 25 years ago.

I am touched that she wants this, since I remember very well why I wanted to do it with my father. To bond with him, to receive whatever very personal things he would share in the course of it, to understand him and therefore myself more fully. And most importantly, to create something that would outlive him, leaving some part of him that I might catch hold of and keep hold of, like the 16″ softball. Something that would, like that catch, be over in a short time but last a long time — in the video, in his words, in his feelings, and in my memory.

A thing, like “the catch,” that would be unimportant but all important. And only to me.

My dad was at the game I mentioned, the game where I made “the catch.” I remember him congratulating me, commenting on how extraordinary it was. Extraordinary to me for reasons I have mentioned. Extraordinary to him, I suppose, because I was his son. For others, not so much. No, you can probably watch its equal or better regularly on your TV during baseball season.

When I was a little boy I remember my dad telling me of his own athletic exploits as a young man and being fascinated. Some time later we found ourselves at the site of one of those events. It was a relatively small school yard enclosed by a fence, with a tall flag pole attached to that boundary in deepest, but not very deep center field.

From home plate it was easy to see that one could hit the ball over the fence without too much difficulty, so the ad hoc rules of the game required that any ball hit out of the park in fair territory would be considered an “out.”

The players had to tailor their hitting strokes to the restricted conditions. Only safely hit line-drives and ground balls could be of any help to your team. And money was on the line, so said my dad as he told the story of his game, since the two sides had made a bet on the contest.

The young man who was to become my old man came to bat with a runner on first base late in the battle, with the score tied 1-1. He tried to place-hit the ball into right center field, and normally was quite adept at such a task. But, on that day his efforts to keep the ball in bounds appeared to have failed him. Too much of the 16″ ball struck too much of the wooden bat and the former took off in a long, high arc toward the not-so-distant reaches of the ball yard, sure to clear the center field barrier.

But, to his surprise, not to mention the delight of his mates, the center field flag pole got in the way, and with a dull metallic twang sent the shot back on to the field, by which time Milt Stein was standing on second base, and the baserunner had crossed home plate with the winning run.

Dad was a good story-teller and he had a good audience in his little boy, even when that boy was no longer very little.

What is it about baseball, softball, and the bond between parents and children?

Much has been written about sharing a game of catch, being introduced by your parent to a sport that he loves and you will come to love, watching together in the great ball parks of our country in the sunshine and under the arc lights, cheering together for the home team. It is one of those things many dads are good at, something that doesn’t require very many words.

But, I think there is another feature to this act of bonding.

It is the story of the game itself. The thrills, the disappointments, the surprises — the mutually experienced emotions.

The sharing, in other words, of a story.

And when the story of the game is told (especially if your father was in the game) — your father to you, you to your children — the child “sees” the tale through the lens of your memory and his own imagination. He learns what matters to you, how you shape the words, remembers how your eyes light up, drinks in the moral lessons about effort and courage and winning and losing.

The child roots for and admires the parent, even though the drama may be ancient, unchangeable history. The telling is personal, almost like a secret message, something that can only be decoded by the heart of the little boy or girl who loves the story-teller who is already his hero, with or without the “heroism” depicted in the tale.

Later, the child will take the parent role with his own children, relating the narratives of his father along with his own, tying him to and keeping faith with his hero, now aged or departed; and keeping the chain-letter of attachment alive as he brings the youth and grace and speed and strength of his parent alive once more, along with his own youth, when he first heard the tale told.

It is a sweet and tender and irreplaceable thing, this telling of stories to your children.

Nothing better in the winter for a baseball fan or an ex-softball player who is, more importantly, a father.

Time to start the camera, Carly.

The image above is Baseball Softball Love Festival by THOR, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.