A psychotherapist thinks out loud about Being Human, and stuff…

“Baseball, it is said, is only a game.  True.  And the Grand Canyon is only a hole in Arizona.”  ― George F. Will

I am a baseball fan.

I am not a “sports fan”. I am indifferent to football and annoyed by basketball, which seems to be played year round, thus taking up space on the sports pages that should be devoted to baseball.

I am, more specifically, a fan of the San Francisco Giants – this, despite the fact that I live in Oakland, where the local team has been steadily undermined by its owners who wish to move their team to another, more profitable venue. (Delightfully, the Oakland team – The Athletics – responded by playing their hearts out and making it to the playoffs before sellout crowds, thus putting the lie to the owner’s claim that no team could find support in Oakland – but, I digress, perhaps. )

I am aware of all the arguments that many friends make against paying attention to baseball or, indeed, any professional sport. I know that these men are mercenaries, multimillionaires, most of them, who may be playing for a rival team next year. I know that some of them (mostly Yankees players) are not nice people, and that more of them use performance enhancing drugs than are detected. Mostly, though, the argument goes, “Why should I care who wins or loses some dumb baseball game? What difference does it make?” Fair question. Here’s why.

A few days ago, my wife, DJ, and I took a day trip, up and over to the coast. Since the National League playoffs were at a tense point, I wore my Giants cap, black with the bold, orange “SF” on the front; a little magical spell on my head. Wherever we went, strangers smiled and said “Go Giants”, offered opinions, asked what time the game started- reached out and spoke to a stranger, because I was wearing a particular hat.

Think about that for a moment. These are not easy times.  We are an unhappy, distrustful people, as a whole. Granted, I’m a pretty unthreatening person: an older, white man with what I’m told is a disarming smile. Still, there’s a disinclination to speak to strangers. The consequent distancing breeds suspicion and fear, but the wearing of an iconic cap or jacket signals that we have something in common. This matters, I believe, because we want desperately, on some deep level, to break out of our isolation and be social ( which derives from the Latin word socii (“allies”). To put it simply, baseball and perhaps all sports to some extent, allows us to trust a stranger, enough to initiate and respond to contact with people of all classes, races and colors, and that brings a sense of relief that can bring tears to your eyes. Doesn’t last long; the moment I look like I’m about to change the subject some of the distrust is back, but it’s a moment. It’s a start. It can go somewhere. It matters.

There’s a more profound value, though, to be found in baseball: it speaks to our deepest spiritual needs.

Sports, and particularly games involving some form of ball, go back to our pre-history. The first “balls” may, in fact,  have been human heads, in more than one culture. This was, evidently, the case in the well-documented Mesoamerican ball games, played at least four millennia ago, continuing into the arrival of the first European explorers. From numerous statuary and reliefs we know that the losers of these games were- at some time in the game’s history- sacrificed, their hearts cut out and offered to their gods. The player’s skulls, it seems, (we don’t know if the skulls were from the losers or the winners) were sometimes encased in the balls, to make them lighter. Pretty nifty, but not something I’d like to see return. The old uniforms are enough.

It seems that we humans need a mythic spectacle, of some kind, an iconic struggle on which we are able to project our hopes and fears- while we, maybe, bet a few clams on the side. The Winners allow us, for a few minutes, to believe that we, too, can win against overwhelming odds. The players become demi-gods, representing our aspirations or our clan’s hatreds (see previous reference to the Yankees, most of whom are probably nice enough people, actually). So far, so good. I see you nodding in agreement, but why is baseball particularly important, in this context?

It’s because, my people, baseball begins in the spring, and it ends (or should end) with the waning of the light, the coming of the fall. The archetype of the Year King, born with the coming of the light and dying with the approaching darkness is hardwired in us. Every culture of which I know has some version of this story- often more than one-   going back beyond that of Damuzi, Innana’s foolish lover, written in cuneiform five thousand years ago. We feel this story in our DNA and respond to it, whether we know it or not. The “Boys Of Summer” are our Year Kings, particularly the stars, whose triumphs and slumps we follow with an interest that make no sense in any other context. We know that this year’s Most Valuable Player will, eventually, falter. No matter his level of skill or his training regimen, his reflexes will lose their edge; his mighty thews, their power; and he will go down, swinging, into the darkness of mediocrity. He must, because the only thing that makes the Human Condition – and especially our helplessness against Death – bearable is the certainty that even the Gods are finite: they, too, must go down. BUT, with the coming of spring and the return of the light, they will rise up again. The cry, “Play Ball” will be heard, once more!

So it is that baseball matters, whether you are a fan, glance occasionally at the scores, or ignore it altogether. It matters because it provides badly needed lubrication to our social interactions but, far more important, it matters because it gives us Hope. In these secular times not many of us believe, literally, in the old stories of death and rebirth. Even at Christmas time and Easter we sing the old hymns more from a sense of sentimental nostalgia than belief. But we know that spring will return and that there will be superhuman feats and unbelievably boneheaded mistakes and that “our team”- that is, the one with which we identify for whatever reason – will carry our hopes and fears at least into the end of summer. The playoffs represent our momentary victory over death, still present with every play, and The World Series?


Baseball matters because it’s the best model we have for transcending the fix we’re in: whatever it is, if these guys can do it maybe I can do it. If not, there’s always next year.

As always, I’ll be interested in whatever comments you may have about any of my musings. Until the next time, keep your eye on the ball, happy trails to you, and Go Giants!


Comments on: "Why Baseball Matters" (16)

  1. I am not a sports fan at all, and can’t pretend to understand the glee and dedication of all my friends who root for “their team”. But I love – not the game of baseball, but the romance of it. The symbols, the enormous emotional investment inherent in baseball. The long fight, from spring to fall; the elegant geometrical elimination of teams down to two pre-eminent champions. The voice of Vin Scully in the summer darkness, to which I have fallen asleep my entire life. I’m an Angelino, born and raised a few miles from Chavez Ravine. I couldn’t tell you the name of a single Dodger most years, but I keep track of where they are in the ratings. (it’s usually tragically easy.) Baseball is cool, in a way that basketball and football and hockey are not. Maybe you’re right, and it’s the old Year King pattern – or maybe it’s because games with sticks and balls are one of the oldest of games. Pick up a good stick, whack the ball and run like hell – simplicity and straight lines. Thank you for the lovely reminder, Mr. Brownson.

    • Kate, I’m sorry, but I must, respectfully disagree with your assertion that you are not a baseball fan. If you love the poetry and the romance of it, the traditions, symbolism and drama of it, you love baseball. That you are a Dodgers fan is just one of those, well, tragedies that Fate imposes on us. I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.

      • But I haven’t been to a game since the 4th grade! I haven’t even seen one on television since 1988! I can’t tell you the name of one player this year! I just keep track of where they are in the standings, and hoe they’ve recently pulled defeat from the jaws of victory … I do watch “Field of Dreams” and “Damn Yankees” every year, though.

        And hey – I gotta be a Dodgers fan. It’s the Curse of the Native Angeleno, the unholy burden we all bear.

  2. thank you for disposing upon us your love of the ballgame. I can truly attest that my mother and you are of the same position. for love of the game. during your season, it is not uncommon to walk in on my mother with one game on the bog tv, one on the radio, and yet a third blaring on the radio.

    my folks used to take me and my brothers to A’s games throughout the 70’s and into the 80’s. win lose or lose worse, we were always there rooting for the underdogs. with the sucess of the giants a few years ago compiled with the current owners of the A’s, the team has gotten.more than its fair share of bashings… butbthey are still in Oakland, and as you so eloquently observed, despite all they had against them, they did incredibly well.. enough so to re-energize my want to watch. I was saddened tobseebthe A’s lose, yet proud that my home team, whose salary base is avfraction of any other teams, and whose players forbthe.most part comprised of unknowns were cheered and supported throughout their miracle:.. but I digress…

    as for the giants, they are not my home team, but they are the bay area team to support in the post season. they bring incredible joy to you and Aaron and many others, so with that I’m mind i root for the giants.

    I too have a love of a sport. one that many folks don’t understand, nor care to take the time to understand. But for me, it is a passion of hope and the possibility of sucess. There really isn’t anything quite as amazing as 250,000 fans gathering to spend a few hours cheering on their favorite driver and team… there really is no comparison. and to this day I am suprised and warmed when some stranger oases by me and gives my 48 a nod..

    • apologies for all the typos up there… im a fisherman not a writer

    • Thank you, David. I really think that I’m going to have to start paying attention to the A’s in April, if only to further frustrate the club’s owners. It’ll be sort of like supporting a local minor league team and- who knows?- maybe they’ll make the Big Show, next time.
      As for your feeling lonesome, supporting a sport that not many around you care for, I always remember what it was like, being a Deadhead, before the Grateful Dead became so big. I wanted to babble about them to anyone who would listen, and my friends- most of them, were very kind and patient. Not quite the same as having a posse of fellow fans, but better than people laughing at something you care passionately about. Thanks for writing.

  3. Elizabeth said:

    Thanks Buffalo. I appreciate the game in a whole new way now due to your musings.

    • Thank you, Elizabeth. There are so many ways to appreciate the game. One of the things I love about baseball is the way that- at least, early in the season- you don’t really have to pay very close attention to what’s going on, on the field. I used to take the sports page and read it, during the game, checking the action on the field, now and then. It’s just nice to be there, with a hot link in one hand and a beer in the other, feeling the pulse of the thing.

  4. Marlene McCall said:

    Ok, looks like I’ll be the first one to respectfully disagree with one of your basic premises, that it is a good thing that strangers bond, even if slightly and even if temporarily, over the fact that they are both fans of a certain baseball team. It’s an understandable thing, but I don’t think it’s a good thing.

    We are, deep within our genes, the same tribal creatures that existed a hundred thousand years ago. Our physiology and our genes do not evolve that quickly. But our cultures, our societies, have changed enormously. The impulses within us, to bond with and support members of our small tribe and to be wary or fearful of those outside our tribe, are still inside us, but those small tribes no longer exist. Each of comes in contact with thousands of people in a single year, even more if we live in a large metropolitan area. Our desire for closeness, for intimacy, for bonding is still there, though. But who to trust is a tough call. Who will be our tribe? It takes a long time — weeks, months even — to really get to know someone, to know they are a true friend, they will be there for us, they will even help us at their own expense if we are in need. Like other tribal creatures, we need shortcuts. We need a way to quickly establish trust, kinship, friendship.

    This need manifests itself by our “connecting” and “feeling friendly” with others who are like us. They are in this group with us. And the rest of the world is not in this group, they are “the other tribe”. This can be good, bad, or something in between; it depends why we are bonding, what is the thing that we share, that makes us part of this group. But the impulse is the same. And the impulse can be damaging if unexamined. Because when we do this, when we bond with someone who is “like us” in some way, at the same time, we don’t bond, we exclude, those who are different than us in that way.

    I know you personally, so I know that you would not in any way mistreat or abuse someone who is a Dodgers fan simply because you’re a Giants fan. (And the only reason I know those team names is because of what’s written above.) But the emotional connection you’re describing is, at heart, the same emotional connection that bonds people together who are bigots, who are snobs, who are religious fundamentalists, who are bullies, who are people of many stripes who dislike, look down on, or even despise those who are different than they are. And yes, there are people who attack and injure, physically or emotionally, people who are fans of the “enemy” sports team.

    I would put forth the idea that there is no REAL relationship between you and other Giants fans. You don’t know them, you may or not have similar interests, similar philosophies, politics, hobbies, activities, family backgrounds, educational or vocational interests. Certainly, you have an interest in the game of baseball, but that would be true of Dodgers fans as well. The only thing that binds you to other Giants fans is the happenstance of your team choices. As you yourself concede, if you met under other circumstances, if your “fan” status were not visually apparent, you’d ignore each other.

    In summary, I think the activities and interactions you describe are benign and hurt no one. But I think the “us vs. them” mentality underlying what you describe can be dangerous and is in fact harmful every day. It is the reason that politicians and other leaders can manipulate us. It is the basis for many conflicts large and small. It is a contributing factor in the lives of many people who are so tortured that they end their lives, or the lives of others. I think the world would be a better place if people placed their loyalties where real relationships exist and where real trust is merited, not where connections are simply illusions.

    And yes, I know you could say I’m making a mountain out of a molehill. You’d be right. I wish the problems we face in our world were as benign as mountains OR molehills.

  5. Marlene, thank you for taking the trouble to write. You make an interesting point, and I’m going to have to think about it for awhile. Just off the top of my head, though, I’d say that tribalism (which is certainly the the thing we’re describing, here) seems to me to have the potential to be both good and bad, depending on the tribe’s culture and what the individual brings to it. In the case (or rather, cases; it’s certainly happened more than once) of fans assaulting fans of other teams, this seems to me more about testosterone than tribalism. Certainly, these young men used the team’s colors as an excuse to do harm, but this seems to me to be more an argument for a more and better regulated tribe than against the phenomenon itself. Be well. -B.

    • Jon Berger said:

      I think that “more about testosterone than tribalism” describes my feelings about the whole enterprise. The point you left out from your very touching story about someone reaching out to you and being friendly because you were wearing a Giants hat is that if you’d been wearing that same hat while walking around the streets of St. Louis, or Detroit, or whatever city is associated with the hated vilified rivals du jour, the reaction would have been diametrically opposite. People would have spit in your beer behind your back; clerks in stores and waiters in restaurants would have pointedly ignored you; you would have been lucky to escape without a physical altercation. To wear a Giants hat in St. Louis last week, or whenever it was, would have been taken by a lot of people as a challenge on par with “your mother is a whore.” I think you probably understand that. If you’d had to fly to St. Louis for a work-related conference or something, I strongly suspect that you wouldn’t have packed your Giants hat.

      I just can’t agree that the many, many, manymanymany instances of violence surrounding sporting events are just a few bad apples, the tiny exception to the general rule that it’s all a big love-fest. Many of the obvious examples involve soccer, but even if you want to distance yourself from soccer and claim that baseball is somehow different, Google “ten cent beer riots” if you want an example of the same thing happening around baseball. The violence is always there; it’s just that sometimes it contents itself with simmering under the surface. To me, the whole thing is so tied up with hatred, literal hatred, of people who want a different set of nine guys to win a game than the nine guys I want to win it that it just turns my stomach.

      Not to be snarky, but I have to observe that not even you, one of the most open-hearted and loving people I’ve ever known, can manage to write a 1,200-word essay about baseball without going to “the Yankees are terrible people, ha ha just kidding.” I know you were being humorous, but if I were your patient and I said something like that during a session, wouldn’t you wonder if it hinted at some deeper level of antagonism?

      • Jon, you and Marlene have given me a lot to think about. Certainly, there is a dark side to the sort of “clan-mind”, that didn’t occur to me to include in my essay. I think I may have to do a follow-up on the issue; it deserves it. The more so with the posting, on FB this morning, of the story about the wheelchair bound Marine vet, who was mocked, cursed, threatned and asked to leave the resturant in which all this had taken place, because he was wearing- yes- the jersey of a particular football team. I do not delude myself that this could not happen among baseball fans, as tempting as it is to do so. For that matter, I have seen a fight break out, in the (now tarped over) upper deck of the Oakland Coluseum, between giants and A’s fans. That’s all real. Does this mean that it’s wrong, somehow, to identify, visably, with a sports team? Or that identifying with a team (or a gender or a country) is a bad thing to do? Perhaps the point to be made is that the fewer things we can find to divide us, the better. Okay, but what about the argument that anything that decreases our isolation and alienation from one another is for the good? Certainly, that has weight.
        As I said, I need to give this more thought. Thanks for the inspiration.
        Be well-

      • Oh, and as for my revealed “antagonism”: open-hearted and loving I may be, but I am neither a saint nor a bodhisattva; far from it. Even nice guys get to bad mouth somebody, sometimes, and the NY Yankees are, traditionally, the perfect target. Of course, this year they went into a sort of collapse and barely made the playoffs (The have been in the World Series 40 times- out of 108), so it’s harder to despise them, but still possible. I don’t think it does them any harm. Whether it harms me to think that way is a subject for discussion. -B.

      • Jon Berger said:

        I doubt if the Yankees are suffering as a result of your bad-mouthing, and in fact antipathy against the Yankees is the central theme of one of the best musicals of the 50’s, the one that put Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon on the map. It’s hard to argue with anything that can do that. But my point was the same point you’re making: somehow, this identifying-with-a-team thing seems to be tied up, even in your mind, with having someone to bad-mouth. It seems like a pretty small step from “nice guys get to bad mouth somebody” to “nice guys get to hit somebody in the face.” What I’m saying is that sports fandom seems to me, from my outside perspective, to be inextricably tied up with identifying someone as the bad guy.

        Of course, your real dyed-in-the-wool baseball fan doesn’t need to have a fan of the other team around in order to cause real damage, viz. the story in the Chron today about the Giants fans who celebrated the World Series victory by torching a Muni bus.

  6. Bob Gollan said:

    Thanks for the interesting perspective John…well thought out!

    • You’re welcome, Bob. Slightly tongue in cheek, certainly, but not entirely. If anything truly qualifies as “Spiritual”, surely Baseball does, on opening day, when all the teams are tied and all there is is hope.

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