The October cure

Jared Wickerham

In small and isolated times like the present, we can learn a lot -- and get a lot -- from big games.

For all the active choices involved -- to spend money on tickets and beer; to do or (please) not do The Wave; to devote time and energy to a team -- there's something essentially and inescapably passive about being a fan. We elect, for various reasons, to hand months and years of our leisure-time well-being to our various teams and individuals of choice, and then sit through the consequences. Non-fans have, I am told, rich and happy lives, untroubled by the cruel vagaries of entrusting one's emotional well-being to, say, the performance of people who are forced to work for Greg Schiano or people who are members of the Minnesota Twins pitching staff. That's not the choice fans make.

How much we care, what we invest and how much, is on us. Choosing all that is the active part; living with it is the passive part, and the bigger part, and the tougher part. This is making it sound riskier than it is, maybe. Being a fan is a second life, both safer and sillier than the life we inhabit all the time, without any real consequence beyond the ones we choose. It's just a game, all this freely chosen fan stuff, and every feeling it gives us is mediated and moderated and cushioned by that basic and broadly understood fact. Weep when your team loses, by all means, but know that you chose that.

More than just about any other thing we pick up as kids, being a fan will pull the grown-up right out of you -- before we realize that other people are as human and complicated and difficult as we are, before we learn where to fit into the world and how, we learn from being fans all sorts of lessons about influence and agency and how things can suck. We get the sweet, expansive feeling of being at a game with thousands of other people who want what we want, and the attendant lesson about the joys of fellowship, how community helps us feel and be greater than we are.

And we learn about limits, too -- that we can cheer as much and spend as much as we want, want as much as we want, and our team is still likely to lose before the season's champion is crowned. Before we have any idea what to expect from life -- from relationships or work or politics -- we figure out, in ballparks and stadiums and arenas, how to set expectations that make something like sense, and how to live as happily as we can within them.

This is a very important thing, this constant dynamic adjusting and trimming and figuring out of what's reasonable to want, and how to get as much of the good stuff out of it as possible. We learn how to live as fans before we learn it anywhere else. But then we just have to keep on learning.

Star-divide

Part of the fun of all this is that the real world -- the posturing and disingenuousness and painful preening falsity of our politics; the grinding, vicious perpetuity of economic reality; the bleak, horny hatefulness of the popular culture -- seems more distant when we're in our fan brains and in a crowd, watching a game with rules. And the subsidiary escapes -- dreaming on next year and the year after that, hoping various hopes and hedging them or not per the information you choose to consume or not -- are mostly fun, too, for mostly the same reason. It's an escape.

We go here to get away from various heavy bullshit, to come in from the glacial cold of a heavy and encumbered world. This is why Hot Stove League is baseball's best and most vivid term. You can see it: various haggard travelers stumbling out of the howling dark, shaking off the snow and gathering around some glowing source of heat with various other wayfaring strangers, and there bitching happily about the Royals. We dream together, and the game generally gives us something to dream on -- weird teams do win the Super Bowl and the World Series, and on most any night most any team really can do most anything.

Even when there aren't games, there's a thing to think about -- how it might go if one contingency falls some way or another, what might happen. This is the greatest escape of all -- it's all open, anything, even as it happens. It's not like anything can be imagined into being -- we can't personally do anything for our teams -- but we can imagine what seems possible and that's enough.

It's possible, for instance, to imagine any one of several bright futures for the New York Mets, which is the team I do most of my imagining about. The Mets are not all that good. They finished with the same 74-88 record in 2013 that they put up in 2012, and were not near the postseason mix in either year. But they're a likable enough team with some greatness and surprise studded throughout the roster. They are also broke, self-thwarted, in pained denial and plainly stuck.

There are various things the Mets might do in the offseason -- positions to upgrade, players to promote or trade, various approaches that might work or not -- but there is more broadly the sense that they will not do any of these things, because they simply can't. The Mets owners don't have any money, to spend or otherwise. They owe $250 million to J.P. Morgan Chase payable in June of 2014, and don't have it, have already exhausted most every way to raise those funds. The owners don't want to sell, but can't pay what it will cost to compete, and so there is this weird static pantomime of possibility, and no sense of a future that looks like anything but this present. There are some metaphors here if you want them. And there is in this failure a thing that hints at a greater and more consequential one playing out now.

This one is on the news channels -- a government that has simply chosen not to do its job for reasons it can't even explain, and so in turn reflected a broader culture that's raging and babyish and hates what it wants, and can't soothe or save or do anything but poisonously consume itself. There's a great dreamlessness to all of it -- a sense that, for all the good people and good ideas out there, nothing will be done, because the people entrusted to do it cannot. We will need to elect some new people, clearly. What now feels permanent can't be allowed to become permanent.

Sports can't change that, of course. But there's still some hope to be found here, something maybe even beyond an escape. For all their various tiresome specifics, our stalled politics converge on a debate over whether there is such a thing as society -- whether we really do have certain goals and interests in common, and whether we should pursue them together. It's not much of a debate, really: the simultaneous recognition of individual rights and the need for a generous, inclusive and dynamic understanding of community and common good is the nation's founding idea, if not one we've always pursued perfectly. It's not being chased right now.

So these are small times: a small and curdled politics, and just the right small and curdled politicians to run it. It's lonesome and loud and violent and dumb out there, and moreover there is the sense that everyplace is Out There -- that a nihilistic vanity born of great and un-understood fear is crushing us into things smaller and harder than we are. But also there is, everywhere, beautiful proof that we are better than our politics; individually and in small groups, most of us are good and want to be good. And there is evidence, too, that we understand the reality and importance of community, of each other. Sports can help us know it.

Sports can help us see and feel important things not just by showing us greatness on the field, or through the easy idle dreaminess of imagining the future as a fan, but by reminding us how much greater and safer and stronger we feel -- and actually are -- when we're together. Think of how good it feels to be a fully consumed component in a team. Or think of the simultaneous obliteration and transcendence of being part of a roaring crowd, that oceanic absorption -- you are yourself, and also a bigger, other thing; a voice inside a voice. We know all that is right.

And we prove it to ourselves when we dream on and shout for the same things, and it feels good. There is such a thing as us, and that is it, and it matters hugely. It's what we cheer for and why. We learn this early, without even knowing we've learned it. We have to remind each other not to forget it.

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