The Mercy Rule

Why Sports Help

By David Roth


Photo via Rex USA

At some point, it’s clearly best just to turn it off. These blasts of idiot panic on Twitter, all these self-appointed (and actually appointed) social-media editors burping up liveblogs of some in-studio haircut’s dunderheaded ad libs or playing some screeching game of telephone with police scanner chatter. Those aforementioned haircuts, speculating rankly to fill minutes of airtime or reciting now-familiar horrors over looped video of whirling sirens. These fucking clownish Infowars rage-loafs, staring down very real horror and frothingly appliquéing the usual black helicopters in the usual places, sad old children writing themselves into some raised-letter airport potboiler, swapping their asinine imaginary horrors for the world’s and calling themselves brave; these Reddit sleuths taking a clammy break from mapping the bleaker margins of the Friend Zone to slap some MS Paint on smudgy photos and misidentify some monsters. Turn it off, turn it off. There is nothing here, nothing useful to learn, only more of the guilty inertia that leads us to put this shit on in the background in the first place. We should care, and we do care. We should want to know, and we do want to know. But there’s nothing here for us, at the moment. So I’m going to a baseball game tonight, where it’s quieter and more human.

It’s a Mets game, so obviously it’s not really “quieter.” But no baseball game, even one featuring a team that currently plays defense with all the grace and efficacy of a corgi chasing a torpedo, is ever really quiet. There are tens of thousands of other people there at the game, murmuring and sometimes cheering and sometimes booing and asking each other if they want a beer and doing their best to explain to (rightly) confused kids how the infield fly rule works, and why Ruben Tejada, the Mets’ palpably aghast and supremely snakebit shortstop, just scooped up a grounder and whipped it into the mezzanine. There are the little farts of spastic reggaeton and strutting butt-rock and Drake-mewls that soundtrack the players’ approach to the plate, too, and various other uses of the public-address system. At some point in the game, fans will probably get up and sing Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” as a sort of tribute to Boston, the locked-down and terrified/defiant city that invented this particular in-game ritual. I probably won’t sing it, because I don’t generally do that sort of thing, but I’ll stand up and sit down with everyone else. I think that will be enough for me, and probably for many others there, standing and sitting all around in whatever silence or sound they choose.

Just the doing of it, the being there, is a lot more significant at this moment than any game’s potential outcome. It’s been noted—noted often enough, in fact, that it may have started to lose some of its significance—that part of what made Monday’s attack on the Boston Marathon so horrifying was that the Marathon was so open and rich and positive a part of the city’s civic life. In a city whose sports fans are fervent and devoted but also fantastically entitled and demanding, here was one of the most inclusive and happily symbiotic sports-related rituals imaginable—some people ran as far and as hard as they could, and everyone else drank beer and cheered them on, each growing in and benefiting from the presence of the other.

Because so many sports fans can be so terrible—ham-headed partisans, seething displacement cases not-quite-working-out various issues on some sports-talk phone line, khaki-hearted kidults whining and bullying in the same breath—and because so many fan cultures are so curdled and small, describing watching sports as a generous or great-hearted enterprise doesn’t necessarily scan right. And of course there are people who watch sports and get nothing great from it, or nothing more than an excuse to drink way too much or yell awful things at strangers; there are people for whom the whole great and varied terrain of fandom is nothing but a safe-ish place to bury their own toxic material. But do it right, do it with your whole heart and mind, and caring about sports is something much more bright-sided and generous and communal than that. Do it that way, and it is an antidote of sorts to the shrunken, selfish, small-hearted behavior that terror seeks to create.

The core fact of it, as Colin McGowan wrote at the Classical (which, disclaimer, I run) last week, is that we choose to be fans because we think it might benefit us. We can choose to get as much or as little from the games and the players as we want—if we just want some sin-eating avatar for our frustrations, sports can be that, but it can also give us an opportunity to witness real physical transcendence and to feel the half-divine and wholly transporting delight of teamwork. And it gives those of us who are not playing, who don’t need to do anything more than watch, an opportunity to do all this together—to be together, near each other, in the presence of some greater and unpredictable thing, and to in turn create something like that for ourselves and each other. We go to games in openness, enter together; we are all of us together without ever having to stop being ourselves.

This is precisely the sort of secular communion that a broke-souled asshole with some bad ideas and a bomb would want to attack; this blithe and offhandedly loving togetherness is exactly the sort of thing the worst people would hate the most. The good news, in this week of bad, bad news, is that what’s good in us—in people, plural, together—is both bigger and stronger than that. We need to remember this, but we won’t be reminded of it while alone with all that noise on the internet or idiot maundering on television. We’ll learn it, and remember it, together. A ballpark seems as good a place for that as any.

@david_j_roth

Previously: Building a Better NFL Draft

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