Americans love sports. They don their paraphernalia — a cap, a hoodie, a proof of fandom — and sit on a couch to have one-sided conversations with their television screens. They frequent stadiums to enjoy the action mere feet away, to relax, not relax, revel in the crowd. They get their fix, paradoxically enough, by creating their own fantasy teams, virtual fiefdoms in which the average father of four can concoct and manage a perfect roster of players built from real-life athletes. They cheer, jeer, cry, harangue, fill the taverns to celebrate a victory, take to the same taverns to mourn a defeat. No matter the outcome, pride for the sports junkie, in all its expressions, becomes a take-no-prisoners mentality, a stimulant and a shield.
The ways of the American are, naturally, not sui generis. How could they be, when sports have been so vital, so universal to human history, ever since our Olympian forebears threw their first disc? Indeed, a steadfast Red Sox fan in Massachusetts is not any different from my dad back home in the Dominican Republic, whose right knee pops up every time David “Big Papi” Ortiz scores another decisive grand slam on ESPN. Forget plantains, forget rum: gifted baseball players have been the leading Dominican export of the past half-century. Accordingly, it is with baseball that I began my stormy dalliance with sports.
Age five, maybe six. It’s a Saturday. Dad wakes me up. We’re going to take a short trip, it seems, so no “Pinky and the Brain” for me this morning. I have vague impressions of what follows next.
In my polo shirt and khakis, I am driven to a nondescript, large terrain surrounded by low walls. I stand on a diamond of dirt, hiding behind my father’s legs as he talks to another man, the leader, I assume, of the pack of uniformed children sprinting and screaming around me so intensely. Dad takes me to the edge of the field. It takes me very few words to win this round against him. I shake my head, growing more reluctant even as he kneels down to plead his case. But, no, no, no, I say, I will not join a Little League baseball team. End of story.
In a stab at self-validation, I did join the soccer team in third grade. We practiced every Wednesday after class. I’ll rephrase: the other kids ran back and forth along the makeshift field while I sat and observed. I regularly grabbed handfuls of soil to smear on my white shirt so I could feign the illusion of an afternoon well spent.
Then, I tried my hand at golf, till a mishap with a 7-iron almost knocked my eye out of its socket. I never tucked away the bumpers at the edge of my bowling lane. I did a little bit of swimming. My foray into roller skating crumbled under weak ankles. The hacky sack outsmarted me. The exception, like manna from René Lacoste’s version of heaven, was the racquet. I hit those tennis balls with vigor no one ever thought I could muster. The clay courts, however, quickly bored me and the zeal vanished. Woe was me, poster child of mediocrity, always a starter, never a finisher!
Given this athletic record, any modicum of sports knowledge I have I gained through watching my father watch baseball on TV, or hockey or college basketball or professional basketball or soccer or, most curious of all, football. American football. Legs crossed on the living room ottoman, I spent years teasing out the logic of what I considered the most martial of sports. Men in helmets, wearing protective gear, trying to burst through the rival’s defenses in order to achieve a sense of territory.
It never hit me. An imaginary playbook tried to form itself piecemeal in my head, to no avail. Yet my own lack of interest made me wonder about the genesis of my father’s enthusiasm for football. Ah, well, of course, it was all that time rubbing elbows with those WASP-y chums in military school in New Jersey, and then college in Boston. Surely, I thought, this football, this fascination over a sport, was part of that addictive miasma of Americana of which we Gassós can’t get enough.
So I stuck it out. I stayed put by the TV. If I wasn’t going to fully connect with football, then at least it could provide me with cultural exposure through osmosis, with some kind of conditioning for the bumbling soul. But it was time wasted. I learned nothing about American fanaticism, no rules, no definitions for terms like “fake punt” and “cut blocking.”
Such futility is what dissuades me from picking up a ticket to The Game this Saturday. Year after year, The Game — that alleged zenith of school unity and “bow wow wow” — turns out to be one of the most alienating moments of my fall semester. It’s not the tailgate; roistering students I can handle. It’s not the blistering cold circling in the vacuum of the Yale Bowl.
It is the feeling that, even amid all the fanfare, I am still the scrawny teenager sitting on the ottoman, failing to find myself within that collective experience, the thrill of belonging that only sports can foster.