Throughout the baseball season, I learned from my friend Jim how a true sports fan thinks, not a radical, face-painted, intoxicated nut case, but a rational, intelligent person my own age, similar to me in most ways, except whose ups-and-downs in life are largely determined by how well a group of highly paid, coddled athletes, each with a staff of lawyers and agents, whose charmed life mere earthlings cannot imagine, perform for a profitable corporation who claims some sort of local affiliation.
But during the World Series, I was still puzzled why anyone would pay the fantastic price to actually be in the stadium, at the actual game, perhaps sitting in a cold rain, when they could see all of the plays much better on their HD, big-screen TV, for free, in the comfort of their own home.
It turns out Jim was actually at one game of last year’s 2008 World Series. The price was three hundred dollars. Was it really worth it?
Absolutely, says Jim. Mostly, it was sharing the experience with his son who made the very meaningful and thoughtful gift of the tickets, an expense that Jim would have difficulty justifying for himself. But apart from that, it was also the game.
The game they saw together was a crucial one, and winning it was a turning point for the Phillies. Not only was the game a turning point, but the game itself turned on one specific hit. With that one hit, everyone in the stadium knew the Phillies were going to win the series, and they were instantly ecstatic, all 60,000 of them. To be ecstatic yourself while among that many people also deliriously happy, yelling and cheering, high-fiving, hugging, and back-slapping complete strangers, Jim says, was a once in a lifetime experience more than worth the price, an experience that can’t adequately be described. You hadda be there.
I can see how he is right. I never experienced that—never that I remember. I was in Philadelphia for the V-J day parade in the summer of 1945, but I saw the parade from an office window two stories above the corner of Broad and Chestnut, and by then the news had already matured. The celebration had a slightly forced conviviality, and I saw nothing like the sailor spontaneously kissing the nurse in Time Square. Our graduation ceremony did not evoke jubilation, only boredom, as I recall. I can’t think of ever being part of even five ecstatically happy people, much less 60,000.
But, come to think of it, I do remember being part of an ecstatic crowd – some of our high school basketball games, in particular, a win over Ridley Park. It was an important game and the gym was packed. We were hopeful, but a win was only an outside chance. But we did win, and, as the saying goes, the crowd went wild.
So, the only examples I remember are also in sports, and I see that providing these moments we all long for is their real purpose. It also explains the masochistic streak in many sports fans, such as the loyal Cubs fans, and even the Phillies fans for many years. Victory only becomes sweet by the experience of many disappointments. Our high school basketball games would not have evoked anything if we had only played elementary school teams. Losing and uncertainty are crucial.
The sharing of the ecstasy multiplies it for everyone. You can watch a game alone on your own TV, but watching with a few friends is much better. Watching in a crowded bar full of screaming fans is better yet. And, best of all, is making the sacrifice to actually be there with thousands of others interested enough to make the same sacrifice. That is what makes it worth $300.
As the theologian Karen Armstrong says, people do not come to religion because of the logic of its philosophy. They come because it satisfies a need, because it works. The same is true of sports. Maybe not so coincidentally, Jim once studied for the priesthood.