Don't Take Me Out To the Ballgame

ONE of the hottest sports stories in Boston this month has nothing to do with teams or athletes or coaches. Instead, it centers around a radio station that is switching from an all-news format to round-the-clock sports. News broadcasting costs money, the manager of WEEI explains. Sports broadcasting makes money - lots of it, apparently, judging by rumors that the revamped station will pay its top host anywhere from $400,000 to $700,000 a year.To a nonathlete, this programming change serves as only the latest example of what appears to be an insatiable national appetite for sports. From all-sports channels on TV to ever-fatter sports sections in newspapers, and from the current baseball-card mania to the possible revival of The National sports daily, the message is clear: The jock is king. Even the news-serious New York Times recently beefed up its sports coverage, using space on the front page of the second section each day to promote sports stories inside. Sports metaphors have also become inescapable in the workplace, where executives speak of corporate "game plans" and urge employees to be "team players." With each new sign of a pervasive sports culture, those of us who feel more at home in a theater than a stadium - and who can barely tell Wayne Gretzky from Larry Bird or an inning from a down - realize that we are part of a shrinking minority. Like athletes sitting on the sidelines at a game, we are destined to remain on the sidelines of conversation, listening with a mixture of bewilderment and boredom as those around us talk about team standings, critique managers' moves, discuss million-dollar contra cts, and analyze the latest trades. It is all a foreign language, and no Berlitz teacher can help us. As bad as it is to be a nonfan of big-league sports, it may be even worse to be a nonparticipant in amateur sports. Anyone whose athletic prowess is limited to wimpy games like croquet, badminton, and Ping-Pong - and whose idea of pleasant exercise is a bike ride or a brisk walk - remains forever on the defensive, forced to smile gamely as friends and acquaintances ask, with a note of incredulity in their voices, "You don't play tennis?" Last week a relative by marriage went so far as to joke that I am the "family mutant," because I don't share their passion for tennis. She was teasing, but she made her point. In the game of life, 1990s-style, only game-players score. As nonplayers will cheerfully admit, it is our loss, to be sure. We who are more comfortable holding a book than a ball will never know the satisfaction of working on a backhand, perfecting a swing, or going for the burn. And while we understand the appeal that athletics hold for others, both as spectators and players, we are left with a nagging question for ourselves: What's wrong with us? Do people who are not sports-minded lack a basic competitive drive? We hope not, and prefer to offer other explanations. Jefferson went too far when he said, "Games played with the ball, and others of that nature, are too violent for the body and stamp no character on the mind." But many of us fail to understand the pleasure of violence in sports like football and hockey. We also find the language of sports sometimes bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to the language of war, as in phrases such as "We took no prisoners" and "We killed the other team." Even so, a bystander can understand the pleasures and sympathize with the rewards of sports. Games provide rules and create a reassuring artificial order. If nobody can quite figure out how to keep score in real life, everyone knows how to do it in games. And in an increasingly complex world, sports represent a golden childhood, when life was more simple. Where will this sports craze end? With billion-dollar contracts? With a domed stadium in every city and a tennis court or putting green in every yard? No one can predict. But if the trend continues, perhaps someday even those of us on the sidelines will take racket or club in hand and discover hidden athletic abilities. Perhaps we'll also find ourselves happily seated in a ballpark somewhere, munching peanuts and hot dogs as we cheer "our" team on to victory - realizing, at long last, what all the fuss i s about. But don't buy us any season tickets just yet.

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