In a literary sense, I sort of like clichés. Before they become hackneyed and mundane, they are tight exceptional metaphors and similes. The first time somebody compared his lover’s eyes to a glowing moon, or her beauty to a red rose it was brilliant. The meaning of those words has worn over time, but not the initial spark of genius from which they were born. Like any writer, I avoid clichés as much as I can, but their initial spark remains bright in my mind.
The same can be true for most conventional wisdom: at one point, it was not conventional. It was just an idea that explained something fairly well, or a strategy that was effective most of the time. The sacrifice bunt, for example, is a conventional strategy in baseball. It’s often employed without second thought, lauded if effective, criticized if ineffective (or used too frequently). But the first time some manager trotted a weak-hitter out to move a runner over with a bunt, it probably blew minds.
In the tendency to assign grand meaning to Sports, I see both the cliché and the conventional wisdom. I see the initial reasoning for doing so and dig the value of this pretense, but I also see the worn out catchphrases and the strained logic and wonder why it happens. There are so many sayings about Sports – and I mean to refer to Sports as a proper noun here – that it gets hard to remember which ones came from Vince Lombardi and which ones originated with some orthopedic surgeon coaching his son’s Little League Team.
Football is War. Baseball is a microcosm for life. Casey Stengel and John Wooden and so on and so forth and I think I’ll grab myself a drink. The task of a coach is to mold young men, men who prove their mettle, prove their value as humans on the field of play. By this world view, people don’t dive in front of slap shots, or lean into inside fastballs, or take a hard charges in the lane merely because they want to win the game, but because winning the game has everything to do with winning at life. And damn it to hell if life is not about winning.
The point to all this crotchety, self-righteous, rambling is pretty much to bemoan the overwrought (ironic that I’m calling somebody that) way we think about sports. I’m thinking we should back up a smidge. Instead of seeking wisdom in the broad existence of Competition and Running and Playing and Winning and Losing maybe we can find wisdom elsewhere. Maybe the real wisdom can be found in the tiny situations, the intricacies of each game, the times that a particular sporting event lines up with a particular moment in our lives. Baseball is the National Pastime, not the National University or the National Church. Things are better this way.
The game serves a wonderful purpose: not as a metaphor, but as an entity that merits discussion on its own terms. There is insight to be had and wisdom to be found in baseball. The sport has its own language and its own issues and its own ongoing dialogue. Sometimes baseball mirrors greater society and sometimes it exists on a completely separate plane. Baseball and Sports in general, contribute to language and culture and dialogue the way anything else do. There are things a man’s curveball can tell us, but there also things his marriage or his job performance or his fashion sense can tell us.
I love the way Free Darko can extrapolate on-court behavior and performance into stunningly accurate and refreshing takes on an athlete’s broader position in our society, his own personal struggles, and the general mythology of sport. But I also appreciate that while Greg Maddux’s repertoire and approach and legend seem an accurate reflection of his entire existence, he probably wouldn’t put it that way. Sports is just another activity in our lives which means sometimes it’s an effective way to make the nuanced, the deeply personal, the incomprehensible events and emotions that we deal with every day a little easier to understand. But sometimes those events and emotions are better explained in the context of a road trip, or a meal, or a six pack of beer.
The Free Darko guys understand this. They like basketball and have a keen sense for what basketball can tell us about both itself and the broader world, but they realize that the game is not a perfect representation of society. Unlike the speeches of Vince Lombardi, or the pained reminiscing of nostalgia-crazed “those were the days” baseball fans, there is no dogma to be found here. There is only the transitory wisdom and pleasure of a pastime.
We must realize that while Sports can tell us unique and vibrant and refreshing things, it cannot tell us everything. A life is a life, a war is a war, and baseball, to end with a surprisingly fitting cliché, is only a game.