NTSF 104: The origins of non-traditional spectatorhood plus news from Spain, Flushing Meadows, Monza and more…
What makes us enjoy what we enjoy; how do our spectating proclivities develop, and why do we take interest in some events and not in others? It’s one of those things that I keep rolling over again and again in my brain as I find myself overwhelmed at times with the sheer number of events that seem to captivate me and pull my focus in every possible direction. We’re at the intersection of summer and winter, the traditional autumn pursuits taking center stage before the snow and the ice grip our consciousness — led by football of every conceivable guise, from the international variety taking hold throughout Europe and South America to the gridiron version which has begun its annual stranglehold on the nation’s attention at the professional and collegiate level.
Baseball is in its stretch drive and preparing for its postseason, yet I find myself more interested in what’s happening in the last Grand Slam of the tennis calendar and the last few months of cycling’s fall racing season. Why is this? I always loved baseball as a kid, collecting cards and watching every game I possibly could find on our nine channels of television, piped in by the resort where I grew up to keep employees from going completely cabin crazy during the long winters. They mercifully included ESPN and TBS and all the networks as well as HBO and Showtime – which meant I had access to many of the seminal bouts in boxing’s last golden era as well as Wimbledon when it was still on premier cable only.
But it was baseball that held my central grip of focus every summer. At least, that was, until around the time when I turned eight and my parents registered me for Little League baseball for the first (and ultimately last) time. I was a big kid; I grew fast for my age. So when the league saw my size, I was instantly put in with the 9- and 10-year-old league instead of with my own age group. I was physically as developed as the others against whom I was playing, but I’d never actually been trained in the fundamentals of the sport. What little I knew about hitting or fielding were gleaned in my own hours spent tossing balls in the air and hitting them by myself, or tossing them higher still and shagging them in my glove. I was playing against kids that had been in the Little League system for two, three, four years. I quickly lost interest in playing, dreading each twice-weekly trip into Jackson for another game where I would be fully out of my element.
Contrast that with the first time I ever really picked up a serious road bicycle and pounded the miles. I was 21 years old at the time, in my first stint as the sous chef of a major restaurant operation. My first few outings were spent with a friend who was an avid cyclist, someone who has checked off at least 300 riding miles in thirty or more states and several other countries. He introduced me to the intricacies of really riding a bicycle, how to be efficient on the pedals, when to shift to maximize my power usage. It soon became the best stress release possible. As opposed to baseball, which had left me feeling queasy every time the day came to don my uniform and grab my glove for the long drive to another exercise in futility, I had at least been given a crash course in cycling sensibility and had emerged with something that would come to be a salve for all the stresses of my daily life at the time. I soon found myself out at all hours of the day and night, riding mile after mile and collecting my thoughts. I was also in the best shape
I would keep watching baseball for a few more years, but by then I’d already started to focus more on football and hockey and even sports like soccer. Becoming a cycling spectator came later, mostly because finding a race to watch was tougher than pulling my own teeth. The one sport I did stick with as a kid was swimming, as much because the club team I was on met at the resort pool all summer long as any strong desire to be a good swimmer. I had fun, for sure, and was not half bad in the breaststroke and backstroke events. I love watching Olympic action, and anytime I can catch a live feed of a swim meet is a day well spent. I was never going to be of an Olympic caliber, but at least I’d been learning the fundamentals and why I was doing the particular motions in each stroke from a young age and understood what was happening. Hence why even swimming started to become more fun to watch for me than baseball or basketball — it was a sport that I knew instinctively.
It was also that way when it came to skiing. Every year during my elementary school days, we had a weekly P.E. class as most elementary schools are apt to hold. Ours, however, turned a little unconventional as soon as the snow started falling. Our school, like every other school in the county, would hold annual fall fundraising parties that generated the revenue to send all us students into town for skiing lessons every week. Every Friday we’d gather our skis onto the school bus, ride the 35 miles into town and spend our mornings with the instructors. After lunch, we always had a few hours of freedom to go around the mountainside and practice on our own or with our friends. Whenever the Winter Olympics rolled around, I would sit intently watching all the Alpine competitions and see what each skier was doing right and wrong on their paths to the bottom of the run.
Maybe that’s the same reason I always loved Formula 1 racing more than NASCAR — despite having a grandfather who used to spend time in the pits working at Golden Sands Raceway in Wisconsin (including a stint assisting on Dick Trickle’s crew before he hit the national scene). Instead it was my experiences after getting my driver’s licence, driving too fast on the windy roads through the national park, that cemented my love of watching cars drive at insane speeds around courses that more closely resembled my daily drive into Jackson and back than any banked oval ever could.
So the seeds of a non-traditional sports fandom were born in youth. Perhaps all our proclivities are borne of our childhood and adolescent experiences. Experience begets familiarity; but in this instance familiarity bred little contempt for those activities. I started drinking in as much soccer knowledge as I could as a teenager to be able to converse more intelligently on the various leagues that held the interest of the growing international population coming to work on the resort every summer. My weekly rec-league broomball games helped me understand the vagaries of hockey better, relegating basketball to second- (or even third- or fourth-) class status amongst the sports of wintertime in my attentions.
But it makes me wonder… what, for instance, would have happened if that Little League experience had gone differently? Had I been placed in my proper age group and received the requisite instruction, would I have never found myself turning toward other sports for my thrills? Would I be just another traditional sports fan in America, riding the same rhythms and enduring the same lulls? It’s an interesting thing to ponder, but as one event stacks upon another in a chain it becomes harder and harder to unlink the strands that comprise who we are and the type of individual we have become. So I guess, in a way, I can thank the powers that be in Teton County’s youth sports movement that saw fit to assess a player’s ability merely by size. Had things gone another way, perhaps I would be writing to you right now about who is going to reach the pennant, or offering up previews of NBA teams instead of the NHL preview we’re unfolding over September here on the site.
We are what we know, that confluence of familiarities with which we are comfortable. I don’t know if I ever would’ve found contentment simply swimming with the current of the American sports calendar. After all, I still attune myself to the local rhythms as much as possible; some sports receive stunted attention, but by and large being non-traditional is not a matter of spurning what’s right at hand just for the sake of it. After all, I still play rec-league softball on a local team here in Eugene despite those first less-than-perfect experiences with organized sports. It’s just that those lulls would inevitably have driven me in some direction or another — the gaps must be filled. And it’s that pursuit for more, for something that can captivate and hold the attention in those slow moments, which has driven every move since I realized there was more to life than merely what was being spoon-fed to me by the mainstream. And so here we are again, onward into autumn, staring at the convergence of several big events on the calendar that go beyond merely the pigskin-dominated frenzy of the moment as we dive into another week with A Non-Traditional Sports Fan in America…