MORRISSEY: Donald Trump, LaVar Ball and the search for joy in sports
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It’s easy to lose heart these days, even with sports.
If you allow yourself to get sucked into the feud between President Donald Trump and LaVar Ball about the arrest and release of one of Ball’s basketball-playing sons in China, you might never escape the darkness. On one side is a loudmouth son who got rich off his father, and on the other side is a loudmouth father getting rich off his sons. They’re the exact same guy, though neither has the self-awareness to know it.
Look at me, already halfway down the abandoned mineshaft! That won’t do for Thanksgiving.
I need to follow the advice I give others: Concentrate on the sport, not on the people involved in the sport. You’ll be so much happier. Don’t project your ideal of what an athlete should be upon an athlete. It’s a sucker’s game. If you glory in the competition, you’ll be rewarded. If you put your trust in an athlete, you’ll be crushed when he’s revealed to be a jackass of epic proportions.
I realize that might be harsh. Many athletes are doing fine work away from the field of play. Free-agent catcher Rene Rivera and his wife are collecting toys for children in Puerto Rico, an island still feeling the effects of a devastating hurricane. Wonderful stuff, and there’s more where that came from.
But we’re talking about your emotional self-preservation here. It’s harder to be let down by an entire sport, though I suppose former fans of bicycle racing, a rolling medicine cabinet, might disagree. And USA Gymnastics should be ashamed of itself for not protecting female athletes from a predatory doctor who sexually abused them.
Hmmmm. I can see I have my work cut out in the sports-are-a-happy-place department.
But there is joy. It’s in watching a perfectly conceived play work. It’s in that moment when the football is in the air and the receiver is open down the field and the only question is whether the quarterback put the right touch on the pass. It’s in that shared suspense. Then the ball arrives, and the receiver, in stride, catches it.
It’s in watching a team come back from a three-games-to-one World Series deficit to win the whole damn thing.
It’s like that. It’s joyous.
But what about national-anthem protests, criminally misbehaving players, Deflategate and an owner trying to block his commissioner’s new contract?
What about one Bulls teammate punching another and breaking two facial bones? A Bears franchise that hasn’t been able to get things right for decades? The Cubs putting a price tag on anything that moves? Ticket prices that make a family of four dip into college-fund accounts for a chance to see a game? What about broader issues tied to sports?
I don’t recall saying that this was going to be easy.
For mental-health purposes, let’s narrow our focus even more. Pay attention just to the games themselves. Ignore a sport’s peripheral stuff. Never mind contract holdouts, labor strife and bickering teammates.
Behold the majesty of a well-struck baseball, the way it leaves the bat as though it’s late for a job interview. Hear the sound of ball on wood and the initial ‘‘Oooooooh’’ of the crowd before the ballpark goes berserk. See the hitter pausing for a moment to admire his work. Lovely. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why we watch.
But what if the hitter is using performance-enhancing drugs? Did you notice that more home runs were hit in 2017 than ever before? We’re supposed to believe the game is clean?
Um. Er. Awkward pause.
Well, you always can use the avoidance therapy lots of fans are using these days. You can say that hitters, 180 years after the invention of the game, finally have learned how to swing the bat in a way that leads to a massive number of homers. You can say Major League Baseball’s stringent drug testing drastically has reduced cheating.
That will make you feel better. But a question that is very much not in the Thanksgiving spirit: When you look at NFL players, do you assume many of them are taking PEDs? Of course you do, even though that league also has rigorous drug testing. Look at the size and musculature of these people. So why aren’t there loads of pro football players being suspended? Because the cheaters are almost always ahead of the testers.
Same with track and field. We just assume many of the athletes are cheating, and we move on.
But with baseball, we tell ourselves that the home-run increase isn’t tied to drugs; it’s tied to juiced baseballs, better nutrition, better coaching and a different swing plane. Sure, it is. But the next time you’re suspicious of a world record in the 200-meter dash, make sure you chalk it up to better shoe technology or faster leg turnover. Fair’s fair.
You can see how easy it is to fall into despair. But I think I’ve found the solution. When you don’t think you can’t trust sports anymore, remember one thing:
There’s always the Little League World Series.
Follow me on Twitter @MorrisseyCST.