Imagination, Anticipation, and our National Pastime(s)

My mother burst through my bedroom door after she heard a loud BANG! and the […]

Howie Espenshied / 5.9.14

mccovey-photoMy mother burst through my bedroom door after she heard a loud BANG! and the splintering of wood. “What did you do?!?” She always assumed it was me (with good reason). It was 1972. I was standing in the middle of my bedroom with my “Bobby Bonds” autographed wooden bat in hand – assuming Willie McCovey’s (semi-patented) two handed windmill stance. It was the bottom of the 9th, one on, two out, (future Hall-of-Famer) McCovey in the left-handed batter’s box, Giants down 3-2 to the much-hated Dodgers. That was McCovey’s wheelhouse, he ALWAYS came through in that moment. Sure enough, a 1-2 curve ball caught too much of the plate – “you can tell it goodbye!!!” – Lon Simmons’ signature home run call blurted gloriously over my little (cranked to maximum volume) AM radio as “Willie Mac’s” blast sailed deep into the Candlestick Park right field bleachers. Of course, when a 9 year-old boy has stood there listening to every pitch while simulating McCovey’s entire at bat, he’s got to follow through with the game winning swing. In the excitement, the bat slipped through my hands and blasted a 28 inch bat-sized hole through my wooden closet door. The punitive response to the incident was swift. My bat received a life-time ban to the garage, unless I was taking it to the ball field. 67 weeks later, my weekly allowance had paid off the damage to the closet door.

9 year-olds adjust.  A 26 inch piece of yell0w-orange Hot Wheel track served as a makeshift bat for the rest of my childhood. By the time I was 11, I could simulate the batting stance of every Major League hitter. When I was a kid in San Francisco, we were lucky to get 5 Giant baseball games on TV a year. I rarely missed a game though. From age 8 to 16, I listened to well over 90 percent of the games on the radio. My imagination filled in the gaps for what I couldn’t see. By the mid 1980s, most MLB teams had a TV network that broadcasted every game. Unless you were in the car, you didn’t need a radio to catch the game. I still catch my share of MLB games on TV, but something was lost when I didn’t have to create the picture anymore.

Over the past 20 years, we’ve witnessed a changing of the guard of sorts. Baseball is no longer our national pastime. Football is. Ben Hochman at the Denver Post said it well a few weeks back:

FantasyFootball3Baseball was our national pastime, and it dutifully served this role for generations. I’m an admitted baseball romantic, and to me, this game is our identity — it’s a beautiful game with time-honored heroes, played upon a green stage in our country’s version of cathedrals. Yeah, yeah, there were rampant cheaters injecting themselves with steroids and god-knows-what-else, but the smell of freshly cut grass, oh my!

But even I have to face reality — football is clearly our national pastime. Like, clearly. Give it the title, throw on the title belt, put it on its business cards: “Football, National Pastime of the United States of America.”

Of the 35 most-watched, prime-time programs this past year, 34 of them were NFL games. That’s absurd. And how about this — the REGULAR-SEASON, Chiefs-Broncos game had more viewers than GAME SEVEN of the NBA Finals. Let this sink in. This NBA game featured LeBron James, perhaps the most marketed athlete on the planet, playing in a game that would determine a sport’s champion, and fewer viewers watched that than a regular-season NFL game. Incidentally, baseball’s fall classic, featuring big-market Boston, had just an 11.3 rating, compared to the 16.6 of the Broncos game and 15.5 of the LeBron game.

Another sport has captured our imagination – filled our minds with wonder and speculation.  The fact that football is NOT daily has forced us to go back to visualizing and anticipating.  I’ve played fantasy football and fantasy baseball for decades. Both are fun, but fantasy football consumes. How are my guys going to do on Sunday? What changes do I need to make to my team to make it better this week? Those thoughts consume me moment by moment during football season.

Pastimes are a good thing. They help assure that we don’t completely grow up. In The Chronicles of Narnia C.S. Lewis said of his character Susan as she got older (and her “practical nature” kicked into high gear) that she had “lost sight of why their imagined game was so important”.  We’re designed to be filled with wonder and hope.

The experience isn’t unique to me.