Illustration by Erin Taj

Batting Practice For Your Heart

How sports teach us the highs and lows of adulthood

When the one true buzzer-beating, game-winning shot of my life nestled through, I had no idea what to do. I let it go like any other and the crappy horn honked and the arms of the referee — a mustachioed math teacher we all called Mr. Mosk, a salty and perpetually frustrated man who modeled himself on college basketball rage deity Bobby Knight right down to their matching nylon pullovers — went up, and I had nothing. We’d defeated Craig Myatt’s team, and that was good; Myatt was the sort of blamelessly golden early-blooming kid everyone wanted to defeat, if only because no one in my small town got into their teens without knowing what it was like to lose to Craig Myatt.

I remember my unfinished tweenage stringbean of a body vibrating, and in that moment of triumph — a three from straight away, about as far as I could shoot it — I’m ashamed to admit that I defaulted to Michael Jordan. I never even liked him, but every kid my age knew how to do this. So I leapt in the air like Jordan did after he hit his game-winner over Craig Ehlo in the first round of the 1989 NBA Playoffs; I assure you that I did not pull it off. Jordan pogo’d high while throwing a triumphant roundhouse after hitting an impossible shot; I maxed out my 110 pounds of body weight to throw in an open three and then delivered a celebration that amounted to swinging and missing at a fat gnat buzzing a few inches above my head.

All of which is to say that I was 13. For years, I had thought about nothing but what that moment might feel like, but when I tried it on I found that it was an adult-size garment, and that I was fucking swimming in it. I took a kid’s leap into a demigod’s celebration, and I was back on the ground before my little punch even landed.

Sports mean the most, for many of us at least, during the part of our lives that isn’t yet troubled by thoughts of things like sex or work or death. This isn’t to say that sports are for kids, although it’s easier to love them at that age than it is at any other. It’s just that without sex or work or death on your mind, you can care more deeply about the Mets.

As we go about becoming whoever we will become and accumulating the various anxieties that go with that, our hearts naturally get a bit more crowded. This is why there’s something so uncanny and almost poignant about the types of public sports people — the argument droids on TV, the interchangeable defectives in every city’s sports-talk radio scene — that seem not to have changed their approach to sports at all. Watch Skip Bayless go pop-eyed on Fox Sports over some midseason nothing in the NFL or listen to the co-host of Carper and the Gunt wail on the radio about the local offensive line and the realization is inescapable: These men still wear velcro sneakers; these men have made it well into the middle part of their lives without ever learning how to fry an egg; these men get into arguments with strangers at GNC.

Most of the rest of us stop being that way once we start being interested in any of the other things that a person can do in the world, or start being able to do them — travel, cook, get to third base, whatever. You know that, of course, and because you are an adult you probably don’t make a big deal out of it. You are probably very busy doing the things adults do.

When adults talk about how sports help kids become adults, they tend to be referring to the ways that they prepare us for the labor of adulthood; there’s the importance of hard work and team play, and poured thick over that is a deference to authority and rules. All of which is both true enough and useful enough, I guess, if also hilariously incomplete. What sports give us, as kids, is the same thing that they do as adults — lessons in grace and dreams of flight, the contact high of shared emotional overage and the actual kick of surprise, a story that sprawls out in wild directions and enfolds every kind of weirdo genius.

More than that, sports are practice not only for the rote work of adulthood, but for the more difficult highs and lows of it. Losing is not the same thing as the bottomlessness of actual loss, but it is an angle into a world of larger and more difficult emotions. It is an introduction to lifting that weight, and to carrying it, which is to say an introduction to what it is like to live in the world as an adult.

At the time when we are able to love sports most forcefully, in that moment just before we begin the process of becoming actual people, most of us are, to use the clinical term, a fucking mess. As a raw tangle of oscillating needs and misfit emotion, wandering the tweenage wasteland of my suburban youth, I loved what I loved — the nightmarish local NBA team; a baseball team declining from dominance into something more like pissy performance art; my solitary shootarounds — with an unreasoning heat. I fed everything I didn’t understand, everything I couldn’t change, into the furnace of my fandom. I was 13, and so by definition stuck in neutral, but the engine roared and I marveled at the strange sound of it.

The work of life is managerial as much as it is creative. We never stop wanting, we never totally start understanding, but we learn when to tap the brakes and in time figure out how to deal with both ourselves and the trouble we find everyday; everything is practice for everything else. There is nothing in watching your team lose that’s actually like heartbreak, really, just as hitting that game-winner did nothing to prepare me for falling in love.

Which is good, honestly, because I wasn’t remotely ready for those things yet. But the games gave me space to learn, and to figure out dejection and elation from inside what mattered most to me. I hit a shot I’d dreamed about and I left my body. And then I got home in time for dinner.