The other day I got into a cab, told the driver where I wanted to go and then settled back to read the paper. The driver, though, wanted to talk. "Who do you think is gonna win?" he asked. "Oh, the British," I said, assuming he was talking about the fighting in the Falklands. He wasn't. He was talking sports. It is a language I do not speak.
It used to be that I would fake it, though. I sit through the sports segment of the television news waiting to get back to the real news, so I know a bit; and of course, the fact of the matter is that I used to know a lot more. I used to thrive on sports, played some of them (basketball, softball and sandlot football) and followed most of the teams. I knew the players and I knew their records and I had, for a time, their pictures on the walls of my room.
All that is in the past, though. Somehow, sports just slipped out of my life. It didn't matter to me anymore, although what continued to matter, ironically, was that sports didn't matter. I considered myself weird, somehow un-American, very different from other men and (increasingly) women, as well. I remembered an English teacher in college, a young man with a round and lyrical southern accent, who let slip one day that he knew nothing about baseball. No one could figure out how that could have happened to him--what was wrong with him?
So I stayed in the closet. I pretended I cared about sports and from time to time I would try to develop an interest. I would studiously start reading the sports pages once again, but I discovered that you had to take all the prerequisites to understand what was happening. All the stories assumed prior knowledge. It was the same with television sports news. The reports were all shouted in a shorthand jargon, a procession of last names and nicknames, sometimes preceded by the exclamation "Hey!" and sometimes not.
People I met just assumed I cared about sports. They would break the ice by referring to something going on in sports. Usually, I had no idea what in the world they were talking about: "Did you see how the Sonics did last night?" Sonics? Who they? What sport is that? What did they do last night?
So universally held is this belief that an interest in sports is, well, universal, that in the old war movies asking a question about baseball was how you could tell who was really an American and who was, say, a clever Japanese soldier. "Who won the '42 World Series?" the Americans would ask, and not once would the reply come back from no man's land, "I'm sorry, I'm not a sports fan. Ask me who's the senior senator from Tennessee."
I suppose this is what homosexuals have to put up with. They live in a world where people take heterosexuality for granted. Men will make references about women to other men, just assuming that everyone is a lecherous heterosexual like themselves. It is a bonding mechanism, a way of showing that we have something in common. I have done this on occasion myself, only to find out later that the person I was talking to was a homosexual.
The guilt of the non-sports fan is unrelenting. I brood about what I am missing and why--WHY!--I am missing it. I recognize the truth in the observation of Roger Angell that baseball in particular is something that can link the old and the young--something about which a grandfather can talk to a grandson. The same thing holds, obviously, for passengers and cabdrivers. It apparently works for most people, but it does not work for everyone.
As for me, I'm tired of feeling guilty, of feeling different, of feeling--okay, I'll say it--inadequate as a man. I've been in the service. I've been in fights. I've lied to women, driven too fast, been blind drunk, climbed mountains, skied, sailed, seen babies born and men killed and, yes, hit a home run.
But I am not a sports fan and I have not been really since the late Walter F. O'Malley ripped the Dodgers out of Brooklyn and out of my heart as well. I want some respect. I want recognition that some of us (it can't be just me) are not sports fans. I want some cabdriver to begin a conversation with the question, "Say, are you by any remote chance a sports fan?" to which I would say no, and then insist we talk about the Falklands. Last I looked, Britain was ahead.
They came to play.