Years ago, my husband and I went to a minor league baseball game in Nashville, where we had just moved. We settled in behind three rowdy guys who seemed to know everything about the home team, down to each player’s nickname. “Look at the Milkman!” they shouted, as a hitter moved toward the plate. “Hey, show them why they call you the Milkman!”
“Milkman!” we yelled, clapping. This went on through Cowboy and Ghost Boots, Pin Oak, Breaker Mike and Lightning Bug. We cheered for them all. What luck, to have fallen in with these insiders!
These days, with teenage athletes at home, I watch more high school games than minor league baseball. And I often think about the giddy pleasure of that Tennessee night, because so much of the audible response to live sports in my everyday life is bewilderingly aggressive. I’m not even talking about the extraordinary moments that make it onto YouTube. The rhythm and flow of the sounds in the stands is all too often hostile.
Once, at an ice hockey game, I found myself next to a lady whose grandchild played for the opposing team. She was so bundled up that she hadn’t understood that she was sitting in what some might consider the wrong spot. We’d been chatting, and I was about to let her know that she was in enemy territory when on the ice, a referee accidentally collided with a player. The man behind us roared, “Hey, ref! If you can’t skate with ‘em, go down!”
“What is he saying?” the grandmother asked me from inside her scarf.
“STRIPES GO DOWN! STRIPES GO DOWN!” the man bellowed, leaning on the rail in front of him. Spit flew into the air.
The grandmother tilted her head. “Um,” I said, into her woolen layers. “He’s saying the referee isn’t good at skating. So the idea is that he should skate with kids at a younger level, who might be slower, so ...”
“Back to Foot Locker!” someone else yelled. The original guy laughed, gave a thumbs-up and shouted the same thing.
The grandmother looked at me.
“The people who work at Foot Locker, you know, the sneaker store?” I began. “They wear ...”
“Oh, I guess what he said doesn’t matter,” she said, waving a dismissive mitten.
She had a point.
There are organizations working to improve things. The Positive Coaching Alliance promotes what it calls Second Goal parents. Their website explains that “a positive parent” is more focused on life lessons than a victory in a particular game. Ice rinks have signs like the one I saw recently, with an image of a referee’s shirt that says, “If you only want to yell from the bench or behind the glass, then you’re just a bully.” Another sign says to remember: “These are kids. This is a game.” More pointedly: “You and your child do not play for the Washington Capitals.”
And we can take heart from the most cheerful among us. The other thing that happened during our Nashville years was that the Predators, the new NHL team, came to town. We went to a game and sat in front of a man who would say: “It’s okay,” whenever the other team scored or went on the power play. We could be down by five goals, and while more hardened fans crossed their arms and rolled their eyes, he’d stand up and yell “IT’S OKAY,” as if the players could hear him. I kept expecting a player to hold up his glove, stop the game, and say, “Hey, thanks, buddy. You get it. We’re trying down here.”
In the years since, that man has become my role model for how to act when watching my kids’ sports. He was a Second Goal kind of guy before I knew what that was.
It is okay. Really.
That summer night at the ballpark — “That’s the boy, Tiger!” — we discovered that the nickname guys were making it all up. For all we knew, they traveled around the country, spreading their goofy brand of joy.
These days, when I’m with people screaming at referees or shaking their fists at kids on the other team, I wish we had those guys along to change the mood.
“There you go!” we could all holler together. “That’s how the Yard Dog does it!”
Eliza McGraw is a Washington writer. She is the author of “Here Comes Exterminator!,” a book about the 1918 Kentucky Derby winner.
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