Monday, October 2, 2017

Are Sports Meaningless? Look to Matt Cain

At the conclusion of every baseball season, Major League teams make an effort to thank their patrons with Fan Appreciation Day. If you'd like to make an argument for San Francisco Giants fans "earning" such accolades, this would be the year. After an abysmal season—one that was met with high expectations only to be concluded with 98 losses—the Giants managed to leave their faithful with bright smiles and hearts full of gratitude. Despite being in last place in the NL West all season, the Orange and Black never stopped coming out to the Yard (take that Yogi Berra!). For those who did, they were able to honor the 1987 squad, allow Ryan Vogelsong to retire as a Giant and as witnessed on Saturday, September 30 bid farewell to three-time All-Star and World Series champion, Matt Cain. In the Player's Tribune "Forever a Giant," Cain wrote, 
I think it’s the routine that gets you. All those years of routine, all those years of waking up on my start day and going through the same set of pregame habits. There’s a real comfort in routine — I think that’s probably why we do it. But when it comes time for that last time … man, there’s nothing “routine” about it.
If I had served as his ghost-writer, I would add but one word: meaningless. That's right. When it comes time for the last, there's nothing "routine" or "meaningless" about it.
As Cain was working through that routine, I undertook my own: sitting in my sacred space—which is, believe it or not—my desk. From this perch nestled inside a bay window, I overlook Fillmore Street in San Francisco. I open up my laptop to read the news, e-mails, and articles never without a fresh, hot cup of joe in hand. Though I seldom get through all I would like to read and respond to, the opinion piece in the Washington Post "The Whole Point of Sports is their Meaningless" gave me an added jolt, sans caffeine. 

Abernathy's reflection does not propose anything my students and I haven't discussed before. On the first day of Sports and Spirituality, I share what retired professional tennis player and former world number one Andre Agassi wrote in his autobiography, "Open." He said, "Part of my discomfort with tennis has always been a nagging sense that it's meaningless." Recent events in the NFL have invited this country to revisit the same concern, the same question with yet another dimension, another angle, a worthy nuance, and thoughtful voices. 

Abernathy quotes NBA Hall of Fame basketball legend Bill Russell who said, at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, "I don't consider anything I have done as contributing to society. I consider playing professional basketball as marking time, the most shallow thing in the world." His words are biting. They reek of truth and yet, I wonder—I have to ask: Does he still believe that to be true?

And it's not just the athletes who hold this conscience qualm. The late sportswriter Frank DeFord admits, that he only got advice from Andre Laguerre, the managing editor at Sports Illustrated but one time. DeFord said "the time he gave me advice was when I wondered whether writing about sports was really substantial. Laguerre simply said Frankie, it doesn't matter what you write about. All that matters is how well you write. I suppose that has helped sustain me all these years." What if we were all to do what we do well (Age Quod Agis). Would we question its meaning? To what degree does the quest for excellence give a sport, a game, or a contest meaning?

I appreciate the voices that ask us to question our values and priorities. I understand their claims. On one level I agree. In the wake of several natural disasters, gun violence and threats of nuclear war, who wins the AL Wild Card isn't keeping the President up at night...until maybe it is. But to deem sports as shallow, hollow and a waste of time is more than a reductional mistake. Why? Because sports can and always will involve matters of the heart...the stuff that makes us human...passionate and joyful...and yes—at times irrational. But when sports involves beauty, excellence, joy and triumph—the spirit can soar. It's a powerful force. This is what fans were privy to with Matt Cain's retirement.
Giants manager Bruce Bochy emerged from the dugout after Cain threw his final out to be the first to greet and honor this Giant workhorse. However, all of AT&T Park beat him to it as all 42,000 on hand rose to their feet, to a thunderous applause. The cheering, clapping, whistling, did not dwindle. Cain raised his arms to recognize the celebrate a remarkable take in one last time a perch that is the stuff of childhood dreams. The energy was electric...pulsating. Loyal fans and even the announcers got a little choked up. 

Cain exited the mound to then meet the Skipper and greet every single one of his teammates with his thanks. Those who know baseball and those who love it, know that much like a great concert, an encore must follow. Cain came back on the field. San Francisco in all of its mad beauty looked at one man. We looked back at what he did: the perfect game, the start in the 2012 All-Star game, Game 3 against the Phillies in the 2010 NLCS (we were underdogs—I STILL can't believe we won that game in Philly) and considered all that we learned from him. Cain will retire with a win-loss stat this is in no way reflective of how dominant he was on the mound. In 2010-2012, Giants fans would complain of getting #Cained. Matty would throw for seven or eight innings and give up but one or two runs. Another loss for #18 but an ERA that remained consistently low. His work ethic was admirable and impressive; he never complained. Ever. 
Injuries hastened his retirement and when he made the announcement the week before last, Giants fans—though sad to see him go—could not help but be happy for all that he has given. Named as the starter for Saturday's game, everyone knew this day would be the perfect occasion to remember and to celebrate. He wrote
That was the moment, I think, when I finally answered the question — of why it meant so much to me to play my entire career as a Giant. It wasn’t the first World Series, or the second, or the third, or the LCS against the Cardinals, or the LDS against the Reds, or one of the hundreds of Dodgers games, or the perfect game … or any other moment in between. It was the reaction that I got from those fans, on that afternoon, on my last day as a starter.  
It was a reaction that said, Hey — we know what you’re going through. And guess what: We’re going through the exact same thing. It was a reaction that said, You’re going to miss this? Well, guess what: We’re going to miss this — we’re going to miss you — just the same.  
It was a reaction that said, When you’re in this ballpark, you’re not just “Matt Cain, Pitcher.” You’re “Matt Cain, Pitcher, San Francisco Giants” — and you’re not on your own. We’re right here, with you, and we’re going to do this together.  
And that’s what happened. I walked out of the bullpen, and I took the mound — and I didn’t feel alone the entire time.
One can say that sports are meaningless, but we know that's simply not true.

We can say that sports are meant to be a distraction, but that's not true either. Our concerns, our challenges, our tears our losses emerge on the field...inside the the locker room....and they are celebrated. And no one can do any of those things alone.

People are beloved and honored—many during their career others long after, some....Forever Giant. 

Photo Credits
Forever Giant
Thank you

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