Saying goodbye

This will be my last column for the Litchfield Independent Review.

It’s not for the reason you may be thinking: hordes of disenchanted readers and sports fans did not descend upon the Independent Review’s office with their red felt-tipped pens and usage dictionaries to demand my ouster.

No, after two years as the sports editor in Litchfield, I’ve decided to move on and try something new. Friday will be my last day as sports editor of this newspaper.

I have valued my time at the newspaper and in Litchfield: so many of the coaches, players, parents and community members were welcoming, generous, patient and kind, and for that I’m very grateful.

Since I put in my notice at the paper, I haven’t told too many people. I’ve always loathed goodbyes and explanations; if I had my druthers, every goodbye would be an Irish one.

So this column will function as that goodbye.

(Note: It will likely be self-indulgent and rambling, but them’s the breaks. Take succor in the fact that, if you find my writing ponderous or solipsistic or just dead wrong, this is the last rant you’ll have to endure.)

A lifetime of sports

My life has revolved around sports for as long as I can remember.

In my first memories I already loved baseball, football, basketball — any sport with a ball I could throw, hit, shoot or catch.

I was also a rapacious reader, eagerly devouring as many books as possible. These twin loves of sports and language intersected frequently: I read every issue of Sports Illustrated cover-to-cover, sped through Matt Christopher’s oeuvre and was gifted several baseball books from my school library after a kindly librarian noticed that the names filling up each book’s library card all belonged to me.

Instead of listening to music as a child, I fell asleep to cassette tapes of Gopher basketball games I’d recorded, comforted by the preordained outcome and comfortable to fall asleep knowing that I wouldn’t miss anything I couldn’t simply listen for again the next night.

I also wrote reams of sports “stories,” which consisted of incredibly rote play-by-play descriptions — First and 10 on the 25 for the Lions. Barry Sanders runs for four yards. Second and six from the 29 for the Lions — that I then foisted on my poor parents, looking for feedback on some very painful pages.

So in many ways, becoming a sports editor was the culmination of a lifetime of watching and reading and writing about sports. During my two years at the Independent Review, I often thought about how 10-year-old Louie would have reacted to the news that as a grown-up he got paid to watch sports and write about them.

I believe he would have been pretty pumped.

Why sports? Why anything?

As a child, one does not spend much time or mental effort interrogating one’s avocations; you like what you like, and that’s pretty much the end of that.

But as one grows up and grows if not wiser then at least more globally, socially and morally aware, hobbies can start to feel trivial. In the face of poverty, famine, genocide, environmental degradation, political upheaval and the myriad other massive forces that afflict and affect us daily, why sports? Why video games? Why “Game of Thrones”?

With sports, especially youth sports, advocates will ascribe moral and ethical value to these extracurricular activities: boys and girls will become young men and women through teamwork, unselfishness, commitment and sacrifice to a common cause — to a team, the logic goes.

I agree that youth sports are a vital and valuable tool in keeping kids active, healthy, focused and out of trouble.

For me personally, I know that the specter of detention or ineligibility was often the only thing keeping my grades at a respectable level, and sports did provide most of the finest memories of my childhood.

But for many coaches, parents and fans, imputing great moral and ethical value to sports feels like a post hoc obfuscation — because during the season, in the waning seconds of a close game, all that truly matters to most is winning.

This focus on winning can distract us from the true reason any of us ever bothered with sports.

Sports are fun.

A delightful distraction

Ultimately, sports don’t matter. They exist only because they are fun.

Sure, professional sports leagues are billion-dollar operations and millions of people make a living through sports across the world.

But in youth sports, the playing is the thing; the game is the game, and that’s all that matters.

Baseball Prospectus’ Sam Miller, one of my favorite baseball writers and podcasters, often waxes existential about baseball, and in a podcast last year spoke of the illusion that winning matters.

“The point of this entire enterprise is to entertain us with baseball games,” he said. “The point of it is not to decide who is the best team. The illusion that that is what we’re doing has long been a powerful draw to sports. But it is ultimately not the point. There is no scenario where the universe will care or remember who the best team was out of this collection of collections. It only matters inasmuch as we create this illusion that it matters.

“If you lose even the illusion, then it becomes problematic,” he continued. “But the point is not to have the illusion: the point is to entertain people and make them forget that we are all dying right in front of each other — that this is just this horrible, rotten slog to rigor mortis, that we are going to lose everybody we know, that we are going to lose everything we have.”

That may sound bleak, even nihilistic. But I find it freeing.

Sports are valuable only in the joy that they bring us. They are remarkably, profoundly simple. They are here to entertain us, to keep us happy and as full of joy as possible in the face of all the pain, death and loss that surround us.

Winning doesn’t matter; it’s simply a thing we made up.

So let’s just have fun.


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