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Designated heartbreak

Designated heartbreak

The theological benefits of sticking by a loser

Bart Giamatti, the late commissioner of baseball, wrote of the sport he loved, "It breaks your heart, it's meant to break your heart." He was referring to the way fans' hope springs early in the season and then withers by August for most baseball teams, and for all but one by the end of October. And yet, many of us keep coming back for the heartbreak, again and again. Why? A psychiatrist might say that many baseball fans, especially those who identify with perpetual falterers like the Red Sox (my home-town team), have poor self-images. Maybe some fans are like famed manager Casey Stengel, who after an operation noted that "Everybody keeps saying how good I'm looking. Well, maybe I do. But they should see me inside. I look terrible inside." And yet, in four decades of sports-watching, I've seen positive answers to the question of "why" we stick by our losing teams in baseball and in other sports as well:

  • Because, even in this age of moving frequently from city to city and job to job, we realize that loyalty is important. We could lessen our pain by identifying with winners, as some children today do: "I want to be like Mike" or "I am Tiger Woods." But fans like myself who bonded with a team when young stand by it, despite (or because of) memories of misery.
  • Because we know that, at their best, sports represent a striving for excellence that can be carried out in a public manner. Nobel Prize winners show their dedication through hours in the laboratory or in academic study, but film of their efforts would not televise well. Sports illuminate, in concentrated, intense ways, the qualities of perseverance and bravery that can lead to success, but do not guarantee it.
  • Because much of life is made up of losing, not winning, and it's good not to fool ourselves. The agony for players and fans that come so far only to fall short is real, but defeats in baseball (and other sports) teach us to overcome emotional pain in relatively harmless settings; we learn that time does heal wounds, and so are prepared for greater sadnesses that may come. As Mr. Stengel once said, "You gotta lose 'em sometime. When you do, lose 'em right." That sports fans put up with so much fits the theories of 18th-century philosopher David Hume, who claimed there's a higher proportion of unhappiness than of happiness in life. Many athletes as well as fans observe that losses have more of an emotional impact than wins. And for that reason we always have among us those who argue that children, and perhaps adults as well, should drop competitive sports and move toward "cooperative" activities in which everyone, theoretically, will achieve happiness. These well-intentioned folks often do not realize that there's no way to get rid of the heartbreak without cutting out the heart of sports as well. If we de-emphasize competition so that "everyone is a winner," blue ribbons become meaningless and effort decreases. If we say ties are fine so that players and fans will not go away sad and mad, we ignore the lore of a generation of athletes that "a tie is like kissing your sister." If we say that high-school sports should be less important in communities because intense losses leave some teens in despair, we should realize that loss of allegiance to teams can merely result in greater allegiance to gangs. Baseball and other sports have many sociological benefits, but those, to my mind, are secondary to the spiritual benefit of having our hearts broken. "It breaks your heart, it's meant to break your heart"-a description of baseball, yes, but an equally good description of Christianity. Liberal theologies try to eliminate heartbreak; Christians know we need it, because only through heartbreak do we realize that this world is not our home. Death-not just the dying of hope when a team's season ends sadly, but physical death-comes to all of us. How cruel to lose in the ninth inning, how cruel that we all face a ninth inning in which our death is inevitable. If this world is our home, we are the most wretched of creatures, for our physical hearts will break and all we can do is whimper. But when Christ breaks our hearts spiritually, we have, alongside bittersweet seasons, a deeper hope to come back to, again and again.