Thursday, October 12, 2006

Sports Teams and Belonging to a Place

Every once and while, I feel a little guilty cheering for the St. Louis Cardinals. Unlike a lot of people from St. Louis, I didn't grow up cheering for them. My first favorite team was the Houston Astros--Joe Niekro, J. R. Richard, Joe Sambito, Terry Puhl, Caesar Cedeno, Jose Cruz. I came to baseball consciousness when I was 7, figured out then how to read box scores and the standings, and began to suffer and die with my team.

Even after we moved to northern New Jeresy in 1980, I continued to follow the 'Stros. I got Nolan Ryan's autograph, suffered when they lost to the dreaded Phillies of Mike Schmidt and Pete Rose, and the Dodgers in the playoff of 1981 (which was a strike year). The Yankees and Mets were pretty bad when we lived there (the Yankees went to the series in 1981 and immediately went into the toliet; the Mets were horrid until we moved). But it was hard to follow the Astros when all my friends were Yankees fans.

When we moved to northern Virginia in 1984, I began searching for a new team. The Astros were two moves ago for me, but the Orioles were not really local (I kept hoping for DC Baseball and was gratified when the Nationals finally became a reality a couple of years ago). I ended up settling on the Boston Red Sox, because I was a big Clemens fan--I was 15 when he had his first big year in 1986 and I imagined that I was a power pitcher like him. I even subscribed to the Red Sox fan newspaper for a year.

I stuck with the Red Sox until I graduated from high school in 1989 and then I went to college in South Carolina. In 1991, the Braves made their run and I began to pay attention to them; their AA team was in Greenville and so I paid attention to them as well. But the year I converted to the Braves was in 1993; I lived by myself in an apartment all summer when I had few friends or local connections--the Braves on radio (I didn't have a TV) kept me alive that summer as I listened to Skip Carey and Don Sutton each night in my dark, hot (air conditioner broke that summer; 40 straight days over 90 degree; paint pealed) apartment.

We got married and moved to Philadelphia via New Castle, Indiana in 1994 (notice, we are arriving at places right after the local 9 were in the playoffs). When we got there, I became a Curt Schilling fan, but I followed the Braves through their World Series title in 1995. By 1996, though I was transitioning to the Phillies; listening to Harry Kalas on the radio every night and watching Scott Rolen win his Rookie of the Year award won my heart. I even bought a Phillies jersey.

We moved again in 1998--this time to Louisville, Kentucky. My wife was a Reds fan growing up, the one team I had vowed not to like: they were the dreaded Big Red Machine, who had beaten on my 'Stros back in the day. But the local radio carried Marty Brenneman and the Louisville minor league team was affliated with the Reds in 1999. What won me to follow the REds was when the Reds traded for Ken Griffey, Jr. I became a rabid Reds fan right after their one-game playoff with the Mets in 1999, bought a jeresy, drove the 80 miles to Cincinnati to go to five or six games a year. Plus, it gave me something to talk about with my father-in-law, who grew up going to Crosley Field.

And I followed the Reds until we moved to St. Louis in 2004. I had suffered through countless injuries to my favorite player and we got to town right in the middle of the Cards' amazing 105-win run. One of my other favorite players, Scott Rolen, had gotten to town a few years before me; and I soon learned to admire the Great Pujols. In many respects, it is easy to be a Cardinals fan because they have such an amazing history and this is such a great baseball town. People are passionate about the Redbirds. And so, I converted--bought a jersey, listen to Mike Shannon every night, went to 7 games this year.

I've thought a lot about this phenomenon--and I think part of what is going on is my attempt to belong to a place. Since I moved so much (moving to STL was my 12th "major" move--I've changed addresses more than that), I've never really "belonged" anywhere: went to different schools, saw different parts of the country, etc. And so, to fit in and to belong I began to follow the local sports teams with all the passion of a newcomer trying to learn about it.

In that regard, sports teams can be helpful in creating bonds with total strangers and providing a unity that transcends particularity. Standing in Busch Stadium at the end of NLDS Game 4, after we finished the Padres, I was overjoyed for a team that I had followed for three seasons; my past affliations were unimportant compared to this moment in this place cheering like mad for this team.

I wonder if there isn't something here that speaks to how worship can help us belong to a place as well. Or perhaps our churches should bring out passions more like sports teams. If so, I would rewrite this story and tell you about the churches to which I've belong along the way and how they've shaped my life and given me a place to stand in this world, a place to belong, and an identity to cherish.

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