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The Sporting Life

As I sit here in the subterranean apocalypse-proof shelter built hundreds of feet below the Spitballin’ World Headquarters, preparing for the twin nightmares of our impending watery armageddon and a Sunday without the Ravens, my thoughts turn, naturally, to the nature of sport (and whether I have hoarded enough Spam, D cell batteries, and toilet paper to last until the National Guard arrives . . . and which foot I will eat first in the event I’ve miscalculated) and what it means to me and, God willing, you, gentle reader.

Following the pros and big-time collegians is one thing. As a kid, it was family time. Watching the Colts, pretending to be Bert Jones or Roger Carr, I got to scream with my cousins as our dads slowly got drunk. It was a great way to be together and still do our own thing. Going to an O’s game was my chance to see what a genius my dad was. I’m still shocked they didn’t call my pop when Earl Weaver retired. He always knew just when Earl was going to call the bunt, which was never. Then, as I got older, it was a purple-and-orange glue. As my hair grew longer and my uncles decided (correctly) that I was becoming a left-wing hippie-punk and very few conversations could be had that didn’t involve yelling, sitting down for a three-hour baseball game kept us together. At least in baseball we agreed on the rules.

Now that I’ve got a little boy of my own, Sunday is an excuse to dress him in so much purple camo he could play Capture the Flag at Prince’s house. Then I get to show him the effects of Natty Boh on the human brain and teach him to be depressed for an hour when Pittsburgh’s mercenary millionaires beat our mercenary millionaires or to be elated for 20 minutes when we flip the script. As he gets older, I look forward to dazzling him with the NFL’s jargon of the week, with sentences like, “If Suggs doesn’t hold the edge and maintain contain, there’s no way Ngata will be able to get meaningful penetration to put a hat on the QB, and Brady’s elite, so if he gets it to one of his playmakers, the Ravens will be playing from behind,” until he’s convinced I’m waiting in the wings to take Harbaugh’s job.

And man, does a winning team make a city feel like a hell of a town! When the Orioles started winning, neighbors I’d never gotten so much as a return wave from wanted to chat about my stylish, black-and-orange disco-bird ball cap. When the O’s beat the Rangers, I even got a hug from the woman who always hits my car and doesn’t leave notes. And there’s nothing like a neighborhood bar for the playoffs: dozens of people cheering and booing as one, half-price wings, and a collective hatred for the one douchebag in the Roethlisberger jersey.

But when people play, it’s a whole ’nother ballgame. For years I announced for the Charm City Roller Girls. There were no millionaires in the rink at Skateland or on the court at Du Burns Arena. The players came in, some unable to skate, and put in hours a week for months at a time to earn the privilege of playing. And there was no salary, they had to pay to play and stay after games to clean up the arena. But they built an esprit de corps that’s a thing of beauty. They love their teams, they love their opponents (well, except for that hour on the oval), and they love themselves for doing it. And that’s not just roller derby. You see it in the kickball teams in Patterson Park and the rugby clubs out in Catonsville. It’s unmistakable in the expats of far-flung British colonies who gather around Johns Hopkins to play cricket, and it runs just as strongly in the league bowlers at the Stoneleigh Lanes.

Sports bring us together, but they also build us up. I’m not talking that rah-rah crap about building character you get from your thick-necked gym teacher who makes you run laps (or in my case, lap) until you vomit and cry. I’m talking about what I see in my wife when she comes home from yoga. It’s a glow that comes from strength. A sense of mastery over oneself that is tough to come by in this world, where we’re always doing what we have to and what we’re told to. There are so precious few challenges we’ve got space to take on for ourselves and that is what sport provides.

I’ve always been a fan, but I never really got it until recently. Playing soccer in the Rosedale rec league, every player had to be given at least a quarter on the field every game. I was the fat kid who spent exactly one quarter a week at right fullback, praying that the ball went to the left. Then, four years ago, I decided to take on a challenge. I started a Hapkido class. It’s a Korean martial art where you learn to kick a person’s face off and then bend his shoulder until it touches his spleen. I didn’t talk about it much, because I didn’t feel like I fit. Other than Steven Seagal, there are very few blubbery badasses in the world, but through Hapkido, through sport, I learned to press on. A few weeks ago, I got my brown belt. In another year or so, I’ll earn the black one. It’s a hell of a feeling. To be in that moment when you want to quit more than anything and push through. And it’s an even better one to look back on all those little quits you didn’t take.

And that’s what sports means to me. It’s the spirit of a community coming together to root on the birds or to build a rink and skate the hell out of it, but most of all it’s about the joy of the human will, the feeling in your gut when you win or when you lose and know you left it all in the game. And it’s a feeling I hope to use to battle the roving bands that will take to the streets on day four without power.

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