It’s time for church . . . er, I mean baseball

April 3, 2011 | By | 8 Replies More

I live in St. Louis, where major league baseball is taken seriously.  After I was invited to attend the opening day game as part of a business function this year, and I attended as an amateur anthropologist, not as a baseball fan.

A bit of background:  About 15 years ago I was an avid sports fan.  I followed all of the St. Louis professional teams.  I watched some games on television, attended occasional games and read the sports page almost every day.   For reasons I don’t really understand, I decided to stop being a sport fan.  I was frustrated that I didn’t have enough time to get to attend my alleged priorities, which included trying to become a writer and trying to achieve a deeper understanding of cognitive science.  What could I do to make room for those things in my schedule?

Well . . . I was spending about 10 hours per week being a sports fan.  If I went cold turkey, I’d have about 500 hours more per week to do other things.  That’s the equivalent of 12 weeks of vacation.   So I did go cold turkey (interrupted only to follow the St. Louis Rams for a few years while they were Superbowl winners and contenders).   For the most part, I’ve successfully cultivated a high level of apathy for professional sports.  I don’t feel any compulsion to spend any money on tickets or to ever to read the sports page. I really don’t care whether the team won last night.  My experiment was a success.  A bonus is that I now have a privileged perch from which to appreciate the extraordinary lengths to which sports fans spend their money and invest their time in order to root for their teams.  

In St. Louis, rooting for the Cardinals is far more than entertainment.  It’s much like a religion. Check out the schedule above (you can click on any of the images for an enlarged view).  It is the official list of 162 holy days of 2011.   I know many people who plan their schedules around the baseball calendar.

Being knowledgeable about the local sports teams is also the preferred ice-breaker at many business gatherings: “So, do you think LaRussa left the starting pitcher in for too many innings last night?” Sorry, but I don’t know.  Sometimes I admit, “I gave up sports.”  Inevitably jaws drop.  I don’t dare follow up by blunting saying, “I wanted to live more in the real world.

Therefore, a few days ago I attended the St. Louis Cardinal’s opening day game as a member of an out-group.  I was much worse than a luke-warm fan.  You see, if you offered most sports fans 12 extra weeks of vacation, they’d spend it watching more sports and thinking more about sports.  It wouldn’t occur to them that they should go cold turkey and pursue anything else.  What else is there of equal of greater importance?

In this religion of St. Louis Baseball, Albert Pujols is the Savior.  Incredible amounts of ink have been spilled over whether this man will sign a new contract with St. Louis.  People relate to Albert; apparently, they think that they are Albert. If you attend a St. Louis Cardinal Baseball game, you will see many hundreds of people wearing Pujols jerseys, and most of them are adults.  What are they thinking? Are they thinking “I’m like Pujols because I am wearing his jersey”?  Are they thinking “I want people to think I’m a bit like Albert Pujols when I wear his Jersey”?  Are they thinking that they somehow get credit for Pujols’ accomplishments because they are wearing his jersey?   Even after leaving the stadium, you will see Pujols jerseys all over town (I spotted the one to the right at a grocery store after the game). Playing into the role of “Savior,” Albert has an interest in a local Christian radio station.

[And do check out the image to the left, where I caught Pujols having a chat with Pujols.]  The physical church is Busch Stadium, of course.  I see people staring at it even in the dead of winter. People have been known to get married at Busch Stadium (there was a wedding in the snow last week).  You would have been amazed to hear how the team “needed” a new stadium a few years ago.  When something is considered “sacred” there is no rational bargaining.  The owners said we need it, so we go the new stadium.

There are sacred food items in the religion of baseball.  I do believe that nachos serve as the bread of the religion of baseball, and the “wine” is obviously beer.  At opening day, I was greeting with twin 30-foot bottles of beer.

But it can’t be a religion because the fans are really attending those games because they are serious about baseball, right?   Well I’m not so certain of that.  If you had to guess what people do the most of at ball games, it would either be eat and drink, or socialize.   The food stands are ubiquitous, and I would estimate that far more than half of the people attending aren’t concentrating on the game much at all.   How else can you explain that thousands of people are leaving a close game in the 7th or 8th inning?  They paid $50/seat and they aren’t going to watch every pitch?

It seems as though most people go to the ball game to bask in the crowd, and to display their loyalty.   When you are surrounded by 50,000 people, regardless of what is going on, it does seem important.  And that is very much how it is in most churches.

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Category: American Culture, Community, Evolution, photography, Psychology Cognition, Saint Louis, Whimsy

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (8)

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  1. Erich: Like you I am a lapsing St. Louis sports fan, particularly re. the Cardinals. We had a more than serviceable stadium full of special memories. DeWitt and Co. opted to further pad their coffers and built an unnecessary edifice that is less democratic and less functional than Busch II. The Ballpark Village thing continues to be a sham.

    The late historian David Halberstam wrote a book called 1964 contrasting the integrated Cardinal team of that year with the essentially all-white Yankees who they met and defeated in the World Series. A year ago I did a three-part series on the decline of integrated baseball in St. Louis. Part I can be accessed at http://www.occasionalplanet.org/2010/04/06/cardin…. Combine that with the nonsense of TLR hauling Albert to hear Glen Beck, saying that Beck's rally was not political, it's a team I have trouble liking. As best I can, I'm boycotting, but very open to rooting for teams like the Nationals and Pirates.

  2. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Erich-

    For some reason, the "related posts" algorithm didn't come up with this earlier post that you had done on the subject, titled "Sports Fans as Religious Believers." Quite relevant to this post.

    I agree with Noam Chomsky's take on modern sports, excerpted from Manufacturing Consent.

    …there are other media too whose basic social role is quite different: it's diversion. There's the real mass media-the kinds that are aimed at, you know, Joe Six Pack — that kind. The purpose of those media is just to dull people's brains.

    This is an oversimplification, but for the eighty percent or whatever they are, the main thing is to divert them. To get them to watch National Football League. And to worry about "Mother With Child With Six Heads," or whatever you pick up on the supermarket stands and so on. Or look at astrology. Or get involved in fundamentalist stuff or something or other. Just get them away. Get them away from things that matter. And for that it's important to reduce their capacity to think.

    Take, say, sports — that's another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it — you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that's of no importance. [audience laughs] That keeps them from worrying about — [applause] keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it's striking to see the intelligence that's used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in — they have the most exotic information [more laughter] and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.

    You know, I remember in high school, already I was pretty old. I suddenly asked myself at one point, why do I care if my high school team wins the football game? [laughter] I mean, I don't know anybody on the team, you know? [audience roars] I mean, they have nothing to do with me, I mean, why I am cheering for my team? It doesn't mean any — it doesn't make sense. But the point is, it does make sense: it's a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements — in fact, it's training in irrational jingoism. That's also a feature of competitive sports. I think if you look closely at these things, I think, typically, they do have functions, and that's why energy is devoted to supporting them and creating a basis for them and advertisers are willing to pay for them and so on.

  3. Dave Jenkins says:

    I've moved around quite a bit in my life: Salt Lake, Washington, Boston, London, Tokyo, Seoul, and now St Louis. As a result of that, I've never really been a big fan of one team or another, because I haven't been in a place to think of anyone as "my team". I lack that personal projection and group attachment.

    I understand your detachment, Erich, and I also have approached games at Busch Stadium with a bit of an anthropologist's eye (for me, it was trying to explain American baseball culture to my Japanese wife). For me, I think many of these people are aware of the quasi-religious pursuit, and may not be as deep in it as you think– for many people, it's a chance to socialize and see some entertainment.

    In a modern advanced society like the United States, people have quite a bit of free-time on their hands. The economy rewards a full day's work, but it punishes an excessive day's work: moonlighting is disallowed, wages are set, working-class unions set hours, etc. So, many of us find ourselves with some free time and a need to be entertained. Erich is going for some intellectual stimulation, and that's his entertainment. The people in my office are religious about "American Idol", which I find ironically tragic every week.

  4. Dave,

    If it were just entertainment, it likely wouldn't be a problem on any level. And possibly for most fans, that's all it is, but when you look at the money, the time, the national effort, the sheer obsession—ordinary television programming has always been pre-empted by sports. Ball games and the like have become settings for patriotic panegyrics. The drop-of-a-hat partisanship around certain sports, the kind that can get you seriously hurt in the wrong time and place, can be frightening.

    For pity's sake, we're spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars on an investigation of whether or not certain athletes use steroids—and for what? What difference does that actually make toward anything substantive? The fact that some of these people have become role models is not an inevitable fact of nature, but a choice—baseball players instead of mathematicians.

    Colleges and universities have distorted budgets because of sports—the actual numbers are alarming and to some extent this current nonsense of raising tuition is a direct reflection of the cost of college sports, which are supposed to be making money for these institutions but in fact cost them (hence they have to charge students more for the privilege of attending a place less known for its academics than for its NCAA standing).

    If it was "just entertainment" voter decisions not to fund new arenas would not be almost always set aside by the cities in question and tax dollars devoted to them against popular choice. Yes, it is big business, but a business that in fact produces nothing other than a false sense of group cohesion over an issue that has no real point to it.

    (Yes, I get a bit sensitive to this—in high school I published an editorial in the school paper criticizing a decision to defund band in order to buy the football team new jerseys and half the varsity team tried to throw me bodily out a third floor window. Sports for some folks is very much a religion and the rest of us pretend it's not a big deal.)

  5. Ben says:

    The post you did a few months ago about sports being religion affected me somewhat. I am just a little less attached to any single team, but I still like the escape value it provides and watching highlights of amazing feats of skill.

    About this post, you say that sports aren't "real" life. However to those who make a living in the sports industry it is real. The comparison to religion still applies; to those who make a living preaching or selling theology/church their endeavor is real. Whether it is meaningful in a global sense is arguable.

  6. Dave Jenkins says:

    Mark,

    Please count me in with those that strongly oppose tax dollars going to a new stadium or for the tuition-distorting effects of large athletic programs. You're right– it's a big business.

    My description of sports being "just entertainment" isn't in terms of economics, but rather in terms of the personal motivations and drivers for the fans: it's an outlet to spend their free time (a.k.a. "entertainment"). The same could be said of TV, films, media, video games, or reading books. I'm probably reaching here but, I'm trying to call any "discretionary use of time not required by some duty" as entertainment.

    Childcare or spending time is fun, but it's not entertainment: it's a duty as a parent. Going to college can be fun and entertaining, but it's not entertainment: an economic investment for the student that should lead to higher earnings or a better position in life (theoretically).

    In this context, religion can be an entertainment: no material gain for attendance or piety and discretionary use of time for oneself.

  7. Mike M. says:

    Copied from the ad banner at the top of the DI website:

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    Erich, your article has awakened the dreaded Pujols Incubus! And now the vampiric beast is attacking your own website! Exorcise or banish your comments, or we must all flee this site…Ahhhh, the horror!

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