Good GameClaire Fennell
It is spring and I am sitting on a couch in an apartment in the East Village, tucked under the arm of a man I once dated. The apartment smells like cigarettes and cologne and boy, and he is talking to me about how much he loves sports. It is after I started watching sports to impress him, but before I began enjoying them myself. I am listening intently. He tells me about a cricket match between India and Pakistan. He tells me about a conversation he and his friends had with a Pakistani man at the deli afterwards. I don’t remember the details of the story.
A few weeks later, I watch a YouTube documentary in an attempt to learn the rules of cricket, and I remember the part of our conversation where I had tried to make it about something I did understand. I had asked him if he would ever write about sports.
He mostly writes scripts – plays and screenplays. They are brilliant and gripping. I read them in single sittings, cross-legged, usually feeling like I am choking on air. None of them have been about sports. In retrospect, my question was the polite way of asking if he would ever tell his thoughts to an audience that could actually understand them. His musings felt cheapened by my ignorance, or maybe I was just embarrassed. He’d said he tried to capture his feelings about sports but felt he couldn’t. I thought about the themes of his scripts – loyalty, duty, family, identity, masculinity. Those words felt bigger to me. But he insisted – the extent of what he felt about sports was too great to be put into words. It was un-wrangle-able. At the time, I called him a boy. Said something irrelevant about The Wolves. Eventually, though, I believed him, despite my skepticism. The evidence edged in. One time –when I was crying– he put on an NBA ‘best dunks’ compilation. Another time, I realized he hadn’t paused the F1 race on his phone while I was sucking his dick.
Eventually, I began to understand what he was talking about rather than just believing it. Eventually, watching sports shifted from something I was doing to impress to something I was doing to drink beer to something I was doing because certain moments began to tug inside my chest.
The first chapter of the case study would likely be called ‘Ann Arbor.’ My father, an alumni, held football season tickets from 2012 to 2019. In those years, he would graciously explain and re-explain the rules of football through salty-sweet handfuls of fresh kettle corn. I would cheer within the parameters of my knowledge, wearing newly-bought and bright yellow merchandise from the spirit store called the M Den. The weekends that we road-tripped from Pennsylvania to Michigan were formative, a sign of a burgeoning and adult-ish camaraderie between me and my father. My favorite player was named Jake Butt.
A chapter in the middle might consider the first basketball game I watched alone as an anthropological candidate. I was watching alone because the boy is out of town, literally or figuratively, I don’t remember which. I earned myself a free Guinness in Chinatown during the NBA Playoffs because I said ‘fuck Boston’ at the direct command of the bartender. In reality, I probably got the beer because I was alone and wearing a scarf as a shirt, no bra. The Boston Celtics defeated the Milwaukee Bucks. The bartender was less than pleased. As I sat at the bar, he told me about how a man once came in and asked him to put on a Red Sox game with sound. “With sound!” he said emphatically. “Can you believe that? This is a Yankees bar.” I feigned disgust because the beer was free. The bar’s only decor was some Jimmy Buffett-style tropicanaphenalia and a mirror that ran the full length of the wall.
A later moment argues that it could have been on a trip to Wooster, Ohio, where I broke my initial shyness with a friend’s mom to bond over our mutual hatred of Steph Curry. I craned into the front seat as we drove home with dog food from Tractor Supply Co., palms wrapped around the fake-leather of the mini van. “He’s just annoying.” “I know.” My friend laughed at us. That night, their mom and I watched the Golden State Warriors play the Celtics in game three of the NBA Finals on the couch of their childhood home. We split a family-sized bag of gummy bears and took turns cuddling with the dogs. They changed hands when we yelled at the TV too loudly, startling them. I don’t remember who won.
The nail in the coffin was discovered by accident. I am huddled over my laptop like it is a fire in the Arctic. The crowd is roaring, but the stands are nearly empty. The batter takes position, drawing a few test swings that go just shy of the catcher’s helmet, the umpire’s ball sack. The pitcher casts the ball from hand to hand on the mound, squinting underneath her visor. A banner flashes across the screen. Shaina Starnicky. No. 18. Bats 7th. Today: 0-1 (Strikeout). Favorite food: ice. It is The Little League World Series, and it is awesome. I have very little idea what is going on, and I am loving it.
The Little League World Series is unbearably fun to watch. I came across it surfing the ESPN+ app, trying to make my $6.99 investment useful to myself after purchasing a one-month subscription to watch a cricket match. Before I know it, I am yelling the names of random, suburban eleven-year-olds in the same way I might Giannis or LeBron. In Little League, the intensity is low. Most innings, it seems, no one hits a ball. Most kids get on base because they’re able to pull a walk. They’re the best at what they do, but they’re still eleven.
Starnicky, for Washington, is up to bat against Texas. Texas is currently leading the game at a whopping 9-0. If Washington doesn’t get some runs up soon, they risk the game ending prematurely by Little League’s run rule, which, in my limited understanding, mandates that the game ends if one team is getting its ass kicked too hard. The Washington coach apologizes to their pitcher for putting her in a tough position. The pitcher is the coach’s daughter.
On the baseball side of the series, a clip goes viral after a pitcher from Texas strikes a batter from Oklahoma in the helmet by accident. The clip shows the batter abandoning first base and walking to the mound to hug the pitcher, reassuring him that he was doing a great job. The batter has a head of boy-blond curls that poke out at all angles from under his helmet. The pitcher is crying, head down. He wipes his eyes after they hug. They are eleven and empathetic. The clip is endlessly retweeted as parents praise the sportsmanship between the boys. One commentator writes – “When sports is at its best, it’s this.”
Here, there is no hateful celebration. Victories are desired to celebrate success among a tight-knit group of kids, not to vanquish an enemy. No one hates Steph Curry. Parents cheer for both teams. You can almost taste the orange slices.
I have cried more times watching the Little League World Series than I have watching any other sport. I cried when a group of Italian parents performed a dance in the stands to cheer up their girls, whose star pitcher got injured during what was already a hearty defeat by the team from Missouri. The girls, conferencing with their coach in the circle, turned to the stands and broke into brace-filled smiles.
I realize Little League is the key to all this when I am talking about this essay to that same boy over ramen at our favorite spot on Cornelia Street. It is the end of the second week of August. We are high on the shared last-third of a joint I was keeping in a pack of Marlboro Golds, and I am talking more freely than I usually permit. He is listening, pulling apart hot and oily karage chicken with his fingers as he does. I am sure that if I put the right words in the right order he will understand why Little League is so important, not just to me but to everything. I am gushing and unapologetically joyful. Somewhere in the torrent of talking he says, “What is this voice?” Without thinking, I reply, “I just really love Little League.” He struggles to open his Ramune.
In that Little League softball game between Washington and Texas, Washington puts up a surprising series of runs that allows them to finish out the game. They still lose, but not by mercy. The players high-five each other, baking under the sun. ‘Good game,’ they all say.