Why the midsummer lull is good for sports fans
Today, the second day after baseball's All-Star game, is a virtual dead zone for sports. There is practically nothing to watch—no baseball, no basketball or football (except on, say, ESPN Classic), no golf, no tennis, no soccer, no important car or horse races, and no big championship fights. It's a day on which sports fans should re-think their feelings about sports.
In my case, I live in South Orange, NJ, and I could get out to several games in person: The Newark Bears are playing tonight, and they're just a 10-minue train ride plus five-minute walk away from my door. I could walk over to my nearby park and watch tennis, kids' soccer, or Little League games played by children of friends and neighbors. I could watch pick-up basketball, the teams culled from inner-city kids who take the train out here to play because the local kids, black and white, are usually home during the summer with their video games.
As the sun goes down, my favorite spectator sport begins to warm up as the older Italians—and even a few elderly Puerto Rican and Jewish men—gather near the duck pond for bocce ball. Bocce is played on small courts, up to 90 feet long and 8-13 feet wide. Without going into too much detail, the object is to roll or bowl your ball—I'm told that some bocce balls are made of plastic or even leather, but I've only played with wooden balls—to the nearest proximity of a "jack," a small wooden ball that serves roughly the same function as the stake in horseshoes.
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I love bocce; my Uncle Anthony taught me to play many years ago, repeatedly telling me that it's much more satisfying game than horseshoes. "Horseshoes roll all over the damn place," he said. "The bocce ball goes where you throw it."
"This is easy," I bragged the first time I tossed a ball. "Yes," my uncle replied. "Doing it better than the other person is what's hard."
Maybe three times over the years I've driven by, stopped, watched the game and talked to some of the players. But it's not really fair to ask to play if you're only going to stay 20 or30 minutes. If you really want to play you must commit to an entire evening up to and possibly even past dinnertime.
For nearly 20 years now I've been telling myself I was going to turn off my TV and computer, walk down to the park, and ask if I can play with them. Why I've never done this isn't clear to me. I suppose I'm a little shy about playing with aces—and these guys, who must have been playing this game since FDR or even Hoover was president, are aces. A couple of them even told me they learned the game from fathers and uncles back in Naples; one said Sicily.
They know how to put backspin on a wooden ball or make it hit the ground and veer right or left almost as if by telekinetic power. But there's no reason for me to feel embarrassed about asking to play with them. They love to talk bocce, to show off a little, and teach younger guys—this is the only sport I could play in my neighborhood where I would be a "younger guy"—the finer points of the game.
Whenever I've thought about joining them, every time I had break from work, I found it too easy to just sit back, crack open a diet ginger ale, and turn on the TV to scan the sports channels and watch a game that I care little about. And if I couldn't find a game, I flipped to one of the channels where guys are shouting at each other about Pete Rose or Ray Lewis or LeBron James. If I couldn't find one of those, I'd go to a gossip channel where the hosts spend endless time talking about rumors of drug use or the latest superstar divorce.
Or, as a last resort, I'd tune in to the black hole of sports programming that sucks in countless hours of potential productivity: shows that predict the upcoming pro drafts of college players.
But recently, it's occurred to me that my relationship is not with sports but with television, and it's an illusion that anyone can have a genuine connection with anything on television.
The days after the All-Star Game are a reminder to me that back when I started writing about sports, the television was not my primary connection with games but merely a tool to keep up with the actual play, which I could not see in person. This of course was before the advent of 24-hour sports channels.
By arranging things so that there are no sports to watch on TV in the second week of July, somebody is trying to tell me something, and finally, after all these years, I get the message. Yes, this is the day. I'm switching off the TV, filing this story, putting on my track shoes, and by God walking down to the park to play some killer bocce. Don't email me, text me, or call me until Friday.