Take Me Out to the Racetrack

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:40

    "But the most lively and splendid amusement of the idle multitude, depended on the frequent exhibition of public games and spectacles. The piety of Christian princes had suppressed the inhuman combats of gladiators; but the Roman people still considered the Circus as their home, their temple, and the seat of the republic. The impatient crowd rushed at the dawn of day to secure their places, and there were many who passed a sleepless and anxious night in the adjacent porticos. From the morning to the evening, careless of the sun, or of the rain, the spectators, who sometimes amounted to the number of four hundred thousand, remained in eager attention; their eyes fixed on the horses and charioteers, their minds agitated with hope and fear, for the success of the colors which they espoused: and the happiness of Rome appeared to hang on the event of a race."

    ?Edward Gibbon, Esq., History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire


    One of the goofy pleasures of Gladiator was the totally unsubtle way it equated the Colosseum with the modern sports stadium, and the bloodlust of that audience of virtual Romans with the movie audience's lust for virtual blood. I suppose it could be interpreted as commentary on the decadence of modern virtual-bloodlust in all its forms, from professional wrestling to remote-control warfare. But for my purposes here I want to say the movie was working a metaphor of professional sports?and more to the point (as Mimi Kramer inferred in a column a few weeks ago) of team sports.

    Myself, I'm with Gibbon's good Christianized later Romans: you can keep the Colosseum and Yankee Stadium, I prefer the Circus and Aqueduct. Is horseracing not the supreme spectator sport? It's exciting every time, it's over in two minutes, it's beautiful to watch, it's the simplest and easiest to understand, and the gambling, which is three-fourths the fun of all spectator sport (who'll give me four-fifths?), is not only condoned, it's the entire point of the exercise. Nobody minds if you drink a beer or two. It's cheap to get in, and if you're having a good day they even pay you for being there. I can't abide the dog track?they're so brainless and random, it's like watching particles in a cyclotron, there's no sport in it?and the trotters just makes me itchy and antsy (get it over with already, damn you). But I like the thoroughbreds.

    One of the funniest afternoons I ever spent was a day of turf races in the west of Ireland, with these big-haunched horses pounding across the bog, churning up great divots of loam, throwing their jockeys hither and yon and ass over tit, as the turf accountants with their chalkboards kept rewriting the odds every few seconds. If you drank enough it all started to make sense and you could actually win back a pound or two if the wind was behind your rider and the stars were on your side.

    There was the year I lived near Pimlico and if the weather was fine we'd stop by after work, catch the last couple-three races, usually get in for free. One of the great things about the track was there's none of that business where the rich guys and celebrities get to be nearest to the action. In fact, they all wanted to be up in the air conditioning behind glass watching the race on monitors, which just killed me. What was the point of that? It was like OTB without the smelly guys. One of the best things about the track is that anyone who wants to can stand down at the rail, where you can breathe the aroma of the dirt and the horse patootie, and when those thoroughbreds charge by the earth shakes and the fillings in your eyeteeth rattle. Between races you read the sheet, go buy a beer, place your bet, take a piss, eat a dog. By the time you've done all that you're back down at the rail and off they go and you're yelling your head off again and laughing or crying and ripping up your tickets and tossing them to the winds.

    Compare that to the interminable tedium of watching nine innings of baseball. Used to be you could while away the long stretches between interesting plays with shelling tons of roasted peanuts, drinking lots of beer and smoking lots of cigarettes. The 21st-century baseball stadium has banned the third of these enjoyments and severely curtailed the second, rendering the first moot. Talk about no joy in Mudville.

    Face it: All team sports are?like improvisational theater, jam rock, board games and sex?a lot more fun to do than they are to watch. The only way they can spice up boring pastimes like baseball and soccer is to turn them into tribal warfare: my tribe's team against your tribe's. It's nonsense and fantasy, as well all know?root root rooting for the home team. Like the Yankees and Mets are "our" team, any more than the Pirates or Braves are "theirs." We all know they're the owners' teams, and we just get to (pay, directly for tickets and indirectly through taxes and other government-sponsored emoluments in which we have little say, to) watch. But we pretend not to know that, we pretend they really are "our" Yankees, because (a) it makes a boring sport more interesting if you can feel like you've got some investment in it and (b) it's an opportunity to make fun of people from that rival tribe in, for example, Boston. There was a book I read once about the Pygmies, where one tribe of Pygmies loved to sit around the campfire making fun of another tribe of Pygmies because they had "small teeth" and "smelled bad." That's the fun of being a Yankees fan versus the Red Sox fans.

    I did not understand when everybody got so upset with Giuliani for that "my town can kick your town's ass" thing he did. Was he just being too obvious about it? Isn't that what civic sports is all about: my town's team can kick your town's team's ass? Given that, isn't it a little wuss of you all to send your Thurman Munsons and your Roger Clemenses?not to mention all those big dusky fellows in that tight, tight pajamawear?to go out and give those other tribes a proxy, dare I say virtual, whupping in your stead? I mean, if you want to show our city kicks their city's ass, why don't you all take the shuttle up to Boston one day and, you know, start something? What are you, chicken?

    As it happens, I also lived near Baltimore's Memorial Stadium for a few years. Very near?two doors up, I liked to say, with just one other rowhouse between ours and the stadium parking lot. Close enough so that all the yahoos parking illegally all over the neighborhood to duck the $2 stadium lot fee (in Baltimore, $2 is like a week's beer money) would try to stop and piss on the corner of our house. We used to have sit out on the porch and yell at them so they'd go another house or two down the block and piss on our neighbors instead. We used to walk over to the stadium a couple times a summer when there were night games, buy the cheapest tickets, sit all the way up in the top row of the bleachers. Nice breeze, good place to smoke a fatty, great view out over the city as darkness fell, nothing but the chainlink fencing between you and a mortal drop straight down to the parking lot below. The game didn't matter much. From way up there it was like watching illuminated dust mites running around on a green felt potholder. The blimp looked closer when it trundled by overhead than the big fellows down on the field. It was nice when the Orioles won, because then everybody left in a good mood, but beyond that I didn't give a damn.

    My back porch was a great free seat when they did their fireworks night, which if I remember was not July 4, but at the end of the season. They'd bang off right overhead, rattling the windows and setting off all the car alarms for blocks and the next morning charred bits of paper and spent munitions would be lying around on all the lawns.

    As kids we used to go to Memorial a few times a year and watch the Colts play. This was way back, when the Colts were still something. And there was a tradition that every Thanksgiving we'd go to Memorial Stadium and freeze our kishkas off watching my high school's football team get their asses kicked by the rival high school's football team; they'd been doing this for 100 years or such, and the tally was something like 76 games to 24 in their favor, and the scores would be like 66-3 and 84-14. There were always rumbles in the parking lot after the game, and we'd get our asses kicked some more. Yeah, that was fun.

    On our own, we kids would chuck a baseball around sometimes, but mostly we played touch football. We played in the alley behind our row houses, and baseball was kind of a pain in the ass. Every foul ball wound up in somebody's yard, if not through somebody's kitchen window. Touch football naturally suits itself to a long, narrow playing area like an alley.

    Anyway, I preferred solo sports. I liked running. In fact I loved to run, sprint or long distance, it didn't matter. I was the fastest kid in my high school for a while in sophomore year, before cigarettes and other accouterments of teenage bohemia cut my wind and my desire to excel at meaningless frivolities.

    So, I tell MUGGER, forget baseball. Take the boys to the track instead. They'll meet some real wholesome Americans enjoying a real manly American pastime, man and mount pitching themselves full speed against time itself and the limitations of the flesh?not this sissy "my team's better than your team" crap. They'll see men no larger than themselves being heroes and champions. They'll learn the science of the tip sheet and the well-considered wager, not the pointless bean-counting of the scorecard. Their eyes fixed on the horses, their minds agitated with hope and fear, they'll get an invaluable lesson in cruel and capricious fortune. Try getting that from a baseball game.