Self-Help for Sports Junkies (or the Spouses Who Can't Stand It)
According to Kevin Quirk, recovered sportsaholic and the author of the self-help paperback "Not Now, Honey, I'm Watching the Game," my husband is addicted to baseball. I, in turn, am addicted to my husband. This means that five or six times a year I accompany him to the ballpark, though I care nothing about the San Francisco Giants and understand few subtleties of the game. I would love it if my husband were addicted to me rather than to Dusty Baker and his merry spitting men, and so I turned to Quirk's book for help. More accurately, I suppose, I turned to Quirk's book to make Ed feel bad about his passion for baseball, for I am a jealous and needy person. No doubt I suffer from some as-yet-unnamed personality syndrome that someone will one day write a book about, which Ed can then buy and use to make me feel bad, too.
The first thing I learned from Quirk's book is that as sports addicts go, Ed is hopelessly minor league. He qualifies by dint of a checklist on Page 59, which is like one of those depression checklists psychologists dream up, where if you answer yes to three or more questions, like, "Have you ever sighed audibly?" they tell you that you may want to seek professional help. Even though Ed answered yes to five of the 20 questions, qualifying him as an addict "to some degree," he is nothing like the men Quirk describes.
Ed doesn't collect pennants and programs and display them in a sports memorabilia room. He didn't name his kids after players and dress them in tiny Giants uniforms when they were too young to protest. He doesn't paint his face in team colors or fax advice to the dugout. These are actual behaviors sports addicts admitted to in a survey conducted by Quirk. He was, for a time, as extreme as any of them. He once had a heated argument with his wife over his sports habit, all the while sneaking glances out the kitchen window and in through the living room window to keep up with the game. They divorced soon after.
The extreme sports fan strays from ordinary devotion to deeply irrational, compulsive behavior. In Troy, N.Y., there lives a man who will not eat during Dallas Cowboys football games, because one day during a game, he got up to fix a snack and when he returned, the Cowboys had fallen behind and proceeded to lose. He blamed himself, as though the act of eating a sandwich could affect the actions and decisions of a group of men in tight pants and helmets 2,000 miles away.
Quirk says that although the majority of sports addicts are men, women are by no means immune to the condition. Quirk describes a pregnant woman who decided to go to the game though her contractions were only 10 minutes apart. Another woman had the Cubs game on in the delivery room both times when her children were born. "They say it helps to simulate your home environment in the delivery room," was the rationale she gave Quirk.
Quirk's book presents many theories as to why people become obsessed with sports. He thinks boys get involved with sports as a way to bond with fathers who are otherwise hard to bond with. He said some men use their relationship with their team to fill their need for intimacy. "They don't feel as deeply about the people and events in their lives as they do about their Cleveland Indians," he told me. "When you think about it, the team is with them from the time they're kids to the time they're grandparents. It's the longest-term relationship in most of these guys' lives."
Quirk also believes that men use sports as an escape, a way of shutting out worries or making up for what's missing in their lives. "Maybe their job isn't everything they want it to be or their relationship isn't everything they want it to be. For a lot of sports addicts, there's some degree of emptiness, something they're hungering for. And the sports world is never empty. There's always something going on."
I presented Ed with these theories last Saturday afternoon, while the Diamondbacks were eviscerating the Giants. Oddly, Ed wasn't watching the game. He was making banana bread. This wasn't what I'd had in mind. I had wanted to ask him these things while he was absorbed in the game, thereby forcing him to, in the language of the Sportsaholism Checklist, "get annoyed or angry when someone interrupts you while watching a game." This would have provided me with lively, ironic material for the article. What I got instead was some really good banana bread. (As it turned out, the Giants lost. The outcome of the game probably had nothing to do with my eating banana bread, but you never know.)
Ed didn't buy Quirk's explanations for why he spends so much time watching baseball. He said his father didn't care about baseball. He said that the Giants did not fulfill his need for intimacy, although he could not rule out the possibility that J.T. Snow could make him happy and could at least be counted on not to confront him with quizzes from self-help psychology books. Ed said he loved the game because it has poetry. He said he likes the way the field is a perfect square, and how it's the only game where the defense has the ball, and then he stopped. "I am so not a baseball addict."
The defense had the ball. I took a couple more swings and then I let him win, because maybe he was right. Maybe he just loves the game, and I just don't. There's no point going into extra innings over that.
Mary Roach is a contributing editor at Health magazine. She lives in San Francisco.