This is a book you would probably not see in personal growth blogs, let alone personal growth shelves in bookstores. It’s a book about the passion of being a baseball fan and its impact on the life of the author, Hollywood superstar Alyssa Milano (and potentially on ours). So why did I choose to read it, and why is it relevant for personal growth?
First of all, my blog is not solely about productivity, life-hacks, hyper-efficiency and the likes. It is about exploring ideas for personal growth, and many of these ideas are about slowing down, playing, savoring the frivolous side of life. In other words: a key component of personal growth is not taking life too seriously. I am absolutely NOT an advocate of filling up your day ONLY with “productive” and “worthwhile” activities, although many time management books will tell you to stay clear of “time wasters” and to focus your time and energy on “things that matter”, i.e. actions that will advance your goals, both personally and professionally (see my blog post on that topic)
By that measure, being a sports fan – and particularly a fan of baseball, a sport notorious for its extremely long games and unending season – would probably automatically qualify as the ultimate “no-no”: a bottomless pit where you throw your precious time with no payback in terms of growth and fulfillment.
Alyssa Milano’s book is a bold and very successful attempt at rehabilitating fandom, and baseball fandom in particular. She argues that fans are, in some respect, “richer” than non-fans because they have something wonderful to look forward to every season. In the case of baseball, fans are treated to a 6 months worth of entertainment, virtually every day of the week. The games are relaxing – they take the stress out our daily lives. I love Milano’s description of baseball as something comforting, that makes her feel “safe at home”. She says that baseball is always there for her, every single year, with its rich cast of “heroes and villains”, and the compelling stories behind each player and each matchup. It is one, long and engaging soap opera that accompanies her throughout her entire life.
“Baseball touches us in different ways, at different times in our lives. When we’re very young, it might be about spectacle and bright lights and candy, a few hours on Dad’s lap, or sitting next to Mom. As we get older, it’s about heroes and villains, victories and defeat, a simple oasis in our difficult lives. And then we reach a point – or at least I did – when enjoying the game gets more complicated. However (…) those complications deepen its appeal and heighten the sense of what it means to be a fan”.
Sure, instead of spending hours a week watching games she could do “more productive things”, like reading, networking or learning a new skills… but she doesn’t necessarily want to. She is perfectly content with spending that time at the ball park or in front of the TV, with Vince Scully’s “suave” voice accompanying every play. I honestly cannot see anything wrong with that, and if that goes against some sacred rule of time-management… then, so be it!
“I love what baseball does for me. It connects me, it relaxes me, and it frees me.”
This reminds me of a brilliant interview of oscar-winning actor J.K. Simmons (from Whiplash). The interviewer was asking him about the hundreds of books he must have read, and the thousands of movies he must have watched to develop his acting skills and find inspiration for his parts. J.K. replied, unapologetically, that, actually, he spends most of his spare time watching baseball! He doesn’t have that rich of a cinematographic culture, and doesn’t intend to. He is just happy with his life the way it is: working hard on his acting and enjoying his baseball! This also reminds me of Stephen King, who also invests a great deal of his non-writing time in watching baseball. I don’t think anyone would accuse Mr King of not being productive!
But to the real fan, games are much than simply “relaxing”: they are engaging. From the pitcher’s facial expression to the batting average of the next in-line… everything potentially holds a meaning and must be interpreted. Whereas the non-fan basically falls asleep during a game, the fan is an active viewer and participates fully, both with his intellect and with his emotions.
Mentally, the more you watch the game, the more you learn about its extremely complex rules and statistics, and the more you appreciate it. You become an active and engaged viewer, with a remarkable capacity to concentrate for over three hours on a field where, apparently, not much is happening.
“Without baseball I’m not sure I ever would have learned to be in the moment. To focus on what’s in front of me, and tune out the background noise.”
This is what distinguishes real fans from casual ones, which need bells and whistles (such as bouncing beach balls!) to be entertained during the game.
Emotionally, it’s a rollercoaster of thrilling victories and heart-breaking losses. I’m convinced, as Alyssa Milano is, that these are emotions well spent, because they are pure memories in the making. Memories that quickly become part of our life story, especially if we have experienced them with someone special. As a fan of the Dodgers, I just went through the disappointing loss to the Cubs in the NLCS (the baseball semi-finals): disappointing because the Dodgers were ahead 2-1 in the series, and then ended up losing three consecutive games. These losses teach us to be humble, to hope without setting expectations too high, and to respect our opponent, no matter how much of an edge we think our team has.
Another great point Alyssa makes about baseball is the connection it creates among fans and, most importantly, among families. Going to the game together or watching it on TV after a Sunday meal is a great bonding experience and, in the case of the author, an experience that has forged her relationship with her dad and with her brother. They went to the ballpark together, as a family, and their relationship was strengthened through baseball. Now don’t get me wrong: a relationship needs much more than a common sports cause to function, and baseball alone does not hold families together! However, I would argue that relationships need – they desperately need – some lightness and fun. A father-daughter relationship cannot hinge only on “good parenting”: true, the father has to strive to be a role-model and to be there for his daughter when she most needs him; but at the same time, I believe he must be playful, fun, relaxed… he must show her that life is not only about hard work, rules, discipline, homework and innumerable after-school activities. A common passion for a sport is great way to add depth to a relationship, to solidify the bond.
But ultimately, baseball is really about personal growth, because it teaches us about grit, resilience, perseverance, loyalty, discipline, teamwork. The season is won after a marathon of nearly 200 games, with strategy, personal skills, discipline and very, very hard work. It’s also about disappointment. Remember, it is a game where the best hitter fails 2 times out of 3, and keeps coming back to bat, searching for that elusive home run in the moment where it most counts.
“Baseball is a game of singular achievement mixed in with a lot of disappointment”
But the loses, for the real fan, are simply a transition to the next season, in which the story continues, and everyone starts afresh. Real fans, as Alyssa argues – are not scared away by losses, nor are do they become anymore engaged during winning streaks or during the playoffs. They just follow their team no matter what, through the good times and the bad times. It’s just like any other real love: it’s not conditional, it’s an act of faith and commitment.
Baseball is also about making the most of opportunities – such as when you have runners on base – and getting out of trouble when the stakes are extremely high (like striking out a great batter with bases loaded).
Great players are a tremendous inspiration for our own personal growth, and when I watch a pitcher like Clayton Kershaw I somehow feel motivated to excel in my own endeavors, even if they have nothing to do with baseball. Alyssa gives a few touching examples of great baseball players that have been a huge inspiration in her own life, such as Jim Abbott, who was one of the world’s best pitchers regardless of the fact that… he was born without a right hand! Or Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 was the first African-American to be allowed to play in the majors since 1889: he endured the worst kind of prejudices, until he won everyone over with his composure, his strength of character and his tremendous dedication to the game, which transcended racial boundaries.
In conclusion, there is something spiritual, almost metaphysical about fandom, that only real fans can entirely comprehend. Alyssa Milano does a fantastic job at trying to depict it, but I’m convinced that the only way to understand what she really means is to “take the vows” and seriously commit to a sport and to a team. The rewards – in terms of fun, relaxation, connection and yes, personal growth – are extraordinarily high.
“Once being a fan is in your blood, it’s an impossible thing to shake off”