Recently I became a fan of the Westish Harpooners. They are a college baseball team and they don’t exist. Those seem like two extremely good reasons not to care what the Westish Harpooners get up to but as I got to a part in Chad Harbarch’s novel The Art of Fielding where the legendary Mike Schwartz, catcher and leader of the Harpooners, is crouched in the batter’s box with the game on his shoulders, I could not have been more emotionally invested if Schwartz was about to take his best swing at my undefended testicles. I love sport; I even love it when somebody makes it up.
My earliest memory of a sporting event is being taken to watch Crystal Palace play Bolton Wanderers at Selhurst Park. For those to whom those names are meaningless, it is the sporting equivalent of a lifelong interest in film beginning with a trip to a windblown old shed to watch Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol. Crystal Palace were the Steve Guttenbergs, being both the star of the show and an abysmal excrescence that at the time seemed to have taken root, but even so I remember enjoying it and I remember caring who won.
There can hardly be many things more pointless than becoming emotionally invested in the fortunes of a sports team. They give you nothing, you look a fool, shouting and holding your head as if suddenly gripped by the fear that it is about to float away and then you pay for the right to wear their name on your chest. You pay them to wear their name on your body! Well, on your clothes. And when they lose you suffer. You experience actual emotional pain, you fool.
At some point during my time as a small boy I made the ridiculous decision to support a football team, the name of which is unimportant to anyone but me (it’s West Ham! Glorious, glorious West Ham! [Chevy Chase to Palace’s Guttenberg – ed]), that sunk so deeply into me that I have never wavered in that support since. This is one of the many problems with letting people begin life as children: children are idiots. They go about making decisions without any of the tools needed to get those decisions right and then they hand the whole mess over to adults. Anyway, in the long years since this fool boy hitched his wagon to that team’s star the rewards have been few and the disappointments many and varied, but at the very least I can say one thing of that team: I am sure it exists. That may seem like spectacularly tiny beer but I have often supported a team or a player in a game that hasn’t got the decency to at least be real. To those of you who struggle to understand why anybody would be moved to care about the outcome of a game, it must seem doubly strange that anybody would care when they could no more meet the players than they could fly to the moon by flapping their arms but then, perhaps not. After all, it’s all just a story with an ending, right? And who doesn’t want to know how a story ends?
Fictional sport has a long and distinguished history. Shakespeare threw a bit of wrestling into As You Like It, Dickens gave us the epic clash between All-Muggleton and Dingley Dell in The Pickwick Papers, and Homer Simpson fought nobly for boxing’s world heavyweight championship. As a child, I was already a fully paid-up member of the fictional sport fan club. The books I would borrow from the library were often about schoolboy football teams and their star players’ troubles. As far as I recall, a common theme was a player being forced to leave his team and join another one, then meeting his former side in the final. Oh, the drama! At least, they are the stories I remember. The first Wodehouse stories I ever read were The Clicking of Cuthbert and The Longest Hole, both based around golf contests, and if something is good enough for Dickens and Wodehouse then it should be good enough for every single person that has ever lived or will ever live.
All of fictional sport has the same issue: the competitors, sadly handicapped by their own non-existence, don’t decide the outcome; some person sitting behind a keyboard does. They choose if Schwartzy hits the winning home run or fails dismally and slinks away in disgrace, or if All-Muggleton get the important final wicket, or if Average Joe’s dodgeball team defeats the Globo Gym Purple Cobras. That should matter, shouldn’t it? If you were watching an Olympic rowing final and halfway through, as you are caught up in the combination of incredible physical exertion and the closeness of the race, the action was replaced on screen by the weathered, shoe-leather face of middle-ranking presenter John Inverdale, who declared that he would now decide the winner and hold their name up on a card, the BBC would get complaints. But I am quite happy to read a story about a sports team, knowing full well that the author is going to choose how it turns out. The story matters. Inverdale holding up a card might hold great interest for hardcore Inverdalians but the rest of us are less likely to feel the thrill.
People who don’t like sport, but do like stories, confuse me a bit. There is a fair chance that some of the people reading this fall into that category. They/you sneer at tennis and declare it to be no more than two people twatting a ball around, but will sit in front of a screen and watch a film about a hitman trying to kill the President. That’s sport as well! OK, assassinating world leaders is not yet ratified by the International Olympic Committee but otherwise what’s the difference? In one case two people try to defeat each other and there is an outcome; in the other one person tries to kill another and there’s an outcome.
I’m not mad enough to claim that anyone who likes stories should like all sport because that would mean that I, as a fan of sport, should like all other stories, which would open me up to the horror of Eastenders. My motto is tread carefully when making a point as you might end up finding yourself pretending to care about Ian Beale just to prove you’re right. So, treading carefully, I think that sport is great drama and that is why it pops up in fiction all the time.
A subset of fictional sport that seems to be ever popular is the story set in a future (or alternative, it isn’t fussy on that point) world where everything has gone a bit to pot if you like democracy, and a game is in place to keep the populace soft and pliable. The most recent example, the smash hit film The Hunger Games, should be exactly my thing, and it would be if it wasn’t completely declawed and rubbish, so let’s leave that aside and mention a couple of others instead.
If you like Bach, rollerskating and James Caan’s monkey face then Rollerball is the very film for you. Rollerball is undeniably a load of old rubbish but is entirely saved by the drama of the games themselves. John. A. Than, as the fans call him (Caan), and his best friend Moonpie (John Beck) go around punching people and throwing a giant ball bearing into a cup. The only thing stopping me from properly loving it is that James Caan looks like the swaggering playboy son of a dictator and a bit of the shine is taken off by the thought that if anyone dared beat his Houston team they’d spend the next few days hanging by their ankles in a room somewhere underneath the stadium.
Similar in some ways to The Hunger Games but superior in every single one is Battle Royale , a film that at a bit of a squeeze fits into the dystopia template. Adults are fed up with children being a pain, so they do the only sensible thing and select a group of them to compete against each other to the death. There it is. Most of the film is the game and it is all the better for it. I suppose you might say that using games in fiction is a bit of an easy way to create drama, and putting children at mortal risk is another. That would probably be correct and combining them in Battle Royale really works. Yet it alls flat on its face in The Hunger Games, so if you’re thinking of getting a camera out and filming two children playing Russian Roulette, don’t. Firstly, it’s probably illegal and secondly, you aren’t guaranteed a decent outcome.
The absolute best dystopian future/alternative reality/whatever future sport piece of fiction is Stephen King’s The Long Walk. On many things I am open-minded and willing to listen to the views of others but on this, no. The Long Walk is best. One hundred teenage boys set off on a walk, the last one left walking wins, all who drop out or fail to keep pace are killed. That is it and it’s great, and it makes me wonder if people’s issue with sport is that it is fundamentally meaningless to them because the stakes are too small. More correctly, one either understands that there are stakes or one cannot see it at all. It remains just a game. I’m not entirely sure that my enjoyment of stories about teenagers being exploited and killed reflects too well on me, but there you are.
This brings me back to the Westish Harpooners. The Art of Fielding has a lot more to it than the ups and downs of a college baseball team, but for me that is the heart of the book. It mattered to me that Henry Skrimshander, Mike Schwartz and the others won their games. What a fool I am. But then, perhaps no more of a fool for that than for caring what West Ham do. Is there that much of a difference?
MarvMarsh tweets as @MarvMarsh