Monday, April 7, 2014

Baseball, Syria, and why the twain have met (for me.)

Sports are my escape from the world. A place where the competition is manufactured and the stakes, as high as we make them, are ultimately not that great. Sure I want my teams to win, but if the other team hits a ball and runs around a square to make it back to where he started more times than my team, I'm disappointed, but nevertheless grateful for the distraction from the politics and poverty and worries about my kid's school or if I'm going to be able to retire before global warming kills us all.

As I've gotten older I've spent less and less time watching pregame shows and have pretty successfully extracted myself from the day-to-day drama that fills much of SportsCenter and sports talk radio. If you want to debate if a certain player is "elite" or "more clutch" than another, go right ahead. They're both subjective terms anyway so someone who is elite to one person may not be elite to another.

Replacing the muck of sports talk in my life is still sports, but hopefully a more intelligent take on the games Podcasts, primarily, are how I've come to learn about the sports I enjoy. Fortunately, the internet is full of smart people talking about the things I enjoy, only they are much smarter than me so I can learn from them as I listen.

No longer can I watch an NFL game and take sheer delight in the massive collisions because I know now about the impact those hits can have in the brain and the increased potential for brain damage as a result. Nor can I watch a baseball game where the announcers advocate a sacrifice bunt when I know the run expectancy following a successful bunt almost always goes down. And even though I'm not a huge basketball fan, even I know taking a long two-pointer is, statistically speaking, a terrible shot.

One of the podcasts I used to listen to (I still would if they didn't stop producing new episodes) was The Baseball Show with Rany and Joe. Both were founding writers for Baseball Prospectus and were at the forefront of the statstical revolution exemplified in book and movie Moneyball. Their podcast would regularly stretch to two hours or more and regularly centered on details that unless you were a baseball fan who cared about the most efficient use of relief pitchers or the best way to construct a roster, you probably wouldn't care about it.

The Rany of that duo is Rany Jazayerli, a Chicago-based dermatologist and perhaps the most well-known Kansas City Royals fan, which I believe means he's willing to be publicly identified as a Royals fans. He also interviewed for a job with the Cubs but for various reasons didn't get the job. He's opened my eyes a lot to how I watch baseball and has given me a deeper understanding of the game, much to the frustrations of my wife who just wants to watch a game and not have it analyzed from every direction.

He's also a Muslim whose parents grew up in Syria. Through the simple act of co-hosting a podcast in which his religion rarely, if ever, came up, he helped expose me to stereotypes I didn't realized I'd held and forced me to examine how I viewed people different from me and what prejudices I hold.

More importantly for the world outside my own mind, he ended every podcast with a plea to "please pray for the people of Syria." I'll be honest, had it not been for Jazayerli, I wouldn't have had any idea anything was even going on in Syria. Or if I had read something about anything going on, I likely would have skimmed right over it.

And while I'm still not fully informed as to the best way to stop the three-year war that's been going on there, I know the idea of doing nothing isn't enough. My five-year old, who is extremely interested in geography right now, asks me every time he comes across Syria on a map or on the computer screen when he's watching a video, he asks me if there is still a war going on there. I pains me to have to say yes every time he asks. At night, we've taken Jazayerli's words to heart and prayed for the people of Syria. I knew he was getting it when, without prompting one night, he said we should pray for them.

Following PBS' Frontline's most recent episode on Syria, I reached out to Jazayerli on Twitter to ask him what, if anything, more I could do for the situation. He responded and not only seemed grateful that I would ask, but recommended Syrian Orphans as a way to help. I haven't donated as much as I'd like, but I do know what little I have been able to do is better than nothing. Of somewhat less importance but still significant, I can teach my son that while we may not be able to fully solve every problem we come across, being able to help even a little and not doing so is not acceptable.

So while I'll continue to use sports as my escape and will continue to vow to vote against any politician who runs an ad during any sporting event, I am thankful for this intrusion of real life into the sports world. There's a lot great about life and a lot to enjoy, but failing to take the time and opportunity to help those not as fortunate is not an option I want to consider.

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