My 5-year-old daughter, Dina, belts out a version of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” when she sees a game on television. She knows all the words and I’m thrilled to join her. She even tells me she wants to sing the song again at a ball game.
But lately, I’m having doubts about encouraging her interest in sports. Because a few moments after Dina sings baseball’s theme song, I see yet another headline about a troubling event in the sports world. Think about the last couple of years: Fans and players fighting each other in Detroit during a basketball game. A major steroids scandal in baseball. A controversial halftime show at the Super Bowl.
What kind of messages do these incidents send to kids? Do I want to share my love of baseball with Dina if it means exposing her to all that?
Last summer, my dad, my niece, and I took Dina to her first Cubs game. She loved it. This year, though, I wonder whether we should even go to another game. Though stories about violent incidents at games or players taking steroids may seem remote to my 5-year-old, I’ve seen enough games in person to know that sports can get out of control right in front of your eyes.
My challenge is to pass on a family tradition to my kids (if they’re interested) and try to maintain some perspective about it.
For my daughter, baseball remains simple—for now. She sees someone singing “the baseball song” on TV and then reminds me that last year when we went to the game she didn’t even get a box of Cracker Jack. (Dads can be very, very strict. I cut her off after the hot dog, peanuts, pop, ice cream and cotton candy.)
For now, though, my thoughts about sports are hardly this innocent. I recall how chunks of concrete fell at Wrigley Field last year, endangering fans. I remember the dozens of times I’ve been to a ball game at the Friendly Confines and heard drunken fans curse or make rude comments to women. Just five years ago, several Los Angeles Dodgers went into the stands and fought with fans who stole a player’s hat.
I realize the Chicago Cubs, like most teams, make strong pronouncements about security and crowd control. Yes, it’s true, the ballpark is generally a very safe place to go. Still, it’s about as easy to spot a seriously intoxicated fan at Wrigley Field as it is to find a bar within stumbling distance of the ballpark.
I should admit that I’m familiar with both extremes of the ballpark experience. Upon moving to Chicago in the 1980s, a friend and I willingly rented a place in Wrigleyville less than a block from the ballpark. What could be better for young baseball fans than an apartment in the shadow of the ballpark, in a neighborhood quickly becoming one of the biggest party arenas in the city? And now I turn around and complain about that?
Well, yes. It’s a fan’s right to cheer and boo. It’s my job as a parent to keep my daughter safe and talk with her if there’s something she doesn’t understand.
One clinical psychologist who studies the impact of sports in our culture suggests parents use the subject as a way to teach their kids about the world.
“Even in difficult circumstances, parents can have a conversation with young kids about what they think and what they understand,” says Richard Ginsburg, co-director of the Massachusetts General Hospital Sports Psychology Program at Harvard Medical School. “Parents can say, ‘This is an example of what happens when people lose control—and that’s exactly what you don’t want to do.’ ”
This lesson hits home for me, and not just because my daughter and I might see fans or players lose control at a game. How can I tell my kids not to lose control when they’ve seen me scream at the TV during a ball game? Is the game really that important?
Even for the most passionate fans, there needs to be a clear line between being wildly enthusiastic and becoming unhinged. Even when your team is five outs away from making the World Series.
Or if your team actually wins it.
Ginsburg points out that last year, when the Boston Red Sox won their first World Series in 86 years, some people lost control. Fan behavior continues to be an issue in Boston and many other cities.
(In recent months, the team announced that two Red Sox fans involved in an altercation with an opposing player during a game played in April will not be able to purchase tickets for the rest of the season.)
Many of the stories about last year’s Red Sox win, though, focused on how the ballplayers enjoyed the season’s journey. An even bigger story was how the bond between fans made it meaningful for them. (If you don’t believe me about how much this story moved people, ask someone from New England.)
“That team found a way to take pressure off themselves and just have fun, and that’s the same thing you want kids to do,” says Ginsburg. “At the same time, for teams like the Red Sox—and Cubs—there’s an understanding of what it’s like to strive for something and not make it and for fans to still love their team. You have generations of people who have gone to the games together.”
When I watch a game at Wrigley Field, it’s not just me watching it. There, in front of me, are the baseball stories my dad has told me for decades and the moments I’ve shared with friends. There, next to me, is my daughter. If she chooses, she’ll even continue to act as if singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” as loudly as possible is not just her right, but her responsibility. (I agree with her strongly on that point.)
Yes, the world is full of sordid stories these days, even those related to the games we play. Still, I’ll take my daughter to see the Cubs again this summer despite my reservations. She’s already figured for herself that through our traditions, we bond as a family and learn from each other. And maybe we can do something truly important—such as share a box of Cracker Jack.
Dan Baron is an Evanston writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org