How the World Series Imitates Life

The Boston Red Sox, the Marathon bombings, and the psychology of sport

Posted Nov 03, 2013

Sports aren’t real life. That’s what we always say. And it’s true. The average baseball player makes millions of dollars, but simply plays a child’s game. The average oncologist makes one percent of that income, but saves lives.

Sports aren’t real life. Neither are the movies, nor books of fiction, nor theater shows, nor television, nor any form of entertainment. But sometimes, there is an intersection with real life where, unless you are frozen in your hyperrationalized intellect, you should stop and take notice.

I recall a baseball book some years ago called “How life imitates the World Series.” I think we’ve seen recently an example of how the World Series imitates life.

In April, a politically-motivated terrorist bombing – timed on a Boston holiday (Patriots Day) at a major sporting event, the Boston Marathon, just after the end of the annual Red Sox game on that holiday - killed innocent people, including children, and cut off the limbs of dozens others. Half a year later, those same Red Sox achieved the ultimate in their sport – winning the World Series, and doing so in Boston for the first time in almost a century.

A century is a long time, but this is not just feeling proud that your city won at something, and then moving on. What we see here is something every psychologist should attend to carefully, as Faulkner’s Nobel speech described so well: the human ability not only to endure, but to prevail. And not just individual by individual, but at the level of communities, groups, nations.

It is uplifting, if we are willing to be uplifted. But sometimes we rationalize too much: after all, it’s just a sport. I learned otherwise almost a decade ago, when in 2004 the Red Sox won their first World Series since 1918.

I had a friend, Jim Hegarty, about whom I’ve written previously, who had just been diagnosed with brain cancer. The final game was in St. Louis, so Bostonians couldn’t celebrate with the team. The main celebration was set up for Opening Day the next year, April of 2005, when the championship rings would be handed out as the New York Yankees watched in the opposing dugout. Jim was one of those folks who used to skip work to attend the daytime Opening Day games, even in years when the Sox weren’t so great. Now, struggling with his diagnosis, he decided to buy tickets to fly up from Pennsylvania, his home state to which he had returned after many years in Boston, to attend that game. Jim’s spirits were lifted by the once in a century victory of the Red Sox. He came with his brother and invited me and another close Boston friend to join him. We’d have to buy our own Fenway tickets: they were expensive, far more than I would pay normally. But this was more than a sporting event. I was going for my friend. I bought, I went, I cheered, I hugged. I have a picture in my office of the four of us, standing in the bleachers at Fenway on Opening Day 2005. After a valiant battle, Jim died three years ago. I've never regretted the ticket. 

Yesterday, the Red Sox placed the 2013 trophy on the Marathon finish line site during the celebration parade, and players embraced some of those who had suffered there. In that moment, we were reminded that sometimes sports intersect with life.

So get out your uniforms. Cheer for your team. Maybe the players deserve their millions, as do the actors and musicians and artists and writers. It’s all art, and if art imitates life, as it is famously said, life also imitates art.