Sports fan maintains academic interest in the field

Q&A -- A Monday interview

April 06, 1992|By Michael Hill

Charles Woolston renews a spring ritual today, attending the Orioles game just as he has every opening day since 1964, celebrating the beginning of baseball just as he did as a young boy on the Eastern Shore.

The assistant provost at University of Maryland Baltimore County, Dr. Woolston, 52, admits to being as passionate and emotional a fan as anyone else.

But, as the professor who teaches a course called Sports and American Culture every fall semester, he has more than a rooting interest in the game.

QUESTION: Do you think America has a healthy relationship with sports?

ANSWER: That's hard to answer. We do spend a lot of time and money looking at sports as fans when there's really no value to the outcome of these games one way or the other. On the other hand, I know sports does add something of value to my life, and, as a unifying element, a professional team may have a positive effect on a city.

You wonder about a city like Cleveland, if it suffers, if its self-esteem is lowered, because its teams, particularly the Indians, have not been very successful.

Clearly, as entertainment, sports has some value. It's silly in a way to get as involved and excited as we do. Obviously, it is an enticing diversion.

But does that justify taxpayers' subsidizing some very rich owners? That part doesn't seem like a very healthy relationship.

Yet I have sympathy with the politicians who have to make these decisions in real time. I can't imagine the reaction politically if the Orioles left town.

I think the only reason [Gov. William Donald] Schaefer survived the Colts' leaving was because he was a very popular mayor at the time, and he was dealing with a very unpopular owner. So, I sympathize with the politicians. They are really caught between a rock and hard place.

Q. What does the opening of the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards mean to you?

A. The stadium has become one of the centers of urban communities, where they gather. Harborplace has served that function in Baltimore to some extent, but the new stadium, with all the buildup, with all the favorable publicity, really becomes a .. focus of the community.

At every level -- schools, towns, cities -- sports are unifying factors, and urban areas often don't have many of those. The new stadium has come to represent that. Whether that justifies spending $200 million is a moot point now.

Q. What's the thrust of the course you teach?

A. We try to use sports as a vehicle to look at American culture. And through it you can examine almost every aspect of the society -- racism, psychology, sociology, business, public policy, everything else.

We make clear from the outset that we're not going to be sitting around talking about who played third base before Brooks Robinson.

The students tend to be sports fans -- about 25 [percent] to 30 percent are women, by the way -- and they seem eager to learn these facts and history and behind-the-scenes things.

Q. Did you grow up as a baseball fan?

A. I was raised in Crisfield. It had lost its minor league team by the time I came along, but I remember traveling with my father to Salisbury to see minor league games.

And there was a semi-pro team in town playing in what was known as the Central Shore League. They played every Sunday, and I went to all those games. My father wasn't on the team, but most of the players were his friends. To a 10-year-old boy, these were my heroes. It was more bound up in the community, tied to the people and the place, than sports is today.

Now, I think in a town like Crisfield, high school basketball has substituted for those teams. The community rallies around the high school teams.

Q. Obviously, sports has changed a great deal since then, but has the change accelerated in the last decade or two?

A. The money involved has changed everything. The TV money that has come in in the last 20 years has seen to that.

Though the money is there, you don't see the team owners who make a living at it anymore. You've got people getting into it for all sorts of different reasons. But all the changes you see -- free agency, new stadiums, ESPN -- goes back to the money.

Q. What is it about the appeal of baseball that is so special?

A. I've thought about that a lot. It has become the sport of the intellectuals.

Partly that's because the statisticians have gotten so involved. I also think the pace of the games lends itself to contemplation and to description in the written word in a way that other games do not.

It's a sport that means something to me beyond being just a

game. I know partly that's because it has roots deep in my life, going back to my father and grandfather. But I know other people whose fathers cared little for the sport who now feel the same way.

As a spectator, I think you can identify with the players in baseball more easily. Football is so violent, it's almost like watching gladiators fight. You can't imagine yourself as part of it.

Basketball is an aesthetically pleasing sport, but you are watching people doing amazing things that you know you could never do.

Now, of course, none of us could ever hit a 90-mph fastball, but the players, aside from having incredible hand-eye coordination, not look that different from other people. They come in all sizes. And what they are doing does not seem threatening or impossible.

But I'm really not sure what it is about baseball.

I think it's important that you can carry on a conversation during a game -- not necessarily about the game, either -- in a way that you never would during a football game, for example.

There's something else going on there with baseball. I don't think I'm being very articulate about it. It's hard for me to put my finger on it.

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