Here's the first thing you need to know: Most fans you'll meet don't mind answering questions about sports (except, I'm told, for husbands and people with large chunks of cash riding on the outcome).
Sports fans love their games, and they want you to love them, too. Besides, if they can convert you, it becomes far less likely that you'll try to drag them off somewhere when the next big game is on. (And there's always a big game on.)
But there is one question you should not ask. Well, two, if you count, "Why are there so many sports channels on the cable/satellite dish?" The answer to that one, of course, is to sell beer, shoes and SUVs.
Anyway, back to that one question: Never ask why.
Why, you ask? What did I just say? Because when it comes to the rules of the games we love, it's best not to put too much thought into why things are the way they are.
You need only an open mind and a little time to learn the rules of virtually any sport, no matter how complex it may seem at first glance.
And you're never too old to learn. I had an aunt who took a liking to Kentucky basketball relatively late in her life, and I spent many happy hours at her house watching games we couldn't pick up at my house and eating her ever-present bologna sandwiches.
She loved her Wildcats, and she learned the game reasonably well. Not well enough to coach, mind you, but certainly well enough to tell Joe B. Hall a thing or two. From her living room, of course.
When I had occasion to flip on a football game at her house, that was another story. She always made a point of saying how she didn't see the point in football, how it was just a bunch of guys piling up on each other every few seconds.
Over the years, I've discovered she is far from the only one holding that opinion. Of all the games that make up the major part of the American sports scene, football is the most confounding to those who don't follow it.
The problem is that there are just too many people on the field. If four-on-four games in the back yard were televised, it would be a lot easier to see what's going on.
It's basically a game of advancement, trying to gain ground or to keep from surrendering it. This probably explains why football is so often described in war metaphors.
There is a seemingly infinite number of penalties that can be called for various transgressions, all signaled by throwing a yellow flag. It doesn't matter what they all mean; it only matters that the officials are almost always wrong, because the fans almost always boo, and fans are always right. Right?
The rest is easy: Why are their four downs instead of, say, three? No one knows. Who decides when the clock stops and starts? No one knows. Why does no one sit on the bench? Every single player expects the coach to call on him for the very next play. Where did they come up with such strange names for all those positions? No one knows.
Baseball is another tricky game. Hard-core baseball fans such as myself will extol the virtues of the game but can't begin to explain the balk rule, why a sacrifice fly is a good thing or why the coaches have to wear the same uniforms as the players.
Of course, that doesn't stop us from trying. With 30 seconds or more between every pitch, there's plenty of time for us to prattle on about why the right fielder just moved two steps to his left.
Basketball is another matter. It's fast and furious, leaving little time for small talk. You should know that no player will ever admit to a foul, though two or three dozen are called in every game. And it doesn't matter that the same signal used for illegal procedure in football means traveling in basketball, because traveling hasn't been called since 1991.
And then there's golf, a major exception to the rule. No one knows all the rules of golf, and no one really wants to. There's a ball, there are 18 holes, and there are the clubs used to transfer the ball to the holes. Or to decorate trees along the course.
Any more questions? Pull up a bleacher seat next to me. I'll answer all of them except one.
Mike Marsee is a sports writer for The Advocate.|11/23/03***