Football shakes off a couple months of rust. Baseball starts pounding mitts. Flowers bloom in western Georgia. And sportswriters dust off “hope springs eternal.” While Alexander Pope was describing an eternal human condition, the vernal reference in those three words has made the phrase easy pickings for sportswriters in the month of March. In the first act of its use, there is the attempt at sincere description of fans’ response to their beloved team returning to the game. In act two, it’s a sneering mockery aimed at those fans unlucky enough to follow perennial bottom-dwellers. I would like to propose a third act, wherein we can honestly set aside the phrase as it pertains to sports fans because, honestly, it doesn’t pertain to them at all. Spring, and the start baseball, major golf tournaments, and spring football practices, has nothing to do with hope, and everything to do with renewal.
Pope’s full quote, from An Essay on Man, goes like this:
Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home.
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
Pope is talking about a constant quest for the better, and the essential underlying faith that there is a better to be attained. For Pope, this faith never wavers and the quest is unending. But that’s not how fans feel about their teams. If “hope” is the simple notion that a team will be better this season than last, or even the best, then it becomes a more complex emotion when applied to fandom. A fan’s aspirations ebb and flow not just between seasons but within them. Sometimes there is no hope to begin with. Sometimes hope is crushed early and cruelly. Sometimes it is lost and returned. Sometimes it is not hope at all, but expectation. There is no one goal, one course, or one narrative that describes how fans feel about their team at any point before, during, or after a season.
And the phrase is never trotted out for NFL, NHL, or NBA pre-seasons or college football practices in fall. Mostly because it has the word “spring” in it. But I’m hoping it is also because writers are implicitly aware that hope, in the Pope-ian sense, is a myth in the sports world. We choose to be fans, but we don’t choose Pope’s optimistic human condition. Fans are not so simplistic, naïve, or delusional for any single phrase to encompass their relationship with their favorite team.
What I think sportswriters are trying to describe when they say “hope springs eternal” is the idea of renewal; of the re-beginning of something; or re-imagining a future. As fans, we very rarely (if ever) have the opportunity to essentially start something anew. Each season for a team is a different season. It is original. And, most importantly, it always happens at the same time every year. The competitive season, the off-season, and the pre-season provide a rhythm to the year.
I admit all fans are not office drones, but most of us have jobs divorced from the earth’s natural cycle. Most of our work doesn’t change based on the season, and is no different in March than it is in September. I’m not going to romanticize our paleo, agricultural, or industrial roots – I happen to love the internet and appreciate the age we live in – but the fact remains that, unlike that of athletes, our work is invariable across days, weeks, months, and years. Just as sports become a proxy for so many other things in life, the sports season is our proxy for real seasons and for renewal: a way to feel that we, as fans, are beginning something new; starting fresh. Given the changes in nature, it is easier to feel this renewal in springtime, although most fans don’t really renew their passions until the fall and winter. Augusta National’s bucolic images and the sight of day baseball and all that green grass are uniquely refreshing, even for non-golf or non-baseball fans. No matter your sport or when it’s competitive season begins, the cycle of sports seasons stands in for the cycle of real seasons.
Thus we get “hope springs eternal.” When really we fans seek a signal of change. We long for a marker of time, a turning of pages, an ebb to the constant flow of life and work. It’s not always hope we feel in spring, or fall, or winter. It’s renewal. Renewal of history, of allegiances, of the pace and pathos of the world.