On The Meaning Of Going Back For More J.T. Realmuto Highlights At 11:47 P.M.
11:24 AM EDT on July 24, 2023
I am bad at watching live sports. It's not an access issue—for all the discourse about blackouts, I've historically managed well enough. When I was still in college and campus was closed because of the pandemic, I was given a VPN to connect to school Wi-Fi in order to use a computing cluster, and quickly realized I could also use it to access the school-provided, on-campus streaming services to watch Formula One races and NBCS Philadelphia. So while I don't lack determination, I am still bad at the physical act of watching.
That is maybe a weird thing to say considering that I get paid, in part, to watch live sports. But I am easily stressed by nature, and my stress scales on my emotional investment: If something happens that I don't want to happen and, horrors of all horrors, I actually care, I'll close out of the tab out of some ingrained physical instinct and then, a half-minute or so later, load it back up again to repeat the process. Or, I save it for later, after I already know the score. I've learned that this is anathema to some people—I once ate dinner with an Eagles fan in a dining hall while an Eagles game was on the television, and she sat with her back to it the entire time to avoid being spoiled before she rewatched it later. But I find it soothing to know the result, when every mistake and success becomes easier to bear.
And, sometimes, when there's a lull in the sports calendar, or I want to occupy my idle time from 10:00 p.m. to midnight, I'll watch a video of something that I have already watched many times before. I cycle through videos depending on the time and mood. A couple of sports examples: I've watched this video compilation of every single J.T. Realmuto caught stealing in 2019 more times than I can count, which was how I became overfamiliar with the way catchers' masks get swung ajar on their faces when they throw a baserunner out, or the objectively gross habit of spitting after doing so. For a period of time, the Chicago White Sox had the full video of Lucas Giolito's no-hitter up on their YouTube account, and I watched the full replay of that more times than I can count, too, down to the last out, a hard-hit line drive to right field.
If the cliché of live sports is that anything can happen, the appeal of rewatching is that you know exactly what will. To a certain extent, this is the marketing appeal of a lot of mainstream modern media—all of those shitty Disney live-action remakes, the trope-laden YA industrial complex. But those projects are boring to me, and anyway, my desire to rewatch is different from my desire to consume. It's not out of nostalgic impulse for the better days of the Chicago White Sox or that season J.T. Realmuto had a 47-percent rate of catching baserunners stealing that I rewatch those videos—it's out of some pure, id-scratching satisfaction caused by how little suspense there is. Each time, Realmuto throws the baserunner out. Each time, Adam Engel catches the line drive. Sometimes, I just want everything I see to be something, exactly something, that I've seen before.
Thanks to a former professor of mine, I've watched or read Ross Gay's Be Holding three different times: once as a showing of a performance she was directing, again as the original poem in a course on archives, and finally as the performance in its final form at Girard College.
At its simplest, Be Holding is about a basketball play: the baseline scoop by Julius Erving in the 1980 NBA finals. But the conceit of the poem (and by extension, the performance) is that the poet is watching and rewatching the play on YouTube—"at 1:48 a.m., again / and again", "at 2:26 a.m.", "again and again like this at 2:59 a.m.", "anew at 3:11", "at 3:33", "at 4:56 a.m."—and through that rewatching is how you are taken through the rest of it. He takes notice of Jamaal Wilkes, and turns his nickname of "Silk" into a reflection on Black flight (that is, flying) and joy; the cradle of Silk's arm triggers a memory of Julius Erving, not yet Dr. J, still in college; the outstretched arms of spectators leads to a meditation on what it means to be captured into history as opposed to held within it.
You know from the beginning of the poem that Dr. J makes the layup—even if you don't know the moment, he must for it to be emotionally satisfying—but the poem withholds the image until the very end. So, until then, you are waiting for it to happen as a spectator might, watching it live, only four decades or so removed, and held in that waiting until the poem ends. The clip, if you watch it, lasts for about 26 seconds; the poem is book-length, and the performance lasts for two hours.
The first time I saw the performance, we were crowded into a corner of the basketball arena where the final play was held, likely because it was December and school was still in session. Compared to the final performance, it was stripped down. There were still the screens displaying the text of the poem, as well as the images that would later be projected onto backboards. The musical ensemble, Yarn/Wire, was set in the four corners, surrounding the small audience and the performers. I felt it then, the suspense, not only waiting for the layup to be made ("So, how does Doc manage it?") but also waiting for each memory, each digression, each rupture in time to resolve ("So, how on earth does Ross Gay get us back to the YouTube video, playing on a computer with gummy keys after he's taken us to UMass?"). And then, when the video played at the end, once, twice, then gone—an exhalation, a relief.
When I watched the final performance, I thought, obliquely, of writing about it—you know, because I'm now at the point in my life where I start viewing everything as a blog opportunity. Then, I was thinking about it in the context of when I first watched it, the odd feeling of suspense, the surprise whenever you ended somewhere else. But as I sat there on the uncomfortable bleachers in a shockingly beautiful high school basketball arena, I didn't feel it. Where there was suspense, it was replaced with a muted satisfaction. A sort of, I understand—that is how they did it. I hear and see the constructed image of an oak tree and think: Ah, I know where this is going.
Often, I rewatch something because I want to lose time; I'm bored, or I'm stressed, and I need to be less bored and/or stressed but my brain isn't working, so anything involving real investment is right out. Like, when I watch a four-hour-or-so video of a Celeste speedrun for perhaps the 11th time, maybe more, am I really looking to gain something from it?
I've played Freud with my friends about this before. You know, sitting-on-a-porch-at-10-p.m.-and-drinking-a-float sort of vibes: Do you think this is an example of the degenerative effects of short-form media (I do not, actually, have TikTok) on the younger generation? Do you think the Phillies losing the World Series somehow rekindled your strange fascination with that J.T. Realmuto video? Do you think the idea of graduating and having to make big choices in your life, etc. etc. means that you prefer watching things in which you already know what happens, etc. etc.?
I don't think any of that is really helpful, though, when it comes to finding meaning in my inane habits. I like thinking of it within its own little vacuum; I like that in watching something again and again, I've given it some personal meaning that it has no business having. It's my little lore box of things that matter very strongly to me for very little reason. Even if I know why I watched some videos the first time, I can't explain why I can watch them over and over again: a professional Valorant curb-stomp of a game, a slightly washed former professional Overwatch player's 2022 stream highlights, a video of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc driving each other around blindfolded. I just feel the euphoria of knowing exactly what is going to happen and when, and that is more than enough.