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Original Issue

Babies on Board

SPORTSWRITERS, THE sportswriter Jimmy Cannon claimed, work in "the Toy Department of human life," one of many ways sports journalists have been infantilized over the years. Some of us need a bottle to fall asleep. Every photographer wears a bib. And ponderous columns like this one are known as thumb suckers.

But then, everyone involved in professional sports is a bit of a baby. Owners demand lavish playpens paid for by someone else. Athletes drop their underpants on the floor and find them neatly laundered in their locker the next day. The ultimate reward for every champion is a shiny object and—if he or she behaves exceptionally well—a trip to Disney World.

Yet the biggest babies have to be sports fans. Not you, specifically, but just about all the others. When Cardinals running back Chris Johnson scored a touchdown last month and tried to hand the ball to a 12-year-old fan, it was knocked loose by some so-called adults, one of whom refused to give it back. He literally took the ball and went home.

A few nights later, in Pittsburgh, former Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, now with the Sabres, tossed a puck over the glass to an eight-year-old boy in the crowd. But just before the puck dropped into the boy's trembling hands, a balding, middle-aged "man" intercepted it, stuck it in his back pocket and fixed the kid with a triumphant glance. Like taking candy from a baby, but who was the baby?

Mercifully, the Cardinals and the Penguins made it up to both kids, giving them souvenirs and attention and honoring them for being more mature than the grown men seated around them. But this kind of thing happens all the time.

Attend any game in North America, and you'll see so-called grown-ups compete with kids for foul balls or clamor for T-shirts shot from cannons in keeping with their long-standing love of leisurewear. Sports—and long-haul commercial airline flights—seem to attract middle-aged men dressed like children, in sneakers, shorts, jerseys and baseball caps, often sucking on the plastic nipple of a grande mochaccino.

Sports don't have a monopoly on these creatures. In other walks of life, kidults—the vomitous coinage this phenomenon has spawned—might enjoy cosplay, Legos and the burgeoning industry of coloring books marketed to men and women. We communicate through thumbs-up on Facebook, thumbs-down on YouTube, hearts on Twitter and frowny faces via text: the full range of infantile expression.

Even so, is there anything sadder than the unrequited high five that a 40-year-old man offers an NBA rookie who's jogging to the tunnel after a game? Who but babies and sports fans scream at the godlike figures in their lives whenever things don't go their way? If you're an adult, and you're not employed as an athlete's tax attorney or bail bondsman, you shouldn't ask him for his signature on a piece of paper.

Of course, part of the point of watching sports is to become childlike again, sucking soda through a straw and eating ice cream from a hat. Jimmy Fallon tells a story of eating Cracker Jacks at a Yankees World Series game with Lorne Michaels and Jack Nicholson when the latter said to him, after several moments of silent observation, "Didja get your priiiize yet, Jimmy?"

But there's a difference between arrested development and development that's been arrested, cuffed, stuffed, perp-walked and sentenced to life. And so this past World Series seemed to be an endless series of cutaway shots to adult fans in anguish: weeping, praying or peering at the game through splayed fingers, as if at a horror movie. It's a familiar routine to anyone who has ever been 10 years old. But it seems a little puerile even to some veterans of the Toy Department—and we wear our names and photos on laminated cards around our necks, in case we get lost.

All of this is to say that it's a short distance from infant to fan, from boo-hoo to boo. Thank heaven, then, that while babies, fans and columnists often go on red-faced rants like this one, they will also—often in mid-cry, after a sudden burst of flatulence—abruptly pass out and leave a peaceful silence.

Sports don't have a monopoly on so-called kidult culture, but it's the most fertile soil for cultivating grown-up infantilism.

Who's the biggest baby in sports? Join the discussion on Twitter by using #SIPointAfter and following @SteveRushin