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As an all-round nonathlete, one of the questions I am frequently asked is: Why are you invited to take part in so many sporting contests? It is a good question. Tennis weekends at Southampton, polo matches at Meadowbrook, golf at St. Andrews—invitations to bucket along on such snazzy athletic jaunts are always coming my way with no effort on my part.
And these are only three of perhaps 114 sports at which I display no proficiency whatsoever. Just the other day, over cold expense-account lobster and baby peas at the Plaza, I was urged to play on a field hockey team that was meeting the following Saturday at Greenwich, Conn. As usual, I accepted. I do not, of course, have the slightest notion of how to play field hockey. I cannot recall that I have ever seen the game played. Certainly this was no time for me to learn.
In the car going up, I said casually that I played field hockey the way the British did—I hoped they didn't mind. This caused appropriate consternation and uneasiness among the team members. The day was drizzly and damp, which put the weather decidedly in my favor. When we arrived at Greenwich I made a few rapid-fire calculations. The field looked soggy, and I said so, but added cheerfully, "Well, who's afraid of a little mud?"
There were, on the faces of some members of the team, looks which seemed to reflect grim resignation. Possibly there were those to whom the prospect of playing in the rain was less than merry. However, since the only ones who had showed up on our side were the 11 players, plus one spindly and unusable-looking manager, I knew that if I used a technique which took me out of the game personally, but left the team short-handed, I would be marked unmistakably as a rat. So whatever I did would have to be in the direction of getting the game called off altogether. In a loud voice I said, "You know, I've played this game so much lately that frankly I'm a little sick of it. Darn near threw my stick away. Anybody here get as bored with it as I do?"
Nobody answered, and a few minutes later, as we were lacing ourselves into our uniforms and the rain was coming down with increased velocity, I was wondering desperately if I would be forced to demolish a shin guard with a spiked shoe. "Say," I said suddenly, "we can play hockey any time. But look—here we are, with 12 men on our side, and 12 men on their side. How often do you get a perfect setup like that for six tables of bridge?"
As we sat down at the table, I said, "Of course, I only play the South African transfer." Thus I made the Greenwich trip, had a wonderful time, returned to New York with my friendships unbroken as my shins, and no one guessed that I did not know how to play field hockey—or bridge.
How do I manage to get so much fun out of sport with none of the effort it ordinarily requires? Simple. I have taught myself to talk a good game. Field hockey, I tell everyone, is a wonderful game. I like it almost as much as Belgian pigeon flying. I find the trips to far off places that you get when you play field hockey are every bit as exciting as the annual Toulouse-to- Brussels pigeon race. Of course, talking a good game has its own variety of thrills, spills and rewards to the victor. At the last moment, when all else seems to have failed, and you are about to pile out onto the field and disgrace yourself, great resourcefulness is needed if you are to extricate yourself from the situation. To avoid playing field hockey in Greenwich, I used a variety of techniques to create the illusion of playing without actually doing so. This is not so difficult as the bruised noninitiate might think.
Suppose, for example, that like many of us (more than will admit it) you are not a skier. Well, you are still fond of weekends in the country, aren't you? If a friendly voice booms over long distance, "Come up to Vermont for a little skiing!" the invitation will be summarily withdrawn if you mutter lamely, "Yeah, but I can't ski."
What you must do is go, and create the impression of skiing without actually skiing. Of course, in talking a good game, some care is necessary. Certainly there is no sorrier gaffe than a sports gaffe. I am thinking of the North Shore debutante who, during a discussion of the Patterson-Johansson fight, inquired, "Let's see—is that Sugar Ray Johansson?" Or the fellow who said, in reference to Bob Feller's 1940 no-run, no-hit game: "I've never followed football too closely." My mother put down the newspaper a few afternoons ago and said, "They're talking about the World Series. I thought they had that last year." It is hard to say which is the more disgraceful—admitting total ignorance of a sport, admitting one can't play it, or using incorrect terms while pretending one can play it. But if you know how to talk a good game you need face none of these distasteful alternatives. To show how simple it all is, I have set down a few easily-remembered rules:
I. SHOUT. Nothing creates a firmer impression of athletic ability and knowledge than a confident, even strident, tone. Explosiveness throws your questioner off, makes him think he has accidentally stumbled on the one sport at which you really excel, and causes him to wonder if you aren't a good deal better at it than he is.