Can Baseball Become an Addiction?

Experts explore the fine line between being a dedicated sports fan and addictive behavior.

In the movie Fever Pitch, the main character is so obsessed with the Boston Red Sox that several girlfriends have left him.

When he finally gets another girlfriend, he chooses a Red Sox home game over a free trip to Paris with her.

The movie is billed as a comedy, but Stephen Lombardi saw too much of himself in it to find it funny.

"My father-in-law told me, 'You have to see this movie; if it were about the Yankees, it would be you,'" Lombardi said. "When I saw it, I had to agree with him. So many scenes hit close to home. There's even a scene where the male lead (Jimmy Fallon) emails a greeting card to the female lead (Drew Barrymore). It says, 'I wanted to send you a dozen roses,' and each rose turns into a picture of Pete Rose. On my first date with my wife back in 1990, I gave her a picture of Pete Rose and said, 'Here, I wanted to give you a rose on this special night.'" View WebMD's animations. View WebMD's animations.

Yes, Lombardi is a baseball junkie. He readily admits it.

"I think about baseball all the time," he says. "I've tried to suppress it, but then, while I'm having a conversation with someone, I'll start wondering, 'Who starts for the Yankees tonight?'"

Lombardi is not alone in his obsession. The baseball web site he created, aptly called, has attracted more than 212,000 visitors since it appeared on Jan. 4, 1999. Visitors to the site can absorb baseball facts, compare players from various eras, read interviews, and exchange opinions.

They can also find a link for ordering Lombardi's book, The Baseball Same Game, which he managed to write in three feverish months beginning on New Year's Day this year, even though he has a full-time job and two small children.

And a wife.

"She must be a saint," Lombardi says of her. "But then, baseball is my only vice, and it's pretty harmless. My job, my income, my family -- they're all doing well."

According to psychologists, those indicators separate an avid fan from a baseball addict.

Attributes of a Sports Addiction

"For most individuals, following baseball is a healthy pastime," says Dan Wann, a professor of psychology at Murray State University in Kentucky and the author of two books on sports psychology. "But for a small number, their interest and involvement become so great it disrupts their relationships and their work efficiency. A die-hard fan may adjust his work schedule so he can attend games, but I've met people who consume 100 hours a week of sports, either by watching TV or logging on to the Internet. It's all they care about. They tend not to have relationships."

Why do people become so obsessed with baseball?

Wann says the explanation lies in two fundamental human traits. We like to belong to a group with common interests, which baseball certainly provides. "Over 90% of fans attend sporting events in a group," Wann says.

Also, sports provide an opportunity for fans to succeed vicariously on the big stage of sports.

"You may not be able to throw the game-winning touchdown pass or hit a game-winning home run yourself," Wann notes, "but you can identify with those who do."

Kevin Quirk agrees, but while writing Not Now Honey, I'm Watching the Game, a book about obsessed sports fans, he identifies another reason.

"Following sports is also a nice way to hide from feelings we don't want to confront about our own lives," he says. "Our job, relationships, financial problems -- when we tune in to games and discuss our team with others, that's all time we don't have to spend on those problems in our lives that are mundane, difficult, hard to change. Unfortunately, sports can work as a convenient hiding place."

Avoidance of Pain

The need to hide from painful feelings is a familiar aspect of addiction, according to Candace Pert, author of Molecules of Emotion. In her book she explains how certain chemicals, when they act on the brain, produce pleasurable feelings. It makes no difference whether those chemicals are ingested, like heroin or cocaine, or produced spontaneously by the brain in response to enjoyable activities such as sex, eating, or being with friends. They will make a person feel good. People who become addicted to those good feelings, however, are usually trying to escape painful feelings as well.

"Behavior becomes addictive because it releases pleasure chemicals in the brain, so in the beginning it's about pleasure," says Pert, "but as time progresses it's about the avoidance of pain. It becomes less about getting pleasure and more about avoiding pain. People who really become addicts have some core traumas."

Fever Pitch, for example, is based on a memoir by novelist Nick Hornby, an obsessive soccer enthusiast who became hooked at the age of 11 after his parents separated. When his father took him to a soccer match, the young Hornby became so infatuated with the game that everything else in life -- school, chums, even girlfriends -- receded into the background. Part of the reason, he concludes, was the connection the game provided with his father.

"Football may have provided us with a new medium through which we could communicate," Hornby writes in the memoir, "but that was not to say that we used it, or what we chose to say was necessarily positive."

Recovering From Addiction

Recovery from any addiction, including extreme enthusiasm for sports, requires withdrawal from the addictive substance or behavior. But for many who live and breathe baseball, that's not easy, especially during the playoffs and the World Series. They tend to deny that they have a problem, and even if they suspect they are taking their enthusiasm too far, they are constantly tempted by unlimited sports offerings on cable TV and the Internet.

"Years ago all you had was radio or TV," explains Wann. "It's hard to get addicted to something that's hard to get.

Even those who admit they have a problem often find that ignoring sports leaves a gaping hole in their life.

"We have a drive to connect with something larger than we are," says Quirk, "and in many ways sports provides that. It's like a spiritual journey. Baseball is not necessarily a god for some people, but it's a part of what satisfies that yearning to be part of something bigger than they are."

Still, withdrawal is possible. Quirk, whose own experience with sports addiction prompted him to write his book, doesn't subscribe to cable television and its endless supply of sports, although he admits to checking up on the Red Sox via the Internet. "If I'm at my desk, I'll take a peek and see what the score is," he says.

But ex-addicts have to be vigilant about controlling their interest.

"I got an email update from a guy in Boston who imposed a sports blackout on himself during the playoffs because he knows how hard it is for him to remain rounded in his daily life," Quirk says. "If you recognize it has that kind of impact on you, you can at least cut down."

Lombardi also struggles to control his baseball obsession, but he admits he gets help from his wife.

"She brings me down to earth with that phrase no baseball nut wants to hear: It's just a game."

Show Sources

Published Oct. 10, 2005.

SOURCES: Stephen M. Lombardi, author, The Baseball Same Game; Daniel L. Wann, PhD, psychology, Murray State University, Kentucky; author, Sport Psychology and The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators. Kevin Quirk, author Not Now Honey, I'm Watching the Game: What to Do When Sports Come Between You and Your Mate. Candace Pert, PhD, professor of physiology and biophysics at Georgetown University School of Medicine; author, Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel. Nick Hornby, author, Fever Pitch.
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