If you care, as I do, with a love and passion that is almost mysterious because of the very depths of it, this was the year that pushed me overboard.
To hell with sports. To hell with all of it. To hell with the greed and the pettiness. To hell with that insouciant arrogant athlete swagger of I-could- care-less, man-boys making their millions and not putting out a dime’s worth of effort for it.
The hype got to me, the towering Babel of Kornheiser and Wilbon and Rome and Tom Arnold, Tom Arnold for godsakes. The saturation got to me, college football games around the clock, NCAA basketball for every mood swing, the NFL draft receiving almost as much bad seat-of-the-pants analysis as the War in Iraq. The scandals got to me, the pathetic shame of the Harricks at Georgia and the decision by St. Bonaventure, when confronted with cheating, to simply cancel the rest of the basketball season as if it never happened. I got tired of sports pages reading like rap sheets. I got tired of wondering whether Shaq liked Kobe or Kobe liked Shaq. I got tired of checking the box score every night to see how many times Rasheed Wallace had pouted. The more I read about high school basketball wunderkind LeBron James, the more it seemed like a nasty little morality play, big-time magazines and big-time networks making this kid larger than life only to chisel away at him when he began to act like the entitled smack- ass monster that they of course had created.
I went to a couple of Major League Baseball games, but they were at Veterans Stadium in Philly where I live. The stadium is amorphous and atmosphere-less, everything about it drab except for the hideous glaring green of the artificial-surface field and the increasingly desperate prancings of the Phanatic. By the time it got into the fifth inning, the players seemed like they were in slow motion in the thick soupy summer Philly heat, and I knew it wasn’t just the beer that was inducing such bleary-eyed lethargy.
I went to an NBA game in Seattle. Thanks to a friend, I had a great seat on the floor right opposite the Seattle SuperSonics’ bench. The SuperSonics were playing Indiana, and the game was pretty good, actually damn good since it went into overtime. You couldn’t help but admire the intensity of Gary Payton even if his scowl did cast the entire arena in shadow. But it was the conduct of the players on the Seattle bench that drew my attention, the way they rose for a team huddle during a time-out with all the enthusiasm of arthritic octogenarians, the cool little nods they gave during the game to friends in the stands, as if what happened after the game was a whole lot more important than what was happening during it.
I went to a pro football game in Tennessee. It was a big game, a Monday Night game on ABC, the Titans versus the Patriots. As a result, there was a lot of hype, and it seemed to me that for some of the players, in particular Jevon Kearse, the pregame intro was far more important than the game itself, the way he ran onto the field like a gyrating drum major, swiveling his head back and forth with slightly less effect than when Linda Blair did her 360 in The Exorcist. It was a grand entrance, a great entrance. The fans loved it. The cameras loved it. Kearse loved it most of all, making his invisible play during the game almost incidental. Face time, baby. Face time. And he had gotten lots of face time in that preening cockadoodle strut, better than any sack.
The disillusionment I felt wasn’t something conjured up. Sports truly has defined my life, a presence as powerful in my forties as it was in my prepubescence. Drawing ever closer to the no-man’s-land of fifty, I am shocked by the slippage of so many facts that were once at my fingertips. And yet, there is all this sports knowledge that still crams my head, as if there is a specific part of the brain actually dedicated to the gathering and permanent collection of it, a frontal sports lobe.
I can’t tell you where I was last week, but I can tell you exactly where I was when Joe Pepitone hit a grand slam for the Yankees in game 6 of the 1964 World Series — on the Eighty-sixth Street cross-town bus just as it was leaving Fifth Avenue, the sublime knowledge of it coming from men in coats and ties with transistor radios glued to their ears. I can’t come close to telling you who the presidents of our nation were in the twentieth century, but I can list off the top of my head all the World Series champions from 1957 to 1980. Before September 11 I had no idea where Afghanistan was, much less its political climate, but I do know that the great Dartmouth football team of 1970, where my father went to college, shut out six of nine opponents in its undefeated season and gave up only forty-two points.
I remember sitting in the Yale Bowl in tears as a child when the Elis handdddded the Big Green a particularly humiliating 56–15 defeat, and I still can feel the arm of my father cupping my skinny shoulder blades, trying to console me in the cold shiver of that barren hateful place. Close to forty years later, in 2001, as my father lay in a hospital bed in New York trying to stave off the cancer that would kill him and I groped for words of reassurance that would not come because there was no reassurance that I could give, the bond that held us together was the sweet music of the Yankees. We watched the American League Championship Series games together against the Mariners, and it gave my father and me something to care about, unite over, share together, without having to confront what neither of us could confront. He loved the Yankees, and he had passed that love on to me. We didn’t say much as we watched. We let the games do the talking for us. But as they unfolded, he suddenly blurted out that he had actually seen both Ruth and DiMaggio at Yankee Stadium, and that for his money DiMaggio was the best he ever saw, the grace of him like magic.
We reminisced over game 4 of the 1964 World Series, Yankees versus the Cardinals at Yankee Stadium, when he had somehow copped a pair of tickets and had decided to take me. I was nine at the time, and in that hospital room I could still recall the score, a devastating 4–3 Yankee loss after the Bombers had gone up 3–0 in the first. I remembered the circumstances that had caused it as if it had happened yesterday, an error by my favorite player, second baseman Bobby Richardson, on an easy double-play ball that loaded the bases, followed by a grand slam by Ken Boyer off of Al Downing into left field that I mercifully didn’t have to witness because there was a big fat concrete girder in front of us like there was in front of most seats in the old Yankee Stadium.
In fact, I didn’t move out of my seat at all on the crack of Boyer’s bat. The instant I heard it I knew it was bad, but my father rose, as did all the thousands around us, moving in unison with outstretched necks a little bit like a Bill Gallo cartoon in the New York Daily News, then cranking their necks back in when the havoc Boyer had just wrought became sadly apparent. When my father looked back at me, there was such a sweet sense of concern in his eyes, as if he knew I would impale myself on the nearest mustard dispenser if left to my own devices. I was crushed, totally crushed, the slap-in-the-face of Ken Boyer’s home run only made worse by the fact that he had a brother Clete who played for the Yankees (how could you do something like that to your own brother?), not to mention the shame of Bobby Richardson, who never made an error. Never. Never. Until now when I was there to witness it.
I did not do any harm to myself, as it turned out. But I did not speak for the rest of the...