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Black Lamb


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In perspective

March 1st, 2013


Sports? Where do I even start? Me and sports have been an item since I was six years old, maybe earlier; I know for sure that my birthday presents when I turned seven were a blue batting helmet and a new mitt, so that’s well over fifty years. Like most relationships, we’ve had ups and downs, fits and starts, more and less passion. The nature of the thing changes, but we’re still on, and I figure there’s a good chance that as I lie on my deathbed, half-deranged, I’ll be muttering stuff like “Mickey Mantle came from a speck on the map called Commerce, Okla., and he always deadpanned that it was just before Resume Speed. His dad was called Mutt.” I’ll babble useless facts that have been etched in my brain forever: Babe Ruth 714 (home runs), Ty Cobb .367 (lifetime batting average), Bill Russell 11 (NBA championships). Heck, I usually can’t remember what I had for dinner last night, but I can give you stats on guys most people have never heard of. And the visual images in my head: I see not just the incandescent Russell, Koufax, Sayers, Jim Brown, Ali, Bird, Magic, Mays, but also most of the guys they played with.

One more useless talent of mine. I didn’t ask for it, but I got it. It’s in my blood somehow, not that my dad was a jock or anything. As aforesaid, it was me and baseball first, and my pitching motion is still deep in my muscle memory, though for the last forty years I haven’t hurled anything but a few snowballs at a few telephone poles. Occasionally, lying in bed in the middle of the night dead-still, I feel it happening, starting in my right foot, which, inside its cleated shoe, finds its place on the pitching rubber as I take the signal from my catcher. Then (even as I lie in the dark, pushing sixty years of age) I feel my weight shifting to my left foot, behind the rubber, as my arms go over my head, my windup getting under way; then back to my right foot as I start coming forward, my right knee bending à la erstwhile Mets ace Tom Seaver (who had a foxy wife, Nancy!), and then my left leg goes up and strides toward the plate as I explode up off the right leg and finally bring my arm through. Strike three! I can feel it, every detail.

Back when I was doing it for real (up to age eighteen, when my arm blew up) I figured I’d be a major-league pitcher (with a wife like Nancy Seaver). My backup plan (not that it would ever come to this) was to be a TV announcer or something, what with my mastery of not only the major strategies and stats but most of the arcana. Of course I never became Tom Seaver and never pursued broadcasting, but I’ve maintained the intimacy with sports, for better and worse. “Worse” refers to my brain being cluttered to an embarrassing degree with sports, brainspace and brainpower that could be put to much better use; refers to the staggering countless hours spent taking in games and matches and bouts on radio, on TV, in person. Embarrassing as hell when I’m with people who couldn’t ID Michael Jordan in a police lineup but have prosecuted murder cases or written meaningful books or, shoot, even read a lot of great books I could have and should have read in the countless hours I’ve spent reading Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News and whatall, and watching not only Super Bowls and World Series but meaningless mid-season games in every sport, even NFL pre-season games back in a particularly bleak period.

Speaking of books, I did eventually write two sports books, having fetched my first contract as a result of a stint some years ago as a weekly sports columnist. Maybe I could have made a career as a sportswriter, but those experiences convinced me that standing around steamy locker rooms listening to half-wit jocks opining (looking at me like I was the half-wit, since they were making millions and I wasn’t) was the last thing I wanted to do. Magic Johnson was a pleasure, and a few others, but not nearly enough of them to make it worthwhile. In any case, as the legendary sports columnist Red Smith famously said, sports is the toy department of life.

Being a casual fan is best for me, but it was a long, long time before I could call myself anything like casual. You could say the term still isn’t apt, considering the time I still give sports on TV, sports websites, the daily newspaper sports section. But I started calling myself casual when I quit “having a team,” as in “my” team — as in “we,” as in “We kicked your asses last week!” I’m not even sure when it happened. And maybe I was never as extreme as many millions of others; I was never a “We kicked your butts” kind of guy, as if I played for the team or was at least a coach, trainer, PR flack. But as a kid I semi-lived-and-died with the San Francisco Giants (Mays, McCovey, Marichal), and as a teenager with the Washington Redskins (Jurgensen, Huff, Charley Taylor), and finally, in my mid-twenties, the Portland Trail Blazers (Walton, Lucas). I still feel the buzz from the Blazers’ NBA championship in ’77 (a thing of beauty, that team, a perfect mix of contributors surrounding the otherworldly Walton), and the punch-in-the-gut of Walton’s broken foot after the next year’s team started off like a house afire and looked like a coming dynasty. Of course (everyone knows this, right?) Walton never played for Portland again; our Blazers, instantly, became the dynasty that never was.

I stopped “having a team” somewhere in there, thirty-some years ago, and, unexpectedly, watching games became much more pleasant. Without an emotional investment in the outcome you don’t have a nervous stomach throughout, don’t scream at the TV when a call goes against your side, don’t drink yourself into a stupor if your boys lose. It’s just entertainment, a couple hours’ respite from your workaday life, strained marriage, whatever. Just enjoy the personalities (coaches, players, broadcasters), the artistry, the occasional acting-out, and let it go at that. Sure, even now I’ll find myself rooting (on a very low level) for one team or the other, but not enough to where I’ll give the game any thought five minutes after game’s end.

Also, I’ll never again place a wager on a sporting event. Two or three decades ago I watched a few Super Bowls chez my sister and brother-in-law in Chattanooga, and because Chuck was vaguely acquainted with a bookie we’d spice things up on SB morning by placing bets, twenty bucks maybe. The number doesn’t matter: once you put money down, you’ve got a team — and you’re uptight the whole game, drinking too much and screaming at the referees, life-and-friggin’-death.

No. It ain’t life-and-friggin’-death. You’re doing this to yourself. And why? To win a few bucks, as opposed to losing a few? Even if it means having a nervous breakdown?

Now I totally take it for what it is, which is entertainment, the toy department of life. As a long-ago acquaintance, Mike D’Antoni (current head coach of the L.A. Lakers), once told an overly intense reporter, “Hey, we’re not curing cancer here, we’re just trying to win some basketball games.” I watch the stellar San Antonio Spurs on TV and I’m mostly waiting for the quick halftime “interview” with coach Greg Popovich, who wants no part of these things and makes a point of being monosyllabic, boring, basically absent, probably hoping the NBA chieftains will recognize the absurdity of the exercise and discontinue it. I enjoy the spectacle of NFL players, “in the heat of battle,” having water squirted into their mouths by minions, as if they’re so overwhelmed by their work that they can’t squirt their own water. I get a kick out of the commentators — mostly former players stuffed into suits and ties and pretending to be experts — trying to sound like commentators but muffing basics like “condemn” vs. “condone,” as in “I can’t comdemn him beating his girlfriend, but he’s still a great player” and “You can condone him for that cheap shot if you want, maybe even fine him, but he’s a good guy.” The networks pay them for being former all-pros, not for their smarts. I always recall an old cartoon with two football players on the sideline, the less massive one telling the mastodon, “I think you should learn to talk, Bubba. Then you can go into broadcasting when your career is over.”

I enjoy… well, no I don’t. I was going to say I enjoy Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless screeching at each other in their debates on ESPN, but the debates are scripted, the emotion ersatz; what’s interesting (to a limited degree, granted) is the character-study of Stephen A. and Bayless, the wonder of why two moderately intelligent adults would stoop to this, no matter the money, and still expect anyone to take them seriously.

I enjoy the Super Bowl most years (once the two weeks of hype is over), except for the ongoing in-game hype and sappy human-interest stories (“He dedicated this game to his baby sister who died when he was five years old”) and “competitor” stories (“He can’t stand losing, he won’t even let his five-year-old girl get a point in ping-pong!”) and the much-anticipated TV ads the big companies debut on this greatest and grandest and most overblown of national holidays (which inevitably leave me thinking this is what the greatest minds in advertising come up with, given a year and millions of bucks to come up with, and which these corporations pay the network millions of bucks to air — $4 million for a thirty-second spot this year — and which always leave me wondering, after all the bombast, what the hell company was that? What product am I supposed to buy?).

Then again, last night was the 2013 Super Bowl (that is, Supe XLVII, like Henry VIII or WWII or Pope John XXIII, not that the NFL is grandiose or anything), and it was great, once the twelve-hour pregame shows mercifully concluded and the interminable pregame ceremonies mercifully terminated and the bloated national anthem came to an end. New teams, new stars, great action. Great game. Which is what keeps me coming back at this point. I don’t much care who wins or loses, I just want a good game, and even at that I won’t care in the morning. And didn’t much care this morning, even though “my” team last night, the 49ers, lost.

So it goes. As the Dallas Cowboys’ weird running back Duane Thomas asked over-zealous reporters prior to Supe VI, who’d been querying him as to the importance of Sunday’s clash, “If this is the ultimate game, how come there’s another one next year?”

I believe I’ve got it all in perspective now. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Sports Issue, Patton | Link to this Entry


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