Magazine article The New Yorker

UP CLOSE AND NOT PERSONAL; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Magazine article The New Yorker

UP CLOSE AND NOT PERSONAL; COMMENT Series: 1/5

Article excerpt

With the bowl games at hand, the N.B.A. and N.H.L. seasons in full flow, the N.F.L. playoffs just ahead, and pitchers-and-catchers a bare six weeks away, sports fans may be wondering once again why all this repletion isn't more satisfying. Sports news abounds, with the talk shows easily outnumbering the games actually being played, but what's missing still is the crazy, cozy old sense of identification that once tied the fan by the set or in the stands to the young athletes out on the field. The attachment was steady until a couple of decades ago, and what did it in wasn't so much salaries or steroids or free agency as the astoundingly changed dimensions and reflexes of the modern player. Professional athletes once looked like somebody we knew, that friendly young fellow down the block who could run fast and dunk the ball or throw it a mile--not us exactly but close enough, and there in the games to represent if not always our town or our college then our species. This illusion waned when everyday N.B.A. players grew to six feet eight or better and N.F.L. linemen suddenly averaged two hundred and ninety pounds and could run forty yards in under six seconds. Well, O.K., there was still baseball, where the sweet connection first flourished. Our fathers or grandfathers, at ease in their good grandstand seats behind third base, could look out at Red Schoendienst or Bill Mazeroski or Tom Tresh and think, Well, with a little luck . . . The regulars took home each year just about what a pediatrician or a V.P. for sales or a steady C.P.A. earned. They were us, if we were doing well, in short, and chances were that we'd have succeeded at their game, too, if we'd taken a crack at it. Well, dream on, Gramps--or, as Hemingway's Jake Barnes said, isn't it pretty to think so? Now, in any case, all that's gone. Try to get down near field level before your next ballgame and take a look at Derek Jeter or Jeff Kent or Dontrelle Willis as they stroll by: wow, these guys are enormous.

The dream of intimacy--it was always fantasy--is gone, and today's players, so close to us on our plasma screens, are galaxies away from our own doings and capabilities. The loss hurts--no wonder the hosts and guests on the TV sports shows look so angry--and we are casting about to close the distance. If we can bring ourselves to think of professional athletes as rock stars, which they so resemble, we can find them on the wildly popular MTV program "Cribs," which has taken viewers to the lush quarters of Snoop Dogg and Mariah Carey and Missy Elliott (a giant replica of her signature is set in the floor of her front hall), and also to Johnny Damon's home in Tampa, where the dining room features an altered version of "The Last Supper," with the heads of former fellow Red Sox players replacing the Apostles around the table. On various Web sites, we can also find Shaquille O'Neal's lobby-size bed with its Superman-logo bedspread, and the heroic bronze statue of Pudge Rodriguez that decorates his own back yard. Roger Clemens, who has yet to appear on "Cribs," has granted the occasional journalist a visit to his fifteen-thousand-square-foot home in the Piney Point area of Houston, with its Hall of Bats; its floor-to-ceiling golf-ball holders on either side of his study desk, containing three hundred and four golf balls each (one for each course he has played to date); and a bedroom that features lighted display cases and a wet bar. …

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