As someone who’s spent his life with passions more or less equally divided between art and sport I’ve come, as I’ve aged, to feel like I walk a line dividing two factions who frequently view the other as deficient in some way, if not of lesser moral fiber. Most of the people I’ve met who’ve shared my intense interest in one arena have had an apathy for the other that borders on antipathy. Oversimplifying things by only a small degree, the artists have a tendency to see a fascination with all things sporting as the work of a small mind who’s only impact on the world is to make it a courser, more unfair place. The jocks look at the art world as one populated by misanthropic narcissists hell bent on exerting a pernicious erosion of all that makes this world good. I can honestly say that having never clearly fallen into one camp or another has left me in a position to think everybody might just have a point here. For me, my bifurcated attentions are a function of the particular draw that each of these fields offer. The music, film and books that have resonated most deeply with me usually touch me in a way that reminds me that I am not as isolated as I like to think I am. There is something about the experience that is comforting, if in a defensive way. There is a relief in realizing that you’re not necessarily alone even if you don’t feel connected in general. Sports have typically had a much more traditionally positive impact on me. My most powerful sport-related memories have frequently left me knowing I’m part of a larger community in a solid if not always specific way. With the start of baseball season still months away I have a tendency to let my thoughts drift toward seasons gone by; as much to relive a pleasant moment as to reinforce a painful but unavoidable fact of life- I will never play for the New York Mets.
But I can recall the good times as much as I choose to. I was at Game 6 of the 1986 World Series which should make my baseball reminiscence easy to predict. Except that’s not the time at Shea Stadium I treasure the most. Don’t get me wrong. It was absolutely amazing. Standing there amongst 50,000 or so other lunatics, living and dying with every pitch was extraordinarily exciting. To rally like that, down to a season’s last strike, was a moment of pure (fan) triumph unequalled before or since for me. When I was a kid my parents house was directly in the flight path of the Concorde. I’ve seen The Who in concert. Mookie Wilson’s groundball through Billy Buckner’s legs generated a volume I didn’t think was within human capacity. Loudest thing I’ve ever heard. And the most frightening. The stadium began to move. Overwhelming joy with a dash of genuine fear. Wouldn’t trade it for anything. Still, there was also a not inconsiderable element of relief involved. We were losing. We were saved. That was the headline. And the subject of all conversation on the way home. The game that best captures the feeling of belonging I was referring to happened some fifteen years later. July 29th, 2001. A sweaty Sunday afternoon in which the Mets and the Phillies engaged in a nine inning contest with no larger stakes than seeing who could win a meaningless series between two clubs headed in different directions. We stunk. They were on their way to a second place finish. Not knowing the misery that would engulf all of us in roughly six weeks I was already in a low place myself. My 38th birthday had just passed and I was at the game by myself, having been unable to scare up a date for the occasion. Having been ahead at one point we were now in a 3-3 tie, courtesy of John Franco and Armando Benitez (the arson squad) each coughing it up. Bottom of the ninth, nobody on, Mike Piazza up. Gone. Just like that. Into the picnic grounds in left-center. We all knew it before the outfielder took a step. Stuck in my head for the previous two hours and fifty two minutes I became part of the instant party that was the loge section, behind home plate. Turning towards the end of the aisle I was face to face with a guy headed in the other direction. He, a tall, thin black man and I, the avatar for the concept of non-descript white guy grabbed each other without a seconds hesitation. Having never met before was no impediment to an immediate understanding for us. We were, if only for a few seconds, literally brothers in arms. A moment no less authentic for its brevity.
A little more than seven years later, in a very different setting, I had the good fortune to be swept up in that sort of thing again. On August 15th 2008 my wife and I were out celebrating our fourth anniversary. Despite some ugly weather we had a wonderful evening. Dinner and a show. By the time we were walking to the garage the rain had stopped. Perhaps because of the earlier thunderstorms the streets of the upper west side of Manhattan were very quiet. Heading west, somewhere in the high fifties the near silence of our stroll was disrupted by a roar who’s origin and impetus were not immediately clear to me. We stopped moving and looked around for the crowd. I happened to glance down at her watch and I got it. Late Friday night in New York was early Saturday afternoon in Beijing. Michael Phelps had just one his seventh gold medal of the 2008 Olympics, swimming the 100 meter butterfly. The sound we heard came from a bar more than half a city block away. I had been watching him swim all week, and also for the previous eight years. I swam in school and have remained a fan of the sport ever since. The gods of the internet had made it possible to scratch that particular itch in a much more satisfying way. At the 2000 games he’d been just fifteen years old and finished fifth in the 200 fly. The few people I knew who shared my interest in swimming were, along with me, true believers the first time we saw him in the water. That good, that young, we were waiting to see if he would be the one. Meaning the one to break Mark Spitz’s record for gold medals (7) at a single Olympics. Close in 2004 (6 gold 2 bronze) this was his best chance. Peaking at exactly the right time he seemed to have a real shot. Still, nothing was guaranteed. In only the second event of his program, the men’s 4×100 freestyle relay had won by just .08 seconds. That incredibly narrow margin was only possible after what was without question (on an athletic basis) the most heroic performance I have ever seen. After the first three swimmers the American men were behind the French. Entering the water already behind a swimmer who’s best swim was faster than his own, USA anchor Jason Lezak had the fastest relay split in history and kept Phelps’ dream alive. The intervening events had not produced any real tension, as Michael had won them all in convincing fashion. The 100 fly was touted as a much more competitive race. And now it was done. The eighth gold medal in the men’s 4×100 medley relay was not really in doubt. This had been the high point of an incredible week. I didn’t see it. And I didn’t miss a thing. We ran to the bar in time to catch one of what must have been dozens of replays. It was great, but it isn’t what I think of when I recall that night. What I remember best are the looks of pride on the faces staring at the television set. No sense of self consciousness. Nobody caring at how ridiculous our shared sense of ownership might seem. It didn’t last ten minutes, but I didn’t conjure it up either. When I think of that night I’m reminded that feeling a sense of national identity does not always have to be a result of tragic loss. If I were ten years older I might look back on the initial days of the space program in the same way. For me now it is sport to which I turn to try and capture that feeling.
May, 2014. My stepson is running as a freshman on the high school track team. Mike has shown some talent but is consumed with not failing. If you’ve ever competed at anything you know that mindset is a recipe for mediocrity. Entering 9th grade his best mile was 6:05. After a few months on the team it has dropped to 5:35, which is not terrible, but not what he’s capable of. Lest you think this is just the rambling of an annoying sideline parent, his coaches have voiced similar opinions. Repeatedly. No one, it seems, can convince him to just let it fly and see what he can do. He is running the mile leg of a relay today. Taking the baton in second place he runs a decent first lap. And then slowly the anchor on the third place team begins to close on him. Looking at the other kids on the relay it isn’t hard to see what they’re thinking. It’s going to happen again. He’ll play it safe, they’ll wind up in third. Standing at the finish line I can see clear across the track where he is giving up inch by inch. Until he isn’t. Slowly, he begins to pick it up, taking back some of the ground he had ceded. It isn’t just me. The kids and the coaches see it too. He keeps moving. Back to the same differential he started with. And more. And more. Barely on his feet by the end of the race he has run 5:21. My wife is kind enough to stand next to me and smart enough to let me cry silently. I have watched this boy take a first step to becoming the man he will one day be. Coming from a home where things did not always work the way one might have hoped for, as I watch him hands on knees and breathing hard, I am acutely aware that I have, and am part of a family.
Art, in its communicative search for truth, is so often a reminder that it’s okay to be different. Sport, with its exultation in the path to victory even more that the winning itself is an endless lesson in the ways we are less different than we might think we are.