UP CLOSE AND NOT PERSONAL
by Roger Angell
Issue of 2006-01-09
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. Gasping at the stars’ enormous pads and rolling acres and their outsized fridges (empty, for the most part, except for the obligatory bottle of Cristal) and snickering at such monumental garishness and infantile taste is all right for the sub-twenty age group that “Cribs” aims at, but it’s still not what we fans are after. What we yearn for may be contained in the question that every sportswriter keeps hearing from his readers: “What’s Willie Mays”—or Phil Mickelson or Andy Roddick—“really like?” Willie, as it happens, is cranky and private in person (he’s seventy-four years old) and passably complex, but this news, of course, is not what’s wanted. The desired, almost the demanded, answer is that he’s a great guy: he’s exactly like us.
The Times, on a recent Saturday, featured an extended visit to the New York apartment of Tiki Barber, now in his ninth year as the featured running back for the New York Giants. Barber, a known sports good guy, is thirty and on the edge of superstardom, and here he was, with that shaved head and sweet smile, at play with his twenty-one-month-old son, Chason, and then with his feet up on an ottoman, gabbing with his animated wife, Ginny. Their four-thousand-square-foot apartment has a twelve-foot-high trophy case, a flat-screen TV in every room, and space for a private suite for Ginny’s parents, but in the story it felt modest enough to allow a sports-fan reader to feel right at home, even familiar. Nice place, Tiki, but this striped, nail-head bench—what were you thinking? And that bedroom for Chason’s three-year-old brother, A.J.—do you want a kid growing toward his teens staring at a mural every day where he’s holding up a sign that says “Go Tiki #21!” C’mon!
This sense of wry palship, a Schadenfreude dekorative, lasted for local fans right up until kickoff time, late that same afternoon, when Tiki Barber and the Giants took on the visiting Kansas City Chiefs at the Meadowlands, and beat them, 27–17, to put themselves one game away from clinching the National Football Conference East division. There was plenty of Tiki to watch and yell over. He is midsized and not particularly fast as running backs go, but here he was, again cruising close to his blockers and then finding the hole or the invisible seam and driving for yardage before disappearing under a vanload of tacklers. The Giants scored a couple of field goals and a touchdown on a pass from Eli Manning to Amani Toomer, but the play of the day was a second-quarter run by Tiki, around the left side and then brilliantly back and forth between grasping and flying frustrated Chief defensemen, forty-one yards, for a touchdown. He ran some more after that, driving in for the twenty-yard clinching touchdown late in the day—it was night by now, and you kept your eye on his gleaming blue helmet in motion, always a little lower than the rest. In the end, he’d run two hundred and twenty yards from scrimmage—and away from us, you might say—for a franchise record, and had compiled 1,577 rushing yards for the season, breaking the team record he set last year. Great game, Tiki. Out of sight.