Recently another blogger wrote a fine piece about his impressions of the current era in professional sports. I share his feelings that there were better examples of athletes, owners, and fans back in what he refers to as “the good old days.” My own interest in sports has waned quite a bit in the last ten years or so because of some of the same reasons mentioned in his post. With seemingly every professional player now a millionaire, it’s hard to relate or garner much sympathy for athletes when we have to witness the endless parade of dramas in which they find themselves. Spousal battery, animal cruelty, child abuse, and even murder have distracted us from what should be the usual norm — arguing with friends and family about our favorite teams, and screaming back at the TV when a bad play is made. Add to all of this are the spoiled brats who are unhappy with an income that any of us would dream of having, and it’s all slowly sapping my enthusiasm for pro sports.
To be sure, a bad boy in sports is nothing new. Ty Cobb was a mean racist who thought nothing of climbing into stands and pummeling a spectator; Mike Tyson is a convicted rapist who also bit off the ear of a boxing opponent during a match; O.J. Simpson is at best a convicted robber and at worst possibly a murderer, and Pete Rose gambled on baseball perhaps as a player and very likely as a manager. There have always been “colorful” characters in sports and entertainment, but their behavior was often covered up by obliging agents, owners, and a compliant press. The Internet and a 24-hour news cycle no longer allows much to be hidden.
My sports hero growing up was Al Kaline. There were certainly other outfielders, such as Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson, who could hit the ball harder, longer, and with more power. Likewise, flashier players like Reggie Jackson and Willie Stargell were much more exciting to watch. But to me there was something about the quiet and stoic dignity exhibited by Kaline that made him an amazing role model for a young boy. He was classy and loyal, and I thought these qualities transcended beyond his prowess at the plate and his glove in right field. Moreover, I appreciated the fact that he played his entire career with one team — now a rarity.
There were others for whom I had similar respect. Another Detroit athlete, Gordie Howe, was a star both on and off the ice for his grace and gentle manner. I felt the same about Roger Staubach, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Carl Yastrzemski, and especially Hank Aaron. As I got a little older, I saw how Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, and Martina Navratilova offered the same kind of role model traits to young girls.
But something changed for me with professional sports. Perhaps it was the advent of free agency, which I thought was a better alternative than the slavery-like reserve clause. Sadly, it has produced athletes who no longer have any team loyalties, and they move from city to city in search of more money.
Perhaps it’s been the greedy owners who easily learned to blackmail municipalities into providing taxpayer subsidized stadiums, and then in turn sell the naming rights to corporations. You can’t really have an intelligent sports conversation anymore without economics in some way being brought into the conversation.
Or finally, perhaps it’s the endless ways fans are behaving in stadiums. It’s pretty standard now that someone will think it’s just fine to scream the F word in the seats with reckless abandon — and that’s actually the milder behavior.
It’s all a long way from when Johnny Unitas, Willie Mays, and Wilt Chamberlin captured our hearts.
For me personally, the innocence was lost during the baseball strike of 1994. At that moment I became officially jaded, and I realized that players and owners had more at stake collectively than offering the public what we all deserve. Yes, I absolutely took it personally. All that talk about baseball and apple pie was simply a lot of hooey. It took throwback players like Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn to ultimately get me to pay attention again. Although I now pay attention slightly more, it’s just not the same for me.
A few years ago I visited a friend in southern California whose son was wearing an LA Dodgers cap, and I asked him who his favorite Dodger was. The young boy told me it was a player on the Kansas City Royals. His father explained that kids now don’t really root for local teams in the same way that we did when we were younger. And who can blame them? The player you liked last year when he was in your town is now somewhere else.
This coming Sunday is the Super Bowl. I will watch it in spite of the whole “deflate gate” scandal. Last fall’s World Series was one of the most exciting I’ve seen in many years, and that was primarily because of Madison Bumgarner — one of the truly great pitchers I’ve seen since Steve Carlton. In spite of my feelings, there are still reasons to watch sports, and I’m sure I always will. But I watch with a semi-detached, almost dispassionate feeling.
I remember a different time.