One of the most common ways to describe the excitement of watching true athletic genius in action is to say, “Someday, I’ll tell my grandchildren I saw INSERT NAME OF SUPERSTAR play.” It speaks to a desire for permanence in a field of entertainment that is inherently transient. Players change teams, teams change cities, cities change arenas, so on, so forth, that all we can really count on through the decades is individual brilliance. I watched Michael Jordan, in his prime, play in person four times. I watched him on television, live, hundreds upon hundreds of times. This is something I have and can hold onto, even if he embarrassed himself with the Wizards and is almost certainly on a golf course somewhere right now, pretending to scout Bobcats talent while taking on increasingly dangerous wagers as his golf partners laugh at first and then start to legitimately worry. I will always be able to say I saw Jordan in his prime. And I’ll be able to tell my grandchildren about it.
I bet they won’t give a damn, though. They won’t give a damn the same way I didn’t give a damn when my grandfather would tell me how great Stan Musial was, and the same way I don’t give a damn when everyone of my father’s generation won’t shut up about how brilliant Mickey Mantle was. I mean, I have no doubt both of those players were great: Their statistics are impressive, and there are enough intelligent people who claim they were The Best They Ever Saw that I won’t dismiss them. And I’ll confess an emotional connection to Musial as a gentle, decent man, the way we like to wish all our athletes were like, even if we have no real right or authority to expect such things. But I still can’t think of those guys as better than the ones I’m watching right now because I didn’t see them. They’re just theoretical.
Never mind how the specialization of sports now have turned today’s players into far better capital-A Athletes than in past generations: Bigger, Stronger, Faster, all that. (This has done wonders for the game itself but makes for far less well-rounded people to watch and invest in; we’re so desperate for relatable athlete personalities these days that R.A. Dickey names his bat after a Beowulf character and we act like he’s the next coming of Chaucer.) I think today’s athletes are “better” than the ones of 40 years ago, the same way that phones are better, that we use computers rather than typewriters, that when something happens in the world of sports, I can read 50 takes on it rather than just one. (Or zero.) The world is a better place now than it was 40 years ago. We evolve. With obvious exceptions -- gun culture, romantic comedies, Lana Del Rey -- we improve. This will continue: In 40 years, unless it turns out that the “Red Dawn” remake is actually true and North Korea is about to take over the country, the world will be a better place than it is now, and athletes will be light years better. (Maybe they’ll even be robots.)
But I won’t believe it. There’s something about sports that requires us to see it, and to put it in our own specific context. A wise man once said that the taste of the average American is essentially set in stone when they’re in middle school, and everything after that is going to be too tinged with knowledge of how the real world works to possibly compete with those memories. This, justifiably, makes us look like old fogies to our grandchildren (actual, theoretical and proverbial) when we tell them that, no, trust us, things were better back in MY day. We are all, deep down, old fogies: No matter our age, we will always think things were better when we at our most impressionable age.
We all are this guy:
Forget all-time greats, too. There is so much that will sound like ridiculous fads someday. My dad tells me over and over how great Mark Fidrych was, how popular he was, but I look at his lifetime stats and think my dad’s a little crazy; Fidrych seems as relevant to me as a pet rock, or furbies, or pogs. That doesn’t mean I’m right: I’m pretty sure it means I’m wrong. I just know I’ll never believe it. I have this fear this is going to happen to me with Jeremy Lin, famously returning to the Garden Monday night to face the Knicks again. I love Lin as a player and think he’s going to be great again. But if he’s not, my kids are going to hear me and Spike Lee say that was the loudest we’d ever seen the Garden and they’ll look at his career numbers, and they’ll wonder why in the world Americans went so nutty for two weeks back in February 2012. I’ll know they’re wrong, because I was there, because I saw it. But that doesn’t make me not wrong, either.
So remember that as you hold onto your memories, your notions that you’re lucky to see LeBron James play, or Albert Pujols play, or Adrian Peterson play. Someday, no one will believe us. They’ll have their own heroes. And we will always be ignored and mocked by those younger generations, as we damned well should. We can at least take solace in knowing that eventually their grandkids will do it to them too.
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This whole column probably could have been said a lot quicker as “Well, I guess you had to be there.” Thoughts, concerns, grousing, future column ideas? Remember, this column is meant as a valve, a release, for when you’re yelling at your television during games, or, after reading a particular column, you’re pounding your fists into your computer. Obviously, I’ll need your help to do that. Anything you want me to write about, let me know, through email or Twitter. I am at your beck and call.