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Star Struck

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In an age of strikes, franchise moves, free agency, and scandal, how's a kid supposed to get nostalgic about sports?

By Charles McDermid

IT WAS DURING a recent conversation with my father that I realized how being a sports fan has changed from his generation to my own. As a child of the modern era, I find that I fondly condescend to his notions of purity in the realm of sport.

"My whole universe changed in 1958 when the Giants came to San Francisco, because I had a real team. Not only that but Willie Mays. It legitimized living in Northern California in my mind," says my father, who, in his early 50s, is twice my age. "I remember listening to Willie McCovey's first game on the radio--he had something like two home runs and two doubles--and thinking they're going to have to change the game because this guy is going to raise the bar.

"He became one of the people I would've exchanged my reality for."

Of course, the old man is no stranger to hyperbole-- don't get him started on Jimmy Davenport, the ex-Giants goldenglove third baseman--but truly, his respect and loyalty as a fan seem downright naive against the backdrop of contemporary sports. Now, I understand that sports nostalgia can be a remembrance of the most sickly sweet variety and that every fan has that parcel of time from their youth when sports were absolutely perfect. But I am quite certain that our parents' generation had a relationship with sports and sports stars that was much closer than that which exists for us today.

Sports columnist Lowell Cohn recalls: "I grew up in 1950s Brooklyn and the Dodgers were heroes. Gil Hodges and his family lived in my neighborhood; so did Jackie Robinson and his wife. We would see them at the market. We admired them because they lived and moved among us."

For myself, having grown up with strikes, franchise moves, free agency, and scandal, this allegiance is downright poignant. Anyone who's followed the last 20 years of sports can tell you what happens to loyalty and trust. Fanhood as sincere as this just makes me wince. No modern fan, save a child, would take such outrageous emotional risks.

And, kids, believe me, it only takes one trade or move to prove what a French thinker once said: The moment naiveté ends, sadness begins.

"The reality is that it's about business, and it's hard to believe these conflicting realities [between the greatness of sports and money]," adds Cohn, whose own heart was broken by that patron saint of money- grubbing owners, Walter O'Malley, the man who moved the Dodgers out of Brooklyn. "Even young kids are aware of this today.

"Also, we know more about sports heroes now, so you lose the storybook innocence that was probably never real, but was fun to remember."

It takes no special insight to see that professional sports will never be as uncomplicated as they once were. Sports are not going to be 1955, ever again, because the country won't be 1955 either.

However, it seems odd that this ostensibly symbiotic link between sport and fan would decline in what could really be considered a "Golden Age" of sports. Mike Lupica, formerly a sports columnist for the New York Daily News, wrote in 1996, "These should be the glory days for the American sports fan. More games. More teams. More cool merchandise to wear. Video games for the kids to play. Cable and satellites and the Worldwide Web. As much action as you could ever want."

This was certainly my experience growing up. Since my childhood in the early '80s, I've seen American sports evolve into the sleek, ultra-modern entity that they are now. I remember those first, unbelievably bad Atari sports cartridges, the explosion of the NBA with Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, and The Catch.

It was a great time to be a young fan, and these will always be my own incorruptible recollections.

But despite all my years of exposure, my father, who listened to games on the radio and owned a baseball mitt barely bigger than his hand, came away with a more rewarding fanhood than I did.

In the language of personal relationships: I have a hard time trusting.

No longer are sports a refuge from the realities of everyday life--their melodrama more adequately epitomizes them. I'm sorry, but sports today, at least professional sports, are not what scholar Larry Gerlach once called "the maintenance of childlike innocence and values in a harsh, cynical adult world."

At this point we can even bury such axioms as "sports build character."

Of course, it's not sports themselves that have triggered this alienation of modern fans, but the manipulators of sports. I assume these people to be the agents, commissioners, owners, and TV executives. Not to mention the players whose rock-star status affects the style and level of play in most sports.

I've tried hard to pinpoint the actual things that have forged my own distance from the world of sports.

Forgive me, but I've worked them into a conceptual batting order. Leading off is Scandal, always exciting and irresistible: he's sure to get aboard. Batting second is Violence, a contact hitter, natural for the No. 2 spot. Third is Greed, brought over from the Seven Deadly Sins squad (presumably for a soul to be named later); and cleanup is, of course, the Media, which elevate the play of these teammates through hours of invasive overexposure.

SPORTS has been big business in America since the end of World War II. The backroom types identified that the massive appeal translates into huge revenue. They made a very smart business decision to exploit sports--a tragic cultural move.

"Sports have grand qualities," says Cohn. "There are grand battles and self-sacrifice. You need to see great victories and defeats and great heroes. It helps you see the patterns of your own life. It's really Homeric. It's our epic."

This is the transcendent property of sports, the one you can't count or measure or market, and as such is being left behind.

So what's at stake here? I'm jealous of the fanhood my father and Cohn were able to enjoy, but they lived in a simpler day. I dislike my cynicism and that of the modern fan, but it is a product of experience.

More and more, I sadly find myself applying the ultimate perspective: What does it all matter in terms of real life?

The money is only getting bigger. The market for sports and sports byproducts grows everyday. It's a runaway train that continues to run away from the fan.

The instant a disillusioned old-timer gets off, two youngsters fight to get on.

I wonder, if being a sports fan has evolved to this point for my generation, what will my child's experience be like?

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From the June 4-10, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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