Wednesday September 22nd, 2010

When a sportswriter stops writing about sports for three years, part of him goes into hibernation (tuning out the games), while part of him misses the metaphorical microphone that used to be his (but may never be again). At least that's how I sometimes felt during my absence from sportswriting: Half Rip Van Winkle (who slept for 20 years), half Rob Van Winkle (real name of Vanilla Ice).

Over time, devoid of an outlet, a man can let sports' manifold annoyances build inside him, until he wakes one day -- unexpectedly -- with more things on his chest than Flavor Flav.

It wasn't the big transgressions that began to weigh on me: The cheating, the lawbreaking, the lying. Those I'd come to expect. "The most outrageous lies that can be invented will find believers if a man only tells them with all his might," as Clemens said. (Samuel Clemens, not Roger.)

Rather, it was the little nuisances that piled up, threatening to undo me.

Until now, for instance, I've suffered in silence as players and coaches and commentators in the NFL have constantly referred to that entity by its full, formal name: "The National Football League." This is usually an attempt to lend drama, gravity or profundity to an otherwise banal statement. Jets coach Rex Ryan is fond of the locution: "This is the National Football League. Everybody's a good team." Vikings defensive tackle Kevin Williams told the Minneapolis Star Tribune this week: "You've got to play the game. This is the National Football League." ESPN analyst Cris Carter, yesterday: "In the National Football League, training camp is very, very important."

Mercifully, we don't hear this construction in other sports: This is the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing! Every lap counts. Or: This is the Professional Golfers' Association, dammit. It ain't putt-putt.

During Sunday's Vikings-Dolphins game, when Dan Dierdorf said, "It's tough to win on the road," I silently hoped he wouldn't top up that tepid statement with the empty intensifier "in the National Football League." But he did, causing me briefly to mute the Columbia Broadcasting System.

Moving on: I was watching a different Minnesota game last month -- baseball this time -- when another recurring revulsion washed over me. Though our federal prison system is overcrowded, should we not make room in it for grown-ups who compete with children for foul balls? During the nationally-televised game in question, a fortysomething man hopped two rows of bleacher seats to snatch a foul ball from a group of kids descending on it. In the guy's defense, it was a World Series ball. A Little League World Series ball, lined into the stands by a child from suburban Minneapolis.

(I would also mandate minimum sentencing guidelines for grown-ups who clamor for T-shirts shot into stadium stands.)

What has really bothered me over the last three years, however, are not those things I've seen on TV. It's those things I haven't seen on TV: Namely, the dopes, dweebs and chuckleheads who run onto baseball and football fields, living a brief, spectacular life of freedom before being snuffed out by stadium security (or the occasional centerfielder).

TV brings every imaginable abomination into our living rooms: Carnage, violence, the nightly horrors of local news. But the one time it demurely averts its gaze --the only time, near as I can tell -- is when a drunk jumps the fence at a baseball game. When the kid got tased at the Phillies game this summer -- another kid in a spandex suit ran into centerfield at Citizens Bank Park on Monday night --he was briefly famous in part because TV viewers never get to see these guys anymore. (Except after the fact, in still photographs, the way most of us now experience boxing's biggest prizefights.)

TV executives don't want to encourage these attention-starved yahoos. (Yet they don't pixelate out the nitwits on their cell phones, waving from the seats behind home plate.) And I don't want to encourage them either. But neither do I like pretending that something isn't happening when it manifestly is, unless I'm at the dentist.

It was 44 years ago today that TV reached a watershed in ignoring reality. On September 22, 1966, the Yankees hosted the White Sox at Yankee Stadium in front of -- this is not a typographical error -- 413 people. Four-hundred-and-13 people turned up to see the 10th-place Yankees of Joe Pepitone and Horace Clarke and Dooley Womack, 29 games out of first place, lose 4-1 in a drizzle to a White Sox team 15 games out.

Red Barber, in the fourth decade of a Hall of Fame broadcasting career, called attention to the Yankees' dismal attendance that night. In doing so, Barber revealed, on the air, that the emperor had no clothes, nor any tickets, nor any interest in the Yankees. For failing to ignore what was all around him -- empty seats -- Barber would be fired by the club.

That same night, halfway across the country, in Elmhurst, Ill., I entered the world screaming, flailing, raging. It felt good to let it all out. Forty-four years later, it still does.

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