An empty playground: somber times and reflection for sports
It's supposed to be a place where we retreat from the realities of life, a place where we can immerse ourselves for a few hours in another world. Sports have always seemed to do that for us, even if the refuge they offer is temporary at best.
Lately, though, the playground just hasn't been that much fun.
We were reminded about it on a fall Sunday, where we said a melancholy goodbye to one towering figure and tried to deal with the pain of losing yet another. Vin Scully had just finished saying goodbye to an adoring crowd at Dodger Stadium when word came in that Arnold Palmer had died in Pittsburgh.
The day had already gotten off to a sobering start, when joy was snuffed out in Miami. The images of a speedboat crushed on rocks were horrific to wake up to, and the tragic death of rising of magnetic young star Jose Fernandez seemed incomprehensible and yet so utterly final.
Reality intruded, and it came at us like a Fernandez fast ball exploding into a catcher's mitt. Even the spectacle that is a Sunday in the NFL didn't seem the same on a day more suited to somber reflection than celebration.
Yet celebrate they did, in football stadiums around the country and in the stands at Dodger Stadium, where a dramatic walk-off home run to clinch the division was followed by Vinny singing goodbye to a crowd that didn't know whether to cry or scream themselves silly. Hollywood couldn't have scripted the end any better, but the reality was that after 67 years Vin Scully was walking off himself.
It's all part of the cycle of life, but that didn't make it any easier. I fought off tears myself watching at home with my sons, knowing that part of the soundtrack of my life wouldn't be heard anymore.
Maybe it's a generational thing, but for my generation it's been a tough few months. The heroes of our youth are fading away, and too many of them are passing away.
Baby boomers everywhere ache when they hear the news. It's always another reminder that nothing lasts forever, and that their own mortality is just as precarious as that of the people they cheered for so many years.
I saw it in Louisville in June, as the procession of cars carrying Muhammad Ali's casket drove slowly through the city streets. If Ali was magnificent, so was the outpouring of love from people who reached out just to touch the hearse or throw flowers on the windshield.
Ali transcended his sport like no athlete ever, becoming a symbol for a generation and a hero to so many. He stood tall even as he trembled in his later life and his voice was muted from the effects of Parkinson's.
It seemed like he would live forever, but the sad reality is that no one ever does.
We lost The Greatest, and that seemed almost impossible. Now we've lost The King, and we have to deal with that.
Like Ali, Arnie was more than just a golfer. His mark was made in a different way, but the son of a greenskeeper brought a rich man's sport to the common man and transformed the way we thought about golfers.
I just missed seeing Arnie a few months ago, and will always kick myself for it. Two of my colleagues that day at Latrobe Country Club in Pennsylvania did discover him outside his beloved workshop, and reported back that he was still sharp as ever and hadn't lost the sense of humor that endeared him to so many.
I remember the Arnie that tried to shake every hand as he made his way around Augusta National a few years back in his final Masters. I walked with him that day, and remember most the looks of delight in the faces of people as he detoured off the fairway to greet them.
Mostly, though, I'll remember him as I remember Ali. Both out conquering the world in their prime, seemingly without a care in the world.
Ali was the greatest athlete I've ever seen, and Arnie was as cool as he made golf seem. Vinny was the kind uncle whose voice was always there, allowing us to forget the daily struggle in our lives on so many nights.
Their absence leaves a void in my life, and I'm sure I'm hardly alone. Actually, I know I'm not alone because I've heard from so many who feel the same way.
The playground seems awfully empty about now.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg