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In sports urinalism, older is better

Last fall I stood in line in a men's room at Giants Stadium while a kid no older than six approached a urinal at least two inches too high for him.

For football fans, these were anxious moments -- minutes before kickoff, when each of us in the full-bladdered rabble was eyeing the glacial progress at the front of every line. So the boy's exertions did not go unnoticed.

We all saw him rise on his toes, as if trying to fool a cutout clown that says you must be this tall to ride the cyclone. First one shout of encouragement ("You can do it"), then another ("Higher"), and after 30 seconds an urgent chant echoed in the lavatory: "Go! Go! Go!" And go he did, like a cherub in a fountain.

By Meadowlands standards, this was a Norman Rockwell painting. And when the boy had finished -- and turned to receive the glove-muffled applause of two-dozen drunken Giants fans -- he was smiling, relieved in mind and body. And well he should have been. He had just completed a rite of passage, in every sense of the phrase.

I thought of that whiz kid over the winter, when the Ricketts family purchased the Chicago Cubs and promised to fix the franchise. But first, they promised to fix something more fixable: Wrigley Field's ageing bathrooms, whose Confines had grown less Friendly over the years.

Wrigley, of course, is sport's most hidebound place, deeply suspicious of showy displays like electric light or sustained success. Naturally, when gleaming new bathrooms were broached to Cub fans, there was a backlash, and quite possibly a backsplash.

Fans clung to Wrigley's stainless steel, trough-style urinals. Not literally, mind you, though that happens too: "People always ask for the bathroom stuff, like the urinals," Brandon Steiner of Steiner Sports, the sports collectible and auction house, told the New York Daily News when the old Yankee Stadium was sold for parts.

To a great many Cub fans, the troughs were sacred. The Chicago Tribune wistfully noted: "Generations of male Cub fans have stood side-by-side at the troughs." Channel 2 news in Chicago reported: "Some people consider them as integral a part of the Wrigley experience as Take Me Out to the Ballgame." And so a Cubs spokesperson had to reassure the public that the troughs would survive the Wrigley renovation.

Still, having gone to -- and in -- Wrigley since I was a child, the mere thought of losing them had aggrieved me. And I couldn't say why, exactly.

It's not just that they're an endangered species, though the troughs are surely that. In modern stadiums, they are going, going, gone. Citi Field is among the new stadiums with "waterless urinals." The stadium may be in Flushing, but there's no flushing in the stadium.

No, there is something deeply democratic about those troughs, something very e pluribus unum.

In the spring, I published a novel called The Pint Man. It is set largely in a fictional New York City bar, but it also invokes the great non-fictional urinals of real New York City bars -- among them the giant, century-old urinals of the Old Town bar, the greatest achievements in porcelain since Belleek made its first tea set. And the even-more ancient receptacles at McSorley's, which resemble Roman ruins in both age and upkeep.

These fixtures, for reasons I can't fully explain, struck a chord. Readers regaled me with their own experiences. One interviewer recounted the dread of his maiden voyage as an 8-year-old at the old Yankee Stadium. Just before he stepped to the urinal -- with a conga line of inebriated Yankee fans impatiently queuing behind him -- his uncle slapped him on the back and said: "Don't eat the mint."

For years the mint -- or urinal cake -- has been a literary muse not unlike that other small cake, Proust's madeleine, one whiff of which took him back to childhood. Hemingway famously took a urinal from Sloppy Joe's bar in Key West and installed it in the back yard of his home there. Jack Kerouac, Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs have all written memorably of urinals.

My favorite piece of sports urinalism is my colleague Jeff Pearlman's account of interviewing Lou Piniella while the latter stood before a urinal in the Mariners' clubhouse -- a smoldering cigarette in one hand, a hoagie sandwich in the other.

On Sunday, Ted Leonsis, owner of the Washington Capitals, chatted with President Obama at a Washington Mystics game, then joined the postgame cleaning crew at the Verizon Center, of which he is part owner. Among the manifold lessons Leonsis learned, as he wrote on his blog, were these: "Cap fans evidently drink the most beer and work our toilets the hardest," and gum intentionally spit into urinals is the bane of arena custodians.

All of which had me thinking, Proust-like, of the long-departed Metropolitan Stadium in my hometown of Bloomington, Minn., and a Minnesota Twins game circa 1974, and my first sight of the puck, as the cakes were called in hockey-mad Minnesota.

At age seven, I had long ago made the transition from crib to bed, from trike to bike. But the segue from stalls to urinals felt like a larger leap into adulthood. When I successfully made it -- while all about me men smoked, swore and swilled Grain Belt -- I had no idea that a lifetime of literary inspiration and sports infatuation had just been sown.

But I knew something significant had happened, that the urinal and I had left each other in a similar state. Which is to say: Flushed.