Take a Whiff

July 06, 2003

This column stinks. It's a scratch-and-sniff catalog of every
smell in sports. A fresh can of tennis balls, for instance, opens
with the same vacuum-packed whoosh as a coffee can but is--on
first whiff--even more pleasantly potent. Secure a brand-new
sneaker over your nose and mouth, in the manner of an airplane
oxygen mask: Is there, anywhere on Earth, a more powerful
intoxicant? (Snort Keds, not coke.)

Summer smells like the rubber of a diving mask, which smells like
the rubber of a beach ball, pressed against your nose as you
inhale deeply while attempting to inflate it. Swimming smells
like chlorine and damp nylon, whether at the Olympics or under
the Holidome of the Holiday Inn in Stevens Point, Wis.

Sports are an olfactory factory. I am, at this very moment,
taking a long nasal draw off a baseball mitt, which is held over
my face like Hannibal Lecter's muzzle. My reaction, spoken in an
extended exhalation: God, I love the smell of Rawlings in the
morning.

Sports fans and sportswriters are often called jock sniffers. But
we don't, for my money, sniff enough of our environment.
Sometimes this is a good thing. Ten years after his last World
Series appearance, I can still recall the postgame pong of Lenny
Dykstra's locker--B.O. and BenGay, Red Man and Dubble Bubble--as
if it were singeing my nose hairs for the first time.

Still, for all our hours spent watching and listening to sports,
we should occasionally stop to smell the Rose Bowl. College
football is redolent of dry leaves and fresh-mown grass, flannel
blankets and foam helmet padding.

It smells like SoCo-and-Coke in a three-years-out-of-date
souvenir cup with the team schedule washed off and its own
subsidiary scents of plastic and dishwasher detergent. It's the
beer-funk-on-shoe-sole smell of a concrete concourse, the
Raid-and-urinal-cake aroma of halftime.

High school football is the haylike whiff of year-old grass
plucked from cleats gone unused since last season. Pro football
is beer-marinated bratwurst hissing on a charcoal grill and the
faint aroma of aluminum in a foam-rubber can cozy. All football
smells like a weight room, which in turn smells like cold steel
on calluses, with a twist of rubber floor mat.

If Michael Jordan wanted Michael Jordan cologne to evoke
basketball, he should have mixed new-sneaker smell with
pebble-grain leather and the acrid, adhesive scent of athletic
tape. He should have wiped his sneaker soles with his hands for
traction, then bottled that scent of burned rubber, flesh and
floor varnish. To judge by the product, come to think of it,
that's exactly what he did do.

When I was growing up, my big brother Tom found a way to
weaponize a Nerf basketball, by farting on it and then clapping
it over my face from behind, like a movie villain with a
chloroformed handkerchief. But the worst smell in all of sport is
concentrated, game-used hockey equipment. I once took a wrong
turn into the Pittsburgh Penguins equipment room an hour after a
game, and the unholy stink--like God's un-Odor-Eatered running
shoes--nearly knocked me to my knees.

Civilized man isn't governed by scent as, say, a schnauzer is. Or
so says science. But that is, to cite just one smell that can
hijack our senses, b.s. A great many aromas--movie-theater
popcorn, carnival cotton candy, doctor's office
disinfectant--have a Pavlovian hold on our memory banks. One
whiff of a long-forgotten pastry set Proust off on a three-volume
remembrance of things past. For me, insect repellent is Little
League baseball, just as sledding is instantly evoked by a
speedball of Swiss Miss and Vicks VapoRub.

I don't smoke, except when on fire. But on the golf course the
aroma of cured tobacco can be captivating, particularly in crisp
autumn air, and I have to physically restrain myself from bumming
a butt off a chain-smoking playing partner.

The British Open smells of damp dog. But golf, to me, is the
pine-tree forests in which I frequently find myself, to the point
that I cannot even smell Pine-Sol, or the pine-tree air freshener
in a New York City taxicab, without cursing my banana slice.
Bananas themselves can trigger such an outburst.

Baseball, of course, is an AromaRama. One scarcely knows where to
begin. With the cocoa-buttered Coppertone scent of spring
training? Or the smell of sausage puckering on a Lysoled roller
grill, the first olfactory greeting in most ballparks?

Or shall we go back, back, way back to the baseball-card
bubble-gum bouquet that was, in fifth grade, almost unendurably
inebriating?

Baseball smells like cold beer in a paper cup coated in wax--the
same wax, I have long suspected, that coats baseball-card
wrappers and the gum itself. It's pine tar, peanut shells,
Sno-Cone syrup, sunflower seeds, the scent of approaching rain,
Cracker Jack, cowhide and the kaleidoscopic condiment bar: yellow
mustard, diced onion, pickle relish, sauerkraut and ketchup. It's
a press box fragrant with deadline dread and dandruff shampoo.

It smells, in short, like heaven. And if Chanel should ever
bottle it all, I will buy it by the gallon.

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER

Sports fans are often called jock sniffers, but we don't, for my
money, sniff enough of our environment.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)