The surreal mix of Orioles game, Simpson chase

June 21, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The guy was sitting maybe 15 seats from us, Friday night at Camden Yards, with one of those portable television sets on his lap showing O. J. Simpson's life coming undone while the Orioles staged a slight seventh inning rally.

Chris Hoiles singled to left, and everybody cheered lustily. By the time the news reports filtered down to us, seat by seat, losing a little detail with each interpretation, it sounded as if the cops were chasing O. J. on foot along this distant Los Angeles highway.

Mark McLemore walked. No, no, the folks several seats down explained, O. J. wasn't running, he was riding in a car. Brady Anderson struck out. Now they said O. J. had a gun at his head. Chris Sabo stepped in. The cops were following O. J., trying not to let him slip away. McLemore stretched his lead off first. O. J. Simpson broke for home.

We had no heart for the game now, no stomach for baseball while a man was losing his life in public, and yet something held us there, some desire to watch the fantasy business of athletes in the grass and blot out the reality of the former athlete on the highway.

Sabo popped to short. The guy with the television set told the woman next to him, who relayed it down the row person by disbelieving person, that people were cheering O. J. now, thousands of spectators gathered along the highway who remembered him in better days. Rafael Palmeiro doubled to center, driving in Hoiles. The crowd at Camden Yards roared to the heavens.

Or were they cheering Simpson in absentia or was all of this simply impossible to separate any longer? Who was this Simpson guy we'd been cheering all these years: the man with the football or the man with a knife? The man sitting behind a microphone or the one who beat his wife? The man who'd always seemed so eager to please, to be friendly, to be nonthreatening, or the man charged with murdering his wife and some guy apparently forgotten by those folks cheering O. J. along the highway?

And what was this relationship we have with our athletes, whom we embrace so unquestioningly for their exploits that we confuse their public personas with reality? We thought we knew O. J., didn't we? Murder was never a part of his resume: athlete, announcer, advertising pitchman, murderer? It couldn't be. Murder, we're accustomed to; murder by somebody who's our pal, even our electronic pal, is unthinkable.

We're left anticipating an explanation. We're left feeling the way we did after Dallas, after Kennedy's assassination: This one's too impossible to believe. Any moment now, some important official will step in front of the cameras and announce that terrible mistakes have been made, that John Kennedy's still alive and that they found the real Nicole Simpson-Ronald Goldman killer out in Los Angeles and it wasn't O. J., not The Juice, maybe some one-armed man but definitely not O. J., that this was all part of some Hollywood made-for-TV movie, with the rest of America being used as bit players, and that we can all line up now to get back what's left of our innocence.

We left the ballgame with Cal Ripken coming to bat. The sense of unreality was too much to bear. We got to the car in time to hear O. J.'s note being read over the radio, and reached home just before Simpson did.

There were helicopters in the air over his house. Inside ours, we locked all the doors and turned on the alarm system: No telling who's out there now; even familiar faces are suspect. At this time in America, we're all guilty of suspicion until found innocent.

Yesterday afternoon, O. J. Simpson was formally charged with two counts of murder. At this newspaper, as at offices and homes around the country, a crowd gathered around a television set, and CNN showed us Simpson standing there in his shame. But only for a couple of minutes. Then a printed message warned that commercials would be forthcoming. And, in an instant, Simpson disappeared and a commercial appeared: a Home Team Sports ad, showing the Orioles in action.

Back to fantasy again. Back to imagining our athletes are the sum total of their performance on the field. Back to cheering in LTC the stands, and not cheering along a highway. Back to sitting at the ballpark and hoping nobody's out there with a television set in his lap, showing a man on the run who we used to think we knew.

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