In moments of tragedy, sports' purpose revealed

October 12, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

This is the exact opposite of what you've been hearing since the middle of yesterday afternoon. But you, sports fans - most of you - already have things pretty much in perspective.

You know that these really are games, that this is a diversion, that even something that seems as petty as an argument about who the New York Yankees should get rid of next season, serves an important function. It keeps us from thinking constantly about how life is, as the old saying goes, nasty, brutish and short. Part of that saying, by the way (from Thomas Hobbes in the 17th century), also tells us that in nature, "worst of all [is] continual fear and danger of violent death."

That's how Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle's life ended yesterday afternoon, at 34. It's hard to accept that it can end at any time, so it's better for our sanity to throw ourselves into what happens at the ballpark, on all the cable stations and the talk-radio stations and on these pages.

That's what we're reminded of at times of individual and community tragedy. But news like that about the crash of Lidle's plane into a Manhattan high-rise, doesn't "put things into perspective." As far overboard as that tiny minority can go - threatening refs' lives after bad calls, slashing tires of cars with out-of-town plates, burning coaches in effigy - most people get the fact that sports is fun, distracting and better than most of the alternatives.

They went ahead and played baseball last night. A lot of the players and coaches on both the Oakland Athletics and Detroit Tigers - as well as those on the New York Mets and St. Louis Cardinals, who were rained out - had some connection to Lidle, through the seven organizations he played for in nine major league seasons. They all could have sat at their lockers pondering their own mortality, or they could have played, kept doing what makes their lives worthwhile - and entertaining those who derive joy from them.

That's not always that easy to do, as we all learned five years and one month ago, when planes hit the World Trade Center. Then, everybody paused. But they played again, and everybody was better off because of it.

Yes, somewhere, someone is going to question why Lidle was flying his plane on a day of such nasty weather in the New York area. It's even possible that he thought it was no more perilous than the abuse he did to his arm every fifth day or so.

He likely felt pain the day after pitching that the rest of us couldn't stand even once, even for all that money. It's part of what makes us riveted to the games - people doing what's unimaginable to us.

We know these athletes are special, even the journeymen with the nondescript statistics, like Lidle. He's not headed for Cooperstown, but he accomplished things in his short life that many of us fantasize about. Every sport is packed with players like him; they hung in there and survived, even if not many noticed them along the way.

We usually commit far worse sins than paying too much attention to the daily Yankees soap opera - we take athletes for granted. We mourn Lidle, but we also shrugged off what he did, because we see him as more ordinary than extraordinary. We hector Ben Roethlisberger for not wearing a helmet while riding his motorcycle, but boo him when he ducks out of bounds short of the first down.

In comparison, debating whether the Yankees should trade Alex Rodriguez - which is what was going on much of yesterday until the plane crash - is pretty tame stuff. Not for A-Rod, probably, but in time he may remind himself that being him isn't that bad.

Here in Baltimore, there has been much fretting over how bad the Ravens played Monday night. But there might have been more had everybody not been sobered quickly by the news of the team plane being diverted in the middle of the night and Corey Ivy being rushed to the hospital, because of the kidney injury suffered in the game.

Again, not a superstar, but a special teams player, who got hurt making a tackle on a punt return, absorbing one of a thousand hits players on special teams routinely absorb. But it got scary when we least expected it - scary in the way injuries to internal organs carry a special scariness.

But just the idea that it can be so unexpected, that's the scariest of all.

Lidle, it's been told often since the plane crash, loved flying as much as he loved pitching, and in one eerie clip played yesterday, he spoke of how he never pressured anyone or made fun of anyone for being afraid to fly with him. This was his pleasure, and it couldn't be imposed upon, or even necessarily explained to, anybody else.

His life didn't seem particularly nasty or brutish. If we watch, love and occasionally vent about sports to make our lives less so, then our perspective is right where it should be.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

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