Tragedies don't alter sports fans' perspective

October 15, 2006|By RICK MAESE

I truly love those rare occasions when sports becomes something much bigger than a game, when the boundary lines between the playing field and our everyday lives blur.

And I truly hate when it's artificial, when we assign profound meaning to something that simply defies logic or explanation, pretending sports is the framework when it's really just faint background noise.

That's why it was so laughable to hear ad nauseam last week that when New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle's plane crashed into a Manhattan high-rise, we were suddenly given this sharpened sense of understanding, that the death of a major league pitcher was what we all really needed to put sports into proper perspective.

This is what the talking heads were saying Wednesday night, and this is what morning papers offered the next day. One New York tabloid captured the sentiment succinctly in six quick words: "Lidle tragedy puts game in perspective."

I kept waiting to see it, but it took just one 24-hour news cycle to learn that, no, our perspective didn't change. In fact, if Terrell Owens had been running a fever that day, ESPN's crews would've been on nonstops to Dallas, and I'm not sure we'd have talked so much about Lidle. It's the way we are: Big news stories can sting like a pinprick. But we rub our thumb over the pain and quickly move on.

On the day that Lidle died, a playoff game was scheduled involving one of his former teams. Sure, his jersey hung in the dugout and there was a moment of silence before the game - but then they played the game. If his death had such minimal impact on the routines of his immediate peer group, we must ask ourselves what impact did it really have on us?

Did sports fans wake up the next morning with a greater appreciation for life? Or with less appreciation for sports?

In actuality, the dialogue had mostly moved on. Nancy Grace found something else worthy of rage and vitriol. Sports radio had a full slate of weekend games to dissect. Even the Yankees and their fans had an offseason to plan.

It's the nature of our 24/7 wired world. Our attention spans are so short and our senses so dulled that our shock and awe long ago evolved into, "Ahh, shucks." There's always another big story, always something else to reshape our impressionable perspective. Usually, it's a kidnapped woman, a missing child or a political scandal. Last week, it just so happened to have a sports backdrop - which allowed experts and analysts from our arena to leap at the opportunity to ascribe deep and important meaning.

Perspective is a way of describing the relationship between two things, pairing them together in a larger context. There was no way of logically explaining last week's news and walking away with some neat bundle of understanding.

A plane crashed into a building. The only way to make the story any crazier was to put a New York Yankee in the plane. I love the idea that life is a series of lessons and morals, but we have to remember that there are just as many quirks, peccadilloes and unexplainable phenomena. A ballplayer's plane crashing into a high-rise is a Dali-does-sports freak occurrence, not a teaching moment.

Lidle's death was tragic and unfortunate. But how many other moments have passed that were supposed to put these games in proper perspective? Pat Tillman, Payne Stewart, Thurman Munson, Roberto Clemente - didn't they all teach us how short life can be? I think the message has been delivered, and it's disingenuous to pause and pretend some light bulb has just turned on every time tragedy strikes.

We're a generation already numbed by the realities of Sept. 11, the casualties of war and the devastations of Hurricane Katrina. I'd hope that we don't really need misfortune to strike our sports stars in order to navigate the world around us.

None of this is to suggest that the death of a sports figure can't alter our perspectives. You just have to look in the right place, and you have to remember that most lessons come from life, not death.

Buck O'Neil died Oct. 6 in a hospital bed. He was 94 and had done all the living any of us could hope to do - a player, a coach, a scout, an ambassador. There was so much to take from his rich life that circuits would start exploding all over the country if the CNNs and ESPNs wanted to skip the sensational and address the meaningful.

But it doesn't work that way.

Planes hitting buildings and the New York Yankees are stories that will always sell. They contain narrative elements that intrigue us. Once the smoke clears, though, they lack the depth and meaning that might actually change us.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Rick Maese -- Points After

Carolina in my mind / / The Panthers have never been to Baltimore for a regular-season game, and I'm not quite sure what to expect. Hopefully, they're hospitable guests and don't leave their syringes littering the locker room floor.

Still beat Schmuck's time / / My time in yesterday's Baltimore Marathon: 9:45. Allow me to break that statistic down for you, in case you're not familiar with marathons. That time - 9:45 - means that I slept in until about a quarter till 10. Unless someone's chasing me, I have trouble finding reason to run.

Truth in cliches / / You know who loves marathons the most? Athletes in other sports. I half-expected to see dozens of them at yesterday's starting line - football, baseball, basketball players - nodding to one another in agreement: "Yup, boys, it's a marathon, not a sprint."

Visit Amtrak.com / / Alex Rodriguez's plane overran a runway in Burbank, Calif., on Friday, saved by a special arresting system in the pavement that slowed the plane. If I'm a New York Yankee right now, I'm doing most of my offseason traveling by train. In fact, even if I'm just wearing a pinstriped suit, I'm not going anywhere near an airplane.

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