Far afield: The self-importance of being earnest

Author: Jason Kelly '95

Jason Kelly

In a span of one spring week, concentrated doses of sports pomposity will be sprayed like bad cologne on television sets across the country. Anybody with a passing interest in college basketball, golf or, perhaps most of all, baseball, will be besieged with the symbolic, bigger-than-the-game significance of it all.

During the Final Four, the culmination of the NCAA’s largest revenue source, lucrative commercial time will be spent on public-service announcements about “student-athletes” going pro in something other than sports. Regularly scheduled programming will then resume, starring players who have been going to something other than class for the better part of a month. Since UConn began its five-day odyssey through the Big East tournament, for example, the Huskies traveled to New York, Washington, Anaheim, and Houston, a typical postseason itinerary for any successful team. Their absences from class, of course, are all excused.

Days after the final notes of “One Shining Moment” fade, the Masters proves that when it comes to humorless self-importance, the NCAA’s message manipulators are a bunch of amateurs. In 1994 Augusta National fired CBS analyst Gary McCord for saying that groundskeepers must have “used bikini wax” to make the greens so fast and that the course’s undulating hills looked “suspiciously like body bags.” The Masters brand has remained unsullied by personality ever since, a tradition unlike any other.

Baseball, it goes without saying, combines patriotism, nostalgia, eternal hope, geometric symmetry, the bond between parents and children, the lyric little bandbox of Fenway Park, and probably American exceptionalism. Of course, every year, that never really goes without saying. In Cincinnati, where they take the Opening Day overture very seriously, the Enquirer became verklempt imagining a 6-year-old’s future memories:

“Memories of her daddy taking her all the way from their home in Columbus to a magical place where everyone wore red and everyone was smiling, where there were balls of cotton candy bigger than her head and where everything smelled like hot dogs on the grill.

“Memories of giant Clydesdale horses circling the field, of the lump in her throat when fighter jets roared overhead, of thousands of people jumping out of their seats and waving her towel after Ramon Hernandez hammered a dramatic, three-homer to win the game in the bottom of the ninth, 7-6.

“She’ll remember.

“We all remember.

“That is what baseball is — a game of memories, a game played at a less-than-frantic pace where it is easy to keep the sights and sounds and smells of baseball in our heads and in our hearts forever.”

Reading that makes my teeth feel like I just ate a ball of cotton candy bigger than my head.

Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at jasonkelly545@gmail.com.