To everything, there is only one season
When sports are never out of season, can we appreciate what happens in a season?
Now that the false spring of the Masters has come and gone, let's spend a quick minute and a few words today on sports and the seasons and the great upending of what was once our natural order.
Because whether or not you agree with any of those warring theories, scientific or celestial, about global warming and climate change in the real world, in our sporting world, insidious and often cataclysmic change has been the rule these past several decades.
Sports so crowd the calendar now, have so long since bloated and overrun their natural seasons, that they risk shouldering aside the very things we seek in them.
Whatever those things may be: meaning, unmeaning, joy, heartache, identity, mythology, heroism, villainy, melodrama, perfection, imperfection, salvation. Any or all or none of those.
Time was, long ago, when sports proceeded as part of the grand and steady rhythm of the planet. As a series of discrete events, separate, they were a seasonal expression of some calculus between weather and labor and light and time. They were a distraction from reality.
Now, sports are just an infinite series of product lines and brand strategies and DVR programming notes, seamless and never-ending, undifferentiated, just another distraction in a world in which distraction has become the only absolute reality.
This was back before Tiger had become our national Rorschach blot, of course, and back before LeBron was an object of your obsessions, or Kobe, or even Magic or Larry or Kareem; back before Sid the Kid or Mario or Wayne; back past J-Hey to Say Hey, back to Gordie and Mickey and Wilt, back to the black-and-white origin stories of a newsreel universe.
Each sport was of its season then, winter, spring, summer or fall, baseball, football, basketball, golf; there was between each (or so it seemed) a period of rest. A gap. A pause, however brief, to gather ourselves for whatever came next. And to sharpen our appetite for it.
That our playing fields were allowed to lie fallow, if only a week at a time between seasons, is what enriched them. No football news in April, no hockey news in June.
How can you miss something that never goes away?
From 1960 to 1985 to 2010, the seasons for each of our big four sports have grown not by weeks, but by months.
The 1960 NFL championship game was played on Dec. 26. The first Super Bowl, in 1967, was played on Jan. 15. This year, it was played on Feb. 7.
In 1960, the seven-game World Series between the Pirates and the Yankees ended on Oct. 13. In 1985, a seven-game series between the Royals and the Cards ended on Oct. 27. Last year, the Yankees-Phillies series finished in six games -- on Nov. 4.
In 1960, Montreal won the Stanley Cup on April 14. In 1985, Edmonton won it on May 30. Last year, the Pens won it on June 12.
In 1960, the Celtics won the NBA championship on April 9. Two years ago, they won it on June 17.
Start early, finish late, and without a moment's rest between all these seasons to reinvigorate the spirit; without a pause for breath or an off week to whet the appetite, it all runs together now, colorless and loud and interchangeable. It tastes of nothing.
Television is to blame for some of this, of course, as is money. But that's too easy, and lets too many of us off the hook. Because TV time and ad dollars all flow in just one direction: right at you and me and our incessant demand for more. More of everything. That's how markets work. You demand -- and somewhere in that instant a corporation is formed to provide a supply.
And just as it is in politics these days, sports seem driven more and more by the extremists, by the noisy obsessives out on the far margins for whom too much is never going to be enough. They create the markets we all share.
For instance, not long ago one of my colleagues, Bill Simmons, wrote, "I should be able to see anything I want in 2010. Just name me a price and let me decide whether I want to pay it."
That's certainly a fair argument toward a free market in sports entertainment. In fact, it's a libertarian call for personal responsibility in an age of technological abundance. But in a society that doesn't know when to say when, it's also a call to wretched excess. Like overexpansion, overexposure weakens the games themselves -- by cheapening our relationship with them.
Because the trouble with gluttony is that it dulls the palate. Deadens it. If you always have food in your mouth, how can you taste anything? In fact, how can you even know you're hungry?
Gluttons all, no matter how we gorge, no matter how fat we become, we remain insatiable. Like something monstrous out of myth, ever eating but never full, the more 21st-century America consumes, the hungrier we all become.
And to have access to all things at all times is to create a landscape across which all things are the same thing. Everything is of equal height and depth and heft. Every event, every moment is the same event, the same moment.
Never waiting for anything, never wanting for anything, means never anticipating anything. And because everything is special, nothing is special, and because nothing is special, everything must be hyped as if it were.
This is the world we make for ourselves even as we complain about the world we make for ourselves.
A very long time ago, as the sports writers and ballplayers headed north out of Florida by train, the Masters at Augusta National was the most colorful harbinger of the sporting spring. And among the poesy sentimentalists and overwrought romantics of the time, there was a sense that the Masters itself brought spring with it. Something to do with all those azalea blossoms and magnolia flowers. However cloying and antique that assessment of things may have been, it was based on the notion that sports were part of some grand natural rhythm -- rather than just another entry toward someone's bottom line.
So a very long time ago, sports were special.
But once every morning becomes Christmas morning, what does Christmas morning become?
Jeff MacGregor is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Please continue to submit your answers to his question "What are sports for?" You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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