- Jeff MacGregor
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We might all be forgiven for feeling that way last week, when sports seemed to go off the rails again.
Or at least we were told it had, even if it wasn't true. The vampire press was in a righteous snit over the state of the state of things again. Too "theatrical?" Really? Babe Ruth and Jack Johnson both want to know what the hell you're talking about. We're going to criticize theatricality now? A hundred years after the curtain went up on SPORTS!, the longest running show in America but for SEX! and POLITICS!? A hundred years after the gravy train pulled away from the station with all of us inside riding high, wide and handsome? You're kidding.
After all these years of idol worship and chalk tossing and commercial nonsense and the nicknames you made for him and the magazine features and the books and the documentaries you wrote for him and about him -- now you're going to criticize? Now you get religion? If there's a richer vein of comic hypocrisy anywhere in American life than modern sports writing, I'd be happy to see it. The White House press corps, I suppose. Madness.
The supreme irony of course being that the event revealed the whole, perfect, 360°, reciprocating perpetual-motion CinemaScope truth of the sporting-industrial complex.
Anyway. The cynicism business had a big week.
So it might be tonic to remember what brings us all here in the first place. Serena flatfooting a forehand winner up the line; the weight of a football in your hands and how the very shape commends you to throw it; Kobe or LeBron or Kerri Walsh hanging there in the moment before gravity gathers them back; the sound of a fastball against leather; Usain Bolt running the turn; the way it feels in your hands and your gut when you pure a 3-wood; the sound of your skates on the ice; the weight of a soccer ball on your instep; the way water moves across you as you swim; the rattle of the breath in your lungs as you run and the weight of yourself on the earth; the moment before Manning throws and the undetermined instant after; June 9, 1973; the climb into the Alps, and the expressions like something out of El Greco; the call to start 'em up at Daytona; a Saturday at the Horseshoe; climbing; falling; rising; blood pounding in your ears; the month of March; men named 'Red'; what it feels like to win; what it feels like to lose; what it feels like to be punched in the face; and on and on and on back through history and forward into whatever waits for us all.
That's why we're here.
"Dani Jarque always with us."
That's why we're here.
And then this.
Walking home Saturday.
Twilight, edge of the day, sun going down and the dark coming up and hot afternoon lapsing into sweltering night, and the lights and the stars and the lightning bugs flickering on one by one by one.
In the park by the river a pair of friends working out by the backstop. Slender college-age kids, fit, one black and one white, one kneeling and underhanding baseballs to the other from a couple of feet away, pulling the balls up out of a battered five-gallon paint bucket one at a time, scuffed and muddied, a soft toss from the fingertips; and as the ball hangs there, weightless, his friend turns on it, turns hard from the hips and brings his hands and that bat through fast and sure and thwock, there it goes, turns hard on it and swings, thwock, the way they do it down in the nets under Dodger Stadium or Wrigley Field, thwock, the kind of BP you take when you're working to harden your palms and groove your swing.
And this kid, this young man, stands at the center of the most beautiful swing you've ever seen.
Oh, but it's sweet.
The kind of swing you dream for yourself. The kind of swing you can earn a living with.
He's a right-hander and maybe 6 feet tall, medium built but big in the forearms, with a stance down from heaven and Charlie Lau, relaxed in every aspect, the bat 10 degrees off vertical and his weight resting easy on his back foot. Waiting. Waiting. Then swing. Clear the hips first, then the move forward, the bat an extension not of his hands but his thoughts, his ambitions, the bat cutting a fast arc of clean purpose. Sharp as a blade. A one-piece swing. Frictionless, liquid, seamless. Infinitely careful and yet perfectly thoughtless. Unconscious, unconsidered. The swing rising a few degrees from back to front as his weight shifts and the bat comes through, just the way Ted Williams and physics and lyric poetry demand, the bat sweeping before it old baseballs and gravity and night air and history and whatever past this young man had.
This swing reinvents him. This swing might carry him farther than anything else he ever touches.
So I watch for a while.
I watch until there's no bat and there's no ball.
I watch until there's only the gesture.
Until there's only grace.
Just that physical dispensation at the center of something human. Something like absolution in it. Something like forgiveness.
Sun dimming to red in a sky gone the color of old wine or old roses and those long looping drives are rising up into the dark, up and out and gone into the stars and the reflections across the water and the future and disappearing at last into the up and up and up.
That swing, that gesture as useless and beautiful as anything anyone's ever put a hand to anywhere.
"Thanks for letting me see that," I think, as I walk back inside. Thanks for letting me see that.
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.
The hope of diamonds and the sweetness of swings in the twilight can still bring us back from the abyss and keep us safe from the deep and the dark. Here's one fan's paean to sports.