WHEN YOU’RE A KID, there is a blissful ignorance in your affection for sport. Your favourite team is likely from the city you live in, or whichever one is close by, or the team your folks cheered for. Team loyalty is passed down through generations, like heirlooms, willed from father to son to granddaughter. Your favourite player, if you believe in such trips of childish reverie, is unique in that rather than willed it is bestowed, by some higher power, an intangible and immeasurable God of sport, who chooses for you. Your love is measured in fraying posters clinging desperately to childhood bedroom walls, imaginations of sandlot afternoons, and trading cards tucked safely into nine pocket pages in binders once meant for math or history. This is the second love you’ll know, after parents but before romantic love. For some reason, these players appeal to you, call to you. When they hand out little league and Pee Wee numbers, you do whatever you can do get theirs. You’ll fight your neighbour for Casey Candaele’s number 9. You’ll trade a Ryne Sandberg rookie card for Fred McGriff’s 19. There is no logic here. It cannot be explained. It just is.
But then you grow up. It happens to the best of us. Just yesterday I was 10 years-old, tracing the outline of stats on the back of a Topps Candaele rookie card, and this morning I’m 35. Lots of people have favourite players in their 30s, but I’m not one of them. Not in the traditional sense anyway. I’ve never quite understood the adult affectation of wearing another man’s number, 40 year-olds in Giancarlo Stanton jerseys settling in to watch the game at their local Boston Pizza. Grown men in boys’ shirts. It’s like wearing another life over yours, an effort to live vicariously through children, a desperate grab at the fleeting dreams of youth. A feeding of the contrived monster of contemporary sport. Especially those in Yankees jerseys.
And what are these men in other men’s numbers cheering for? LeBron James’ brash ego? A-Rod’s PED tainted swagger? Phil Kessel’s awkward shyness? Ben Roethlisberger’s penchant for sexual assault? I’ve seen respectable adults wearing Michael Vick jerseys, which to me essentially says, “I support the killing of dogs for sport and profit as long as you can successfully run a modified West Coast offense.” As a kid, you’re not privy to the flaws of your heroes, and more to the point you don’t care. Your affection for them is based on numbers, aesthetics, and the inexplicable. But, as adults, we should know better than to cheer for spoiled manchildren, and certainly have better sense than being a walking billboard in celebration of their dubious achievements.
I’m not judging these people. Many of my friends are these people. I just don’t understand them. Okay, that’s bullshit. Of course I’m judging them. And even in my curmudgeonly mid-30s, I have favourite players. But as opposed to liking them for their ability to hit a curveball, or the fact that they ran the best 40 at the combine, or because their Wonderlic test is off the charts, I prefer narrative. I like a player who is unique, who is a story, who seems to represent more than themselves, more than their sport.
If there’s one thing that is truly representative of all modern day sport, it is that for the most part the players, coaches, management, owners, broadcasters, journalists, and assistant athletic trainers are woefully out of touch with how insignificant they are, we are, in the grander scheme of life. It is ego-exponential. It’s not only the worship of false idols, but the indulgence of false idols.
Which brings me to R.A. Dickey. You can’t make Dickey up. A journeyman who throws the knuckleball, abused as a kid, wayward as a minor leaguer, was admittedly a bad husband and father, who many times was close to retirement. But he hung on. He kept throwing that inexplicable pitch, the dancing wiffle-ball-on-a-string bit of trickery that, when mastered, is unhittable, and yet when flawed it is like throwing batting practice with tennis balls.
And yet, he held on. He persevered. And last season, something special happened. His knuckleball started to dance that string with near perfection, and that perfection has carried into this season. Dickey is arguably the most dominant pitcher in the NL this year, helping the Mets hang on in the unlikely story of the NL East. In an era of avarice and pride, Dickey stands out as a story to admire. Hell, if I was the type, I’d even consider sporting a Mets’ 43 jersey. Well, no. But I’d buy my kid one. If I had a kid.
But it’s not just Dickey’s story of perseverance, nor his numbers, nor the Mets’. Off the field, outside of his family issues and childhood, is something more than a player, more than an athlete. There’s a man of intrigue. He wrote (with Wayne Coffey) a memoir about his life, his battles, called WHEREVER I WIND UP: My Quest for Truth. The book is not a quickly produced cash grab, nor a ghost written and contrived indulgence, but rather a thoughtful meditation on a life in baseball, complete with a stark and brutal honesty and self-reflection.
Besides the book, Dickey has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro with fellow major leaguer Kevin Slowey and Mets bullpen catcher Dave Racaniello to increase awareness of international human sex trafficking, and in doing so raised $100 000, all the while risking his contract with the Mets, a contract worth over half his career earnings, because the Mets’ insurance wouldn’t cover him in case of injury sustained on the climb. He majored in English lit. He is apparently considering writing a collection of short stories. He does extensive charity work through Honoring the Father Ministries.
In two separate pieces for Sports Illustrated, Jon Wertheim mentions that Dickey reads and that “his interviews are parsed on the vocabulary.com blog”. See, this annoys me. It makes the assumption that athletes don’t read or have vocabularies, that they’re all dumb jocks. The law of averages would argue that that simply is not true, and it is partially the fault of sports writers for not being more interested in interviews and stories that aren’t riddled in cliché and predictability. The sports media tends to buy into the narrative being sold by the PR machines that are major league sport, and in that complicit action they ignore the compelling narratives like Dickey’s until it has, on its own, moved itself to the forefront of discussion. Dickey’s story is equally intriguing if he’s 1-11 for the Mets’ AAA Buffalo Bisons, and not 11-1 for the big club.
Okay, maybe nothing that happens in Buffalo is intriguing, but the argument remains, if quietly flawed. And it’s the flaws that I find most compelling in any narrative. As a child, flaws are limited to a bad outing, an 0-for-4 performance, of failing to move the runners ahead, of a failed season in the light of promise. But, as an adult, the flaws of those competing to be our heroes, our favourites, are more real, more personal, more identifiable. Childhood is innocent of contract disputes, infidelity, and salary caps. But when you grow up, at least for me, it becomes infinitely more difficult to ignore the malicious flaws born of celebrity and narcissism. And with that inherent pessimism, that cynicism, comes a sadness, a knowing that you’ll never again love the Casey Candaeles, the Fred McGriffs, the Garth Iorgs. Not because they don’t deserve your affection, but because you’ve lost the ability to have it. And then, every so often, an R.A. Dickey comes along and reminds you what you love about sport. Not the ego, or salacious headlines, or evil empires, but rather the ongoing story, the one hundred year old narrative, the epic fantasy of childhood’s game.