I thought to myself the other day and wondered for the first time in a long time, “Why do I continue to follow sports?”

I remember how I was “introduced to sports,” and it may be similar to those of you out there that are reading this; even if it’s not, I believe that you will be able to understand my story.

I grew up in the inner city during a somewhat turbulent time. Sports were the one area where, despite the various differences that everyone may have towards one another, very different people could find some common ground.

For even today, true fans can find solace and friendship in different people of all shapes, sizes, and colors—that is as long as they root for the same team. Everyone has either had an opinion about sports, played sports, or has watched sports.

Growing up, sports was something that was always either on the radio or on “regular television.” Yes, I’m talking about the time period known as “BC” (Before Cable)—well, at least before the way it is now. Trying to find somebody without some form of cable today is about as easy as finding someone who would rather go to Blockbuster to pick up a movie than order a movie from their computer on Netflix from the comfort of their home—a rare bird indeed. 

Anyhow, I digress. During my “wonder years,” sports was something that I truly loved to indulge in. I would look forward to going outside to “play” sports. Yes, do you remember when kids actually went outside to play and actually swung a real baseball bat and not just a video game controller that acted like a baseball bat?

Thinking back, I remember that I would literally run to the corner store every weekend to buy packs of baseball cards that contained even to this day the most repulsive, hardened, cardboard-tasting chewing gum on the planet! This routine was repeated every weekend for several months, just to make sure that my friends wouldn’t get to the cards first and subsequently beat me out of those oh so precious “rookie” and “special edition” cards.

Yes, the cards, and in particular baseball cards, were the prerequisite to becoming a true sports aficionado…the graphics, the stats, and the players—definitely can’t forget the players. The saying “Ignorance is bliss” truly applies to these times.

This was not only before cable; this was also before the Internet became the juggernaut that it is today. This was a time when you knew enough to be drawn into the “Matrix,” but not enough to truly know if you should take the “red pill” or the “blue pill.”

For example, I can clearly recall that my favorite players growing up were Jose Canseco, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight (Doc) Gooden, and Ken Griffey, Jr. When I look back, I wonder, “Why did I pick these players to follow?” I noticed that a few things stand out.

One primary reason is because I grew up in the New York area, and more importantly, I grew up in a family of Mets fan. Being a fan of a team growing up is kind of like being a fan of Wonder Bread; you really didn’t have much of a choice in the matter. Moreover, Strawberry and Gooden were the most exciting players on the Mets in my eyes. 

Another major factor was that I have always enjoyed watching players who appear to play the game with an effortless type of ability, an almost smoothness—to the point that it appeared as if they were born to play that particular game.

Strawberry and Griffey Jr., even to this day, had the most graceful swings that I have ever seen. I can’t began to imagine how many days I would go outside just to practice their swings, in hopes of having an ounce of their success on the baseball field.

Griffey had a childlike exuberance. Heck, he even wore his hat backwards like a kid. He was also someone that I could “model my game” or lack of after, because he was considered a “five-tool player” (i.e. hitting for average, hitting for power, running speed, arm strength, and fielding ability—according to the Sporting News).

As for being in awe of raw power, Canseco was king. The sheer force and distance of some of Canseco’s home runs had me speechless, especially for a skinny kid like myself growing up.

Lastly, the ability of the “Doctor” to figuratively carve up the opposition, with some of the nastiest fastballs and curve balls that the game had ever seen, propelled me to go outside with my baseball cap pulled down almost over my eyes—that’s right just like “Doc”—playing the game of pitch and make the opposition miss on a regular basis.

I knew that I really wasn’t a Doc, Straw, Jose, or Griffey…but at that time when I was playing baseball on the “block” or in the park, you couldn’t tell me that there wasn’t a chance to become them.

Although, thinking back now, I wonder what that young kid would have thought if he knew that the “Doctor” and Strawberry were abusing cocaine or that the natural power display of Jose Canseco, wasn’t quite so natural, but rather the byproduct of the “juice,” aka anabolic steroids. But then I think about Ken Griffey Jr. and what he represented to me then and even more now, which is a “pure joy for the game.”

It’s like Nick Nolte as coach Pete Bell said in the underrated movie Blue Chips after finding out that one of his own players had been paid to consequently “throw a game” that Nolte had unknowingly coached him in. Nolte told the player, “You took the purest thing in your life and corrupted it!”

This statement demonstrates exactly why so many people have lost the “pure joy for the game.” It’s because when were first introduced to the game it was at a time in our lives when we were at our purest form, when we were children. 

However, as we grew older and learned more about greed, selfishness, and the overall corrupt actions perpetrated by some players whom were involved in sports, sports started to make us feel like a fool for following these “childlike games” in the first place. It was as if a piece of our childhood had become somewhat stolen or corrupted.

Wait a minute; what about Griffey, aka “The Kid”…or is he just like “all the rest of them,” and am I just waiting for the other shoe to drop?

I guess the biggest lesson to remember from all of this is that the “game,” like life, isn’t what’s corrupted. It’s the choices people make that ultimately corrupt them, and that’s because people are just that: people—imperfect human beings.

I guess that’s why we watch the game in the first place…just to catch a glimpse of perfection, whatever form it may take, and hopefully it will inspire us to reach for perfection in our own imperfect lives.

One more question: Now exactly where did I put my Ken Griffey, Jr. rookie card…

Copyright © 2010 by Langston Smith

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