Tune in Tomorrow



Neighborhood: Manhattan

Every weekday and many weekend afternoons at around 12:30, I prepare a light lunch, sit down at the dining room table, and read The New York Times sports section. Which used to sort of surprise me, because I’m not that much of a sports fan. I go to a few baseball games a year. I’ve attended some of my younger son’s soccer games, though those probably don’t really count. But I never watch football, basketball, hockey. The Kentucky Derby holds no attraction. The only Olympics event I’ve seen in memory was the Tonya Harding/Nancy Kerrigan smack down. Yet every afternoon there I am, propping up the sports section against a pepper mill and devouring the latest news about legendary head coaches and journeymen outfielders, routine three-game losing streaks and one-for-the-record-books last-second come-from-behind victories. Fifteen minutes later, I fold the paper, push the pepper mill back next to the salt shaker, and set my plate in the sink. Then I return to work. This has been going on for more than a year, and I can honestly say that not a day has gone by that I haven’t wondered, when I’m sitting in front of my laptop again, what the hell that was all about.

Then the other day it hit me: The sports section is my version of the soaps.

I work at home. All morning I write. All afternoon I write. For fifteen minutes a day, though, I want someone else to tell me stories. It’s no coincidence, I suspect, that “stories” is what veteran soap opera viewers call their regular shows. “I’m going to watch my stories now,” they’ll say. Well, come lunchtime, me too.

I want narratives. It doesn’t matter which narratives, just as long they don’t matter to me. They might involve scandals. Sports has been very obliging that way. During one period last summer, basketball (referee betting on games), football (quarterback sponsoring dog fighting), baseball (suspiciously bulked-up slugger chasing the all-time home run record) and even cycling (former Tour de France winner testing positive for drugs) were simultaneously on A1 as well as the front page of the sports section.

And there’s never any shortage of high human drama: the nightly “Fire Isiah” chants at Madison Square Garden; the Olympic marathoner who collapses and dies in Central Park; David Beckham’s 250 million dollar contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy. Will Tiger Woods pull off yet another PGA championship? Will Alex Rodriguez swallow his pride, fire his agent, and return to the Yankees? How will the Rutgers women’s basketball team respond to Don Imus’s racial slurs? There’s even high horse drama: Will 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro be euthanized?

But scandals and larger-than-life melodrama are simply the sports equivalent of soap opera audience-pleasers such as divorces, affairs, reappearances of a long-lost identical twin, amnesiacs, once-a-millennium tropical diseases, and plunges down diamond mine shafts. You still need multiple mundane storylines just to keep the franchise humming: wins, losses, trades, injuries, the question of whether a change in designated hitter is going to make a noticeable difference in the fortunes of the Kansas City Royals, for God’s sake.

Not that I completely don’t care. On the whole I prefer if the Mets win, if only because my two sons care. Still, when the Mets collapsed at the end of last season, losing twelve of their last seventeen games, blowing a seven-game, then a six-game, then a five-four-three-two-one-game lead, finally falling into second place with two games remaining, then winning a game to tie for first with one game remaining, and then, on the final day of the season, giving up seven runs in the first inning on the way to a season-ending 8-1 blowout — well, that was pretty darn compelling, too. Anything could have happened, and it would have been just fine by me.

After dinner, I sit down with the other sections of the Times and catch up with the news that does make a difference in my life — wars, national politics, the arts, crime and commerce in the metropolitan area, business trends, especially regarding the media. At that time of day, the closest I come to sports is the obituaries.

Yet somewhere in the world, teams are playing, players are straining, strains are showing. Who will win? Who will lose?

Tune in tomorrow.

Richard Panek’s most recent book is The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud, and the Search for Hidden Universes (Viking/Penguin). His next book is tentatively titled Let There Be Dark: At the Dawn of the Next Universe, about dark matter, dark energy, and the new cosmology (Houghton Mifflin).

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