Friday, December 01, 2006


[This is another set piece, one I wrote in December 2001]


On a September evening in 1987, I watched the television broadcast of the baseball game when the San Francisco Giants clinched their place in the playoffs. After the game, the commentator, Gary Park, went to the Giants locker room with a camera crew to do some interviews during the players' champagne celebration. Park was especially interested in interviewing one of the team's leaders, Will Clark, then a young player on the verge of stardom. But when Clark appeared, he ignored Park's questions and kept jumping around like an excited kid, screaming phrases not usually heard on television: "Shit, this is the greatest fucking thing that's ever happened to me!" Park's discreet but unsuccessful efforts to let Clark know his excitement was being broadcast live were amusing, and the moment as a whole was enjoyably honest: Clark, the All-American boy, was being one in the most truthful sense. After all, all-American boys can cuss with the best of 'em.

While watching the game the following evening, I was disappointed to hear Park read Clark's apology. It said just what one would expect, in the very words one would expect: he got carried away; he didn't know it was live; he hoped he hadn't disappointed the fans — the usual things athletes have to say when they haven't lived up to their status as "role models for young people." Of course, Clark was probably under pressure, but still, anyone who really thought about the scene could have understood it without any apology being necessary. And anyone who wanted to "protect my kids," as people so often say in such contexts, didn't know (and had forgotten) what kind of language kids actually use when there are no adults around. Kids are usually just as good as Clark himself at knowing when and where they can use "such language." In fact, "register control" is an everyday skill mastered by the vast majority of the population — those who don't master it end up in asylums or on street corners. Clark's mistake was not cussing as such, but inadvertently cussing in public.

I would certainly have forgotten the entire incident if it weren't for another baseball game a few weeks later. On the last day of the season, I watched a true classic, a game so memorable all the details have stayed with me, so I don't even have to look them up: with the pennant on the line, Frank Tanana of the Detroit Tigers and Jimmy Key of the Toronto Blue Jays both pitched complete games, with the Tigers winning 1-0 on an early home run by Larry Herndon. Unlike Clark, Tanana knew he was live when he was interviewed after the game, so he didn't say anything was "fucking great." But before he answered the first question, he said: "The first thing I'd like to do is thank my lord and savior Jesus Christ."

"Well," I immediately thought, "if other people can be offended by Will Clark's excitement, I'm going to be offended by this! If I ever have kids, I don't want them to think Jesus Christ has anything to do with success or failure in sports." It would, of course, have been futile to try to get Tanana to apologize for what he certainly would not regard as "taking the lord's name in vain" (though such a statement is tantamount to that), but if others can use the "protect my kids" argument, why can't I?

In the United States, such rhetoric from athletes is not rare, but in Europe, it is: the French tennis fans at Roland Garros in 1989 were quite taken aback when Michael Chang, having just become the youngest player to ever win the tournament, began his remarks by thanking not his coach or even his family but "my lord and savior." And now, twelve years later, two more non-Europeans have caught my attention in another European sporting event, this time two Brazilians in a German soccer match between Bayer Leverkusen and Nuremberg. After scoring the match's first goal, Nuremberg's Cacau pulled up his jersey to reveal an undershirt that read, in German, "Jesus lives, and he loves you." As if that weren't enough, Leverkusen's Ze Roberto scored a goal a few minutes later and pulled up his shirt: "Jesus loves you." Then Cacau scored again and did the shirt thing again, and to top it off, the two players traded jerseys at the end of the match, as soccer players are wont to do — but they didn't put them on, so they did their post-match interviews with their message clearly visible.

Sometimes one would really like to be an athlete. If I were a player in the German soccer league, I'd wear a special undershirt until the next time I scored a goal, and then I'd celebrate by pulling up my jersey: "Jesus didn't score; I did!"

1 comment:

Donald Brown said...

I rarely watch sports. Your piece reaffirms why.

I'm reminded of a history teacher (dead now, may she rest in peace) who told the class that everytime she's at the beach and sees a plane fly by with a banner (as one did in those days) proclaiming "Jesus Saves" she always wants to hire a plane to follow it with a banner saying "at Wilmington Trust."