We are sports fans. There is something special and wonderful and unique about being a sports fan. We love our teams and certain players. We get excited by special moments.
And when disappointment hits, it hits hard – and it often hurts.
I remember being a young boy in 1981. It was a Sunday night. My mom told me that I had to go to youth group. I asked to stay home. She insisted. I had to go. I didn’t want to go. My eyes were full of tears. The Dodgers had just defeated the Yankees in the World Series. In my mind, we should have all been in mourning.
We also attach ourselves to our sports heroes…
I remember being even younger, on a summer afternoon, August 2, 1979, and hearing from a neighbor that Thurman Munson had died in a plane crash. That shocked me to the core. Baseball players weren’t supposed to die – they were gods. I don’t think I cried that day; I was too shocked and confused. I still think of Thurman ever year on August 2, in a way still not understanding that he’s gone.
As fans, we often live vicariously through the players we root for. As we get older, we know that they don’t really care about us, they’re just doing their jobs, but still, there is that attachment…
I only went to one Spring Training in my life. It was 2004, the first year that Alex Rodriguez was a Yankee. We were there the day Spring Training opened. As the players ran out onto the field and began their warm-ups and started playing catch, I quickly focused on only one person. I saw a motion that was at once familiar and yet distant. It was the unique way a coach, Don Mattingly, was throwing – just like he always had. Mattingly was the player who took me from my childhood to adulthood bridging those critical years – the one constant in a person’s period of profound change. Nine years after he retired, I was seeing him throwing again. He was older, of course, but if I suspended reality and let my mind drift, I saw ol’ #23 as a young player again on a sunny day in July in the mid-1980’s. For a few moments at least, Donnie Baseball was back and I was a kid again.
This is what sports does to us – and for us.
In a way, sports can help us defy age and time. Through sports we can be young again.
I, of course, love the Yankees. I have since 1977. My fandom was cemented when Reggie Jackson hit three long balls into the October night. Baseball is a constant in my life. I think about the Yankees – always. I dislike the winter and count the days until Opening Day.
When I became a father, I tried to teach my sons to love baseball as much as I do. They all came to the sport from different perspectives. They latched on to certain players. Bernie Williams was a hero to my oldest son Ryan. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, of course, were others. I can still hear my son Alex saying that his favorite players were “El Duque and Andy Pettitte” in his cute little soft voice. But of all the heroes my sons had, I think the one who most touched the heart of any of my children was Hideki Matsui – my youngest son Ethan’s favorite player.
To Ethan, Hideki Matsui was bigger than life. Hideki wasn’t just a great player, he was a living legend. Ethan celebrated in Matsui’s accomplishments. He rejoiced in his success. Ethan was only five years old when Matsui became a Yankee, but he loved him immediately and unconditionally. When we would be at the stadium and Matsui would come up, I sensed a special hope resonating inside of Ethan as if he could will Hideki to hit a home run.
One time it actually worked.
On July 20, 2009, with Ethan watching by my side, Hideki Matsui hit a walk-off homerun to defeat the Baltimore Orioles 2-1. Yankee Stadium erupted. We stayed long after the game singing New York, New York... That night might have been one of the happiest in Ethan’s childhood. What could be better than watching your hero circle the bases on a magical night in the Bronx? This was especially true because, even as a kid Ethan understood that that game would probably be the last time we’d ever see Matsui in person as a Yankee. Matsui’s contract was up at the end of the season and we didn’t believe he’d be back the next year. It was a great going away present from Hideki Matsui to his most loyal fan.
By Opening Day 2010, Hideki Matsui was a California Angel. His last game as a Yankee was a historic one propelling the Yankees to the 2009 World Championship and earning the World Series Most Valuable Player Award. And, now it was Opening Day 2010, and as luck or fortune would have it, Matsui was at Yankee Stadium, in the wrong uniform of course, but there to receive his World Series ring. By now Ethan was twelve years old, but as he watched Matsui being surrounded by his teammates, he cried. He cried the tears of a fan. He cried the tears of loss – the tears that come when we realize that nothing is forever and that our favorite players all must eventually go. It was beautiful and sad and wonderful and heart breaking.
Sports sometimes makes us grow up before we are really ready.
On Sunday, November 5, 2017, I was reminded of all these emotions and memories. It’s not just baseball players we attach ourselves to. I’ve had all sorts of sports idols. They weren’t all baseball players. John Riggins. Freeman McNeil. Marvin Hagler. Evander Holyfield. Ivan Lendl. John Starks. Some I rooted for more than others. But for certain periods, they all held special places inside of me – often times for reasons I can’t even explain.
On November 5, a world champion, an Olympic Gold medalist, and one of the classiest athletes ever to compete, marathoner Meb Keflezighi ran his last ever race. And when he crossed the finish line of the New York City Marathon for the last time, and collapsed, before getting up and saying goodbye to the sport and his fans, I was reminded of how much we invest ourselves in the athletes we root for.
I’m too old to have sports heroes. I’ll be 50 next summer. Yet I felt a kinship with Meb. We both ran our first marathon on the streets of New York in 2002. I raced against him. (He beat me by a few hours not knowing that I was in the pack of thousands behind him.) Over the years, even though he didn’t know me, we’d struggle over some of the same courses in New York City. In those fifteen years, I saw Meb become a champion and gracefully grow older – as I did. 20 marathons later, I had also planned to run New York in 2017, but this year life got in the way.
As I sat on the couch, full of selfish sadness for having missed this great race, and watching Meb say goodbye, I was brought back to those days when my sports heroes were bigger than life.
Later that evening, I talked to Ethan, now a college freshman. When I shared that the marathon was Meb’s last race, he paused. My wife, on speaker phone with me, with loving kidding question asked, “Did you cry when Meb said goodbye?” I replied that I did. She started to chuckle before she was interrupted by Ethan.
“Mom,” he said, “I understand. I remember what it was like the day Hideki Matsui came back to get his World Series ring…”
That’s the magic of sports.
That’s the spirit and the passion that I hope I never get too old for.
Thurman Munson, Hideki Matsui, Meb Keflezighi… all of our sports heroes. Through their excellence, through their successes and their failures - they all leave imprints on our souls.