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A fan again, after all these years


Do you want to know the weirdest thing about being a sportswriter other than, of course, the requirement that you spend much of your time talking to naked men?

The other weird thing is that you don't get to be a fan.

The difference between sports and ballet is that in sports you root for somebody. Nobody yells at one of the ballerinas to "break a bleepin' leg, ya bum."

You're a fan from somewhere deep down in the gut. The funniest thing about the old "Saturday Night Live" bit about Da Bears is that it was exactly true to life. For the real fan, sports are life -- and death. That two Latin American countries once went to war over a soccer game can't surprise anyone. The surprise is that it doesn't happen more often.

I miss being a fan.

Oh, I'm a fan of certain players. Julius Erving and Magic Johnson are 1 and 1A. My all-time favorite sports event, by the way, was not the N.C. State win over Houston or the Bucky Dent home run or Mike Devereaux climbing a wall. It was watching Dr. J and TTC George Gervin play one-on-one each day after practice for the Virginia Squires back when I was a cub reporter and they were cub superstars.

Duke Snider was my first childhood hero. I dropped him for Sandy Koufax. Koufax for Muhammad Ali. Ali for Jane Fonda, who just got confused when they asked her to pose in a tank top.

But sportswriters don't root for teams. The first rule you learn, even before the one about never eating airplane food, is no cheering in the press box. Usually, you're not tempted. Say you're a sportswriter covering the Atlanta-Toronto World Series. Everyone else is going nuts because -- to the players, fans, and every other life form in the stadium -- winning that game is as important as breathing. Your priorities are a little different. In fact, the sportswriter's primary concern at such times is finding a place to plug in his computer.

Sure, you enjoy the great moments. You get excited as anyone when Francisco Cabrera turns the world upside down.

But it's not your moment. When the hit comes, all you're thinking about is how to capture the moment for someone else.

The moments used to be mine. Like most sportswriters, I grew up in love with the games. I grew up a Dodgers fan, a religion handed down from father to son. My first dog's name was Dodger (he was followed by Duke and Campy and Sandy), and I would often fall asleep listening to the games on a radio tucked under my pillow to hide the sound from my parents. Just my luck to be born before headphones.

The most told story of my childhood involves my grandfather, a devout Yankees fan all his life. Dodgers fans, of course, hate the Yankees. He and I were watching a game on TV in the bottom floor of his tri-level house. The Yankees were batting with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, down a run or two, a couple of runners on and Mickey Mantle at the plate.

"Pop one, Mick," my grandfather screamed at the TV.

"Yeah, pop one up," I chimed in. (Yes, a wise guy even in my youth.)

The Mick popped up. The game was over. The Yankees lost. And my grandfather stormed out of the room, up the stairs past the kitchen where my grandmother and mother were sitting, and up more stairs to his bedroom, from where I heard the thundering slam of the door.

My grandmother asked me what happened. I told her Mick popped up. She understood. Having seen these tantrums before, she went to my grandfather's room to try to calm him down.

"Sadie," he said, each word slowly and fiercely delivered, "I don't ever want that damn kid in this house again."

I was 10 -- and exiled because I had made the Yankees lose.

I had to apologize. But the hated Yankees had lost. That was my moment.

I went on to become a sportswriter and would be lucky enough to cover many of the great events of the past two decades. I even covered a Dodgers-Yankees World Series, and, as much as I wanted to root, the stories came first. The stories and the deadlines and the outlet for the computer.

Somebody once wrote -- another wise guy -- that the only thing dumber than a grown-up playing a little kid's game is a grown-up writing about grown-ups playing a little kid's games. Maybe there's truth in that. All I know is for 20 years I could never imagine doing anything else.

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