The Fall From Grace

I cried when Mark McGwire broke the home run record.

I was in my basement watching it on the downstairs TV with the lights out. Every game that Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire played in was televised nationally as Major League Baseball and the rest of the country anticipated one of the greatest accomplishments in sports history.

As McGwire took the swing that broke the record I stood up. As bat hit ball I thrust my arms into the air, pushing the foam ceiling tiles inside of reach, slightly out of place.

And I felt this surge as I watched one man break one of the most sacred records of all time with one of the most fantastic feats that sports had to offer.

I had never been as excited to watch somebody accomplish something in sports that didn't play for the home team. What happened that day was for sports, for all sports fans, regardless of the team you played for. It was superhuman and amazing and the kind of thing that teenage boy lived for.

And as luck would have it, that moment would serve as a high point in what would be come a downhill relationship had with professional sports.

My love of sports hadn't been without controversy up until that point. I had made it through my first baseball strike relatively unscathed. I didn't really understand what was going on, but I knew that I loved baseball so much that when it returned I wrapped my arms around it.

From fourth grade until I graduated high school, I started off every morning the same way. Taking the paper over to the kitchen counter, flipping it over to the back, and reading the sports section while inhaling 5 or 6 bowls of cereal.

I got to follow my heroes, the sports stories, the teams I hated, catch up on everything that was relevant from the day before, all within 15 minutes before going off to do what I had to do.

The great home run chase of McGwire and Sosa was soon overshadowed by the dark cloud of steroid accusations, something that had existed at the time, but that I never wanted to believe. And that cloud was further overshadowed by the ridiculous and impractical pursuit of Barry Bonds.

And slowly but surely my relationship with sports changed. I hadn't been foolhardy enough to believe that there were no cheaters in sports. I knew the games professional athletes played included cheats, liars, and unseasonable characters.

But around the time I left high school it seemed that all of these individuals, the unsavory types, the liars, were the ones who were rising to the top of an un-homogenized sports industry.

It became almost routine. Some athlete comes out of nowhere to have an incredible season, break a record, or come back from injury to unite a nation in the great sports story of the year.

Until years later when we see that same unifying story, sitting in a suit in a courtroom facing accusations of doping, cheating, and every other name we would come for what was essentially the same thing.

There was a time in my life where I looked hard for new sports jerseys to buy. I wanted to wear the shirt of the next great athlete to come to New York. I wanted to be on board supporting and identifying with a new hero.

But year after year, every athlete who seemed to be worth supporting fell from grace.

I wasn't looking for perfection, I didn't need somebody to arrive who was flawless but I was looking for great. And it seemed that athletes in their pursuance of what they thought was perfection, fell from great heights to levels way below average. Places littered with asterisks and annotations entire sections on their Wikipedia page.

By the time I moved out of my house and out on my own I had stopped getting a daily paper to read. I could still get all of the same information on the Internet but it wasn't the same. The Internet is a raucous thoroughfare filled with an infinite amount of entrances and exits competing for your attention, begging for your distraction.

Reading sports websites while possibly more informative turned out to be less so because it was never just me and the website. But that wasn't the only reason.

I had read the sports pages, because it was infinitely inspirational. It almost always seemed positive. There was always potential in loss. Compared to the front section of the paper, which almost always led with trauma or tragedy or controversy. Reading the sports pages in my youth made it easy to be an optimist. Even if we couldn't win this season there was always the next. A cycle of perpetual hope.

To be honest, I'm not really sure if sports have changed or I have. I imagine it's a little bit of both. The bliss of youthful ignorance blankets so many corners of one's life like a blizzard. And as I have aged, and that snow has thawed I am both more aware and more disheartened.

As the tallest tale of any evil actor in sports reached unparalleled heights last week I was reminded once again of how much I want to believe the stories. How I want to cry when the record is broken, and thrust my hands through the soft ceiling tiles, which seem to represent the never truly solid ceiling of accomplishment.

And I was reminded once again how heartbreaking it is to watch what you thought was pure, poisoned in reverse. That disappointment is also coupled with an alternating cycle of anger and ambivalence, both serving to protect and encourage optimism for the tale of sports that I wish desperately try to cling to.

The only sports jerseys worth buying these days seem to be the ones of the players who not only no longer take the field, but have long since retired. The ones whose reputation is already in place, whose performance we can no longer cheer for, only their already completed career, their accomplishments set in stone years and years ago.