It has only been a couple of weeks since we headed to the beach for our annual summer breather, little more than a bloody fortnight, but in terms of the furious sporting fare that has transpired in this brief interlude it seems more like a full semester. Such is the vast reach and rush of global sport in our times. There was a time when July was the exclusive domain of Baseball. No more! The games are too much with us.
Herewith, a summary of some of the highlights, sprinkled with some lowlights:
The World Cup: Simply, glorious! The pageantry was magnificent. The spirit unsurpassed. The result indisputable. We should further be thankful that the good Germans spared us the indignity of having an abominable penalty-kick contest determine the outcome. What a wretched twist that would have been. How a game that otherwise makes so much sense can even allow for that possibility is ridiculous. FIFA needs to do something about that, and the NHL needs to take note.
In the end, this fabulous quadrennial soccer festival surmounted the immense problems that staging any such event in a third-world nation undeniably incurs. Brazil survived. Love for the game in a land where it’s devoutly a religion prevailed. The perfectly reasonable anger of dissidents, embittered by such an unreasonable priority, was muted by the recognition that even the most desperate of the masses would gladly go hungry for the honor of having the Cup come to their neighborhood.
But now Brazil must prepare – and rather desperately, at that – for the Olympics, a very different story. To Brazilians, Futbal, their “beautiful game,” is one thing. The Olympics, plaything of the superpowers, is quite another. The protests are mounting even as the soccer crowd is dispersing. The Rio World Cup was a smash hit. The Rio Olympics are in Big Trouble!
Wimbledon: Yet another fabulous triumph, but then this is annually the case. No sporting venue anywhere in any game year after year is quite so consistently near flawless. Wimbledon is a gem somehow capable of producing epic finishes without fail year after year. The triumph of the cocky young Serb, Novak Djokovic, over the older, wiser, and already legendary Swiss, Roger Federer, was superbly in that tradition: a four-hour classic entirely sublime. How does Wimbledon do it, year after year after year?
The Red Sox: After our punchless Town Team was swept by Theo Epstein’s still-moribund Cubs on the eve of the Fourth, the Globe proclaimed, “They finally hit –Rock Bottom.” Not quite, as it turned out. Three days later Tampa’s near equally under-achieving Rays inched past them making your defending champions officially a last-place team.
It was a significant moment. We had history in the making. The Nation had completely soured on them. “Gonfalonian panic grips Hub!” But then they closed the first half of the season by thrashing the Astros, long the laughingstock of baseball but lately much on the rise having been proclaimed by Sports Illustrated to be the very model of a new-age team destined to go all the way no later than 2017.
Heady stuff! It gives the Nation near a week to ponder the possibilities of a Great Awakening, thus restoring itself to its customary giddiness. The Nation forgets and forgives easily. It’s the secret to David Ortiz’s charmed baseball life. More to the point, the state of Baseball is so deplorable no team is ever out of it anymore, surely not the Red Sox, nor even the Astros. More’s the pity.
Here and there: The Tour de France bike race, professing to be at long last squeaky-clean, began in England for reasons that had everything to do with the sale of jerseys, the manufacture of bicycles, and the wiles of television. … In Los Angeles, a jury awarded $15 million in damages to Byron Stow, the Giants’ fan who was beaten senseless by Dodger fans, thereby holding the team fully responsible for what happens in their parking lot even if it’s late at night and well after the game. Tremors from the decision are being experienced by every team – professional, collegiate and otherwise – in the kingdom of sport. … In New York, NFL owners agreed to remove the ceiling from the slush fund being created for players permanently damaged in the pursuit of football glory. This spikes the fund well above the two-thirds of a billion dollar level earlier proposed. The judge in the case says she’s satisfied. The players are saying they are not. This one ain’t over, Bunky! … In Boston, the hair-brained scheme to bring the Olympics to the erstwhile Athens of America in 2024 advanced perilously. For further evidence of the lunacy of this crazed notion keep your eye on Brazil.
LeBron: Nothing is more amazing than the spectacle of working-class America, laboring to survive on an average income of less than 50 grand per family per year, marveling at a superstar’s willingness to grace them with his presence for only $22 million a year. This, in a nutshell, is the wonder of the LeBron James saga as he plays Prodigal Son to the city of Cleveland only four years after telling said town’s dutiful suckers where they could stick it. Talk of the humble fan’s capacity for forgiveness. Wow! Only in America, mate.
Sterling versus Sterling: Nothing like a little family dispute over a hopeless and historically hapless pro basketball team that is nonetheless worth $2 billion. In open court, he called her “a pig.” Sort of makes the War of the Roses look amiable.
The Celtics: To the uninitiated, their ongoing efforts to re-boot remain mystifying, apparently having something to do with such imponderables as trade exceptions, salary caps, expiring contracts, $10.3 million trade exemptions, even the ripple effects of LeBron’s intrigues. Alice’s wanderings through Wonderland were rather more scrutable. Insiders insist Danny Ainge’s moves thus far have been “astute.” Having no choice, I’ll take their word for it.
The Bruins. The machinations of the salary cap seemingly leave them paralyzed this off-season, though their playoff breakdown suggests they could use meaningful tinkering. There will be none. Any hopes of upgrading will be vested in minor-league prospects who, while valued by the Bruins, haven’t excited much interest from other teams.
It seems strange that the Chicago Blackhawks, with a fat payroll swelled by a long run of success, can somehow find room under their cap to dump $168 million over eight years on the young superstar tandem of Toews & Kane while the Bruins can’t find a way to keep Jarome Iginla another season or two for “relative” peanuts. They also ignored other reasonably priced free agents who might have been useful. Don’t under-estimate the importance of this issue.
Tanaka: You have to be one mighty cold-hearted customer or a remorseless spear carrier from Red Sox Nation not to be saddened by the stunning fall of the elegant rookie from Japan after less than a half season of offering glimpses of a rare brilliance. There’s remotely the chance this is only a nagging interruption but somehow, given the tide of the times and the way bigger, stronger, less vulnerable hurlers have been dropping all over the landscape, pessimism is in order. The specter of Tommy John surgery has become relentless.
It’s a terrible shame. Sure he pitches for the Yankees, and you can make of that what you will, but this has nothing to do with such childish hang-ups. It’s about the joy the precious few who are truly special bring to the game. You get only a couple every generation and they bring with them an ineffable élan too often destined to flame only briefly. Masahiro had the chance to be one of them, as once did Fernando Valenzuela and Vida Blue. He is not as awesome as Herb Score or as quaint as Mark Fidrych. But, like them, his sparkle was quickly evident and very exciting. And like them, it may be over before it has much begun.
You must hope not. It would be a pity. And if you love this game more than you hate the Yankees, you will entirely agree.