I have a friend who is a sportswriter of the old school, like Frank Bascombe or George Plimpton. He sees the game as a metaphor for every noble human experience from tragedy to exaltation. In that world, Mickey Mantle’s story is about an Okie who conquers the Big Apple with raw physical talent, then destroys himself, physically and psychologically, through alcohol and recklessness, and finally has the good sense to laugh it off.
In that world, there are the falls from grace (Pete Rose), the runners up (Jerry West), the magicians (Wayne Gretzky), and the superhumans (Michael Jordan). Perhaps more significantly, at least for Plimpton, there were also the men whose bodies become weapons for social change: Jim Brown, Muhammad Ali, Curt Flood, Arthur Ashe, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. In that world, a game is never just a game. The country kid who kicks around the minors and emerges a hero in a major media market during a playoff run is The Natural.
I have another friend who’s a basketball coach. He wakes up in the middle of the night with a gnawing fear. The statistics, the geometry that cuts up the floor, the video footage are his information. The players are his materiel. Winning his beacon. His life is a pressure cooker of details. He hardly sees the game anymore, he sees games, lining up towards the horizon, every single one of them winnable. Every one equally losable.
This week’s feature on UVA baseball coach Brian O’Connor’s quest to build a dynastic program can be read as a metaphor for lots of things. But increasingly, I find myself looking at the game at face value, rejecting the larger narratives. Is there a message I can learn about life from the experience of LeBron or Tebow or Djokovic or Mayweather? When pro athletes cost millions to develop, stars earn the GDPs of small countries, and sportswriters are a dime a dozen, the coaches, who never say anything that can be used against them, are more interesting than the players. O’Connor’s achievements are architectural rather than inspirational, more Ayn Rand than Bernard Malamud. Maybe there is a metaphor in there after all.