Letter 8: “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart”

Dear Mr. Wallace,

Like you, I was a big sports fan as a kid.  I was never much into tennis; baseball was my game.  My friends and I would spend hours on a summer afternoon playing catch, then hours in the evening trading baseball cards.

In junior high, I had aspirations of one day going pro.  I wanted nothing more than to join the major leagues.  I played[1] baseball – as well as volleyball and basketball – in junior high and high school.  I won several “Most Improved” awards, which I later realized was the award for the kid who was really no good, but sure tried hard.  It was no surprise to anyone that my athletic career ended after graduation.

As a teen, I was quite an avid reader, but I didn’t venture far into the Sports Memoir genre.  I did read Dave Dravecky’s Comeback[2] my freshman year.  It was his faith in the midst of his horrible circumstances that I found inspirational.  I think it was well-written, but I was fifteen, so what did I know?

So while I am practically a Sports-Memoir-genre virgin, I have read a lot of other books from a lot of other genres and have had my share of disappointments.  I loathe reading a book that I know I could have written better.  But I digress.

I haven’t read enough of the genre to share in your disappointment with Miss Austin’s memoir, but I have suffered my own disappointments as a once rabid sports fan.  As a kid I watched just about any sport that was on TV any chance I had.  Unfortunately, this was not as much as I would have liked.  Being a child in the household, I had very little control over the remote.  I basically had to have the house to myself to be able to watch a ballgame. 

Once I entered college and was pretty much living on my own, I began a pretty steady diet of sports television.[3]  My then girlfriend and now wife introduced me to the NHL.  I quickly became hooked.  My college roommate was also a fan, so this fed my fanaticism, switching my loyalty temporarily from baseball to hockey. 

Then a few years later came my first experience with athletic disappointment.  Only a few short years after my team – the Colorado Avalanche – won the Stanley Cup, the entire ’04-‘05 NHL season was cancelled.  The reason: management and the players’ union couldn’t come to an agreement over money.  I don’t remember the details – nor do I care – but I watched the season slowly slip away in the Sports Page headlines.  I understand it’s a business at its roots, but really?  You’re willing to let an entire season get cancelled over dollars and cents?  I haven’t watched a hockey game since.

I did go back to following baseball.  The Angels are my team, and from April to September – and in some years, October – some portion of a game is on the set almost every night.  My two young girls would even watch with me at times; they’d sit for about five minutes before moving on to some other activity.  But I think I’ve got them hooked.

I love watching games on summer and autumn evenings, but I’ve grown to hate the off-season.  And it’s not just having to watch network television that gets to me.  It’s all the wheeling and dealing that just pisses me off at times.  I love my team, and I hate to watch my favorite players leave at the end of their contracts for the call of the almighty dollar.[4]

Each summer I teach a three-week summer school government class.  It’s a nice break from teaching English, and it pays well.  In each chapter, there are pages that highlight Supreme Court cases that relate to the content in that chapter.  I don’t remember the content of the particular chapter, but I do remember reading with the class the summary of Flood v. Kuhn, the case that opened the door to free agency in professional sports.  It was the middle of baseball season, so I thought I would illustrate the point with a current example.  Earlier that season, Roger Clemens signed a one-year contract with the Yankees for $25 million. 

Just for fun, we broke down the math on the white board.  The season had already started before he signed the deal, and Clemens was arguably past his prime, so it was reasonable to expect him to pitch in 25 games.[5]  So that means $1 million per game.  The average starting pitcher throws roughly 100 pitches per outing.  That comes to $10,000 per pitch.  It takes about three seconds for him to wind up and throw that ball sixty feet, six-and-a-half inches.  So Mr. Clemens was making more in three seconds than I made in over two months as a teacher.  Thank you, Supreme Court.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I’m not about to get up on my soap box and rail against the horrible injustices present here.  Is it fair that these athletes make obscene amounts of money for throwing a ball or swinging a stick when I, as a teacher who tries to make a real difference in young people’s lives, will never even come close to making in a year what they make in an afternoon?  No it’s not fair, but that’s not my point.

I remember from community college economics class that our financial system is based upon supply and demand.  People demand to be entertained; professional sports are a supplier of that entertainment.  More people will watch a winning team than will watch a losing team.  Winning teams are made up of players who can throw the ball really fast and hit the ball really far.  Corporate advertisers recognize this and are willing to pay gobs of money to these teams in order to place their names, logos, and products in the view of those people who regularly watch these teams.  Therefore since really good players bring in lots and lots of advertising money – in addition to revenue from ticket sales and merchandise – they are in a position to demand lots of money in return for their services.[6]

My point here is not that these athletes don’t deserve that kind of money, because on a purely economic level they do.  What I don’t understand is what a person does with $25 million a year.  I mean after buying a huge house on the beach and a really cool car and spending the off-season traveling the world, what do they do with the other $10 million (and then the $25 million coming in the next year)?  I simply can’t comprehend having that kind of money lying around.

What gets me is that in so many interviews, these athletes talk[7] about the love of the game.  It is their love of the game and their competitive drive that motivates them.  The camaradery, the thrill of contributing to the team effort.  This is what they say gets them up every morning anxious to head to the ballpark.  Really?  The millions of dollars don’t have anything to do with it?

One of the things I love most about baseball is the purity of the sport.[8]  It is a game of fundamentals.  Either you can throw a hundred-mile-an-hour fastball or you can’t.  Either you can hit a hanging curveball or you can’t.  You can’t fake it in baseball.[9] 

As you point out in your essay about Tracy Austin, what makes these athletes great is that they personify concepts like beauty and grace and agility and strength.  They let “people witness concrete transient instantiations of a grace that for most of us remain abstract and immanent” (151).  As such, we would like to think that these athletic titans and demigods are above us.  Not just in terms of physical abilities, but in terms of other idealic qualities.  Discipline.  Team work. Competitiveness.  Determination.  Attributes that we aspire to, but they seem to have reached a level that is almost superhuman.

But when a season is cancelled over disputes over salary caps and profit-sharing, or when a player and his agent flirt with teams only to drive up his asking price, it brings them back to our level.  The shine begins to fade a little and the blemishes begin to show.  Those guys who could stare down a 95 mile-per-hour fastball and knock it 400 feet, the guys I idolized as a kid, succumb to the same temptations as anyone else.  They talk about teamwork and loyalty… until some other team waves a bigger paycheck in front of their faces. 

I guess they aren’t the great titans I once thought they were.

[1] I use the term “played” very loosely.  I went to a very small private school, so in order to actually field a team, the coaches never made cuts.  For such a small school, we actually had very good sports teams.  But having the athletic ability of a Pop Tart, I didn’t exactly get a lot of playing time.  I did, however, get a courtside seat to a lot of exciting games.

[2] Dravecky was a Major League pitcher who was diagnosed with a tumor in the deltoid muscle of his throwing arm.  The surgery to remove the tumor also removed most of the muscle.  He fought through this setback to pitch again in the Majors, only to face another bout with cancer that resulted in the loss of his arm.

[3] The increased coverage of professional and college sports through cable television helped a bit.

[4] I’m not sure if my disappointment is more with the player for leaving the team, or with the team management for not being willing (or perhaps able) to match the offer to keep the guy in Angel red.

[5] It was a reasonable assumption, but being an English teacher teaching a government class, I wanted to keep the math simple.

[6] See, I am living proof that a student does not need to go tens of thousands of dollars into debt to get a college education.  That economics class cost me $13 a unit and $50 for a used textbook.

[7] As you point out, in very monotone, seemingly indifferent tones of voice.

[8] I know that recent events and tell-all memoirs have made putting the words “baseball” and “purity” into the same sentence oxymoronic, but humor me for a moment.

[9] You can chemically enhance those skills to throw the ball faster or hit the ball farther, but you’ve got to have the skills in the first place.


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