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Some events made great theater -- of the absurd

December 25, 2007|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

LONDON -- As we American sports followers exit the childish fog of naivete for the freeing joys of cynicism -- Happy Christmas! -- it's possible to feel melancholy.

After all, we've devoted so many hours to so much doped-up athletic fraudulence through the years that you might even call some of our lives -- cough -- misspent.

I'm thinking of my own life, in which I chose to be a sportswriter by age 9, then proceeded to spend 20 adult years extolling all manner of sporting feats only to learn that many competitions probably hinged on who had located the superior pharmacist.

It's nothing against pharmacists, but I never went to the stadium hoping to see achievements in pharmacology.

Luckily, the wizened British have it all figured out, as usual. Shortly after I moved across the Atlantic, as I sat one day with a vat of caffeine reading Paul Hayward's tribute to a recently deceased sportswriter in the Daily Mail, I came across a matter-of-fact line for himself but a crescendo for myself.

The best writers start out knowing that much of life is absurd . . .

Well, nobody ever told me that as a child! I was an American child! In Virginia, no less! They told us our lives should have meaning! Even our jobs should have meaning! We should take life seriously! This one thought could've saved me a heap of denial and duress.

Thereafter, all British life and sport has seemed tinged with the people's faint understanding that life is absurd. I can spot it and adore it and see it as a mandatory mental gadget to tote around the 2000s. Anyway, I like absurdity. I've covered college football.

Besides, by slipping comfortably into life-is-absurd, I can confess my own wasted days yet find the nuggets that justify them.

We all can, somehow.

A confessional sampling:

On Oct. 15, 1988, in Dodger Stadium, Kirk Gibson hit a home run of which you might've heard. Two decades later, we know his very at-bat was absurd, because Oakland's 4-3 lead after eight innings relied upon an awesome grand slam that dented a center-field TV camera after blasting off the bat of the phenomenally juiced Jose Canseco.

(OK, I can justify that fraudulent night. I got to sit next to Scott Ostler, and Scott Ostler even talked to me, and Scott Ostler turned out even cooler in person than in his L.A. Times column, a statistical near-impossibility of coolness. That overrides that I went all wow over the Canseco home run and proved myself to be a hopeless dupe.)

In September 2000, in Sydney, I wearily slogged over to the Olympic Stadium and felt goose bumps as a thousand cameras flashed during the photogenic Marion Jones' cruise to the 100-meter title. I wrote the following gibberish for a previous employer, the Oregonian: Marion Jones wrote her name among the stars, which was magical.

(Justification: Sydney's so amazing that it's always worth going, even for deceit.)

In October 2000, in Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium, the Yankees and Mets played a tepid World Series that the Yankees won in five games, some nine 2000 Yankees turning up seven years later in the Mitchell Report. In the most memorable moment, in Game 2, Mitchell Report megastar Roger Clemens picked up a broken-bat chunk and hurled it toward Mike Piazza, preposterously claiming he thought it the baseball.

(Just before Game 5, I walked to the back of Shea Stadium and gazed protractedly at the Manhattan skyline, an energizing sight all the way down to the Twin Towers at the southern tip. How I treasure that sight on that freighted night, even if I had no clue the event I covered may have threatened world athletic subterfuge records.)

In January 2002, an upstart New England Patriots defense somehow thwarted a dazzling St. Louis Rams offense in Super Bowl XXXVI. There's no telling how many players juiced during that game or any other NFL game, given the honorable laggardness of testing next to the dishonorable sprint of doping, but on another front, it did baffle most everyone how the Patriots defenders always seemed so exquisitely placed.

(On the morning of the game, in New Orleans, four months after the Sept. 11 attacks, unforgettably, the jam-packed Cafe du Monde suddenly rose in mass unison with beignet powder on its faces for an impromptu standing ovation for a man walking the sidewalk. Thereby did tourists from all over America stand in a southern city to cheer a New York mayor. It felt like a great country.)

Other recollections: The shambolic McGwire-Sosa home run dirge of 1998? (Whew. Didn't go.) Michelle Smith's swimming medals in Atlanta? (Whew. Covered track.) The suspicious Barry Bonds' 73-home run chase of 2001, especially absurd given the irrelevance of home runs to baseball team success? (Went and wrote inanely, but at least got a horde of Delta miles and Hilton points.)

So there's always some value in having gone to the stadium or city, however unrelated to the actual reason for going. And if life is absurd, we might just enjoy our new paradigms of possibility. For instance, it's always a tad somber when somebody finishes fourth in an Olympics, but now we know the event doesn't end on the day of the event and often extends for years thereafter. Nowadays, an athlete can always rise to the medal stand the 21st-century way: finish, wait for a winner to test positive, move up, even after retirement.

It's novel intrigue.

Further, as we cross the moat into cynicism, imagine the canvas for fun and frivolity. The future looks rowdy. To such clearly frivolous awards as Most Valuable Player, we may get to add such pearls as Most Adept Pharmacist.

Above all, I don't want to seem anti-pharmacist.

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