by Mike Lupica Penguin Putnam, 1999 209 pages, $23.95
Every culture needs a liturgical calendar, broadly understood. Rituals and ceremonies impose order on the passing time, giving significance to this day or this week in an otherwise unending stream of days and weeks. Liturgy — literally the “public work” of a society — is the means by which communities are formed and truths handed on from one generation to the next. Liturgy means Mass on Sunday, but it also means Thanksgiving dinner and Mother's Day, and it also means sports.
Ask any family with growing children, especially boys. The seasonal rhythm of sports regulates to a great extent the rhythm of family life. Early-morning hockey practices, after-school basketball games, weekend softball tournaments — all these impose a certain order on the passing time. Swimming lessons mark the summer vacation, and give way to football try-outs when school starts again.
Where were you when McGwire hit No. 62?
Sports, especially professional sports, provide part of the secular liturgy of North American culture, and their health is critical to our common life. Even for those who have no interest in sports, the move from Super Bowl Sunday to the Masters to Wimbledon to the World Series has the important background effect of providing a common set of reference points. Every year at the same time the conversations around the water cooler turn to the same subjects, and photographs of men at play appear on the front pages on the newspapers, mercifully displacing politics and crime for a few days.
Fathers and Sons
Summer begins in a certain sense for Americans with opening day, the first day of the new baseball season. Baseball, more than any other sport, shapes American culture. Mike Lupica, sports columnist for the New York Daily News, has written a beautiful book about how we all watched baseball the season before last, the Summer of '98, the summer of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, of the Yankees and Roger Clemens, of Kerry Wood and David Wells. But what Lupica really writes about is how baseball, cleansed of the sour memories of the strike of 1994, returned to its noble place as the nation's secular liturgy. Lupica writes about baseball and about fathers and sons — his own father and his own sons.
“I cannot tell you for sure why baseball is passed on the way it is, more than other sports,” writes Lupica. “I just know it came first with me. It was something I shared with my father, and still share today. It was a special language that we had, at the ballpark, in the front seat of a '56 Dodge, watching on television. Talking on the telephone the night McGwire hit No. 62, all that time after we had watched Maris hit No. 61. Alove that fits inside of a bigger love, like a ball in a mitt.”
McGwire, No. 62. Maris, No. 61. Those are magical numbers in baseball. Mention them to a fellow fan, and nothing need more be said; there is already a bond developed. The Summer of '98 really begins in the summer of '61, and Lupica shares with us how a boy who was transfixed along with his father by baseball in 1961 grew up to be transfixed all over again with his sons in 1998.
All Those Years Ago
Mike Lupica was 9 years old in 1961, in his first Little League season, and along with his father and the whole nation he watched as Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle went after Babe Ruth's record of 60 home runs in a single season. Little Mike was too young to stay up until the games were over, so when his father sent him to bed, he promised to leave little notes in his bedroom, so that as soon as he got up he could read: “Maris hit another one. 42. Mantle 1-for-4, no home runs. Yankees win.”
Thirty-seven years later, and now Lupica's three boys, Christopher, Alex and Zach, are too young to stay up to watch the games with their father. So they go to bed, and he leaves them little notes: “Zach: He did it! No. 62, baby! Your dad.”
Lupica writes of that incredible season through the eyes of a fan, and a father — a father whose sons are fans too. And while the subject is baseball, the home run race and the Yankees' incredible season, the story is about a father and his sons sharing an innocent and magical summer.
Asummer that unites generations so that when McGwire finally breaks the record, grandsons call their grandfather, who cries. It is a moment that son, father and grandfather with remember. It is a moment connected to other moments, like when Maris broke Ruth's record on a Sunday afternoon in 1961. It is a moment that baseball gives to fathers and sons to share, and what is important is not that it is baseball, but that it is shared.
The Sentimental Game
It's a sentimental book. But baseball is sentimental. And for fathers and sons, it is true that sometimes sports allow room for words that otherwise would go unspoken and for sentiments that would go unfelt. Baseball in 1998 brought fathers and sons together the way baseball is supposed to do. Lupica observes that, in the summer of Clinton-Lewinsky, baseball was a necessary diversion.
But sports are not a diversion. They are not an ancillary part of common life that is a distraction from the stock market or foreign policy. They are not mere recreation. At their best — whether the 1998 World Cup in France or the 2000 America's Cup in New Zealand — they enliven a culture with their potential to make patriots out of citizens, to make communities out of strangers, and even to make friends out of fathers and sons.
In the summer of '98 baseball was at its best. Writing about it all, Lupica too is at his best.
It's April, and the seasons are changing once again. College basket-ball's Final Four marks the last days of spring. The seasons change. It's time for baseball. Anyone who is not convinced that that is important needs to read Mike Lupica.