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Original Issue


Sterile playing conditions take much of the joy from sports

It occurred to me recently that nobody ever has anything favorable to say anymore about artificial grass. Is there any other technological advance about which the same claim can be made?

But then, the move to artificial grass is part of the continuing invidious effort by certain forces to homogenize, standardize and dehumanize the games we play and watch. The result is not only that the charm is removed, but also that ultimately sport will lose its value as an accurate reflection of our total existence. Not carelessly do we refer to "the game of life." We never say "the profession of life" or "the mathematics of life," for life is indeed a good game, full of whimsy and inequity and capriciousness and, well, road games and bad bounces.

The inverse, likewise, applies. To remove such uneven properties from sport is to take the life from it. Yet that is what the promoters seek to do.

Not so very long ago our most popular sports were almost organic, each in its own special way. Baseball's field was an urban construct, fully integrated into the neighborhood landscape. In Boston 80 years ago nobody sat around and said, "Let's make a weird leftfield wall just for the hell of it." The reason Fenway Park ended up with the Green Monster was that there was a street there, and the builders didn't have any alternative.

In much the same way basketball, an indoor game, was bound up with the people who watched it. Substitutes took up the first row of the stands, within touching range of spectators. The hoopsters only borrowed the court; after the game, so long as they removed their shoes, everyone could dance on the free throw lines. Football players, performing in great oval amphitheaters, upon a very serious rectangle, mixed their blood with grass stains or, even better, mud.

Sadly, that is vanishing. Baseball now is played in circular stadiums that most resemble the insides of toilet bowls, while basketball fans have been sloped back into the next county, and football players bounce and skid, spotless upon a carpet that is swept clean.

The effort to remove life from sport is usually advocated in the name of fairness. But fairness is being confused with sameness. Any athlete worth his salt should be able to deal with a wide range of variables: football players with mud and cold, basketball players with the hot breath of fans, baseball players with differences in ballpark architecture.

Was I the only person in America (outside the Twin Cities) who couldn't understand what was so upsetting last October about the Metrodome's short, blue-plastic-sheeted rightfield wall? The year before, every fan cum poet in Norman Rockwell's shining land had celebrated—yea, venerated—the holy eccentricities of Fenway Park, while now the same people expressed repugnance at the Metrodome. But what, pray, is the Metrodome if not a wonderfully modern indoor version of Fenway Park, with a strange rightfield wall instead of a strange leftfield wall?

This republic, no less than its national pastime, was founded on variety, on quirks, on crooked streets and peculiar foods and perverse power alleys. The shot heard round the world was an easy out just about everywhere but in the Polo Grounds—only that day they were playing in the Polo Grounds. Today I keep hearing that the Metrodome has a nerve even existing while St. Louis has a real stadium, round and reliable and utterly predictable, like McDonald's and ugly airplane colors and your award-winning Eyewitness News Team.

So: There is no home team at the Super Bowl; the game is scrupulously fair and invariably tedious. Many years NCAA basketball championships aren't even played in basketball arenas. Golf pros get apoplectic if the course is "unfair," which is a euphemism for "thoughtfully challenging." Grass has all but been removed from tennis, its departure extolled by the refrain that now, thank goodness, all the bounces are exactly the same, so that mechanically grooved-in players need never bend or adjust.

It is certainly a generalization, and no, I can't prove it, but I think one obvious reason foreigners are turning America into a second-class sports power is that our children are being brought up (on videotape instruction) to believe that sport must be contested under carefully controlled conditions. So they invariably whine and stumble when that isn't the case, which it usually isn't.

It's the same in politics, where name-recognition primaries are considered the fairest way to select our leaders. Smoke-filled rooms have come to have the same bad connotation as mud. But I suspect we might have been the better for it when we were jammed into uncomfortable little gyms (or little smoke-filled rooms), when games were played with nooks and crannies, and people got dirty. We knew each other better then. We weren't just watching. We were the home court advantage.