When I was a kid in L.A., I loved the Dodgers. It was the era of Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Maury Wills (Perranoski, Fairly, Tommy and Willie Davis – if you were there, you know what I’m talkin’ about) – World Series appearances in ’59, ’63, ’65 and ’66 and a heartbreaking near miss in ’62. Players didn’t make astronomical salaries and stayed with the same team (and city) throughout their careers. Ernie Banks died this week and he was a wonderful man who played with grace and joy for an atrocious Chicago Cubs team for his entire professional life. It was a nice fantasy – that these guys were playing for us and our neighbors. Of course, there was its own brand of injustice to this sweet ideal that a 12 year old boy clutched to his heart. Professional athletes were forced to stay with the same team by a “reserve clause” in every contract and got paid pretty much what the owners wanted to pay them.
Well, the pendulum has swung to the other pole now with whiplash-inducing velocity. When Alex Rodriguez signed a 2001 contract paying him $25 million dollars per year, he banked more in 2 days than most fans made in an entire year (over $130,000). The minimum salary for the major league baseball player who may spend most of the year riding the bench is now $500,000. (Who do you know that makes anywhere near that kind of money? Few, I would guess.) When a contract is completed, they go to the highest bidder – with an annual salary of $8 million dollars not being good enough if they can make $10 million per year somewhere else. The days when a pro athlete could remotely be considered “one of us” are long dead and buried. So has my love for following sport waned – only to pick up if the current team, composed of some familiar and some new, big contract guys start winning. Owners, like Howard Schultz, unload a “civic institution” like the Seattle Sonics on a group that immediately moves them to Oklahoma City because the place they play can’t accommodate wealthy business people and their hunger for luxury suites. Professional football players are forced to play a game on Thursday night, given just three days rest after taking a beating equivalent to a mugging with a steel pipe. Why? More wealth for the already wealthy. Boy, talk about the corruption of money in American life – look no further than the world of sports.
And then the Seahawks stage a miraculous comeback and land in their second straight Super Bowl, to be played in three days. I just received an e-mail from a therapist I don’t know commenting on a piece I just wrote for a local therapists’ newsletter and she ended her message with “Go Hawks!” I had a couple I work with in therapy end their session two nights ago with the same exhortation. Drive through Seattle or Bellevue and you can’t go more than two blocks without seeing a “12” banner, signifying the Twelfth Man – the team’s fans. It doesn’t matter if you are black or white, rich or poor or even freakin’ red blooded or blue blooded. Everyone around here is pumped and an entire civic culture is joined around two words “Go Hawks.” If Russell, Marshawn, Richard, Doug, Bobby and the rest of the Legion of Boom win on Sunday, strangers will beam with unalloyed joy at one another for weeks afterward. If Brady and his crew of talented cheaters prevail, the disappointment well be joined, a great ride having been shared. So for all the corruption of values inherent in modern sports, the gift to a community – of unity around a goal is refreshing, lifting spirits around this region – regardless of politics, station in life or present circumstances. When it’s all over, weeks or months from now, we can all go back to our old divisions and gripes. For now, though….Go Hawks!