Sunday, June 28, 2009

Sports Illustrated goes around the bend

So let's cut to the chase. The story is this: it's a college softball game. The batter whacks a home run, her first ever. Hurrah! But she somehow misses first base, and as she's turning around to touch it, she tears a ligament, and now she can't run. And she's disqualified if any of her teammates help her. Shit! So a player from the other team, Mallory Holtman, enlists the help of a teammate, and they help her around the bases. In spite of the fact that Holtman's team needs to win this game to go on to the championships!

Okay, fine, decent thing to do, good sportswomanship, and all that. But, um...

I don't usually read Sports Illustrated, but it was sitting around, so I read this article, which is where I found out about the incident. And it's truly one of the most bizarre things I've ever read.

Let's be clear: this is not just an ephemeral, feel-good story. This is the most hardcore, insanely, searingly, heartwarming thing you will ever encounter in your entire blighted existence. Mallory Holtman is like Jesus, Buddha, the Dali Lama, and St Francis of Assisi all rolled into one, only four hundred times awesomer.

"The story of an athlete's singular gesture continues to inspire," the opening blurb says. "Careful, though, it will make you cry." To drive home the point, the main article opens with...well, I don't think I can do justice to the gaspingly breathless tone of the piece merely by describing it:

The gift moved by wire and satellite, leaving a saltwater trail. It came from a field on the edge of the Cascade Mountains and traveled around the world. The gift was a story. It began with a hanging curveball and ended with a strange, slow procession. It gave gooseflesh to a phys-ed teacher in Pennsylvania, made a market researcher in Texas weak in the knees, put a lump in the throat of a crusty old man in Minnesota. It convinced a cynic in Connecticut that all was not lost.

It goes on in that vein. I hear it caused a lifetime paraplegic to walk for the first time. And a woman emerged from a twenty-year coma. Also.

We were five years and 4,000 dead soldiers into Iraq. The story jolted us back to sanity, people said, and restored our faith, and reminded us that goodness and decency and honor still exist.

Really. "People" said that, did they? I guess I have to accept that people did indeed say that, as the article is sprinkled with hyperbolic letters people wrote to Holtman (who is, with a certain unconscious sexism, referred to as "Mallory" throughout the piece)--including, hilariously, one from a guy who relates how a Little League team he was coaching got screwed over because, in hitting a home run, one of his players missed the base, and now he's going to passive aggressively send the news along to the opposing coach. With true love and brotherhood!

The whole article is just determined--so determined that its motives look vaguely suspicious--that you will think this is the greatest sacrifice that one human being could possibly make. It culminates thusly:

Some will say that only a woman would have done what Mallory did, that a baseball player in the same situation would have left his opponent in the dust. Some will say that only an amateur would have done what Mallory did, and only a player from a Division II college or lower, because in Division I and professional sports the purity of competition is tainted by money. There will be plenty of debate, except on one point. Almost all of us who hear Mallory's story will search the high meadows of our souls for hope that we would have done the same thing, or that we will, if we are ever given the chance.

Um. Yes. Could we step back from the ledge for a moment? When I'm hypothetically wondering whether I could display the moral courage of heroic individuals, I generally think of people like John Brown, Rosa Luxemburg, or Kurt Gerstein. I know "having perspective" is generally viewed as an Unamerican thing to do, but come fucking on. "The high meadows of our souls?" Really? Christ, people, what this amounts to is a team giving up a run in a softball game. It ain't quite the crucifixion.

You really want an answer? Okay, fine. Yeah, in the same situation, I probably would have done the same thing, had I thought of it. "Had you thought of it?" Yeah. Because it might not have occurred to me. And it might not have occurred to me because--hate to throw cold water on the proceedings, but--this incident is simply not a big deal. I am thoroughly baffled that--on the evidence of this article--people are positively building a cult of personality out of it. Is our society really that morally impoverished? Or do we take sports so seriously that the idea of anyone willingly making any kind of sacrifice therein is in fact crucifixion-level? Regardless, if we're really this starved for transcendence, then it's clear that we really are the most spiritually impoverished nation on the globe. Not that that would be a terribly shocking revelation.

I don't want to belittle Holtman's achievement but--wait a second, that's the point of this entire post! What am I saying?!? To reiterate: it was a nice thing to do, but it's not anything more. The fact that we feel the need to lionize it isn't exactly a condemnation of our culture, but it sure does show that our values are deeply irrational.


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