When, in early August, I had to back out of a social engagement on Long Island because I was heading to Philadelphia to cover the Republican National Convention, neither my prospective host nor any would-be fellow guests were particularly impressed. In fact, some insinuated that there was a more nefarious game afoot: I really didn’t want to socialize with my friends and had begged for the Philadelphia assignment to dodge the party. Others rolled their eyes and said, simply, Well, we all have our priorities....
Talk about a tough crowd. Nobody asked if I had any exciting interviews planned. (Good thing.) There were no inquiries about the exciting nature of the assignment. (Could that be because.... Never mind.) And when I returned, I was assured by one and all that I had missed a swell party indeed.
As chance should have it, more than two months later I was forced to beg off another engagement, this one near my home in New Jersey, with the same people. With all appropriate sorrow, I explained that I had drawn the short straw at the newspaper I work for and so had no choice but to journey to Yankee Stadium to cover Game 2 of the all-New York World Series. Alas, I had to get to the stadium early so that I could get on the field during batting practice and interview some of the players.
Well! This time around there was no eye-rolling, no dark insinuations. Oh, no. Grown adults wept with envy; parents offered to sacrifice food on the table if only I would sell them my credential. Several friends offered their services as photographer (if only they remembered that I’d seen their vacation snapshots and found the unfocused, chopped-off-head effect very, er, interesting). Somebody demanded that I use my otherwise never-used cell phone to call him from the field during batting practice, when I was sure to be standing next to Bernie Williams or Mike Piazza. I don’t even need to talk to them, he said. Just talking to you while you’re standing on hallowed ground is enough. Actually, I think he said hollow ground, but I got his point.
The moral of the stories, I suppose, is that a national political convention is no match for a World Series, and that athletes, like Hollywood celebrities, television quiz show hosts and pop singers, have the kind of star power that politicians can only envy. These may not be startling insights into the way we are, but they are worth a moment’s reflection, now that the World Series and Campaign 2000 belong to the ages.
Among the great social changes of the last few decades, we are told, is that we now live in a meritocracy, that is, a system that rewards ability rather than blood lines or family connection. The New York Times wedding announcements, for example, no longer chronicle the matches made by debutantes. Accomplished professionals from middle-class backgrounds are as likely to appear in The Times as society bluebloods.
Oddly, though, our political system seems to be moving in the opposite direction. The two presidential candidates were true political aristocrats, sons of privilege, children of politics. Both national political conventions featured speakers who, one could argue, are living off the legacies of their well-connected families.
Athletes, on the other hand, don’t get to the big leagues or the Olympics without the requisite talent. They are meritocrats in the purest sense. If they can hit the curve ball, they have a chance of making it big. If they can’t, it doesn’t matter that they have famous parents, or that their father played ball, or that their mother is a partner in a big law firm.
Athletes haven’t gotten a great deal of good press in recent years, with the sports pages sometimes resembling either a police blotter or the mergers and acquisitions column of a financial daily newspaper. Still, your average light-hitting, $2-million-a-year shortstop commands respect and even awe, while presidential candidates, even those who have lived fairly exemplary lives, are deemed fit for ridicule and contempt. A further illustration by anecdote: A certain close relative of mine through marriage demanded that I bring a throwaway camera with me to Yankee Stadium, to take pictures of the famed sluggers and crafty pitchers. No such demands were made on me when I went to Philadelphia to rub shoulders with well-known Republican politicians.
If this were the 1950’s, an era during which athletes still received the heroic treatment made famous by sportswriter Grantland Rice, it would be easy to explain the public adulation. But today’s athletes operate under the same rules that have been applied to politicians and other public figures. No facet of their lives goes unexamined, particularly the bad stuff: divorces, drug arrests, outrageous salary demands. In some ways, athletes have it worse than their counterparts in music and film. If they perform poorly, or less than extraordinarily, they’ll hear it from the fans. When was the last time a pop singer heard boos for missing a note?
The adulation accorded sports stars, then, is not blind hero worship. We know their flaws, and we are more than happy to point them out in often-colorful language. Still, for all the abuse they take, we understand that they’ve made it on talent alone. And that’s something we can’t always say about our political leaders.