As has been pointed out in this space on other occasions, one could do worse than take the words from a pop song of the big-band era--"I'll never say 'Never again' again"--as words to live by. Just when you think you're through with something, there it is, claiming your attention once more and arousing old emotions that you had assumed you no longer felt.
Or, to borrow a phrase from a considerably later time: What goes around, comes around. If you'll pardon what will certainly be excessive use of the first-person singular, I've just had instructive reminders of the truth of both phrases. I'd thought I was through with sport in general, baseball in particular. For someone of my modest and old-fashioned tastes, sport had gotten too big and noisy and vulgar, too all-pervasive and too money-obsessed. It had been a habit of mine for well onto half a century, but a year or two ago I kicked the habit.
But along came two events to remind me--and, I suspect, more than a few others--of the claim sport still has on the memory and the heart. Out of something like patriotic duty I watched the championship game of the Women's World Cup, and three days later I watched baseball's All-Star Game, wanting to see Cal Ripken Jr. once more in that setting. Each ended up being a lot more than I'd bargained for, and each brought stale emotions back to life, even if only for a brief while.
As is true of many Americans, my acquaintance with and interest in soccer are minimal. I played the game a bit as a boy, though hardly with any skill; in those distant days it was an imported curiosity rather than an all-American game such as football or baseball. But this year's women's team struck my fancy, as it did many others', in my case because its members included a contingent from my alma mater, the University of North Carolina.
So I watched the final out of loyalty and duty and ended up completely engrossed. It was the equivalent of a 12-inning double shutout in baseball, its excitement deriving not from scoring and fireworks but from dogged and at times brilliant defense on both sides. As the 90 minutes of regulation play spilled into 30 minutes of overtime the tension mounted to near-unbearable levels, especially when the Chinese assault on the American goal in the second overtime was so stoutly (and narrowly) repelled.
Yes, the shootout at the end was anticlimactic, and when the player who scored the winning goal immediately tore off her shirt and exposed her sports bra, it was difficult to tell whether what we had was a moment of real emotional intensity or an "I'm going to Disney World!" play for the cameras; the alacrity with which sports bras became a hot market item suggests the latter. But never mind. The game itself was a stunner, about as close as we can get these days to true sport at its highest (and thus most potentially corruptible) levels.
The All-Star Game was pitched just as high, but in a completely different way. Over the years this annual event has evolved, as has baseball itself, from a somewhat unpretentious but richly celebratory occasion into an overblown and highly commercialized one, taking as its model the Hollywoodized Super Bowl that Pete Rozelle perfected during the 1970s. Not merely that, but more recently the game too often has been played in a glitzy stadium newly built in some city where baseball tradition, to put it charitably, is limited.
But this year, the last year of the century and the millennium, it was played in Fenway Park in Boston, the most loved and nearly the last of the old ballparks. Fenway is almost surely on the way out, however devoutly Bostonian sentimentalists may wish otherwise, a victim of the new economic realities of the old pastime.
So the All-Star Game, which usually is about baseball's present and its future, this year was about its past. Baseball mostly does things badly nowadays, but this time it did things exactly right. Not merely did it play the game in Fenway, but it assembled many of the greatest players of earlier years, and it capped off the whole display by having Ted Williams, a somewhat enfeebled but wholly animated octogenarian, take a triumphal ride around the place where he played so long and so well before going to the pitcher's mound to throw out the first ball.
For an old boy of my age and background, it was an emotional experience of great import, even as transmitted through the cool medium of television. The men out on the field in their street clothes--Williams, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Warren Spahn, Brooks Robinson, Bob Gibson--were the giants of my youth. They defined baseball for me, in terms so rarefied that my eventual disenchantment with the game was perhaps preordained: Sic transit gloria mundi, et cetera, et cetera.
The icing on the cake was that the players in uniform somehow knew that they were witnessing something singular, and gathered around Williams, to welcome and applaud him. As many reporters who were on hand have noted, there were tears in Williams's eyes, and in some of the players' as well. It was only a moment; then it was gone, and after a couple of innings the game itself held little interest. Almost certainly it was the last game I will watch this year; but that moment was precious, bringing briefly to life a past the importance of which I had allowed myself to forget.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.