If I could, I would go back to last weekend.
I would sit in the back somewhere at the Cathedral Basilica of Saint Louis, as the life of baseball great Stan Musial was celebrated, following his death on Jan. 19. Listening to legendary sportscaster Bob Costas eulogize one of baseball’s all-time legends, I would feel the tears welling up over a player who retired nearly three decades before I was even born. I had heard the stories, though, of Musial becoming and remaining a steadfast figure in the St. Louis community throughout his 92-year life.
“The genuine hero,” Costas called Musial, “who as the years and decades passed, and disillusionment came from other directions, never once let us down.”
And I would wonder. I would wonder what it was like to have a sports hero not let me down.
If I could, I would go back a month. I would go back before Jan. 10, when the cover of the New York Times’ sports section was blank in acknowledgment of the fact that no one—not the holder of the all-time home-run record, not the only pitcher in history to win seven Cy Young Awards, not the greatest-hitting catcher of all time—was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Under the shroud of baseball’s Steroid Era, “what should have been a historic day for Cooperstown” became, according to New York Times art director Wayne Kamidoi, “an incredibly empty day for baseball.”
And that was just the first of the empty days in January. Five days later came the hole that was blasted when Lance Armstrong finally admitted to the world what we had suspected for years and known for months, as his iconic LIVESTRONG campaign—which has raised more than $500 million toward cancer research—was reduced to LIESTRONG on the New York Post’s Jan. 15 cover. Four days after that was the confused space that remained after the courageous tale of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o was revealed as nothing more than a frighteningly elaborate ruse.
“Did you enjoy the uplifiting story, the tale of a man who responded to adversity by becoming one of the top players of the game?” Deadspin authors Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey asked at the beginning of their piece exposing the fraud about Te’o’s apparently deceased girlfriend. “If so,” they continued, “stop reading.”
I wanted to, but how could I? How could I ignore a truth that had been lurking there below the surface, known to Te’o and other Notre Dame officials for weeks if not longer, and now brought under a floodlight for all to see? I wasn’t prepared to pay the price that the truth would cost me, not ready to watch another sweet sports story turn brutally sour, but what choice did I have?
If I could, I would go back a decade. I would go back to the days when Armstrong and Tiger Woods and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were the heroes of a childhood. McGwire and Sosa’s home-run chase saved baseball from the abyss of a recent labor strike, and it seemed every bit appropriate when Sports Illustrated named them Sportsmen of the Year, clad on the cover in the garb of Greek gods. I remember watching Tiger Woods on television in middle school with a friend of mine and exchanging a confused look when Woods broke his confident stride to sneeze, as if he shouldn’t be susceptible to such trifles.
Armstrong was among the most inspiring stories of a generation, Woods—aside from being the greatest golfer the world had ever seen—was a faithful husband in a fairytale romance and McGwire and Sosa didn’t need steroids to unleash hell on opposing fastballs. None of these things are real, of course, and they never were. But I didn’t know that, and I didn’t need to. What I needed was something that even adults needed, that I still need now even as my college graduation draws near: Things to root for, people to believe in against all odds, games that could transport me away from my everyday concerns and place me gently, in the words of baseball writer Christina Kahrl, “on grass fields, in the sun, where we all want to be.”
It’s ironic, perhaps, that we thrust these burdens of heroism on a collection of individuals who are in some ways the least qualified to bear them, despite their physical strength. Of the greatest athletes on Earth, we ask the impossible: To be single-minded in pursuit of victory, to stop at nothing between the lines, but then to be gentle and humble and pure once they step back into our troubled reality.
Perhaps, in an era when the last dark corners of the sporting world are being illuminated by Twitter and a 24-hour news cycle, this is the new ultimate challenge for athletes. In the same way that men once defied the impossible to climb Everest or collect a base hit in 56 straight games, perhaps someone in today’s sporting landscape can emerge, conquering both the competitors of his or her sport and the demons of his or her own nature, as an unquestionable hero.
If I could, I would go back to 1946. I would watch Stan Musial in person, in perhaps the greatest season of his career, when he returned from a year of wartime military service to bat .365, lead the majors with a remarkable 20 triples and win the second of his three MVP awards.
And as I sat at old Sportsman Park, I would pick Stan the Man as my hero. Because unlike almost all of the sports icons I’ve admired who have since vanished from respectability, “no one in St. Louis ever had to wonder where Stan Musial had gone. He was right here,” Costas said, fighting back tears on several occasions, “right here at home. Our greatest ballplayer, sure, but also our friend, our neighbor.”
“We understood that it’s more important to be appreciated than to be glorified, to be respected than to be celebrated, to be understood and loved than to be idolized, and that friendship is more important than fame.”
If I could, I would go back. I can only hope that someday I won’t have to say that.