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Thirst for sports' historic reality dries up spontaneity

June 29, 2003

En route to making history this month, Roger Clemens did something just as notable. He made sense.

In baseball, where the foul line is fair and stealing is considered good, this often isn't the case.

"This thing is gonna happen when it happens," the Rocket scientist observed before securing his 300th victory.

How true. Too bad that isn't good enough anymore, that we can't simply allow moments to occur, then watch how the resultant celebration unfolds naturally. Sorry, but that's way too spontaneous and authentic, way too real.

Besides, what if the happening doesn't match the hype we've attached to it? That's too big a risk to take, particularly today when we have the ability to sculpt the moment into the exact form we desire.

So as Clemens failed and failed again to win No. 300, there was Glovegate, when he took the mound wearing a mitt that was both commemorative and illegal. There was his extended family traveling town-to-town like carnival workers, minus only the Elephant Ear trailer. And there were the Yankees, the team that specializes in October victories, suddenly choking on their own spit. And doing so in May and June.

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Throwing and catching a baseball can be difficult enough when your hands aren't busy clutching your throat. Or fixing your hair. Or writing your concocted from-the-heart acceptance speech.

You've seen Lou Gehrig's famous "luckiest man" farewell address, correct? That line, like all the others he said that day, was made up as he went along. Gehrig, in fact, didn't even want to talk at all but changed his mind after he was on the field.

If he retired now, Gehrig's speech would be written by a professional, spell-checked by computer and designed to fit neatly between Fox's commercial breaks. Two weeks later, the microphone he used would show up on eBay.

Sorry again, but that's just the way we do things today, when we insist on decorating each moment as subtly as putting a weasel in a wedding dress. How good can an occasion really be, after all, if we can't bleed it for all it's worth?

Annika Sorenstam's participation in the Colonial golf tournament had more fingerprints on it than the front door of a 7-Eleven. This moment was so huge, we shouted over and over, because it was historically. It mattered little that Sorenstam, just for the record, wasn't making history but only repeating it.

Likewise, Clemens had to be blown up beyond recognition in the name of recognition. That's why his traveling posse, which swelled to more than 60 at times, absolutely had to be there to witness the occasion.

Clemens even admitted that worrying about all the arrivals and departures was a nuisance at best, a distraction at worst. Everyone had to be there, though, because that makes for so much better TV than a guy running around hugging a bunch of other guys he knows only as teammates.

Sure, there was sacrifice involved, but don't forget this pursuit included a man's employment being burned at the stake. Juan Acevedo became part of New York sports lore, right there with Trey Junkin, the deep-snapper who deep-sixed the Giants in January.

Like Junkin, Acevedo also threw a pitch that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons.

In order to resume his career, the reliever only was required to flee the country, signing with Toronto's Blue Jays.

Hey, that's just how it is, OK? These moments must be doctored to make them more viewer-friendly. That explains why athletes keep dragging their kids into news conferences and posing with them like a ventriloquist does with his dummy.

That's also the reason David Robinson's parents received more air time in the final game of the NBA season than David Robinson did.

This is all about theater and theatrics, and if some of the moments feel a little contrived, well, what good's a theater if it lacks actors? If the details are left to chance, the highlight packages could severely suffer, and we can't have that.

So we'll continue to make too much of our sports stories, continue to manufacture destiny, continue to frame every instant just right. That's the least we can do in these times of pathetic television ratings, when the interest in the games is fading and there's no way fate can be counted on to fix things.

If our most popular TV shows have taught us anything recently, it's that reality is even better when slightly scripted.

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