There is a poignant moment in “Field of Dreams” when Ray Liotta’s Shoeless Joe Jackson laments his role in the “Black Sox Scandal.” Upon issuing a soliloquy on his love of the game — “the sounds, the smells” — Shoeless Joe ruefully proclaims, “I’d play for nothing.”
This is a sentiment we’d all like to believe in. Athletes accept the checks because by law they have to. But when it comes down to it, they agree with Shoeless Joe.
Three lockouts in two years have left that sentiment in an Iowa cornfield, the words of a ghost long dead. ESPN’s 30 for 30, “Broke,” an exploration into the financial downfall of once rich athletes, only reinforced the notion that in sports the game is secondary.
We as fans can accept that professional sports are first and foremost a business. But the lockouts, the corruptness of poor ownership, and the follies of commissioners destroy the athlete in all of us.
In youth, we dreamed of “Being like Mike.” We played point guard for the Chicago Bulls, quarterback for the Philadelphia Eagles, left wing for the Montreal Canadiens or shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles. As the astronauts, ninjas and cowboys faded away in adolescence the professional athlete remained. The game meant and means that much to us.
On the ice of Northern Minnesota, I provided my own commentary in afternoon skates. It’s a rite of passage for all young athletes, whether on the asphalt of Brooklyn or the grass of a Nebraska prairie. We envision ourselves in that big game, that big moment. We sign the autographs. We give the interviews. We thank God, our teammates, our parents. We think back to the very moment we let our minds wander this far. It’s a meta-dream of sorts.
But you know what we never do? We never dream of our first contract negotiation. We never think of our first work stoppage. The words pension, union, revenue, arbitration never enter our minds.
The reality of professional sports can be all too sobering at times. When “Broke” reminds us that Latrell Sprewell once turned down a three-year, $21 million offer because he has “a family to feed,” we shake our collective head.
“Man,” we think, “I’d play for the minimum,” or as close to free as possible.
Every once in awhile, our faith in the game is restored. A bearded, graying, Raymond Bourque triumphantly thrusting his first Stanley Cup over his head reminds us why we play. An inconsolable Michael Jordan gripping the Larry O’Brien Trophy like his child reveals what it means to fulfill a dream.
It could even be a certain athlete who understands his enviable position in life. Our own Mark Trible’s excellent post on Brian Dawkins highlights the virtues of such an athlete.
The NHL lockout is in day 59. We’ve already lost two months of the season and so much more. My 1-year-old nephew knows few words, but to my delight hockey is one of them. My 4-year-old nephew doesn’t run so much as he skates on shoes. This fills me with bittersweet delight. They are far too young to witness a lockout.
Hell, those of us whose careers are not yet distant memories are too young. Here’s hoping that the “play for free” sentiment works its way into the next set of negotiations.
I’d direct the athletes and owners alike to Dodger great Roy Campanella who said, “You have to be a man to be a big leaguer, but you have to have a lot of little boy in you too.”