When You Can’t “Say It Ain’t So”

If you have any love in your heart at all for baseball, then the Robert Redford film The Natural is on your short list of movies that you either have owned since it came out on Betamax, or stop down and watch every time it shows up on ESPN Classic or whatever Versus is now. The story of Roy Hobbs, who finds his high school sweetheart just in time to redeem himself, his Wonderboy bat, and even his manager. When Roy destroys the light banks at Knights Field with the home run that brings his team the pennant, driving the insidious influence of the Judge (the malicious owner) out of the team forever, he completes the American tale. He is Jay Gatsby hopping up and down under the green light, Daisy Buchanan’s arms around him; T.S. Garp an elderly grandfather, his Helen at his side; Rabbit Angstrom at peace with himself surrounded not by his coffin but by his wife, son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren.

Of course, Roy Hobbs didn’t always hit the game-winning home run. The magic of film adaptation has taken a far more complex, far more tortured story and given it the ending we all want. In Bernard Malamud’s novel, which was the inspiration for the movie, Roy keeps the bribe from the Judge, agrees to throw the game. Even though he changes his mind during the game, he strikes out in the final at-bat. He runs to the Judge’s office, throws the money back, and charges out into the street, only to find a young boy begging him to “say it ain’t so.” Roy can’t — instead, he just sobs.

The vigilant Max Mercy follows Roy Hobbs vigorously, throughout both the book and the film, trying to track down just where this mysterious man came from. Roy ridicules him, finding him annoying at best and malicious at worst. By trying to figure out Hobbs’ past, Mercy sees himself as a protector of the game of baseball. When Roy asks Max to explain himself, he says that he protects the game “by making or breaking the likes of you.”

ImageThe intrepid Max Mercy…watching batting practice.

Cycling has always been an unusual sport to me. Baseball, hockey, basketball, football — all of them are games that make sense to me. There are some odd rules in each of them, but the interplay between the greatness of the individual and the fortitude of the group makes each of them special in its own way.

Hopping on a bicycle in bright colors of Spandex and flying up and down hills, over asphalt, concrete, and even rounded cobblestones, has long seemed the domain of the insane. Back when I was starting to pay attention to more than the NFL and the (then) hapless Texas Rangers, the name of Greg LeMond hovered at the back of my sports brain; I vaguely knew he was a cyclist, but that was about it.

And then the phenomenon that was Lance Armstrong began to grow. We all know the story: the cancer, the divorce, the rock star, Livestrong, 7 Tour de France titles. The accusations, the denials, the threatened litigation, the legions of negative screenings for performance-enhancing drugs.

I never developed a taste for watching stage after stage of the Vuelte, the Giro, or even the fabled Tour, but the stories that grew out of those stages are amazing. The miraculous comeback of Floyd Landis, who came out of nowhere to win the 2006 Tour, at least until he started his own strange journey toward the Court for the Arbitration of Sport. The strange hybrid of cooperation and rivalry between teammates Jeffrey Wiggins and Mark Cavendish in the 2012 Tour. But most of all, the yellow wristbands that stand for defeated tumors but also for lost sons, daughters, parents, husbands, wives.

Lance Armstrong stood for hope. Not just against the dread of cancer, but against the temptation of cheating. He was a peaceful Josh Hamilton; a truthful Barry Bonds; a champion who had done it the right way.

He even had his own Max Mercy: the reporter David Walsh, who early on saw the bullying that Lance Armstrong used to silence those around him. Too many of us saw this as just part and parcel of being the alpha male, the cycling champion. When Lance called Walsh a “troll,” when Walsh was blackballed within the journalistic circle that covered cycling during the doping heyday, too many of us laughed at him as, apparently, Lance Armstrong was able to get around the WADA’s scrutiny with a package in his refrigerator.

But Max Mercy got his story. Now, David Walsh has his.

Now, Lance Armstrong stands silent. As the legions of lawyers prepare to descend, even his own Twitter biography has already had those glorious titles torn away. He may lose his Olympic medal; he may be sued for millions in prize money. Whether he becomes the Pete Rose of cycling, brash and unrepentant to the last, or allows the Peter Sagans and the Jeffrey Wigginses and the Levi Leipheimers to take their place in the limelight for cycling’s next phase, Lance Armstrong has empowered the cynics, those who refuse to believe in the purity of sport, the purity of anything.

But if we want those we idolize to look us in the eyes and “say it ain’t so,” then we have to turn the harsh light of scrutiny on ourselves, and refuse to let it be so. Not just for them, but for us. Saying no to shortcuts, to fibs, to convenient truth, to sound bites, is what must happen. Of course, if we actually did that, we might find that great endings are all around us, even without the benefit of special effects and kindly screenwriters.

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One Response to “When You Can’t “Say It Ain’t So””

  1. […] If they give you ruled paper, write the other way. « When You Can’t “Say It Ain’t So” […]

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