Sports have an inexplicable power, a force so incredibly unique that it almost
But it’s definitely real.
I dare anyone (at
least anyone reading this column) to claim that they have never in their life,
not even once, been moved by sports in some way. Had their heart touched, their
spirit uplifted, their pulse quicken, their mind race, in reaction to something
that took place in/on the playing field, the court, the course, the rink, the
ring, the gym, the pitch, the slope, the track, the pool.
Sure, there are
many noble-sounding aphorisms (and even more blithe and overused clichés) that
have sought to capture the true essence of perhaps the most universal phenomenon
that is the pursuit of sport.
Some speak to the unifying aspect of the
sporting culture – “Sport,” recently said South African politician Danny Jordaan
in the wake of his country’s successful hosting of soccer’s World Cup, “is the
glue that binds the nation.”
Some go right at the thrill of competition,
overcoming odds, the feeling of triumph, the agony of defeat, along the
accompanying underlying metaphors to reality.
“Only a man who knows what
it is like to be beaten can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up
with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even,” exclaimed
undisputed Sportsman of the Century for the 1900’s, boxing legend Muhammad
Some even appeal to the beauty of sport, the art of athletics, the
essence of energy, the pinnacle of physical performance. The famous Larry Bird
quote comes to mind. “I think he was God disguised as Michael Jordan,” after the
Chicago Bulls superstar had dazzled and electrified, while defying the laws of
both gravity and imagination on his way to 63 points in a playoff game against
Bird’s Boston Celtics.
Yet, as true as these sentiments may be,
individually, each one falls woefully short of describing that “it” that makes
the pursuit of sport so special, so extraordinary.
In truth, there are
innumerable reasons that sports – as an activity of both playing and spectating
– have captured the minds and hearts of so many people around the
This is a topic I plan on delving into further over the course of
the coming weeks in this space.
However, in the spirit of Rosh Hashana –
traditionally a time of character self-reflection – I’d like to focus now on one
particular theme that I think demonstrates a small slice of the potential that
sports brings to the table of everyday life.
About a month ago I was
forwarded an e-mail by my sister containing a story told at a school fundraising
dinner by the father of a young boy name Shai, who was both mentally and
I’m not sure whether it’s a sports story, per se, or
maybe just more of a human story, with sports just acting as the landscape, the
background, the canvas.
Maybe that’s the point.
Either way, it was
a story I had already seen and read many times before.
And yet, I find
that no matter how many times I read it, it never fails to bring tears to my
eyes – tears of both sadness and joy at the realization of a young boy’s dream
that was, at the same time, so insignificant, yet so momentous and
In the words of the father in the email: “Shai and I had
walked past a park where some boys Shai knew were playing baseball. Shai asked,
‘Do you think they’ll let me play?’ I knew that most of the boys would not want
someone like Shai on their team, but as a father I also understood that if my
son were allowed to play, it would give him a much-needed sense of belonging and
some confidence to be accepted by others in spite of his handicaps.
approached one of the boys on the field and asked (not expecting much) if Shai
could play. The boy looked around for guidance and said, ‘We’re losing by six
runs and the game is in the eighth inning. I guess he can be on our team and
we’ll try to put him in to bat in the ninth inning.’ Shai struggled over to the
team’s bench and, with a broad smile, put on a team shirt. I watched with a
small tear in my eye and warmth in my heart. The boys saw my joy at my son being
In the bottom of the eighth inning, Shai’s team scored a few
runs but was still behind by three.
In the top of the ninth inning, Shai
put on a glove and played in right field. Even though no hits came his way, he
was obviously ecstatic just to be in the game and on the field, grinning from
ear to ear as I waved to him from the stands.
In the bottom of the ninth
inning, Shai’s team scored again.
Now, with two outs and the bases
loaded, the potential winning run was on base and Shai was scheduled to be next
At this juncture, do they let Shai bat and give away their chance
to win the game? Surprisingly, Shai was given the bat. Everyone knew that a hit
was all but impossible because Shai didn’t even know how to hold the bat
properly, much less connect with the ball.
However, as Shai stepped up to
the plate, the pitcher, recognizing that the other team was putting winning
aside for this moment in Shai’s life, moved in a few steps to lob the ball in
softly so Shai could at least make contact.
The first pitch came and Shai
swung clumsily and missed.
The pitcher again took a few steps forward to
toss the ball softly towards Shai.
As the pitch came in, Shai swung at
the ball and hit a slow ground ball right back to the pitcher.
would now be over.
The pitcher picked up the soft grounder and could have
easily thrown the ball to the first baseman.
Shai would have been out and
that would have been the end of the game.
Instead, the pitcher threw the
ball right over the first baseman’s head, out of reach of all
Everyone from the stands and both teams started yelling,
‘Shai, run to first! Run to first!’ Never in his life had Shai ever run that
far, but he made it to first base.
He scampered down the baseline,
wide-eyed and startled.
Everyone yelled, ‘Run to second, run to second!’
Catching his breath, Shai awkwardly ran towards second, gleaming and struggling
to make it to the base.
By the time Shai rounded towards second base, the
right fielder had the ball. The smallest guy on their team who now had his first
chance to be the hero for his team.
He could have thrown the ball to the
secondbaseman for the tag, but he understood the pitcher’s intentions so he,
too, intentionally threw the ball high and far over the third-baseman’s
Shai ran toward third base deliriously as the runners ahead of him
circled the bases toward home.
All were screaming, ‘Shai, Shai, Shai, all
the way, Shai!’ Shai reached third base because the opposing shortstop ran to
help him by turning him in the direction of third base, and shouted, ‘Run to
third! Shai, run to third!’ As Shai rounded third, the boys from both teams, and
the spectators, were on their feet screaming, ‘Shai, run home! Run home!’ Shai
ran to home, stepped on the plate, and was cheered as the hero who hit the grand
slam and won the game for his team.
‘That day,’ said the father softly
with tears now rolling down his face, ‘the boys from both teams helped bring a
piece of true love and humanity into this world’.
Shai didn’t make it to
another summer. He died that winter, having never forgotten being the hero and
making me so happy, and coming home and seeing his mother tearfully embrace her
little hero of the day!”
That “it” that makes sports so special consists of the
endless possibilities, the purity, the humanity, the relatability that every
person can find in some aspect of some sport.
The prospect of greatness,
the chance to make a difference, being a part of a team, the opportunity to “be
One of my favorite sports columnists, Joe Posnanski of SI.com,
wrote recently (about baseball, but I think it pertains to sports at large),
“[Sport] helps us cling to our childhood and feeds that human daydream that
things used to be better, that things will be great again.”
In the end of
the day the most invaluable thing that sports has to offer is the fact that it
has no true value. It really doesn’t matter. Ultimately, the result of a match
or a series or a race – one that we are a part of or one that we are simply
watching from afar – means nothing to us. It is all just a game. Something for
us to love and/or hate, but all of which is within our control.
words of tennis great Arthur Ashe, “In sport, you are never really playing an
opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you
reach your limits, then you have truly won.”
All of which brings me back
to one of the most basic, elementary lessons that every one of us was taught at
a young age, that we rolled our eyes at; yes, one of those overused sports
clichés that, as one gets older certainly takes on greater significance in
almost every realm of life.
A lesson that those boys on the baseball
diamond with Shai all knew well, a message that would behoove us all to
internalize as we begin to think about entering a new year.
it’s not whether you win or lose; it’s how you play the