Maybe it’s fate. Maybe it’s coincidence. But my last assignment of this draining year takes me back to the place where I fell in love with sports: Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.

It’s about time for a reunion.

The stadium was new back then, and so was I, a 12-year-old kid with his first paying job: selling programs at baseball games. It’s funny, but I can’t remember the name of anyone I worked with, or how much I made.

Yet I do remember how things smelled, the musky ink of freshly printed scorecards — and of course, how things looked, especially when we kids, sagging with 40-pound bags on our shoulders, stepped out from the tunnel and gazed upon the field.

Nothing is ever as large as a boy’s first baseball diamond. It seemed to me you could drop the moon in the middle of that field and still not reach the foul lines.

I remember that goose bump, that gush of excitement.

And I miss it.

When people talk about this job of sportswriting, they do so with envy.
“You’re so lucky, you get to see all those events! You’re so lucky, you get to meet all those stars!”

All that is true. You get. And you give.

What you give is your sense of wonder. The truth is, once you step onto that magic field, it ceases to be magic. You enter the belly of the beast, the dugouts and the locker rooms, and you see men who hate you for what you do, who snarl while expecting special favors.

You see overgrown children, and petulant adults. You see college kids who would rather have headphones in their ears than speak to a stranger. You see millionaires who yell about the food on the plane, but won’t bother to say
“hello” to folks they work with every day.

You give up your sense of wonder.

It is replaced by a sigh. The good, bad and the greedy

We did plenty of sighing this year. We sighed when Art Modell took a beloved football team and moved it for a fatter paycheck. We sighed when former addicts such as Darryl Strawberry and Doc Gooden were given new paychecks for old promises. We sighed when Deion Sanders inked a ludicrous contract, then made a commercial celebrating his greed.

We sighed when Gary Moeller, a trusted coach, lost control one night, then lost his job. We sighed when football’s Bryan Cox spit at the fans, and baseball’s Jack McDowell gave them the finger, and basketball player Vernon Maxwell ran into the stands and punched one.

“Ah well,” we seemed to moan, “what did we expect?”

After all, you can only take so much bad news before choosing an option: Quit, or give in. I believe many sportswriters, with no choice of the former, choose the latter. They give in to cynicism. They assume the worst.

So when Michael Jordan comes back to basketball, as he did this past year, and scores an amazing 55 points on the Knicks, you hear sportswriters snicker, “I guess he bet the over.”

Or when Lawrence Phillips, the Nebraska running back, is reinstated on the team after assaulting his ex-girlfriend, you hear: “He worked out a deal; every time he scores, he gets to high-five his teammates and smack a cheerleader.”

It’s not funny. But then, it’s not humor. It’s the soured words of people who have seen too much real life invade what used to be called the newspaper’s “toy department.” They expect bad news now. It’s called cynicism. Our sports world — and its media — is dripping with it. Awful first impressions

Once upon a time, ESPN was a small, fledging cable station. Today, it is a religion — yet the most popular host of “SportsCenter” makes smirking, sarcastic comments throughout his newscast.

No one objects.

Don’t get me wrong. His cynicism is well-grounded. Sports is ripe with greed, indifference, bad manners, bad attitudes.

The danger is, you become so used to these things, you find it hard to believe the good. A nice athlete is just buttering you up for something. A quiet collegian must have something to hide.

No one enjoys this, especially not the journalists. It’s a heavy way to make a living. Deep down, I long for the times when I didn’t expect to be disappointed, when I hadn’t met so many Albert Belles and Bob Proberts, when I didn’t brace myself for a snarling “What do you want?” when first meeting a star.

That was a long time ago.

This was some year we just passed, with O.J., Tyson, Modell, the baseball strike. And today people make resolutions, new diets, news plans. Personally, I’d like something old. So in the corridors of Veterans Stadium, I will search for it:

A goose bump.

Maybe, beneath the river of all these stories I have written, I can find it again. r

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