Nearly 350 years ago Isaac Newton watched an apple fall to earth, giving birth (in a manner of speaking) to gravity, without which Nellie Fox might still be camping beneath an infield fly at the old Comiskey Park, punching his glove, staring at the Chicago sky and waiting to catch a baseball popped up in 1951.
"If I have seen further," wrote Newton, "it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." He was acknowledging a debt not to ex-Giants infielder Manny Trillo but to other geniuses in his field, as Fox did when he said, "What is the top requirement for a second baseman? A fine shortstop. I am fortunate in having the greatest shortstop in baseball, Luis Aparicio."
All of which is to say that sports, like most worthwhile human endeavors, teach us to appreciate—to Apariciate—our fellow man, which is a good thing, for people are connected in ways you might never imagine.
Sports also teach forgiveness. Twenty years ago Rickey Henderson buried the hatchet with Yankees nemesis Lou Piniella by saying, "Let's let bye-byes be bye-byes." But sports give everyone a shot at salvation. "The best thing about baseball," Trillo once said, "is that you can do something about yesterday tomorrow."
And while that is a hopeful thought for all of us resolving to reinvent ourselves in the New Year, it's not quite the best thing about baseball. The best thing about baseball is—and forever will be—ballpark food. "A hot dog at the ballpark," Humphrey Bogart said, "is better than a steak at the Ritz."
Still, as we gorge ourselves this holiday season, sports urge us to have a modesty of wants. In an age when athletes often call to mind Minnie the Moocher—who dreamed, in Cab Calloway's cautionary tale, of a "home built of gold and steel, a diamond car with platinum wheels"—we'd do well to remember the spartan wish list of Henderson, who once said in a contract negotiation, "All I'm asking for is what I want."
In life, as in sports, there are any number of ways to get what you want. Conrad Hilton became as rich as the monocled man in Monopoly by starting—as in Monopoly—with a single hotel. "Successful people," he said, "keep moving. They make mistakes but don't quit." Failure, in other words, is an option, and always should be. "Anytime you try to win everything," said Larry Csonka, who won everything with the undefeated '72 Miami Dolphins, "you must be willing to lose everything."
When hard work fails, try shortcuts. Just before he retired this year, Georgia State basketball coach Lefty Driesell lamented that one of his players, ineligible with a 1.86 grade point average, was only .04 of a point shy of the required 1.90. Wailed the Lefthander, "Can't we round it off?"
Sometimes we can. True, junior Shawn Andrews, the All-America offensive tackle for Arkansas, is academically ineligible to play in the Independence Bowl on New Year's Eve. But as a result he has withdrawn from school and is preparing to enter the NFL draft, where the Razorback will be enormously enriched by a set of football skills that scouts are calling sui—or is it sooey?—generis.
And who can blame him? In the end sports are whatever you want them to be. They're at once meaningless and meaningful. Like Little Richard singing "A wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom," sports say nothing and everything, are nonsense and Americana.