Don't Call it a Comeback
Occasionally, Kathleen asks me to contribute to a diary she keeps by the bed. She’s not looking for longwinded diatribes, just nuggets that we can reflect on in a year or two to remind us of what was happening.
Here were three of my contributions from last April: “Mariners 11-2. UVA Redemption. Tiger Woods.” They are all about sports. It was striking for me to realize how much sports is typically top of mind. It’s woven into the fabric of my day, and it helps mark my yearly calendar. Earlier this spring, I was looking forward to taking Manny on his evening walks along the trail, the setting sun bathing Rainier in pink light, and listening to Rick Rizzs call a few innings. The Mariners were expected to be woeful, but still, they are part of the soundtrack of summer.
The comeback narrative is a favorite in sports. A team is down big in a game and then rallies to win. Or, like UVA, they follow the most embarrassing end to a season imaginable—being the first ever 1-seed to lose to a 16-seed in the NCAA Tournament—with a National Championship. “Don’t call it a comeback, because we never went away.” That’s a common taunt on playground basketball courts and even a mantra adopted inside locker rooms. Well, sports, this time you did go away.
It may seem silly, but I still get nervous when I watch my favorite teams. Butterflies churn during tense moments, my heart pounds. It’s a physiological reaction. It’s very real. I’ve spent a good bit of my life wondering why that is. Last year, I came up with a rationale. You see, especially as I’ve gotten older and taken on more responsibilities, I’ve become something of a fair-weather fan. I’m always paying attention, but I’m only following play by play if my team is doing well. Watching a game is a luxury of time, and I can only justify it to myself if the Jets and the Mariners are in the midst of winning. So I think my nerves are about the fear that the season will crumble into misery all too soon.
I tend to like teams that find themselves on the precipice of disaster. That means if the Mariners go on a skid and drop too far below .500, the chances at the playoffs dim. If the Jets allow a late scoring drive to let the Bills beat them in the opening game and then lose their quarterback for nearly half the year to mononucleosis, there goes another shot at the Super Bowl. There goes my excuse to watch. A small part of me grieves very seriously for the loss of each season. It’s the loss of escapism, a return to real life.
Last year at this time, I was obsessed with Tiger Woods’ stunning victory at the Masters. I asked every sports fan I encountered to pontificate on why Tiger’s win seemed to matter so much. Trump even gave him a fricking Presidential Medal of Freedom. Mostly, people described the win as a comeback story, and I think, largely, that’s right. Tiger Woods dominated on the golf course for years, and then he fell apart—both physically and emotionally. People were excited to see him return to glory.
But, for me at least, his win was somewhat deeper. A comeback, yes, but about something larger than just one person. When Tiger is at his best, he is a wizard on the golf course. He can bend his shots around trees and sink snaking putts. I was watching this moment from the 2005 Masters live on TV. How does something like that happen? Nike couldn’t have scripted a better commercial. It’s enough to make you believe in magic.
Then we learned Tiger was a womanizer. Then his knee and his back ailed him, and he was hobbled by surgeries. Tiger Woods was no sorcerer—he was a deeply flawed and wounded person. That reality hit hard.
For all my life, it seemed like such a sure thing that Tiger Woods was and always would be the best golfer ever. He’d win the most tournaments, the most Majors, and do so with a flair only he could master. But as the winless years stacked on top of each other, it became apparent that even surpassing Jack Nicklaus’ Majors total was unlikely.
And then came 2019 at Augusta. Tiger didn’t exactly seize his victory, the way he did a decade and a half ago; rather, he survived. Other players collapsed—just as men everywhere had been exposed as being the disgusting creatures we’ve long suspected—and Tiger was left standing atop the ruins, a wizened figure weary from the struggle. And yet, for one Sunday afternoon, we could suspend disbelief and remember simpler times. –Andrew Waite