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When Real Life Invades Sports

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Over the past few weeks real life has intruded into our cozy little world of sports. A number of former athletes have passed away, there's still no basketball being played as millionaires and billionaires continue to squabble, Washington Nationals catcher Wilson Ramos was kidnapped and subsequently rescued, and we can't escape the sickening, stomach-churning Penn State scandal. We love the games, we love the winning, we accept the losing (well, sometimes), but unfortunately, other delicate, less-than-fun things stick their noses into the fantasy life that sports can provide.

When you're a die-hard sports fan, that's really just a nice way of saying you're insane. The universe of sports permeates every part of sports fans' lives, seeping into our bloodstream, invading our brains. We relate to athletes and teams that we root for in unhealthy ways, yet in ways that create its own language and own unique culture, and we have lifelong connections to people we've never met. Though the passing of Matty Alou, Bob Forsch and Joe Frazier were sad events, we are left with fond memories, and they were sent off with a hero's farewell. While certainly some younger fans have said, "Who's Matty Alou? Is he related to that old guy Moises Alou?" Or "What's a Bob Forsch?" often, when a former player dies, we have some connection to him, however petty and mundane. "I remember collecting his baseball card." "I ran into him at a restaurant once, and he signed an autograph for me." "We once drank beer together for 12 straight hours with a couple of strippers and ran naked across a golf course." (Ok, that would be John Daly, but he's not dead yet.)

On occasion my two brothers and I would jokingly compare ourselves to the Alou brothers -- my older sibling was the best all around player just like Felipe, I was a little left-handed batter, with no power, but could hit for a high average like Matty (ok, Matty did it in the big leagues while I was stuck in Little League and Pony League and whatnot) and my younger brother was a solid all-around player, along with being a tiny bit eccentric and unique, the way Jesus was. So I would occasionally exclaim that I was the "Matty Alou of the Freier brothers." One year, my father sent a message to his three sons when we unwrapped two pairs of boxing gloves on Christmas morning. Apparently the message was this: He wanted us to punch each other in the face (more than we already were). As the three of us staged boxing matches in our basement, we of course had to take on the identity of professional boxers, as part of the fun of being a kid is to pretend you're a famous athlete and not just some nine-year-old schmuck. My older brother was George Foreman (though he didn't go on to name his own two sons George), my younger brother was Muhammad Ali and I was Frazier. So I was "the Joe Frazier of the Freier brothers." And when I used to play the old baseball board game APBA, I tried to draft Bob Forsch whenever possible, as his card was always phenomenal in that game. Those were my connections to Alou, Frazier and Forsch -- and yes those connections were petty and mundane, but they exist nonetheless.

While those deaths leave a void in our world, the sport of basketball leaves a hole in our winter. Sure, there are die-hard basketball fans climbing the walls at the lack of games, but with every passing day, there are many others just shrugging their shoulders and going on with their lives. "Basketball? I can live without it" is the philosophy of many fans these days. Do the players, owners and commissioner realize that there just isn't a huge public outcry for the resumption of the sport the way there was for football? They're only hurting themselves, as many of their (at least casual) fans learn to do without it. People around the country are having a hard enough time paying their bills and buying groceries, should we care if multimillionaire Carmelo Anthony loses a couple of paychecks? Of course, many people on the fringes of the NBA -- stadium employees, businesses around the arenas -- are suffering, but it's doubtful the players and owners are thinking too much about them.

Sometimes real life overshadows sports in unimaginable ways, such as the Ramos kidnapping incident, which the catcher will have to mentally and psychologically recover from while simultaneously calling pitches and trying to hit a curveball, or in unspeakable ways, such as what happened at Penn State. How can we make sense of something like that? The atrocity that was allowed to go on is unfathomable. The wrong people were protected. The silence over the last nine years was too loud. Elvis Costello -- in "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding" -- once sang, "So where are the strong? Who are the trusted?" It would be fitting to ask those questions now about all who were involved in this tragedy. The ones who were counted on to be strong were weak, and the ones who were counted on to be trusted proved to be untrustworthy.

We need sports right now to be a distraction from itself more than ever. Death? Lockouts? Kidnapping? Pedophilia? Don't we turn to the sports page to escape those horrors? Luckily there were plenty of games to keep us busy. Sure, the New York Giants and New York Jets lost this week, but at least they were only games and not life and death. Because games are what we want. Not all that other sticky stuff -- like, you know, real life.