Life is full of little disappointments. The socialist worker's paradise, for instance, was a bit of a letdown, to say nothing of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. But few things in life are more anticlimactic, more deeply disappointing, than the big-time sports extravaganza, which promises so much and delivers so little. It isn't only the Super Bowl, which annually inflates our expectations and then instantly—seconds after kickoff—lets the air out, with the sound of a whoopee cushion deflating. No, the BCS is even worse. Nearly four weeks of foreplay preceded last week's Rose Bowl, which turned out to be fun for exactly seven minutes. One could almost see Keith Jackson's soul leave his body and briefly hover above the booth as he called the Miami-Nebraska fiasco "an instant classic," by way of promoting its rerunning, six days later, on ESPN Classic. As Jackson well knew, the game was a 22-pound Butterball, and we, its unlucky viewers, were left to wallow in our tryptophan comas.
Given the hype that precedes every sports event—like a courtier scattering rose petals in advance of a king—serial disappointment is perhaps inevitable. Sports are becoming one big bait and switch. Promising a freak show, the XFL lured millions into its tent one week, only to strip us of our boxer shorts and show us the egress. With every breathless promo for the forthcoming Winter Olympics, our raised expectations only have further to fall. Even baseball seems to have reneged on its promise of contraction: Hysteria attended the announced execution of the Minnesota Twins, who last week, in near silence, hired a new manager for the 2002 season. I love the Twins; still I feel badly used by baseball owners, who assured me in November that my team would be euthanized. Like a war widow whose mate was prematurely presumed dead, I had hastily married the Chicago Cubs in a December civil ceremony. Now what am I to do?
Of course, sports aren't the only offenders who so frequently set us up for a fall, the way Lucy did when holding for place-kicker Charlie Brown. No indeed: For two years my every meal has been the bottled water and canned ravioli that I hoarded, in my basement, in anticipation of the inevitable Y2K catastrophe. At the very least, though, sports are in a dead heat with politics and the movies for failure to deliver. Ali was not bad, just not as glorious as the trailer, print ads, advance reviews, interviews with the Greatest and wishful thinking had led me to hope. Michael Jordan's comeback has been spectacular of late, but he'd have to score 51 every night to justify what my colleague Jack McCallum calls "the six-month striptease" that preceded his decision to play. (By the time MJ was down to his Hanes, I had all but lost interest.)
Every athlete and coach is so thoroughly vivisected in the days preceding any game of import that the games themselves seem an unnecessary postscript. "We've talked about this game every way you possibly can," said ESPN's Mark Malone on the eve of last weekend's Jets-Raiders game, thus ensuring that—come Sunday—I would sit on the couch with a deep disquiet coming over me. "Disappointment," as Jackie Wilson sang, "was my only friend."
Spontaneity is what distinguishes sports from other forms of entertainment. Anything can happen—or so we'd like to think. But when the anchors and analysts and, lest we forget, the thumb-sucking columnists have so thoroughly chewed our food for us in advance, it all ends up tasting like Gerber's strained peas. Eventually we lose our appetite.
The NFL playoffs are about to begin, and each game will be billed by the networks as a profoundly entertaining epic, Biblical in importance. The games will be prehashed and rehashed and become Instant Classics. Some of them will even be watchable. More likely than not, however, they will leave me asking, Is that all there is? And the networks will answer, No, wait, there's so much more. Then they will broadcast the Pro Bowl.