This column stinks. It's a scratch-and-sniff catalog of every smell in sports. A fresh can of tennis balls, for instance, opens with the same vacuum-packed whoosh as a coffee can but is—on first whiff—even more pleasantly potent. Secure a brand-new sneaker over your nose and mouth, in the manner of an airplane oxygen mask: Is there, anywhere on Earth, a more powerful intoxicant? (Snort Keds, not coke.)
Summer smells like the rubber of a diving mask, which smells like the rubber of a beach ball, pressed against your nose as you inhale deeply while attempting to inflate it. Swimming smells like chlorine and damp nylon, whether at the Olympics or under the Holidome of the Holiday Inn in Stevens Point, Wis.
Sports are an olfactory factory. I am, at this very moment, taking a long nasal draw off a baseball mitt, which is held over my face like Hannibal Lecter's muzzle. My reaction, spoken in an extended exhalation: God, I love the smell of Rowlings in the morning.
Sports fans and sportswriters are often called jock sniffers. But we don't, for my money, sniff enough of our environment. Sometimes this is a good thing. Ten years after his last World Series appearance, I can still recall the postgame pong of Lenny Dykstra's locker—B.O. and BenGay, Red Man and Dubble Bubble—as if it were singeing my nose hairs for the first time.
Still, for all our hours spent watching and listening to sports, we should occasionally stop to smell the Rose Bowl. College football is redolent of dry leaves and fresh-mown grass, flannel blankets and foam helmet padding.
It smells like SoCo-and-Coke in a three-years-out-of-date souvenir cup with the team schedule washed off and its own subsidiary scents of plastic and dishwasher detergent. It's the beer-funk-on-shoe-sole smell of a concrete concourse, the Raid-and-urinal-cake aroma of halftime.
High school football is the haylike whiff of year-old grass plucked from cleats gone unused since last season. Pro football is beer-marinated bratwurst hissing on a charcoal grill and the faint aroma of aluminum in a foam-rubber can cozy. All football smells like a weight room, which in turn smells like cold steel on calluses, with a twist of rubber floor mat.
If Michael Jordan wanted Michael Jordan cologne to evoke basketball, he should have mixed new-sneaker smell with pebble-grain leather and the acrid, adhesive scent of athletic tape. He should have wiped his sneaker soles with his hands for traction, then bottled that scent of burned rubber, flesh and floor varnish. To judge by the product, come to think of it, that's exactly what he did do.
When I was growing up, my big brother Tom found a way to weaponize a Nerf basketball, by farting on it and then clapping it over my face from behind, like a movie villain with a chloroformed handkerchief. But the worst smell in all of sport is concentrated, game-used hockey equipment. I once took a wrong turn into the Pittsburgh Penguins equipment room an hour after a game, and the unholy stink—like God's un-Odor-Eatered running shoes—nearly knocked me to my knees.
Civilized man isn't governed by scent as, say, a schnauzer is. Or so says science. But that is, to cite just one smell that can hijack our senses, b.s. A great many aromas—movie-theater popcorn, carnival cotton candy, doctor's office disinfectant—have a Pavlovian hold on our memory banks. One whiff of a long-forgotten pastry set Proust off on a three-volume remembrance of things past. For me, insect repellent is Little League baseball, just as sledding is instantly evoked by a speedball of Swiss Miss and Vicks VapoRub.