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Man can bend most things to his will—the effects of gravity, the caloric properties of beer—but he has been perennially and comically frustrated by rain. He can't prevent it or control it, and he sure can't enjoy it. To tune in to last week's U.S. Open was to be reminded of the puniness of his abilities regarding this meteorological phenomenon. Water stood knee-deep on greens, tides lapped in bunkers, and fairways coursed with class III rapids. Vast engines of sport and commerce were thrown into disarray as the event was delayed, postponed and rescheduled. How bad was it? Well, weatherman Al Roker was as familiar to golf fans as Tiger Woods, put it that way.
It's laughable, the drama of sport dictated by nature, this day and age. Rain is good for many things—farming and puddle jumping—but it is a known disrupter of commercial broadcasting. Man may be better able to forecast a storm these days, but he is no closer to guaranteeing a successful picnic, parade or golf tournament than he's ever been. The idea that Tiger might be stalking another major during the audience-deprived hours of Monday morning is the surest evidence of man's impotence. We have discount dentistry and thin-crust pizza, and we can send rockets to Mars. And we have to set our plans aside for ... rain?
There's a lot at stake these days, in money and championships, and we're no closer to removing this one highly aggravating and completely uncontrollable condition than ever. It ought to be humbling, if it wasn't so damn infuriating. And wet.
It's not just golf we're talking about. As this past week also reminded us, no sport is rain-tested as regularly as baseball, the occasional domed stadium aside. Unlike football, which welcomes a battle with the elements as just another test of manhood, baseball pretends to celebrate the best of summer even as it must endure the worst of it. As Crash Davis himself once said, "Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains." And of the three outcomes, only one threatens concession sales and traps men under giant tarps.
Last Thursday, working under the same cloud bank as Woods, the Yankees felt obliged to hold their fans hostage for more than five hours, refusing to postpone their sodden game with the Nationals until the rain let up. There were scheduling demands that made it important to play, but you do not need to be overly cynical to suspect other motives as well. It is the age-old conundrum: the integrity of the sport versus the teeth-gritting ticket rain check.
Just up the soaked Eastern seaboard, the Red Sox were losing to the Marlins when the game was called in the sixth inning, after a 2½-hour delay. In that case Boston players would have preferred a longer delay, grumpily believing they could have come back to win. Or, better yet, a cancellation before the proceedings began. "I don't know if the gate was worth it," sniffed third baseman Mike Lowell. In other words sometimes you lose and it rains.
Presumably the fans were more grateful for the early send-off, although the older ones among them might remember one of the most epic rain delays ever, at least in the non-ark division. During the 1975 World Series the Red Sox faithful waited out a three-day storm (though not in Fenway Park) before finally taking on the Big Red Machine in Game 6.
Whereas baseball is merely vulnerable to rain, it is believed that Wimbledon, which began this week, actually causes it. The tournament, year in and year out, spans the wettest fortnight on earth, basically a cloud-seeding event with the complication of some tennis and the eventual appearance of royalty. The climatic pattern was apparent the very first year of the "new" Centre Court, in 1922, when The New York Times observed that "rain interfered with a good part of the program." And so it has, almost every year since, becoming the most reliable creator of moisture since the last scene of Titanic.
In 2004 Wimbledon enjoyed all of three rain-free days, which seemed soggy even for Great Britain. The drizzled dreariness is part of the tournament's perverse charm, of course, but even the British had to admit that a match lasting five days (eight rain delays in 2007 stretched Rafael Nadal's match with Robin Söderling to 92 hours) was too much to ask of its champagne-swilling, strawberry-eating, pound-paying, garbage-bag-wearing patrons. Short of replacing the Centre Court grass with an expanse of ShamWow, the proprietors had nothing else to do but spend an estimated $130 million to install a retractable roof, which will likely be in frantic operation this week if weather history holds.
But all that amounts to is a cleverly engineered umbrella, and in no way does it suggest that man has somehow solved rain. It will continue to fall, washing out golf, baseball and any tennis not on Centre Court. Picnics, parades—it will fall on them too. Same as it ever did. Stupid rain.