Sports Come Through in the Clutch

Micheline Maynard
The New York Times

In 1968, when I was young, Detroit was in shambles. Its soul had been wrenched open the summer before by riots that pitted angry black residents against a mostly white police force. The city’s newspapers were on strike. Auto industry leaders were beginning to worry about a threat posed by the Japanese.

Only one thing kept the city together, or so it seemed: the Tigers.

On the beaches of its metropolitan parks and in the kitchens and backyards of homes across Michigan, like the one where I grew up, we heard the voices of Ernie Harwell and Ray Lane broadcasting the play-by-play on WJR-AM and its sister stations.

When the Tigers beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, we were all united in more than just delight. The community, young and old, needed the success for spiritual reasons as much as for the sheer pleasure of seeing a sports team prevail.

Lately, I’ve felt a similar bond, only on a much grander scale and across many playing fields. As so many people around the world have lost their jobs, and seen their homes deflate in value and their countries become unsettled, sports have stepped in to distract us.

It is almost as if athletes everywhere have sensed an extra responsibility in 2009 and are rising to the occasion. They have good reason to do so. Even before the recession that has gripped the world, fans were increasingly fed up with doping scandals and violence and disappointments involving their sports heroes.

But athletic performance makes a difference now, far more than in a prosperous year.

Here in Detroit, where the Tigers have a tenuous grip on first place in the American League Central, two special events have gripped the city’s attention this year.

In April, it was the N.C.A.A. Final Four, in which the Michigan State men’s basketball team ultimately lost to North Carolina. Granted, it was a stretch to classify the East Lansing-based Spartans as a local team, but the 100-mile distance was happily overlooked, given the boost that M.S.U. gave to the local mood.

Two months later, the city was alternately jubilant and depressed, not to mention sleep deprived, thanks to the Red Wings. They tussled with the Pittsburgh Penguins before conceding the Stanley Cup in Game 7. That final buzzer at Joe Louis Arena ushered in a remarkable few months.

This summer has brought to mind not only my 1968 Tigers, but also the United States’ hockey victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics and France’s victory over Brazil in the 1998 World Cup final, which sent a million people surging onto the Champs-Élysées in celebration.

In rapid succession, fans around the world have been riveted by events that almost no one could have predicted.

In June, the United States men’s soccer team stunned top-ranked Spain in the Confederations Cup and led a shocked Brazilian team in the tournament’s final. There was no Miracle on Turf, however, and the Americans wound up losing the game but gaining respect.

Then came Roger Federer’s record-setting match against Andy Roddick at Wimbledon, an agonizing, exhilarating nail-biter whose final set lasted 30 games. The session went on long past the usual breakfast at Wimbledon and well into lunch before Federer finally claimed his 15th Grand Slam singles title.

It seemed only a blink of an eye before the 59-year-old Tom Watson was in the spotlight, falling a good putt short of winning the British Open but reassuring every golfer around the world that age was second to skill.

Layered over those individual performances was the three-week Tour de France, with so much drama it was hard to know which story was the most intriguing.

The Spanish cyclist Alberto Contador, whose eyes have the same intensity as Federer’s, emerged as the best in his sport. But Lance Armstrong’s third-place finish at 37, after three and a half years away from racing, was clearly what many Americans cared about most.

Then comes fall and the World Series, when maybe, just maybe, my Tigers can recreate their magic once more.


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