From the Sidelines: Left a fan, came back a man

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The plan was to drive 17 hours from Montgomery to NYC to take in a game at the soon-to-be closed Yankee Stadium. It was a good plan, one that would certainly make for an unforgettable vacation. One of the few true pieces of hallowed baseball ground remaining, The House That Ruth Built promised to provoke awe and stir the sense of history in a group of baseball fans looking for a few days away from the Deep South they had called home for the entirety of their young lives.

But somehow along the way, the centerpiece of the trip became little more than an afterthought. It became a sideshow on a tour through pillars of the past and products of the present as we took in a gallery of man, his accomplishments, his decadence, his trials, his valor, his desperation and his hope.

What was originally a weekend visit to Yankee Stadium to satisfy the frivolous desire of a lifelong sports fan became a self-guided tour through Americana. From feeling the amazement of seeing the Empire State Building to unwittingly worshipping in the temple of capitalism that is Times Square to experiencing the solemnity that accompanies standing in the presence of Ground Zero to visiting the World War II, Vietnam and Korean War memorials and finding a new appreciation for the men who laid down their lives to crouching down to converse with a homeless woman on a crowded New York City street as hundreds of others shuffled by to renewing an often unchallenged faith by taking the time to talk to a cab driver of a different faith whose own quest for something greater had led him to face extraordinarily trying circumstances with unabashed optimism, a vacation that was intended to be a laid back quenching of vain desires instead became a change agent.

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The experience of standing in the place where George Herman Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Joe Dimaggio and Yogi Berra immortalized their names, while enjoyable in its own right, suddenly paled in comparison to all the other wonders, both tangible and intangible, we beheld during our journey.

I am a sports fan because my dad was first a sports fan. And in some context or another, nearly every game I see reminds me younger days by his side, taking cues from him when to cheer and for whom to root.

I write sports because I enjoy them. I love their competition, their pageantry, their

passion and their capacity to unify. As long as my health allows, I will remember vividly the healing power of the World Series and Super Bowl in the wake of 9-11. It was likely then that my fervor for sports was rekindled.

It is also likely around that time that I began relying heavily on sports to cope with, hide from or make sense of much more serious issues. Their ability and tendency to act as a microcosm of society can often help to understand grander problems.

However, on a vacation that was supposed to be a nice break for a sports fan, I ended up taking a break from being a sports fan. Increasingly over the five-day span in which I was away from Demopolis, I cared less and less about who won which games, finding myself merely dwelling on what a luxury our society provides by allowing us to play those games and talk about those games and pay to go see those games and write about those games. I saw the bigger picture for one of the rare times in my adult life.

In 1 Corinthians 13:11, Paul said &8220;When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things.&8221;

I believe becoming a man is a process. I write about the impact of last week&8217;s experiences on my life not because I am looking to share some groundbreaking, enlightening message. Rather, I do it because I believe them to be experiences that will influence the scope through which I view the world for years to come. And, if such is the case, manifest themselves in a majority of the words I write. I am confident the change will be positive, as the experience itself proved to be.

Jeremy D. Smith is sports editor for The Times. Reach him at (334) 289-4017.