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Wednesday, July 31, 2002
Updated: August 1, 12:05 PM ET
Baseball holds 'City' together

By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Page 2's "Critical Mass" is a weekly survey of what's happening at the busy intersection of sports and pop culture.

On the small screen
"A City on Fire: The Story of the '68 Detroit Tigers" (HBO, debuted last night and repeats Aug. 3, 6, 8, 11, 14 and 19)

True story: Detroit was torn up by riots in the summer of 1967. Race and class tensions were at an all-time high. Dozens of people were killed; thousands of businesses were burned to the ground. People looked at each other with fear and dread; the city was fractured.

Then, in the spring and summer of 1968, the Detroit Tigers got hot. Led by hometown hero Willie Horton and 30-game winner Denny McLain, they played the best baseball in the American League, won the pennant going away and eventually took the World Series from the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.

The city rallied around the team. Black and white fans found common ground in their love of the Tigers. Tiger Stadium, and every bar and barber shop with the game on, was an oasis from the ugly divisions and conflicts at work in the world outside. Sport transcended race and politics. Baseball was an antidote to reality, a place and time to feel joy and hope, a chance to feel connected.

Another true story: The riots of 1967 were the beginning of a vicious downward spiral for Detroit. People fled the city in droves, businesses failed, crime and conflict persisted for years. The city suffered deep financial, political and psychological damage from which it's still trying to recover. The '68 Tigers were a brief, euphoric exception to the rule, a moment of bliss that couldn't and didn't last.

The first story, which is the one "A City on Fire" focuses on, is about the magical, indefinable energy that flows from team to fan and back again. It's about imagining you're a part of what happens on the field, that the players are aware of you sitting in the stands, that you're pulling for each other and working together to bring off something great. It's not just the history of what happened, but of how it made you feel, how it made you feel bigger and prouder, how anything seemed possible in light of the game.

If you were a part of this story, or if you watch and listen to it now, you know the gods are cruel and the world is rough, but you also believe the gods are sometimes benevolent and they soften the jagged edges of the world with sweet, glorious phenomena like the Tigers' run in '68.

The second story -- one "A City on Fire" touches on but doesn't have time to really get into -- undercuts all our best ideas about what sports can be and about the difference they can make in our lives. If you know Detroit, or if you know the history of race conflict and urban decay in this country, the second story sort of lingers in the back of your mind while you watch the documentary.

Thinking about it could make baseball seem irrelevant and the memories of the Tigers' players and fans trivial, but in the end, it does just the opposite -- it makes baseball seem crucial and the players' and fans' passion for the team heroic.

On the shelf
"Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer," by David Winner (Overlook Press)

There are, let's say ... completely arbitrarily ... five levels of fandom.

On Level 1, you check scores on the Web, talk trash around the water cooler, go to the occasional game and fondly remember warm summer nights when you and the other kids in the neighborhood stayed out late playing in the fading light.

On Level 2, ESPN.com is your homepage, you are the treasurer, organizer and grand poobah of your March Madness office pool, you own a fantasy team, go to two dozen games a year (on six of those nights you wear a $225 replica jersey of your favorite player), and you secretly write poems about warm summer nights you and the other kids in the neighborhood stayed out late playing in the fading light.

Level 3? You've got 3-6 fantasy teams ... per sport ... 400-mile treks to card shows for autographs, framed photos of favorite athletes on the wall in the living room, your car horn plays your alma mater's fight song, and you're working on a screenplay about those warm summer nights.

At Level 4 ... well, I'll just say this: You have argued, seriously and at length, with your spouse in favor of naming a child after an athlete, you have considered, if only for a moment, the prospect of naming a child "ESPY" but have settled for calling the dog that instead. And the children you do have must pass nightly trivia quizzes before dinner (if they don't answer seven out of 10, they don't eat).

And then there is Level 5. Level 5 isn't just a step up from the others, it's a leap, an altogether different, more elemental, cerebral, soul-infected, brain-teased sort of engagement. At Level 5, the standard rituals and paraphernalia strike you as obvious and a little embarrassing.

At Level 5, you go inside, you think about your relationship to the game, you don't parade around professing it like a silly school boy. At Level 5, things become clear to you. Patterns emerge. You see analogies between the structures and rhythms of the game and the structures and rhythms of other cultural forms. You recognize -- even when others can't -- parallels between philosophies at work in the game and philosophies on display in art, architecture, even politics. You sense that the game can reveal things. You study it. You read it. You write it. It becomes for you a portrait of who you've always been and a model of what you can, will and should want to be.

"Brilliant Orange" is a Level-5 book. Winner charts the history of Dutch soccer style and examines its relationship to old, deep-rooted Dutch ideas about space, art and politics. It's a brilliant, thorough, utterly mad book, the product of the most admirable sort of enthusiasm: total.

You like soccer, you don't like soccer, it doesn't matter. If you think of yourself as a serious fan, if you want to continue on the path toward enlightenment and take your devotion to another level, you'd best check out the standard being set here.

Next week's column: First in a series of "second looks" at classic sports books: "A Zen Way of Baseball" by Sadaharu Oh.

Eric Neel reviews sports culture in his "Critical Mass" column, which will appear every Wednesday on Page 2. You can e-mail him at eneel@cox.net.