Sports, seasons and birthdays prompt writer melodrama

There are two birthday boys that I’d like to celebrate this week.  I’ll start with the youngest of the pair because he did something spectacular last Saturday.

You have probably never heard of the cyclist from the tiny village of Komenda, Slovenia—let me acquaint you. Tadej Pogačar is a professional bike racer for the United Arab Emirates team. Yes, the UAE has its own team. No, this isn’t the Olympics. Professional cycling is just funny that way.

Pogačar is young and phenomenal. At the age of 20, he won the tour of California, and last year he became the very youngest rider since 1974 to win a Grand Tour, Spain’s La Vuelta. Despite his rising star, Pogačar is a domestique in grand tours, the venerable worker bee that grinds away  in order to keep the team’s top rider safe and at the head of the race. In this year’s Tour de France, which started in September after a two month delay due to the pandemic, Pogačar auspiciously strayed from the team plan. His team leader was Fabio Aru, but after a week of racing, Pogačar made clear he was the best rider on the squad as he cemented himself in the top 10 of the Tour’s general classification.

At the end of stage 19, Tadej Pogačar was only 57 seconds behind the lead of the overall classification, Primož Roglič, a fellow Slovenian —and everyone’s favorite at the beginning of the Tour. Roglič’s team, Jumbo Visma, had mastered the front of the peloton. 

But in the penultimate stage, an individual time trial, Roglič didn’t have his team. On the roads and alone, Pogačar did more than make up for the time difference. He eclipsed it, and then put another 59 seconds between himself and Roglič. The next day, he rode with champagne in hand and the Mailout Jeune on back, and the day after that, Sept. 21, he turned 22. The youngest rider to win the Tour de France since 1904, the year after the inaugural tour.

I had never heard of Primož Roglič or Tadej Pogačar before stage one. In fact, I took a seven-year break from professional cycling after the Lance Armstrong doping revelations. The self-destruction of my idol left a pit of indifference where boyhood love once dwelled. Maybe it was out of quaint interest in a Tour in September, maybe it was out of cosmic beckoning, but I watched the Tour from start to finish this year (although it was probably because my family just ditched cable for online TV service that lets you reverse and fast forward at any time). Either way, I’m happy about it.

I have been listening to Phil Liggett, Bob Roll and Paul Sherwin narrate men riding their bikes through France since before I was a zygote. The whole crew’s interplay, a venerable three-man weave of adoring commentary, will rattle around my auditory cortex until I am senile, I am sure. There isn’t a voice that makes the hairs of my nostalgia stand up like Liggett waxing poetic about how cycling really is as beautiful as the French countryside, and how this and that were the first time since then and before. Thankfully, they will narrate next year’s tour, which I am already thinking about. 

The other birthday boy I’d like to toast here is Roger Angell, the esteemed sportswriter who turned 100 years old on Saturday, Sept. 19. To welcome in his second century, the “New Yorker” republished  some of his best essays and articles, and on the same lazy Saturday afternoon I watched Pogačar take yellow, I read up on Rog to celebrate his next trip around the bases.  

Angell’s language is uniquely inviting. I imagine texting him after reading the piece to say “good stuff, Rog.” His pitter patter proclivities in “This Old Man,” a heartaching piece written in 2014, bounce effortlessly from self-effacing lists of medications to the surreal doldrums of becoming widowed at 93. “Check me out” he begins the piece, “The top two knuckles of my left hand look as if I’d been worked over by the K.G.B.” Yes, the old man still has it.

“Baseball caps were different back then,” Angell writes in “Early Innings.” To his memory they were, “smaller and flatter than today’s constructions—more like the workmen’s caps that one saw on every street.” I read that and my heart yearns. As Angell tells it, it isn’t the fuzzy black and white film or the charming names of old timers that give sports of yestere an undue halcyon glow. Things really were different. He lays in further: “Sports were different in my youth … a series of events to look forward to and then to turn over in memory, rather than a huge, omnipresent industry, with its own economics and politics and crushing public relations.” I wonder what he thinks of empty seats and fake crowd noise

Angell has stayed in the game past his tenth inning, a conscious mistake for someone who knows baseball as well as him. When Casey Stangle, the decorated manager that presided over their mammoth 40s and 50s, reached the ripe age of 75, the New York Yankees fired him. “I’ll never make the mistake of being 75 again,” he said. He also said, “Most of the people my age is dead,” which is true but unfair. Some people his age are president. Too old for baseball, but not too old for life—and to think people like Angell have told us those are one and the same. 

In a life as long as his, Angell has made the irony of living its own fuel source. In “This Old Man” he dwells on that paradox. “He [death] was often on my mind thirty or forty years ago, I believe, though more of a stranger… I feel I know him almost too well by now.” Angell has tricked the game. 

So questions for the birthday boys, what do you want from your next year? Not an easy question. Pogačar achieved the highest point in his profession in his first go around. Angell certainly has every writer’s award under the sun. What are the “events to look forward to?”

That line is the rub of it all. It felt poetic reading and streaming on my sun-baked porch, enjoying the afternoon of Rosh Hashanah—the Jewish new year. This was the same day Angell turned 100 and Pogačar stormed away from Roglič. Rosh Hashanah is for thinking back and looking forward. We ask how we can be better to ourselves and others in the coming year. Sometimes we fulfill our goals and we glow with accomplishment. Sometimes we fail and we fall back into habits we swore to leave behind. Year after year, the elliptical resolution becomes its own source of irony. Like Angell, it keeps us going, mercilessly. Fans of teams from Atlanta, Cleveland and Buffalo know of what I speak. 

This year, I was removed from my usual spot on Rosh Hashanah. I missed borrowing my dad’s shoes, pairing my too small blazer with my perpetually wrinkled white Oxford shirt and walking with my parents into services. Then we get brunch with my very extended family, who I have seen grow to be adults and grow to be old. “They were alright,” said my dad about the Zoom services this year. And you know, that’s OK. “Wait till next year,” the scriptures and the sages tell us. 

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