My hook shot's a little rusty, and I'm few hands short of 7'6″, but I felt a shudder of recognition on 08-08-08 when an overwhelmed Yao Ming struggled to express what a momentous and mixed-up feeling of pride and relief it was to watch his long-derided homeland rise above all expectations by throwing an awe-inspiring spectacle at the Olympic Games.
Back in the summer of 1984, when I turned 16, my home county of Los Angeles was widely predicted to lay a stink-bomb of an Olympiad. We were going to be humiliated on the world stage by our infamous traffic, our Beijing-like smog, and the guaranteed financial ruin of the kind that made Montreal a cripplingly indebted, cement-colored sports graveyard for the three decades after 1976. It's hard to remember now, but at the time there hadn't been a Summer Olympics that wasn't marred by war, organizational catastrophe, political murder, or the kind of black nationalism that still keeps Jonah Goldberg up at night 40 years later.
Similarly, our national lack of economic confidence back then would be unrecognizable even in today's over-heated climate of "recession." Our current unemployment rate of 5.7 percent that has Sebastian Mallaby and his ilk using adjectives like "desperate"? The U.S. during the '84 Olympics hadn't had it any better than that since Richard Nixon was president, and in fact wouldn't see anything south of 7 percent between May 1980 and July of 1986. Our terrible 2008 credit crunch? Imagine interest rates that averaged above 10 percent for a five-year stretch beginning in 1979. We look back now through rose-colored Robert Zemeckis movies, and declare the whole of the 1980s as an extended Morning in America, but anyone old enough to have read the business pages during Reagan's first term, or remember the hue of Jimmy Carter's sweater, knows that the story felt a whole helluva lot different on the ground.
Cut to the L.A. Olympics. Sure, the commies boycotted, but it was in every sense more about us that year. Not least of which was proving—to the many domestic naysayers, in addition to international anti-capitalists—that you could actually pay for an Olympics using a mix of corporate sponsorships and volunteer labor. Everyone knew someone who chipped in: My brother was a security guard for the rowers' dormitories up in Santa Barbara, another friend helped out with the archery events in Long Beach. Everything was colorful (albeit in that awful 1980s pastel way), both the traffic and the smog parted like the Red Sea, and the unironic air was filled with Randy Newman.
I was lucky enough to attend events on all but two days, crowned by the first-ever Olympic final (albeit a demonstration, not a medal, competition) in baseball, the sport that was implanted into my every double-helix by both nature and nurture. As Sports Illustrated so accurately summed up the sentiment at the time, "This is the real America's Team, and it will play America's Sport at America's Olympics." The "fuck yeah!" was implied.
Not only were we fielding what SI described as "nothing less than the finest amateur team ever assembled in this country"—including future Hall of Meriters Mark McGwire and Will "the Thrill" Clark —some of these players were guys I'd seen playing high school and college ball against my brother. It was a very short jump for a 16-year-old who saw Shane Mack play a couple of times to screaming, at the top of his lungs, "THAT'S MY BUDDY SHANE!!!" It also did nothing to quell my patriotic fervor that the would-be gold medal game at Dodger Stadium was being played against the widely acknowledged single-biggest threat to American economic well-being: Japan.
I don't recall being much of a Nipponophobe in my youth, aside from whatever flotsam gets left over in the teenage brain after devouring every World War II flick the local TV stations used to play. Then (as now, though to a much lesser extent) my ire was directed at the Russkies. But I was certainly a strong default Reaganite, ravenous for America to regain her confidence, and yeah, maybe I watched a bit of Wally George. More than any of that, I was a baseball fanatic on a patriotic bender, and OH MY GOD MY BUDDY SHANE MACK JUST HIT A HOME RUN IN THE THIRD INNING!!!
Japan, though, quickly regained the lead in the 4th inning, and by the bottom of the 8th, our boys were down a seemingly insurmountable 6-1. A frame or two before that, I and my semi-criminal friend (who went on to become an Orange County cop), disgusted by the somnolence of the home crowd, started to clap rhythmically before every pitch to our boys, no doubt screaming various obscene encouragements as well.
At first, it was just two young jackasses clapping and shouting in the cheap seats as Team U.S.A. went down quietly. But then a scattered few more in our section started joining in, then more from the nearby sections, and then the whole deck. And wouldn't you know it, the Americans began to mount a desperate comeback on the field as well. With every new runner on base, the crowd would get louder, waiting for our cue. We'd provide the first clap, and within seconds 110,000 hands would be banging alongside us. It was like conducting a thunderstorm. I have never felt more omnipotent.
Transparency requires me to report that my memory of what transpired next doesn't synch up precisely to the box score that's buried on page 299 of this massive PDF file. (As Don Baylor and a thousand ex-ballplayers have taught us, baseball memory can be a tricky thing.) For instance, I recall that final score was 5-1, not 6-3, and that the big U.S. rally was in the 8th inning, not the 9th. It's still not clear from the box score just when MY BLOOD BROTHER SHANE MACK was up with the bases loaded and two out, three-two count, with a chance to be either the tying or go-ahead run, after my buddy and I had whipped all of Chavez Ravine into a blood-curdling frenzy…but let's just say my hands were purple, my vocal chords shot, and it was one of the half-dozen most thrilling moments of my young life.
Then Shane Mack struck out looking on a curve ball.
It was as if the Goodyear blimp had deflated in one second on the centerfield grass. People were either stunned into silence, or (as in our case) muttering bitter obscenities at the world in general. Then came a horrifying sound from somewhere behind my left shoulder. It was a grown man, a grown American man, and his two kids, clapping, and saying, in perfect English, "Hoo-ray Japan!"
My eyes nearly burned clean out of my skull. The Hulk, John McCain…they had nothing on the white-hot American rage I felt at that moment. I wheeled around, fangs bared, glared at this pleasant-looking man, and yelled: "SHUT UP, YOU…COMMIE!!!!"
The genie was seconds out of the bottle when I began to feel regret. A crowd of furious Americans, who had been taking our cues for several innings now, immediately erupted into a "YEAH!!!", then began to chant: "COM-MIE!! COM-MIE!! COM-MIE!!" Dodger Dog wrappers went zipping by my ear in the general direction of the offender. Confronted with a potentially violent mob of Angeleno nationalists, the alarmed fan fled the facility, ushering his two young kids to safety.
My friend was psyched. I, in the words of Bob Dylan, "became withdrawn." Harnessing (or having the illusion of harnessing) a crowd of thousands turned out to be much more frightening than fun. Going plum loco over an exhibition baseball game felt, well, loco. And taking the side of a snarling overdog against a hapless and vastly outnumbered minority suddenly felt like the opposite of how I ever again wanted to approach either social dynamics or political thought.
The ride home with my friend's dad was totally silent, as if we were keeping our lips sealed about some terrible crime. In the following days, I noticed everything began to look different. The crowd-whipping antics of Wally George were no longer funny. Republican politics in general, particularly the flag-waving, lefty-baiting strain, became revolting overnight. So did knee-jerk, anti-Ronnie Ray-gun rhetoric. Religious settings of all varieties—Southern California was then going through a big fundamentalist revival—became intolerable exercises in peer-and-God pressure. People who I had internally dismissed as outcasts at school I now externally sought after as friends. People whose approval I once craved were suddenly ridiculous to me. I started gravitating toward any book that challenged the accepted wisdom of a topic I thought I knew, starting with baseball. And any time I found myself in an overwhelming majority, my first question became, "What if we're wrong?"
None of this made me a better person, obviously, and undergoing a change of heart at age 16 is about as rare and interesting as the sun rising in the east, but I feel better having confessed. And, if you see me wincing into my beer at the forced displays of legacy-party political unity over the next three weeks, know that my inner adolescent is still in there, screaming: GO SHANE MACK!