Up the Valley: Field of Dreams

July 26, 2012

This week’s column in the Star deals with the sports-crush, that unisex obsession with certain sports figures that leads an otherwise rational grown-up to hang a poster on their wall or bid for bobbleheads on Ebay. My enduring sports-crush is ex-Yankee and Olympic gold medalist Tino Martinez. Who is yours?

I recently attended a gathering during which the Olympics were discussed while generous amounts of wine were consumed. One mid-60ish man, in a speech he likely regretted upon sober reflection, shared with the group his personal theories about women and sports.

“It is my belief,” he explained, “that women do not dream about sports. They think about sports when they are awake, but they never play in their sleep.

“Sports,” he continued despite best efforts to stop him, “are not hard-wired into the female subconscious the way they are in men, who have dreamed about throwing a touchdown or hitting a home run since boyhood.”

I found myself wishing that this discussion had taken place during a meeting of the Women’s Sports Foundation, where Billie Jean King could have placed this man in a headlock while sharing with him some of her favorite female sports dreams.

I freely admit that I have never dreamed about playing sports, my athletic achievements being limited to a first-place win, by default, of Brookview Elementary School’s hula-hoop contest, third-grade division. But I have had a recurring sports dream for years, and here it is:

It is 2001 and I’m in the stands at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. I have completed my favorite activity at the ballpark, which is to stand up and shout out the name “Tony” and see how many guys turn around (lots). Bright beams of golden Yankee sunlight reflect off beads of sweat on the powerful, glistening forearms of first baseman Tino Martinez, temporarily blinding me, so I do not see the fly ball he has popped in my direction until it is too late. His ball hits me squarely between the eyes, rendering me unconscious, but I do not die — although if I were to die, this would be my preferred scenario.

I awaken in the hospital. The aforementioned Yankee sunlight now streams through the window of my room, which is filled with flowers from Boss Steinbrenner. I am younger, thinner, and exist in a flatteringly blurry haze, wearing a fluffy pink peignoir from which my still-perky bosoms are tastefully but undeniably spilling forth. Tino stands over my bed, peering down intently, holding my hand as I regain consciousness. He is concerned.

“Poor baby,” says Tino, tenderly. The rest of the lineup, still in their pinstripes, agree. “You really took one for the team,” observes captain Derek Jeter, diplomatically neglecting to note the giant welt in the middle of my forehead. But Tino sees it, and feels remorse. A manly tear trickles down his tan cheek and onto mine.

At this point, I am usually awakened from my dream state by the sensation of a drop of moisture on my cheek. It is a dollop of drool from my cat or a glob of spit off the tongue of my dog. They are both in my bed, peering down intently, hoping I’ll rise and unleash the morning feeding frenzy.

I realize that this is not on par with the sports dreams Billie Jean probably experiences, in which the fuzz on her tennis ball barely grazes the top of the net as she wins another Wimbledon title. But Tino will always be the man of my sports dreams and my enduring sports crush. I never tired of watching him play. I could always spot him just by his gait and his stance and by the way the hair was trimmed on the back of his neck. And when — during his last season — his hitting suddenly caught fire, I received congratulatory calls from my friends as if the achievement had been my own.

Tino never embarrassed me; he never was caught in a scandal or had his photo taken with strippers or starred in his own reality show. It was grand to spot him again recently at Old-Timers’ Day, smiling with his family, a bit thicker through the middle, but still exceedingly sports crush–worthy.

It is my belief that the sports crush is hardwired into the psyche of both sexes equally. There is nothing lustful about it; many a straight man has gone all gooey-eyed while telling me tales of Mickey Mantle, gushing about his flaxen hair and wide grin and his rippling physique as he strode to the plate. And scores of fans of both sexes had sports crushes on Chris Evert (but please don’t mention that to Billie Jean).

A frequently forgotten Tino fact is that he won a gold medal at the 1988 Summer Olympics. I wonder which athletes will emerge as signature sports crushes during this year’s Olympic Games. Perhaps, like Mark Spitz or Peggy Fleming or Greg Louganis, they will inspire men and women alike to dream about sports.

Or perhaps, like Bruce Jenner, they will inspire something else entirely.

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