It's always perilous when the tropes of sports reporting bleed into the abyss of real life. As anyone who has ever worked in news organization with a sports department can tell you, the sports section is always siphoned off from the rest of the paper. It's a bit of a turf war of nonsense. When I wrote the Fair And Foul blog for the Times a few years ago, it was under the umbrella of the opinion section, rather than the sports section. This was extremely important to both sides: The columns had to be separate from the sports department's coverage, clearly delineated as edited by different people than the other sports stories. This even though this was the Web, and no reader could possibly understand or care. I'm guilty of this as well. At The Sports Section at nymag.com, I avoided the Tiger Woods debacle like the plague, under the auspices that Tiger was a gossip story, not a sports story, like a Web user would tell the difference. My real reason was that the Tiger story bored and depressed me. It didn't seem like sports; it seemed like Page Six junk. The blurring of those lines is not something anyone who covers sports professionally wants to deal with, with the obvious exceptions of the people who run this site, Bill Simmons, Jason Whitlock, Jeremy Schaap and maybe Mario Lopez. It all comes back to that Nancy Grace Rule. To me, sports is a place to escape from the real world, not to be reminded of it. It took me a while to figure this out.
But the crossover is nonetheless inevitable, which is why, once again, we're about to deal with another season of What The Tigers Mean To Detroit pieces. Detroit (economic collapse) and New Orleans (natural disaster) are the usual suspects, though you can certainly make the claim that St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cleveland and Oakland aren't exactly full of lively, thriving citizens these days either. (Let us all be relieved the Yankees are no longer representing post-September 11 resilience.) Wading into the deep end of the pool is asking sports journalists to do something they are not inherently trained to do; this is, after all, why they so often leave the yard. They don't want to do it, and we don't want them to. Yet, still, they do. Dave Dombrowski didn't trade Curtis Granderson as an insensitive rebuke to a struggling city; he did it to keep payroll down and keep the team competitive for the distant future. Asking him to constantly keep both in mind is moving the goalposts.
I am not sure why we all feel compelled to do this, to attempt to elevate sports into something they are not. It is slack-jawed obvious that the success or failure of the Detroit Tigers this season will have a negligible, at best, effect on the economic climate of the metropolitan area, but that's not gonna stop some poor bastard, at some point, being forced to ask Johnny Damon how Important he feels the Tigers are to their fans. I mean not to cast aspersions here, but Johnny Damon's ability to access depths of profound introspection is up for debate. Asking him about the unemployment rate seems cruel. There are actual experts to comment on Detroit's well-being. They're difficult to find in the press box, though, and on an 11:30 p.m. postgame deadline.
I do not deny that a city can bond together and rally around a sports team in a way that helps them temporarily forget their troubles and woe. (See here for glorious details.) But after everyone has packed up their laptops and gone home, the city will remain, in pain, desperate to keep its head afloat. Detroit has larger problems than can be solved over a weekend series when your team is in town, even if the Tigers win two out of three. If you want to root for the Tigers because Detroit is bleeding, and believe it makes a difference, feel free. But please forgive the rest of us if we just concern ourselves with how many opportunities Austin Jackson has to steal and thus help our fantasy team. It's the only sane option.