Friday, January 24, 2014

Aging, resurgent sports stars (Manning, Federer — Harvey[?]) have a path of purple prose laid at their feet

(Written after wading through the hagiographic, overheated prose of SI's feature on Peyton Manning and somebody else's profile of Roger Federer after he won his quarterfinal match in Australia, but before he lost to Rafael Nadal in the semifinal. I've tried to represent the flavor of this perfervid sports journalism, though not the excessive length. But it is still too long, and thus a tribute to the underrated sport covered herein.)


Peyton Manning
Roger Federer
The whispers had started, the knowing, dismissive nods, the shrinking sales of memorabilia.

Rueful head-shakings, too, but only from the more compassionate fans. And those are not the dominant voices in the unforgiving universe of contemporary sports fanaticism.

The old champ had got wind of the negative chatter, of course: Jay Harvey had to add to his struggle to get back into sleeping trim a ferocious battle to shake off and neutralize the naysayers. They'd heard all the unflattering stories, of course, of an icon tarnished by age and its role in the mysterious decline in his mastery of sleep.

Harvey well knew how readily the truth becomes interlarded with speculation and galloping falsehoods:  How he sometimes had to go downstairs in the middle of the night to read and sip a half-glass of milk, sometimes not returning to bed for an hour or two.  How he (more rarely) manfully refrained from tossing and turning, grinding out sleepless episodes motionless on the mattress, hoping that stoic inactivity could lull him back to sleep.
Jay Harvey


Rumors of his indulgence in Ambien, a controlled substance in his specialty and thus verboten,  had corroded his pristine reputation. Though he readily admitted to reliance on the allowable supplement Melatonin, cynical fans had labeled it a gateway drug. And implied that the gateway was a long way behind the tarnished hero.

How easy it had all been long ago, before he somehow lost his touch.  Before the injuries and other physical setbacks. The charlie horses and unpredictable, phantom-like muscle cramps. An arm's numbness and tingling fingers after his head had lain upon the limb for a few restful hours. The weird dreams that generated wakefulness at all the wrong times.

Age visits all of us who are lucky not to be cut off young.  But with athletes, the pathos of the process can be overwhelming. Its inexorable toll can hold fans, coaches, teammates and long-winded sportswriters — not to mention slumming novelists and restless feature writers — tightly in its seductive grip.

Evocations of past glory won't go away. Instead, those fading moments shine all the brighter when compared to evidence of current decline, especially in prose needing the juice of poignancy. And the painful recollections burrow all the more deeply into the recesses of sleep athletes' minds.  A past shimmering in legend becomes a cloud obscuring any attempted resurgence of glory after tenacious episodes of mediocrity.

"I can remember he could nod off expertly in the front row of a lecture class," recalled college classmate Deke "Duke" Seminaroff. "Especially after lunch.  He was a natural. Sleeping was meat and drink to him."
 
A middle-school gym teacher was unstinting in praise, his voice breaking as he recalled: "Jay was in a class by himself," said Quentin "Dozer" Moser. "I could hardly keep him awake. When it came to sleep, he almost defied coaching."

Now, as he fought to regain his quondam form, don't think Harvey didn't often remember the graceful ease with which he had once sunk into the arms of Morpheus.  His focus had been such that the appropriateness of the setting was never an issue with him. He was always in training. The confident moves, the burnished technique, the firm release from consciousness were the envy of all.

But now, the fans who used to swap tales of his drowsiness and how it slid exquisitely into REM sleep were starting to shift their attention to younger phenoms.The ambitious youngsters who slept soundly and skillfully, the contenders for GOAT status among world-class sleepers — on and on they advanced. What need for old heroes when new sensations came along year after year?

Most painfully, he worried about dishonoring the memory of his parents, who had guided him through the blessedness of sleep from birth on through the halcyon days of infancy. And then, having to yearn helplessly for the unparalleled skills he was able to take from this gift  on through childhood. To make something of it like no one else. To set sleep aficionados' tongues awag with admiration of his  prowess.

Eventually came  the "golden slumber" period during which Harvey defeated all challengers. The acclamation, the endorsements, the approach of starry-eyed fans, many of them envying the sublime surfeit of sleep that came so readily to him. They hoped some of it would rub off. They counted themselves lucky to leave his presence with drooping eyelids. They were usually not disappointed.

Suburban moms pushing mega-strollers would shyly approach with their restless toddlers, hoping for a share of his balm. Stroking those little hands, muttering a few quiet words while locking eyes with fretful tiny ones, and soon the tykes would sink into blissful unconsciousness, their grateful mothers rendered speechless.

Now, here he was, seeming to confirm the scoffs of the doubters, encouraging internet trolls to deploy their inevitable barbs on sports comment threads. Seasoned professional observers tsk-tsked at what had become of the Harvey of old. "I've seen him twitching and even pathetically playing possum," said veteran sports columnist Grantland Risotto. "His long-form sleeping has totally disintegrated. Strategic thinking — kaput. There's no rhythm, all the smoothness is gone. His technique is as lumpy as a whorehouse mattress.  He can't seem to manage much more than the fitful napping of a college sophomore in an intramural league."

Negative appraisals by experts were one thing whose truth Harvey could grimly acknowledge. They steeled his resolve. But slanderous reports could not easily be quashed: It was said that now when those suburban strollers were gingerly pushed toward him, their sleeping occupants would suddenly wake up and wail, the hopeful mothers recoiling in horror.

Harvey had become an avatar of disturbing wakefulness. He was helplessly writing a personal epic of failure, a narrative of his departure from soporific glory that he might have titled "The Insomniad." Yet, amazingly, this is when the grit characteristic of true champions seems to have begun to underwrite his survival and slow return to triumph.

He gamely embarked on a desperate regimen to return to greatness: Trying out a variety of sleep masks, selecting foam ear plugs with care in an attempt to achieve maximum noise suppression. "I've not gone away as much as some people would like to suppose," Harvey said with quiet defiance,  ostentatiously rubbing sleep from his eyes. "I'm back in the game. You can't count out experience so easily. Conditioning is key. I'm ready to outsleep anyone, really."

And so it has proved. Fresh rounds of training. Systematic coaching. Grueling marathon sessions of intensive napping. Self-forced reading of dull textbooks that self-confident but insufficiently industrious tyros tend to shun.

 Risotto has revised his dismissive opinion of the formerly lackluster Harvey: "He's in the zone now. Of course, aging people inevitably have more trouble sleeping. But he's done an impressive job of appearing to turn back the clock. He's fighting against time, and I say more power to him."

Harvey seems poised to regain his unofficial title as the Sultan of Somnolence. His name begins again to arouse collective yawns of approval from a sports-mad populace.

The venerable legend snores gently once more on his pillowed pinnacle.

 "Pleasant dreams, champ!" the world murmurs gratefully.