It occurred to me driving home from work one night in 1997: To a degree, I lived in a parallel sports universe.
I had never really defined it as such before that point, at least not with that specific term. But ever since then, I’ve thought of it that way.
At that time, the sports world was enthralled with a young golf superstar who had won the Masters. Tiger Woods was everything, and everything was Tiger Woods.
But Woods honestly wasn’t what most intrigued me in the sport of golf. It’s not that I wasn’t paying attention to what he was doing. Of course I was. But in the summer of ’97, I was actually more interested in how Karrie Webb _ who’d been LPGA rookie of the year and won over $1 million in 1996 _ would do in her second full season on the tour.
And whether Annika Sorenstam would win her third consecutive U.S. Women’s Open title. Or if Nancy Lopez, near the end of her career, would win her first. (Neither happened; tiny British player Alison Nicholas won the ’97 Women’s Open at Pumpkin Ridge, a beautiful course outside of Portland, Ore.)
So this one particular night, the term “parallel sports universe” came to me. I’d made some reference to Webb at the office, and – even though I worked then in a newspaper sports department and, as mentioned, she’d had a incredible rookie season the year before – there were co-workers who didn’t know who she was.
The thing about living in my parallel sports universe is that I simultaneously also live in the so-called “standard sports universe.” But a lot of people who live in that universe have virtually no idea what’s going on in my parallel one. No do they particularly care.
I grew up a sports junkie, which for the most part in the 1970s meant “men’s sports junkie.” I could debate my pals at school as to who was the best quarterback in the NFL or the best pitcher in major-league baseball. At one point in the mid-1970s, I had memorized who had won every Indy 500 and which horse had triumphed at every Kentucky Derby. (It was of special importance to me that one of those winners had been a filly: Regret in 1915.)
My parents gave me sports books for birthdays and Christmas. They were about baseball and football players. I begged for every bit of St. Louis baseball and football paraphernalia that I could get. One of the grandest moments of my childhood was around third grade, when I overheard my father proudly telling my mother that I had more than held my own in a baseball conversation with him and my uncles.
“She knows more about baseball than I do,” my dad said. “And way more about football.”
Well, I should have; I watched more baseball and football than he did. My dad came to depend on me to fill him in on anything that was happening in the NFL or in baseball’s American League, because he had little interest in watching either. He was strictly a National League fan.
Yet while I filled my head with sports facts from the “standard sports universe,” there was still a lot of room for things from the “parallel sports universe.”
I recall first seeing Martina Navratilova as a Czech teen-ager playing in an indoor tennis tournament televised, I believe, by CBS. I was totally captivated by her – a young woman from behind the Iron Curtain who had this daring, exciting serve-and-volley game. It’s burned into memory that the announcers, trying gently to acknowledge that she’d gained weight since coming to play in the United States, had said, “Martina may like American pancakes a little too much.”
That sunk into my grey matter, as did Sheila Young and Dorothy Hamill at the 1976 Winter Olympics. As did Nadia Comaneci and Shirley Babashoff at the 1976 Sumer Olympics As did Janet Guthrie at the Indy 500. As did Charlene Matthews’ home run.
Oh … you don’t know Charlene. She lived in the general vicinity of my little Missouri town and was about the age of my older sister. She had red hair and played the position of catcher. She was one of those older kids who was effortlessly nice to little kids.
In the summers when I was still too young to play organized softball myself, I would sometimes go hang out at the local baseball/softball diamond with my dad at night. In the early 1970s in a town of less that 400 people, that was about the only “hot spot.” One evening I was there watching two teams of high school-aged girls play softball.
The bleachers were full, and several other people were sitting on top of the hoods of their cars parked by this diamond , which was next to the three-room, red-brick building where I attended the first three years of elementary school.
There was no outfield fence at the diamond, just a field that went on and on and on, eventually becoming very tall grass. Charlene came up in the bottom half of the last inning, with the score tied. She hit the ball a long way, but the outfielder chased it down. Charlene had to race around the bases, and as she did, I yelled as loud as I could, “Go, go, go, go!”
She beat the tag at home plate and won the game. Everyone was screaming for joy like I was. Actually, they couldn’t have all been doing that; some had to be fans of the other team. But I just didn’t notice any dissenters.
In that moment, Charlene was as glorious a sports figure to me as anyone. She was a girl who played sports, who had succeeded, who was basking in cheers.
And so Charlene will always remain a teen-ager with red braids, running for home, one of the earliest heroes of my parallel sports universe.