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Strange days indeed

Page 2's Bill Simmons explains eight ways the sports world has changed in the last week.

Since it’s my job to chronicle The Sports Thing and everything that goes along with it, here are eight random observations about the week that followed Sept. 11:

1. The “Let’s Band Together, America!” Era has been absolutely, positively inspiring

bill simmonsBefore last week’s attack, it seemed like I couldn’t leave the house for 10 minutes without having a stranger inadvertently bug me. You know the feeling. Other drivers weaving in your lane and giving you the finger for no apparent reason. Oblivious idiots gabbing into cellphones at restaurants or movie theaters. Degenerates taking their sweet time purchasing $25 worth of various scratch cards at your local convenience store (while you wait behind them holding a 50-cent USA Today and two quarters). People swearing out loud at baseball games in front of little kids.

The list went on. And on. And on. The level of rudeness was unparalleled, it was getting worse and the whole thing was making me feel crustier than Jack Nicholson in “As Good As it Gets.”

But the events of last week changed everything. Between people rallying to help the Trade Center victims and so many people driving around with flags
on their cars, it feels like something changed for the better in this country — in ways you can’t even quantify or put into words. The level of selflessness and compassion we’ve seen has been overwhelming. People just seem friendlier and warmer, at least to me, and maybe that’s the one silver lining in everything that happened last week.

Here’s my point: two weeks ago, I felt as if our society was slowly heading down the tubes. Now I don’t. In the words of the immortal Rocky Balboa, “If I can change … and you can change …”

Well … you know what I mean.

2. At least we still have Carl Everett to kick around

In case you missed it, Everett was suspended by the Red Sox this week after engaging in a weekend shouting match with Red Sox manager Joe Kerrigan, Everett’s umpteenth altercation since he joined the Red Sox 18 months ago. In a weird way, it was nice to have him back.

The world might be mourning, our society might have changed irrevocably, New York might be in pieces, our country might be going to war … but hey, at least Carl Everett is still completely insane. Comforting.

3. Without a schtick to fall back on, some members of the sports media are completely helpless

Here in Boston, our all-sports radio station (WEEI) features a drive-time show called “The Big Show” — a mean-spirited, “fan the flames”-type show that pokes fun at sports and features a bunch of middle-aged guys sitting in a studio, making fat jokes and taking potshots at callers and athletes. Horrendous show. The fact that it’s one of the top-rated shows in the Boston market says more about our society than just about anything.

Maybe the most loathsome member of the “Big Show” cast is Pete Sheppard, who handles the “Sports Flash” updates. Here’s what you need to know about Pete: Years ago, he apparently decided to get ahead in his business by becoming as overbearing and venomous as possible. And that’s really the name of the game in radio — if you can’t be
entertaining or informative, then you must be as loud, unbearable and over-the-top as possible. It’s almost like playing a “bad guy” in wrestling.

In a weird way, that’s probably Pete’s strongest radio strength — you always remember he’s there, the same way you always remember the guy from
your high school basketball team who had the overwhelming B.O.

Anyway, Tuesday I was driving around town and listening to WEEI when Sheppard came on to read his “20/20 Flash” … and it was positively jarring to hear him sound so subdued as he rattled off his brief update. He sounded like a normal guy. More importantly, he didn’t stand out. At all. Pete Sheppard could have been anybody. And that’s the thing that astounded me — not that Sheppard was capable of acting like a normal person on the air, but that I actually missed hearing his “I’m playing the role of
every loudmouth jerk that ever bugged you at a sports bar” routine. At least it was fun to despise him during those days … now he just made me feel indifferent. And as a sports fan, you never want to feel indifferent.

Along those same lines, I noticed that TV sports announcers toned down their acts as well during highlight shows, for obvious reasons. I’ve never been a big fan of the whole “catch phrase” thing — give me a SportsCenter team of Bob Ley and Charley Steiner any day of the week and twice on Sunday, to paraphrase Lt. Sam Weinberg — but now you realize why so many aspiring announcers feel the need to imitate the Bermans and Patricks of the world. It’s better to stand out than to blend in with everyone else. That’s the
name of the game.

I guess I just didn’t fully realize it until now.

4. Everything needs a handy motif

Yup … even when our country is under attack and thousands of Americans have been killed. It was fascinating to watch TV networks handle the Sept. 11 situation as it developed last Tuesday; within a few hours, each of them had come up with their own “motif,” for lack of a better word (those catchy slogans they plant on the bottom of the TV screen). Most of them settled on “Attack on America,” but CNN flipped it around and used “America Under Attack.” Apparently everything needs a label.

By late-Tuesday afternoon, MSNBC took it a step further, kicking off every half-hour with a slick video package — dramatic music, spliced images, the U.S. flag, people screaming, things blowing up … it was like a trailer to a Michael Bay movie. The whole thing reminded me of those “Buckwheat has been assassinated” parodies SNL did in the early-’80s during the Eddie Murphy Era (I kept waiting for John David Stutts to give an interview from prison). Just awful.

5.. The “Let’s Make Fun of Everything and Everyone!” Era has been derailed indefinitely

Let’s face it: The country’s sense of humor became increasingly vicious over the past few years, thanks to the Internet (where few guidelines exist), cable TV (the more shocking, the better) and talk radio (ditto). There just didn’t seem to be any lines anymore.

For instance, radio shock jocks Opie & Anthony were fired from their Massachusetts gig three years ago for airing a horribly distasteful April Fool’s prank that Boston mayor Tom Menino had been killed in a car accident. Within a few months, they landed a new gig in New York; within two years, they were being syndicated around the country.
And nobody even cared.

Ever since last week’s tragedy, our priorities have shifted: Americans are taking pride in old-fashioned values like patriotism, decency, religion and courage once again; sarcasm, irony and “shock comedy” have taken a backseat (at least for now).

Did you ever think you would see a day when David Letterman would cry during his show? Well, it happened. Even everyone’s Comedic Punching Bag — President Bush, who absorbed a steady beating from just about anyone with a stage/podium/column over the past year — has received a well-deserved respite because, well, we need this guy
right now, warts and all.

(Sure, the Prez messes up some words and unleashes the Troy Aikman Face in public from time to time … but the events of last week also displayed that
he’s our most genuine president in years. Like Jimmy Carter, what you see is basically what you get. I admire that about him.)

As for the comedians/writers/pundits who relied on the “glib/sarcastic” routine without offering anything else of substance — the Craig Kilborns, the David Spades, the shock jocks, etc. — you wonder how they’ll survive in a more somber climate. It’s amazing how a 90-minute span of time can irrevocably change your perspective, isn’t it? Maybe the feeling will only hold for a few weeks, but we needed it (I know I did). We were becoming a society that revolved too much around things like “Survivor” and “Whip ‘Em
Out Wednesday.” This whole month feels like a group cleansing.

And yes, I’m babbling …

6. Wait a second … what’s that? (pause) Good God! That … that’s Hulk Hogan’s music!

One of the more inspiring e-mails I received last week came from a reader who sent along the actual lyrics to Hulk Hogan’s old WWF entrance song back in the mid-’80s … and they actually gave me goosebumps. Swear to God. Who would have thought Hulkamania could provide perspective for Americans this week?

Check out these lyrics:

    When it comes crashin’ down and it hurts inside
    Ya gotta take a stand, it don’t help to hide

    If you hurt my friends, then you hurt my pride

    I gotta be a man, I can’t let it slide

    I am a Real American
    Fight for the rights of every man

    I am a Real American

    Fight for what’s right

    Fight for your life

    I’m feelin’ strong about right and wrong

    And I don’t take trouble for very long

    I got somethin’ deep inside of me

    Courage is the thing that keeps us free

    I am a Real American
    Fight for the rights of every man

    I am a Real American

    Fight for what’s right

    Fight for your life

(Is anyone else fired up right now? I feel like standing up, bulging my eyes and tearing my T-shirt off in shreds. Who’s with me?)

7. Few moments in sports are more electric than this one: a gifted singer performing the “Star Spangled Banner” or “God Bless America” during a national crisis

I brought this up in Friday’s column, but it’s worth mentioning again. I mean, did you hear the woman who performed before Tuesday’s Yankees-White Sox game? Goosebumps galore. Absolutely the most memorable sports moment of the year. She was the anti-Carl Lewis.

8. When Red Sox fans are sympathizing with Yankees fans, you know the world has been turned upside down

Over the past week, I shared the following moments with my Boston readers:

  • Reader J. McManus e-mailed to tell me that he found a “Yankees Suck” shirt in his closet last week and it actually made him cry, adding, “I don’t
    really know why but just seeing that shirt put so much into perspective it made everything else seem so unimportant. There are no Sox fans, no Yankee
    fans. We’re all American fans. No stupid curse, no stupid rivalry. United we stand, and united we will rise.”

  • Reader D. McKinney e-mailed to say, “Let me tell you that I’m a lifelong Red Sox fan and have hated the Yankees as far back as I can remember … but
    baseball needs the Yanks to win the Series this year, now so more than ever. New York needs it. America needs it. The World needs to see that ticker tape
    parade. I can’t believe I’m pulling for the Yanks. It’s true what they’ve been saying, Bill: our lives will never, ever be the same.”

  • Reader J. Webb e-mailed to suggest that Red Sox fans should wear Yankees hats at Fenway during a game this month as a sign of solidarity, adding that his buddy (also a Red Sox fan) came up with the idea and “that it made me feel slightly repulsed initially, but mostly amazed and increasingly enthusiastic.” They were hoping I could get the movement going with my Page 2 column. And normally I would have answered, “Sure, it’s supposed to be 80-below in Hell next Wednesday, let’s do it then,” but I actually
    found myself nodding and saying to myself, “Not a bad idea …”

  • Countless other Boston fans e-mailed asking for my permission to support the Yankees in October, including one reader who wrote, “I can’t believe I’m
    saying this, but the Yankees have truly become America’s team.” Even looking at those words right now makes me feel like I’m going cross-eyed or
    something, but again … the reader was dead-on with that comment. I feel the same way.

  • I was talking to my buddy J-Bug on the phone Tuesday, and he suddenly said, “The Yankees-Sox rivalry is dead, isn’t it? It will never be the same
    — I don’t think I could ever join in on another ‘Yan-kees Suck! Yan-kees Suck!” chant without feeling like an idiot. Last week put everything in
    perspective, didn’t it?”

    Yup … it sure did.

    Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.

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    Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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