The sports beat is their heartbeat

Sunday afternoon. Shane and Josh, ages 12 and almost-13, respectively, are downstairs watching TV. Hearing the syncopated thump of a ball on parquet flooring and the recognizable squeak of $200 Nikes, I know they are watching a Celtics basketball game. One of them presses the remote and the sounds change to bodies being banged against boards and the slap of a puck: the Bruins at an away game. A commercial comes on and the remote is punched once more. Now I hear a quarterback barking signals against the roar of 60,000 half-frozen New England Patriots football fans.

As the sports trifecta continues downstairs, I consider my own wide world of sports at age 12. In 1970, I lie to myself, things weren't so different.

We had cable - or a cable, actually. It was bolted to the roof and kept the oversized TV antenna from being blown away in a northeaster. We were also fortunate to have a remote. His name was Michael. As the youngest sibling, he was forced to jump off the couch and go the TV every time my dad wanted the volume raised or the channel changed.

Fantasy baseball? Of course. That was the game my cousin Brian and I played on the lawn between my house and my grandparents' when no one else was available. It had to be fantasy, because it involved invisible runners, imaginary bases, and our own version of Fenway Park's Green Monster: a pair of 65-foot hemlocks behind shortstop.

As the boys channel-surfed, I pondered how the term may have originated: Circa 1972, some poor homeowner had struck a Hawaiian-style pose on the peak of his roof - right foot back, left foot forward- crouched precariously to avoid the skeletal arms of the ungainly VHF antenna while he attempted to adjust the ridiculously small UHF antenna attached to it. This usually took place at night; during winter; in slippers, a T-shirt, and bell-bottom jeans.

I give my dad credit in that he was smart enough to install the UHF antenna in the attic, which meant that he spent the better part of most hockey games screaming down at us to let him know when we could see the puck. Imagine my surprise when I attended my first game at the old Boston Garden and found that the building was not filled with static haze.

These days, when the kids whine about how long the computer takes to re-boot, I remember my dad turning the television on, and leaving it on. Living on a dairy farm, where life was ruled by Holsteins and hay balers, time was precious. If you were going to sprint to the TV between chores, there was no time to wait for it to warm up. So the TV stayed on all afternoon, entertaining an ever-changing audience of breathless teenagers and adults that plopped down for an inning or a couple of football plays, only to leap to their feet as the call from the barn drew them back to the milking machines.

There were no free agents back then, unless you count James Bond. Now everyone is a free agent and everyone is making lots of money. The boys know this, because they don't watch Saturday morning cartoons anymore; they watch SportsCenter. In this world, every bit of minutiae of every player on every team is revealed to the waiting eyes and ears of America. With the omnipresent eye of the Internet recording information, the sports desk has turned into a sort of cyber- psychic, able to predict trades and free-agent signings hours in advance.

On a historic morning in December, the boys emerged from their bedrooms, their eyes at half-mast as they fought to clear the cobwebs of sleep. I stopped them as they headed downstairs to tell them what had happened as they'd slept.

"We got Hussein," I said with the seriousness the news deserved. The boys stared at me blankly until one of them finally mumbled, "Who's he play for?"

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