Sports, even when bad, are a real refuge

As I lie there helplessly in bed, IVs sticking out of both my arms, I desperately needed a friend. This was my first stay in a hospital, and it would extend for 10 long days, highlighted by a complicated five-hour stomach operation.

I was terrified. I was detached from everything I knew, everything I loved. Except for sports. Amid the chaos of vital-sign checks every six hours, blood-clot-thinner injections, pill dispensations, there was always sports. After 61 years of using sports as a refuge from real life, I finally got to experience its real value during the worst medical crisis of my life.

I’m OK now, well on the road back after an extremely bumpy ride. Twelve inches of my colon were removed because of an affliction called diverticulitis, which is just another name for the worst stomach pain you could ever imagine. Despite the valiant efforts of my excellent doctors and an extraordinary hospital, these were easily the 10 worst days of my life.

My only real refuge was sports — in this case, an abysmal Phillies team playing its worst baseball in at least five years. No matter how badly they performed, however, their next game was my focus, my escape. Many nights, I fell into an uneasy sleep with the late innings droning on in the background. Even in defeat, the games brought me a comfort I never really understood until now.

The day of my operation, on June 7, was especially eventful because I was greeted that morning by the unfathomable news that Eagles president Joe Banner was stepping down. With the antibiotics, the blood thinners and the mood enhancers, I thought I was hallucinating. After that, though, I had something to think about besides the deadly complications that were lurking on the operating table.

I learned a great deal during the crisis. I learned how special people are who dedicate their lives to the sick. I learned just how high my blood pressure can soar when Charlie Manuel does something stupid. Above all, I learned how important sports is to the people who need it the most.

For most of the 40 years of my professional life, I always assumed that I worked in the toy department. I labored in the frivolous, silly world of fun and games, filled with larger-than-life athletes and “critical” games and “crucial” moments that, in the big picture, are nothing compared to the trials of real life.

How wrong I was. Toward the end of my ordeal, when I was trudging up and down the hallways, IV pole in hand, I couldn’t help but notice how many TVs were tuned to sports. The Phillies may be a huge disappointment this year, but they are still heroes in hospitals.

I suppose the memory of this nightmare will fade over time, but I doubt the lesson will. Sports will always be a sweet diversion, but it is more than that to me now. It is a friend you can depend on when you truly need one the most.

Looking at Banner’s legacy

Joe Banner presided over a remarkable era of Eagles football, and his legacy is equally extraordinary. The Eagles president brought unprecedented success to our most beloved sports franchise — and somehow managed to alienate an entire city in the process.

Normally, Philadelphia is as much a bottom-line sports city as any in America. In that regard, Banner delivered an annual title contender, intriguing players and a brand-new stadium. He also managed the salary cap better than any executive in any sport, and he made his boss, Jeff Lurie, a billionaire.

That impressive résumé should get him another opportunity to capture that elusive championship. Or will it? Before his new employer entrusts Banner with another sports franchise, he will have to deal with the man’s uncanny ability to infuriate the very customers he is supposed to please.

Even at the end, Banner managed to say precisely the wrong thing in looking back on his unpopularity, blaming most of it on a media conspiracy to sully his image. He accepted almost none of the blame for the insulting remarks and smug attitude that punctuated his 17-year tenure.

The sad part is that Banner should be remembered for his business savvy, for his ability to field a winning team, and for leaving the Eagles in much better shape than when he got here. Instead, his legacy will be that of a man respected by many, but liked by no one.

Phils lack urgency

The Phillies have lacked offense, defense and good pitching, but something even more important is threatening to ruin the season. They are showing no urgency to fix their problems.

And that problem starts right at the top, where GM Ruben Amaro Jr. has done nothing to prop up a roster ravaged by injuries and slumps. Kyle Kendrick and Joe Blanton are simply not good enough for a team with championship aspirations. Michael Schwimer and Joe Savery are not major league pitchers. Michael Martinez is an everyday second baseman only on a very bad team.

Meanwhile, Charlie Manuel has made no adjustments to this season of disappointment. The manager has blown at least half a dozen games just by restricting the use of closer Jonathan Papelbon to three-out saves.

Shane Victorino has been undisciplined. Hunter Pence has proven he is no star. Cliff Lee has been the biggest waste of money in Phillies history. Only one player, Carlos Ruiz, has responded to the adversity.

The Phillies may still be able to save this season, but not until they experience a radical change in attitude. It’s time to play like there’s no tomorrow. Because for this team, this era, there truly is no tomorrow.

– Angelo Cataldi is the host of 94 WIP’s Morning Show, which airs weekdays 5:30 to 10 a.m.

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