Standing in line at the grocery store the other day, the two people in front of me started a conversation.

 

They didn’t appear to know each other. And if I had to guess, I’d say they came from different backgrounds, and maybe had different opinions about a lot of subjects. But one of them noticed they were wearing clothing with the same logo.

“How about those Jags?” he said.

And so began a conversation that quickly covered Blake Bortles, the Jaguars defense and the evil empire created by Patriots coach Bill Belichick.

The same thing happened at the post office, the gym and pretty much everywhere I’ve gone recently.

This is what being one game from a Super Bowl can do to a city.

When Jaguars running back Leonard Fournette was involved in a fender-bender, it led to momentary panic. When it was clear he was fine, it led to instant snark, with fans going on social media and posting alleged police sketches of the other driver (Belichick) and conspiracy theories involving the deflating of tires.

Yes, sports are overblown silliness. But these days a lot of cities wish they could have this kind of silliness — where it feels like instead of fighting each other, we’re temporarily united in something.

I’ve been spending this baseball offseason — a time of year I realize many of you call “football season” — reading a book about what happened 50 years ago in America.

“The Year of the Pitcher: Bob Gibson, Denny McLain and the End of Baseball’s Golden Age,” by Sridhar Pappu, tells more than the story of what happened on diamonds across America in the summer of 1968. It details all that was intertwined with sports in 1968.

We often fall into the trap of thinking we live in a time of unprecedented tumult, nasty politics, a declining America, a world spiraling out of control. And I often felt like that as 2017 turned to 2018.

But a half-century ago, when President Lyndon Johnson announced he wasn’t going to run for re-election, he said there was “division in the American house” — a presidential understatement if there ever was one.

It was a year with 16,000 American deaths in Vietnam, growing protests against the war, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, rioting in major cities, the fist-raising protest of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand at the Summer Olympics.

There are so many echoes today of events in 1968. There even was a national anthem controversy during the World Series — about Jose Feliciano’s rendition before Game 5 in Detroit.

I remember 1968 vividly. And yet I remember very little of this.

This is the beauty of being 7 years old.

I could recite Detroit Tigers’ starting lineup, statistics and scores. Yet I don’t know that Denny McLain was an self-absorbed jerk, disliked by even his own teammates. I just knew that he won 31 games, something no pitcher has done since (and I’d be willing to bet, no pitcher will ever do again).

While turning the pages of the book and returning to 1968, one reaction was that I wish I could go back to the simplicity of being 7, celebrating the Game 7 when Mickey Lolich — pitching on two days rest — beat Bob Gibson.

But another reaction was to think about what a baseball team did for the entire city of Detroit in the summer of 1968 — and what an NFL team can do for a city 50 years later.

In the half-century since 1968, I’ve often heard stories about how the Tigers united Detroit one year after riots ripped apart the city.

Willie Horton, a Tigers player who grew up in Detroit, once said, “I believe the 1968 Tigers were put here by God to heal this city.”

Michigan Governor George Romney (Mitt Romney’s father) wrote a letter to the Tigers’ owner that said, “This championship occurred when all of us in Detroit and Michigan needed a great lift. At a time of unusual tension, when many good men lost their perspective toward others, the Tigers set an example of what human relations should be.”

When Pappu began working on “The Year of the Pitcher,” he had this narrative in mind. His reporting quickly debunked it, revealing it to be more mythology than fact.

“To claim that baseball acted as a balm, that it soothed the rage and helped the country heal, is to engage in facile sports journalism, to tell one of the feel-good stories we’ve been telling for as long as we’ve been writing about sports,” he says.

I’d agree with this — to a point.

I’m not going to say this Jaguars season solved our civic problems. It obviously hasn’t led to a decline in our murder rate. A trip to the Super Bowl won’t fix issues with roads, parks, schools. It won’t stop the next storm surge. Even though it could help spark development around the stadium, I’d still say we should open the taxpayer checkbook very carefully.

But that’s a discussion for another day. Today we should enjoy this game, this run. And, yes, enjoy how it feels good to have a common bond and common enemy.

This feeling might be superficial and fleeting.

But these days I’ll take that.

mark.woods@jacksonville.com,

(904) 359-4212