When home runs (and Shep Messing) were measured in meters

Broadcaster Shep Messing, a long way from his days of posing for Viva.

Broadcaster Shep Messing, a long way from his days of posing for Viva.

All this talk about corruption in the World Cup and Qatar, the 2022 host, having to give out luxury autos to pave the stands, reminds me that it would take a lot more than a giveaway to get Americans to watch soccer. OK, so maybe not a lot more but something.

Despite a large immigrant population that loves it, soccer remains child’s play in this country, watched over by disgruntled “soccer moms” and “soccer dads,” who act like they’re managing the New York Yankees, to mix my sports metaphors.

But I digress from my real purpose here, which is to recall those halcyon days of the 1970s when President Jimmy Carter decided we were all going to become internationalists. So up went the signs for kilometers on highways, home runs were measured in meters and new liter bottles – the kind that don’t always fit in the ever-convenient recycling machines at the grocery store – appeared everywhere. These were the days of Julia Child’s French cooking, Marcella Hazan’s Italian cooking and Alistair Cooke explaining the profundities of high-class British soap opera on “Masterpiece Theatre.” Heady times.

Even NASA got into the act, cleverly converting linear measurements to the metric system as only rocket scientists can do. Of course, NASA once forgot to do this, costing us a $125 million space probe. But what’s $125 million when we were all on the way to becoming sophisticated internationalists with our coq au vin and metric tables.

One of the many ways in which we were going to become sophisticated internationalists was to develop an instantaneous passion for soccer. So professional teams sprang up across the country, the great Pelé came to New York and the New York Cosmos – short for Cosmopolitans – were born. Among the team’s members was Bronx-bred, Harvard-educated goalie Shep Messing, a Dionysus come to life with long black curls and a manner that said that he did not lack feminine companionship in the big city.

Shep was not shy about advertising either, posing nude for Viva magazine, the age of internationalism also being the age of a certain kind of feminism in which women were thought to be female men who just yearned for a Playboy magazine of their own. Alas, this proved too much for the city fathers, who did not want men to be displayed in a way they thought should be reserved for certain nubile females offered for their delectation alone.

Internationalism was held responsible, along with President Carter, the Democrats and that usual suspect, trashy Europe, for once again trying to introduce us to louche ways.

By then, though, the enthusiasm for internationalism was on the wane, particularly as it seemed to require a lot of math. Kilometer signs came down. Ballparks went back to 400-foot homers. And everyone agreed it had just been a bad dream, like one of those foreign movies that makes no sense even with the subtitles.

But some remnants survive like those supersize liter bottles and a reconstituted “Masterpiece.” And we still field professional soccer teams but without that Studio 54 glitz.

Nonetheless, whenever the World Cup rolls around, I think of the days of my youth, of Shep Messing and his black curls, and of a moment in America when everything was measured in meters.