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Sat, 27 Feb 2010

The Greatest
As the public penance of Tiger Woods' mea culpa fills the cable TV channels, a plethora of talking heads bemoan the ominous fact that all today's sports "heroes" are flawed. They say: "Look at how they've all let us down. Woods is an adulterer; McGuire is a druggie; OJ is a murderer. How disappointing! Where have all the real heroes gone? What is the world coming to?"

For some reason, I don't feel the same disappointment in the humanity of these sportsmen. Maybe it's because of my deeply ingrained love of tragedy. Maybe it's because my adolescent interest is sports began with Jim Bouton's Ball Four. Or maybe it's because my Catholic upbringing allows me to understand the idea of perfect God as imperfect man. Whatever the reason, I've never seen sports figures, even my personal sports gods, as being anything other than humans. Flawed humans. Limited and finite beings. And that's their biggest honor, isn't it? My apologies to Yankees fans, but could an übermench athlete (or a whole team of them in pinstripes) be deserving of heartfelt cheers? Maybe, but not from me.

To me, the only athletic success worth admiring is success that arises from flawed, limited humans. I think the greatness in the achievement derives almost exclusively from the humility of its vessel.

Let me be quick to clarify, I'm not talking about rooting for the nice guy. Nice guys finish last, and they should finish last. Nor am I talking about rooting for the underdog – although this could be somewhat related to my sentiment. Rather, I'm talking about rooting for the dog. Athletes are mortal animals, after all, and that they can somehow transcend their mean origins and achieve miraculous feats is... No. Wrong word. Not "transcend". Transcend is übermench thinking. Nobody transcends. The underdog stays a dog, but the son of a bitch wins anyway.

Which is why I grew a beard in 1993.

To adequately explain the beard, first we need to rewind back to 1970 when Jim Bouton published Ball Four. The year before, the "miracle Mets" had just won the World Series. Talk about a dog that somehow scratched out a championship! I lived in the New York suburbs, so talk of this miraculous event was on everyone's lips, particularly the lips of my peers that played Little League ball. I had not seen the 69 series on TV. I did not play any sports at the time, nor did I have very much prior interest in athletics. Yet there was something captivating about the stories I heard about those miracle Mets who, just a few years earlier, had ignominious records. For example, in 1962 the Mets won only 40 games, a winning percentage of .250, and finished 60.5 games out of first. The Mets would finish last, or next-to-last, each and every year before that miraculous the 1969 World Series.

My attention thus captured, I began to give Baseball a look. I watched a televised game or two with my Dad, but physically I remained not athletic, myself. Although it is certainly possible to follow sports without doing sports – as many a armchair sports-fan can tell you – I've always been a hands-on guy. Whatever the topic, non-participation severely limits my interest. In the case of athletics, as I saw them in 1970, playing sports was for the big, strong, coordinated, meat-head kids. Although I had some competitive spirit, I was the dorky, geek brainy kid that was picked last for "box ball" and put in right field. Kids like me needed to stick to chess and trigonometry.

But that perspective on sports (and maybe on myself) began its first incremental change when a friend of mine first handed me a copy of Ball Four. His prurient interest in the book – and what he presumed my interest would be – were the off color passages about "beaver shooting" and the stories of the adolescent gross-out exploits of Doug Rader. Being 12 years old I definitely liked those passages as much as he did, but I also was inadvertently impressed by the frank description of how professional sports appeared from a player's perspective: messy, human, and tragically finite.

Till that moment I saw sports (and especially Baseball) as an unattainably perfect pursuit of the big kids. After reading Ball Four, my eyes began to open to the fact that sports were played by flawed and limited humans – humans that in some ways might be just as flawed and limited as me. Somehow, that realization made me a lifetime sports fan – particularly a baseball fan. Moreover, I was drawn to favorite players and teams successful despite their flawed humanity, or maybe even because of it.

My disinterest in mainstream teenage physical activities mainly continued (basketball ruled my high school and I couldn't even dribble), but I did find myself riding my bicycle longer distances. I learned that two classmates did a transamerica bike ride and I dreamed of someday making the same trip. In gym class, I took more interest in running and other individual exercises. And even though their miraculousness soon dissipated, I started play more and better in sandlot ball, and to follow baseball obsessively as a New York Mets fan. I followed the Mets to their "Ya Gotta Believe" World Series loss in 1973.

On those early 70s Mets teams, one of my favorite Met players was Tom Seaver. Now a hall of famer, Seaver was a drop-and-drive pitcher who harnessed more lower body power than any other baseball hurler in history. When Seaver was throwing well, there would be a small dirty spot on his right knee. His stride was so long and so deep that his kneecap scraped the dirt of the mound during his follow through. His low fastball was unhittable.

Seaver is arguably among the greatest to play the game. I count myself lucky to have seen him play when he was at the peak of his form. But despite my idolizing him when I was 14 years old, and my ample respect and admiration for him to this day, Tom Seaver did not represent the kind of sports figure that now I most admire. A little dirt on a kneecap of an otherwise spotless uniform isn't enough to tarnish the "Tom Terrific" superstar image he maintained. Seaver's image represented one of the big kids I could never be. He wasn't a "dog". He wasn't a flawed, finite human who, despite his humanity, still managed to get the job done. Of course, I know in reality Tom Seaver was a finite man, but back then he appeared more like an übermench.

Standing in stark contrast to the squeaky clean (except for the knee) Tom Terrific was another incomparable athlete who caught my attention in 1970. This man may best exemplify my vision of a finite, flawed human that somehow manages unequivocally infinite greatness: Muhammad Ali.

It's common knowledge that Muhammad Ali had a brash, annoying public persona. It's also common knowledge that Ali was a talented boxer, but I wonder how many people who can recite his well known history today have actually taken the time to watch some films of his early fights, especially his bouts in the Olympics. I used to watch these matches on TV with uncles, who were devoted boxing fans – and racists. Listening to their knowledgeable, albeit begrudged, compliments as I watched Ali strut his stuff, I saw my first glimpse of what excellence a lowly human could attain.

If you've only heard about Ali's talent, but never watched him in action, I suggest it's impossible for you to appreciate just what inhuman skills he possessed. Normally boxers cover up in a tense crouch, blocking their opponents blows. Ali stood tall and avoided attacking blows, often by darting his head and shoulders to the side or back in moves that seemed to defy the laws of physics. Ali seemed totally relaxed as he circled and danced, his hands held low, body floating like a butterfly. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, phantom lightning would sting like a bee. Relentless and unstoppable these shots would come again and again, ultimately whupping the living tar out of his helpless opponent. As an amateur Ali was 100 and 5. As a professional Ali had no losses prior to 1967.

It's also common knowledge that in 1967 Ali's championship title was stripped from him, and his boxing license revoked because he had refused to participate in the Vietnam war. Despite Ali's claim of conscientious objector status based on his religious and political beliefs, his refusal to muster on draft was charged as a felony crime. Who among us has such deep seated beliefs (and indomitable hubris) that we would stand up to the most powerful government in history, willing exchange a lucrative career for a prison term merely to demonstrate our stubborn convictions?

An ordinary man dumb enough to do what Ali did would have been jailed and forgotten, and even Ali the übermench was almost KO'ed by the system. Still, by some miracle, in 1970 perhaps the greatest "dog" in sports history had his day in the Supreme Court. Charges were dropped, his license was restored, and Muhammad Ali was again able to enter the boxing ring.

Ali looked good against in his first comeback fight, a victory over Jerry Quarry in October 1970. After a few more promising victories, Ali qualified for a title fight against the new champ, Joe Frazier. This was billed as "The Fight of the Century" and it did not disappoint. Ali lost this hard fought bout on a unanimous decision, his first professional loss. It appeared there would be no triumphant comeback. Although Ali ultimately regained the title, his loss to Frazier was formative of my developing sense of the tragic nature of human accomplishment.

When today I think about Ali scoffing the draft in 1967 – a sports superstar at the top of his game doing what he thinks is right despite how it could destroy him, somehow surviving the ordeal, then coming back only to be crushed – my mind can't help but compare Ali with the more recent story of NFL player Pat Tillman.

Shortly after the September 11th attacks, Tillman turned down a NFL contract offer of $3.6 million to enlist in the U.S. Army, a fact that was spun into propaganda campaign that helped sell the Iraq and Afghan war to the US people. When Tillman was ultimately killed by friendly fire in 2004, the Army covered up this fact so as to keep the myth untarnished. Tillman, who by all accounts was an intelligent man of integrity, deserved better that to be buried in duplicity to sustain a nationalist myth.

Today Tillman's memory is revered by many, but in my estimation the sensitivities of the 21st century don't yet seem to treasure tragic figures the way they were treasured in the early 70s. I've already written in this space about how I was influenced by other flawed heroes of that time: Frank Serpico and Bobby Fischer. Thus, in response to the human fall of the great golfer Tiger Woods I ask: is this the best tragic irony the 21st century has to offer in the way of a sports figure? I'm not feeling it. Even outside sports, the pickings are slim. Except maybe for Severus Snape, the last decade has not created heroes to my taste.

Toward the end of the 70s I began drifting away from baseball and drifting toward an inspection of my own flawed humanity, magnified through the aberrant lens of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll. A decade would pass before I managed to free myself. Athletics in the form of bicycle riding was the fulcrum by means of which I levered myself free from a downward spiral of debauchery. I'm not sure how my interest in cycling was re-ignited, but for some reason in 1982 I bought a bicycle and started to ride it every day. For the first time in my life I was actually doing a non-sexual strenuous physical activity, intentionally.

Although not ever having been any kind of sportsman till I took up cycling, my character had always been somewhat competitive. Whether it was at chess or at academics, I took some pleasure out of doing things better than others. Consistent with this, my interest in cycling quickly focused on bicycle racing, rather than touring or other non competitive aspects of the sport. By 1983 I was in full time training to race.

It's interesting to note that in 1983 the Philadelphia Phillies were in the World Series. Part of their success derived from the pitching skill of Tug "Ya Gotta Believe" McGraw, who also pitched on my 1973 Mets. If I had been paying attention to baseball in 1983, I would have seen Tug McGraw's grudging acknowledgment of a bastard son, coming coincident with his peak athletic achievement in the Fall Classic, as being testament to Tug's flawed humanity and thus an poignant underscore of his sports achievement.

But I wasn't paying any attention to baseball in 1983. Bicycle racing held all my attention. I devoted myself to training and racing nearly full time from 1983 till 1993 when I grew my beard. Although more interested in doing the sport than watching others do it, I did become a fan of bike racing during that time. And if you were a US fan of bike racing in the 80s, you were a fan of Greg LeMond.

In 1986, LeMond became the first US Cyclist to win the Tour de France. The following year he was accidentally shot and seriously injured by his brother in law. It took Greg two years to recover, then LeMond came back to win the Tour again in 1989 and 1990. This is a wonderful comeback story, indeed, and one of the great sports achievements of all time, but it's a different character of triumph than, say, Muhammad Ali's comeback.

I also have trouble seeing LeMond as flawed or limited. He rode his bike faster than everyone else, and won. In fact, the example of Greg LeMond's success seemed to usher in a series of Tour de France specialists who each created a individual dynasty that stamped out strings of Tour victories like so many identical links in a bike chain. Yes, these were occasionally interrupted by a "master link" of a gunshot wound or testicular cancer, but once that minor setback was overcome, on the chain would go. These perfect riders were to the Tour like the New York Yankees are to Baseball. Their championships are nearly indistinguishable. Yes, it's a great achievement, but I can't manage to identify with these flawless supermen.

Instead, consider five time Tour de France winner Jacques Anquetil. He was infamous for preparing for important races by drinking and carousing the night before. An open proponent of doping, he once stated French television that only a fool would imagine it was possible to ride Bordeaux-Paris on just water. There's an infamous story about Anquetil feeding amphetamines to the fish an a fancy restaurant.

As someone who derives his hero-picking criteria from Ball Four appreciates the Jacques Anquetils of the world far more than the Lance Armstrongs.

By 1993 I way facing the tough truth of my limited humanity in the context of bike racing. I had risen to my level of incompetence in the sport. With over 100 races in my career, two busted up shoulders, and no significant victory, I was beaten and burned out. I would never race again. Thus, in this mood of personal defeat at the end of 1993 cycling season, I found myself lounging on a couch, eating chips and drinking beer as I watched the Philadelphia Phillies play the Atlanta Braves in the National League championship on TV.

I hadn't paid serious attention to baseball in over twenty years, but that one evening on the couch had me hooked again. Heck, I was hooked in the first fifteen minutes, watching Curt Schilling strike out the first five Braves hitters.

I instantly identified with the scruffy, bad boy Phillies team. These were my kind of athletes. Consider John Kruk. Sitting in the dugout smoking a cigarette, Kruk was berated by a fan for not acting like an athlete. Kruk's response spoke volumes: "I'm not an athlete; I'm a baseball player." After the 1993 series, Kruk had some health issues and ultimately got tired of the game. By 1995, as he told the Chicago Tribune, he wanted to spend the rest of the year "eating at the Sizzler's buffet." On July 30, in a game at Baltimore, Kruk singled and took himself out of the game, never to play again. Kruk is believed to be the only player to officially retire mid-game.

During the League Championship and World Series of 1993, as these unshaven, unshorn Philadelphia bums battled there way into sports glory, I vowed to temporarily stop shaving my chin in sympathy for their ungroomed ways. When they ultimately lost the World Series, deflated by that stunning Joe Carter home run against Mitch Williams, I couldn't find it in myself bring a razor near my throat. I grew a beard and announced that I'd never shave till the Phillies finally won the Series. A few years later, I met Mitch Williams in a bar. I told him about my promise. He said, "Dude, that shit'll be down to your feet someday."

Fickle are sports alliegiences. Although I was very much rooting for the bad boy Phillies to defeat the Braves 1993, just two years later I found myself rooting for those same Braves to win. This is admittedly puzzling. The Ted Turner marketed Braves of the 90's – so called America's Team – were nothing like the mongrel breed of sports dog I generally appreciate. They were the Yankees of the National League. Consummate professionals, year in and year out they went to the park, won the game, they went home. None of them had beards.

There are two main reasons I started following the Braves. One is the fact that I spent a lot of time in the Atlanta area leading up to the 1996 Olympics. I simply picked up the local enthusiasm for the team. But the second reason, a far bigger one, was my appreciation of the pitcher Greg Maddux.

Maddux is among the best to have stepped on the mound. On the overall numbers, I think Maddux easily beats my old superman idol Tom "Terrific" Seaver. Maddux won 355 games in his career; only Warren Spahn (363) recorded more career wins during the "live ball" era. Seaver won only 311. Almost more impressive than Maddux's pitching stats are the eighteen gold glove awards he won for fielding excellence – more than any other player in any position, ever.

Good as he was, Maddux was no less a professional than any of the other Braves, and he didn't have some humanizing conflict, ignoble weakness, or epic struggle to turn him into a tragic figure. So why did I so uncharacteristically appreciate this particular superman on a team of supermen?

Because he really wasn't a superman. He was a sly dog, who stayed a dog (Mad Dog was his nickname – Manager Bobby Cox sometimes called him Doggy), yet the son of a bitch figured out how to win anyway.

The thing is, so many pitchers try to overpower hitters. They are Tom Seavers or Nolan Ryans with a freight train of a fastball and hard, knee buckling curve. Joe Morgan called it a "motherfucking curve" in Ball Four. Reggie Jackson once quipped that "blind people come to the ballpark just to hear these sorts of guys pitch."

Not so with Mad Dog. Maddux's fastball would top out at 88 or 89 mph – hardly an impressive speed for a big league pitcher. Nor did Maddux have an overpowering look to him. Maddux, a Las Vegas native, was clean shaven, not particularly handsome, and generally pitched with the neutral expression of a third-shift blackjack dealer on his face. Compare 6 foot nothing Greg Maddux with 6-foot ten-inch Randy Johnson, the Big Unit, who would glare in at hitters over the top of his glove and routinely threw at 100 mph. Johnson struk out more batters per inning that anyone in history – yet Mad Dog has more career wins. How can that be?

Maddux wasn't a superman who won by übermench power, this was an ordinary guy who won by knowlege and thoroughness. To all outward apperances, he seemed a dorky, geeky brainy kid that on appearance alone would be picked last for a sandlot game.

A true baseball wonk, Maddux obsessively studied the game, studied the characteristics of hitters, studied everything trying to find ways to give himself an edge. Early in his career he wore glasses and was sometimes called "The Professor". Later on he had Lasik so to look "less like a dork", but the inner nerd remaind. Maddux accumulated his detailed and vast knowlege and consistently applied it to tilt the odds in his favor. More often than not (over 100 times more often), this would lead to a win. Maddux wins were quick, unremarkable affairs, with few of the mano y mano moments that power pitchers seem to crave. Based on his research on an opponent, Maddux would lob late breaking strikes in just exactly the right spot to make that batter hit an easy ground ball back to the mound. The batter would cuss and pound the dirt in frustration, but next time around, Maddux would do it to him again.

This sort of "engineering" approach to pitching didn't work as well in the big games, where intimidating power was the only way to dominate the opponent at critical moments. Consequently, Maddux was an unremarkable post-season pitcher and this fact may partly explain why the Braves won only a single World Series with a decade of regular season dominance. Despite his lack of big-game machisimo – or maybe exactly because of it – I found Maddux's pitching style mesmerizing, and I avidly followed his career all the way up till his recent retirement.

Maybe another kind of tragic hero is the everyday dog who pays his dues, learns his trade, and does his job to the best of his ability with little fuss. Over time, that journeyman approach can lead to the most impressive achievement of all.

Posted Feb 27, 2010 at 00:09 UTC, 3780 words,  [/danPermalink

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