Monday, September 3, 2007

The Way Sports Should Be

Clay Buchholz brought a welcome fresh breeze to sports news Saturday night when the rookie pitched a no-hitter against Baltimore the same day he was called up to the Red Sox.

Seeing Barry Bonds break Hank Aaron’s record under a steroid cloud was news for a day or two. Who cares? What’s inspiring about drug-induced performance? Hank Aaron is clearly still the more inspiring player. When Buchholz reached deep down to pull off such a great start to his major league career—that’s inspiring, that’s fun to watch, that’s worth talking about and remembering. And even better is that this was also a TEAM effort—second baseman Dustin Pedroia saved this no-hitter with a spectacular catch and throw in the seventh inning, and certainly catcher Jason Varitek played no small role in this success.

When professionals forget why we like to watch sports in the first place, the games are dull. Sure, no one wants to cheer for NFL’s Michael Vick, a stupid, mean criminal, but the slide in quality goes beyond that. Basketball writers, for example, are complaining that while the NBA is chock full of stars, the games have become slow, with few points scored, since the stars insist on making spectacular shots, sacrificing fundamentals and team play, and so make too many mistakes when the play is fast. What happened to the hard work needed for precision? The drive to be a star and to win at all costs kills it. Maybe it’s too much TV exposure.

I’d far rather watch high school wrestling than the silly, scripted presentation euphemistically call professional “wrestling.” It’s a show, a movie, theater, not a sport—and it’s dull.

Amateurs reaching deep down to find that something extra is far more exciting than prima donna pros.. Instead of a “professional” hockey player sucker punching another player from behind, I love games like the U.S./U.S.S.R. Olympics match in the 1980s. The Soviets were better skaters, more experienced, but the U.S. team just tried harder—a series of good, clean, fascinating games. Or after Tonya Harding figured to way to out skate rival Nancy Kerrigan in the 1994 Olympics was to have her boyfriend attack her knee, fifteen year old Oksana Baiul flawlessly skated her way to the gold in a stunning performance.

I have no patience for the temper of a John McEnroe or the bad boy image of an Andre Agassi, convinced “image is everything.” Give me a game like this one—I forget now whether it was Wimbledon or the U.S. Open:

Pete Sampras faced only one more challenger to win the event—a completely unknown newcomer to the tour. They were quite closely matched, and set after set we watched the champion defending his title and the newcomer fighting for his shot, matched with the reigning king of tennis. The play was so close that the last game would determine who would leave champion. That game went to match point, changing hands again and again and again and again. The weather was very hot, and both players were exhausted, slowly dragging their worn muscles back to the baseline each time, Sampras actually vomiting one the sidelines between points. Finally, though, the physically beaten champion pulled off the match, walking over to congratulate his opponent, excepting the trophy from the judges.

Then I saw something I’ve never seen before—as the poor guy who came so close slowly walked off the court, tears streaming down his face, clearly feeling crushed, the crowd rose to its feet for a standing ovation. He lost, but he played a remarkable game. That’s how sports should be.

My best friend in college, an avid baseball fan, used to complain about how people would say, “Oh, this team sucks, that player sucks” and so forth. “The worst player on the worst team in the Major Leagues is an incredible athlete,” he noted.

He’s right. And watching contests among gifted players reaching down for that something extra, that better team play, that better, long-disciplined control of fundamentals (true of musicians and dancers, too), is a far better way to appreciate the games.

Real people. Real contests—not drugs, cheats, egos and even criminals.

So thanks, Clay! I needed that. And congratulations on a game well played.


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