There are times that I question why I have chosen to dedicate my life to writing about sports; most notably on those nights and weekends that are spent working rather than exposed to friends, fun or nudity.
There are also things that happen in the sports world itself that make me wonder why I would want to continue in this line of work. A prime example is the impending Orgy Shuffle between the Big Ten, Pac-10, Big 12 and anybody else who is interested. Part of me wants nothing to do with being a promotional vehicle for this madness that will hold no regard for natural rivalries that have lasted decades or the continued stratification of college athletics in the pursuit of millions of dollars, certainly none of which will be put to any educational use. (Other than “See, this is how much money you can make by becoming a unwieldy, homogenized behemoth of an organization.”)
Yet sports seem to uplift and inspire even more than they frustrate and disappoint. And there are a few items from the past week that have made me realize that I’ll never be able to run away from this thing.
The most significant happening of the week was the death of John Wooden. But the sad news highlighted the accomplishments of his remarkable life, which really was a thing of splendor. It wasn’t just the accomplishments that made this so — 10 championships in 12 years, an 88-game winning streak, 29 seasons without a losing record — but the way in which Wooden carried himself.
His folksy sayings and Pyramid of Success have stood the test of time, and are generally applied to the world outside of basketball.
He abstained from swearing and drinking and was loyal to one woman his whole life, even for the two decades that he lived without her after she passed away. In a profession full of carousers like Billy Gillispie and Rick Pitino and foul-mouthed types like Bob Huggins and Bob Knight, that in itself is an impressive feat.
And when you consider that a middle-aged man from Martinsville, Ind. — even by Indiana standards, not exactly a town known for being progressive — was able to get young black and white men from across the country to mesh together in an era when our nation’s racial and generational tensions were at their peak, it simply blows the mind. (Cynics will point out that influential booster Sam Gilbert probably helped ease those tensions with his gifts, but Wooden still had to get a diverse group of stars to play as a team and listen to an old man, which was decidedly un-hip).
Some Kentucky fans are taking umbrage at the suggestion that Wooden is the greatest coach of all-time, mostly because Kentucky fans must have something to bitch about at any given moment of any given day. And while Adolph Rupp was certainly a fine coach, it is all of the things that Wooden did not only as a coach but as a teacher and leader of men that will assure that his legacy carries beyond his 99 years on this earth.
One of my dad’s proudest memories was of meeting Coach Wooden one year at the Final Four and shaking his hand. I regret that I’ll never have the same chance.
BONUS AMAZING WOODEN FACT: In 1947, he recorded a hole-in-one and a double-eagle in the same round at the South Bend Country Club. According to Golf Digest, Wooden is one of four golfers who have ever accomplished the feat. Ever. Golf, as you know, has been played for a very long time (though the records probably weren’t kept as well in the 1600s).
The Imperfect Game: Lots of people, including our very own Phillips, are of the mind that Bud Selig should have acted within his commissioner-ly powers and overturned Jim Joyce’s horrific call at first base that cost Detroit’s Armando Galarraga the 21st perfect game in big league history.
But a piece in Sunday’s New York Times spelled out the same basic thesis that I have all week — Selig made the right call by doing nothing, and in so doing he has assured that the imperfect game will live forever in baseball history.
Think about it. Besides Dan Don Larsen’s perfect game in the World Series, none of them are remarkably unique. It’s the ones that came painfully close to being perfect that everyone remembers. (I still have no idea how I typed “Dan Larsen” originally, because I know damn well that it’s Don. However, I find it fitting that I made a mistake while writing about perfect games. Just as it’s fitting that the umpire, who is expected to have a perfect game every game, is the one responsible for Galarraga not getting his).
There’s Milt Pappas’ shoulda’ been perfect game in 1972 that was spoiled by a pair of ball calls from home plate ump Bruce Froemming for a two-out ninth inning walk. There’s Harvey Haddix’s 1959 perfect loss, in which he didn’t allow a Braves baserunner for 12 innings only to lose the game 1-0 in the 13th. That game actually was listed as a perfect game by MLB until 1991, when the rules were revised to say that a game needed to be completed for the distinction to count.
Haddix’s reaction: “That’s OK, I know I did it.”
Armando Galarraga and everyone else who watched that night — including Jim Joyce — knows the same thing. And it will never be forgotten.
The New Year of the Pitcher: In baseball annals, 1968 is known as the “Year of the Pitcher.” The stats were so outrageous — 339 shutouts were thrown that season, and Carl Yazstremski was the only American League batter who hit over .300 — that the mound was lowered the next season in an attempt to even things up.
After two decades of juiced-up offensive dominance, it appears that we may be in the midst of another season to remember for hurlers.
Counting Galarraga’s unofficial effort, there have been an absurd three perfect games this season. Those showings have made people forget about the plain, old no-hitter thrown by Colorado’s Ubaldo Jimenez earlier in the year. But Jimenez has been rolling ever since, racking up an 11-1 record while on pace to eclipse Bob Gibson’s record 1.12 ERA from ’68. While pitching his home games at Coors Field. Even if he has a full run added to his current 0.78 ERA by the end of the year, it would have to be considered one of the most sensational pitching feats of the modern era.
But Jimenez isn’t the only magical hurler this year. Reds rookie Mike Leake, who didn’t throw an inning in the minors, is 5-0. An even higher-touted prospect, the Nats’ Stephen Strasburg, is ready to make his debut and presumably take the league by storm.
And if you don’t believe this is the year of the pitcher, just remember: Carlos Silva is 7-0.
Crazier still is knowing that last week was a mere appetizer for what is to come this week: the chance that my Blackhawks will win their first Stanley Cup in 49 years, a possibly captivating NBA Finals and the start of the World Cup. If I’m going to run away from sports, it sure won’t be happening anytime soon.