Rings? We don’t need no stinkin’ rings

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So I’m standing at the Pearly Gates, the video of my life playing in the background, a team of celestial functionaries leafing through my file, smirking with ill-concealed amusement at my presumption in expecting a happy outcome as I face the final judgment.

“Ah. there’s not much to go on here,” the senior gatekeeper taps the folder.  “No good deeds we missed in compiling this, eh?”  I shake my head.  “Well you certainly were alive for much of your time on Earth, but in terms of purposeful …”  He shakes his head.  “You must have done something with the years you were given?”

No need to drag this out any longer. I make it easy for him. “Sports.  I watched a lot of sports.”

I’ve got no regrets, for the most part, but I probably don’t need to watch one more set of talking heads beating the same conversations to death.  I certainly don’t need to hear a retired athlete celebrated as an authority because he’s got a ring, or three, or five.  I don’t need to hear another argument in which an athlete’s legacy is determined by the number of appearances in championship games and the number of championship rings carried away.

The practice of distributing rings dates back to the 1927 Yankees, arguably the most dominant team in the history of baseball.  A few years earlier, Yankees had been given pocket watches after a World Series victory, and in subsequent years players asked for more practical tokens of appreciation. Frankie “The Crow” Crosetti, the Yankees’ shortstop from 1932 to 1948 and Yankees’ third base coach until 1968, participated in 23 World Series and took away 17 World Championship rings.  It’s no wonder that early on The Crow asked that he might be awarded a shotgun instead.

The greater objection to the fetishising of rings is that many of the most remarkable athletes of their era finished their career without winning a championship, and some of those athletes are in my personal pantheon.   I’m not talking about  the Charles Barkleys or Sergio Garcias, very good players whose place in the history of their game will be noted among others of equal ability, but the remarkable players – Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Dick Butkus, Ernie Banks, Dan Marino.  Barry Sanders retired without a ring as did LaDainian Tomlinson.  Some dynastic franchises had a few off years so that Elgin Baylor never won a title with the Lakers and Don Mattingly never with the Yankees.

Oh, and Eli Manning has two rings; Peyton has one.  One of them is among the greatest modern quarterbacks; the other has two rings.

This peeve of mine emerges as Spring Training is about to begin again, and Mike Trout may end this season, and the next, and the next without claiming any hardware or jewelry.  It isn’t easy for me to admit this after a lifetime of loyalty to Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra, and relatively recent loyalty to Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, but Mike Trout is one of the three ball players I most admire, the other two being Ichiro Suzuki and Ken Griffey, Jr..  What do these three have in common, besides baseball genius?  Yup, no rings.

Baseball’s never been better, and there are some notable phenoms playing at a level never seen before.  Altuve, and Stanton, and Votto, and Judge, and Ramirez, and Blackmon, and Gordon may end up at the top of the heap by the end of their careers.  I love the long ball, the stolen base, the hit-and-run as much as the next person (which reminds me that Rod Carew never bagged a ring, and he’s about as slick a batsman as we’re likely to see), but I’m a particular fan of players who sew up a defense, players whose defensive skill changes the character of a team.

Some names arrive easily and immediately –  Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, Tris Speaker, Brooks Robinson, Ozzie Smith, Omar Vizquel, Mike Schmidt, catchers Johnny Bench, Pudge Rodriguez, maybe first baseman Keith Hernandez.  Among the less recognized outfielders as fielders, Bonds, Yastrzemski, Richie Ashburn, Al Kaline.  Had he not become among the most fragile infielders, there is no doubt Troy Tulowitzki would be in the mix.  Kevin Kiermaier’s gonna be a monster fielder, Billy Hamilton too.

My nomination for most undervalued fielder of the modern age is Jim (Jimmy Baseball) Edmonds, a pretty fair hitter as well.  He ended up with a .284 batting average and 393 home runs, more than respectable.  Any of us who saw him pull certain home runs out of the air, particularly those who remember him as a Cardinal taking away a shot hit by Jason LaRue of the Reds, think of him as the most exciting fielder of his time.  LaRue hit a blast to center field,  Edmunds turned, his back to the ball, raced to the warning track, climbed the center field wall and somehow stretched well beyond human stretching capacity to rob LaRue of a homer.

I’d take Jim Edmonds with his single ring (2006 Cards), Griffey, Ichiro, and Trout anytime. Meanwhile, we missed our shot with Frankie Crosetti, the most be-ringed if all time.

Here’s Edmonds as a rookie grabbing a Cal Ripken shor:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Chicken for All Seasons – A Fond Tribute to America’s Best Mascot

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After more than 5000 performances, 510 in a row for the San Diego Padres, Ted Giannoulas finally hung up his beak in 2016.  Giannoulas first put on the feathers in 1974 as a stunt sponsored by a San Diego radio station; his first gig was handing out Easter eggs to kids at the San Diego Zoo.  From that humble beginning Giannoulas created a mascot that has earned a spot in the pantheon of great mascots, to many observers, the greatest mascot of all time.  Baseball fans in San Diego count The Chicken as their own, and his work with the Padres established him as the capon crusader, but almost from the start, he also supported the Clippers who then played in San Diego.

The San Diego Chicken evolved into the Famous Chicken when Giannoulas fled the coop, taking his show on the road.  At this point, he’s flown more than a million miles, and, boy, are his arms tired.

As a student and sports fan at San Diego State, Ted Giannoulas wanted to bring fans of all ages a way to enjoy a game, particularly during the “down” moments, between innings or before the first pitch.  Mascoting is a rare art; few are able to bring a costumed character truly to life.  Ted Giannoulas was a star from the start, almost immediately winning the hearts and minds of San Diego’s fans.  So devoted were San Diegans to Giannoulas’ Chicken that they massed in protest when KGB radio fired Giannoulas in 1979.  In what must have been a virtual barbecue, fans loudly booed the replacement pullet, driving him to defeat and obscurity.

Once restored to his rightful place in the pecking order of mascots, Giannoulas kicked his performance into an even higher level of confrontive gymnastics.  In describing his oeuvre, Ted Giannoulas is quick to assure his fans that he has been the only performer in that suit since his restoration in 1979.  He admits that he can no longer do the splits as he once did as a spring chicken, but says he stills starts down until he collapses, adding yet another piece of schtick to the aging chicken’s routine.

I’ve seen The Famous Chicken in ballparks from coast to coast, and have had the particular pleasure of seeing Giannoulas take on other mascots in almost every setting; they simply do not have a chance.  With his customary brio, The Chicken approaches his foe with a deliberate and challenging heavy step.  A flick of the wing invites battle:  Bring It On, Lehigh Valley Pig Iron!  Whatcha Got, Modesto Nuts?  Hey, Topeka Train Robbers, I Gotta Whole Lotta Sumpin’ For You!

I lived in Huntsville, Alabama, home of the Huntsville Stars, during Michael Jordan’s break from basketball.  When he and the Birmingham Barons came to town, it was on, even though the teams’ mascots were unprepossessing.  Their lame mascot, “Babe Ruff” looked like a Pound Puppy on Welfare.  The Stars weren’t much better; “Homer, the Pole Cat” was as significantly shabby.  At that time, the Stars were the A’s Double A franchise in the Southern League having recently sent Jose Canseco up to the majors after an MVP season in Huntsville.  Jordan was the main attraction, of course, and the games were sold out, but the mascot battle paled next to the stunning display of Jordan’s largesse in providing his team a luxury bus so they could travel in comfort and style during the steamy southern summer.  The bus cost Jordan $350,000.00 and can be yours at auction with an opening price of $20,000.00.  At the time, however, it was a thing of wonder, and many fans missed the first innings walking around the bus in the parking lot.

In  addition to the Barons, the League did present some notable franchises and notable mascots.  The Tennessee Smokies had colorful mascots, Homer, Slugger, and Diamond (really); The three bear”ish” things were actually more garish than colorful, kelly green, navy blue, and mango.  The Montgomery Biscuits, however, provided built-in drama.  Monty the Biscuit was chased by Big Mo a biscuit-hungry … thing.  The big news from Montgomery is that, while Mo stays, Monty has been replaced by a miniature pot-belly pig entitled, The Duchess of Pork.

The Chicken was henpecked in court following a series of ill-advised match-ups, one of which I was privileged to witness.  My kids had been entranced by Barney, the much beloved (by them) purple dinosaur, but fortunately had just outgrown their allegiance as we attended our last game in Huntsville.  The Memphis Chicks were in transition, finishing their relationship with the Royals and just about to become an affiliate of the soon-to-be defuncted Expos.  As a result, their mascot was AWOL, and a good thing too, as Blooper,  had been designed when the Chicks were the Chickasaws (nice).  As noted, Homer the Polecat was not an impressive specimen, so spent most of the game walking through the crowd, looking for some sort of validation.  The main event, therefore, was a tussle between something that looked an awful lot like Barney and The Famous Chicken.

It probably goes without saying that Barney took a beating from one side of the diamond to the other.  My kids still talk about the chicken scissor kick that propelled Barney into the Chicks’ dugout.  Whoever was in the Purple suit did a good job of feigning injury, although I’m pretty sure I heard him pleading, “No mas, no mas”.

What do I say to a chicken that is one of my children’s happiest memories?

Thank you, Ted Giannoulas, and I hope you’ve put away a nest egg commensurate with your contribution to the great game of baseball.

The Greatest?

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In the interminable weeks between the end of the conference championships and the start of Super Bowl LII sports commentary waxed hyperbolic, having no real reporting to offer, resolutely chewing on the same theme hour after hour.  Tom Brady, The Greatest Quarterback of All Time, would carry the New England Patriots to yet another Super Bowl victory, despite having recently managed to wedge his throwing hand into a crevice in running back Rex Burkhead’s helmet, despite the likely loss of  Brady’s favorite target, a man described as “a self-aware lump of protein powder”, pass catching Golem Rob Gronkowski, despite the glaring weaknesses in the Patriot’s defense, and despite the best efforts of the talented and well-coached Philadelphia Eagles.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick is also Greatest of All Time, an honorific now somewhat diminished when squashed into the acronym and meme GOAT.   The Patriots themselves are occasionally termed the Greatest Football Dynasty of All Time, and in empty hours in sports journalism, strident argument rages as the case is made for LeBron James or Michael Jordan as, you know, the Greatest of All Time.

We (sports fans) were charmed by the effrontery, the chutzpah, with which a young Muhammad Ali declared himself The Greatest, but cringe a bit when Wayne Gretsky is still termed, The Great One.  Those who survived the Depression and fought in World War II are the Greatest Generation, and I’m told Alexander, Catherine, and Gatsby were all pretty Great.

Then, in addition, Time, I believe, is something of a mystery, perhaps vulnerable to manifold topology, but maybe not, an obscure way of observing that even the most prescient of us has a fairly limited set of experiences against which to judge the absolute standard of performance in any sport.  The same holds true for actors and entertainers, but we seem less compelled to deify even the most obviously superior.  Is Meryl Streep the Greatest Actress of All Time?  Dunno.  Maybe.  Doesn’t seem to matter as much as the LeBron/Jordan battle.

I’m not sure why this need to wax hyperbolic has set in; perhaps having known what might have been the best of times and now sliding into what feels like the the worst we find comfort in speaking with absolute certainty ?  Maybe the ferocity of competition and the necessity to keep score inherent in sport as we know it demands final judgment.  My guess is that since we experience the great moments of sport from a distance, second-hand, our sport becomes the championing of one athlete or team over another, a game that never ends.

In those long weeks before the NFL championship game, sports outlets routinely drag out whatever football footage they happen to have in the can.  Over a period of two days, I saw clips of Walter Peyton, Barry Sanders, Jim Brown, Gayle Sayers, Marcus Allen, Tony Dorsett, LaDanian Tomlinson, Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, Jerome Bettis, and Earl Campbell. Nobody’s screening O.J.’s scrambling breakaways at USC, but I remember them well.

Want to pick one as the greatest?

Go ahead, but don’t forget the runners whose feats may not have been so meticulously preserved on film.  I’ve seen grainy footage of Red Grange breaking loose for a touchdown, but only have the sportwriters’ words to describe the heroics of Jim Thorpe, Glenn Davis, Doc Blanchard, and Doak Walker.

I keep my collection of Mickey Mantle memorabilia close at hand in case someone drops by and wants to see a copy of his rookie contract or my well-oiled 1959 Rawlings Mickey Mantle baseball glove, and I treasure my memories of him in the field and at bat, but is he the greatest of all time?  A version of this sort of question came up as a friend of mine who had attended Bolles School in Florida as did Chipper Jones asked if Jones, a first ballot Hall of Famer, had a place in my list of the ten best third basemen of all time.

I have two lists, of course, the best to play the position for the New York Yankees and the ostensible best to have played in the major leagues.  In responding, I was aware once again that I take a player such as Adrian Beltre for granted as I took Paul Molitor and Ron Santo for granted.  I knew Wade Boggs was a heck of a third baseman, but thought of him primarily as a hitter as I did George Brett.  The Braves weren’t on television every day back when they played in Milwaukee, so I didn’t see enough of Eddie Matthews.  Writers assure me that Hall of Famers Pie Traynor and Jimmy Collins should be in the mix.  In the end, however, it comes down to my memory of Mike Schmidt’s dominance in his era, particularly in the Phillies’ world series victory in 1980, and my reverence for the fielder known as “the vacuum cleaner”, Brooks Robinson.

All of that said, Chipper more than earned a spot in the top four or five.  Will Kris Bryant, Manny Machado, Kyle Seager, or Josh Donaldson make the cut twenty years from now?  I hope so.

As for the Jordan/LeBron argument, the game is still afoot.  Steak or lobster?  Pie or ice cream?  Valhalla or Olympus?  I have only this to add to the conversation:  Jordan played on his high school’s junior varsity team until his junior year; LeBron averaged more than 20 points a game as a freshman.  I saw LeBron play for St. Vincent-St. Mary’s High School.  In my mind, case closed.

Except … I also saw Jordan literally fly.