And the Prize for Inconceivable Arrogance goes to ….

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Ah, Autumn!  Leaves are falling, footballs are sailing, and the mascots no longer smell like mothballs.  Bright college years with pleasures rife, the shortest, gladdest years of life – what better Saturday afternoon than sitting in the stands amid the pomp and pageantry of Division I football?  The band is pumping out the fight songs; the cheerfolk are tumbling and screaming. A rumble as the first players burst from the tunnel, then a roar as they stampede, more than a hundred superbly conditioned young men, moving as one, a blur of helmeted color.

Sweet, Jesus.  All’s right with the world!

Except that this is Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  It’s 92 degrees in the shade at 3 PM as the Aggies of New Mexico State scurry to the sideline, rushing like a man pulled from a brothel into church, aware at a cellular level that they don’t belong and will soon face the wrath of an unforgiving God.  Their mascot, Pistol Pete, twirls a pair of unloaded six guns in front of the four or five New Mexico Tech rooters.  

Pistol Pete is one of the few mascots drawn from the pages of history.  Frank Boardman “PIstol Pete” Eaton, born in Hartford, Connecticut, was a scout, indian fighter, and cowboy, famous for his skill as a gunman and for his relentless pursuit of the men who killed his father.  Eaton’s ability to kill people was much admired, and over the course of several decades, his mustached likeness was trotted out as the embodiment of all things admired in the Old West. Think of a young(er) Tom Selleck.  In any case, students at what was then known as Oklahoma A and M, now Oklahoma State, petitioned the administration for a change of mascot, aware that their claim to be the Princeton of the Prairie hardly entitled them to joint custody of the tiger as a mascot.  As the former New Mexico College of Agriculture and Mechanic Arts in Las Cruces, New Mexico took its place in Division I football, it too had need of an inspirational figurehead, adopting Pistol Pete as their own.

Except that he wasn’t.  At the outset, in the 1950’s, NMSU paid Oklahoma State a royalty of ten dollars a year for the logo and mascot.  Times changed, conversation between the two institutions of higher learning grew testy, and in 2005, New Mexico State folded, changing the mascot’s name to “Lasso Larry”, arming him with a coiled rope.  Outraged students asked, “Who brings a lasso to a gunfight?”, a not unreasonable question if athletic competition is seen as war, and Pistol Pete returned to the sidelines, prompting OSU to sue NMSU.  

That suit settled  (NMSU can only sell 3000 articles featuring the cowboy and the royalty is to be paid in perpetuity), It’s September 7th in Tuscaloosa, the temperature is rising, and Alabama’s Crimson Tide sweeps onto the field accompanied by their mascot, Big Al, a rumpled but enthusiastic grey elephant.  ‘’Bama’s team numbers something above one hundred and five players, eighty five of whom are on scholarship. Of that number, twenty seven of the newest players, recent recruits, arrived as four or five star recruits, giving Big Al something to cheer about and placing Alabama at the top of the 2019 recruiting classes.  NMSU’s class is made of two and three star recruits, placing them at spot number one hundred and twenty in the recruiting sweepstakes.  

Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium is named after a former president of the university, Denny, and a former coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant.  The stadium is the seventh largest stadium in the world, welcoming almost one hundred and two thousand loyal ‘Bama Boosters to its seats.  Naturally, the scramble for seats is ongoing, and students line up for their season passes, plunking down one hundred and thirty five dollars for the season, a bargain to be sure.  Individual game prices vary. The NMSU student ticket price is twenty dollars if purchased separately; tickets to the LSU game go for one hundred and twenty. A season pass now looks like a heck of a bargain.  Good times in Tuscaloosa!

Except that the temperature is rising, humidity is woolen, classes don’t begin for another two weeks,and the Tide has pasted sixty two points on New Mexico State, the designated early season punching bag, Apparently believing they have some agency in their lives, students stick with it through the first half and retreat to cooler options in the second half, leaving a bare patch in the stadium’s flanks.

Sensible, you say.  Understandable.

In an age of outsized egos, however, such defection is taken personally, and no ego puffs with more satisfaction than that belonging to Alabama’s exceptionally talented and successful football coach.  Nick Saban makes seven point nine million dollars a year with a four hundred dollar escalator clause. He is an exceptionally good coach in a state that venerates college football.  His wish is the State’s command. He has complained about Alabama’s students with clear contempt.

“Everybody wants to be a part of the team,” he said. “Everybody wants to be No. 1, but everybody don’t want to do what the beast does. Everybody wants to be the beast but they don’t want to do what the beast do.

“So everybody’s got to make a sacrifice. You want to be the lion? Everybody got to do something. Everybody wants to be No. 1. If I asked that whole student section, do you want to be No. 1? Nobody would hold their hand up and say I want to be No. 4. They would all say No. 1. But are they willing to do everything to be No. 1? That’s another question. You can ask them that. I don’t know the answer.”

Alabama’s answer is to create a “Loyalty Program” which offers students advantaged access to the highly prized post-season games.  Go to a game, pick up one hundred points. Stay through the fourth quarter? Two hundred and fifty more points. And how are the ticket czars able to keep track of who is where doing what?  Simple. ‘Bama’s tracking students’ cell phones. The app was developed by FanMaker and is used at forty other colleges in order to reward fans by giving them t shirts and other team gear. They go to a game, they get a reward.  Alabama’s Grand Poobah is not satisfied with attendance; he wants LOYALTY.  

 

The introduction of Big Brother creepiness to Alabama football is not entirely surprising given that some pundits refer to the university as “Sabanistan”; Nick Saban has become he who must be obeyed in a state delighted by his casual arrogance.  Without making the obvious comparison with other monstrous egos demanding loyalty, it is worth remembering that the entire conversation takes place within the walls of a university. President Denny was lucky to hold his office before Bear Bryant became the face and voice of the university; it’s unlikely that Alabama’s current president, Stuart R. Bell, will find his name emblazoned on a stadium’s gate. Lucky and loyal ticket holders do line up in front of a nine foot statue of Nick Saban.

 

Roll Tide!

For Worse

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The latest in ESN’s remarkable documentary series, 30 for 30, “Dennis Rodman: For Better of Worse”, presents a not-unfamiliar profile of an elite athlete looking back at a chaotic life with a mixture of regret and confusion. Rodman’s story is similar in some ways to those told by others who arrived at great celebrity from circumstances that were more than daunting. An absent father, a critical mother, successful older siblings – painful but not uncommon. In many circumstances, we can also anticipate the sorts of difficulties the highly prized athlete would face: adulation, a free pass during school and college years, protection from consequence, betrayal by those who profited from his success.

What sets Rodman’s story apart is his invention of himself at about the midpoint in his career, an artifice of significant oddity, seemingly emerging at the end of Rodman’s glory years with the Detroit Pistons.

As presented in the documentary, until the age of twenty-one, Rodman was noteworthy only for being a nonentity. In this case the word actually means what it is intended to mean; Rodman moved through his small world as though he did not exist. His sisters had successful athletic careers; his mother raised a family and held expectations of her children. He appears an afterthought in photographs, a 5’8 skinny kid who would steal watches from an airport in order to buy friendship. Even his incarceration was pallid; he spent time in an airport lockup. Then, in less than a year, he grew to 6’8 and picked up basketball. With virtually no experience in the sport, he displayed a genius for rebounding, attracting the attention of NAIA Southeast Oklahoma where he became an All American drafted with the 27th pick by the Detroit Pistons.

During those years, Rodman befriended Byrne Rich, a twelve year old boy who had killed a friend in a shooting accident. The traumatized boy was sent to basketball camp in the hope that he might begin to recover in the company of boys his own age. Instead, he bonded with Rodman, a gigantic man-child, as tentative and damaged as he was. Rodman moved in with the Oklahoma family, and was treated with great kindness, sleeping in the same room as his friend. Pat Rich cooked his favorite meals, did his laundry, and held him to the standards of behavior she set for her two sons. Rodman was absorbed into the Rich family. The elements of this part of the story are complicated. Rodman is a huge black man living with a white family in southeastern Oklahoma, sharing a room with a twelve-year-old boy. Complicated enough, but with what will become a persistent theme, Rodman travels into the next chapter without attachment to or memory of his time with the Riches. He expresses gratitude to the Riches in his ghost-written autobiography, Bad As I Want To Be, but has had no contact with or concern for them in the decades that followed.

Rodman still had a conspicuous shift in personality ahead, but an immediate point of comparison at this point is with Wilt Chamberlain, an equally gigantic African American who spent several summers as a bellboy at Kutsher’s Country Club, a Jewish resort in the Catskills. An earlier 30 for 30, “Wilt Chamberlain: Borscht Belt Bellhop” includes remarkable footage of high school junior Chamberlain toting suitcases in his bellhops uniform. His presence in the Catskills is enough to fuel a documentarian’s imagination but the more compelling part of the story has to do with the friendship formed between Chamberlain and Milton and Helen Kutsher

“We thought of Wilt as an extended member of our family,” Helen Kutsher tells Cherry in the book. “I used to kid him, ‘You’re like my fourth child. He always stayed in touch, and we’d talk during the year. He never really left us.”

Chamberlain and the Kutshers sustained this unlikely friendship throughout their lives. Rodman walked away from the Rushes and never looked back.

The athlete who left Southeastern Oklahoma is described as an innocent. In Detroit he enjoys arcade games, frolics with his new teammates, appears stunningly immature; he bonds with Chuck Daley, Piston coach and surrogate father, and weeps with embarrassment when praised as Defensive Player of the Year.

Childlike. An untutored rebounding savant.

In later years, as drugs, alcohol, non-stop hedonistic excesses take their toll, Rodman seems frantic, exhausted, `and oddly vulnerable. He’s credited with bringing flamboyance to the NBA, and his costumes, piercings, tattoos, and hair styles were certainly outside the conventions of professional basketball in his era, but, the trappings are merely trappings. Rodman isn’t there; he’s in disguise. He takes space and makes noise, but he remains determinedly absent from his own life.

There are a few moments of tentative authenticity when the contemporary Rodman is interviewed, some tears, expression of some regrets, particularly in recognizing his absence from his children’s lives, in which the sixty-eight year old alcoholic and addict appears to approach something like a sense of self, but those moments are fleeting. It’s not that Rodman is hiding; in the end we understand that there is no Dennis Rodman behind the curtain.

And Now For Some Good News … Milwaukee

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When people ask me if Marquette University is in Michigan, and I tell them my alma mater is in Milwaukee, they sometimes say, “What’s the difference?” – Steve Rushin

Steve Rushin is among my favorite sports writers because he takes such joy in the play of words, as evidenced in his timeless jest – “Happy 110th Birthday to Frank Zamboni who left us in 1988 but who still resurfaces periodically.” Understated and smart. His offhanded defense of Milwaukee strikes just the right tone as well; he leaves room for the reader to be amused but feels no need to hammer home the obvious observation that one of the partners in that conversation is an idiot, and it’s not Steve Rushin.

To be fair, Milwaukee is generally underappreciated. Yes, the mind leaps to the obvious points of celebrity, Beer, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, the oldest bowling alley in America, the Harley-Davidson Museum, the world’s largest dinosaur skull, the massive collection of microphones including that used by Hitler in the Eagle’s Nest, and, of course, the statue of Arthur Fonzarelli (The Bronze Fonz), but to the uninitiated, Milwaukee resides in popular estimation as a very small market sports town. Think Milwaukee, think Sacramento, Toledo, Stockton, Boise, Reno. Even Clevelanders presume themselves a more populous sports base, that’s from two major sport Cleveland, actually roughly two hundred thousand people short of Milwaukee’s population.

Why this paean to Milwaukee? Why now?

Well, we could start by noting that at the present rate, Christian Yelich, the reigning NL MVP, is on pace to hit 162 home runs. That’s a hypothetical prediction, of course, but in the here-and-now, the Brewers have a roster that should give NL pitchers bona fide Wisco fits. For the last two seasons, three Brewers have hit more than thirty home runs; in 2019, it’s entirely possible that six Brewers (Yelich, Shaw, Aguilar, Braun, Moustakis, and Grandal) could become thirty plus roundtrippers. Pitching looks solid, fielding excellent ( Lorenzo Cain’s game winning grab at the wall on Opening Day! ), and spirit is sky high.

And then… The Milwaukee Bucks are almost certainly the Number One seed in the Eastern Division NBA playoffs, likely facing the Magic, Nets, or Heat in the first round, then dealing with whatever carnage the Raptors, Celtics, 76ers, and Pacers wreak upon each other. Just as MVP Yelich sets out to repeat as MVP, the Bucks mega-star, GIannis Anteokounmpo is the only player other than the prolific scoring James Harden contending for the NBA’s MVP award, which, if God is in his heaven, he should win. It’s fun to watch Harden score; it is inspiring to watch Giannis control every game in which he plays.

I was not fortunate enough to have been raised in Milwaukee or as a Brewer or Bucks fan. Neither team existed as I came up; the Braves arrived in Milwaukee when I was seven and shoved off for Atlanta by the time I had become a rabid Yankee fan terrified of Spahn, Burdette, Matthews and Aaron, terror made real in 1957 as the Braves beat the Yankees in the World Series, Spahn tossing a 5-0 shutout in the seventh game. It’s taken some time for me to catch up with Milwaukee’s teams as a fan in late-adulthood (senescence), but I’ve come to admire and respect the franchises for a host of reasons.

Another of Wisconsin’s finest products, J.J. Watt, put it simply in describing himself, a description that I extend to Brewer and Bucks fans as a group: “I’m a Wisconsin kid, so I like brats and burgers and stuff like that. Cheese curds.” With that confession in mind, I encourage all fans of baseball to make a pilgrimage to Maryvale, a small community within the Phoenix, Arizona city limits, to a ballpark that seats about seven thousand, next to playing fields operated by the city, the high school,and the Brewers training facility. Ticket prices vary; most games run from eight dollars to twenty-five, but when the Brewers play the Dodgers or the Cubs, prices leap to twelve to thirty-eight dollars a seat, and there is not a bad seat in the house.

Spring Training has become big business in the Cactus League as the number of teams has grown and as almost all of the stadiums have been modernized. The amenities at all are now impressive, and the menus distinctive. The Rangers and Royals serve Cheese Steaks and Barbecue, the Dodgers no Dodger Dogs but a sorry replacement, the Chicago Dog. The Mariners and Padres live large with Salmon Caesar Salad and Baja Fish Tacos, while the Indians trot out six varieties of hot dog – the Jumbo, the Chicago Dog, the Arizona Dog, the Cleveland Dog, the New York Dog, and the ever-popular Cincinnati Dog.

Brats and Beer. Throw in some Cheese curds. Wisco cuisine at its finest. Maryvale does Brats, Klements Bratwursts. One of my favorite rites of spring is the annual photo of the three Racing Sausages (The Polish Sausage The Hot Dog, and Brat Johnsonville) with suitcases in hand, ready to board the team plane for Phoenix. They race at every home game, before the sixth inning, bringing the crown to its feet every time.

My son and I like to sit behind home plate in Maryvale ($14.00 for a Mariner game) nestled in among Brewer fans and scouts with stopwatches and World Series rings. The scouts talk among themselves, but Brewer fans manage to keep track of the game while catching up with far-flung friends and family, creating mini-Milwaukee for folks flying in from LA and Denver. You can take the Badger out of Wisconsin, but … you know. Yes, beer is spilled and brats occasionally roll to the front of the stands, but these Brewer fans are the warmest, kindest, most welcoming groups of people we’ve ever encountered. They’re happy to chat at length, probably the only fans we’ll encounter who wear a Seattle Pilots’ Saint Patrick’s Day ball cap, devoted to Milwaukee but true to the team’s origin.

By the end of the third inning, we’re up to date on the entire lineup and the hardcore Brewer fans turn to prospects ripping up the Carolina League with the Mudcats, or the Midwest League with the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers, playing now in Grand Chute. The Rattlers are no joke; a partial list of alumni includes David Ortiz, Boog Powell, Dean Chance, Alex Rodriguez, and Goose Gossage. Keep an eye on Keston Hiura, a second baseman with an OPS of .875.

An afternoon in Maryvale reminds me of why baseball calls me back year after year. I love the clean symmetry of the field and the remarkable athleticism of the players, but it’s the buzz in the stands, the spontaneous catching of breath as a ball almost clears the center field wall, the happy hum of families taking on those brats that allows me, a fugitive from all other parts of the country, to feel at home in the midst of Brewer Nation.

LeBron and the Lakers , Antonio Brown and the Steelers, Bryce Harper and Nats fans – too much sturm und drang. I’ll take the Bucks and Brewers, thanks, and remember why I love sports.

 

Let’s Get Past This GOAT Stuff, Shall We?

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I don’t know when the acronymical shortcuts took over ordinary and perfectly serviceable terms, such as President of the United States (POTUS) or Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS). We got along just fine with President and Supreme Court, assuming that when we used the term President, we meant President of the United States as opposed to President of Guinea-Bissau and our own Supreme Court, not that of Andorra. I’m ok with IKEA rather than Ingvar Kamprad Elmtaryd Agunnaryd (Founder’s name and hometown), but these Greatest Of All Time (GOAT) controversies are inane, seriously.

It’s in the air now because the football season has ended, spring training has not begun, the NBA still has a number of pointless games to play before the playoffs begin, March Madness won’t arrive until March, and golfers are playing in the Midas Muffler Four Ball Scramble in Burkina Faso. The twelve all-sports-all-the-time channels are still pumping out hour after hour of fast-breaking sports nonsense, primarily about trades that might happen, haven’t happened, shouldn’t happen.

The air is thick with sports blather. Even the sportscasters themselves have difficulty in summoning the will to debate the pros and cons of signing Carmelo Anthony to a $124,000,000.00 contract. I’m sorry. What are the pros?

So, out come the “Greatest of All Time” banners, now floating above Tom Brady, but only a month ago whipping from the LeBron camp to the Jordan camp. Is he? Are they? Pats greatest football dynasty of all time? Sabin the greatest college coach of all time? Tiger? Jack?

I’m as enthusiastic in promoting my heroes as the next guy, and evidence of greatness is all about us, but let’s not get reductive. With every assertion (LeBron! Michael!) universes of magical moments in sport are obliterated. Sticking with the basketball argument for the moment, what happens to the Cousey behind the back pass, Jerry West’s jump shot, Kareem’s twenty seasons, Bill Russell’s defense, Magic, Larry, Elgin, Wilt, Oscar, Hakeem, Kobe? What about Steph? What about KD?

Back when he was a reliever for the Rockies, Adam Ottavino was unyielding in his assertion that he’d strike out Babe Ruth every time the Bambino stepped to the plate. Probably snuff out Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker, and Eddie Collins too, according to those who think hitters back in the day did not have to face the fireballs hurlers are tossing on a daily basis. In 1917, however, a lab in Connecticut measured Walter (Big Train) Johnson’s fastball at 134 feet per second, roughly 92 miles per hour. Smokey Joe Wood was a little faster. Bob Feller hit something close to 104 mph, and Nolan Ryan’s best (108 mph) beats Aroldis Chapman’s 105 mph, fastest of the modern era.

The point is obvious: Take it easy in making comparisons across the decades.

Stats don’t tell the whole story, no matter how elegantly the sabermetrics are trotted out, but it’s worth taking a moment to look at the top ten in baseball and basketball in terms of wins above replacement (WAR), the stat that is generally believed to have the best chance of describing a player’s value to a team. The baseball list has a few surprises; Babe Ruth, Cy Young, Walter Johnson, Barry Bonds, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron, Roger Clemens, Tris Speaker, Honus Wagner. Ruth’s WAR is 182.5; last season’s best, Mookie Betts, rang up 86.8, Mike Trout 79. I don’t know Adam Ottavino’s WAR … oh, wait. Here it is: 2.6 last year, 8.6 career.

In the NBA the stories are perhaps more complicated as the list of the top ten includes LeBron and Michael at the top (James 128.01/ Jordan 104.43) followed by Karl Malone, Kevin Garnett, and Charles Barkley. The next five include Tim Duncan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, David Robinson, Larry Bird, and Jason Kidd. Steph Curry is 33rd. Kawhi Leonard ranks 110th.

And none of this matters if you saw Ichiro beat out an infield single, Rod Carew lay down a bunt, Jackie Robinson steal home, Brooks Robinson spear a line drive down the third base line, Omar Vizquel or Ozzie Smith scoop up a hard hit ground ball, Sandy Koufax or Nolan Ryan or Pedro Martinez or Mariano Rivera, or Greg Maddux or Bob Gibson or Whitey Ford or…

None of this matters if you saw Barry Sanders break a tackle and fly, if you saw Walter Payton, Eric Dickerson, Gayle Sayers, Bo Jackson, Jim Brown, Tony Dorsett hit the line, stutter step, blaze through, then accelerate. Which highlights do you want to watch? Joe Montana? Jerry Rice? Lawrence Taylor? Reggie White? Dick Butkus? Johnny Unitas? Red Grange? Slingin’ Sammy Baugh?

I like the other sorts of stories, the “we didn’t see this guy coming” stories, the most recent of which is Super Bowl MVP Julian Edelman drafted 232nd as a quarterback from Kent State. I like the authentically good person stories, like those of Roberto Clemente and J.J.Watt, super-stars who changed the lives of those they helped. I like the improbable but true overcoming of obstacles, like Peyton Manning winning a Super Bowl with what was pretty much a bolt-on neck, Willis Reed lifting the Knicks from the bench in the 1970 final games, Kerri Strug sticking a perfect landing on an injured ankle, one-handed Jim Abbott throwing a no hit game against the Indians, the Cal Bears running a last play, weaving through the Stanford band, already celebrating on the field.

The greatest of all time?

Army-Navy. Willie Mays’ Catch. Sabrina for a decade. Federer for a decade. Messi. Ken Griffey, Jr. if he hadn’t been injured. Ted Williams if he hadn’t served in two wars. Mo’ne Davis shutout in the 2014 Little League World Series. A Championship for Cleveland. The San Diego Chicken.

On the other hand, if you think I’m in max-grouch mode about the GOAT discussion, check this site when Mel Kiper starts to pontificate on the Jaguar’s sixth round draft strategy.

Playing With Pain

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I was living fairly close to Los Angeles in 2008 when a friend from Jacksonville tipped me to the imminent arrival of Clayton Kershaw, the Dodgers’ hot prospect who had been mowing through batters  for the Double A Jacksonville Suns.  As a determined “I’ll believe it when I see it” student of the game, I expected the usual fanfare and flourish followed by this Kershaw fellow’s settling in to a respectable career in Dodger blue.

And then … he turned out to be Clayton Kershaw, the most dominant pitcher in the league and among the most highly esteemed pitchers in the last 25 years.

Kershaw’s been placed on the DL this week, the back strain again, after throwing in the mid 80’s recently.  I wish him every success in his recovery, but it’s unlikely that he will regain the pop in his fast ball.  He has a wicked curve, and with time he might be able to become the Greg Maddux of his generation, an artist, a tactician, but he’ll be a different Clayton Kershaw.

All of which got me thinking about the small number of truly exceptional athletes for whom the second half of their career, the post-injury portion of their career, was superb although less sparkling than it might have been had they remained healthy.  Tiger’s flame-out was spectacular, and his recovery has yet to establish him as a golfer to be feared in every tournament.  It could happen, but he’s clearly not the Tiger of legend … yet.  Peyton Manning survived having his neck bolted together, became a FrankenBronco and took his team to the Super Bowl, but was never really a dominant quarterback again. 

And yet, Buster Posey.  Adrian Peterson. Paul George. Giancarlo Stanton.  Mario Lemieux, Drew Brees, Sue Bird, Lindsey Vonn, all came back to a successful career.

I’m interested in the “what if” conversation about athletes who did recover well, who continued to make the All Star roster, who won championships, who perhaps found an easy path to induction in a Hall of Fame, but whose skills were then merely mortal, and my reflections begin, as might be expected, with Mickey Mantle.

First round Hall of Fame, 12 trips to the World Series, 7 championships, three-time MVP, Triple Crown, third all-time in home runs when he retired (536) … pretty good resume, particularly given what might have been a career-ending injury in the 1951 World Series, at the end of Mantle’s rookie year.  The account of the injury is, literally, the stuff of legend.

Mantle had an impressive rookie year; he was an accomplished fielder, probably the fastest base runner in the game, and hitter with pop who was expected to take over Joe DiMaggio’s role as the Yankee Clipper limped into retirement, an eventuality DiMaggio met with crusty resignation.  Crusty may be an understatement as Dimaggio literally did not speak to Mantle until the second game of the World Series.  Manager Casey Stengel had told Mantle that Dimaggio was fading fast and instructed him to go for every ball hit to right centerfield.  Willie Mays lofted a fly ball, Mantle raced to get it, and there was no doubt he would be in place.  He heard DiMaggio call out that he had the ball and not wanting to run into him, Mantle tried to stop, slammed his foot into an uncovered drain and went down hard.  From the moment he hit the ground it was clear he would not be getting up.  Writhing in agony as his twisted knee was folded at an impossible angle,  Mantle moaned as DiMaggio approached and spoke to him for the first time that season.

“They’re coming with the stretcher, kid.”

Mantle played in pain and at half speed for the next seventeen years, was the face of that Yankee dynasty, and remains one of the iconic ballplayers of his era.  I’m a hopeless Mantle fan, stuck somewhere in the 154 game, 16 ball club version of baseball, and for me, the stats simply do not tell the story.

Athletes play with and through pain; highly conditioned competitors will be injured, most many times over the course of a career.  Some, like Mantle, Tony Romo, Grant Hill play with pain, and some like  Bo Jackson, perhaps the most impressive multi-sport athlete of the modern age, take performance with pain to a new level, popping his own dislocated hip back in its socket, causing necrosis of the hip-joint.  That ended his football career, but he signed with the White Sox after being cut by the Royals until his body finally gave out.

So, Clayton Kershaw the most dominant pitcher of his era, toting his tendon damaged arm, shuffling to the mound with a strained lower back, has a $93,000,000 contract through 2021 with the LA Dodgers.  It’s gonna hurt, but the hope is that we’ll see a craftier, nastier Kershaw not as fast, but worth every penny to a Dodger team aching to climb back to the top of the heap.