Friday, June 15, 2007


While I'm talking about my perspective on sports collectibles, I think it's appropriate to talk about my perspective on sports and athletes - that certainly influences my views on what I collect as well.

In 1991 I was in the military, stationed in Texas. Desert Storm had just finished, but we still had thousands of troops in the Middle East, including a friend of mine who was guarding Iraqi prisoners. He was a devoted Yankees fan who thought the sun rose and set on Don Mattingly. At that time I was also doing a lot of freelance writing for sports hobby magazines, and I was lucky enough to score an interview with Mattingly.

I met Mattingly in the locker room before the game and did the interview. At the end I asked him, "I've got a friend of mine who is serving in Iraq right now - would you sign a ball and say hi to him on tape?" Mattingly was thrilled to help. He signed the ball and recorded a message, something to the effect of, "This is Don Mattingly. Thank you so much for doing what you're doing for us. We all appreciate you and love you and I hope you get home safely."

I gave the ball and tape to his wife, who gave it to him later that year. This big, tough security policeman, this warrior who just returned home a war-hardened soldier, heard the tape and cried. It meant so much to him that he had received this message from his hero. What an amazing gift for a soldier who had given so much for his country.

THAT is a hero. That's an athlete who understood what an incredibly powerful role he assumed when he accepted all the wealth, fame and trappings a star athlete enjoys. Mattingly spent 15 seconds, thought about someone else and used his fame in a way that served others. He was someone worthy of being looked up to. He was a hero.

Athletes have been our heros, our champions, for centuries. We find commemorations of early Olympians' exploits in the relics from ancient Greece. A thousand years ago Mayan athletes represented their cities in epic games of Pok-A-Tok, or The Ball Game, where the losing team's leader was put to death as an offering to atone for their community's loss of face. (Something I've considered reinstating for the Texas Rangers, incidentally.) During the middle ages, knights battled to the death in jousting and sword competitions to represent their kingdoms and the winning knights were viewed as the kings' champions. More recently and in the United States professional sports started out with locally rostered teams serving as representatives of their home towns all around the country in the late 1800s.

The legacy of the athlete and the hero has continued on since. Have we not all seen the photos of Babe Ruth with children all around, relished in the story of the Babe promising a home run to a sick child to encourage him back to health, heard the tragic legend of the boy who summarized the terrible hurt of the Black Sox scandal when he pleaded to Shoeless Joe Jackson, "Say it ain't so, Joe"?

At their best, athletes inspire our children and the best child-like qualities within all of us. I remember reading the biography of Johnny Bench where he talked about his childhood and how he used to imitate his hero (and fellow Oklahoman) Mickey Mantle, as he practiced and developed his playing skills. Military guys like Roger Staubach, David Robinson, even Chad Hennings, who embodied patriotism as well as athleticism. And my god, Pat Tillman . . . can anyone dispute his deserved status as a hero?

There are so many more. How many famous athletes looked up to the heroism of people like Jackie Robinson and literally changed the face of Baseball because of his courage? Willie Mays, Joe Morgan, Hank Aaron all have pointed to Robinson as a role model for them. The same could be said for Roberto Clemente as well, someone who is seen as being almost god-like to Latin American ballplayers that followed him.

George Will, the famous columnist, author and political thinker, once said that professional sport is unique in that it is the only thing to which people can devote total commitment without consequence. I have to disagree with him on this. There are dramatic consequences to sustaining a passion about sports, good and bad results depending primarily on how the athletes respect their game, their fans and themselves.

If you think about all the positive consequences I've described in the examples above, you'll find that they can typically be boiled down to one word: Hope. A young boy in Binger, Oklahoma watches Mickey Mantle dominate Baseball and says, "maybe I can do it too" - and becomes Johnny Bench. Jackie Robinson didn't simply open the door to blacks in the major leagues; he showed that it could be done. He gave hope. Every game we watch is hope because until the last pitch is thrown or the last second ticks off the clock, there is a chance at redemption, recovery and victory. Think of the greatest moments in sports - Kirk Gibson hitting that home run off Dennis Eckersley, "the catch," "the shot heard round the world," etc. They are snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, they are proof that we can overcome adversity and prevail. They are hope.

This whole concept is what made "Field of Dreams" such a great film. This isn't just a baseball movie. It is about baseball as much as "Wizard of Oz" is about red shoes or tornadoes. "Field of Dreams" is about redemption and heroes and belief and faith. It's about hope.

"OK" you may be asking. "What about all the people who don't succeed when they've been inspired? What good are heroes to them?" Fair question. For every player who is inspired to greatness, there are 5,000 who are inspired but don't achieve greatness; you can look at those 5,000, though, and find that every one of those lives have been enriched and improved by the hope they gained from their hero. Dreams don't always take the form we originally envision for them but they do compel us to become better than we were, better than we would have been without them. I submit that every person who devotes their passion to a worthy hero ends up a better person themself for doing it.

Johnny Bench was my hero when I was a child. I never amounted to much as a ball player, believe me. But I did learn from him and I was inspired by him. I cheered his victories and cried in his defeats, and many of my most enduring memories are of the times I watched the games or followed his play. I learned a lot about hard work and discipline, which I applied to music and to writing - and I was successful as an adult in both of those arenas as a result.

When I was a child I lived far from any major league ballpark, and never got to see Johnny Bench play live . . . not until 1983. By that time I was in the military, stationed in New Jersey, and I went to see his last game in Philadelphia in 1983. Rankled by injuries, Bench didn't even start the game. He came in as a pinch hitter in the sixth inning . . . and he hit a home run. I had my own "Kirk Gibson" moment there. Bench didn't know it, but he hit it for me. It was my gift for my devotion to and belief in him for all those years. He was still my hero.

While I'm typically a very pragmatic person I am utterly idealistic when it comes to the subject of heroes, as you can tell by what I've written here. They have tremendous power to affect so many. This is why I like Upper Deck All-Star Vinyls, by the way. I think they capture that whole "larger than life" image that we love in athletes who actually rise to that challenge. And that idealism is why I hold athletes who ARE good role models in such high regard. They receive great rewards but with those rewards come great responsibility; these guys recognize that and respect it.

By the same token, that idealism is why I DESPISE athletes who fail as role models. Barry Bonds, the dirtbag, who is defiling the Giants, Major League Baseball, and most importantly, one of the most hallowed records in the game, is a prime example. Shame on McFarlane for selling Bonds figures. Charles Barkley who doesn't want to be a hero - "I ain't your dad" - but by god he wants you to buy his shoes and his collectibles and all those products he's PAID to endorse. Michael "dog fight" Vick . . . need I say more? Ricky Williams who is more devoted to smoking pot than to the game that gave him everything. Ray "the knife" Lewis, the group of Minnesota Vikings and their hooker boat, half the Cincinnati Bengals' team, Pete Rose and his gambling, and on and on. All of these losers are "anti-heroes" . . . they sap hope from people because they spit on the game rather than elevate it and push people away from the ideals they should be espousing.

This is why I am disgusted by showboats like Terrell Owens as well. Besides his BIG mouth . . . he has to choreograph little dance routines when he scores touchdowns. Someone needs to explain to him, "this game isn't about YOU, Terrell. That's backwards - you should be about the GAME." Every time he dances around in one of his self-indulgent little routines he is putting himself above the game and spitting in the face of his opponents. The moment he ran out to the star in the middle of the Cowboys stadium to mock the Dallas fans was one of the most despicable things I've ever seen in sports. I don't even like the Cowboys and I loved it when he got knocked on his ass later on when he tried it again. His own team mates should have been the ones doing the knocking.

TO is not the only one to engage in this absurd self-gratification, not by a long shot. This problem is so bad now that it seems like we have to break into 15 seconds of Saturday Night Fever after every play; someone has to be dancing around and drawing attention to themselves because they made a tackle, ran for seven yards or blocked a pass. Where is the sportsmanship?

Like I say, I'm idealistic about athletes. I think being a hero is part of the job description; if they can't handle that, they shouldn't do the gig. That legacy goes back 3,000 years and it isn't going to change because some jock feels like snorting coke or betting on games.

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