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Op-Ed

Photograph by Ralph Krawczyk Jr.

Prodigies, Peons, and Purple People Eaters

The wide world of sports is full of fallen angels and exhausted stories. A season of discontent condensed into five brief acts, with prayers for a glorious summer.

Someone needs to give quarterback Brett Favre a short lesson on Napoleonic comebacks: In 1815, Bonaparte escaped from his enforced retirement on the isle of Elba and marched to Paris. Politicians across Europe literally proclaimed, “The devil is unchained,” and the “Hundred Days” between Napoleon’s escape and his final defeat at Waterloo were filled with conspiracy, intrigue, assassination, and the guns of battle. Like any great comeback, Bonaparte’s had its tough-and-go moments, with a high point coming at the garrison town of Grenoble, where French soldiers ordered to capture the tyrant instead responded by offering their bayonets to the once-and-future king, crying, “Vive l’Empereur!” Later in life when he was again exiled to the dismal island St. Helena, Napoleon wrote, “Before Grenoble I was an adventurer; at Grenoble I was a reigning prince.”

Favre, a no-doubt Hall of Famer who’s achieved everything a player can in football, is now returning from his second “retirement” and football fans are screaming that the fiend has been unleashed. Two years ago, Favre left the Green Bay Packers under duress and said he was done with football. Then, admitting his return was a vengeance trip against the Packers, he signed with the Jets to a New York cacophony of hoopla and blowzy accolades. Old, injured, and feuding with the Jets’ head coach, the Big Apple comeback ended in tears, as Favre threw interception after interception and a decent Jets team didn’t make the playoffs. Released by the Jets following the NFL draft last month, Favre once again said he was retired and nearly every football fan in the world breathed a sigh of relief, glad the melodrama was over. Not so. Now Favre is playing footsie with the Minnesota Vikings, an archrival of the Green Bay Packers, and there’s little doubt he’ll at least be given an opportunity to quarterback the “Purple People Eaters” in Minneapolis. The story is everywhere, with Favre assigned his own separate topic on ESPN’s news scroll. Among pundits and columnists, this comeback is not met with fanfare. Michael Wilbon of “Pardon the Interruption” summed up the sporting media’s disgust when he called Favre, “ the joke story of the decade.”

Unlike Napoleon, Favre has no retinue of marshals waiting to pay homage, no lancers of the Old Guard wishing for a last campaign under the tricolor, no aged revolutionaries croaking the “Marseillaise” on the road to glory or the grave. Favre will soon be 40 years old and he’s admitted that his injured shoulder, the same throwing shoulder that killed the Jets’ season, needs an operation that he refuses to undergo. No one, except maybe the Minnesota Vikings, wants Favre back. He’s an adventurer without an adventure, and that’s why his name is the most tired name in sports.

 

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An equally exhausted story is that of Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod, currently rehabbing a hip injury, has become the sordid speculation of the sports world. Already having been forced to admit to steroid use—which he previously denied—A-Rod is now being declared nearly carcinogenic after publication of Selena Roberts’ tattletale biography A-Rod: The Many Lives of Alex Rodriguez. The book—which has not nor ever will be read by this Yankees’ fan, because life is nasty and brutish enough without spending a weekend in bed with Alex Rodriguez—is apparently filled with all kinds of smutty allegations, from A-Rod using steroids as far back as high school, to offering opponents pitching signs with the belief he’ll be given the same opportunity to pad his stats, to some kind of toothpaste abuse of Yankees’ clubhouse personnel (Rodriguez allegedly ordered a clubhouse attendant to have toothpaste ready on the brush the moment the games ended.) The book is a sensation from the tabloids to the MLB Network, where Roberts gave an hour-long interview with Bob Costas, and at every turn Rodriguez comes off as some kind of Tiberius, tyrannical and decadent yet ineffective at the same time.

Bonds achieved an epic level; he was unstoppable, becoming too Bibical for his own off-field bullshit.Villainy is nothing new to baseball. Heywood Broun, writing of fans’ loathing for and obsession with the antics of Ty Cobb, concluded, “Humanity is asinine.” And not so distantly Barry Bonds led an inelegant career filled with steroid abuse, controversy, and furious dislike by teammates, fans, and media alike. Bonds, like A-Rod, was saddled with the reputation—one that he earned—for choking in big spots early in his career. There’s a big difference between Bonds and A-Rod, however. In the 2002 World Series against the Anaheim Angels, Bonds took power hitting to a new level, coming within an ace of winning the title as he clubbed 4 home runs while batting .471 with 13 additional walks. Although everyone knew, or at least strongly suspected, that Bonds was already juiced out of his mind, his power touched upon magnificence. Baseball is a sport with stops, pauses, and slight yet irretrievable failures: hitters unable to quite square up a fastball down the middle, pitchers just a hair off the outside corner, infielders having groundballs graze the edge of their mitts. But in the 2002 classic, Bonds achieved an epic level; he was unstoppable, becoming too Bibical for his own off-field bullshit. And as foul as the comments were about Bonds, that foulness had the genuine feel. Former teammate Andy Van Slyke quipped in Sports Illustrated, “[Bonds’] problem is, maybe the way people perceive him is the way he actually is.” But that problem was also Bonds’ greatest strength. Bonds’ ego, his disdain for the media, his playing the race card, the haughty appeals to the Lord on High—these were all Barry, all the time.

A-Rod, on the other hand, is plastic. His ploys to come across as an All-American hero are pathetically obvious, and patently untrue. What A-Rod doesn’t realize is that for all of his poker games, extramarital affairs, Vanity Fair photo shoots, and even steroid use, what the public finds so repulsive is that nothing about him is genuine. Everything A-Rod says sounds like corporate double-speak, as though he’s continuously plugged into the verbiage of his own sponsorship contracts. Cobb, for all of his violence and racism, was unabashedly Cobb, and so too was Bonds. If, just once, Rodriguez gave the finger to booing fans like ex-Yankees’ pitcher Jack McDowell did, he might become slightly human. But A-Rod never brings himself to that moment of honest release, and he’s a lesser creature for it. Broun was correct: The conflict between obsession and vilification plays both ends against an absurd middle, where the public throws good money after bad people. In this case, the fans are only half at fault. It’s A-Rod who is asinine.

 

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As much as I’d enjoy seeing Favre and A-Rod nullified from headlines, the wildest act of negation recently came after Chelsea was eliminated from the UEFA Champion’s League semifinal by Barcelona. Played in London at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge stadium, the match was tight. The two clubs had already played to a 0-0 draw in Barcelona, and because of the rule that if two clubs finish with the same number of goals, the team with more goals scored on the road wins, Chelsea was at a distinct disadvantage despite playing on home grounds: It had to win the match outright to gain the finals, otherwise Barcelona, on the strength of the road goals rule, would be through. Although Barca’s all-world striker Thierry Henry was out with a knee injury, Barcelona had more than enough scoring power; on the other hand, the Spanish club’s defense was riddled with injuries and suspensions, and the weakness quickly showed as Chelsea, counter-attacking strongly behind their own all-world scorer Didier Drogba, created more and better scoring chances. Barcelona had the fancy ball skills and cutesy passes, but the team seemed edgy and desperate, their attacks ending with wild shots into the stands. Chelsea scored early, after a wicked if somewhat lucky volley by midfielder Mikel Essien Using its size and strength, and staying composed despite the barrage of nasty elbows from Barcelona, Chelsea was the better, classier club and looked to be on its way to a rematch of last year’s thrilling final versus Manchester United. The Chelsea fans were singing and God very much seemed in his Heaven at Stamford Bridge, where Good King Harold had once defended Briton virtue from an invading horde of Continental barbarians.

If Drogba enacted the scoundrel Iago, it was refreshing to see someone refuse to accept a screwing quietly.But then Norwegian referee Tom Ovrebo made his impact by committing error after error in Barcelona’s favor. Hard fouls in the goal box by Barcelona defenders, one stunningly blatant handball, and another kinda-sorta-maybe handball in the final seconds were all allowed to pass without a whistle. Drogba was mugged so hard and so often he had to leave the match with an injured leg. Any of the fouls and handballs would have resulted in a penalty kick for Chelsea, which almost certainly would have sealed the victory. Ovrebo did give an incredibly harsh red card to a Barcelona midfielder, which gave Chelsea a one-man advantage for much of the second half, but any Chelsea player or fan would have chosen a penalty kick over the advantage without a moment’s thought. In short, Ovrebo was inept, and after Barcelona scored their lone, decisive goal in extra time, the Chelsea players went nuts, surrounding the referee after the final whistle as they screamed their frustration. But the most astounding moment came when Drogba, wearing flip-flops, emerged from the locker room and instigated a near brawl with the ref. Pointing at the Norwegian’s face repeatedly, Drogba made it clear where he blamed the loss. The Chelsea strike followed Ovrebo all the way off the pitch, until suddenly gesturing towards the camera and then pointing at both of his eyes and back at the camera again: “You all saw it, you all saw.” Then he began slashing his arms back and forth, the universal sign of negativity.

The British press hasn’t been in love with Drogba’s outlandish meltdown. Though it universally believing that Chelsea was hosed (with potential conspiracy theories being unraveled and/or dispelled,) it agrees that Drogba’s behavior was childish, over-the-top, unbecoming of the dignity of the sport, etc etc. To my mind, however, Drogba’s infantile fury was the only proper reaction. If Drogba enacted the scoundrel Iago, it was because fate in the form of a Norwegian referee (who later had to be secreted out of England for fears of mob retaliation) hadn’t allotted him the magnanimous portion of the Moor. It was refreshing to see someone refuse to accept a screwing quietly.

Whether related to election results, bank bailouts, or the smoking ruins of a Middle Eastern marketplace, who among us hasn’t wanted to point to our eyes and then nullify everything that just occurred—the result, the arbiter, the playing grounds, perhaps even his or her own wounded role in the fiasco. There’s nothing funny about peace, love and understanding, nor is there anything wrong with a victim saying “No! You saw what happened here, and I say ‘No!’“ In the American vernacular, this soccer fan wanted to point back towards Drogba and say, “Fucking-A. I did see it, Didier, and no fucking way.”

 

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Sadly, a less vehement outburst recently happened in the NBA, during the already-timeless playoff series between defending champ Boston and underdog Chicago. Not an NBA fan, and even less a rooter for the Celtics, I still got caught up in the seven-game death match, a series which included two overtime games, a double overtime match, and the triple overtime penultimate that defied imagination. But maybe the keynote play, during the double-OT Game Five, came when Celtic point guard Rajon Rondo committed a grotesque foul on Bulls’ center Brad Miller in the waning seconds. Forced to foul to keep Boston’s lead intact, Rondo damn near tore Miller’s mouth open with a vicious fishhook. Miller, who got stitches to the inside of his gums on the sidelines, went to the stripe with eyes watering and a sickly pallor to his face. Not shockingly, the usually excellent free-throw shooter missed his shots and the Celtics went on to win the game and the series. Whether Rondo’s foul should have ruled a “flagrant” or not has been endlessly debated, with the general consensus being, “Of course it was flagrant but that call will never be made in Boston.” Bull’s rookie coach Vinnie Del Negro (remembered fondly for his playing days at North Carolina State) argued as much as he could, but the Bulls knew they weren’t going to get the call, and to some extent they accepted the shafting without a Drogba display in sight.

One aspect that’s gone overlooked is that the play was entirely in the Celtics’ tradition. The Celtics were always well-schooled in cheap shots—Larry Bird, Dennis Johnson, and the sharp elbows of ‘Chief” Parish and Kevin McHale come to mind—knowing that so long as the violence was committed within the flow of play, the refs would never make a crucial call against them. That was the key to Rondo’s disfiguring of Miller’s face: he did it within the context of the action, and expectation. At first glance nothing seemed outlandish about Rondo’s swipe, except the reality of the bloodied Miller, and for such Rondo has earned himself a legendary place in the Celtics’ “Hardass Hall of Fame.” Perhaps a lesson to all of us: when one wants to commit a flagrant sin, do it within the flow of your everyday activities, and sure as hell do it on home turf. You’ll avoid the call every time.

 

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A happier sports story than Rondo’s Boston massacre has been that of Kansas City Royals’ pitcher, Zack Greinke. Once a promising phenom, Greinke’s career was shattered by anxieties, and for a period the young man had left baseball and so adrift that he asked KC’s management if he could return to the team as an outfielder. The Royals wisely declined, and after a solid year, Greinke is currently rewriting the record books with his start to the 2009 season. To this point his record is 7-1, with a flat-out abnormal earned run average of 0.60. In seven starts thus far, he’s given up a total of five runs, only four of those earned. A Sports Illustrated cover recently asked whether he was the best pitcher in baseball, and though others, such as the Mets’ Johan Santana and Toronto’s Roy Halladay have done it longer, right now the answer to SI’s question is likely “Yep.”

Spring is underway, and windows are kept open at night while we ponder the blossoms that come and go.Like every baseball fan, I’ve been amazed by Greinke, remembering his past problems on the mound. Even before what seems to have been a nervous breakdown, Greinke was the kind of twitchy pitcher who’d do well for five or six innings, then go to pieces after a small error or a missed strike. Opposing teams knew that once you got to him, you got to him all the way. Now he’s the exact opposite and almost frightening for his lack of emotion on the mound. His throwing motion has always been a thing of beauty, all strength and upright fluidity, but matched with his current robotic demeanor he appears like a baseball Terminator: ceaseless, remorseless, the perfect pitching machine. He’s been so good I began to worry for his mental health again. What would happen if the springs wound too tightly, would he fly apart and disappoint baseball hearts everywhere? From the clips I’ve seen, the most human aspect of Greinke’s expression is the taunt stress sometimes seen on great pitchers—eyes sunken and cheeks sheered like the wind-hewn features of fighter aces from World War I, men in a state of sublimated terror whose daily performance required miracles of mental and physical courage. David Cone had that rictus look in abundance and so too does Greinke, and I cross my fingers every time he’s shown on TV, wanting his high-wire performance to continue without ever coming to ground. He deserves it, as do the fans of the long-beleaguered Royals.

Then one evening I saw something that gave me hope Greinke’s comeback really would last through the summer. After a typically efficient dismantling of the Chicago White Sox, when Greinke pitched a complete game shutout, Chicago manager Ozzie Guillen was so impressed that he jokingly wished that Greinke would marry his daughter; Guillen doesn’t have a daughter.

(These marital hopes may have been a Freudian slip by Guillen, who has made any number of homophobic remarks over the years.)

Guillen’s nonsense aside, the true wonder of Greinke’s win over Chicago came after the game ended when the catcher handed the Greinke the ball. Surrounded by happy temmates, the young man’s facade finally cracked, but in the best way possible. Like a sliver of sunlight through gray skies, Greinke allowed a sly, almost embarrassed smile to crease his face. In that second Greinke willfully allowed himself to enjoy his accomplishment, and that grin—so tight, so well-earned, such a small good thing—offered belief not just in Greinke, but for fans everywhere. Battles won or lost, victories granted or stolen by the whistle’s whim, the Hundred Days have opened and we are able to sit back, relax, and appreciate whatever saviors or dastards that emerge from the fray. Spring is underway, and windows are kept open at night while we ponder the blossoms that come and go, summery adventures on the horizon, and the ever-changing standings in the paper. Like Greinke’s princely grin, enjoyment is allowed.

biopic

Tobias Seamon recently published the novella The Fair Grounds. More can be found here. More by Tobias Seamon