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Mariano’s Moment

(Photo by the great Bob Leverone)

(Photo by the great Bob Leverone)

Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the New York Yankees have produced the best players in baseball through the decades and the All-Star game sendoff last night for retiring closer, Mariano Rivera, produced one of the single, most iconic moments in the history of the sport.

When the best reliever to ever play the game was brought in to pitch the 8th inning he did not know there was a conspiracy afoot. The players on the American League squad had worked it all out. With the exception of the catcher, they would not take their places in the field until after the standing ovation from the New York crowd. And so the Panamanian-born Rivera stood alone, by himself, on the pitcher’s mound, his eyes welling up with tears. His fellow All-Stars from both leagues lined up in front of their dugouts, applauding.

As he was showered with love and respect from the players and fans and umpires, Rivera, as he has throughout his career, epitomized dignity and grace. And sheer talent. You don’t see too many 43 year-olds playing this game. But this is no ordinary player. He wasn’t selected for the All-Star game for the sentimental value. He got selected because he’s still earning it. He has an ERA under 2.00. He has 30 saves. He is a living legend and we are all fortunate to have seen such a talent sometime in our lives.

I am old enough to have seen Mickey Mantle, but at the time he was just a shadow of what he’d been. It was maybe five years ago when my friend from ABC News, Jeff Fitzgerald, invited me to a Yankee game back when I was living in the Big Apple. I distinctly remember Mariano coming into the game in the 9th for the save and Jeff saying, “You know, that’s the greatest closer of all time.” And everyone has known it for damn near two decades now.

So just for the record:

– 638 saves, already a major league record with about 20 more to go for the season at his current rate.

– A win/loss record of 77-60 and a career earned run average of 2.20.

– 13 All-Star games

– 5 World Series rings

– 1 World Series MVP award

– 1 ALCS MVP award

– 3-time League leader in saves

Not goodbye quite yet, Mr. Rivera, but that was one magic moment last night. Baseball fans from every nook and corner of the world, no matter what team they root for, will always remember him for his skill, that unhittable cut fastball and for being one of the class acts in the history of the game.

Why Bryce Harper is a Hero and Baseball is Just a Game

July 8, 2013 1 comment
(Photo By John McDonnell, Washington Post)

(Photo By John McDonnell, Washington Post)

Baseball players can be jerks. Sometimes they ignore fans or practically snarl at them or walk right by when approached for an autograph or a photo. And talent is not a good indicator one way or the other of what kind of a human being a player is.

Bryce Harper has immense talent that is self-evident. A 20 year-old with the maturity of a 35 year-old in his approach to the game, he has an equal maturity as a just plain-old decent human being.

The picture above taken by Washington Post photographer John McDonnell (who used to work for the Loudoun Times Mirror eons ago) features Bryce shaking hands with Little League player, Gavin Rupp. Gavin has an inoperable tumor in his brain. Prior to his terminal prognosis, he had undergone surgery and other treatments and still kept his starting shortstop position on his youth travel team.

Word of Gavin’s situation reached the Washington Nationals and so it was that last Friday with the San Diego Padres in town, the club invited Gavin, his parents and his siblings to the ballpark. As Gavin’s family watched San Diego take their batting practice swings, Bryce Harper emerged from the dugout. Harper asked if they wanted to go out on the field. And they did. For a full hour, Bryce engaged the young man, took the lead in drawing him out and making him feel welcome and comfortable, gave the kid the cap off his head and treated him with the greatest dignity. Ball players don’t do this sort of thing for sixty minutes. Here’s The Post’s Adam Kilgore with the full story.

And then came July 4th. Bryce Harper lives in a penthouse apartment in my building in Arlington. He’s a rare sight. He drives his white Mercedes with the Bam Bam 34 plates directly into the garage, gets in the elevator to his floor and the only people who ever run into him are those folks who just happened to select the same elevator.

Every 4th of July, the management of the apartment building holds a little party for the tenants in the common ground with music and cotton candy, popcorn, burgers and dogs. And there he was this year, in a t-shirt, shorts and red sneakers, holding his sister’s brand new baby in his arms, hanging out with his girlfriend, family and a couple of other friends while his chocolate Labrador retriever, Swag, rolled in the grass. There were about 300 people at this event. Everyone knew Bryce was there. And everyone left him alone. Bryce, after the Nats had played the traditional July4th 11am game, felt comfortable enough to hang out with the residents and the residents minded their own business and just let him be.

Finally, Harper and girlfriend left the common ground, walking to a nearby restaurant and it was there he was finally approached- not by a resident, but by a casual fan walking down the street who happened to be wearing a Harper #34 uniform shirt. I overheard the exchange. “Oh my God- you’re Bryce Harper!” Bryce stopped and smiled. He immediately posed for a cell phone camera shot and shook the fan’s hand before moving on. He really does love the fans. At the player’s parking lot at National’s ball park, they’ll yell to him as he’s making his way to the white Mercedes and he waves and calls back at them with an ear-to-ear grin.

I’ve had heroes in my life. Mickey Mantle was one of them. He was Bryce’s hero too. Bryce wears #34 because the numbers 3 and 4 add up to 7- Mantle’s number. But my Mickey was deeply flawed. The first one, late in his life, to confess he had squandered one of the great baseball careers of all time, drinking and partying with the likes of Whitey Ford and Billy Martin. We all loved Mickey for his raw skill and seeming humility but in the end it turned out the bright lights were too much for the kid from Oklahoma. Too much pressure. Too much fear he would die young like many of the men in his family including his father. Too much, too soon.

Harper has none of this baggage. He has a large and supportive and healthy family. He is the definition of clean living. And he wears all that fame and talent with a great humility off the field, a great arrogance on it- the way it should be.

It is so nice to have a hero again. A guy you can look up to not just for his stats or hall-of-fame potential- but for his decency and kindness and understanding that while damned important, baseball, is part of life, not all of it.

The Power Outage, the Commercials, the Glory of Super Bowl 47

February 4, 2013 1 comment

Super

A most entertaining Super Bowl, indeed. For the first time ever, both the game and the commercials were overshadowed by…the power outage. The half-hour interruption of the Super Bowl just after the start of the 2nd half is officially a hot potato as multiple people and agencies and companies deny it was their fault and point fingers at one another.

“Wasn’t us!” said Entergy, the local power company providing electricity to the stadium. The stadium people are now saying it was all due to their safeguards that worked really, really well. “A piece of equipment that is designed to monitor electrical load sensed an abnormality in the system,” tripping a breaker and adding “backup generators kicked in immediately as designed.”

The world was atwitter with all kinds of theories. It was Drew Breese and the Saints getting their revenge against the NFL for the harsh penalties imposed in connection to bounty-gate. It was Beyonce, whose high-powered, high-tech half-time show somehow fried the electrical grid.

I officially endorse the Puppy Bowl conspiracy. It was those dogs and cats and hedgehogs over at Animal Planet whose appetite for their spectacular ratings earlier in the afternoon, led them to take out the actual People Bowl over at CBS.

But I digress. How about them commercials? Some instant poll found everybody liked the baby Clydesdale spot of the horse running back to a trainer from the horse’s colt days, all edited to tug at our heartstrings with Stevie Nick’s “Landslide” playing in the background.

The Dodge Ram “Farmer” spot proved to be really appreciated. A beautifully written speech from a generation ago by the late, great ABC broadcaster, Paul Harvey, on the down home qualities of America’s farmers.

And on the eighth day, God looked down on his planned paradise and said, ‘I need a caretaker.’ So God made a farmer. God said, ‘I need somebody willing to get up before dawn, milk cows, work all day in the field, milk cows again, eat supper, then go to town and stay past midnight at a meeting of the school board.’ So God made a farmer.

Most of the Doritos ads were pretty cool; cross-dressing is always a guaranteed winner for taco chips.

I laughed hysterically at the VW ad featuring the dude from Minnesota with the Jamaican accent- “land of the ten tousand lakes, mon.” I learned later it was apparently politically incorrect to like that ad.

My informal polling found the GoDaddy commercial with the model kissing the nerd with the horrible complexion to have been something that should never have been produced much less shown on national television.

And what was that Coke ad where a bunch of different people are inexplicably competing against one another in a desert chasing after a carbonated beverage? We were all supposed to vote or something on who would win. All I know is it made me hate Coke.

And then there was Beyonce. Honestly, I liked her Super Bowl press conference where she sang the national anthem, better than her actual half-time performance but she was beautiful, talented and high-tech and several people I was with were touched when her old Destiny’s Child co-stars appeared with her. There’s also a whole twitter meme about how she shorted out the entire Superdome with her sheer energy and ferociousness.

Oh- and what a game! The 49ers made it really close and tense and only one of the greatest goal line stands in history preserved the win for the Baltimore Ravens. Ray Lewis got his perfect retirement gift and even Ray Lewis-haters had the opportunity to send snarky tweets making oblique references to the murder charges he had to fend off 13 years ago.

Thanks Super Bowl, XLVII- you big lug you. I laughed. I cried. I ate large quantities.

I Love Stealing Players from the Yankees

January 16, 2013 Leave a comment

Nats-Yankees

I’ll admit to being an intermittent Yankee fan through the years. It’s what happens when your own hometown doesn’t have a baseball team for over three decades. But now that we have this very cool ball club called the Washington Nationals, it was outrageously wonderful to learn yesterday that we had stolen last year’s closer for the Bronx Bombers.

That’s right, Rafael Soriano, the guy who stepped up for the great and injured Mariano Rivera last season is now going to be wearing a curly W on his hat. Analysts have been writing that the Nationals sent a statement by agreeing to pay so much money for the best free agent relief pitcher on the market. The statement being, basically, “Screw All of You.”

See, the traditional baseball world made up of general managers, managers, owners and ornery old scouts who still spit tobacco products- doesn’t like the Washington ball club very much. They think we were crazy to sit Stephen Strasburg just to protect the young kid’s arm a year after Tommy John surgery. They see arrogance in Washington GM, Mike Rizzo’s approach because shutting down your star pitcher implies you’re keeping him healthy for all the future division titles, playoffs and World Series wins you’re going to be piling up.

Many in the traditional baseball world are also just plain crazy jealous. In Strasburg and Bryce Harper, the Nats lucked into two of the most remarkable players to come down the pike in about 20 years. The baseball establishment liked the Nats better when they were a doormat; a sorry little team from a rich but fickle market that used to have to pay a King’s ransom for any marquis talent (see Jason Werth).

But after a 98-win season and the realization that 87-year-old Nationals owner Ted Lerner is, in fact, one of the richest men in the world and certainly the wealthiest owner in the sport, suddenly old DC doesn’t looks so bad as a destination for premier talent.

But the fun part about stealing a Yankee is that back in our old insecure days, that’s what we beleaguered Washington fans thought was surely going to be the fate for our diamonds in the rough. That sometime in 2016 or 2017, Bryce Harper was going to be wearing pin stripes instead of the curly W- that it would be just a matter of time before Stephen Strasburg would someday be the opening day pitcher for the Yankees.

And now we have the Yankee closer- a decision that no doubt was actually made shortly after a chilly October night at Nationals Park when young relief ace, Drew Storen, picked the worst possible moment in the world to collapse. Blowing a six run lead in the deciding game of a playoff series is something you remember. And vow to never repeat.

Drew will get his chances in 2013, but it will be the Yankee closer, the 33-year old veteran Rafael Soriano who will be shutting the door on most nights. Young Drew will learn. But right now, it’s time for the formerly forlorn Nationals to rule the baseball world. And to their detractors: here’s a little tobacco juice in your eye.

Tough Call on RGIII- Lay Off Shanahan

Wild Card Playoffs - Seattle Seahawks v Washington Redskins

The Washington Redskins did the right thing when they sat RGIII against Cleveland, the week after the Baltimore game in which he injured his right knee. They did the right thing in the weeks that followed by altering their offensive game plan to fit RGIII’s new and temporary limitations. Now Coach Mike Shanahan is getting buried in criticism for not having pulled the kid in Sunday’s playoff loss to Seattle despite being obviously injured. I think some understanding of both men is in order.

What if the kid had been able to rally the Skins to a game-tying touchdown? Would the critics still be piling on Shanahan? Doubtful- which says to me a lot of this outrage is less about RGIII and more about a decision that may have cost the Redskins the game. And the outrage comes chock-full of hindsight. Who knew a bad snap from center would cause Griffin to awkwardly hyperextend the knee again on the god-forsaken mud hole that passes for turf at FedEx Field?

From a competitive standpoint, I think most will agree RGIII should have been pulled in the 2nd half after a 9-yard run out of bounds in which he basically dragged his right leg along like it was hanging by a thread. That looked alarming. But Shanahan is nothing if not loyal. The most compelling argument RGIII made at half-time to convince the coach he should keep playing was his insistence that he had earned the right to stay in there and give it his best shot. To me that’s indisputable. The kid, through most of 15 games did everything humanly possible to earn the right to stay in there.

But was it misplaced loyalty? Does the Head Coach have an obligation to overrule a competitive player who will always say he’s healthy enough to play whether he is or not? Yes and Shanahan admits it. He says he trusted his gut on this but that his gut isn’t always right and that he would, indeed, second-guess himself over the decision.

Even RGIII admits he endangered himself when he continued playing after having tweaked the knee just before his 2nd TD pass in the 1st quarter. But this was the playoffs. You think RGIII was the only player out there playing hurt? When Kirk Gibson came in to pinch-hit for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the bottom of the 9th inning of a World Series game when Gibson could barely stand, much less walk, did people think that was abusing the athlete? Of course not. Because he hit a homerun that won the game.

It turns out RGIII is not indestructible but is, in fact, all too human. Both in his stubbornness and his physical health. Mike Shanahan is human too. I would argue, if anything, he put his loyalty to his QB above the strategic dynamics needed to win that game. And in retrospect- yes- he made the wrong decision. But I don’t think he deserves to be vilified or fired for it.

Everyone will learn from this and especially RGIII and Mike Shanahan, There is a point where steely determination and sheer grit begin to provide diminishing returns. RGIII will learn to be a little less reckless. Coach Shanahan now knows there will be times where he’ll have to stop RG from being his own worst enemy.

What I can’t stop thinking about, is the cruelty of fate and the vulnerability of even the most talented and ferocious of athletes. I will never forget the Skins game against the Minnesota Vikings this year when Griffin scored on a 78 yard touchdown run. His Olympic-class speed was breathtaking to behold. It was the longest scoring run by an NFL quarterback in 16 years. Griffin piled up 138 yards rushing that day.

And then I picture the botched snap from center on Sunday when the same gifted athlete could not bend down and pick up a dropped football without collapsing in a heap on the muddy turf.

Because of his work ethic and desire, however bad this knee injury turns out to be- it will be overcome. He may never be able to run again like we saw with astonishment this season- but he will be back and 80% of Robert Griffin III is way better than 100% of most others.

But painful lesson, indeed, for both he and his coach. None of it should take away from the amazing, ridiculously unexpected result of this Redskins season when a 22-year-old man/child led a 3-6 team to a divisional title through guts, leadership, and, yes, ironically, the kind of unflinching toughness that ultimately cost them in the end.

The New “America’s Team”- For One Night Anyway

December 27, 2012 Leave a comment

Not!

Not!


Back in 1979 when the Dallas Cowboys annoyingly anointed themselves “America’s Team”- at least they were good. They won Super Bowls in 1972 and 1978 and made appearances in title games in 1971, 1976, and 1979.

Then they almost made it four Super Bowls in a row in the 1990’s, winning it all in 1993, 1994 and 1996. Since then, however, it’s been 16 years without a Super Bowl appearance. In fact, they only have one playoff win at all in those last 16 years. They may call themselves “America’s Team,” but no one else in America does.

A non-scientific ESPN internet poll proves it emphatically. At last check, 73% of Americans (or at least 200,000 people with an internet connection whom we presume to be mostly Americans), are rooting for the Washington Redskins this Sunday night when they host the former “America’s Team “ in a battle for the NFC East title. Winner goes to the playoffs, loser goes to the showers and then to a golf course in a moderate climate somewhere.

State-by-state, the ESPN poll shows 49 of them are rooting for the Redskins and one is backing the Cowboys. And Texas is not really a state- it’s a Republic plus they’ve engaged in a lot of secessionist talk over recent years.

Powered by three engaging rookies, quarterback, RGIII, running back, Alfred Morris and Kicker, Kai Forbath, these Washington Redskins are a quite loveable group and surprising, to boot. CBS Sports.com prognosticator, Pete Prisco, predicted they’d finish the year 3-13. Looked good there for ol’ Prisco when the Skins went into their bye week with a 3-6 record.

But something magical happened in that off week. Coming off a humiliating home loss to the Carolina Panthers and with head coach, Mike Shanahan publicly stating the players were now playing for next year- RGIII would have none of it. He reportedly gave a Knut Rockne-type speech that would have made Rockne himself proud. It was so inspiring, in fact, that his teammates immediately voted to make Robert one of their captains.

Now here it is six straight victories later. The Skins have even been victorious in one game without RGIII (thank you Kirk Cousins and Mike Shanahan). Last week, they proved they could win with RGIII’s arm and without his legs.

The previously porous defense now comes up big whenever it seems absolutely necessary.

The most humble kid in the universe who has a 20 year-old car and still sleeps on is parent’s couch when he’s visiting his old home is named Alfred Morris and the young rookie is just 104 yards away from setting the all-time Redskins single season record for rushing.

And Kai Forbath, a former UCLA kicker, who could not hook up with another NFL team gets picked up in the middle of the season and responds by going to the Hall of Fame. Or at least the ball did- the one that marked his 17th consecutive field goal without a miss- the best career start for any kicker in NFL history.

So what’s not to love about the new America’s Team? Even if they lose, these Skins have given their fans more than anyone could have hoped. But I don’t think they’ll lose.

This feels, for all the world, like a Redskins-Cowboys matchup at old RFK stadium 40 years ago- a game the Redskins won 26-3 before going off to face the undefeated Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VII (back when you could still tell what the Roman numerals stood for).

That game was for the NFC championship- but this one- after a mostly sorrowful 20 years in the wilderness for Redskins fans- seems every bit as big. Americans- we thank you for your support.

Redskins Face the Strasburg Question- RGIII Needs to Heal

December 11, 2012 Leave a comment

NFL- Baltimore Ravens at Washington Redskins

He is entirely too special to risk suffering any long-term damage. Even short-term thinking- one week’s rest, at a minimum, is the least the Redskins should do for their once-in-a-lifetime quarterback.

And it’s a decision the Redskins may need to take out of the kid’s hands because based on what we saw last Sunday at FedEx Field, Robert Griffin is a selfless warrior who would claw and scratch to get back out on the field, no matter how many of his limbs are hanging by a thread.

It’s not just about his health and the “mild” sprain of a right knee. Imagine winning a key playoff-atmosphere game led by your other rookie quarterback. Oh, that’s right- that’s precisely what Kirk Cousins already pulled off last Sunday against Baltimore. But can he lead the team for an entire game and claim a win over the suddenly resurgent Cleveland Browns?

I think so. First of all, the Browns haven’t exactly been beating the elite squads of the NFL. They beat a 7-6 Pittsburgh team without their starting quarterback. Then they edged the 3-10 Oakland Raiders and last week, the 2-11 Kansas City Chiefs.

The Browns won’t be a cakewalk, but any victory by the Skins without RGIII would do the team enormous psychological good. The kid’s will to win has already become contagious. Let’s prove the theory this Sunday in Cleveland without him.

For the short-term, a one-dimensional, pocket-passing, less mobile RGIII may very well win over the Browns- but it’s the two games that follow and potentially the playoffs after that where the Redskins will need his arm and his legs. And considering the intensity with which he plays and that this may not be the last time he sits out a game or two, it cannot hurt to give your back-up QB practice and game time.

And for the long-term, it would end up as the most tragic story in all of sports, if Robert Griffin were to have a career-threatening injury. It is hard to justify risking all that promise for the temptations of the present.

Granted, this doesn’t really compare to what the Washington Nationals decided to do with their young pitching ace, Stephen Strasburg last year. Strasburg was not even hurt. That was a much gutsier decision. But there is a similarity in the basic question of whether the future is worth considering, protecting and nurturing.

Baseball is much more of an annual marathon with its 162 games over six grueling months. The very nature of the sport and its lengthy seasonal slog lends itself more to long-term thinking. The NFL is the polar opposite. It is a sport premised on the future-is-now philosophy of immediate gratification. They only play 16 games. Each contest is 6% of the regular season. It’s a do-or-die each week.

This decision will be quite the test. Go for the brass ring now? Or rest the kid, let him heal a bit and put yourself in a position to reach for a half dozen brass rings over the next ten years- and maybe even one later this year? For this season and for the many more ahead; for the two divisional games that follow in Philadelphia and home against the Cowboys- this is a no-brainer. For this week- let RGIII lead the team from the bench.