With West Ham having taken a baby step toward avoiding relegation today and with the Bruins fighting for the privilege of losing in the first round of the playoffs, I don't have anywhere near enough emotional energy to deal with what are relative trivialities in my world--college basketball and baseball.
College basketball, in particular, I haven't watched with any regularity since...well, since college, and even then I didn't find it all that interesting. (In Texas, fans only brag about their favorite college basketball teams if their schools' football teams aren't any good. Basketball is a poor backup for football. It's not even close to being equal in terms of importance--and that's as it should be.) The last time I watched college basketball with any real interest, there was neither a shot clock nor a three-point line in the game. We're going back a ways here, folks. Needless to say, college basketball is just not my thing.
Baseball I like better, but it's a long slog of a season, and the fact is that it's an awful TV sport, no matter how many Bostonians glue themselves to NESN for 162 Red Sox games per season during the only time of the year when the weather in New England has any chance of being beautiful (as it was today). I do like the atmosphere of a ballgame, and I've had a certain affinity here and there for particular baseball players through the years--Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson, Robin Yount, Gary Carter, Buddy Bell, David Ortiz, George Brett. (We'll get to George again later.) But the game itself is too esoteric and full of numbers for me. It's too much of a mathematician's game.
I'm not ashamed to say that I like brute-force sports (which, incidentally, can also be very complex)--in no particular order, (American) football, hockey and rugby are three of my four favorite sports; the other is soccer, which is more subtle in its brutality than the other three but can nonetheless actually end up getting pretty rough (both on and off the pitch, famously). I sometimes find myself watching a basketball or baseball game with friends or family and yelling, "Hit him! Just tackle him!" to a room full of stunned and frightened faces. Old habits die hard. In fact, they really never die at all.
However, I have derived pleasure from the lesser sports in my pantheon over the years, and it's with that in mind that I offer two Great Moments in Sports I Don't Like All that Much. The first, in recognition of tomorrow night's NCAA final (which I won't be watching--the Bruins are playing Washington) comes from college basketball. The second comes from baseball, in honor of today being Major League Baseball's opening day.
Back in 1986, TCU was in a crisis. The football team was on probation, which is a story so complex and infuriating that I don't want to get into it now, although I've mentioned it in this blog before. The 1985 season had been awful, and everybody knew, even at the time, that there was more misery yet to come. Horned Frog fans were, therefore, reduced to suffering the humiliation of getting excited about basketball.
But get excited they did, cheering for a team coached by Jim Killingsworth that took on the name "Killer Frogs" and made it stick. In February 1986, TCU was battling an old, powerful, much larger nemesis--Texas--for the Southwest Conference title. At the time, TCU hadn't beaten Texas in football since 1967 and wouldn't have a realistic chance of beating the Longhorns again for years. (The football victory finally came in 1992--one of two games TCU won that season. But I digress.) Basketball success is never a substitute for football glory, but it was, in the mid-1980s, the last refuge of the desperate Frog fan.
Texas came into Fort Worth essentially tied for the conference lead with TCU. The game--broadcast on the great old Raycom Sports Network; I remember watching it live--was low-scoring and close, as many games were back then. Texas, however, had taken a one-point lead with five seconds to play, when Jamie Dixon, now basketball coach at the University of Pittsburgh, took an inbound pass...and my favorite basketball moment of all time followed:
What you just saw was joy, relief, hope, even some revenge all pouring onto the floor at Daniel-Meyer Coliseum. It's still probably the most thrilling spontaneous outburst I've ever seen from a sports crowd. No TCU fan who was alive at the time will ever forget The Shot. In classic TCU fashion, we did win the regular-season SWC title in 1986...but we lost in the conference tournament and got unfairly passed over for the NCAA Tournament.
In 1987, TCU came back with an even better team, won the regular-season title again and lost in the tournament again--but that year, the Frogs managed to make the NCAA tourney. The Frogs won a first-round game and then got jobbed out of a victory in the second round, losing to Notre Dame on a ridiculous, outrageous, borderline-unbelievable, last-second foul call that went against (if memory serves) Jamie Dixon. Alas, it's been mostly downhill for TCU basketball since then. But, hey, our football program is great now. So, who cares about basketball?
Now, on to baseball. My favorite baseball moment of all time should probably be the New York Mets--a team I've loved since I was a young kid--winning the 1986 (what a year!) World Series, or at least pulling off that famous miracle comeback to beat the Red Sox in Game 6. And both moments are right up there among my all-time favorites. But living in Boston and learning more over the years about some of the, uh, characters on that Mets team have dimmed my view of '86 just a tad.
Plus, as I mentioned earlier, baseball for me has always been almost as much about my favorite players as it has been about my favorite teams. And all the time I was growing up, there was no player I loved more than George Brett. (He's one of the reasons I'm a Royals fan today.) George Brett's career spanned from the year I was born (1973) all the way into the fall of my sophomore year in college (1993). For me, he embodied everything an athlete should be--he was tough; he came through in the clutch and more than anything else he really, really, really cared about the game and about winning. He never slacked or took a day off, unlike a lot of (even very good) baseball players.
I remember idolizing Brett as early as 1980, when the Royals broke through and beat the Yankees in the playoffs and went to the World Series (only to lose to the Phillies). As my dad would say, I thought the guy hung the moon. So, when the most famous incident of his career happened, I was already a fan. And after that incident, I was a fan for life.
Most baseball fans, even younger ones, know about the Pine Tar Home Run. If you don't know about it, the video below will explain everything pretty well. When the umpire in that famous Royals-Yankees game took Brett's game-winning homer away because Brett allegedly had too much pine tar on his bat, Brett came charging out of the Kansas City dugout. I can honestly say that I had never seen a man that angry before in my young life and still haven't seen one that mad since.
Over the years, I have related many times to George Brett's moment of spontaneous rage. I have felt his sense of fury at injustice and his desire to tear somebody's head off. Fortunately, I've generally--the occasional moment in a rugby match notwithstanding--resisted the temptation to attack somebody physically. I'm not at all a violent person. But that explosive desire to stand up for myself when I feel as though I've been wronged? Well, I probably don't have enough of it, actually, but when I do feel and act upon it I think of George Brett coming out of that dugout. And that's who I become, even if it's only via e-mail.
Brett remains an inspiration to me because of how much he cared about one game in the middle of a 162-game season. It mattered to him. Big time. I want to care at least that much about a lot of things in my life every day, without exception--and I hope and think that I do. And he inspires me because he had the courage--the fury--to stand up for himself. Plus, in the end, he won! The American League eventually reversed the game umpire's decision (again, watch the video if you've never heard of this), and Brett's home run counted. A few weeks later, the Yanks and Royals finished the 9th inning, with the Royals taking the victory. Beautiful. And here's the reaction that moves me to this day, still the greatest moment in baseball history for me:
So, there you go--Great Moments in Sports I Don't Like All that Much. Enjoy March Madness and baseball's opening week. I'll be obsessing over West Ham and the Bruins.