Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Sport of It

Let others wallow in game fixing, dog killing, biker doping and bastard babies.

I prefer relaxing this summer to sportsmanship. It exists. Promise. Baseball’s Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken had it on display recently, tennis’ James Blake and Paul Goldstein the week before.

Let’s go to the tape:

Cooperstown. This all-American town in upstate New York houses the Baseball Hall of Fame. Now the museum is home to Gwynn and Ripken, two of the purest players in history.

Both played two decades for the same teams. Both battered the ball, Gold-Gloved it, shone as All-Stars, reached the World Series.

On Sunday, both inhaled fresh fan happiness. A stadium’s worth hit Cooperstown to celebrate the Gwynn-Ripken joy of sports and Hall induction.

Gwynn had an amazing career while playing the outfield from 1982 to 2001. He won eight batting titles. He hit .338 lifetime. He amassed 3,141 hits.

Those are the cold numbers. In warm San Diego, Tony Gwynn’s smile seemed to be part of his uniform while Mr. Padre helped the team to two pennants.

I discovered this native Southern Californian’s sunny demeanor while interviewing him at the 1984 World Series. He was coming off a .351 regular season and .368 blitz in the playoffs. The way he talked, he loved the game.

No wonder that 15 years later he won the Roberto Clemente Man of the Year Award for combining sportsmanship and community service with excellence on the field. Also in 1999, he drew the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award for showing the character and leadership of that old Yankee first baseman on and off the field.

Speaking of Gehrig, Ripken broke his streak and stretched it to 2,632 straight games. The Iron Man did it all with the Baltimore Orioles, with whom he played from 1981 to 2001. Early came his championship moment, when he caught the last out of the World Series in 1983, the last time Baltimore won it.

Now the great shortstop tosses his attitude to kids. “We want them to learn how to play the game and learn sportsmanship,” Ripken told Philanthropy magazine.

The Babe Ruth League is so into that attitude, it named its loop for younger children the Cal Ripken Division. Now that’s a catch.

Ripken practiced that sportsmanship while swatting 3,184 hits and 431 homers. Take this from “Get in the Game,” his recent book:

“I can’t stand the hidden-ball trick. That runner on base trusts you to a point. But when you get him out like that, you embarrass him in front of everybody else. Then he’ll never trust you again about anything. And just like misleading a base runner during a key moment in a game, you can only do it once.”

No wonder that like Gwynn, Ripken won the Clemente and Gehrig awards for sportsmanship.

Los Angeles. At the pro tennis tourney at UCLA’s stadium, Blake and Goldstein played like pals.

That’s because they are, real e-mail buds. That didn’t mean they text-messaged in the match. They pounded the balls. They hustled for every shot. They challenged close calls.

And the packed fans went nuts — just like they were watching ornery, ref-ripping McEnroe and Connors.

Only Blake and Goldstein don’t wear gloom. They wear delight. When Blake was through winning the third set, he lauded the guy he calls a top friend. Goldstein answered by waiting throughout Blake’s on-court interview and walking off together.

In the pressroom, Goldstein bounced infant daughter Sadie on his lap. He laughed about his cool style of bouncing tennis balls between his legs before serves. He praised Blake for his gutsy comeback from a near paralyzing tennis accident three years ago.

Exit Stanford’s Goldstein. Enter Harvard’s Blake. He applauded his chum’s bounce-back on this night and giant effort with his slight body.

Did Blake ever lose confidence during the match? The top 10 player laughed: “Come on. I’m a pro athlete.”
No, he knows he’s good. So does Kevin Garnett. The NBA star watched and gave him an oral high five for the effort.

Said Blake: “That means so much to me.”

It also means sportsmanship.

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