Sunday, January 28, 2018

Saluting Three Generation X Ballplayers

When it comes to politics, the Baby Boomers just won’t let go, and apparently, everyone else is willing to leave them in charge.  Perhaps that’s because politics is a popularity contest, and quite simply, we Baby Boomers outnumber every other generation.  That’s why we were called “Boomers” in the first place.  In contrast to politics, the great thing about most sports is that success isn’t measured by popularity.  When it comes to ball games, we don’t turn the outcome over to the subjective assessments of judges.  We let the players fight it out on the field.  Whoever runs faster, jumps higher, hits the ball further, or throws it more accurately tends to win.  And that’s why the Baby Boomers were pushed aside long ago and the Gen Xers were given center stage. 

This morning, I find myself reflecting on the careers of three of these Xers.  At least to the American sports fan, they are the three most dominant male athletes of their generation.   Oh, you can throw out a few other names as possible contenders for that moniker, most notably the great LeBron James.  But  LeBron has won only three world championships – which puts him tied for 39th in that crucial category.  That’s not the kind of rarified air occupied by the three Xers I have in mind.  These guys are truly dominant.  And this fortnight, their talents are very much on display.

The youngest of the three Xers I have in mind is still aged enough to be viewed as “too old” to compete at his sport’s highest levels.  And yet, this very morning, halfway across the world, he won yet another Major Championship.   I’m referring to Roger Federer, the consensus GOAT (Greatest of All Time) of tennis who has now racked up 20 majors.  No other man has ever won more than 16.  At age 36, Federer continues to play with the precision of a watch made in his native Switzerland.  He moves with seemingly effortless grace, and his off-the-court comments are as flawless as his on-the-court ground strokes.  Today, as he accepted the Australian Open Trophy, Federer broke down with emotion and began to cry for what must have been two minutes as the crowd roared their approval.  Here is a man who plays a surprisingly grueling sport but makes it look easy and fun.   He knows that by rights, his championship caliber play should have ended years ago, but somehow father time has left him alone and given him the ability to beat every other man on the planet. 

I will confess to be a guy who roots for Federer’s arch rival, Rafi Nadal, but I don’t have an anti-Federer bone in my body.  Tennis is the one sport I lettered in in school, and as a lover of the sport, I can only salute the way Federer plays the game.  Nadal’s game is violent and punishing, which is perhaps more fun to watch, but isn’t exactly easy on the body, whereas Federer looks like he can keep winning majors until he’s 40.  This morning, as he reached the milestone of 20, he deserves a standing ovation from the entire sports world, and not just that adoring crowd in Melbourne.

The next Xer I’d like to discuss has already turned 40.  His sport isn’t simply grueling, it’s crazy dangerous.  And yet, damned if this guy doesn’t continue to outplay his younger competitors.   In case you haven’t heard, the New England Patriots are in the Super Bowl.  Again.  This is their eighth appearance in the last 17 years and their fourth in the last seven.    Tom Brady will be trying to win his sixth Super Bowl Championship as the team’s starting quarterback; no other quarterback has ever won more than four and only two others have won that many.  Brady is, quite simply, the most accomplished quarterback of all time, and he continues to do in his gladiatorial arena what Federer does in his more refined chambers: break his own world records.   You can root against his team, and I regularly do, but you can’t deny his extraordinary skills and determination.

This year, for the first time, it appears that the media is acknowledging that football fans have grown bored with Brady’s Patriots reaching the Super Bowl.  It’s like watching the same movie too many times – if you can’t resist the temptation to watch those “Godfather” marathons, even Don Corleone’s greatest lines can get tiresome.  In order to hype this year’s Big Game, the sports journalists have taken to clichés about how “we really have to take our hat off to Tom Brady for what he has accomplished.”  Seriously?   Isn’t that what we did by, say, 2004?  Or 2007?  Or 2011?  Or 2014?  Or ’16?  If it’s dawning on you only now that this man is a freak of nature, taking an impossibly difficult role in an absurdly hazardous environment and turning it into child’s play ... you my friend aren’t much of a football fan.

Enough with the Patriots already.  But yes, give it up for their QB (and their coach, but that’s another blogpost).  Brady is definitely the most dominant male athlete of his generation in any of the American team sports.

So, we’ve spoken about the Greatest Tennis Player of all Time and (very arguably) the Greatest Quarterback of all Time.  Now, let’s end this blogpost by talking about an athlete who is both less accomplished than they are and yet, for my money, far more interesting.  In his day, he was just as dominant as them if not more so.  But, I would contend, “his day” didn’t last long enough to share their place in the pantheon of athletes.   He seems forever condemned to serve in the role of Second GOAT.  

The man I’m referencing is known simply by one name:  Tiger.  Like a meteor, he came onto the golf scene, lit it up like no man has ever done before, and then, long before he was supposed to have left his prime, simply flamed out.  His career is a like a Greek tragedy.  Back in 2008, there wasn’t a golf fan in the world who didn’t expect him to break Sam Snead’s record for most PGA wins or Jack Nicklaus’ even more-beloved record of most Grand Slam Championships.   He was one of the longest drivers of the golf ball, one of the best putters and chippers, and easily the most mentally strong of all the men on the PGA tour.   Plus, everything he did, he did with the kind of style and emotion that fills the seats.  Who knew watching golf could actually be Must See TV?  But here we are, ten years later, and Tiger is now 42, which is past an athlete’s prime, even in his sport.  We’ve seen his mug shot, we’ve heard about his embarrassing sexcapades, and perhaps all that would have been forgiven by his fans but for the fact that his body has broken down and he remains three wins away from tying Snead at 82 and four wins away from tying Jack at 18.  At this point, it’s not even clear that he’ll notch another Top 10 finish, let alone win more tournaments or break those records.

This weekend in San Diego, Tiger is making yet another of his seemingly infinite number of comeback attempts, this time with a fused back.  He is starting the final round tied for 39th and eight strokes behind the leader.  If he continues to play like this, it will be viewed as a successful start.  No, he can’t control the trajectory of his golf balls when he hits them with a driver, but at least he’s putting well and he’s mentally under control.  That’s more than half the battle right there.  

At a time when we are privileged to watch Federer and Brady play at the highest level for seemingly as long as they care to, Tiger reminds us what it means to be mortal.   He was the Greatest – until he showed us what it means to be human, all-too-human.   Maybe I’m just stubborn, but I continue to root for the guy.  I continue to pay more attention to him than to any other golfer.  I continue to hope that lightning will strike again and that he’ll figure out a way to make his broken body work better than any other golfer’s on the planet at least one more time.  Do I believe that will likely happen?  No.   But then again, I didn’t believe that the American hockey team would beat the Russians in 1980.   As they say in sports whenever an impossible upset occurs, “That’s why they play the game.”

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