A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
Sports has been a big part of my life............playing it, watching it, following it, talking about it, introducing our kids to it. I believe its most compelling aspect is that it so surely and obviously stands as a microcosm of life: victory and defeat, conflict and unity, pain and pleasure, great expectation and crashing disappointment, all displayed in high drama and in extravagant settings. We see it all played out on a stage before us - all of those thiings that we mortals encounter in our more mundanely regular existence.
But most of all, watching, learning about, and coming to love the true stars of their respective sport; the greatest of the great. I think back to the giants of my life: Ali, Nicklaus, Johnson, Gretzky, to name a few. Like Collosae, they strode across the screens in our living rooms and imprinted themselves into the very fabric of our daily lives. The dazzling physique, skill, and speed of Ali, and his absolutely indomitable courage inside the ropes...............Did anyone in any sport ever wear the mantle of glory, wealth and fame as effortlessly and as well as Jack Nicklaus, the sun glinting off his steel-shafted clubs and his golden mane as he strode up yet another victorious eighteenth fairway.............The utterly uninhibited joy with which Magic Johnson played his game.............The grace with which Gretzky skated, ever elusive and always one pace ahead of where opponents thought he would be, and the jaw-dropping, never to be equalled records he left behind............ They occupied our attention with their larger than life talents and personas; human meteors that shot across the horizons of our lives, bringing us awe, joy, pain, disgust, inspiration, and more.
It was with great sadness that we learned in the last week that two of these meteors no longer burn.
With the announcement that he is suspending treatment of his esophogal cancer and entering hospice care, Harmon Killebrew draws the curtain on his life, on an entire era of sport, and on one of the most remarkable careers in Major League Baseball history. And this news came on the immediate heels of the death of golf legend Seve Ballesteros at the sadly premature age of 54; the mighty Spaniard felled by the only shot he could not pull off - a nine iron stiff to the flag that would dodge the bullet of brain cancer.
I don't have any tangiible personal memories of "Hammerin Harmon", but his statistics speak for themselves. Playing in an age of much larger ball parks, higher quality pitching staffs undiluted by expansion, and no PED's (performance enhancing drugs), this gentle giant belted out 573 home runs; more than 25% of his total hits coming in the form of his tape-measure long balls. Quick hands, tremendous upper body strength, and a compact swing were his tools of trade, and he hit the ball with a ferocity that belied his gentle nature and humble demeanor. Said one sportswrite who followed the Twins, "there was never anyone half this good who was half as humble". His uncomplicated and bedrock dignity can be seen in his recent announcement, the ending of which said, "I look forward to spending my final days in comfort and peace, with Nita by my side".
And oh - that Spaniard.....................
Seve Ballesteros came of age in the television era of golf, my generation's Arnold Palmer. Maybe the most indellible memory I have of him is from the 1986 Masters, the year of Nicklaus' epic back-nine "30" and sixth Green Jacket. Standing in the 15th fairway with a one stroke lead on Sunday, Seve hit a four iron into the creek in front of the green, his chances to win sinking faster than his Titleist, and a look of stunned disbelief on his face. It was a visual personification of the psychological phenomenon known as denial. He just stood there in the fairway glaring at the ripples, as if he were trying to telepathically will the ball out of the water. The moment burned him like a hot iron, and he would not hit that same club again in tournament play for over two years.
In 1980 he became the first European to win the Masters, and at that time the youngest champion; he was handsome, swashbuckling, and insanely talented. Just as Palmer had popularized the game, Seve internationalized it with his success and his flair. As the English Parliamentarian Pitt claimed of Palmerston, "his personality was a power". He strode first down fairways, assaulting the world's most difficult courses and imposing his will upon them. Then he strode right into the living rooms of America, winning our hearts with those dazzling diplays and his trademark "no WAY he plays that shot" audacity, charisma dripping off his sleeves like so much honey off a comb. Carniverously competitive in tournament play, he was gracious, witty, and charming outside of it.
The real power in sport has always been held by the chosen few who become not just stars of their game, but stars in the broader culture. Iconic figures like the aforementioned Ali, Nicklaus, Johnson, Gretzky, Sayers, with their equally iconic nicknames of The Greatest, The Golden Bear, Magic, The Great One, and The Kansas Comet. These people were more than generation-spanning athletes who raised their sport to formerly unseen levels. The combination of their exploits and personas wove them into the very fabric of American lore and pop culture.
And in their very finest moments they showed us not only how their sport could be played at levels theretofore unknown; they showed us how life can be conducted with the dignity and grace that made them CHAMPIONS.
And what of today's champions? It is perhaps a commentary on my own aging that I begrudge them the same status assigned to the heroes of my youth and formative years. And perhaps the relentless assault of today's technology, its attendant voyeurism that pries the lid off of every aspect of their lives, instantly transmitting them into the insatiable maw that is our 24/7 Internet news cycle, has made them smaller than they would otherwise be. As Oscar Wilde told us long ago, "familiarity breeds contempt".
And certainly the laundry list of tawdry behavior and episodes displayed before our eyes creates amongst us a collective internal weariness and insensitivity. We don't look at them as heroes anymore, do we? We just look at them as physical specimens who possess wealth beyond our imagination, or the imagination of their predecessors. Certainly their physical prowess is the equal of those former stars, their talent as great or even greater. But they don't seem to move us anymore; they don't seem to hold the same power of captivation and wonder for us. That's a function of our over-stuffed and titillated senses as much as it is who and what they are. And that's a shame..............a real loss on our cultural scale of measure.
I have always said about my father that he taught me how to live, and then he showed me how to die. As Killebrew is now, my Dad was in hospice care for his last ten days, and I count it one of the great blessings of my life that I was able to be a big part of providing for and accompanying him in his last days. And surely Harmon and Seve exited the stage with the same nobility with which they once starred upon it. No tawdry scenes or last gasp attempts to reclaim the elusive pinncacle they once stood upon. Instead, self-effacing to the end, these champions faced the one foe they could not defeat with intrepid courage and quiet dignity.
Seve is gone............a memory only, to be forever cherished and held. Barring a miracle healing, Killebrew will soon be gone.
May God Bless their families and their legacies.