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Posts Tagged ‘Frank DeFord’

The Credibility Sports Confers

July 10th, 2009 No comments

This morning I found out that former major league pitcher David Cone is to testify as a character witness at the trial of Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. I learned this during a panel discussion on MSNBC that included Stephen A. Smith, former Philadelphia Inquirer sportswriter and ESPN talking head. I’m sure former ESPN star Keith Olbermann will have something to say about the list of character witnesses, as well.

I’m somewhere between CNN’s Anderson Cooper and the majority of my fellow, sports-obsessed Americans. Cooper, if you didn’t know, dissected a Palin spokeswoman’s defense of the daft governor’s decision to step down, and refused to be drawn into some inane sports analogy comparing Palin to a point guard: “I don’t know anything about sports,” he said. Whether he does or not, this was exactly the right response. He might as well have said: “Stop blathering and answer the question.”

But even for those of us who know or care about sports (I like exactly three of them), there’s something off-putting about the instant cred that sports stardom — whether as player or as pundit — confers. It’s not that the sports world doesn’t cough up bright, even brilliant, people. Among those who still concentrate on sports, Frank DeFord, Jon Wertheim (read his “Strokes of Genius”), and Diana Nyad come to mind as great journalists, writers, and observers. And those who have made the transition to other areas of interest are often pretty good, too. I think Olbermann, while a fellow traveler politically, sometimes lets his bluster and sarcasm get in the way of his message; but he’s bright and can be very effective. Stephen A. Smith I’ve not heard enough of to reach an opinion, but his constant talking over the other panelists this morning was irritating. David Cone is one of the most intelligent and thoughtful professional athletes you’ll ever hear. Read Roger Angell’s excellent but overlooked book, A Pitcher’s Story: Innings with David Cone for evidence.

By why do these folks find their access to more mainstream topics so easy? Because sports is so central that they’re widely seen, and heard, and respected for their views on, say, basketball or baseball; and then it’s assumed that viewers will follow them, and continue to respect them, when they talk about Iran or the Supreme Court. Often, this works. But it reminds me that SportsCenter and its ilk could only have succeeded in a sports-mad culture, and that they, in turn, constantly increase their own market share by convincing the audience of their importance.

Federer, Schmederer?

July 6th, 2009 No comments

Well, he did it. Yesterday, Roger Federer overcame a game and determined — and vastly improved —  Andy Roddick to win his sixth Wimbledon title, and to regain the Number 1 ranking that he’d rented to Rafael Nadal for the past ten months. But most significantly, Federer passed Pete Sampras, 15-14 in career majors  (commonly but incorrectly called “Grand Slams” — a true “Grand Slam” is winning all four majors1 in the same year), and is now the all-time leader….

Among the men. Margaret Court leads the whole tennis pack with 24(!), but few regard  her as “the greatest” because half of her titles came at the Australian Open, which, during the 1950s and 60s, when she played, was but little attended by non-Aussies. (Even Bjorn Borg, for example, who played in the 1970s and early 1980s only competed “Down Under” once during his career). Steffi Graf, regarded by some as the greatest female player ever, has 22 majors to her credit, but to some (see Frank DeFord), her accomplishment is tarnished because her would-have-been principal rival, Monica Seles, basically became a non-contender after her stabbing (by a Graf fan, no less). Seles had been routinely beating Graf and everyone else at majors, collecting trophies like complimentary mints. Oh, and Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova each finished their long careers with 18 majors; were they better than Federer?

Is it possible to compare women’s tennis to men’s? Probably not, but the same should  likely be said about the effort to decide who’s the best male player. Is Federer “betterer” than Sampras? I’d say yes, as his greater variety and all-court excellence led to the capture of all majors, including the clay-court French Open. Federer: Four French Open finals, one win (three losses to Nadal, a force of nature on clay). Sampras: No French Open finals, even. But some would say Sampras faced tougher competition. I don’t agree, but that’s the point: We’ll never know. Rod Laver won the Grand Slam twice, and doubtless would have captured more than the eleven majors he did win, except that he turned pro at a time when pros couldn’t compete at the majors. How many majors did he sacrifice? Hard to say, because all of the best players were on the pro circuit. And on and on goes the debate, fun but ultimately fruitless.

Whatever the tennis gods think, we can agree that Federer’s accomplishments over the past several years, and yesterday, are just astonishing. His level of consistent excellence — 21 consecutive semi-final or better appearances — is even less likely to be duplicated than Joe DiMaggio’s preposterous 56-game hitting streak.

Watching the match yesterday with a family of divided loyalties, I was — as always — on the Federer side. But Roddick played with belief and heart, and now I want him to win…something big. Maybe the U.S. Open? He’s surely put himself back on the short list. Go, Andy!

Here’s how it ended:

  1. The Australian, French, and U.S. Opens, and Wimbledon