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Monday, August 27, 2007

Remembering Sport

The Steelers' Willie Parker moments before his end-zone dance.

PSAYINGS.5S.1-11. I probably shouldn't lead with this, but here in the Delaware Valley the 'Battle of Pennsylvania' between the Eagles and the Steelers is a noteworthy event, even when it occurs during the preseason. There's a lot of ugly out there in sports at the moment -- Vick, Donaghy, Bonds et al -- and it's supposed to be reassuring when the focus moves from hearing rooms and law courts to the field of play. But early on the game struck a sour note with me. Not because of the indifferent play of the Eagles, which may or may nor portend anything about the upcoming season, but because of what happened after the first Steeler touchdown. Willie Parker ran hard and well. He scored. Then he felt compelled to perform a clownish strut through the end zone. I should be used to it by now, but this time I felt a faint disgust.

The disgust had nothing to do with my Eagle partisanship. It had to do with what I'd witnessed earlier in the day and, probably, the gradually increasing childishness of the behavior I've observed in professional sports for a long time now. The NFL and the NBA are the worst offenders. They're already macho sports, requiring strength, speed, toughness, and skill. Why do they also suddenly require the deliberate taunting of opponents and the choreographed self idolatry of a bullying seventh-grade jock? Only a boy needs to loudly proclaim his manhood, and only a jerk thinks an achievement is somehow enhanced by festooning it with extravagant self-flattery.

It may seem a petty complaint in the grand scheme of what's wrong with sports, but I believe there's a link between the crimes of a Michael Vick and the graceless showboating that's become commonplace on court and field. If one were to draw up a list of the selfish egotists who flout team rules and delay games with their preening theatrics, my bet is that the overwhelming majority of them would be the product of single-parent homes, specifically fatherless homes. They don't know what it is to be men, and so they distort, and sometimes ruin, their lives by disguising their insecurities with over-the-top parodies of manhood  -- guns, groupies, posses, roosterish clothes and antics, and, yes, fighting dogs.

What would a real dad -- or the right kind of early male role model -- have done for them? Well, that's exactly what I'd seen earlier in the day at the finale of the Little League World Championship in Williamsport, PA. Most of you have probably seen the headline that matters most at ESPN: GEORGIA BEATS JAPAN WITH 8TH INNING WALK-OFF HOMERUN!


Photo by Jason Vorhees

But if you didn't watch the contest itself, you missed all the important stuff. You missed an incredibly well played game on both sides, featuring extraordinary pitching, heads-up fielding and base-running, and wise coaching that corrected mistakes without punishing them. You missed the moms and dads and brothers and sisters in the stands who agonized through all the suspenseful moments, hardly daring to look at times but having to look, cheering the great plays, and wincing at the letdowns. You missed kids who cared so much about the game and each other that they see-sawed between beaming smiles and the struggle not to give in to tears when they felt they'd let down the team. You missed the elation of the winning homerun, and you missed the heartbreaking collapse of the Japanese pitcher who had thrown the fatal pitch. It was as if the ball had physically knocked him to his knees.

And you missed what to its enormous credit, the Macon Telegraph did not, a display of graciousness by 12-year-old kids that would put most professional athletes to shame. Here's the Telegraph's headline and story:

It's all about class: 'WORLD CLASS'

What happened in Williamsport, Pa. Sunday can be summed up in one word: Class.

Already one of the best teams in the world as they entered the Little League World Series tournament, all of Middle Georgia was rooting for the team from Warner Robins before the first pitch was thrown. As they progressed through the field of teams, losing only once, they made us proud. But no prouder than their last act of sportsmanship.

As Dalton Carriker rounded the bases after hitting a walk-off home run to win the game and capture the crown in the bottom of the eighth inning, there was, of course, a thrill of victory, agony of defeat moment, but the kids from Warner Robins, instead of the traditional high-fives to the opposing players - without hesitation or prompting - went to the distraught players from Japan and started hugging them.

Dry eyes were impossible.

While there was great play, competitive fire and spirit, the boys from Warner Robins left a lasting impression of their inner character for the world to see. They proved again, it's not whether you win or lose that counts. It is, how you play the game.

Go to the site and take advantage of the opportunity to see the whole series of evocative photographs taken by Jason Vorhees. Here are a couple we borrowed just to whet your appetite:





The last one is of the Georgia coach consoling the pitcher who lost the game. A man knows when there's no need to strut and thump his chest. His players obviously learned that lesson before they took the field in Williamsport. They're only 12 years old, which means you can learn it young.

But how old can you be and still learn it? A question for Michael Vick and many many others to ponder.







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