The Wide Wide World of Sports

All I can promise is that this thing goes all over the place. It is a combination of about five posts that were never going to get finished on their own. Two quick stories to begin. Some years ago, I was in Israel, in traffic, when suddenly the Israelis in the car started to shriek and point through the window. There, in the car right next to us, was a major celebrity. I did not recognize him, of course, but we’re talking George Clooney-LeBron James level awe. Oh, my gosh, it was him! It was really him! At first, they weren’t sure it was him but then, yes, they looked closer and agreed it was definitely him.

Him was Shay-Oren Smadja.

Who?

“You’re a sportswriter!” they shouted. “How could you not know Shay-Oren Smadja?”

Um … who?

It turned out Shay-Oren Smadja was the bronx medalist in Men’s Lightweight Judo at the 1992 Olympics. It was the first bronze medal Israel had ever won at the Olympics. The others honestly were surprised that I did not know this.

A second story: My friend Robert Lusetich, the most excellent golf writer for Fox Sports, is from Australia. One day he was at the Match Play championship at LaCosta when he came upon a man named Garry Sobers. Or Garfield Sobers. Or, i you prefer, Sir Garfield Sobers — he is, according to this site anyway, the greatest all-rounder in the history of cricket, an “all-rounder” being someone who is brilliant at both batting and bowling. Babe Ruth would clearly be the greatest all-rounder in baseball history, followed perhaps by Wes Ferrell or George Uhle or another excellent hitting pitcher. Bob Lemon could hit too.

Anyway, Robert was utterly blown away by Garry Sobers being RIGHT THERE. And this was good because, as you already suspected, nobody else in the room had any idea who he was. I can remember Robert telling me this story with sheer wonder in his voice. “It would be like Hank Aaron walking around in Australia,” he says, “and only one person having any idea who he was.”

We do live in our own sports worlds. This is an obvious point, of course, but the longer I do this crazy job the more amazing it seems how insulated we are as sports fans. The world is supposedly getting smaller, right? And yet … I remember in 2007 going to the Japan Series, and it was clinched on the final day by a perfect game. That remains the only perfect game I’ve ever seen live. And it wasn’t just a perfect game to clinch a championship, the dream sequence, no, there was some controversy too. The starter, Daisuke Yamai, pitched eight innings. And then, incredibly, impossibly, the Chunichi Dragons manager Hiromitsu Ochiai (a legendary player in his day) pulled Yamai with a perfect game and put in his closer Hitoki Iwase. He pitched the perfect ninth inning.

And it was madness in Japan, pure madness, a scene unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed. When you are at something like that, you expect everyone will care. Sure, I didn’t expect it to be big news in America, of course, but I thought it would be a bit of a talker, you know, a perfect game to clinch Japan’s World Series, that’s pretty cool. And …

And … nothing. I don’t mean the story was ignored. I mean, it didn’t even reach the level of ignored. It was two steps below “irrelevant.” It was not even in the WIFI hot zone of “insignificant.” The moment in America was absolutely nothing. On one level that seemed crazy to me. The second-biggest baseball country in the world has this Don Larsen moment, and it registered an absolute 0.0 on the interest Richter scale.

But on another level, I fully understood. If I had not been there, I probably would not have cared. That’s just how it is. Sports interest is intensely local. A big sports star in one town is nobody in the next. A game of the century in one state is not even in the news in the next. A sporting legend in one country can’t even get a cab to stop in another.

Sometimes, though, it’s fascinating to go outside the circle. In the last couple of weeks, you have probably seen or heard or read a story or two about the legendary cricketer Sachin Tendulkar, who retired after an unparalleled career. His career is unparalleled for somewhat complicated reasons. Few seem to think of Tendulkar as an unparalleled cricket batsman — that title seems permanently reserved for Sir Donald Bradman, the Babe Ruth of the sport — and there seems to be quite a bit of debate about his place as a batsman even in his own time.

But everyone agrees that the impact Tendulkar has had on the sport is without equal. Think of it for a moment: India is a country of 1.2 billion people — roughly four times as many as the United States. And everything is cricket. Everything. We are talking about a nation that has won one gold medal — ONE GOLD MEDAL — since the 1984 Olympics (Abhinav Bindra won a gold in Beijing for 10-meter air rifle — it is the only individual medal ever won by India at the Olympics). India has never played in the World Cup.

India’s obsessive interest is in cricket. This is a nation, as my friend Matt from Opta in London says, where 2,000 people showed up to watch an Indian player GET A HAIRCUT.

And it is in this mad swirl of hope and craving and desperation that Sachin Tendulkar has played.

“Batsman walk out into the middle alone,” the Indian poet, novelist and editor CP Surendran wrote. “Not Tendulkar. Every time Tendulkar walks to the crease, a whole nation, tatters and all, marches with him to the battle arena. A pauper people pleading for relief, remission from the lifelong anxiety of being Indian, by joining in spirit their visioned savior.”

And, as all the words came pouring in before his retirement, Surendran added this on Twitter: “Never has so many obits been written on a living person.”

The love, the hero-worship, the sense of wonder people feel for Tendulkar — it is not only because of his play, perhaps not even mostly because of his play. He was, of course, a legendary batter and there are numbers to show it. Cricket is second only to baseball in numbers. Tendulkar had 15,921 runs in test matches, that’s a record. He had a record 100 centuries (scoring 100-plus runs) when you count both his test matches and one-day international matches — the poetry of having exactly 100 centuries seems numeric proof to many that Tendulkar is a celestial being. He began as a 16-year-old prodigy, retired as a 40-year-old legend, and in the time in between he scored more runs in international competition than any batter ever.

These numbers may not make sense to you — they don’t make complete sense to me except for their splendor. It’s obvious that Tendulkar the batter was very much like Henry Aaron or Stan Musial, perhaps not the greatest ever but in the conversation. But what made him extraordinary is that, beyond all that, he was universally beloved for the way he handled himself. Never a controversy. Never a misspoken phrase, Never a selfish public scene. He not only accepted the overwhelming burden of being everything to India, he tried to rise up to it as a man. Matt, who loves cricket and baseball deeply and can speak of the two in tandem, offers an utterly fantastic way to think Tendulkar’s greatness.

“I don’t think there’s a direct comparison,” he says, “but if you imagine Ty Cobb level performance and longevity with Roberto Clemente/Mariano Rivera reputation, you’re about there. Then double the U.S. population, make them all Tiger fans and imagine that baseball is the only sport in U.S.”

Here’s another worldwide sports story, one that is not getting any play — I was tipped off by brilliant reader John: The Asia Series is going on right now in Taiwan. It’s a not overwhelmingly prestigious international baseball tournament — it has started and stopped and run into various troubles over the last decade or so — but it matches up the champions the baseball leagues in Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Australia and the winner of the European Cup. As you might imagine, Japan has dominated the tournament. It has been held six times and the Japanese champion won five (including the Chunichi Dragons mentioned earlier). South Korea won the other one.

Australia — again, as you probably imagined — has not done well. The Perth Heat have been the dominant team in the Australian Baseball League, having won back-to-back championships in 2010 and 2011, so they have been Australia’s representative at the Asia Series. They played five games in two years, lost them all by a combined scored of 30-6. Their one moment of glory was forcing extra innings in a game against the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions of Taiwan City. They lost in the 10th.

So, no, Australia has not been much of a player on the Asian stage. Well, to be honest, they’re not much on the Australian Stage yet either. The league is not on television in Australia. The sport is way behind cricket, tennis, soccer, basketball, Australian Rules Football, golf and, yeah, swimming and track and, sure, we can keep going for a while.

And this year, well, it seemed like things could get ugly in Asia. Somehow, some way, a team called the Canberra Cavalry won the Australian Baseball League in 2013. Even in the fledgling world of Australian Baseball, Canberra is considered small. The team is called the Cavalry, apparently, because their original name “Colts” was already being used by a rugby team in the area. This is a team that, according to their Boswell, David Polkinghorne of the Canberra Times, has a payroll of $47,000. That’s not one player. That’s the whole team’s payroll. One of their stars is a 40-year-old named Michael Wells, who needed to get a furlough from his government job just to play in the Asia series. Here he is talking about walking into Taichung Stadium in Taiwan for the first time:

“I’ve never seen a clubhouse like that,” he told Polkinghorne. “Everyone had their own lockers. The coaches had their own segregated area so they could go away and talk. Underground batting tunnels.”

Remember that scene in Hoosiers where the kids from Hickory first see the field house in Indianapolis? Yeah. Like that.

The team is made up of some American minor leaguers, a few interested locals who have full-time jobs, some people who work in government (Canberra is the capitol of Australia) ad so on. Canberra had, predictably, finished dead last the first two years of the league. Then came this surprising season, and their entry as human sacrifices for the Asia Series.

Only something ridiculous happened. Canberra played EDA Rhinos from Taiwan — obviously the Cavalry were massive underdogs. EDA Rhinos were at home, and this is one of the richest teams in Asia — it was the Rhinos who signed Manny Ramirez early this year. They’ve also signed Andruw Jones and former major leaguer Chun-lung Hu and so on. And Canberra somehow won 2-0.

That moved them into the semifinals where they would play the Samsung Lions, who won the Asia Series in 2011. The Lions have won the Korea Professional Baseball League six times since 2002. Canberra had no chance.

A Toronto minor leaguer named Jack Murphy — selected in the 31st round by the Blue Jays and a lifetime .231 minor league hitter — banged a home run in the 10th and Canberra beat the Rhinos 9-5 to reach the final.

Update: Wednesday night, the Cavalry played the Uni-President Lions in the championship game. They won 14-4.

But this is a cool thing: Sometimes sports does transcend. Maybe there’s no reason we should care about Canberra Cavalry or Tendulkar, but maybe there is a good reason. I remember 10 or 11 years ago, I was a columnist in Kansas City and I got an email from a former reader in Cincinnati. The email pointed to a story that happened in a high school in a small town in Southern Ohio. I recall the email said something like, “I know you don’t live anywhere near here now, but I saw this story and I thought of you.” The story involved a player named Jake Porter. He had Fragile X syndrome, a genetic condition that causes autism and, in Jake’s case, made learning anything extremely hard. Being part of the football (and basketball) team was the biggest thing in the world to him. He learned, with some help from teammates, how to put on a uniform. How to tie his shoes. He felt a part of something.

One year, he even got to play in a game, which thrilled him and his teammates and everyone. The next year, his coach Dave Frantz decided to put him into a game again for one play.

His team, Northwest High School in McDermott, was losing 42-0 to Waverly High with only a few seconds left when Frantz called timeout and crossed the field to discuss the situation with the Waverly coach Derek Dewitt. The crowd — including Jake Porter’s mother Liz — could see Dewitt shaking his head, ‘No, no, no.” The timeout ended. Frantz told Jake to go out there. The play was coming to him, a handoff. He was to take the ball and take a knee.

He went out there and got the ball and began to bend down and take a knee. And then he saw all of them — players from Northwest, players from Waverly, all of them — pointing to the end zone. A giant hole opened up. They wanted him to run. And he ran and ran — players ran with him — all the way to the end zone, a touchdown. It was beautiful.

When I heard the story, I immediately called Liz and Derek and others in town, I had to know more. They all seemed surprised at least a little bit surprised that someone from Kansas City was calling, but they knew it was a beautiful story. When I finished reporting, I called my editors in Kansas City and told them the story — I was on the verge of tears as I explained it. The story had nothing to do with me, but it overwhelmed me, and it had nothing to do with my editors, but they told me to write it, and it had nothing to do with our readers, but it received a different sort of response from maybe anything else I’ve written. People sent gifts and thank you cards and all sorts of things — not the usual stuff a sportswriter gets. But, yeah, while sports is local, sometimes it isn’t.

I ended that story like this.

It was bedlam. People ran on the field. Opposing players hugged. Children reenacted Jake’s run. Everybody wanted their photo taken with Jake. There has never been anything quite like it in McDermott. Somewhere in the madness, Liz was able to find Derek Dewitt. They had never met before. They hugged.

“Thank you,” Liz said through tears.

“No,” Derek said. “Thank you for letting us be a part of this.”

To this day, Jake Porter is sure he scored the winning touchdown in that game against Waverly. And you know what? He did.

19 thoughts on “The Wide Wide World of Sports

  1. Ian Oakhill

    I love Matt’s explanation of Tendulkar’s greatness. As a baseball and cricket lover, I think he’s got it spot-on.

    But there’s another element to why Sachin is so beloved of the whole cricket world – the sheer beauty of how he batted. Brian Lara’s batting was more dramatic, and Rahul Dravid and Ricky Ponting arguably played more match-winning innings, but Sachin’s the one we all go misty-eyed over, and not just in India (I’m British). His could just push gently at the ball and, such was the perfection of his timing, it would race away to the boundary.

    Not sure who would be the best baseball comparison for Tendulkar’s mix of tremendous achievement and pure aesthetic beauty – perhaps Mays or Clemente? Or, from reading what his contemporaries thought of him, how about Christy Mathewson? In other sports, I would mention Roger Federer, Allyson Felix, Pelé and Edwin Moses.

    Reply
    1. SBMcManus

      A good baseball comparator may be Ken Griffey Jr. He was certaintly great, but was probably not the best player of his time. But he did play the game very beautifully (mostly as a young man, before injuries robbed him of some of his easy manner on the field) and was probably the most acclaimed player in baseball in his early years.

      Reply
  2. William

    Joe, the Northwest story was one of the first of yours I had ever read. It hooked me like most people; as it was transcendent beyond sports like very few stories can. Thank you for mentioning it again and I’m rooting for Canberra to follow Hickory into sports history.

    Reply
  3. Daniel Amodio (@amodiodj)

    No need to track down the Asia Series score afterwards, mate. You can stream it live. 5am tomorrow morning, US Eastern time. Here’s the link:

    http://web.theabl.com.au/content/page.jsp?ymd=20131114&content_id=63931586&fext=.jsp&sid=l595&vkey=.

    And a quick correction that actually makes this story even crazier… the Uni-President 7-Eleven Lions from the CPBL beat the Golden Eagles last night, behind a massive performance by Nelson Figueroa (yes, that Nelson Figueroa).

    So our Cavalry will face them in the grand final tonight, Aussie time. Either way, history will be made because neither Japan nor Korea will win the 2013 Asia Series.

    It’s a big week, my friend. Go Cavs!!!

    Reply
  4. berkowit28

    In addition to all those other sports named, both rugby formats – League and Union – are also big in Australia, far, far ahead of baseball.

    Reply
  5. NPB Card Guy

    Just to clarify, Andruw Jones does not now nor has he ever played for the EDA Rhinos. He spent this season playing the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, champions of NPB. He did not, however, travel with the team to Taiwan which is part of the reason that the Eagles did not make it to the title game (Casey McGehee also did not go to Taiwan while the team’s two best pitchers – Takahiro Norimoto and Masahiro Tanaka – went but did not pitch).

    Which is not to take anything away from what Canberra did. They beat the snot out of the Taiwanese champs.

    Reply
  6. hatterdph

    A friend from Syndey just told me the news of the Calvary was only the 20th headline on the Sydney sports section.

    Reply
  7. Brett Alan

    I see Jack Murphy was named MVP of the tournament–no small honor considering that the first two MVPs of the event were Benny Agbayani and Yu Darvish. I say they should rename Qualcomm Stadium after him!!! B^)

    Reply

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