As we speak, Arsenal are in hot pursuit of a Uruguayan striker who would shore up their attack and provide some much needed firepower in front of goal. But this is no ordinary player. This player, despite all of his talents on the football pitch, served an eight-match suspension in 2011 for racial abuse, and is now currently in the midst of 10-game suspension for biting an opponent.
Considering his less than immaculate track record, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that this might represent a perfect ‘buy low’ opportunity for Arsenal, something worth bearing in mind when you take a peek at their frugal past.
Yet, despite Luis Suarez’s indifferent reputation and penchant for human flesh, Liverpool has valued him at £50 million, and don’t seem in the mood for negotiating. Nevertheless, after eight trophy-less years, Arsenal are desperate, and are now positioning to make a revised offer for Suarez in a deal that would shatter the previous club transfer fee record of £15 million when Andrei Arshavin arrived at the Emirates in February of 2009.
£40 million plus £1. That was the most recent bid, which triggered a clause in the Uruguayan’s contract and allowed Arsenal to discuss terms with the striker. How did we get here though? This is most certainly out of character for a club built on a “socialist model,” as Arsène Wenger so colorfully depicted back in January.
Arsenal have long preached that clubs who spend beyond their means will eventually risk ultimate demise because of the unassailable debts they acquire. Wenger, who has a degree in economics from the University of Strasbourg, takes great pride shrewd signings and the the grooming of younger players, treating themmore like stock options than professional athletes: buying low and then selling high. Kolo Touré, Patrick Viera, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry. World-class players who all came to Arsenal at unbeatable prices, and, in 2004, were part of Arsenal’s unbeatable team. Wenger, for a time, seemingly had it all figured out. He was the maharishi of identifying undervalued players and exploited this to his advantage.
By the time Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in July of 2003, however, teams were already catching on to Wenger’s astute methods and soon his competitive advantage had been abridged. Subsequently, Wenger, a long-time spokesperson for the UEFA Financial Fair Play policy–scheduled to take full effect in 2018–was none too pleased with the influx of outside money, accusing Chelsea of “economic doping, because their resources were artificial.”
But when the global recession hit in the winter of 2008, Arsenal, having enforced a policy of only spending what they had, saw themselves in a position of power. Many predicted that major football clubs like Chelsea would rue their overspending, and some went as far as forecasting foreclosures under the weight of masses of unpaid debt. Arsenal, perfectly positioned to reap the benefits of a crumbling market, were ready to swoop in and buy players at a discounted rate.
"Football is not untouchable,” Wenger said. “We live by people going to the stadiums and from [sponsors] advertising to people who buy products. All our income could be a little bit under threat in the next few months."
But that day never came. The football market never crashed and people attended more games than ever, distracting themselves from the complications of everyday life. As evidenced by the 3.8% growth in Premier League attendance this past season, they are continuing to do so.
Still, Arsenal remained patient, never wavering from their “socialist model.” In fact, they tightened their purse stings in order to pay back the £430 million borrowed to build Emirates stadium. Arsenal’s chief executive, Ivan Gazidis, continued to reiterate the club’s self-sustaining model, claiming Arsenal “can and will forge its own path to success.” But fans remained disgruntled with this tactic, seeing too many of its best players being prised away by clubs with fatter wallets. Between 2007-2012, the sale of the club’s star players was responsible for £178 million (or over 90%) of the £195 million total profit.
Since 2003, when buying and selling players, Arsenal has recorded net proceeds of -£17 million, while Chelsea and Manchester City both have over £500 million. In the same period, Aston Villa, Tottenham, Manchester United and Liverpool have all spent over £119 million. Arsenal, it seems, has taken greater pride in strengthening their balance sheet, as opposed to the playing squad.
But the burden of the Emirates stadium “mortgage” is slowly lifting, and Arsenal are looking to become more involved in the transfer market once again. “The debt that we’re left with is what I would call ‘healthy debt’ – it’s long term, low rates and very affordable for the club,” Gazidis said in 2011.
Furthermore, Gazidis spoke recently of improved commercial deals that would see an “escalation in our financial firepower.”
“It is a big summer,” he said in June. “We have been working very, very hard to gain the kind of financial capability we need as a football club to be at the very top end of the game.”
Mikel Arteta said recently that it’s “about time” Arsenal got aggressive in the transfer market and a figure of £70 million was understood to have been set aside for Wenger should he wish to land a marquee signing. So, after years of parsimony, the Arsenal faithful have watched and waited for their club to acquire one of the big fish. Yet, to this date, apart from acquiring 20-year-old Yaya Sanogo on a free transfer from French side AJ Auxerre, Arsenal has not spent a cent.
Herein lies the predicament that Arsenal, and their fans, now face. It has been eight long years (and counting) since the club last hoisted silverware and the dust on the trophy cabinet has grown too thick to ignore. Armed with money in a sellers market, they are forced to look at players like Luis Suarez to fill their needs and satisfy their fans thirst to make a splash.
Long have Arsenal supporters dreamed of the day that the financially conservative club would open up their checkbook. And yes, there is surely an abundance who would love to see Suarez ply his trade in a Gunners shirt at the Emirates. But, weighing down the other side of the scales, are those who face quite a vexing dilemma: That cheering for a proved racist, one who has a history of biting other players, doesn’t really fit the Latin inscription that once adorned the clubs’ crest: Victoria Concordia Crescit,"victory comes from harmony."
Luis Suarez is a mercurial talent, there is no doubt about that, but he walks with the burden of a black cloud hanging over his character like the London winter sky. Is this what Arsenal fans truly want their club to be seen as? Spending to win, by any means necessary, giving no regard to the character of the players they sign or the number of zeros on the price tag?
Whether or not they sign Suarez remains to be seen. What does seem more clear, however, is that Arsenal are finally willing to entertain the idea of spending big. And when this happens, no longer will Arsenal fans be able to hide behind the argument that they are somehow above the overspending that is omnipresent in top-level football. They must come to terms with the fact that their values and moral beliefs, the ones that previously set them apart from the Chelsea’s and the Manchester City’s, will be somewhat diminished. And if it’s Suarez, at that price, well, possibly obliterated.
Like it or not, Wenger has always made logical decisions and has stood by his system, often to a fault. But this transfer window feels different. Gazidis has set himself up with his bold statements, and now there is an expectation that the club must do something, even if it means taking on a player with questionable character.
So, here we are. £40 million plus £1. Arsenal fans have one indelible motif and it reads like a holy proclamation of North London. In Arsène We Trust. Now, more than ever before, they should hope that this rings true.
Once, when reminiscing of the time he took part in an inter-house ‘sudden death’ football competition as a schoolboy in north-west London, Charles Adcock, facial follicles proudly embowering his upper lip, spawned an idea.
So, using the power granted to him as the Honorary Secretary of England’s governing body of football, he proposed a tournament – the Challenge Cup — ‘for which all clubs belonging to The Association should be invited to compete.’ His proposition was met with a favourable response and a few months later, at a subsequent meeting, the idea was approved. Martin, Hall & Co. crafted a trophy for a measly £20 and fifteen clubs signed-on for the inaugural tournament.
Today, 141 years later, over 750 clubs compete in Adcock’s little event, now known simply as the FA Cup — the oldest domestic football Cup competition in the world. In addition to the 92 teams from the top four divisions, the tournament is open to the semi-pro and amateur clubs that make up the lower grades of English football, all of which have the opportunity to advance to the latter parts of the tournament where the top tier teams (and potential cash windfalls) are waiting.
There is a huge sense of domestic pride about the FA Cup. No greater evidence of this is the fact that the tournament was named as a ‘cultural icon of England’ by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport next to things such as Stonehenge, the Double Decker bus, and a Cup of Tea.
Undoubtedly, there is something inherently magical about it. This mythology is drawn from the fact that, at its essence, every football team in England has the opportunity to win. Each supporter base, no matter how small or cash-strapped their club might be, can harbour the hope that it is their beloved team which might slay the dragon, causing an upset that generates back page news and grants them their 15 minutes.
It is a tournament that gives a part-time plumber from Sheffield, or a local cabinetmaker from Norwich, the opportunity to win his way to Wembley Stadium, one of the most famous football pitches in England. And, in the process, earn him the right to step foot on the hallowed turf with men who earn the equivalent of a small country’s Gross Domestic Product.
The tournament, which runs from August through to May the following year, also offers football fans a respite from the monotony of a long season. A team, which may be treading water in the most vanilla place on the league table – “mid-table,” “no-man’s-land,” or worse still, “Fulham” — is given newfound hope that their squad could still achieve greatness on the national stage. In a season that stretches over nine months and 38 league games, this injection of fan interest cannot be emphasized enough.
Which is why, in a sport that plays 162 (!) regular season games over six exhausting months, an FA Cup-style knockout tournament could be exactly what Major League Baseball needs.
It could be argued that outside of the playoffs and the World Series, the most exciting moment of the MLB season is Opening Day. Thomas Boswell penned the book, Why Time Begins on Opening Day, chronicling the day when the President throws out the first pitch and the crowd hushes as it awaits the first call of, “Play ball!” It is a day ingrained in the American psyche, where fathers take sons to watch their new-look team embark on the long journey to baseball immortality. The record of each team is 0-0, the purest of all standings. It is an even playing field.
Ultimately, it is a day of hope.
That hope, which is so rampant as the Star Spangled Banner crackles through the ballpark speakers on Opening Day, lasts long into the summer for some fortunate fanbases. But for many, it’s as fleeting as a first pitch fastball. By May, the writing is often on the wall for many teams, fans already coming to the unpleasant realization that this year their team just doesn’t have it. Come July, as the MLB All-Star Game approaches, these fans have turned their attention to NFL training camp, reinvesting their time into studying up on the new hot Quarterback their football team has drafted, rather than watching their baseball team wallow at the bottom of their division… with 80 games to go in the season.
An in-season tournament offers them hope, no matter what the regular season standings say.
Clubs and supporters from the top of the baseball pyramid aren’t the only ones who may benefit from a change in routine.
For many, life in the minor leagues is a demanding pursuit. Long bus trips to remote destinations seem to occur all too frequently. Comfort Inn beds, if they’re lucky, are cold and lumpy. The menu at the local Applebee’s, a plethora of exciting choices at first glance, begins to look all too familiar about three weeks into the season. And, for most, this will be the pinnacle of their baseball career. Some will work their way up the baseball pecking order and on to a major league roster. But for most, their stories will be of life on the road and the obscure places they’ve visited. As Peter Applebome observes in his 2007 New York Times piece about the life of a minor league ball player: their team bus, the one constant in their season, is the closest thing to a home.
In a country where the sporting audience is constantly craving a new David to cheer for against Goliath, the mere chance that a team of kids from the minor leagues might live out their dream of playing against Derek Jeter at Yankee Stadium is too good to pass up.
Imagine for a second that the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs make a Cinderella run to the final (think Barnsley, flirting with League Championship relegation, going on an improbable run in the 2007/08 FA Cup, defeating Liverpool and Chelsea on the way to the semi-finals) and meeting the New York Yankees, whilst the Boston Red Sox players cheer on their young compatriots from behind the dugout. Besides Yankees fans, who wouldn’t be rooting for the underdog Portland Sea Dogs?
History would suggest that, like the FA Cup, two MLB teams would ultimately meet in the final. But, like mid-table Football League Championship teams Millwall (2003/04) and Cardiff City (2007/08) making it to the FA Cup final in recent years, there are always surprises.
Using the same system that is applied in the FA Cup – and, to keep it simple, using the same prize money structure — the tournament could conceivably play out like this:
Extra Preliminary Round (18 New Entries) – Winners (9) $1,200
Top three teams (based on record from the year prior) from the Independent Minor Leagues (those that are not affiliated with Major League Baseball), excluding Independent Winter Leagues.
(American Association – 3 teams, Atlantic League of Professional Baseball – 3 teams, North American League – 3 teams, Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball – 3 teams, Frontier League – 3 teams, Pecos League — 3 teams)
Preliminary Round (115 New Entries) – Winners (62) $2,400
Class A (Short Season), Rookie Leagues (Advanced), Rookie Leagues and Fall Leagues
(New York - Penn League – 14 teams, Northwest League – 8 teams, Appalachian League – 10 teams, Pioneer League – 8 teams, Arizona League – 11 teams, Dominican Summer League – 34 teams, Gulf Coast League – 9 teams, Venezuelan Summer League – 9 teams, Arizona Fall League – 6 teams)
First Round Qualifying (60 New Entries) – Winners (56) $4,750
Class A, Class A Advanced
(Midwest League – 16 teams, South Atlantic League – 14 teams, California League – 10 teams, Carolina League – 8 teams, Florida State League – 12 teams)
Second Round Qualifying – Winners (28) $7,200
Third Round Qualifying – Winners (14) $12,000
First Round Proper (30 New Entries) – Winners (22) $28,500
Double-A (Eastern League – 12 teams, Southern League – 10 teams, Texas League – 8 teams)
Second Round Proper (46 New Entries) – Winners (34) - $43,000
Triple-A (International League – 14 teams, Pacific Coast League – 16 teams, Mexican League – 16 teams)
Third Round Proper (30 New Entries) – Winners (32) – $107,000
Final – Winner (1) $3,000,000, Runner-up (1) - $1,500,000
In 2011, Joe Posnanski wrote a piece for Sports Illustrated on the “154-game solution.” Posnanski argues, to great affect, that many in the baseball fraternity feel that the baseball season is too long. He also acknowledges that baseball, more than any other sport, bows to history and as such has the most trepadation to change. Yet, a shorter season – namely 154 games – is not change. It’s baseball history:
Jackie Robinson broke into the major leagues in a 154-game season. Ted Williams hit .400 in a 154-game season. The Giants won the ‘51 pennant after a 154-game season. (O.K., 157, including the playoff with Brooklyn.) Lefty Grove won 31 in a 154-game season. This is baseball’s heritage. Sure, owners would bark because of lost revenue. But it’s just eight games, and a little ticket scarcity probably wouldn’t hurt at the gate. You wish the people running baseball would consider something other than today’s profits.
With a shorter regular season and the insertion of an FA Cup-style knockout tournament, maybe the owners wouldn’t lose this revenue? Besides, it’s not as if baseball is struggling. In 2012, MLB posted its 10th consecutive year of record revenue, with $7.5 billion.
Additionally, a television deal would need to be struck for the exclusive rights to the tournament, and with new player FOX Sports 1 on the scene, the price would be driven sky-high. Major League Baseball teams, inserted into the tournament in the Third Round Proper, would play a maximum of 6 additional games (assuming they make the final) - still less than the current 162 game regular season number. Lower grade teams, struggling to make ends meet day-to-day, would receive cash bonuses for qualifying wins, allowing them new funds to buy equipment and uniforms.
Such a tournament, one that would increase awareness of grassroots baseball and promote participation of the game, can’t be a bad thing. If it gets talking heads bloviating on ESPN, then even better. And, ultimately, if it provides the spark baseball yearns for during the dog days of summer when the drawn-out season is seemingly stuck on autopilot, then that may be the most important accomplishment of all.
What’s been lost in all of the Tebow hoopla and ESPN’s around-the-clock Carrie Mathison-like surveillance on him, is that the quarterback has started only 16 games in his NFL career, the equivalent of one full regular season. Of those 16 games, Tebow has won nine, including an improbable 2011 stretch from October 23 to December 11, when he led a hapless 1-4 Denver Broncos team to seven wins in eight games (many in vintage Tebow fashion), backing them into the playoffs and pulling off a miracle overtime victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a finish straight out of the Friday Night Lights game-winning touchdown playbook.
A small sample size? No doubt. But in those games, he left an indelible impression on the NFL and polarized all who watched him play. Onlookers witnessed countless phenomena’s on the football field, yet still there were doubters. Oh, there were so many doubters. Hours of cable airtime was filled with talking heads barking relentlessly, dismissing his achievements. How could this possibly have happened? Since there was no rational way to explain it, detractors took to more quantifiable measures, nitpicking Tebow’s sub-par statistics.
ESPN’s new quarterback metric, Total QBR, designed to incorporate the contexts and details of quarterback throws and what they mean for team wins, rated Tebow 31st in the league with a score of 29.9 (out of a possible 100). As ESPN explains,an average QB would be at 50. Not even a newly developed ratings system, which accounts for Tebow-friendly things like “Clutch Index,” could fully appreciated his unlikely triumphs.
AdvancedNFLStats.com, a website curated by Brian Burke dedicated to calculating “what makes teams win” through statistical analysis, had similar findings. Tebow’s 2011 Success Rate (the proportion of plays in which a player was directly involved that would typically be considered successful) was only 38.9%, placing him 36th out of the 39 quarterbacks who qualified. In comparison, Tom Brady led the league with a Success Rate percentage of 57.1.
FootballOutsiders.com, innovators in NFL advanced metrics and partners with ESPN.com, also struggled to explain the Tebow Miracle. His 2011 DVOA, or Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, was -22.7%, ranking him 37th in the league amongst the 47 quarterbacks who threw a minimum 100 passes. The DVOA number represents value, per play, over and average quarterback in the same game situations. Put simply, if you believe these numbers; the Denver Broncos would have been better off with 36 other players under centre than they were with Tebow.
But wins are more important to an NFL front office than fancy statistics, right? Aren’t they what sell tickets, move merchandise (Tebow had the second best selling NFL jersey in 2011), and bring in lucrative TV dollars from nationally televised playoff games? Apparently not.
One man perpetually unconvinced with Tebow’s onfield exploits, was precisely the man who Tebow needed to convince the most. Broncos’ Executive Vice President of Football Operations, John Elway, himself a two-time Super Bowl winning play-caller, coveted a more “traditional quarterback” despite Tebow’s improbable run. Tebow clearly didn’t fit the traditional mold. So in July, when the Indianapolis Colts announced they were cutting injured four-time MVP Peyton Manning — rather than playing him the $28 million bonus he was owed — Elway had his target. Tebow was no longer in the Broncos’ plans.
“Plan B,” Elway responded when asked about what would happen if they didn’t secure Manning’s signature. “We don’t have a Plan B. We’re going with Plan A.”
For Elway, it couldn’t have worked out better. Manning is turning in his best season since his 2009 MVP campaign and has helped the Broncos wrap up the AFC West title already. For Tebow, traded by Elway to the New York Jets for two late-round draft picks, things could be better.
But they also could also be a lot worse. I mean, he could be playing.
Gaudy New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan has fervidly stood by Mark Sanchez, despite continued poor performances by the fourth-year quarterback. Sanchez, who won four road playoff games in his first two seasons, has failed make any significant progress since his sophomore season. In fact, he looks to be regressing and it culminated with a 10-21, 97 yard, 3INT game on Sunday which saw him benched in place of Greg McElroy, a 2011 seventh-round pick out of Alabama.
Tebow, who has seldom been used this season, was sidelined with injured ribs, so it’s peculiar as to why Ryan chose this game to finally bench Sanchez. But perhaps it’s in Tebow’s best interest that the cloak of mystery continues to hang over him.
In ten games this season, Tebow has attempted seven passes, completing six of them. He also bulked up in the offseason to assist the Jets in getting back to their ‘ground-and-pound’ run-heavy offense, yet has only rushed the ball 29 times, accumulating a modest 87 yards. Not crazy numbers by any stretch of the imagination.
Tebow’s frustrations are obvious, but the Jets decision to trade for him this past offseason was widely seen as an attention-grabbing move at the time. Opinions haven’t changed much, with the common belief that this is simply another attempt by the franchise to steal the back page headlines from the Super Bowl Champions they share a stadium with. Never one to mince words, outspoken Hall of Famer Joe Namath summed up what many people were thinking at the time. “I just think it’s a publicity stunt,” Namath said. “I really think it’s wrong.”
Whether it’s right or wrong, the Jets fans want to see him on the field more. But for those pining for Tebow Time in New York, they shouldn’t hold their breath. Sanchez, who was inexplicably signed to a $40.5 million extension in March — bringing his total deal to five-years, $58.25 million — is guaranteed $8.25 million in salary in 2013 with no buyout clause, making him almost impossible to trade or release. Rex Ryan and General Manager Mike Tannenbaum are committed to Sanchez, and, barring injury, that means that Tebow will continue to hold a clipboard for the foreseeable future.
But, in the strangest of ways, perhaps Tebow’s lack of playing time this season is the best thing that could have happened to him. Instead of being traded to a lowly team with a quarterback vacancy where his limited abilities would have been exposed, possibly fatally, Tebow is now in a position where people are beginning to overrate him again. Time is a funny thing. It makes you forget. Gone are the advanced metrics from the forefront of our minds — QBR, SRP, DVOA -– and back is the Power of Tebow. A living, walking miracle who can heal people with the touch of his hand, yet looks completely incompetent when holding a football with it.
Tebow may be the most televised backup in the history of the league, casting a forlorn figure on the sidelines for the most part this season. But in each game he sits, the more NFL fans miss him. In a lost season that has seen him used more as a decoy on special teams, we have been cleansed of the ugliness of some of his performances at quarterback last season, and now we just yearn for the magic to return.
The worse that things get for the Jets — and they don’t get much worse than what happened against New England on Thanksgiving — the better things are for Tebow. The unflattering advanced metrics are slowly being washed away by the waves of “Te-bow, Te-bow” reverberating around MetLife Stadium. Whether they continue to reverberate in the 2013 season remains to be seen. For now, the Jets are a sinking ship, and Tebow should be thankful that Rex Ryan hasn’t asked him to part the sea of football mediocrity.
His miracles, you see, would be of better use elsewhere.
But a recent sale to Illinois-based businessman Shahid Kahn squashed those rumors, with the new owner committing to keep the Jaguars in the state of Florida and signing a deal to play home games in London over the next four years. Kahn seems to like Florida, recently buying a house in the sunshine state and in February admitting his fondness of another local product. One that played quarterback for the University of Florida.
“100 percent I would have [drafted Tim Tebow],” Khan said. “Absolutely.”
The Jaguars were close to landing Tebow again in March this year, offering to pay back Denver $3 million (compared with the $2.53 million offered by the Jets) and dealing their fourth round draft pick (more valuable than the two later round picks the Jets were offering based on the draft “value chart”), before the transaction fell through and the Jets got the deal done.
Chad Henne, called upon by the Jaguars to start at quarterback after incumbent Blaine Gabbert was placed on the season-ending Injured Reserve, has delivered some inspired performances since he was given his opportunity. But for Jacksonville to make significant inroads on the national stage, they must call on the man who attended Nease High School in Ponte Vedra Beach, just 23 miles south of EverBank Field.
The first Jaguars game Shahid Kahn ever attended was on September 12, 2010, when the Denver Broncos came into town. A rookie quarterback sat patiently on the bench, waiting to be called upon. His two carries for 2 yards were insignificant in the effect that they had on the result of the game, but not for the 63,636 fans in attendance.
“There were a lot more Tebow jerseys in the Jaguars stands than the teal jerseys for any player,” Kahn said, reflecting on his first Jacksonville Jaguars experience.
For the future of his newly purchased franchise, it make sense for Kahn to hitch his wagon to Tebow’s star. Maybe Tebow won’t turn the lowly Jaguars around completely, but even without the the additional W’s in the win/loss column, the franchise will come out victorious. Increased attendance figures, inflated jersey sales, and perhaps most importantly, national relevancy, all come as part of the Tebow package. And for a franchise with an NFL-worst record of 2-10, anything remotely resembling a win should be considered.
Tim Tebow already has one statue erected in his honor, standing just outside the gates of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville. Time will tell whether another is built elsewhere, but it’s safe to say it won’t be outside MetLife Stadium.
So, for now, Tebow will bide his time. We will forget what we choose, remember those flashes of brilliance, and await next chapter of the Book of Tebow. For this season need never have been written.
As NBA prophets attempt to cast light on the shadowy 2012/13 NBA Championship, one storyline continues to surface as a viable way to derail that dream. This past August, eleven NBA players (and one rookie) took home the United States’ thirteenth gold medal from an Olympic Games Men’s Basketball tournament. Six of those players (LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh from the Miami Heat and Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden from the Oklahoma City Thunder) finished playing in the NBA Finals just 13 days before the Olympic training camp began in Las Vegas. Their first practice game followed seven days later, against the Dominican Republic on July 12.
Unlike 2008, however, when players were coming off a full 82 game season, members of the 2012 Olympic team had the “advantage” of only having played 66 regular season games (plus playoffs) before beginning their quest for gold in London. Still, despite the lack of 100-gamers (Kobe Bryant played 103 games in 2007/08 before the Beijing Olympics), the off-season schedule remained primarily the same. Whilst the rest of the league was taking a much needed break — recovering from a heavily condensed shortened season — some of these players were back on the court less than two weeks after confetti fell from the rafters at the American Airlines Arena in Miami.
So when we look into the NBA crystal ball and begin to prognosticate about who will be receiving the Larry O’Brien trophy from David Stern for the final time, what should we make of these Olympians? Will their lack of off-season rest affect their production this upcoming season? Are injuries more likely to occur, as players have more mileage on their legs and less break in between seasons? Or will representing their country and bringing home a gold medal inspire them to greater heights?
To properly gauge the impact that an Olympic Games has, it’s worth looking back at the key members of the 2008 Team USA and examining how they responded the following year.
2007/08 – Miami Heat (15-67, Worst record in NBA)
2008/09 – Miami Heat (43-39, Fifth in Eastern Conference)
After offseason surgery on his left knee in 2007 sidelined him for six months, Wade returned to the court in November, but struggled to stay healthy. The Heat shut him down in March 2008 and he underwent OssaTron treatment (shock wave therapy) to assist in the recovery of his ailing knee. It seemed to work, as Wade led Team USA in points for the tournament (128), averaging 16 per game. Shooting a remarkable 67% from the field, Wade was instrumental in Team USA’s quest for gold, and he parlayed that into the 2008/09 NBA season, putting up career-best numbers in points, steals, assists, and blocks. He led the league in points per game (30.2), field goal attempts (1739), field goals made (854), and was second only to Olympic teammate LeBron James in John Hollinger’s Player Efficiency Rating (PER) at 30.46. He also finished third in M.V.P. voting, made the All-NBA First Team and the All-Defensive Second Team. But probably the most remarkable season note for the oft-injured Wade, however, was that he played 79 games (still a career high), voluntarily sitting out the final two games of the regular season to rest for the upcoming playoffs.
2007/08 – Cleveland (45-37, 4th in Eastern Conference)
2008/09 – Cleveland (66-16, Best record in NBA)
In the season prior to the Olympics, LeBron led the league in scoring and it’s easy to see why. Flanked with a sub-par (and that’s putting it kindly) supporting cast of Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Drew Gooden, Sasha Pavlovic, Larry Hughes and Daniel Gibson, James was force to shoulder most of the load offensively. Third in the league in minutes per game (40.4), LeBron dragged the Cavaliers to the Eastern Conference Semi Finals, eventually going down to the Boston Celtics in seven games. LeBron’s heavy workload continued in Beijing, leading Team USA in minutes per game (24.8). His production continued to grow on the international stage, averaging 15.5 points (shooting at a very efficient 60.2% clip), collecting 5.3 rebounds per game, and dishing off 3.8 assists. What happened next wasn’t an Olympic regress, but a gargantuan leap forward. Despite logging less minutes (and thus averaging less than his 07/08 numbers in every category apart from rebounds), James played 81 regular season games (75 the season prior), saw his ‘Per 36 Minutes’ averages shoot-up in all categories, and registered a league best 31.76 PER. What resulted was his first M.V.P. award, All-NBA First Team selection, All-Defensive Team selection, and five Eastern Conference Player of the Month awards. Not a bad Olympic hangover cure.
2007/08 – LA Lakers (57-25, Best record in Western Conference)
2008/09 – LA Lakers (65-17, Best record in Western Conference)
103. That was how many total games Kobe played in the 2007/08 season, as he lead the Lakers back to the NBA Finals, coming up just short to the Boston Celtics in six hard-fought games. On Team USA in Beijing, Bryant was coming off an M.V.P. season (despite his numbers being down on previous seasons and notwithstanding one of the great point guard seasons of all time from Chris Paul), and played like he wanted to ensure everybody else knew it. He took the most shots (104) and most three pointers (53), shooting the ball at 46%, sub-par compared with the other starters. Yet despite his massive workload the previous season and in addition clocking the second-most minutes on Team USA in Beijing, Bryant would not miss a game in 2008/09. Instead, he outdid himself, playing a career-high 105 games (including playoffs and finals), leading the league in “clutch stats, and guiding the Los Angeles Lakers to the 2008/2009 NBA Championship over the Orlando Magic.
2007/08 – Orlando – (52-30, Third in Eastern Conference)
2008/09 – Orlando – (59-23, Third in Eastern Conference)
Heading into the Olympics Dwight Howard was coming off a breakout season, posting some immense defensive numbers, and gaining his first All-NBA First Team selection. Continuing his ascendance in Beijing, Howard started all eight games for Team USA, averaging 16.1 minutes court time and shooting the ball at an amazing 74.5% from the field. Against Dirk Nowitzki and Germany, Howard unleashed 22 points, 10 rebounds and 2 steals in a 49-point demolition. Howard returned to the NBA in 2008/09 invigorated and posted career-best numbers in blocks (2.9), whilst also leading the league in rebounds for the second year running. He was rewarded for his achievements with NBA Defensive Player of the Year honors and his second straight All-NBA First Team selection. Missing only three games all season, Howard finished fourth in PER (25.4).
2007/2008 – New Orleans Hornets (56-26, Second in Western Conference)
2008/2009 – New Orleans Hornets (49-33, Seventh in Western Conference)
You could make a case that Chris Paul deserved the 2007/08 M.V.P. award. It wasn’t just his amazing statistics (21.1ppg, 11.6ppg, 4.0reb, 2.7stl), but how he carried an average New Orleans Hornets team to the second seed in a loaded Western Conference. Throw in the mindboggling numbers of 22-13-4 with 50-82-41 percentages after the All-Star break and there is still no rational explanation as to why Kobe Bryant received 82 first place votes to Paul’s 28. Don’t forget, Kobe was bad-mouthing his teammates before the season started and demanding a trade!Then the Grizzlies gift-wrapped the Lakers Pau Gasol and everybody (especially Kobe) seemed to forget how close he was to becoming a Clipper.
So it makes sense that Paul was playing with a chip on his shoulder when he landed in Beijing. Coming off the bench and playing 21.9 minutes per game (third only to starters Dwyane Wade and LeBron James), Paul led Team USA in assists (33), and was second in steals (18).
His 2008/09 NBA numbers were, amazingly, better than the previous season. Playing a career-high 38.5 minutes per game, Paul put up career-best numbers in field goal percentage (.503), rebounds (5.5), steals (2.8) and points (22.8) and again led the league in assists. Additionally, Paul made the All-Defensive First Team, the All-NBA Second Team and was third (behind Wade and James) with a 30.0 PER.
2007/08 – Toronto Raptors (41-41, Sixth in Eastern Conference)
2008/09 – Toronto Raptors (33-49, Thirteenth in Eastern Conference)
Bosh came into the Beijing Olympics having missed 15 games in the 2007/08, first with a strained groin and then later in the season with right knee pain. He returned in time for the playoffs, but his efforts weren’t enough to get the Raptors past the Orlando Magic in Eastern Conference First Round. For Team USA, Bosh was a sharpshooter off the bench, nailing 77% from the floor and raking in a team-high 6.1 rebounds per game.
Bosh returned for the 2008/2009 season and played 77 games (his most since 04/05), and despite the Raptors missing the playoffs, put up better regular season numbers in multiple categories including points (22.7) and rebounds (10.0).
It’s impossible to know how different players will react to the shorter offseason and increased workload. Players like James Harden (23 years old), Russell Westbrook (23), Kevin Durant (24) and Kevin Love (24) have the benefit of younger legs, as LeBron did four years ago. But while Harden seems to be revelling in his new role as the go-to scorer on the Houston Rockets, Love broke his right hand doing knuckle push-ups and will miss the first six weeks of the season.
The bigger question that remains though, is how Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook will adapt to life without the bearded lefty with the sweet stroke? Without Harden to anchor the second unit, Durant and Westbrook will be relied on for more minutes and equally more offense. Bigger numbers, perhaps, but will it translate into wins?
The key contributors in 2008 not only took their personal games to the next level after getting their first taste of Olympic gold, but their teams benefited with vastly superior records. Time will tell whether Olympic first-timers like Westbrook and Durant will have the same success, but if history is anything to go by, look out league.
"I’m not disabled, I just don’t have any legs" – Oscar Pistorius
Every Olympic Games has a moment.
Jesse Owens dominating the 1936 Games in Berlin, as Adolf Hitler watched on from his observation box. Tommie Smith and John Carlos bowing their heads, their black-gloved hands raised high in a gesture of black power in Mexico City in ’68. Munich in 1972, forever remembered for the terrorist killing of Israeli athletes, but also for Mark Spitz’s seven gold medals. Greg Louganis in Seoul ‘88, who misjudgeda reverse 2 1/2 somersault pike and hit his head on the board, only to recover and win gold in the 10-metre platform. Derek Raymond snapping his hamstring in the 400-metres final in Barcelona and his father Jim, fighting off security, running onto the track to help his son finish. Cathy Freeman, a symbol of reconciliation and an icon of national unity, winning gold in the 400-metres in Sydney. And in 2008 it was Usain Bolt in the 100-metres, shoelace untied, restoring splendor to the tarnished blue riband event.
Years from now, when we reflect on the London Olympics, you can rest assured that one moment will stand tall. Not on two legs, however, but on carbon-fibre prostheses. For this moment, we have never seen before.
In September of 2004, in front of a near-empty Athens Olympic Stadium, a 17-year-old Oscar Pistorius crouched over the starting blocks, waiting for the start of the 200-metres T44 semi-final. Soon he would be known worldwide as the ‘Blade Runner,’ have a multi-million dollar endorsement deal with Nike and be named one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people.But eight years ago, he was a virtually unknown South African double-amputee, competing against similarly disabled athletes.
He had only taken up competitive running nine months earlier out of necessity, as part of a rehab assignment for a rugby injury. In fact, he had little knowledge of what the Paralympics even were. But, there he was, competing on the biggest stage there is for somebody with his incapacitation.
His inexperience was on full display this particular afternoon, as he completely missed the start. It was almost comical. As his opponents leapt off the blocks and accelerated into stride, Pistorius simply looked up from his starting position and watched them sprint away into the distance. In a moment of sheer panic, he began to run. He was dead last.
Then, it happened. In 23.43 remarkable seconds, the young South African double-amputee caught up and overtook the other five competitors, broke the world record and shot to stardom. He was about to change everything. Soon, the entire world would know his name, and the sport of athletics would never be the same again.
Born without fibulas in either leg, Pistorius’ parents took the advice of dozens of doctors and had both legs amputated below the knee when he was just 11 months old. By 13 months, Pistorius had his first pair of prosthetic legs. By 17 months, he was walking.
In primary school, Pistorius played cricket and soccer. In high school, he took up boxing and joined the rugby team. He was handy water polo player and in his spare time rode motocross bikes and regularly water-skied. But it wasn’t until a rugby injury forced him to take up running, that he began to explore the possibilities of athletics as a career.
To assist him with his training, Pistorius flew to the United States where he was outfitted with custom sports prostheses called Flex-Foot Cheetahs. Invented by fellow double-amputee Van Phillips in 1996 and inspired by the J-shape of a cheetah’s hind leg, the design enables the prosthesis to store kinetic energy produced by the athlete. The curve compresses and bends upon impact, then releases the energy as it straightens, allowing the athlete to lunge forward.
The Cheetahs were centre stage at the 2007 South Africa national championships, where Pistorius ran a time of 46.56 in the 400-metres, finishing second. But this was not a race against other disabled athletes. In this race he finished second against able-bodied runners. He had arrived.
But, just when it looked possible that Pistorius might be marching at the Beijing Olympics for South Africa, the International Association of Athletics Federations (I.A.A.F.) introduced a new amendment to their rule clarifying the difference between athletes receiving assistance or an unfair advantage (I.A.A.F. Rule 144.2). Initially targeted towards a particular running shoe that had come under investigation because of their technological spring innovations, the I.A.A.F.’s response was to outlaw “any technical device that uses springs, wheels or any other element that provides the user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.”
As a result, the I.A.A.F. deemed that the Flex-Foot Cheetahs were also a competitive advantage, and Pistorius was banned from competing against able-bodied athletes, effective immediately.
Late in 2007, Pistorius travelled to Cologne, Germany, where he spent time at the German Sport University undergoing a series of tests. The I.A.A.F. assigned Dr. Peter Brueggemann, a Professor of Biomechanics, to Pistorius’ case. The results from his study found that that while the Cheetah returns about 91 percent of the energy expended with each stride, the human ankle returns merely 88 percent.
In January of 2008, armed with Dr. Brueggemann’s findings, the I.A.A.F. ruled Pistorius ineligible to participate in any sanctioned able-bodied competitions (including the Olympics), because his prostheses were deemed “technical aids” that gave him a clear advantage.
Enter, Jeffery L. Kessler.
With a client list that includes the NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL Players Associations, and having built his reputation on handling complex antitrust and sports law cases, Kessler was hired by Pistorius to fight the I.A.A.F. ruling.
Kessler described it as, “Maybe the most important case ever for the rights of disabled athletes.” He went on to say, “There are many, many disabled athletes that use the exact same device that Oscar uses. Oscar’s the only one who is approaching Olympic qualification. And, what that tells us is that it’s not a device that makes Oscar fast. It’s Oscar. And that’s what makes this ruling so unfair.”
Kessler arranged for Pistorius to travel to Rice University in Houston, where he undertook further tests.
The findings of the new tests were then taken to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (C.A.S.) in Lausanne, Switzerland — an international group set up to settle disputes in sports – where the professors from Rice University argued that if the Cheetahs did provided Pistorius a mechanical advantage, it would be very likely that they provided an energetic or physiological advantage. As Professor Rodger Kram explained, “Since there is no energetic advantage, it infers that the prostheses do not provide a mechanical advantage either.”
Kram went on to argue that, “The methodology of the German study that involved measuring Oscar’s oxygen consumption while running was flawed.”
“When we had a chance to properly measure Oscar we found that while he is quite economical in oxygen consumption compared to your average Joe, his values are well within what would be expected for a high-caliber athlete,” Kram concluded.
Revised tests showed that the Cheetahs have an elastic energy return of 92 percent, whereas biological tendons offer between 93 percent and 95 precent. In addition to these findings, the drawbacks of the Cheetahs clearly outweigh the advantages. Pistorius struggles with starting, because he can’t crouch down into the blocks. He has trouble negotiating turns, and his traction is sufficiently reduced on wet tracks.
In May of 2008, the C.A.S. ruled that there wasn’t enough scientific evidence to prove the I.A.A.F.’s case, and Pistorius was cleared to compete against able-bodied sprinters once again.
The months he spend fighting the ban severely hindered his training and in July of 2008 the 21-year-old Pistorius missed out on Olympic qualification by 0.77 seconds, despite posting a personal best time.
In 2011, he became the first amputee to win a non-disabled World Championship track medal as part of South Africa’s 4 x 400-metre relay team that claimed silver.
Then, this year, he would have his shot at redemption.
Despite already posting an acceptable time in a domestic competition, South Africa’s Olympic-qualifying guidelines demanded that he run 45.30 or better at an international meet before Saturday, June 2. And so began his qualifying tour. He travelled to Europe, across to the United States and then finally back to Africa, trying to run an “A” standard time that would guarantee his selection on the South African Olympic team. After trying in earnest and failing, his final opportunity came at the African championships in Benin, one day before the cut-off date. But, despite claiming the silver medal, he could only clock 45.52. 0.22 seconds shy of the qualifying time.
Days later though, the South African Athletics Association announced that despite falling short of their qualifying standards, Oscar Pistorius would march at the London Olympics for South Africa and was selected in both the 4 x 400-metre relay team and the 400-metre individual event.
Even if we try to avoid it, Pistorius’ presence at the Olympics will make us question how we perceive disability. As Pistorius puts it himself, “I enjoy challenging the way people think. When they see somebody with a disability, they always focus on the disability. That perception is something I want to alter.”
His achievements have blurred the line between able-bodied and disabled, and it has made it difficult to understand what is right and what is wrong when it comes to technical advancements in sport. Pistorius’ repeated defiance that he is not “disabled,” muddies the water even further.
While his participation will be an inspiration, it will also cast a shadow of uncertainty about the future of athletics. Detractors will say that limits should be placed on technology that gives humans an advantage over their competitors. But what exactly is that advantage? Arguments will be made that the Olympics should be the purest form of competition, and that the Flex-Foot Cheetahs that Pistorius uses don’t abide by this ethos. And, if given the opportunity to use this state-of-the art technology, where do we draw the line if these athletes are able to run faster and jump higher?
We must remember, however, that this is not a drugs story. This in not an able-bodied athlete deliberately trying to gain an advantage over the other athletes. Just think about it for a second. A runner, with no legs, who’s so good that people says he’s the one with an advantage.
In the coming fortnight, these questions and many more will be raised. Answers will be harder to come by. Instead, we should just sit back and enjoy what an accomplishment this is by the 25-year-old South African. If we can’t celebrate Oscar Pistorius, a man with no legs, running against the world’s fastest abled-bodies athletes, then what is the purpose of the Olympic Movement anyway?
For years, he has taken on the sport’s governing bodies and has silenced his loudest critics the only way he knows how: On the track. So whatever happens inside the Olympic Stadium in a little over a weeks time, just know, Oscar Pistorius has already won.
impressed? tell your friends!
∞02:49 am, from the brain of alex benton[11 notes]
In 1968, the year that Manchester City Football Club last won England’s top-flight competition, The Guardian wrote: “Tell it not in Trafford Park, publish it not in the streets of Stretford. Manchester City, winners 4-3 in a magnificent match against Newcastle United on Saturday at St James’s Park, replaced Manchester United as title holders in the First Division.” It had been 31 long years since City won its inaugural First Division title. Victory brought with it new promise to an eternally pessimistic supporter base that greater things were still to come, and provided a timely reminder that there were two first-rate teams in the metropolitan borough of Greater Manchester – not just the one that wore a red uniform.
On that day, 44 years ago, Manchester City and Manchester United were tied on points going into the final game of the season. Manchester United, as they did on Sunday, faced Sunderland knowing that even in victory, they may ultimately encounter defeat. Manchester City, leading on goal difference, would be crowned champions with a win.
As it turned out, their result didn’t matter. A start-studded Manchester United team, led by the likes of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best, went down 1-2 to lowly Sunderland. Manchester City, in a heart-stopping encounter at St James’s Park, prevailed 4-3 against Newcastle United and claimed the title.
See, like it or not, the sky blue half of Manchester will always be juxtaposed with their more successful neighbours. Even with their victory on Sunday - in the most dramatic fashion conceivable - there was something oddly familiar about what transpired. Like it was something we’d see before. Subsequently, it felt appropriate that City would be crowned Barclays Premier League champions in a fashion that has become synonymous with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United sides over the past few decades. Scoring in the depths of injury time, when the nadir seemed inescapable.
Delving into the back catalogue of United’s late game heroics, one game in particular stands out above all others. A finish so dramatic and so beyond belief, that if Manchester City were to replicate any of United’s famous wins; it would have to be this one.
And of course, City would have to go one better on Sunday. How else were they were going to exercise 44 years of football demons? 44 years of being Manchester United’s whipping boy?
Simple. By doing what Manchester United does best: Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, exactly like they did in the 1999 UEFA Champions League final, a time when Manchester City was wallowing on the third tier of English football. A mere four days after 1999 UEFA Champions League final between Manchester United and Bayern Munich, Manchester City took the field against Gillingham in the 1999 Football League Second Division play-off final at Wembley Stadium. It was one of the lowest periods in the clubs’ history.
At around 10:30pm on Wednesday, 26 May 1999, UEFA General Secretary Gerhard Aigner had just completed his final task at Camp Nou before the conclusion of the UEFA Champions League final. Having held a 1-0 lead for 85-minutes and with the game ticking over into injury time, Aigner carefully tied Bayern Munich coloured ribbons to the winners’ trophy in preparation for the victory ceremony. The Bundesliga champions were about to win European club football’s most prestigious (and lucrative) tournament for the fourth time. As the final knot was being pulled tight, an aide rushed in with an urgent message. Something miraculous had happened. Change the colours to Manchester United immediately! Aigner’s reaction summed up the perplexity of the situation. “Are you crazy?” he said, absolutely dumbfounded.
Whilst that was happening, UEFA President Lennart Johansson was making his way from a seat in the upper levels of Camp Nou, down to the pitch to prepare for the trophy and medal presentation. He too was met with a great surprise.
“The lift took a half-minute to arrive, then you had to go through a long hall, through several rooms and through the dressing room area and because we were inside we never heard a thing. I then saw out onto the pitch and I was confused. I thought, it cannot be, the winners are crying and the losers are dancing.”
The image of one of those ‘losers’ is etched into European football folklore. Samuel Kuffour, the 23-year-old Ghanaian defender for Bayern Munich, dropped to his knees as Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s short-range volley rippled the roof of the net, and burst into tears. When the television cameras found him, he was beating the turf in a fit of rage. How could this have happened? Three minutes ago, they were European champions.
Even the man who has seen it all, had never seen anything like this.
“I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Football. Bloody hell”, remarked soon to be knighted Alex Ferguson after the game.
Football. Sport. Bloody hell. Almost 13 years later, these same sentiments reverberated around the world. Manchester had just pulled off the most unlikely of victories yet again, scoring twice in injury time. Only this time, it wasn’t United that had accomplished the extraordinary.
When Edin Džeko finished a delightful David Silva cross with a powerful header to level the scores at 2-2 on Sunday, the digital clock at Etihad Stadium registered 91 minutes and 16 seconds. It seems fitting then, that when Teddy Sherringham swiped a poorly timed Ryan Giggs shot past German colossus Oliver Kahn to level the scores in 1999, the clock at Camp Nou was disparate by a mere 38 seconds.
And when Sergio Aguero received the subsequent pass of a one-two with Mario Balotelli, rounded Taye Taïwo, kept his balance despite having his foot stepped on, and buried the winner past Queens Park Rangers keeper Patrick Kenny, the clock displayed 93 minutes and 20 seconds. 13 years earlier, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s winner against Bayern Munich materialized 63 seconds earlier.
They say imitation is the ultimate form off flattery. City, endlessly compared with their crosstown adversaries, forever came up short in expectations and results. On Sunday, they pulled a Manchester United in the most Manchester United kind of way, and in the process struck a brutal blow upon the leviathan in red.
After years of trying to be nothing like the team they share a city with, they have now become their doppelgänger. And although they dare not admit it, the similarities between the two sides are now more than ever. Monday morning spelled a new era in Manchester and City are now on track to becoming what they have always despised.
Just as successful. Just as hated.
Maybe, after all these years of heartache, this is what was missing all along.
They honestly weren’t going to play it, were they? Not now. Not after the bloodbath that had just covered the wall of the Green Monster.
For years now, Neil Diamond’s 1969 classic, “Sweet Caroline,” has crackled through the Fenway Park speakers. It’s an odd tradition that dates back to the mid-nineties when a former Red Sox control room employee played the song as a show of affection for his newborn daughter, Caroline.
When Amy Tobey took over as Fenway Park music programmer in 1998, the song began to get more airplay, but only when the Red Sox were ahead. Tobey considered the song a good luck charm and would insert the track anywhere between the seventh and ninth inning. Eventually, the crowd caught on, and by the time bespectacled billionaire John Henry took over operations on Yawkey Way in 2002, the song was an eighth inning staple.
The pièce de résistance was added in 2004 by Tobey’s successor, Megan Kaiser, who, as Red Sox advertising manager and game day music programmer, began turning the volume down during the part when the crowd sings, “So good! So good! So good!” following Diamond’s line, “Good times never seemed so good.”
Imagine the irony then, when eight years later a packed Fenway Park were forced to chant, “So good! So good! So good!” after witnessing a Red Sox capitulation of epic proportions, against the hated rival New York Yankees no less. Tradition is tradition, it seems, with no exception. And so, on cue, “Sweet Caroline” played in all its glory.
The Red Sox were leading by nine runs at one point. Felix Doubront pitched six quality innings, struck out seven, and hit the showers with a healthy 9-1 lead. Then the Yankees scored fifteen runs. Unanswered. Including back-to-back seven-run innings. In two forgettable innings for the hapless Red Sox bullpen, 18 Yankees runners reached base, five of them without even having to put bat on ball. Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira both homered, leading the Yankees on the biggest rally after a nine-run deficit since 1950, when they trailed the Red Sox by the same margin all those years ago.
These weren’t good times for the Red Sox, as Diamond sings in “Sweet Caroline.” In fact, you could argue that these were the worst. Rock bottom, perhaps?
"I think we’ve hit bottom," Bobby Valentine said in his postgame press conference. "If this isn’t bottom, we need to find some new ends of the earth."
Valentine does have a way with words, even if they make no sense at all. The Red Sox record now stood at 4-10, dead last in the American League East, on a five-game losing streak that showed no signs of stopping.
Then, something happened. The heavens opened and a savage storm swept across Massachusetts. The ESPN ticker awoke and the following statement scrolled along the bottom of people’s screens: Tonight’s Yankees-Red Sox game has been postponed due to heavy rain in the Boston area.
At around 3:00pm on April 22, five hours before the first pitch was scheduled to be thrown, the game was called off. For the Yankees, the postponement offered a head start on their road trip to Texas. For the Red Sox, a welcome respite and the opportunity to hit the reset button. There was no point reflecting on what had just transpired. Baseball players are programmed to have short memories. They had to look forward. One game at a time.
So, whilst the rest of the city was watching the Bruins extend their Stanley Cup playoff series with the Washington Capitals to seven games, the Red Sox tiptoed out of town, unbeknownst to all, ready to start their season. For real this time.
Baseball is a game all about momentum. A week ago, Boston had none. In fact, they seemed to have their 2012 season jammed in reverse. It’s funny what a little rain can do to wash away the stench of losing.
There was something serendipitous about that storm. If there was one team in Major League Baseball that needed a random act of sodden meteorology, it was this Boston Red Sox team, on this day. Since the washout, a rejuvenated Red Sox team is 5-0 and has piled on a remarkable 44 runs. The invigorated batters are sporting a lively .975 OPS and striking the ball consistently at an average of .342 (compared to .788 OPS and .276 BA in the first 14 games). Even the beleaguered pitchers seem to have woken their arms from a particularly long spring hibernation. In the past five games, the combined ERA of the pitching staff is a respectable 3.60, substantially better than when it was resting just below seven.
It’s too early to know whether it will last. The ebbs and flows of baseball could easily mean the Red Sox are back where they started a week from now. But until then, this past week has offered the Fenway faithful a glimpse of what they hoped they would get from the 2012 Bobby Valentine-led Boston Red Sox. A high-powered offense that is capable of scoring runs and a competent pitching staff that would do just enough not to blow it.
"They’ve bounced back before," Valentine said after the 15-9 catastrophe on April 21. "This is a psychological situation. You’ve got to be tough. I think we’re a tough team. We’ll find out."
So far, since the rain soaked Boston one week ago, they’re proving just how tough they are.
Like Skull and Bones, the Yale University secret society whose members include some of the most powerful men of the 20th century, the Augusta National Golf Club is a male-only organization that prides itself on exclusivity and the enforcement of strict rules. Now, maybe these rules aren’t adhered to with the austerity of Skull and Bones (“Bonesmen” are forbidden to reveal what goes on within their inner sanctum, the windowless building on the Yale campus aptly named ‘The Tomb’), but Augusta National still goes to great lengths to protect what goes on behind their front gates on Washington Road.
The members list is kept at roughly 300, with the number of new members partially determined by how many members leave (why would you?) or die. There is a small waiting list, but for the rest, don’t hold your breath that you’ll be cruising up and down Magnolia Lane anytime soon. To become a member, you need not apply. Somebody whom is already a member of the Club must nominate you. And ultimately, the final decision as to whether you’re accepted rests with Club Chairman Billy Payne.
Considering nobody can apply, how do you know when to dust off the putter? Well, if you’re very lucky (translation: rich and influential), you’ll simply get “the call.” Just don’t expect a call if you’re a woman. Augusta National hasn’t had a female member since, well … ever. Now, that might change if they offer current C.E.O. of longtime corporate sponsor IBM, Virginia Rometty, a membership (the past four male IBM C.E.O.’s have been members of the exclusive club). But as it stands today, the tally still rests at zero. It also took until 1990 for Augusta to allow an African-American member. Let’s face it, Augusta National isn’t exactly a progressive kind of place – it’s a private club, and insists on emphasizing this fact. Oh, and by the way, don’t drop hints that you’d like a membership either. You’ll just look desperate and nobody likes a groveler. A guy named Bill Gates did this for years and was repeatedly denied membership (before finally being let in, in 2002).
In saying that, you don’t need to be a member to visit the Club during Masters week. For 51 weeks a year, Augusta National Golf Club remains closed for the exclusive use by its members and their guests. But, for 7 days in April, it swings open it’s big green gates (everything at Augusta is green, by the way) and lets the world in for a peek.
Just don’t go booking your flights to Georgia prematurely. Getting your hands on a ticket is like winning the lottery (or, alternatively, having to pay the equivalent of a lottery winning). Passed down from generation to generation, Masters ‘badges’ are one of sport’s most coveted tickets and Augusta National hasn’t sold them to the public for 47 years. That is, until this year. For the 2012 tournament, Augusta National made a limited number of badges available through a ballot on Masters.com. How limited, they do not say, but one would presume that the numbers would have been extremely tight.
So, you’re lucky enough acquire yourself a badge. Well done! Now, secure your annual leave, book your accommodation in a modest 2-star hotel up the road, and pack your mini binoculars.
The first thing you’ll notice when you arrive on Monday morning of Masters week is that parking, located just across the street, is free. Yes, you read that correctly. 100% free on a ‘first come, first serve’ basis. Not only is this one of the premier sporting events in the world, it’s also one of the most affordable. More on that later.
At 7:00am, the first patrons (Augusta makes it known that it prefers to call spectators, “patrons”) make their way through the initial security checkpoint. Kindly greeting everybody is a warning: “No cell phones, pagers, or electronic devices are permitted on club grounds,” and that “violations will lead to permanent loss of credentials.” To ensure that everybody will adhere to these stern caveats, the Club has installed an airport-style security metal detector, just to be safe.
Navigate your way through security and you’re in! But not too fast, gates to the golf course don’t open until 8:00am. Most use this interim time to stock up on Masters’ paraphernalia at the nearby souvenir shop, whilst others strategize the most effective way to get to Amen Corner (Hint: First locate the main scoreboard, then cross the 1st and 9th fairways, cut through the wide open pastures, duck around the 17th tee next to the stone fountain, across the 15th fairway, through the woods towards 14, across the fairway, over the pine needles, and past the lone Magnolia tree).
At 8:00am on the dot, a loud siren bellows from a distance and the green gates of Augusta National Golf Club swing open. Masters week begins for another year. This year will mark the 76th edition of the Masters Tournament, and, once again, will be the first Major of the year.
A wave of bodies will flood through the gates and instantly fragment as people dart towards different corners of the property. The first tee is a popular choice, as is the 18th, whilst others will choose to venture to the far southeast corner to find their favourite patch of Bermuda grass.
Before you head off to find your regular spot near Rae’s Creek, however, just remember a few simple rules:
No photos (Cameras are allowed on the grounds from Monday through Wednesday, but not during the Tournament rounds. If you do manage to smuggle in your iPhone, don’t even think about taking a snap of the meticulously manicured greens. In fact, don’t even try even if you’re a player. Ian Poulter & Graeme McDowell did in 2011 and both were reprimanded.)
No running (It would be uncouth to run to the best viewing spot at Amen Corner. If you even break into a canter, it’s grounds for dismissal.)
No unattended guests (Outside of Tournament week, member must “physically accompany” their guests at all times. Do not lose them.)
No fishing (Well, at least not these days. Monte Burke for Forbes.com wrote, “Dwight Eisenhower, who was apparently not too worried about getting his membership revoked, used to fish for bass and bream in the ponds of Augusta’s Par 3 course.” Man, President’s can get away with anything.)
No autographs (Sorry kids, put the Sharpies away, not during Tournament rounds.)
Phew, let’s hope you remember all of them. Maybe keep a copy of these rules in your bum bag (Also known as ‘fanny packs’, these handy traveller carry all’s are a prerequisite of most of the Masters patrons).
Another unique thing you’ll notice out on the course — especially for a premier sporting event that’s broadcast to more than 200 countries — is the lack of advertising signage. There is nothing of the sort. That’s right, no gratuitous fairway signs staked into the ground. No sponsors’ flags flapping around above the tee box. No Kia Cerato on offer as a Hole-In-One incentive at the Par 3 12th.
On Monday and Tuesday, you’ll have the pleasure of watching the first two practice rounds. Pre-tournament visits to the Club are commonplace amongst competitors, with each outing allowing them to garner new knowledge of the fabled course. The contours of the greens, the distances of the fairways, the depth of the pine needles. All information that can prove invaluable during the tournament. Most competitors have arranged practice round partners long before Masters week begins, with experienced veterans often teaming-up with Masters’ first-timers for these rounds (which are usually limited to 9 holes).
On Tuesday, the well-informed patrons will ensure that they arrive early and head straight to the 170-yard Par 3 16th, with hopes of securing a premium viewing spot left of the tee. It is here, after the players take their tee shots, that the Pros often surrender to chants of “Skip it!” from the crowd and take part in what has now become a lighthearted Tuesday tradition.
The willing participants, much to the delight of onlookers, place a ball a few feet in front of the tee box, roughly ten yards back from the edge of the pond. There, they attempt to skip the ball over the water, up the bank and onto the green. Not an easy task, but it can be done – often to great effect. Successfully navigate the ball over the water hazard and receive a raucous cheer from the gallery. Come up short, and receive lighthearted jeers.
On Tuesday three years ago, the 2000 Masters Champion, Vijay Singh, went one further. His ball skimmed over the water four times, rolled up the 10-foot embankment and on to the green. This initially drew modest applause from the gallery. That was until the ball continued to roll closer to the hole and people began to rise off their fold-out stools, preempting what was about to transpire. And, what would you know; it dropped in, sending the crowd into raptures!
If your find yourself peckish at any stage throughout the week, look no further than one of Augusta National’s finer delicacies - the famous pimento cheese sandwich. A staple of the Masters Tournament for decades, this odd concoction is as synonymous with Augusta National as strawberries and cream are with Wimbledon.
Grate extra sharp cheddar cheese coarsely. Add small jars of pimentos, one and a half teaspoon of Worcestershire, two teaspoons of grated onion, and one whole clove of garlic. Use enough mayonnaise to achieve the right consistency (it should be easily spreadable but not runny). Add salt and pepper to taste.
It’s a Southern thing, obviously. An acquired taste, for sure. But you can’t go to Augusta National without stopping by a concession stand and ordering one. Or two. Why? Because everything at Augusta is so damn affordable! Unlike other major sporting events, most of which involve taking out a second mortgage on your home in order to afford an overpriced warm beer in a ‘limited edition’ souvenir cup, the rich guys that run the Masters don’t need your money - they’ve got plenty of that already! As such, the food and beverages are priced accordingly. A pimento cheese sandwich, carefully wrapped in waxy green (expect another colour?) paper, is loose change at $1.50. A cold beer to quench your mid-round thirst is only $3. A chocolate bar? Just one dollar.
The menu at Tuesday night’s Champions Dinner, however, is slightly more refined. Suggested by Ben Hogan in 1952 to foster camaraderie during Masters week, the dinner is now an annual tradition. In a brief 78-word letter to Augusta National Golf Club co-founder Clifford Roberts, Hogan had but one proviso.
“My only stipulation,” he wrote, “is that you wear your green coat.”
And thus, ‘The Masters Club’ was born. Want to join? Simple. The only entry requirement is that you win the Masters. Then, each year, you’ll receive an invitation to dinner on the Tuesday of Masters week to chinwag with fellow past champions, a few select dignitaries, and generally drown in each other’s self admiration.
You’ll also have the privilege of enjoying food off a menu chosen by the reigning champion. And, if that’s not enough, they’ll be footing the bill! But be warned, the most recent champion often uses the dinner as an opportunity to showcase some of the finer delicacies from their homeland. Like when 1988 champion, Scotsman Sandy Lyle, served haggis on his menu. If haggis isn’t for your taste palette, there’s always a pimento cheese sandwich within close proximity.
Members of ‘The Master Club’ should make sure they bring a large appetite this year. 2011 champion, South African Charl Schwartzel, who “doesn’t like formal dinners,” is planning what South African’s call a “braai.” In English, it’s simply known as a BBQ, and Schwartzel has placed a request with the Augusta powers that be for a surprise chef to prepare this carnivorous feast. Himself! Billy Payne’s initial response was obviously, “We’ll have to come back to you on that”, with Schwartzel adding, “I think it took them quite by surprise, maybe expecting something a little more different or more the way they always do it.”
So, it remains to be seen whether Head Chef Schwartzel will be behind the grill on the lawn outside the Clubhouse on Tuesday night, or whether Billy Payne assigns an Augusta-certified cook. Regardless, he’s sourced the lamb chops and specially ordered the South African “Boerewors” sausages. It promises to be quite a feast.
On Wednesday, players take to Augusta’s little course for the Masters Tournament Par 3 Contest. Nestled in the northeast corner of the Augusta National property, the 1,060-yard course consists of nine holes and surrounds DeSoto Springs Pond and Ike’s Pond. First played in 1960, the contest has featured 73 holes-in-ones, 18 sudden-death play-offs, and has a course record of 20, shared by Art Wall (1965) and Gay Brewer (1973).
Mostly, the contest is an informal affair. The calm before Thursday’s storm, it features past champions and Honorary Invitees. Some players’ young children even act as caddies for the afternoon, whilst others just play around in the bunkers which take on the look of giant kindergarten sandpits.
It must be noted for potential Masters Champions: Just don’t win the thing. It’s a well-publicized fact that no Par 3 Contest winner has gone on to win the Masters that same week.
Over the next four days, a little thing called the Masters Golf Tournament takes place. 109 players are invited to take part, though several past champions won’t play. Thus, the actual lineup this year is expected to be 97, with one more spot in the field available to the winner of the Houston Open. After 36 holes, the top 44 and ties will progress to the weekend, plus all players within 10 strokes of the lead. Players who make the cut will eventually cover 29,740 yards over the four days, aim to shoot the lowest score under par (288) and, eventually, somebody will pick up the winners cheque (which was a modest $1.44 million in 2011). Simple. Oh, and they’ll get some fancy new threads to boot.
Yes, as is tradition, the winner of the Masters Tournament will be presented a green sports coat with the Augusta National Golf Club emblem emblazoned on the chest. The origin of the green jacket dates back to 1937, when members began wearing the smart-casual attire during Masters week so that patrons could identify whom to ask for information. In 1947, the Club began awarding the winner of the tournament a jacket of their own, with Sam Snead becoming the first honorary member.
Of course, just because you win it, doesn’t mean it’s yours to keep. The original green jackets remain property of the Golf Club and are required back before the beginning of the next Masters Tournament. Most players make the most of this 12-month loan period, the most recent being 2011 champion, Charl Schwartzel.
“It traveled with me the whole of last year. Basically every single function that we went to, I wore it. I have no idea. I played 36 tournaments last year. I must have worn it more than 20, 25 times at some functions,” Schwartzel told Masters.com.
Think you look good in green, don’t worry; you’ll be given a tailored replica to keep. Plus, every time you return to Augusta, your original green jacket will be hung on display in the Champions Locker Room. Manage to win a few times, and you may find that your have a few different sizes to choose from. Three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo owns three, all in different sizes (44 long, 46 long, and 48 long), and is always curious to see which one still fits when he stops by for a visit.
"The special thing is, you come back here, you peek into your locker, just to double check, and you try them on again," Faldo told Masters.com.
The question remains though, how to they ensure that the man at the top of the leaderboard on Sunday evening is awarded a snug-fitting jacket?
Firstly, before the tournament starts, players must fill out a registration form called the “Player Credential Application.” On the back, at the very bottom, are five words: “Coat/Jacket Size of Player.” If you’re serious about winning, you’ll know your measurements by heart. If not, you better have your tailor on speed dial.
Secondly, stowed safely away in a closet somewhere on the Augusta National property, are an array of green jackets in all different shapes and sizes. Instantly, you’d imagine that these would have to be kept in Eisenhower Cabin, which was built according to Secret Service security guidelines for Augusta member Dwight Eisenhower after he was elected President of the United States. What’s stored in Eisenhower Cabin, one would assume, are Augusta’s most valuable possessions, protected by retina scanners and a double keycard entry mechanism (presumably upgraded to meet 2012 Secret Service specs). Would it be a stretch to imagine that the most valuable item of all is tucked away, behind those doors, hanging there quietly? Apparently so.
Instead, the trusty Golf Shop is the safe house for golf’s most iconic symbol of victory. As the leaders round Amen Corner on Sunday, Jim James, the Senior Director of Club and Hospitality Operations, is entrusted with the task of collecting half a dozen jackets in various sizes to ensure that a perfectly-fitted jacket is waiting for the winning golfer at the 18th. He takes them to his office, before moving them to Butler Cabin where he hangs them in a closet located in the basement studio where CBS has set up for the presentation. When the winner arrives, James kindly confirms the jacket size.
At the rear of Butler Cabin is an entrance that leads directly down to the basement. After sinking the winning putt, or, as Jack Nicklaus did in 1986, watching the final few holes on television from the comfort of nearby Jones Cabin, the winning player will make their way to Butler Cabin, which is nestled next to the putting green and 10th tee and neighbors the Augusta Par 3 Course.
The first room they’ll enter will be the Wilmington Room. They’ll then pass a sink, fleetingly glance at themselves in a hanging mirror, make a couple of last second grooming adjustments, before taking the 10 steps onto the TV set and into people’s lounge rooms around the world.
The kitschy fit-out of the venue — stone fireplace, mahogany furniture, extravagant floral arrangements — is matched by the unpredictable and awkward nature of the induction ceremony. The winner, fresh off the course, makes stilted conversation with those in attendance, before being presented with their green jacket (which, despite Jim James’ best efforts, continues to look ill-fitting, year after year), before heading back out to the putting green to do it all again in front of a packed crowd as the sun sets on Augusta for another year.
The select few who’ll be overseeing the unusual private winners induction ceremony this year will be Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion and 2012 wardrobe assistant, Augusta National and Masters Tournament Chairman Billy Payne and CBS sportscaster Jim Nantz. It’s one of sports most peculiar rituals, but when you think about everything that makes Augusta what it is, it makes perfect sense.
It’s just another reminder, like it or not, that Augusta is in charge.
At the conclusion of the second green jacket ceremony, Jim Nantz will bid farewell to television viewers and the cameras will fade to black, Masters theme music deftly playing in the background. The cloak of darkness will again fall over Augusta National Golf Course. Tomorrow it will once again be shut off to the outside world.
For people to believe in this so-called curse, I can’t wait to prove people wrong. From what I believe and where I am in my spiritual life, it would be good to prove them wrong in that sense.
—Peyton Hillis, ESPN.com, Wednesday 27 April, 2011
The blue and red confetti has been swept off the Lucas Oil Stadium field, the Patriots have cleared out their lockers at Gillette Stadium, and we’re about to dive headfirst into the “Offseason of Manning.”
Peyton, that is. Not his two-time Super Bowl MVP winning brother.
And in the midst of all that, one player from the National Football League will grace the cover of the twenty-sixth edition (if you count John Madden Football ’88-’93 and the unsuccessful Nintendo 64 version in ‘97) of EA Sports Madden N.F.L.
Who’s in line for the starting job? Tim Tebow, perhaps? “Tebow Time” took over Indianapolis last week, but it wasn’t for Super Bowl XLVI. No, Tebow, former cover star of EA Sports N.C.A.A. Football, was in town for the Madden Bowl, which took place at the Bud Light Hotel. And it won’t surprise you to hear that Tebow, teamed with Madden N.F.L. 2011 cover athlete Drew Brees and his New Orleans Saints teammate Jimmy Graham, was part of another miraculous fourth quarter comeback. Tebow, playing the role of wide receiver, caught the winning touchdown with 10 seconds left. “Tebow Time”, in video game form.
Just know this: Despite the paycheck and so-called “honour” of such an appearance, perhaps being on the cover of the best-selling football game of all time isn’t where you want to be?
Last year, for the first time in the games history, EA gave the fans the power to decide which athlete would grace the cover of Madden N.F.L. 2012. EA pre-selected one player from each N.F.L. team, seeded them, and placed them in an N.C.A.A.-style bracket. 13 million votes were cast and the results were revealed over the course of six weeks on ESPN 2’s Sportsnation.
Cleveland Browns power Running Back Peyton Hillis was in a great place at the beginning of 2011. He had just rushed for 1,117 yards and 11 touchdowns in his third N.F.L. season, after seldom being used by the Denver Broncos in the previous two seasons (after they drafted him in the 7th round with the 227th pick of the 2008 N.F.L. Draft). He had made it on the big stage of the National Football League, won thousands of fantasy leagues in the process as one of the ‘waiver wire pick-ups of the year’ and was now miraculously going to appear on the cover of the new edition of EA Sports Madden N.F.L.
Fueled by votes from a rabid Cleveland Browns fan base who, lets face it, don’t have much to cheer about, he steamrolled through the Madden 2012 bracket like he was bowling over opposing linebackers. Seeded No. 10, Hillis defeated No. 7 seed Ray Rice in the first round (62%-38%), narrowly beat No. 2 seed Matt Ryan (51%-49%), handily took care of No. 6 seed Jamaal Charles (60%-40%) and, in the upset of the “tournament,” demolished reining Super Bowl MVP and No. 1 seed Aaron Rodgers in convincing fashion (61%-39%). When the Cleveland Browns official website began actively championing Hillis’ cause, the final was never in doubt, as he defeated No. 3 seed Michael Vick (66%-34%).
But, not all of the votes received were from people who wanted to see their teams’ player representative on the cover. In fact, in many cases EA suspects that people were voting for the opponent, simply to avoid having their player (and team) subject to the infamous, “Madden Curse.”
The “Curse” has been rearing its ugly head for years, as the cover athletes of Madden N.F.L. continue to follow-up their appearance with sub-par performances the following season and often suffer debilitating injuries. Each year it happens, and each year the legend of the “Madden Curse” grows.
Since its humble beginnings, when John Madden himself appeared on the earliest editions, sixteen athletes have graced the cover of Madden N.F.L. There have been anomalies like Tennessee Titans’ running back Eddie George (2001 cover athlete), who followed up his appearance on the cover with a great season (despite ultimately losing a critical fumble in the playoffs). At the opposite end of the spectrum is Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders (appearing in the background of the 2000 edition, in a blurred action shot behind John Madden) who, one week before the start of training camp, retired. This was a complete surprise to most, as Sanders was just 30 years old and at the peak of his powers.At least he had the dignity to send a fax to the Wichita Eagle, his hometown newspaper, notifying them of his decision.
Then, there are these five. The five players who suffered the most from the “Madden Curse.” Their teams went from a combined 51-28-1 record (0.644 winning percentage) to a dismal 29-52 record (0.363 winning percentage) in the space of a year. Only the 2006 Seattle Seahawks made the playoffs following season, finishing 9-7 in a mediocre NFC West Division.
Quarterbacks were ranked on eight categories (Games, Completions, Pass Attempts, Yards, Yards/Pass, Yards/Game, Touchdowns and QB Rating) and then the percentage increase/decrease was averaged out, creating an Madden Depreciation Figure. Similarly, Running Backs were also ranked on eight categories (Games, Rush Attempts, Yards, Yards/Carry, Yards/Game, Touchdowns, First Downs and Longest Run).
Culpepper took the N.F.L. by storm in 2000, only his second season in the league. After being handed the keys to one of the most exciting offenses in football, Culpepper led the Viking to victory in their first seven games and finished the season with 3,937 yards, 33 touchdowns and a QB Rating of 98.0.
This landed him on the cover of Madden N.F.L. 2002, but that’s where the highlights ended. Entering the season as one of the Super Bowl favourites, the Viking spluttered to a 4-7 start. In Week 12, against the 8-2 Pittsburgh Steelers, Culpepper suffered a knee injury that would sideline him for rest of the year.
4. Donovan McNabb, QB, Philadelphia Eagles (2006 cover athlete) -25.48%
Coming off an appearance in the NFC Championship Game in 2003 and Super Bowl XXXIX in 2004, McNabb had solidified his place as one of the N.F.L.’s elite. He had just throw 3,875 yards, 31 touchdowns and led the Eagles to a 13-3 record, when he was chosen to be the Madden N.F.L. 2006 cover athlete. After the announcement, McNabb commented publicly that he didn’t believe in any curses.
The 2005 season started promisingly with McNabb being named NFC Offensive Player of the Month in September, but from there things went downhill. Plagued by a sports hernia for most of the season, McNabb fell victim to a groin injury in a Week 10 match-up with the Dallas Cowboys. Up 20-14 with 2:43 remaining in the game, McNabb threw an interception to Cowboys safety Roy Williams, who returned it for the winning score. On the play, McNabb attempted to tackle Williams, but was knocked over by Cowboys linebacker Scott Shanle, exacerbating his sports hernia. He was placed on the injured reserve later that week and underwent season-ending surgery. The Eagles finished 6-10 and finished last in the NFC East Division.
The most recent victim. Hillis rose from relative obscurity in 2010 to finish the 2011 season as one of the rising stars of the N.F.L. His throwback ‘bulldozer’ style resonated with the blue collar Cleveland fan base andHillis became the first white running back to rush for 1,000 yards since Craig James did for New England in 1985.
Last season was a struggle, however, as Hillis failed to rush for over 100 yards in the first six weeks of the season. He missed the Browns Week 3 game with strep throat and in Week 6 lasted only six carries before injuring his hamstring. Hillis would not return until Week 11, but it took him until Week 16 to finally top 100 yards in a game.
Hanging over the entire season was Hillis’ desire for a renegotiated contract, which divided the locker room. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” says one Browns veteran. “Last year, Peyton was such a positive, inspirational force on our team – but now he’s like a different guy.” It remains to be seen whether Hillis will be in a Browns uniform next season.
It was always going to be tough for Shaun Alexander to back-up his record-setting, 1,880 yard, 27 touchdown, MVP winning season, which culminated in an appearance in Super Bowl XL. But to do it after appearing on the cover of the 2007 edition of Madden N.F.L. was near impossible.
Perhaps it was the weakened Seahawks offensive line, or maybe his pockets were weighed down by the new 8-year, $62 million dollar contract he signed, but Alexander never got going the following season. In Week 3 against the New York Giants, Alexander sustained a “small crack” and “displaced fracture” on a non-weight-bearing bone in his foot. After starting 69 of his first 70 games for the Seahawks, Alexander was forced to miss six games, and finished the season with only 896 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns. Two seasons later, Alexander was out of the league.
1. Michael Vick, QB, Atlanta Falcons (2004 cover athlete) -55.96
Number one, after a dramatic 55.96% decline in his efficiency rating. Vick, selected with the first pick of the 2001 N.F.L. Draft, was a preeminent superstar of the N.F.L., and he was on the rise. He had just made the Pro Bowl in his first full season as a starter, led the lowly Falcons to the playoffs for the first time since 1998, set three N.F.L. records for rushing by a quarterback and was now the Madden N.F.L 2004 cover athlete.
But, on August 16, 2003, one day after the game hit the shelves, it all changed. On third-and-6 from the Atlanta 5-yard line during a pre-season game against the Baltimore Ravens, Vick ran out of the pocket only to be caught and tackled by linebacker Adalius Thomas. Vick fell awkwardly, suffering fractured right fibula.
His injury caused him to miss the first 11 games of the regular season, resulting in the Falcons falling to a 2-9 record in his absence and firing Coach Dan Reeves after Week 14. Famously, things got a lot worse for Vick after that.
This year, the responsibility of crowning a new cover athlete for Madden N.F.L. 2013 will be given to the fans once again when voting kicks off on March 7. The field will be expanded to 64 players, with two teammates pitted against one another in a knockout round, both vying for a place in the final 32. From there, the voting will unfold in a bracket-style scenario, as it did in 2011.
Senior Director of Partnership Marketing of EA Sports Chris Erb believes that players still crave the title of Madden N.F.L. cover athlete. "Shaun Alexander told us, after he got hurt, that he’d rather be on the cover and injured than not be on the cover and stay healthy all year. This generation of guys in the league now grew up playing Madden. To them, it’s the Wheaties Box of the 21st century."
Nevertheless, the player who comes out “victorious” from the 64-strong field this year may have reasons to be concerned. Peyton Hillis, who at the beginning of last season refused to consider that he might be cursed by a video game, shunned any mention of the dreaded “Madden Curse.”
Now, he’s had time to reconsider.
"Things didn’t work in my favour this year," Hillis said. "There’s a few things that happened this year that made me believe in curses. Ain’t no doubt about it."
It’s the fourth set of another brutal encounter with Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer stands 78 feet away from his adversary on the opposite side of the net, awaiting what could be the final serve of the match.
This was a rare Grand Slam semi-final meeting between these two decorated rivals (their previous eight meetings at Grand Slam level had been in the championship match), and equaled the record for the most men’s Grand Slam meetings in the Open Era, tying them with Ivan Lendl and John McEnroe.
Lose this point, however, and Federer would lose his eighth Grand Slam encounter with the Spanish leftie. His only two victories against Nadal in Grand Slam matches came way back in 2006 and 2007, on his favourite grass surface at The All England Lawn Tennis Club.
Nadal let out another exhaustive grunt as he sent down a ferocious serve in the Federer direction. With nothing to lose (except for the match, of course), a wave of calm seemed to wash over the former world number one. To him, what happened next didn’t seem to matter. He just had to play this shot. One shot. No more was he looking to safely slice a backhand over the net, the security blanket he’d been sheltering under all night. For this point, he loosened his shoulders, wound-up, and flattened a backhand down the line. A bullet. Nadal was helpless.
Deuce. Match point saved.
It was at that exact moment that I thought to myself, this is it. This is Roger Federer’s “I’m Keith Hernandez!” moment. He looked liked he finally got it. No more being bullied by the brutish Spaniard. He’s Roger Goddamn Federer. He was going to break back and take this to five.
Four points later, Nadal punched his ticket to his fifteenth Grand Slam final, and Federer, looking overwhelmed, was left searching for answers. Again.
His all-time record against Nadal now stands at 9-18. 2-8 in Grand Slams.
The Nadal puzzle has been one that has perplexed Federer for years, ever since a 17-year-old Spanish kid, then ranked 34 in the world, stunned him 3-6, 3-6 in Miami back in 2004. And every time you watch this infectious rivalry, you feel like Federer is holding something back. Like there’s a suggestion of diminutive self doubt that plagues him when he opposes Nadal. But why? He’s the best player of his generation, possibly of all time. Shouldn’t that count for something?
The fourth set concluded and he packed his bags. He raised his right arm in the air in recognition of the standing ovation from the sell-out crowd. He acknowledged the applause from his opponent. He walked through the tunnel and out of Rod Laver Arena. And the whole time this was happening, Federer’s face hadn’t changed from when he arrived and shook hands at the coin toss. Stone faced, he gave away as little as a professional poker player would. But what he needed — and what seems to constantly escape him against Nadal – is an arrogant streak to propel him further. It’s the “I’m Keith Hernandez!” mentality that Roger Federer is missing.
For the uninitiated, Keith Hernandez is a former Major League Baseball player, having played for the St Louis Cardinals, New York Mets and Cleveland Indians. Twice a World Champion (’82 and ’86), Hernandez was a five-time All Star, won eleven consecutive Golden Gloves, and was the 1979 NL MVP. He also has a fantastic mustache.
But residing next the silverware on his mantelpiece and the resounding accolades from a storied 14-year MLB career, is a TV cameo that rivaled no other.
In 1992, Hernandez guest starred as himself in a two-part Seinfeld episode titled, “The Boyfriend.”In the episode he dates Elaine Benes and, at the end of their first date, the two find themselves sitting in a car outside Elaine’s apartment negotiating the awkward task of how to conclude the evening.
Elaine is waiting for Hernandez to make a move, but the ex-ball player is suffering from a moment of self-doubt. To recover, he reassures himself by relaying a personal pep-talk in his subconscious.
“Go ahead. Kiss her. I’m a baseball player dammit.”
“Come on, I won the MVP in ‘79. I can do whatever I want to.”
When Elaine remarks that, “This is getting awkward,” Hernandez finally makes his move. As the two begin to kiss passionately in the front seat, Elaine wonders to herself, “Who does this guy think he is?”
And thus, the “I’m Keith Hernandez!” moment was born. Michael Jordan mastered them. Tiger Woods was the all-time king. Hell, even Alex Rodriguez, forever ridiculed for his October futileness, exercised his playoff demons in 2009 with his very own “I’m Keith Hernandez!” moment. Criticized for his fragile psyche, unable to lead the Yankees on the biggest stage, A-Rod put up numbers of .365/.500/0.808 (average/OBP/slugging) with 6 HR and 18 RBI on the way to the ’09 World Series Championship. Something clicked that year and Rodriguez realized that, “Hey, I play for the New York Yankees. I signed a 10-year, $275 million contract! I was the youngest player to hit 600 home runs! I’m dating Kate Hudson (he was at the time)! I’m freakin’ Alex Rodriguez!”
Federer, particularly in Grand Slams, doesn’t seem to have this gear against Nadal. For whatever reason – like Alex Rodriguez once was – he seems to be consumed by a self-doubt against Nadal on the biggest stage and he’s struggling to overcome it. He can beat him. He’s shown that. But sometimes, even the best in the world need some self-reassurance.
One day, we’ll be watching and we’ll know. It may not be a specific point or even a particular game. It could just be a glance. A fleeting look that will leave no doubt as to what he’s just realized. Then, and only then, will he exercise the demons that plague him. And, someday, he may finally utter these words to himself and have his own “I’m Keith Hernandez!” moment…
“I’ve won 16 Grand Slam titles. I hold the record for 327 consecutive weeks as world number one. I’ve reached a record 31 consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals. I won an Olympic gold medal! I was World Sportsman of the Year four years in a row! I’ve won over $67 million in career prize money! I’M ROGER FEDERER!”
There are few words to describe how awful I feel and what I have experienced within these last 24 hours.
I am so truly sorry from the bottom of this Cubs fan’s broken heart.
I ask that Cub fans everywhere redirect the negative energy that has been vented towards my family, my friends, and myself into the usual positive support for our beloved team on their way to being National League champs.
— Steve Bartman, one day after Game Six of the 2003 N.L.C.S.
He would never make another public statement again.
He was just a regular fan. Nay, he was real fan. A true baseball fan. A lifelong Chicago Cubs fan. A kid who grew up in Chicago and lived about 5-km from Wrigley Field. All his life he had supported the eternally-cursed Chicago Cubs, who, in 2003, had not won a World Series crown since 1908. 95 long, agonizing years. But this was about to change, it really was. Florida Marlins shortstop Mike Mordecai had just hit routine fly ball to left field. Caught! The Cubbies were five outs away from the World Series. This was their year. You could practically hear destiny calling their name. But destiny is a cruel beast.
It’s Tuesday October 14, 2003, and the Chicago suburb of Wrigleyville is buzzing. The cool temperatures had sent the Cubs faithful inside the sports bars, filling every surrounding venue that had a television. The intersection of North Clark Street and West Addison Street, home of famous Cubs watering holes like Sluggers, Murphy’s Bleachers and The Cubby Bear, were packed to the brim with people eager to witness the history unfolding inside the grand ballpark across the bitumen. Witness history they would.
But for the scores of twentysomethings that night – pressed against each other in the space-deprived confines of the Wrigleyville bars – baseball wasn’t their top priority. They weren’t watching every pitch, studying every at-bat. For these young people, the Cubs weren’t the be-all and end-all of their existence. The team was only part of their lives, not all that consumed it. Supporting the Cubs was an excuse to escape the monotony of everyday life, get swept up in the euphoria for a few hours and feel good about themselves. One eye would remain on the game, but the other would wander to the pretty girl across the bar.
Not Steve Bartman.
He was there. He wasn’t going to miss this moment in Cubs history. It seemed too good to be true. Game Six, amazing seats, five outs away. In section 4, row 8, seat 113, he sat, all alone, with only the voice of the Chicago Cubs play-by-play radio announcer to keep him company. With his headphones wrapped tightly over his Cubs cap, plugged into his transistor radio, he quietly watched.
Meek and bespectacled, Steve Bartman had spent his life growing up in Chicago. A regular 26-year-old guy, he worked a mundane 9-5 desk job at a global human resources company, and coached a Little League team in his spare time. But his true love, his passion, was his baseball team. A regular at Wrigley Field, he would often come to the ballpark by himself, just like on this fateful evening, and watch his team ply their trade. Imagine his joy then, this night. Oh what it meant to him just to be there.
Juan Pierre had just doubled on a 2-2 fastball outside. The ball shot off his bat into the left field corner, just in front of Bartman. If you pause the tape at the right moment, you may even be able to spot him. All by himself. Sitting there watching, as the ball bounces off the third base line wall and into the glove of Chicago outfielder Moisés Alou. Florida now have a base runner on second, but this was Chicago’s night. The crowd did not waiver from their unbridled giddiness. Destiny was still in the building.
Next to the plate was Luis Castillo. 1-3 on the night and hitting only .217 for the series, he posed minimal threat. Just another out on the road to victory. With a 1-2 count, Cubs starting pitcher Mark Prior threw a breaking ball inside. Ball. 2 and 2. It was Prior’s 111th pitch, but there was no sign of taking him out. He was a warrior. He would get these two remaining outs in the 8th. “Prior just has to continue to obviously do what he’s doing,” noted FOX analyst Al Leiter. “You know, he gets it mentally, and that to me - athletes in general are physically stronger and they’re intellectually stronger.” I wonder if Steve Bartman was thinking about Mark Prior’s intellectual strength? Probably not. Maybe he was concerned about his pitch count though?
“Not even a whiff of activity in that Chicago Cubs bullpen,” remarks FOX announcer Thom Brennaman. The camera flashes to the Cubs bullpen. A couple of pitchers adjust their position on their seats. Maybe they could sense that things were shifting. Maybe.
Three more pitches: a ball and two fouls. The count is full, 3-2. Cubs manager Dusty Baker is the first to flinch. He motions to the bullpen. A change is coming.
Prior, the solider that he is, delivers another pitch. A 93-mph fastball on the outside of the plate. Contact! The ball skies down the left field line. As it rose, it drifted left, tailing towards foul territory. Chicago outfielder Moisés Alou accelerated towards the wall. Could he get to it? Could he make a miraculous catch?
What must have this looked like for Bartman? His seat, wedged next to the wall, was so close to the action. He was front row, slightly cramped, his feet could touch the bricks and mortar in front of him. But at this moment, he was standing. Everyone in the ballpark was standing. The ball, sailing high in the Chicago night sky, reached the height of its parabola and grew bigger as it descended back down to earth. With his eyes fixed on the incoming ball, he mustn’t have seen Alou leaping, hoping to make an incredible catch to put the Cubs one out closer to the World Series.
As the camera found the ball and began zooming into the landing spot, Brennaman made the call. “Again in the air, down the left field line. Alou reaching into the stands and couldn’t get it and is livid with a fan.”
Arms outstretched, the ball stuck Bartman on the left palm, bobbled, bounced off the wall and fell to his feet. Two other people went for that ball. But nobody remembers them. One man, heavyset, wearing a grey sweater, reached from Bartman’s right. The other, a young boy, Cubs cap turned backwards, was wedged between the two of them. But he didn’t get close. For these two bystanders, they would wake up on Wednesday morning and continue on with their lives. Nobody would recognize them. But for Steve Bartman, one split second decision would change his life forever. He just didn’t know it yet.
Everyone could have just moved on. It was an unfortunate incident, but the Cubs still had a job to do. Five outs. Five measly outs. They still led 3-0, for cripes sake. Steve Bartman, the guy caught in the middle of all this commotion, seemed to be the only person who realized this. So close to history, he probably thought. What’s all the hubbub about? We need to get these five outs!
The first problem was Moisés Alou’s reaction. It took him less than a second after landing to slam his glove and throw his arms up in the air in disgust. He turned to walk away, screaming profanities. He then turns back, pauses, and glares in the direction of Steve Bartman. Whatever happened from that moment on, the fans at Wrigley Field now has somebody to blame if it all went wrong.
The producers at FOX didn’t help the situation either. They began replaying the incident ad nauseum from every conceivable angle. It was like dissecting a crime scene on a CSI episode. Once, twice, three times. The blue baseball cap, the old-school walkman headphones, the green skivvy. He was the enemy now, whoever he was.
Brennaman then added, “And that’s a Cubs fan who tried to make that catch.”
Steve Lyons, also in the FOX announcers box, replies by simply yelling, “WHY!?”
Why? Because that’s what you would have done, Steve. That’s what I would have done. That’s what any one of those 39,577 people there at Wrigley Field that night would have done. Tried to catch the damn foul ball.
After viewing the replay over and over again, Lyons makes the first rational comment about the incident. “It’s Game Six of a Cub game, and the ball comes in to my area, I’m trying to catch it! You know? It’s a foul ball.” But that realization didn’t matter. Everything had changed.
The Cubs fans knew. They always know. The mood in the ballpark transformed instantly. Instead of lively optimism and an expectance to witness history, fear and trepidation now filled the air. They were still up 3-0. They were still only five outs away from the World Series. But those five outs now seemed like mountains, not small speed humps. “Asshole! Asshole!”, they began to chant. It was all beginning to unravel.
Bartman, he doesn’t care about any of this. He just sits back down, adjusts his headphones and continues to watch the game. To him, nothing had changed. If only everybody had taken his lead. The Cubs still had a job to do. So close to history!
Then, it all happened. 95 years of weight was too much for the Cubs to hold on their frail shoulders. This time, destiny was nowhere to be seen.
Prior delivered another pitch to Castillo, way down low, in the dirt. Castillo advanced to first on a walk, Pierre to third on the wild pitch. Marlins catcher Ivan Rodriguez is next to the plate. On an 0-2 pitch, he crushes it down the left field line. Pierre scores.
Miguel Cabrera then steps up and swings at the first pitch he sees from Prior. He chops it into the dirt and it bounces straight to Shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who readies himself for the routine double play to end the inning. But, with the smallest lapse in concentration, the ball hits the heel of Gonzalez’s glove and he fumbles it. All the runners are safe. Bases loaded.
The camera cuts to the stands. A Cubs fan, wearing a jersey and a backwards cap, has his hands on his head has a look of terror on his face. He knows what’s happening. Everybody knows.
Derrick Lee is next up. Maybe there’s still hope? Lee is batting only .120 for the series and was 0-3 so far in Game Six. He couldn’t hit his way out of a paper bag. He could now. Lee, on the first pitch he saw, powdered one down the left field line. Left field again. Castillo and Rodriguez score, Cabrera to third base.
The lead had vanished. After 119 pitches, Dusty Baker decided Mark Prior had had enough. He signalled to the pen, and Kyle Farnsworth came in. But it was too late. The Marlins would score 5 more times in the 8th inning, and win the game 8-3.
Steve Bartman? He saw none of this.
With the score 3-0 and runners on first and third, the Cubs called a team meeting at the pitcher’s mound. Prior, manager Dusty Baker, catcher Paul Bako, and three Cubs infielders were involved in the discussion. What were they talking about, I wonder? Prior’s arm? Next batter Ivan Rodriguez? Steve Bartman!? The crowd was getting restless and their focus shifted from the game, to section 4, row 8, seat 113.
A Wrigley Field security guard then locates him. We see him pointing at Bartman from behind. “That’s him?”, he asks another patron. He reaches for his two-way radio. Everybody seems on edge. Bartman just sits there. Five outs!?
Ten security guards were called to section 4 that night.
They escort Bartman from his seat to the bowels of Wrigley Field before anything can escalate. The Cubs are capitulating on the field, and the crowd wanted somebody to blame. Bartman is pelted with beer and peanuts. He’s soaked. He covers his face from a camera with his jacket. Maybe to protect his identity? The whole world knows who he is now. As security attempts to move him through the throng of angry fans, one insists that he blow his own head off with a shotgun. Another leaps at Bartman to attack him, but is tackled before any damage can be done. “You fucking idiot!”, somebody else yells.
To protect him from his fellow fans – who had now transformed into a pitch-fork wielding angry mob – Bartman was given a ‘Security’ jacket to wear as a disguise. Carrying his Cubs cap and headphones in a bag, Bartman and the security attempted to locate a cab to take him home. When they couldn’t, he insisted that the security guards go back to Wrigley Field. They were four blocks from the stadium. He shook their hands and thanked them.
Then, somebody spotted him. “That’s the guy!”, they yelled. Suddenly it turned into a chase through the streets of Chicago, angry Cubs fans yelling abuse as they pursued the group. Security guard Erika Amundsen lived one block away and in a last ditch effort to protect Bartman, she ushered him into her apartment with her fellow security guards.
Once inside, he introduced himself. “I’m Steven,” he said.
All he wanted to know was what was the score was, how many outs were left, and why everybody was so angry with him? “Did I really mess up the game?”, he asked the security guards.
Hours after Game Six had concluded, his personal information was posted online. In the weeks that followed, Bartman was made the pariah for what happened to the Chicago Cubs. Six police cars were stationed outside his family home. Television satellite trucks positioned themselves across the road from his house for weeks. “Death To Steve Bartman” message boards were set up and it was not long before people were selling merchandise showing his image with the saying, “Sit Down Steve” on them. He was patronized on television shows nationwide, Law & Order even going as far as basing an entire episode on the death of the “foul ball guy,” murdered in a bar. Florida Governor Jeb Bush offered him asylum down south. Andy MacPhail, then the Cubs team president, and MLB Commissioner Bud Selig phoned with messages of support.
Bartman, to escape the wrath imposed on him by the city of Chicago, went into hiding. He wanted it all to go away. How could these people, his fellow Cubs fans, react this way? He thought he was one of them.
Almost eight years later, he has still never spoken publicly of the incident. He has never cashed in on his story, despite being offered obscene amounts of money to do commercials and interviews. What if somebody else had gone for that ball? Would they have wanted their 15-minutes? In this day and age, most likely, yes. Not Bartman. He just wanted to see his baseball team win. By all reports, he is still a die-hard Chicago Cubs fan. He still works that same 9-5 desk job. But nobody knows whether he has ever been back to Wrigley Field since that cool autumn night.
People fail to remember that the Cubs still had a chance to make the 2003 World Series by winning Game Seven the following night at Wrigley Field. Maybe everyone would have forgotten about Steve Bartman if they had got it done? Maybe. Prior to Game Seven, Cubs manager Dusty Baker was quoted in saying, “We’ve got to win for that kid [Steve Bartman]. For us, it’s just a ball game. For him, it’s the rest of his life.”
They didn’t win, and the Florida Marlins went on to beat the heavily-favoured New York Yankees in the World Series. Since then the Cubs have made the postseason twice. Both times, they were swept. They have not won a playoff game since 2003. Their 102-year championship drought is the longest in North American professional sports.
It seemed too good to be true that night. Game Six, amazing seats, five outs away.
Sadly, it was.
impressed? tell your friends!
∞01:35 am, from the brain of alex benton[23 notes]
If you were looking for extra work in the upstate New York area back in May, 1993, you may have stumbled upon a job advertisement that was of intrigue. The ad stated that it was seeking a ‘bird-loving person to train and care for homing pigeons’. Paying a modest $200-a-month, one might have been mistaken for thinking that such a unique task would draw little interest from applicants. Yet, just days after the ad surfaced, 25 people had already enquired.
Cleaning a two-story pigeon coop in Catskill, New York, and feeding ‘fancy’ pigeons, may not be everybody’s idea of a dream job. But when the 150 birds are owned by former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, the interest in such a task is substantially increased.
When Mike Tyson was sentenced to 10 years in prison on March 27, 1992, he had one main concern. The welfare of his beloved pigeons. “That’s the first thing I ever loved in my life, I loved the pigeons. I don’t know why. I feel ridiculous even trying to explain it,” he said recently. The bond he shares with his birds is so strong that instead of sending photos of family members, his friends would mail him photos of his favourite pigeons to decorate his cell walls with.
His love affair with pigeons began at an early age. As a child growing up in Brooklyn, New York City, Tyson was poor, insecure and unsure of where his next meal would come from. But when he was with his pigeons, high up on the Brooklyn rooftops, none of this mattered. Watching the pigeons soar above him, twisting and turning in beautiful synchronized form, Tyson felt free. Honored by their loyalty, the pigeons’ reliance on Tyson to provide them with food and water made him fell needed, something that he struggled to receive from the people who raised him.
At age 10, Tyson was abandoned by his father and lived with his mother, brother and sister on Atlantic Avenue in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Dominated by public housing projects, Brownsville is an area of New York City that has long been plagued with poverty and drug-related crime. Growing up in such an unstable environment, the young Tyson turned to pigeons for support. The birds provided him with companionship and love, things that he battled to get from anywhere else.
The pigeons took Tyson and his young friends to the rooftops, allowing them to escape the streets and subsequently the oppression and violence that was happening below. Using wood and nails stolen from around the neighborhood, the boys would build pigeon coops to house the birds that they raised.
Then, at age 11, an encounter with a neighborhood bully led Tyson to throw his first punch, setting him on the path that would see him become the heavyweight champion of the world.
Carrying a large sack over his right shoulder and dragging two other sacks along the ground behind him, Tyson was transporting roughly 100 pigeons past the housing projects. A group of gang members approached him and one grabbed a white English Tippler pigeon out of one of the sacks.
“Gimme my bird back,” the 11-year-old Tyson yelled.
“You want it?” the bully replied.
Then, as a helpless Tyson looked on, the bully snapped the birds’ neck and splattered its blood on Tyson’s face. “You can have it.”
In a fit of rage, Tyson began blindly throwing punches. It was the first fight he had ever been involved in, and he won. In the past, if Tyson had been robbed, he would do nothing. People would take his jewelry, take his clothes, and he would accept it because he didn’t know any better. But when one of his birds was killed in front of him, a sense of pride came over him and he stood up for himself for the first time in his life.
“I just thought it was the right thing to do,” he said of the incident.
Since then, his pigeon coops have served as a refuge during some of his most difficult times.
After losing to Buster Douglas on February 11, 1990, in Tokyo, Japan, Tyson escaped the scrutiny of the media and returned to Catskill, New York, where he was raised by Camille Ewald and his boxing mentor, Cus D’Amato, from early age. It was during this tough period of his life that Tyson would bunker down in the backyard pigeon coop that he and Cus had built. He would find solace alone with the only creature that understood him.
On June 8, 2002, in Memphis, Tennessee, Tyson lost to heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis in an eighth round knockout. Immediately following the fight, he boarded his private jet and flew directly to Jersey City to be alone with his pigeons. Suffering from what he described as a “broken heart”, he woke the birds up first thing the next the morning and spent the entire day in the coop, putting them to sleep the following night. There was only one thing in the world that could ease his pain. His birds.
“What we love about the pigeon more than anything, is what we can’t get from humans, and that’s loyalty. As long as he’s alive and his heart’s pumping, he’ll come back.”
In a recent e-mail to the New York Times, Tyson elaborated on his lifelong passion. The birds’ loyalty and simplicity makes them the ultimate companion, he explains.
Unlike human beings that have the capacity to manipulate and deceive one another, they are basically animals of habit. If you treat them well, feed them, give them safe housing and lots of love, you can expect a good relationship with them. However, that isn’t the case with human relationships.
Adopted by legendary boxing trainer Cus D’Amato at age 14, Tyson was fortunate to have a strong male role model in his life that he could look up to and admire. But tragically, Cus died when Mike was only 19, one year before he became heavyweight champion. “That was my exchange for him. I wanted to be champion of the world to make him happy,” Tyson said.
But being heavyweight champion came with newfound responsibilities. Responsibilities that Tyson was not equipped to handle. He was an instant millionaire, and without the guiding influence of his trainer and adopted father, Mike’s life spiraled out of control. “I was so affected by drugs and a crazy lifestyle. I was just addicted to chaos,” he said.
It was when he got away from the discipline that Cus had instilled in him through their training, that things began to go downhill. Surrounded by people who did not have his best interests at heart, Tyson and his unchecked aggression was set on a course for destruction. He forgot who he was, and lost his trust in other people.
“The best moment of my life was when I retired because I was too into that character. That Iron Mike guy.And that guy was pretty toxic for me. This is just a part of me that I don’t like and don’t understand,” he explained.
“In my life I need to be focused and committed to something, in order for me to be at my best. If I’m not committed to anything, and I’m not consistent with something, I could basically fall to pieces.”
With his boxing career a distant memory, pigeons now provide him with the focus and responsibility that are integral to his transformation as a person. When he was once struggling for an identity, these days, he has a clearer understanding of who he is. Those integral questions of ones character, Who are you? How do you want to be known?How do you want to be remembered?, are becoming easier to answer. Mike Tyson is embarking on a new journey. A journey to define himself.
“I’m starting to understand who I am. I’m starting to understand who Mike Tyson is. That was the problem from the beginning, I never really understood who I was or what I was. And I never embraced who I was.”
That his life has seemed so irreconcilable over and over again makes this transformation even more improbable. But these days, with a simpler life and a greater focus on family values, he knows more about himself now that he ever did when he was a millionaire athlete. Strung out on his big ego and his low self-esteem, he struggled to grasp reality because of what was going on around him.
“The most I ever had in my life was 300, 400 million dollars, [and] I was the most miserable person in the world. Right now, I don’t have nothing close to that, but I’m so happy,” Mike said recently about the time he spent within the New York pigeon racing fraternity.
“I’m looking at life from a different perspective now. I want to live. I want to see the future,” he said earlier this year.
Whatever the future holds, Mike knows that to keep his life on track, he needs to be committed to something. He makes his money these days by doing celebrity appearances, but ultimately, this continues to make him uncomfortable.
“Back then I felt like a freak in a cage and I still do. You go somewhere and people look at you and watch you.”
Still, he understands that this is a valuable source of income and if he’s to support his family, he must occasionally enter back into the celebrity world that he never totally understood or was comfortable with.
But, when the handshakes are finished and the camera flashes have died down, Tyson knows there will always be one place where he can be at peace. A place high up on the rooftop, away from the frenzied world below. A place that is home the one thing that he truly trusts.