Saturday, April 23, 2005

What Happened To Characters? Today's Sports Full Of Liars, Felons

"Nice guys finish last."
-- Giants manager Leo Durocher, circa 1950's.

I'm a big fan of professionalism, I really am. I like my cashier at Rite Aid to have his shirt tucked in, his hair combed. I want the person on the other end of the phone to display proper telecommunications etiquette. I appreciate the waiter telling me to stay away from certain dishes, even if they're today's specials.

I don't, however, feel the choir boy thing is a prerequisite to winning in sports.

On my baseball team, I want some wacky guys. I think an eccentric nut on my hockey team is all right. I am all for an offensive lineman on my football team eating raw dove hearts, if that's what makes him mean enough to shove around defensive tackles on Sunday. I don't even mind it if the coach has a little of Jekyll and Hyde in him.

I bring this up because I keep hearing about how happy and lovely the Tigers' clubhouse is, and has mostly been, ever since Sparky Anderson took over back in 1979. "We have a great bunch of guys," I've heard more than one Tigers player say, for years and years. "Everyone gets along -- there are no cliques." Great! And the Tigers have had two winning seasons since 1988. That's what they do in Detroit, don't you know -- as soon as a player is acquired, he's fitted for a pair of rose-colored glasses.

Where have all the characters gone?

When the Tigers acquired flamethrowing reliever Kyle Farnsworth from the Cubs, there was some hand-wringing. Seems as though Farnsworth has been observed marching to the beat of a different drummer at times. He was described variously as "quirky", "offbeat", and "hard to figure out." Good! There's always room for that kind of fellow, especially in the bullpen. It takes a different type of individual to be a late inning reliever anyway, in my book, just like it takes someone who might be a tad crazy to be a goaltender in hockey
Farsnworth marches to the beat of a different drummer? GOOD!

The mild worry over Farnsworth's acquisition serves to show how far we've fallen from the days when pro athletes were some of the craziest, weirdest, scariest men to walk among us. Oh, players still make news with their actions off the field, but it's for all the wrong reasons. We don't have characters anymore -- we have liars and felons.

And where are the villains? Every sport needs those guys who wear the black hat -- a man everyone hates, unless he's on your team, of course. Bill Laimbeer, in his heyday, was such a villain. Laimbeer was vilified in enemy arenas, hung in effigy and showered with verbal venom. And he loved it. He would actually exhort the opposing fans, encouraging their ire. They hated that, too. But now when a guy is booed or protested against, it's more likely to be because of a pending rape case or use of performance enhancing drugs, or because of an asinine comment made to the press.
Nobody could intimidate Laimbeer

"Today's athletes are either really nice, normal guys or likely to have a rap sheet -- no in between."

The NFL has tried mightily to legislate characters out of the league. But even some of the modern day attempts at buffoonery come off as contrived and over the top. Terrell Owens' famous Sharpie incident was a nice try at eccentricity, but it was clearly planned and premeditated. There's a difference between Owens' bravado and the actions of men like former 49ers offensive tackle Bob St. Clair of the 1960's, who was nicknamed "The Geek" because of his tendency to eat just about anything, whether it was to win a bet or simply because he felt like it. He was crazy, after all. Not literally, but in the "characters in sports" sense. Once, after a dove hunting outing, St. Clair was making a pile of dove hearts. A rookie teammate happened by and asked St. Clair if he was planning on making sauce out of the hearts. St. Clair looked at the kid, grinned devilishly, and started popping the raw hearts into his mouth. The rookie's reaction, unfortunately, was not preserved for history.
"The Geek" ate dove hearts -- whatever it takes, baby

The Oakland A's of the 1970's fought each other almost as vociferously as their opponents, and they won three straight World Series titles. Speaking of Oakland, thank goodness for the Raiders, who have laid out the welcome mat for some of pro football's most disenfranchised, dysfunctional players over the years. And despite some recent bumps in the road, the Raiders have been able to patch these wackos into their lineup to the tune of one of the best winning percentages in the NFL since the merger with the AFL in 1970. Happiness doesn't breed winning and discontent doesn't breed losing -- it's the other way around in both instances.

Today's athletes are either really nice, normal guys or likely to have a rap sheet -- no in between. Who in baseball is today's Bill Lee, aka The Spaceman? Who is football's Bobby Layne, partier extraordinaire? Basketball's Bill Walton, Grateful Dead fan and beach bum? These players, and those of their ilk, were mostly harmless, yet they provided comic relief and caused many an eye to roll and head to shake in their time.
Bill "Spaceman" Lee -- can't ya tell?

The Lions had Joe Don Looney for awhile, who more than lived up to his last name. The Red Wings employed Howie Young, who played like a train that jumped a track and was a lover of the city's nightlife. The Tigers had Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, who talked to baseballs, for gosh sakes. The Pistons had Erwin Mueller, who wore Coke bottle eyeglasses and probably led the league in beer drinking. In fact, it was the Pistons' first coach in Detroit, Charley Eckman, who had one of the most memorable lines in the business. Disdainful of over-coaching his players, Eckman once said his two favorite plays were "'South Pacific' and put the ball in the basket." Can you imagine Larry Brown saying such a thing nowadays?

There just isn't any color anymore in pro sports. We are awash in shades of gray, and it's borrring. Say what you will about Dennis Rodman, but I always thought his escapades were a breath of fresh air. Who did The Worm hurt, really, besides himself? Even Charles Barkley I could abide. Sir Charles would open his mouth -- he's still this way, actually -- and some of the most honest, outrageous things poured out. But the beauty of it is that you get the feeling Barkley isn't putting on -- he really does believe the things he says. I agree with very little of what he says, to be honest, but that's okay. We need more Charles Barkleys around. There are too many of the other microphone types taking up the airwaves. Oh, where are you, Howard Cosell? Your kind is gone forever, I fear. Hockey Night in Canada even got rid of Don Cherry, another sign of that sport's apocalypse.

The vanilla is glopped over the coaching ranks, too. Where's today's Billy Martin? Woody Hayes? Or even Bob Knight, before he was watered down and mellowed? Will we see another Leo "The Lip" Durocher? Will another NBA coach light a stogie on the bench, a la Red Auerbach? Answers: nowhere, nowhere, nowhere, no and no.

Alan Trammell, in his third year as Tigers manager, is creating a professional, business-like clubhouse like his mentor, Sparky Anderson, did in the 1980's. And that's fine -- nobody says you have to have a bunch of jerks on your team to enjoy success. But when an off of center type like Farnsworth is dealt by the Cubs because, well, he's off of center, and he's closely monitored by his new team for any signs of unusual behavior, it seems like more attention is paid to potential negativeness than to the upside his size and loose cannon status can bring to the table. If the guy can pitch, and maybe even intimidate a few opposing hitters along the way, then so be it.

Ryne Duren, most likely hungover

The Yankees of the early 60's used to have a relief pitcher named Ryne Duren, who wore thick glasses and was a known alcoholic. He also was just wild enough to make hitters think long and hard before digging in. When Duren was brought into a game, he would often purposely throw his first warmup pitch over the backstop. Why? "I just wanted them to think, 'Maybe this guy's a little too wild to go up against.' Or maybe they would think I was drunk. Either way, I had an advantage."

The fabric of sports was more fun when it was put together like a quilt. Today it's processed, like polyester. Then again, they just don't make things today like they used to, so why should sports be any different, I suppose.


Anonymous said...

Have not I heard all of your rantings before? Like on Only a Game and else where? I hate Recyclers. Come original or delete this Blog.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your article and agree that the characters of past were special. One of which was my father, Charley Eckman. I recently completed his web site, and wanted you to know I have presented a formal application supporting Dad to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a Basketball Referee. Charley was a character, but he also was the best basketball referee during his time. Thanks Linda Watts