There is Still Grace in Sports

November 11th, 2011 at 5:43 pm | 7 Comments |

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As the Penn State scandal unfolds, it’s worth reminding ourselves that sports can provide the occasional grace note, the pleasurable escape from a troubled world. Remember Jason McElwain, the autistic team manager for a high school basketball team who went on a three-point shooting spree? Or the college softball players who carried an injured opponent around the bases to complete her home run trot?

An underrated feel-good sports story revolves around Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler. A dynamic duo on the sensational Phi Slama Jama Houston Cougars in the early 1980s, they fell in the NCAA finals to North Carolina State on a fluky play at the buzzer – a crushing defeat of the sort you never live down (especially when, thanks to Jim Valvano darting around in a celebratory craze, the ending is televised ad nauseam). A decade later, Clyde The Glide was traded to the Rockets and rejoined Hakeem The Dream in the same city where they’d experienced the ultimate disappointment. The reunited buddies led the Rockets to an NBA championship, the ultimate vindication.

There’s a Robin Williams movie about a middle-aged man, haunted by dropping a touchdown pass in the big game in high school, who arranges a rematch 20 years later. You can guess the rest–he achieves redemption, Hollywood style. In real life, you don’t get the do-over. Except when life imitates art, as it did for Drexler and Olajuwon.

There are also the more low-key grace notes that certain athletes provide on a regular basis–not goose bump material, but small gifts that keep on giving. In an era where players indulged ever more elaborate end zone celebrations, after his many touchdowns Barry Sanders would calmly hand the ball to an official. “You should act like you’ve done it before,” he explained. Sanders’ class speaks for itself. But who would expect similar behavior from the often boorish Mickey Mantle?

As Jane Leavey documents in her recent, exhaustive biography of the Mick, he was, to put it mildly, a disturbed soul. There may be worse husbands and fathers, but that would take some doing. Mantle’s extreme self-loathing manifested itself in all sorts of lamentable conduct, including cruelty to kids who dared to seek an autograph.

But Mick was a complex man, with large virtues accompanying his outsized flaws. The cynic may suggest that he is regarded by many as a hero solely because he slugged 554 home runs (counting 18 in the World Series). But for me, Mantle’s displays of virtue came after the home runs. He put his head down and ran around the bases. Unlike many sluggers, he never dropped his bat flamboyantly, stopping to admire or call attention to his achievement. He never pumped his fist or jogged slowly to embarrass the pitcher.

Mantle’s classy home run trot may have reflected a number of things. It may have been simply the taciturn Oklahoman, shy about attention, or maybe the son of the ruthlessly demanding Mutt Mantle, internalizing the notion that you’re supposed to hit home runs so they warrant no celebration. While these elements were likely involved, surely Mantle’s no-nonsense trot also reflected a conviction (conscious or otherwise) about respect for an opponent. George Will once wrote: “Etched on every fan’s mental retina is the archetypal sight of Mickey Mantle in his home run trot, with his head down, so as not to show up the pitcher.”

I don’t know about etched on every fan’s retina (Will tends to exaggerate when he writes about baseball), but it’s nice to imagine that Mantle’s behavior made at least some impression on observers. The Mick sinned more than most of us sinners, but 554 times he showed great human grace.

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7 Comments so far ↓

  • Oldskool

    There was a time when players in all sports aspired to be sportsman-like. Some still do but it seems like it all began to change in the 1980s when Dennis Rodman pumped his fist every time he scored a basket in the ncaa tourney. And then Mark Gastineau had to do a dance whenever he made a sack. And then the Fab Five had to do their rap poses during basketball games. Seems like it’s been downhill since.

    • pnwguy


      I have plenty of appreciation for Drexler’s playing talents since I live in Portland. I was there when they retired his number with the Blazers, and I briefly met him once in the Houston airport. He has lived life on and off the court with an amazing graciousness.

      Like a lot of things in life, money and celebrity corrupt. It’s not just in sports now, but we have so much more of a winner-take-all culture where the elite in every field suck up most of the attention, money, and opportunities. When that happens, any sense of “rules” about behavior seem to fly out the window. It happens with entertainment stars, sports champions, journalists, and corporate leadership. We see plenty of it in politics.

      The sense of “noblesse oblige” seems quaint now.

  • Ray_Harwick

    Oh dear God! You mentioned college softball (carrying the batter around the bases). Puh-leeze! Micky Mantel was PAID to do that. He was the “Yes Sir” voice of Elvis Presley of his age responding to reporter’s questions. Jesus H. Christ! Don’t you know the difference between being PAID for a humble image and TRUE compassion.

    The team who helped the batter around the field? I remember the pitcher saying, “It was her FIRST home run and it was her LAST at-bat of her SENIOR year.” The rules are that the batter’s team cannot assist the batter WHAT-SO-EVER. So the opposing team has to do it. I was HUMBLED by the breathtaking act of compassion of those college softball players.

    Ironically, I was born and raised in Oklahoma. Micky Mantle is most certainly a hero (along with Anita Bryant), but humble? Puh-leeeeeze! Money talks.

  • Graychin

    I’m not much interested in Mickey Mantle’s personal life. He’s been out of baseball for 45+ years and dead for 15+. So I won’t likely be reading the book. Who even would?

    Even the great Babe Ruth had a messy personal life. So did many other sports greats. So what? They get paid to perform on the field, not to be role models.

    Joe Paterno was one who brought grace.

    Have you noticed how much the Penn State scandal is like the Catholic Church scandals? Besides the abuse, what do they have in common? 1) An all-male environment, 2) Male authority figures with special status: a priest of God, a big-time football coach, 3) higher authorities who put protection of the institution (and themselves) first. Protection from scandal and reputation ahead of past and future victims.

    It’s a good thing that the military doesn’t have much access to kids.

    Why hasn’t Mike McQueary, the assistant coach who witnessed the assault on the child but didn’t interrupt it or report it to police, been charged with a crime? I can’t figure it out.

    • PracticalGirl

      Some interesting observations, but this?

      Joe Paterno was one who brought grace.

      In a public sense, perhaps, on the field, yes. But ultimately he brought disgrace by running an organization with a culture that valued loyalty over integrity, no matter his public reputation of being gruff but golden and moral. Yes, this situation was FUBAR from the beginning: Law enforcement agencies who investigated, but did nothing. PSU administrators who continued to allow Sandusky access to their facilities even as the allegations stacked up.

      But Joe Paterno was the face of the program. And in the end, he did exactly what the Catholic leaders in the US did amid seedy information about those within their organizations: He pushed the staff around like chess pieces, continued to allow Sandusky to operate unabated (making unknowing pawns out of as-yet unknown numbers of victims) and sent it up the line to what he saw as the ultimate ass-covering authorizing decision makers. Paterno had enough power, authority and public support to say “Hell, no. This guy needs to be prosecuted and needs to be in custody. No child diddlers in my locker room.” But he kept his mouth shut, for the love of the game and his program.

      In the end, Paterno chose to abdicate what he knew was moral and right to a position of institutional protection: Tell power, and now power will take care of it. Not “do the right thing”, but take care of it like a dirty little secret. Shameful, and damaging to his entire legacy. This isn’t just NCAA violations. His fall from grace was years in the making and effectively changed the courses of not just the victims’ lives but the very institution he chose to protect. For time immemorial, Paterno will have a very nasty asterisk and footnote attached to his name. And it’s one that deserves to stick.

      • Graychin


        • PracticalGirl

          Can’t quite figure out the McQueary position, either. I’ve heard some interesting legal analysis of late. Of course, he’s now on administrative leave, but it’s possible that there’s “wiggle” room in PA law protecting “whistleblowers”. The term doesn’t exactly fit in his case, but I think there might be enough ambiguity that’s causing PSU to go a bit slowly on this one.

          I’m nauseated by a father who would tell his son-in shock, I have no doubt, after seeing a professional mentor and his former coach raping a boy- to clear out when a crime was being committed. But it boils down to SSDD- loyalty over integrity with a side of “what will this mean to my career?” thrown in.

          Ugly times ugly.