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Sports and 2013: Terror in April on Boylston Street; stories craven and cheap; taps for familiar names

The bards and sages of the Associated Press news service, who do this stuff as well as anybody, have ranked the top sports stories of 2013 and the winner – if you will pardon the use of that thinly appropriate term – is our own Boston Marathon, albeit for all the wrong reasons, you may grimly recall.

Obviously the citation has little to do with this sweet event’s essence rendered over more than a century with much pastoral dignity, but everything to do with the unhappy and random choice terrorists made of it last April to express their irrational rage. Innocent or otherwise, it is a burden our Marathon will bear forever more.

Well more than mere irony is served when such an unspeakable twist of fate offers up the year’s most significant historical impact in the realm of Sport, which purportedly is aimed at celebrating the nobility of the human spirit, the excellence of physical achievement, and the joys of friendly competition. It raises to the level of a scream the protest: “Is nothing sacred; no one safe?” Apparently not!

Further affirming how rotten the year in the world of fun and games was is the fact that all of 2013’s top five sports stories, at least according to the AP’s distinguished panel of electors, had nothing to do with championships won on fields of play or anything resembling heroic endeavor.  Rather, it was all about the craven and cheap.
In second place was the bringing down at last of the cyclist Lance Armstrong. In third was the NFL’s multi-billion dollar payoff for the injury claims of its alumni. In fourth was the flock of performance-enhancing drug suspensions in baseball, led by that infamous pair of cheats, Ryan Braun and A-Rod. And in fifth place was the astonishing tale of the Patriots’ Aaron Hernandez, the tight end accused of orchestrating serial crimes and homicides.

Amazing, is it not!

Nor is this some sort of passing fancy. This year’s selections mark the fifth straight year that the alternately dark, corrupt, sleazy side of modern, megabuck sport has been thusly dis-honored. Last year it was the prosecution of the Penn State abuse scandal that ranked number one. The year before it was the revelation of Penn State’s disgrace that resulted in Joe Paterno’s total humiliation. In 2010, it was Tiger Woods’s epic fall from grace. In 2009, the spectacular outbreak of PED charges that had sullied some of baseball’s biggest names.
Might we detect a trend here?

If so, the prospects of 2014 changing it would seem slim with the old year ending with the A-Rod fiasco on-going and the new year beginning with the countdown to the anxiety-ridden Winter Olympics at Sochi. You needn’t brim with pessimism to regard 2014’s potential as chilling.

But that’s enough of that for the moment. There is another ritual to mark the annual big bend in the calendar and it is rather more elegant. It is the paying of tribute to those who departed this past year, leaving behind memories of moments that both pleased and touched us and should be remembered well. Herewith, the sporting class of 2013.

In boxing we said goodbye to the estimable Kennie Norton, who gave Ali all he could handle. Also Carl “The Truth” Williams, amiable fodder for both Tyson & Holmes, and Tommy Morrison, who died of AIDS. X-Games thrill-seeker Caleb Moore was too young. In golf, there was Ken Venturi, one of that game’s great thinkers. In tennis, Gussie Moran, nicknamed “Gorgeous” for the glamor she brought to the pro game when it was much in need.

NBA alums included Tom Boerwinkle, Flynn Robinson, the always colorful and high-living Lakers’ owner Jerry Buss – and Vern Mikkelsen, who partnered with George Mikan to make the original Lakers out of Minneapolis the pro game’s first dynasty.  Bill Sharman! A superb athlete as stylish as they come and seemingly effortless in his excellence, on and off the court. With Bob Cousy he formed with the Celtics what may have been basketball’s classiest backcourt ever.  In hockey, there was Allan “Snowshoes” Stanley. Briefly a Bruin, he gained Hall of Fame distinction with the Leafs. From the press box, “Dancing” Dave O’Hara of the AP, as engaging a rascal as we all ever featured there.  

D. Leo Monahan, NHL scribe a half century. No fellow knew and loved the game more than this Hockey Hall of Famer.

Football’s losses were heavy. Rick Casares, Chuck Muncie, Dave Jennings, George Sauer, who wouldn’t bend to the system, and Deacon Jones, the most fabled of the Fearsome Foursome.  Odin Lloyd hung out with Aaron Hernandez. Frank Tripucka was an AFL original.  Jack Butler was an old-fashioned, leather-helmeted Hall of Famer. L.C. “Daddy Wags” Greenwood co- anchored mighty Pittsburgh’s Steel Curtain. Pat Summerall!  Un-erring with his toe on the field. he was lyrically laconic in the broadcast booth thereafter. Ace Parker, an All-America in three sports at Duke. Dick Kazmaier of Princeton and Wellesley. He won the Heisman back when it really meant something. Artie Donovan! He was a loveable football troubadour from Boston College, a delightful man. Owner Bud Adams, an AFL founding father.

From the ranks of the coaches we lost Don James of Washington, Jack Pardee, also a high-quality player and one of the Bear’s Boys, Paul Dietzel of LDSU and West Point, Bum Phillips, who was full of country-wisdom and seemingly too good-natured to be an NFL stalwart. Chuck Fairbanks! Overnight he transformed the Patriots from patsies to powerhouse, and had he been more focused, he might have been the equal of Lord Belichick. Chuck always seemed a bit bored. Maybe he squandered potential greatness but, perhaps to his credit, he didn’t seem to care.

From the national pasttime, baseball, the bells tolled for Matt Batts, he of the perfect baseball name and long ago of the Red Sox; Mike Hegan, son of Jim and a Holy Cross man; Gus Triandos, Bob Turley,  Paul Blair, and Johnny Kucks. Nicknamed “Fire,” Virgil Trucks tossed two no-hitters for a last-place team. Andy Pafko led the Cubs to their last World Series date. Gates Brown was called “Swinging.” Dan Osinski mopped up for the Impossible Dream Red Sox.

George Scott! He craved to be known as “The Boomer” and when he arrived he seemed straight from Central Casting with a potential near unlimited. But life was never easy for George, on or off the field. He was the first black star fully groomed by the Red Sox and he will forever make us wonder what might have been. Earl Weaver, the bantam mentor, forever irascible. Who could imagine the raspy old Earl exiting while mellowing out on a leisurely Caribbean cruise.

Lavonne “Pepper” Paire was a star catcher of the WWII-era All-American Girls Baseball League. In a movie, Geena Davis gave her a fame too long denied. Posthumously, she could yet land in Cooperstown. Ray Grebey was major league baseball’s iron-willed labor-negotiator. But Marvin Miller was even tougher. Michael Weiner, a gentleman from Williams College who too briefly held Marvin’s old post, succumbing to cancer at 51.

Stan Musial! An extraordinary ballplayer deemed even more extraordinary as a human being. Stan was completely unaffected by his own greatness. He, and he alone, was known as “The Man.” Of him, that’s all you need to know.

Lou Brissie! He represented a long and distinguished company of ballplayers, most of whom we would never know, who laid down their careers during the WWII years. In fierce combat on the Italian front in 1944, exploding shell fragments left Brissie with both feet broken, an ankle smashed, a fractured leg, and both hands and arms severely wounded. He was awarded the Bronze Star to go with his Purple Hearts.  After 23 surgeries and with ravaged limbs patched and re-strung with plates, splints, wires and screws, he won 30 games in two seasons for Connie Mack’s A’s while lasting five painful but uplifting years in the Bigs.  Corporal Lou Brissie, as brave a man as ever played this or any game, died at age 89.