About tennis players, high school outrages, and Pats vs. Jets

Stray thoughts and observations while awaiting the Hot Stove League Season which -- east of the Berkshires and north of the Thames -- ought to be rather torrid for the young man stuck in the kitchen, Theo Epstein. Where does he begin? That is the question.

In the meantime:
Have you considered that tennis players may have become the finest athletes we have nowadays? I’m talking about true athletes measured by the total package of strength, quickness, skill, stamina, tenacity, spirit, guile, courage, and sheer will, none of it induced by so-called “enhancements” and all of it in proper proportion.

The game’s image as the sophisticated dalliance of the leisure class unfortunately persists. The reality is worlds removed. Those who excel at the game today are very different from the too polite, generally smaller, less physical, and much less driven characters who formerly dominated the sport. No game has changed more in my lifetime.

Recent Wimbledons have been stunning examples of the point. To win there, I would argue, may be the most grueling experience, physically and psychologically, that an athlete can face in today’s sporting world save, perhaps, for the challenge a top-defenseman meets going the distance in the Stanley Cup hockey playoffs which, night after night for nearly two months, can border on the excruciating.

Near equal to the Wimbledon ordeal is the U.S. Open festival in New York, recently acquitted with customary brilliance. Watching Federer and Djokovich slugging it out in the final desperate gasps of the four-hour semi-final you could only wonder how either might manage to drag himself off the court when it ended. Bear in mind they don’t get to spend half the contest watching comfortably from the bench or dugout let alone in air-conditioned arenas.

Civilized combat doesn’t get any more intense or arduous. Whatever, my choice as the world’s best athlete in 2010 is Rafael Nadal.
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Second question: Might the abuses scandalizing college sport be extending to high schools? Given the increasingly heightened emphasis on high school athletics in many regions, including the televising of the teenage tilts, it may be inevitable.

Some of the tricks being played are alarming. In Florida, there’s a high school team that was beefed up this autumn by the importing of five transfer-students from four other nearby high schools. It can be done in Florida because schools in a given district feature different areas of educational emphasis, almost like majors in college. So if a kid changes his educational concentration, say from pre-med to pre-law, he can transfer.

But please let’s not kid ourselves here. The five transfer cases in my anecdote have nothing to do with academics. Two of the kids have changed schools three times in four years. All five are exceptional, all-star caliber athletes.

Such outrages are not confined to other places. In our own backyard highly ranked programs designed to redress racial imbalance or provide special academic opportunities have been suspected of being used to stock certain public schools with gifted athletes, while private schools have long been accused of effectively stealing good players from the public system.

Ah, but the Florida example hurls all of that chicanery many yards downfield. The potential for abuse in the hands of unethical coaches and boosters is near infinite. And face it. The abusers abound at all levels.

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The New York Jets should be forever thankful to your Patriots. In rolling over as they did, the Foxboroughs probably saved the season, on and off the field, of the team they profess to hate. The Jets were hardly deserving of such largesse, the irony of it all notwithstanding. Keep in mind it was the Patriots who were the guilty party in the NFL’s last major sexist fiasco, inspiring widespread denunciation, although that happened almost a generation ago.

But much has changed as the years fled by, which news had apparently not reached the Jets. Only this strange team and its daffy coach still fail to recognize the good old days of Ball Four, so brilliantly detailed 40 years ago by Jim Bouton, are as dead as the horse and buggy era. Animal House doesn’t play anymore on the ballfields of the Republic.

Maybe there are legitimate reasons to question why the female reporter from the Latin American T.V network was even credentialed in the first place, given her controversial performance at the 2009 Super Bowl. None of that’s unreasonable, although making too much of it is unwise.

Because the harassment by the players, plainly tolerated by coaches and staff, made all of that irrelevant. What they did – no matter the alleged provocation – was exquisitely dumb. They get paid a lot of money to absorb pain and ignore provocations. Case closed! If, obviously, not all the Jets are Neanderthals, they plainly lack so much as a single employee strong enough to stand up and say, ‘Knock it off!”

To think that Bill Belichick and his lads might have trounced the miscreants into the dusk, amidst much bravura, emerging heroic, while also redeeming a bit of their own history. Apparently the role was too demanding.

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And then there’s the near comparable furor over Derek Jeter’s alleged “cheating” whereby in the big moment of a big game in Tampa he gratefully accepted a free trip to first base after pretending to have been hit by a pitch. The moral indignation thus precipitated was stunning. You might have thought he’d tripped an elderly woman allowing her to fall into the path of an oncoming freight train, or even derisively hooted reporters in the clubhouse.

But the legions of the righteous who got so agitated over this one, all of them, don’t have much of a clue about the way the games are played. Every sport has its games within the game featuring cat and mouse antics with the officials over the bending of rules. Actually, it’s mainly the source of much of the fun. Still more to the point, no active player in baseball has been hit by more pitches than Jeter. Is it somehow more ethical for a pitcher to plant a 95-mile-an-hour fastball in a batter’s rib than it is for said batter to pretend to have been hit by one?

The only person with valid grounds for complaint is the ump who got conned. Next time he finds Lance Barksdale behind the plate, Jeter would be well advised to not take any close pitches. To his credit, Barksdale laughed it off. So did the Rays’ manager, who almost got conned out of a huge victory by Jeter’s clever performance. Said the wise and witty Joe Maddon, “I thought Derek did a great job and I applaud it and I only wish our guys would do the same thing.”

Talk of your basic much ado about nothing. Doubtless the great fuss was a matter of Sir Derek paying the price for his pristine image. If A-Rod had done it, nobody would have blinked.

Lastly, when Jack Tatum, chief assassin of the Oakland Raiders when, under the direction of jovial John Madden, they were pleased to be the nastiest team in sports, died the other day most of us who were there at the time buttoned up in deference to the timeless axiom that no ill should be spoken of the departed.

But Steve Grogan, the toughest quarterback the Patriots ever had and high among the finest and most principled gentlemen ever to play any game in this town, did speak up, saying he could never forgive Tatum for what he did to Daryl Stingley. For whatever it’s worth, I can understand Steve’s lingering grief 32 years later.

Tatum’s hit on Stingley in an aimless play during a meaningless exhibition game was the most needlessly vicious incident I ever witnessed in sports, and Tatum never ever tried to apologize to Daryl as he withered away for three decades in a wheelchair.

That can’t be forgotten. Nor does the sadness of it diminish now that both of them are gone, too soon.