I am addicted to sports, this I proudly confess. There is no way to calculate how much time I have spent over the four + decades of my life absorbed in a contest between world class athletes. Back when there seemed to be only two teams to root for in the NFL (three if you include the Raiders who attracted those with a rebellious streak), I opted to cheer for the blue collar Pittsburgh Steelers over America's Team - the glamorous Dallas Cowboys. I did admire the latter's cheerleading squad though. Eventually I decided to move my allegiance to a hometown football team, going with the beleaguered NY Jets over the more accomplished NY Giants, and I have sat in Gang Green camp ever since. Later on basketball was added to my list of favorite sports and I became a devout follower of the NY Knicks. The start of my Knicks obsession (which they have sorely tested with the ineptitude of their post-Patrick Ewing years) coincided with the career of one of the greatest b'ballers of all time - the injury plagued Bernard King whose tenure I believe would have rivaled that of Michael Jordan's had he managed to stay healthy. When I was a kid the biggest boxing matches were shown on free TV, the heavyweight division ruled as it was supposed to, and a guy named Muhammad Ali was called The Greatest for good reason. He was past his prime by the time I got to watch him. In fact, he wasn't even actively fighting during the peak of his career due to well known political reasons. But I saw enough of his epic battles to become a boxing fan for life, even if the sport has done much to alienate me in recent years by moving most of the top fights to Pay Per View, maintaining far too many championship belts per weight division to keep track of, and handing over the prized heavyweight division to fighters from Eastern Europe. And I must confess that I miss 15-rounders although the reduction to 12-rounds is perfectly understandable for health reasons. The fiery John McEnroe along with the similarly enthusiastic Jimmy Connors first drew my attention to a racquet sport, then it was the contrasting greatness of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, followed by the emergence of dominant African American players (granted they were all in the same family - Williams) that increased my enjoyment of tennis over the course of time. But what made me a die-hard fan rather than simply a follower of a few big names like Venus and Serena was when I started to play tennis and immediately became hooked like Jaws grabbing hold of the explosive device that spelled her doom.
Before football and basketball and boxing and tennis, the sport that grasped my attention and imagination first and foremost was the great American pastime. And as it so happens, baseball is also the first sport I've basically abandoned. Nowadays you will rarely find me following more than an inning or two on TV. I will always appreciate the game that introduced me to sports in general, but now simply find it too slow for my personal taste. If basketball is comparable to high speed internet connection, baseball is dial up service. Nine innings may as well be nine days worth of commitment to a game. As a boy my collection of baseball cards was my most cherished possession. If you traveled back in time to 1986 you'd find me in a fever pitch as I watched nearly every inning of the NY Mets dramatic march to glory. By 1990 after a major strike squashed a season, my interest had considerably waned. I'm not entirely sure how/why I outgrew my first sports love. What I do know is that the baseball of today barely resembles the baseball of yesteryear. The pre-steroids era was marked by what appeared to be actual passion for the game by those who played it. Baseball's most legendary records were not broken every year by whoever was most effectively cheating that season. Pete Rose is currently marked as a villain, but it was the infectious attitude of players like him that made me love the sport. If I was a kid today I'm not sure A-Rod would have the same effect. Give me the arrogance of a Reggie Jackson over the calm highly endorsed coolness of a Derek Jeter any day. Back when I craved baseball I don't remember being bombarded with news of the players' gargantuan contracts, designer drug accusations, grand jury testimonies, baby mama dramas, etc. Perhaps it's the innocence of youthful perception, but I recall it simply being about the game and those who played it, for money certainly, but also for the pure joy of putting on a uniform and getting it dirty.
The cast of characters who played back then could have been featured in multiple reality TV shows. Fortunately we were spared such nonsense and instead got to watch The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, shows with actual actors and professionally scripted plots. But more memorable to me than anyone else in the Major Leagues was a pitcher by the name of Mark Fidrych, nicknamed "The Bird" after our feathered friend from Sesame Street, who in 1976 put on a season for the ages. It was not merely his dominance over batters that I vividly remember, but the entertaining way he went about his business. Watching him talk to the ball, verbally demanding that it be thrown for an out making strike, manicuring the mound with his hands, tossing balls out of play that he believed had hits in them, was a real treat to witness. He did not play for my beloved Mets, but whenever he was on the mound I temporarily became a Detroit Tigers fan. His skill and endearing enthusiasm put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice, made him the first athlete ever to grace the cover of Rolling Stone, and won him Rookie of the Year honors. But like Bernard King his body betrayed him, and 1976 was to be the only full season of professional baseball he ever played. In it he compiled a 19-9 record and league-leading 2.34 ERA, with 24 complete games thrown out of 29 starts. The amount of games he pitched from first inning to last is perhaps his most impressive feat, particularly when compared to the modern game where starters are typically done after about six innings, give or take a pitch. Star baseball players of today are basically one man corporations. But back in the 1970's they were just ordinary guys with zest and determination and skill at a game that everybody watched and loved, and among the various greats, none was greater or more lovable than The Bird. He was found dead Monday in an apparent accident at his farm at the age of 54. An era, at least as I see it, has now officially ended. R.I.P. Mark Fidrych and thanks for the memories.
- Roy L. Pickering Jr.