A few weeks ago, while watching Game 1 of the New York Yankees-Detroit Tigers ALCS matchup, something terrible happened.
In the top of the 12th inning, Johnny Peralta hit a dribbling ball up the middle of the infield toward Yankee shortstop Derek Jeter. It was a tough ball to get to, but it was the type of hit that Jeter, even in his old age and with his declining speed, always seems to snag come playoff season. The type of ball that he would dive gracefully for, only to snap up in an instant with that fluid throwing motion of his and beat the runner by a half step, capping it off moments later with that movie-star smile of his that seems to say, “I told you so.” That’s the way it always had been.
But this time, something changed.
Something went wrong. A tweak, a twist of the ankle, and suddenly Mr. Dependable, the man known as Captain Clutch, Derek Jeter, was left writhing on the infield dirt in the Bronx, grasping his left ankle. Everybody watching that game knew something was wrong. Jeter didn’t fake injuries. This had to be serious. It could be career ending.
It was in that moment that I realized something. I had just watched one of the last of a dying breed go down. The superstar athlete with a heart of gold. The good-looking guy who dominated his sport and garnered national love. The guy about whom people at barbeques would say, “He plays (insert sport here) how it should be played.” The type of guy who, even if you hated his team, you had to respect.
That sports star is no longer. The modern-day sports idol was dead.
And frankly, now I feel empty.
In her 1984 pop anthem “Holding Out for a Hero,” Bonni Tyler famously asked, “Where have all good men gone, and where are all the gods?” Now, almost 30 years later, I’m left wondering the same thing.
I can remember growing up with an idolization of certain athletes that bordered on worship. It seemed that there were so many to choose from.
I stuck my tongue out when I played driveway basketball like Jordan. I thrived on baseball idols. Anytime I would field a ball to my backhand in baseball, I always tried to execute the signature jump-throw that made Jeter famous.
But there was one guy who it seemed like everybody loved above all else: Ken Griffey Jr.
The smile, the hustle, the looping swing that sent baseballs screaming out of ballparks into near orbit—it was all magical. It was enchanting. I never wanted it to end.
Unfortunately, as they say, all good things come to an end.
Griffey the god was felled by the most mortal of faults: weak knees. Others have suffered far more humiliating fates.
In the years since I first grew to worship sports, I’ve seen too many of my idols destroy their own images. Mark McGwire took enough steroids to kill a horse. Sammy Sosa did the same before deciding to cork his bat. Rafael Palmeiro told everyone he took Viagra, but famously pointed his finger at a congressional committee and said he had never touched steroids in his life.
Well, as it turns out, only one of those things was a lie.
Just this past week, Lance Armstrong, the greatest cyclist ever, the worldwide inspiration for those with cancer, the man who was supposed to represent the living testament to the power of the human spirit to overcome adversity, the man who defeated a horrifying disease to dominate his profession, was found guilty of what the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency called "the most sophisticated, professionalised and successful doping programme" they had ever seen.
Does this make any of his charitable work for his Livestrong Foundation any less impressive? No.
Does it tarnish his legacy? Yes.
And by the way, for those of you counting at home, that’s 14 of the past 16 Tour de France winners who have been banned for doping. At this point, it seems like the only person who hasn’t tested positive for steroids is Betty White, and the jury is still out on her.
But steroids are just the tip of the iceberg. Look around sports. Name one star that’s universally liked. Lebron could’ve been but instead decided to become a circus clown and alienate 90 percent of his fanbase, the segment which doesn’t go to South Beach on weekly bases.
Kobe might’ve been, well that is, if he hadn’t been brought up on rape charges. Tiger had a chance to be before crashing his Escalade and sleeping with every cocktail waitress and restaurant hostess between New York and Las Vegas. Mike Vick was a once-in-a-lifetime athlete who was destined to redefine the NFL. Well, at least until he decided dog fighting was a better career path then pro football.
The list goes on and on. Honestly it’s nauseating. It’s desolate. It leaves you yearning for somebody to hold on to.
Watching the sport stars of yore, these men we once placed on such high pedestals, come crashing violently down to earth is sickening.
But it’s something we’ve become all too familiar with as a nation.
But fear not, for all hope is not lost. There appears to be a select few, a guild of young sport stars fresh of face and with clean police records willing and able to become sports idols in the truest sense of the word.
I’m talking about young athletes like Kevin Durant and Mike Trout, athletes barely out of high school with baby faces and superb talent who have the ability to transcend their respective sports and become national icons who are universally loved.
So let this be an open letter to these select few young men. Kevin Durant, please, don’t ever shoot your gun off into your wife’s house. Don’t gamble. If ever you’re a free agent, watch Lebron’s ESPN special “The Decision” and then do the exact opposite of that. Mike Trout, if anyone ever asks you to take steroids, please, for the love of everything holy don’t take them.
And if Viagra calls looking for a spokesperson, have some respect and block the call.