Birthdays Through the Years: Growing Older One Sports Memory at a Time
I was born on July 14, 1983, in Battle Creek, Michigan, the oldest child of a college marching band jock (Dad) and a college basketball player (Mom).
Talk about being destined for sports fandom.
In the 26 years I've lived on the planet, I've accumulated more than my fair share of sports memories: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
With that said, what better time than my birthday to look back at the most vivid sports recollections of my childhood?
Without a doubt.
Meaningful to you?
Still, every fan that reads this article has his/her own set of sports experiences that only become more special with each retelling. I hope my list brings those times, thoughts, sounds, and pictures to your mind.
In 1984, I turned one year old. I don't remember much from this year (I was too busy learning to crawl and eat solid food), but it's still incredibly special in my mind.
As a little boy, I ate, slept, and breathed Detroit Tigers baseball. And through all the losing seasons I endured, I devoured picture books with stories of the championship teams.
1935...1945...1968...and then 1984. The Bless You Boys of Sparky Anderson, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, and Jack Morris started 35-5 in the first full baseball season of my life, and won the World Series.
My beloved Tigers of the 90s may have been a tad toothless, but the hope of "another" 1984 always reigned supreme.
In 1985, I turned two years old. A few months earlier, a young hotshot basketball player named Michael Jordan won NBA Rookie of the Year. In other words, Jordan grew up in the NBA while I grew up in Michigan.
I'll be honest, I was never a Jordan fan. I loved to cheer AGAINST the Bulls. But I'm unbiased enough (now) to know I was able to watch one of the all-time greatest hoops stars play in his prime.
Can't say that about West, Chamberlain, Baylor, or Abdul-Jabbar. And come on, there's no way I was the only one out in my driveway practicing a combination cross-over, stutter-step, and push-off of Byron Russell.
Growing up as a basketball fan during the Jordan Years was a privilege.
In 1986, I turned three years old. This was the year the first Cecil Fielder baseball cards came out. (Remember, I grew up a Tigers fan). The massive first baseman with the powerful home run swing was my childhood hero.
One of my most memorable Christmas presents ever was a 1986 rookie card of Fielder with the Blue Jays, valued at that time at a mind-blowing $20. I couldn't believe my luck.
I had always wanted a Cecil rookie card to display (and show off to my jealous friends). My collection eventually expanded to over 100 Fielder baseball cards and a life-size cardboard statue of big No. 45 in my bedroom (which never failed to scare my mother).
I estimate these cards have now lost approximately 99 percent of their former value (give or take a percentage point).
In 1987, I turned four years old. This was also about the time I saw my first Purdue game on television (cut me a little slack with the 4-year-old memory, okay?). Dad was a Boilermaker, so I've been a Boilermaker for as long as I can remember.
And since we didn't have cable, we'd look forward to a basketball "Game of the Week" on Saturday to get to see the Old Gold and Black play against the hometown Spartans or Wolverines.
The things I remember most about that first Purdue/Michigan game? (whatever year it actually was?)
The ugly logo.
Thank goodness the athletic department has revised it (18 times now, but who's counting?). Whether it was the one-dimensional train or the non-threatening Purdue Pete, the Boiler logo in the 80s was about as intimidating as a pet turtle.
(Editor's note: I don't know if a turtle is the least intimidating thing in the world, but my metaphors needed work at age four. Forgive me.)
In 1988, I turned five years old. About six weeks later, Orel Hershiser began one of the most remarkable and underrated stretches in baseball history. Hershiser threw a record 59 consecutive shutout innings to finish the '88 regular season, breaking the mark of fellow Dodger Don Drysdale.
He recorded a jaw-dropping 0.00 era for the month of September, and topped it off by leading a ragtag bunch of underdogs to a storybook upset of Canseco, McGwire, Eckersley, and the Oakland Athletics.
(Some guy named Gibson played a part too in his one World Series at-bat. You might remember it, something along the lines of "I don't believe what I just saw".)
Hershiser wrote an autobiography about that season entitled Out of the Blue, and I devoured it dozens of times during my childhood years.
I loved to read.
I loved baseball.
I loved that Orel was also a Christian, and I read the story of the Dodgers' dream season over and over again.
In 1989, I turned six years old. Since we're talking about inspirational baseball books that profile NL West pitchers and the remarkable events in their careers and Christian lives, I'll throw out one more.
The name was Dave Dravecky, and he overcame cancer in his pitching arm to return to the San Francisco Giants and beat the Cincinnati Reds in a 1989 miracle. His book was called Comeback, and it was just as worn and loved on my bookshelf as Orel's.
I couldn't quite understand, as a child, why there was no "happy ending." Once Dave came back, why did his health only last for a week before his arm broke?
Why did he have to later get the "miracle arm" amputated?
Great questions, and I'm not sure I have them fully answered yet, but we can talk more about that in another column.
In 1990, I turned seven years old. My seventh birthday present from Mom and Dad was a trip to Tiger Stadium for my first live baseball game. I can still tell you everything about it.
How green the grass was, how white the uniforms were, and how unbelievable it was to see the Tigers score 10 runs in the sixth to win 17-9!!!
I thought I was in heaven.
1990 was also the year Cecil Fielder hit 51 home runs, the first major leaguer since George Foster in 1977 to break 50. My favorite player had 49 going into the last game of the season, and hit two that night to put his name into the record books.
(The radio was on under my pillow...don't tell Mom.)
In 1991, I turned eight years old. Speaking of the radio and childhood memories, I have to devote at least one year to Ernie Harwell. Many people have tried to describe Ernie's greatness and impact on the game. Personally, I'm not sure it can be done. For this young boy in Michigan, Ernie Harwell's voice was baseball.
The Tigers may not have been on television more than once a week, but Ernie was always on. When the first preseason game came on from Florida, it was like a holiday—spring had arrived.
When we walked down the street to visit Great-Grandpa's farm, the Tigers game would be booming from the garden. (Grandpa thought the sound would scare away the birds.) 1991 was the year the Tigers decided to fire Ernie Harwell.
This brilliant baseball decision has to be right up there with drafting Sam Bowie and selling Steve Bartman a playoff ticket. I don't think I was the only boy in a Tigers cap crying, and I can still picture the local sports editor holding up hundreds of letters bemoaning one of the most ludicrous PR moves any business has ever made.
In 1992, I turned nine years old. 1992 was the last time the Winter and Summer Olympics were both held in the same year. We loved to watch figure skating as a family, and we weren't sportsmanlike about it at all.
Cheer for Kristi Yamaguchi to skate perfectly, and cheer for everyone else to fall down.
That summer brought the birth of the Dream Team. Jordan, Magic, and Bird spent half their time in Barcelona signing autographs for the opposition, and then went out and dunked on them. Every "Dream Team" for the rest of time will be measured by (and probably fall short to) the original.
In 1993, I turned 10 years old. 1993 was probably the peak of my love for baseball, because the strike in 1994 mostly killed it. The strike didn't upset me; it devastated me.
I remember forging a document that announced an end to the dispute in time for the World Series to be played. My mom felt sorry for me, but she didn't buy the fake press release.
Not sure if that's because it was written on notebook paper or because I misspelled "League". Anyway, I still watch baseball, but MLB lost its top spot in my sports affections after the 1993 season, and I don't feel guilty.
In 1994, I turned 11 years old. I also attended my first college football game, a thriller between Purdue and Iowa in West Lafayette. Dad marched in the Alumni Band, I wore my Tasmanian Devil Boilermaker t-shirt, and Jim Colletto ran the clock down to try for a game-winning field goal on the last play.
Of course, the kick missed, and the game ended in a tie. I should have known right then what I was in for as a Purdue fan.
In 1995, I turned 12 years old. I had moved on from my allegiance to the hometown Pistons, and was ecstatic that Shaq and "my" Orlando Magic were in the NBA Finals.
Then they lost.
In other sports news, Barry Sanders was unbelievably amazing for the 90th straight season (or so it seemed in Michigan), and Cal Ripken broke the record for consecutive games played.
I recorded that game on an old VHS tape, and I still have it. Watching history is a special feeling.
In 1996, I turned 13 years old. I don't exactly know why, but my favorite basketball players at that point were Shaquille O'Neal, Eddie Jones, and Nick Van Exel. When my friends and I stayed up late on sleepovers to trade every sports card we owned, these were the guys I was trying to acquire.
It was a no-brainer then, for my short-lived love for Orlando to transfer to the Lakers when the Big Diesel signed as a free agent in L.A. The fact that Jerry West traded Vlade Divac for a high-school unknown (whose name sounded like a Japanese steak) was just a bonus.
And yes, I'm still a Lakers fan today.
In 1997, I turned 14 years old. Purdue had a new head football coach who didn't believe in passing up wins to get ties, and I thought that signing him was a great idea. (at least, it couldn't be worse than the last guy).
In Joe Tiller's first game as head coach at Ross-Ade Stadium, Purdue beat Notre Dame for the first time since 1458 (okay, it only seemed like it had been that long), and I had yet another priceless videotape to watch over and over again on snow days.
Purdue improved from 3-8 in 1996 to 9-3 in 1997, including an Alamo Bowl win over Oklahoma State. Tiller ended up taking the Boilers to 10 bowls in 12 years; a wonderful man, that Joe Tiller.
I also adopted a new favorite pro football team in 1997, as former Boilermaker Mike Alstott led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to their first playoff game under Tony Dungy.
Not sure which was more unlikely, the Bucs going to the playoffs or Purdue going to a bowl.
Talk about a football season to remember.
In 1998, I turned 15 years old. I also jumped back on the baseball bandwagon (like the rest of America) to tune in to the McGwire/Sosa summer of steroids. I mean, "home runs".
I chose to side with Sosa and have been a Cubs fan ever since. (So I only have 11 years of suffering so far, unlike most Cubs fans who have endured 100!)
In 1999, I turned 16 years old. I attended Purdue football games against Michigan State, at Michigan, and in the Y2K Outback Bowl against Georgia. Beating the undefeated, top-five, Nick Saban-led Spartans 52-28 is one of my all-time favorite sports memories.
Drew Brees threw for over 500 yards, Chris Daniels caught 20 passes BY HIMSELF, and I jumped up and down in the south end zone for basically four hours straight. Of course, every mountain has its valley, and the Outback Bowl a couple months later is a not so pleasant memory.
Starting ahead 25-0 against Georgia was quite enjoyable. Losing in overtime (when the kicker misses three field goals and a PAT)?
Not so much.
In 2000, I turned 17 years old. One of my favorite sports years ever. The Lakers coaxed Phil Jackson out of retirement and won their first Shaq/Kobe NBA title. My Battle Creek minor-league baseball team, the "Battle Creek Golden Kazoos/Michigan Battle Cats/Battle Creek Yankees/Southwest Michigan Devil Rays," won the league championship, and Brees led Purdue to the Rose Bowl.
I still stock up on Purdue Rose Bowl merchandise on E-bay.
Who knows when that will happen again?
In 2001, I turned 18 years old. Two memories from college that year stand out. The first was deciding on the spur of the moment to go to a Lakers game in Indianapolis because I could. I'd never been to an NBA game before, and a 110-109 nail-biter of a Finals rematch was a great way to start.
The second memory was going with some friends from school to see a Purdue football game. The Boilers beat Akron 33-14, but I didn't remember the score at all until I just looked it up.
I remember the date: September 22, 2001. Less than two weeks after the 9-11 terrorist attacks, watching the band play "I Am An American" as the flag was pulled across the field at Ross-Ade was a special, incredible moment.
In 2002, I turned 19 years old. Tampa Bay hired a new football coach named Jon Gruden, and he promptly took my favorite team from "Beat everybody but the Eagles" to Super Bowl Champions.
Tampa went 12-4, won the NFC South, beat longtime nemesis Philadelphia on the road in the conference championship game, and jumped out to a 34-3 lead in the Super Bowl. Alstott even scored a touchdown. A lot of you know this, but there's no feeling in sports like winning a championship.
Even as a lowly fan, winning is amazing. The highs of 2002 were the Lakers' third straight title, the Bucs' win, and the Red Wings hoisting yet another Stanley Cup (I still cheer for at least one Michigan team!).
I also remember getting up in the middle of the night to watch parts of the USA soccer team's run to the World Cup quarterfinals. And sorry Mr. Beckham, but I've been a Landon Donovan fan ever since.
The low point of 2002 would be sitting in the second row as Ohio State's Michael Jenkins caught a 4th-and-1 touchdown pass in front of me to beat Purdue 10-6 on the Buckeyes' way to the national championship.
Leading 6-3 over the No. 2 team in the country in the last two minutes, we dared to dream of the monumental upset. And I still hate to see that play on ESPN Classic.
Oh well, my favorite teams won the NBA, NFL, and NHL titles in the same year.
Can't have it all, right?
In 2003, I turned 20 years old. I attended Cedarville University, a small, Christian college in Ohio, from 2000-2004. Cedarville had about 3,000 students, no football team, and played basketball in NAIA Division II.
November 2003 is still listed on my Bleacher Report sports profile as my all-time favorite moment, because that's when Cedarville upset Wright State, an NCAA Division I program, in college basketball.
I was sitting in the front row. They had been up 71-30 on us just the year before at one point in the game, and this was back when D1 schools could still play regular-season games against other divisions.
So it counted in our record and theirs. Storming the floor at the Nutter Center was one of my greatest college memories.
(Oh, and the Cubs almost went to the World Series in 2003. But you already know about that, and I can't bear to write about it.)
In 2004, I turned 21 years old. The Lakers nearly won an NBA title with Gary Payton, Karl Malone, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Phil Jackson, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, and Robert Horry before falling short against Detroit in the Finals.
When the 2004-05 season opened, the Lakers were missing Gary Payton, Karl Malone, Shaquille O'Neal, Phil Jackson, Derek Fisher, Rick Fox, and Robert Horry. I believe we call that a "team in transition".
Purdue nearly had a dream season in football, starting 5-0, winning at Notre Dame for the first time since 1734 or so, and senior quarterback Kyle Orton putting up Heisman-worthy numbers.
Then College GameDay came to town for a Top-10 showdown between the Boilers and Wisconsin. Orton fumbled the game away in the final two minutes, and we missed a field goal that would have tied it on the final play.
Football at Purdue hasn't been the same since.
In 2005, I turned 22 years old. I also attended my first United States soccer game, a World Cup qualifier against Mexico. Easily the craziest sports atmosphere I've ever been a part of. We were honestly getting scared when the beer bottles started flying from overhead. But hey, the USA won.
In other sports news from 2005, the Orlando Sentinel picked Purdue as the preseason No. 1 team in the country. The Boilermakers responded by finishing 5-6 and missing out on a bowl game.
Let's skip ahead, shall we?
In 2006, I turned 23 years old. Mike Alstott played his final season with the Bucs (he missed all of 2007 with a neck injury before retiring). I'm not sure who my all-time favorite NFL player is, Alstott or Barry Sanders.
Let's call it 1A and 1B, but although their styles were as different as humanly possible, there was something beautiful about the way each of them ran.
When I think of my favorite NFL memories, Barry dancing and Mike pounding will be at the top of the list.
In 2007, I turned 24 years old. Kobe Bryant tried to get himself traded ("Grab a Bulls jersey, fellas"), the Cubs won the division title before choking in the playoffs, and Purdue underachieved in football.
In 2008, I turned 25 years old. Kobe Bryant nearly led the Lakers to a title, the Red Wings won it all, the Cubs won the division title before choking in the playoffs, and Purdue underachieved in football.
Sensing a trend here?
Actually, I haven't talked much about Purdue basketball. The Boilers came in second in the Big 10 in 07-08 and 08-09, thanks to the great recruiting classes Coach Matt Painter has been stockpiling.
I'd be alright with seeing that trend continue. I also started writing for Bleacher Report in 2008, which has brought about a whole new chapter in my "sports life."
One other sports memory from 2008: I woke my wife up screaming when Jason Lezak came from behind to beat that French guy in the Beijing pool. Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals in 8 events, and we saw history (again) that we won't forget.
In 2009...whew, we made it. I have no idea what the rest of my lifetime will bring about in the sports world. I'd love to see a Purdue basketball Final Four (sooner rather than later?). Maybe even a World Cup title for the red, white, and blue?
I'm excited about new coaches for Tampa Bay and Purdue football (although the rebuilding will take time). I'm hopeful for another Kobe-Lakers dynasty (hey, Jordan three-peated two different times, right?)
There's only one thing I know for sure, though...
I'll have to live a long time to see the Cubs win the World Series.
Happy Birthday to me.
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