Lance Armstrong, Stan Musial, and the Death of Heroes

There are no more heroes.  That was the line I read last week, and I have been chewing on it since.  It was written during a very strange week in sports, where Lance Armstrong “confessed” to using performance enhancing drugs, and Manti Te’o was discovered to be the victim (participant?) of a strange, odd hoax.

The week before last was also interesting, because no baseball players were elected into the Hall of Fame, thanks to the stain and strain steroids have exacted on the sport in the last two decades.

This last week ended with the death of Stan Musial.  His death added a new dimension to the opening line, which did not have Musial in mind when it was penned.  It became more poignant to me after I read Musial’s obituary on Sunday.  There are no more heroes.

This begged the question in my mind, ‘what makes a person a hero?’  I decided I had to narrow the conversation down to the sports world, because that was the context within which the initial statement was written.  I came up with what I felt was a simple, and hopefully complete enough, definition of a hero.  First, we define a sports hero as one who achieves an elite status in their profession.  That could be done over the course of a career, or in some cases, in one game or contest (especially if it is for a championship). Second, a hero is expected to have at least a minimum level of character, integrity, or honor.  They must be somebody who kids can look up to, and emulate.  Third, a hero must be someone who overcomes a great challenge, or sacrifices themselves for a cause or other people.

This takes me to Lance Armstrong.  We considered Armstrong a hero, because he competed in a sport rife with cheating, and we were told he was the lone clean rider, and his competitive spirit was what led him to be the greatest cyclist who ever lived.  On top of that, he had beaten cancer, and was using his fame to further the fight against the disease.  Heroic, noble, except it was all lies.  The money he has helped give to cancer research is all very real, but Lance is a liar.  What I find most disturbing about Lance Armstrong is not that he lied about cheating for 15+ years, but that he ruthlessly ruined people’s lives who were telling the truth all along.  There is an element of evil in his story, and it is scary.

With the loss of Armstrong as a hero, who do we have left?  I could argue nobody.  At least nobody who is actively participating in a sport.  We have former athletes who I would easily consider heroes, but I really cannot find a current athlete who meets the definition.  Why? Let me explain.

First, we have too much media scrutiny.  That is not an indictment on the media, but rather an indictment on our collective desire for constant drama in this country.  We love dirt, and we will stop at nothing to find dirt on people.  The media is only giving us what we want.  A by-product of this constant media attention is that we have created a culture where athletes are now attention seeking.  This is the opposite of someone like Musial, who is often described as ‘humble’.  Athletes used to focus on doing their job as best they could.  Now they look for the cameras so they can give their scripted, attention seeking statements.  This is not attractive, nor heroic.

Let’s go back to the 1940s, when Stan Musial was the top National League outfielder of his generation.  Musial was leading his Cardinal teams to four World Series in five years.  His teams won three of those contests.  In 1948, Musial was one home run shy of the triple crown.  He won seven batting titles in his career, and when he finally retired, he had amassed a .331 batting average, on 3,630 hits, which was the National League record until Pete Rose later broke it.  This man was a hitting machine.  The media only covered his baseball career, however.  His private life was off limits.  It was a different time, and I think people would rather imagine that Stan Musial was the kind of guy they wanted their daughter to bring home, than find out he had demons in his closet.  Fortunately (and sadly, because it should not need to be mentioned), Musial’s AP obituary stated that he was “scandal-free” in his playing days.  This now makes him the exception.

The media scrutiny we see today was not at a very high level when Mickey Mantle played either.  His alcoholism and marital infidelity were not topics the press felt the need to report.  Again, it was a different time, without smart phones, tablets, or even digital cameras.  A drunk Mantle out with a strange woman was not going to be on anybody’s Facebook page in the morning.  Fans were shocked to hear of his personal struggles when they came out in full.  Compare that to Josh Hamilton today, whose alcohol and drug issues have been exceedingly widely reported.  I am not saying that watching Josh Hamilton work on overcoming his struggles is not an inspiration, or heroic in a sense, but I am saying that he gets scrutinized, perhaps unfairly, more than prior generations have been scrutinized.  It was easier for us to call someone a hero when we did not know how human they actually were.  That is no longer the case.

The second reason I think we struggle to find heroes today is that professional athletes make way too much money.  This making of money invites an element of greed into the equation, which is not a heroic element.  Looking back at Stan Musial, he made good money as a ballplayer in his day, but nothing approaching the outlandish salaries of this day and age.  His highest salary, converted into today’s dollars, would be worth approximately $500,000 – $600,000 per year, and he is one of the best hitters who ever lived.  Today, that amount is below the league average.  Musial played his whole career under the Reserve Clause, which was not abolished until after the 1975 season.  This clause meant that Musial could either play for the Cardinals for what they would pay him, or go home.  Don’t get me wrong, Musial was not starving to death, and nobody felt sorry for him at the time for only making $80,000 to $100,000 per year.  Still, he did not have to face the choice of chasing the money or staying with the home team.

In 2012, Albert Pujols began playing for the Anaheim Angels.  This was after 11 seasons with the Cardinals where he earned legendary status, helping St. Louis win two World Series, while he personally earned the Rookie of the Year award, and three MVP awards. Many Cardinals fans turned on Pujols in 2012 because he turned down a 10 year, $210 million contract to stay with St. Louis to go to Anaheim for $254 million.  This forces the average fan to ask what, honestly, is the difference between two ungodly sums of money? Unfortunately, the answer we are forced to give is greed.

In his 11 seasons with St. Louis, Pujols established himself as the best hitter in all of baseball.  Nobody else was even considered close.  He also impressed people with his humility, and integrity.  He is a player who claims to play the game clean, and is very critical of those who use performance enhancing drugs to improve their stats.  In addition, he has set up a foundation which supports people with Down Syndrome, other disabilities, and those in poverty, particularly in the Dominican Republic.  This all makes Albert Pujols a hero in the minds or many people.  Then he turns down the opportunity to finish his career in St. Louis, so he can earn a little more money elsewhere.  This apparent greed leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of too many fans, and it reminds us that there are no more heroes.

One last reason I have as to why we have no heroes in athletics these days is that we cannot find athletes who overcome a great obstacle or sacrifice themselves for a cause or for others.  Let’s talk again about Stan Musial.  In 1945, Musial went into the US Navy to help defend our country against the Japanese.  He lost a year of playing baseball, while in the prime of his life to fight in World War II.  This is heroic.  Granted, Musial was never placed on the front lines, so he was never seriously placed in harm’s way.  In fact, only two baseball players were killed in action during the war – Elmer Gedeon and Harry O’Neill. Even in saying that, I don’t want to discount what so many baseball players contributed to the war effort.  First, they spent time in a hostile, foreign country, away from their families, and there was no guarantee that they would not be injured, wounded or killed.  Second, the morale boost given by the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, or Bob Feller to their fellow countrymen was exceedingly important to the war effort.  This was a real sacrifice.  It made a whole generation of athletes into heroes.

Now, name me a professional athlete who was fought for their country in the last two decades.  The obvious person who gets mentioned is Pat Tillman.  Pat Tillman is a hero, without question.  Now, name me another professional athlete who left behind an athletic career for any amount of time to serve their country?  The next closest name is David Robinson.  After being drafted in 1987, Robinson postponed his NBA career for two years to finish out his active duty commitment to the US Navy.  This is admirable, and even heroic when you consider the amount of money Robinson left on the table to make this sacrifice, given he was one of the greatest centers who ever played.  If that weren’t enough, Robinson is widely considered to have very high integrity, and he has given over $10 million of his personal fortune to found a school, the Carver Academy, among other charitable endeavors.  David Robinson is somebody to look up to, and not just because he is seven feet tall.

Does every professional athlete need to serve their country to be considered a hero? Absolutely not.  Muhammad Ali is a hero for not fighting for his country.  A man of deep religious faith, Ali lost four years of his boxing career at the time when his skills had peaked, to stand up for his personal beliefs, defying the US Government, and not reporting for the Vietnam draft.  This was a very costly sacrifice.  Ali was publicly shamed by the government, and many in the media and populace.  He was also stripped of his heavyweight titles. Standing up for his principles in the face of this backlash, and at the cost of his own ability to earn a paycheck makes Ali a hero.  He also happens to be the greatest heavyweight fighter to ever live.  And he continues to live his life with great integrity.

Another hero is Roberto Clemente, who lost his life trying to bring relief supplies to Nicaragua.  A legendary athlete, and one who, because of his stature, did not have to get on the plane carrying the supplies to Nicaragua.  Clemente chose to go, because he wanted to make sure the people who needed the supplies the most received them.  He died when his plane, too heavy from the amount of supplies on it, went down in the Caribbean.  That is sacrifice.

Perhaps the person I admire the most as a hero is Jackie Robinson.  He carried the hopes of an entire race of people on his shoulders, while having the discipline to keep his own cool when goaded, spiked, thrown at, cussed at, and derided by anybody and everybody in baseball during 1947.  Not only did Robinson withstand the onslaught of others, he performed at a very high level, and changed the way the game was played, while also changing who played the game.  He is a hero.  I wish there were a larger term to apply to Jackie Robinson, because his heroics cannot be understated.

Where are our heroes today?  Is it possible to be a hero today?  It seems now that in light of Lance Armstrong and Major League Baseball, we find ourselves cynical in the face of those who appear to play by the rules, excel at their sport, and bring good to a cause.  We feel it is only a matter of time before a story breaks, and we find find ourselves in the midst of a scandal, and another person we admired gets placed with all the rest.

Or, we follow a player who does everything right, leads our favorite team to a championship, gets involved in the community and pours money into a great cause, only to break our hearts by leaving our team for another team who will pay them more.  Money will always be a reason a hero falls from grace when athletes make over $20 million per year, and only want more, while we, the fans, are making ends meet.

Last, we just don’t see sacrifice in our athletes anymore.  Many athletes give to charity, or start foundations with the intent to give back.  This is good, but they should do this, because they are making millions upon millions of dollars per year.  They have a responsibility to give back – this is not something that should be considered a sacrifice any more, but a minimal expectation.  My issue is that athletes no longer give in a costly fashion any more.  We thought Lance Armstrong was on to something with this Live Strong Foundation, and he really did do a lot of good.  Still, we have a bitter taste in our mouths, because the ends just don’t justify the means.  You cannot build a sustainable kingdom using the devil’s tools.

There are no more heroes.  Is there any hope that one day we will have another hero?  Honestly, I don’t know.  And I am not very optimistic.

The Game: Michigan vs. Ohio State

If you grow up in the Midwest, every year you take interest in “The Game,” whether you are a fan of the two teams or not.  Michigan and Ohio State, bitter rivals who have combined for 18 National Championships, 10 Heisman Trophies, and 77 Big Ten Championships.  It is a clash like no other, and being able to attend a game between these two is an amazing experience.  I had my first chance in 1991.

1991: The year began with a bang, as Gulf War I started.  Many people remember the Super Bowl victory of the Giants over the Bills when Scott Norwood would miss what would have been a game-winning field goal as time ran out.  It is also remembered for the national anthem sang by Whitney Houston, still arguably the best rendition.

This was the year the Soviet Union officially ceased to exist, and Boris Yeltsin became the president of Russia.  In American politics, a little known governor from Arkansas by the name of William Jefferson Clinton announced his intention to run for president.

This was the year Dr. Jack Kevorkian earned the moniker “Dr. Death.” A grainy video was recorded and later released showing Los Angeles police beating Rodney King during a traffic stop.

In entertainment, Terminator 2, JFK, and The Silence of the Lambs were hits in the box office.  Michael Jackson released Dangerous, his most popular album since Thriller.  Metallica released “The Black Album,” as it has come to be known, which is still their best seller.  Also, two little known bands from Seattle made releases, and soon topped the charts.  They were Pearl Jam and Nirvana.

Deaths for the year included Dr. Seuss, Miles Davis, Redd Foxx, and Freddie Mercury.

In sports, Duke shocked an undefeated UNLV team in the Final Four, and later beat Kansas in the finals.  The Minnesota Twins defeated the Atlanta Braves in 7 games to win the World Series, with game 7 being arguably the greatest game in World Series history.  Magic Johnson announced he had HIV, and would be retiring from basketball.  In Ann Arbor, five freshmen came to Michigan to play basketball, and they would be labeled the Fab Five.

In college football there would be a split National Championship for the second year in a row, which led to the Bowl Coalition being formed (the precursor to the BCS) in 1992.  On November 16, Miami and Florida State played a #1 vs. #2 matchup, which Miami won in what is now known as “Wide Right I.”  This game would help propel Miami to a share of the National Championship with Washington.

As for “The Game,” this was the 88th meeting between Michigan and Ohio State.  Michigan earlier in the year broke a 5 year losing streak to Notre Dame, only to be followed by a humiliating loss to FSU.  They won every other game after that, in pretty dominant fashion on both sides of the ball, and came into this contest ranked #4 in the country.  They had already clinched a berth in the Rose Bowl, but still had an outside shot of winning a National Championship.  A win over Ohio State, followed by a victory over undefeated Washington (and a loss by Miami) could give Michigan a claim at the National Title.  Also on the line for Michigan was a possible Heisman trophy for star receiver, Desmond Howard.  He needed to do something special to give himself the edge over Florida State quarterback Casey Weldon.

Ohio State was not having a great year, but they were still dangerous.  They came into the contest with 8 wins, a #18 ranking in the nation, but also with 2 losses, both within the conference.  They featured a power running game, and the usual tight defense.  This was not a Buckeye team with a lot of future NFL prospects, but they had a special player on each side of the ball – Defensive End Alonzo Spellman, and Wide Receiver Joey Galloway.  They could not keep Michigan from the Rose Bowl in this game, but bragging rights, and the ability to completely eliminate Michigan from the National Title picture, would have made for a sweet victory.

Game time temperatures were in the 40s, and there was a slight drizzle.  I remember it being “Michigan cold,” as I say now.  There was no hope of seeing the sun that day, which just meant it was a perfect day to watch these two schools beat each other up for the afternoon.

The cold didn’t stop us from tailgating at Ann Arbor Pioneer High School across the street from the stadium.  People are always amazed to hear the there is no parking lot or garage for the 100,000 plus fans that arrive every Saturday (Crisler Arena has parking, but those are reserved, and far too few to count).  You park at the golf course, on lawns, at businesses around town, or wherever you can find space.  Also, I don’t remember exactly what we had that day, but I loved it when my dad would pack a lunch for us, usually consisting of homemade subs or brats, or some combination of these.  Looking back now, these are some of my favorite memories as a kid.

Our seats were in the southeast portion of the stadium behind the south end zone (when you see replays of Kordell Stewart throwing his famous Hail Mary pass to Michael Westbrook, the ball was in a straight line right to my seat).  I noticed that right behind the goal posts in our end zone was a small section of Ohio State fans, conspicuous in their red outfits.  Naturally, I thought they were obnoxious.

The focus of a game like this always starts with the coaches.  Gary Moeller was in his 2nd year as Michigan coach, after Bo Schembechler retired.  He won a share of the 1990 Big Ten Title, and now had an outright Big Ten Title under his belt, with his first invitation to the Rose Bowl.  He was 1-0 against OSU coming into the game.

On the other side of the field was John Cooper, who came in 0-3 against Michigan, and was in the process of resuscitating the Buckeyes.  A win for him in this game would endear him greatly to the Ohio State faithful.  He would finish his 13 year coaching career with OSU after compiling five top 10 finishes in the nation (including two #2 rankings) before he was fired after the 2000 season, mainly for going 2-10-1 against Michigan (despite going 111-43-4 overall).  Because of that record, Michigan students named February 10, 2001 “John Cooper Day” in Ann Arbor.  Things like these are what make this rivalry so great.

This particular meeting between these two rivals is not considered a classic, but it was definitely classic “Michigan vs. Ohio State” football.  At the end of the first half, the two teams combined for 9 pass completions, which meant there was a lot of “three yards and a cloud of dust.”

Michigan received the ball first to open the game, and Ohio State decided it would not kick it deep enough to allow either Desmond Howard or freshman Tyrone Wheatley a chance for a big runback.  They pooched it high around the 20 yard line, where it was caught by an upback, who was immediately hit.

Michigan did what you would expect – they ran the ball the first two plays of the game, gaining 21 yards.  Then they threw a pass for about 20 yards, and ran the ball the remaining 7 plays of the drive to score a touchdown.  Two interesting things happened on this opening drive.  First, Michigan tailback Jesse Johnson fumbled the ball inside the 10 yard line, and OSU recovered.  The problem for OSU was that the officials didn’t see the fumble, so Michigan retained possession.  There was no instant replay at this time, so there was nothing to challenge.

The second interesting thing that happened on the drive was that Michigan had a 4th down and 3 at around the 4 yard line, and they went for it.  They faked a field goal, using a play Florida State ran on them earlier in the year, using a shuffle pass to the full back on a sweep to the left.  It gained a first down (just short of the goal line).  Ohio State thought they earned a stop because a touchdown wasn’t scored, but Michigan earned a new set of downs by inches.  The next play they scored.  This was interesting, because neither Bo Schembechler nor Lloyd Carr would have been this aggressive against their arch rival.  They would have kicked the field goal, taken the points, and put their defense on the field.  Gary Moeller was underrated as a coach in this regard, because he was not afraid to take a risk like this.

Ohio State followed on their opening drive by running the ball down Michigan’s throat, using their feature power back Carlos Snow.  They pushed it down to Michigan’s 30 yard line, where the drive stalled, mainly because a Buckeye receiver dropped a wide open pass at the 20, and Erick Anderson made two tackles at the line of scrimmage.  They attempted a field goal, which fell short.

Michigan ran a reverse with Desmond on their first play from scrimmage, for about 8 yards.  Then they ran the ball a handful of times before Ricky Powers fumbled the ball and OSU recovered.  They again went to their power running game, before again stalling at around the 30 yard line.  They kicked a 50 yard field goal to make the score 7-3.  After this, the wheels came off.

Michigan got the ball back at their own 40, and went three and out.  They punted, and had the Buckeyes inside their own 20.  OSU tried a pass on first down, and threw an interception, leading to Michigan’s 2nd touchdown, after again going for it on 4th down inside the 5 yard line.  The score: 14-3 Michigan.

On Ohio State’s first play from scrimmage on the next series, they fumbled, and Michigan recovered.  Again, without instant replay, there was no chance to try to overturn the play, which was difficult, at best, to tell.  This could have been a completely different game if instant replay could have been used at this time.  After a bunch of penalties and poorly executed plays, Michigan settled for a field goal, and made the score 17-3.

Ohio State received the ball back, and immediately threw a nice pass play to get the ball near mid-field.  After hitting the 50 yard line, they stalled, and were forced to punt.  The interesting thing is they had not given Desmond Howard a chance to beat them all game.  At this point he had 1 catch for 4 yards, and 1 run for 8 yards.  They could have kicked out of bounds, and pinned Michigan, or kick the ball into the end zone.  Instead, it appeared they tried to force a fair catch out of Howard, which didn’t happen.

Howard caught the ball at the 7 yard line, dodged a tackle immediately, ran forward, dodged another tackler, and then turned it into a foot race down the east side line of the stadium.  Just before Howard scores you could hear Keith Jackson say “Hello Heisman” if you were watching the broadcast.  In the stands, we saw Desmond sprinting toward us, then angling toward the section of Ohio State fans behind the end zone.  From where I stood, it appeared he was taunting the Ohio State fans, but we were all going too crazy to realize Desmond had just transcended history, and entered into the legendary.  Not only had he solidified the Heisman trophy on that play, but he also made the indelible pose which is still seen all over today, whether in advertisements or video game covers, or simply in replays of some of the great moments in college football history.

Looking back on it today, what strikes me is that Michigan did not get a 15 yard penalty for taunting.  This was a kid having fun, and enjoying his day in the sun against his arch rival.  That was how we all saw it, and that’s how it was.  If anybody tried that today, there would be penalties, repercussions, and controversy over somebody showing such a lack of sportsmanship.  I say that because when Michigan played Ohio State in 2010, an OSU player was flagged for making an “O” symbol with his hands after scoring a touchdown.  That sounds tame, but it received a penalty flag.

So, now the game stood at 24-3.  It was over.  OSU did not have the personnel to come back from that, because they were a power running team.  Because this was Michigan & Ohio State, no Michigan left for the duration of the game.

At halftime, I remember watching both bands, with Ohio State’s band performing first.  I have no way to prove this, but I remember that while they were performing their last song, in full formation, the Michigan band jumped in with “The Victors” and high-stepped their way right toward the Buckeyes.  Ohio State had nothing else to do but stop their song and get out of the way, defeated.  Again, these are the things that make rivalries great.  Even the bands hate each other.

The second half was nothing special.  Ohio State did bring in their backup quarterback, a kid by the name of Kirk Herbstreit.  It’s funny to think he and Desmond Howard were on the same field, and nobody had a clue they would later be colleagues.  Herbstreit actually played pretty well, driving OSU deep into Michigan territory on their first two possessions.  The only problems were 1) because of the nature of the OSU offense, each drive ate up huge chunks of time, and 2) OSU simply could not get the ball in the end zone against the Michigan defense.  They turned it over on downs twice in the 3rd quarter, which used up all of the time they had.

Nothing which would be considered noteworthy happened for the remainder of the game, except for one thing.  At the time, it seemed innocuous, but now it is a rather cult clip.  Kirk Herbstreit was hit in the 4th quarter as he was releasing a pass, and ended up with a concussion.  This clip has been viewed hundreds of thousands of time on You Tube, but again, at the time he was a kid trying to help his team gain some momentum against their arch rival.

The amazing thing to me as the game came to an end was that I didn’t notice any fans leaving the stands.  Michigan fans were all too aware that 1) beating Ohio State 31-3 was a rare occurrence which needed to be savored, and 2) the next time Michigan played was going to be in Pasadena.  We all had a big lovefest for the remainder of the game, chanting “Rose Bowl” and cheering our boys every chance we got.  This would only happen in a rivalry of the magnitude of Michigan and Ohio State.

September Memories

This month of September is certainly a time of reflecting on past events, particularly the September of 10 years ago.  It is great to look back on that time, remember the day, remember what we did right, and what we did wrong.  Without going into too much more detail on that, I do want to say it makes me sick that we are merchandising 9/11, and people are using that day for profit.  Still, I gave my recollection on the day itself 2 years ago.

What I would like to do instead is reflect on the September which occurred 20 years ago – 1991.  This was one of those rare moments in my life when I remember exactly where I was as a life-altering event took place.  I clearly recall the day the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded, the day the Detroit Tigers clinched the East Division in 1987, the day Rich Mullins died (another September memory), attending the Rose Bowl with my grandfather on January 1, 1998, my wedding day, 9/11, the day the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated in 2003, and the day in September 1991 when I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana for the first time. 

I was a sophomore in high school, and I heard several people talking about this new band out of Seattle.  I remember thinking around this time how tired I was of the 80s sound, and I was losing interest in music in general.  Radio stations I was listening to in Flint were playing MC Hammer, The Black Crowes, Damn Yankees, Bell Biv DeVoe, DePeche Mode, Salt-N-Pepa, Sinead O’Connor, Bryan Adams, En Vogue, Johnny Gill, REM, Sonic Youth, FireHouse, LL Cool J, Garth Brooks, Vanilla Ice, Warrant, Enigma, C+C Music Factory, Jesus Jones, The B-52s, Amy Grant, Rick Astley, Michael Bolton, Luther Vandross, Boyz II Men, EMF, Alice Cooper, Metallica, Cypress Hill, Spin Doctors, Toad the Wet Sprocket, and another new band called Pearl Jam. 

My musical tastes were varied.  I grew up mostly on Pop Rock music (I still sing songs I heard on Cars Love Songs to my wife in grocery stores and pharmacies when they come on over the speakers).  Still, this was high school, a time to explore new sounds and change my taste in music.  I found myself enjoying a lot more Hip Hop and R&B music, because the tired 80s Rock sound was just plain boring to me.  Nothing new seemed to have come from rock music since Led Zeppelin. 

I remember the day, although not the date.  It was a fairly normal, fall day at school, except I recall hearing snippets here and there about a band named Nirvana.  I particularly remember going to golf practice after school, and talking about music.  As far as rock music went, nothing at the time was better than Metallica’s Black Album.  To this day, that is one of my favorite heavy metal albums, but I was talking about how great it was to one of my teammates who told me I had to listen to Nirvana. 

I went home that night, and after dinner I was helping to clean the dishes.  Since I was the designated dryer, I remember the towel in my hand.  I also remember turning on the radio which was attached to the underside of one of our cabinets to listen to CK 105.5s Top 8 at 8.  I decided to dry slowly in order to listen to the whole program.  I don’t remember which spot the song had in the Top 8, and I don’t remember any of the other songs which placed in the Top 8.  What I do remember is when the DJ introduced the song I turned the volume up in full anticipation and excitement and listened to the first, deceptively tame licks of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”  Once the first riff was complete, and the song went from soft to loud, my jaw hit the floor.  I had never heard a band do that before (and I know they took the idea from the Pixies, but the Pixies weren’t playing on pop radio in Flint at that time).  Either bands started heavy and stayed that way, or made a softer song; never both.

Then I heard Kurt Cobain’s voice for the first time.  “Load up on guns…” is how the song starts, in full Washington accent.  The cool thing for me was he didn’t sound like another bad Robert Plant wanna be, like all of the hair band lead singers.  He sounded sarcastic, raspy, and like he was playing a joke on the rest of the world, while it was our job to figure out that we were the punch line.

Then came the bridge with Kurt repeating “hello” while the song built tension toward the chorus, until Kurt thrust himself into the most explosive single moment I have ever heard in any song.  When he jumped into the chorus, yelling “With the lights out…” I couldn’t believe a person could sound so angry.  I am convinced that the reason “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is one of the great songs of all time is due to Kurt’s ability to capture frustration at such a level, and pour it out, without having to say anything that made sense, in a way that the listener can’t help but connect to the raw power of the rage being expressed.  With a stomp petal and an unmatchable, enormous voice, Kurt changed the world.

 Here’s what I remember about that moment: by the time the first chorus of the song was complete, I was frozen in place, holding a towel in one hand and a dish in the other, with my mouth wide open, staring blankly at the radio.  The song hit a nerve in me, but one I couldn’t quite express with my 15 year old mind.  I heard pain and anger in his voice unlike any I had ever heard, and yet he made it sound melodic.  It was like watching a sniper who was really good at his craft.  You are amazed at his precision and ability, yet in order to fully grasp it, you have to watch something die.  Kurt was amazing in his gifts – songwriting, guitar playing, and vocals, but to appreciate his gift you had to hear a man tear open his soul and show you how much life had viciously hurt him.  In my opinion, this is what makes great art – the ability to express our deepest emotions and feelings despite there being no words to accomplish the task.  The simple thought that ran through my head as I listened to this song was “this guy is really mad.” 

After the song ended, I felt tired.  I actually felt like Kurt’s rage had drained me of energy.  It was sort of like the first time I drank a beer – the taste was really bitter, but later I went back to it until I began to appreciate what it was.  I didn’t think I liked the song, and wasn’t sure I wanted to hear it again.  I was wise enough to understand that a new era had come to music, however.  There was no way bands were going to continue to try to copy Robert Plant and Jimmy Page when there was a Kurt Cobain on the loose.

 Looking back as a historian on the event, what is shocking to me is the knowledge that Kurt Cobain was homeless the weak “Nevermind” was released.  This was a pattern in Kurt’s life going back to his teenage years, which helped shed light on his angst.  The songs are inspired by his own parents’ divorce, his feelings of abandonment, loneliness, homelessness, being an outsider, and a break-up with his girlfriend Tobi Vail.  As a 15 year old kid listening to the music for the first time, I had no clue of the source of Kurt’s pain.  Still, it is a rare person who can take the upbringing Cobain had and turn it into something so creative.

 The other thing that amazes me was Kurt’s penchant to be the “anti-rock star.”  Much is made of the fact that Kurt often spoke about how much he hated “Smells Like Teen Spirit” after it became the uber-popular song it is now known as.  There is certainly truth to Kurt not wanting to be known for only one song, but there is also evidence which states that he contacted MTV on a regular basis to ask why his videos were not being shown more frequently.

 Last, the reason I think Nirvana has stood the test of time, and will continue to outshine most bands since 1991, is that they were shocking without theatrics.  This was a 3 person band, with no make-up, no pyrotechnics, no gimmicks, or anything.  They wore second-hand clothes, and often played second-hand instruments.  Their concerts did not have huge, elaborate stage sets.  Also, without being graphic or using expletives, Nirvana managed to shock and scare people.  It is their music, and that alone which made them unique.  That’s what connected with me 20 years ago, and why Nirvana is still at the top of the heap of bands I listen to.

Egyptian Unrest

Even in a time of great political and social instability, it is great to see Christians and Muslims helping each other protect their own faith values.  This photo shows Christians protecting Muslims during Friday prayer.  If only we could all be a little more like these folks.

My First True Taste of Michigan v. Michigan State Football

The Paul Bunyan Trophy. To Michigan State fans, this is what they play for each year. To University of Michigan fans, this is the 2nd most important game of the year, only to Ohio State, which is usually played for the Big Ten title. Sorry Spartans, that’s just how it goes.

 

1990 was an odd year in college football. The season ended with a split national title between Colorado and Georgia Tech. Colorado was helped along by the famous 5th down against Missouri, and what Notre Dame fans call the “phantom clip” in the Orange Bowl, which negated a 91 yard, game winning, and national title winning, touchdown from Raghib Ismail. The controversy surrounding the season led to the creation of the Bowl Coalition, the prototype for the BCS.

 

I was 14 years old, and getting the chance to see my first Michigan v. Michigan State game at the Big House in Ann Arbor. I had watched the games on TV, and school was always heated the week before this game, because my friends and I were always split pretty evenly. This was bragging rights for the rest of the year. Even though I had been to some big games, I still could not be prepared for the atmosphere that awaited us in Ann Arbor that day.

 

Michigan was coming into the game 3-1 and ranked #1 in the nation. The fact that a one-loss team was #1 after week four should have been an indication as to the kind of wild season 1990 ended up being. For Michigan, this was the first season since 1968 that Bo Schembechler was not patrolling the sidelines, and throwing his head phones, hat, and whatever else he could get a hold of. There was pressure on Gary Moeller to follow in the steps of a legend. His offense featured 3 sophomores – Elvis Grbac at quarterback, Derrick Alexander at wide receiver, and Desmond Howard at wide receiver. Nobody knew who these guys were, or what impact they would have in the future. The star of the offense was running back Jon Vaughn (who was a typical “between the tackles” Michigan running back in the style of Chris Perry, Tim Biakabatuka, Chris Howard, and Leroy Hoard), along with a massive offensive line. Moeller installed a no-huddle offense, which at the time was being used heavily by Sam Wyche and the Cincinnati Bengals.

 

Michigan State came in unranked with a 1-2-1 record, behind their veteran coach George Perles. They had just graduated several key players in the prior two years, and were working with several relatively unknown guys with a decent amount of talent. Their quarterback was Dan Enos, who was a slick, shifty, smart quarterback. He didn’t have a great arm, but made up for it with good decisions. They also had a two-headed monster at running back – Tico Duckett and Hyland Hickson. Both of them were sturdy, quick, hard-hitting runners who could wear down a defense.

 

Both teams started the game by going right down field and scoring a touchdown. Michigan used a mix of pass and run to move the ball, while the Spartans ran the ball right down the throat of the Michigan defense, with Enos running a quarterback keeper for the score. Later in the first, Michigan was again driving when they got first and goal on the Spartan 3 yard line. After 4 runs out of the wish-bone, Michigan turned the ball over on downs at the MSU 1-yard line. After this, the game turned into a typical “3 yards and a cloud of dust” Big Ten football match-up. Both teams were focused on the run primarily, and they were hitting each other hard.

 

Another thing to mention came in the 2nd quarter, when time was running down on the half, and MSU had the ball. With about 26 seconds left, Enos was pressured into throwing an interception. Immediately, Grbac threw a deep route to Desmond Howard, and Michigan had a chip-shot field goal attempt going into half-time. They missed. I remember thinking at the time that those 3 points were going to prove costly in the end.

 

The third quarter again saw the teams trade touchdowns, making the score 14-14 going into the 4th quarter. The moment the game turned is easy to find – it was when Elvis Grbac threw an interception near midfield. This gave MSU momentum, and they used it. It is odd how little I remember of the prior 3 quarters of this game, but the 4th seems to go on forever in my mind, as I watch both teams march up and down the field and beat each other up. I would swear to you that the teams score more points than they did, because of the action and intensity, but somehow I have managed to blow it up in my mind.

 

Michigan State scored on a 26-yard run from Hyland Hickson to make the game 21-14, in favor of the Spartans. Next, they kicked off to Desmond Howard, who caught the ball at the 5 yard line, and sprinted 95 yards for a touchdown. When I think of the most electric moment I have ever seen in sports, this is it. Michigan Stadium at this time was not considered a loud stadium, but I swear the place exploded, and the noise was deafening. A lightning storm could not have added more electricity to the stadium than it had at that moment. It was simply magical. This is the play that made me a die-hard college football fan.

 

UM then kicked off to the Spartans, and MSU proceeded to again run the ball down the throats of the Wolverines. They were doing a good job of killing time while also getting into scoring range. Tico Duckett finally scored a touchdown with 1:59 left on the clock.

 

Michigan now got the ball back down by 7. With a young quarterback and receiving unit, we had no clue how they would respond. Grbac managed to convert two 4th down plays and one 3rd down play as they moved down field to get within striking range. With 6 seconds left, Grbac threw to Derrick Alexander in the end zone for the touchdown. Now the decision was 1 point or 2.

 

Since this was before overtime in college, a tie for the number 1 team in the nation did nothing for that team. There was no doubt Michigan was going for the win. They lined up with 3 wide receivers, and put one in motion to isolate Desmond Howard on the left side. When the ball was snapped, Howard put a great move on the corner, who fell down. As he was falling, he reached out and grabbed Howard’s ankle, causing Howard to stumble. The ball hit Howard in the chest as he was falling, and when he hit the ground, the ball also squirted out. The referees called an incomplete pass. The problem was, Michigan fans 1) thought it was a catch, and 2) thought it was pass-interference. There were fans on the field, and confusion everywhere. This was also before instant replay. The refs stuck to their call, and debate continues to this day, although the scoreboard will never change. I still claim it was the worst no-call I have ever seen in my life (and yes, it was worse than “Clockgate”). Spartan fans have no idea what I am talking about.

 

That is what I love about rivalry games. 19 years later, and the play sticks out in my head just as clearly as when it happened. Games like that also keep the rivalry vital even if the two teams are not at their best year after year. Bring on the Michigan v. Michigan State game, 2009 edition!

The 1919 Chicago White Sox Revisited

This year marks the 90th anniversary of the infamous “Black Sox” scandal. The scandal was that 8 players on the Chicago White Sox conspired (or at least had knowledge of the conspiracy) to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Chicago was heavily favored over Cincinnati going into the series, which tempted bookies and players a little too much. The lure of money would be the downfall of the White Sox team. In 1920, the 8 players involved were all banned from baseball for life.

 

I was thinking about the circumstances surrounding this issue. We could not imagine professional players intentionally losing a game or a series today for a potential payout and lifetime ban from their sport. The main reason is that players are paid extremely well in all 4 professional sports in America. In addition, each league has numerous advantages over the athletes who played in the early 1900s. What are these advantages, and what conditions caused the White Sox to throw a World Series?

 

Let’s start with Free Agency. Major League Baseball Players were not recognized as free agents until 1975. For the previous 96 years, baseball worked under the “reserve clause.” This was an agreement among the owners that even after a contract on a player expired, the rights to that player still belonged to the team he was playing for. In other words, when a player completed his contract, no other owner would sign him. This made sure salaries were controlled by the owners, because they collectively agreed that if one owner broke this agreement, salaries would rapidly get unmanageable. The goal was to protect the investment and profits of the owners, and it worked.

 

What would happen if a player claimed his free agency anyway? The owners came up with a “blacklist,” which basically was a list compiled by individual owners each year to pass around. Once you were on the list, you didn’t get signed by other teams, and you weren’t allowed to make your living at baseball anymore. The only ways to legitimately change teams would be to get released from your team, or traded to another team. Every option was dictated by the owners.

 

Why not create a new major league? This was attempted several times as well. The American League began in 1901 with the idea that the players would receive better treatment by owners, and more pay. They soon adopted the reserve clause, and made nice with the National League. The last, best attempt for another major league came in 1914 with the Federal League. The timing could not have been worse, because after 2 seasons funds dried up and the nation was soon off to war. Because so many players jumped to this league, the owners did waive the “blacklist” for a short time to allow players to return to the American or National Leagues and resume playing under the reserve clause.

 

Why not do what modern Americans would do – sue the owners? The players did, and in 1922 (3 years after the 1919 World Series) the case went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the reserve clause was not interstate commerce, so it was exempt from anti-trust laws. In other words, even the U.S. Justice Department wasn’t going to mess with this one. Curt Flood also took his case for free agency to the Supreme Court in 1969. He lost 5-3.

 

What about the Players Union? There were several attempts in the 1800s and early 1900s for players to organize themselves under a union. All of them failed, mainly for lack of consistent funding or ability to agree as a group. The Players Association was formed in 1953, and became the de facto union. Though it wasn’t called a union for decades, it did serve the functions of a union. This was the first organized union that lasted more than 1 year in the history of professional baseball.

 

Before unionization, player representatives were invited to owners meetings, in 1946. Again, this was far too late to have an impact on early professional ballplayers. Still, at the first owners meeting with players in 1946, the reserve clause was brought up. The owners were able to keep the clause by giving the players the pension fund they had been requesting for decades.

 

The only leverage ballplayers had themselves was their own ability to play. Players could, and did strike. The problem was without a union to back them, all strikes were small, involving individual players, or maybe a team, but never an entire league. The first organized strike in baseball occurred in 1972. In the 1918 World Series, between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs, both teams did threaten to strike before game 5. The reason was that neither team felt they were getting proper bonuses for leading their teams to the Fall Classic. This shows that player conditions had reached a boiling point in professional baseball, and things needed to change. How did the owners keep the teams from striking? They reminded the players that the country was at war, and a strike would only look greedy to the public. After the series, neither owner did anything to alleviate the conditions, which led into 1919.

 

Now, let’s imagine you are a player for the 1919 Chicago White Sox. You are on the best team in baseball. You play in a league that is run, ruled, and dictated by owners. You have seen all attempts to unionize fail, and every alternative major league fold. You don’t want to claim your free agency, for fear you will be blacklisted. You have seen how even strikes don’t really work. Yet, you love your job, and you love playing. What would you do?

 

I see the Black Sox scandal as 2 things: 1) This was an attempt by players to earn the pay they deserved, and 2) this was a desperate attempt by players to shake up the rules all professional ballplayers had to play by. The owners held all of the cards, and players operated under conditions that would not be acceptable in any other work place in America at the time.

 

I would like to see the current commissioner of baseball take a hard look at the conditions that made the 1919 World Series occur. I do not condone intentionally throwing a contest, especially for gambling purposes. I also don’t condone the reserve clause and the blacklist that made it possible for players to consider taking gambling money to replace money they weren’t getting from their clubs. This isn’t just about 8 players who tarnished the game of baseball. This is also about greedy owners who manipulated and milked a system for their own profit and gain.

 

In a world where Alex Rodriguez can keep playing after being caught cheating, and where Michael Vick can get reinstated after his deplorable acts, I ask that we give the 1919 Chicago White Sox the dignity of at least being reinstated in baseball. Their acts were no better or no worse than current athletes, but if they would have been treated fairly all along, they would never have even considered committing them. Let’s judge their acts properly, in light of what we know today.

Watching Events from Different Places

All day I have hearing about how one year ago we heard the news of Lehman Brothers collapsing, and sending the world economic market into turmoil. What is strange about that was last year when this news broke, I awoke in Lisbon, Portugal, several hours before the American public heard it, and had a brief moment of extreme panic. For a split second I imagined Tom Hanks in “The Terminal,” as he watched his country collapse into anarchy, and he could do nothing about it. I thought I might be stuck in Europe, kind of like people who were stuck all over the US and abroad right after 9/11. The moment wore off quickly, but I was keenly aware that the America I returned to was not going to be the same as the one I left.

 

The interesting thing about that situation is also how interconnected I saw the world economy. Immediately after the announcement of the Lehman Brothers collapse, several banks in Europe began to teeter and fall. I watched this happen via Euronews, and I knew I wouldn’t get this much info by being in the states. It was a bit shocking, and very eye opening.

 

I also can’t help but think of other events that have occurred while I was away from home. In 2005, after spending a week in Alaska, and falling in love with nature as though for the first time, I was in the airport waiting for my flight. It was midnight, but still light outside, and the televisions were broadcasting the bombings which had occurred in London. What was odd to me then was how far removed I felt from that. It should have brought to mind my memories of 9/11, but instead it felt so distant, because I was still dealing with the enormity of Alaska, and my new, renewed struggles with environmentalism.

 

This last summer, the day after we returned from Petra, which is a life changing experience, we were all sitting in my friend’s apartment in Amman, Jordan. It was then we heard the news of Michael Jackson passing away. That was quite a blow. I can’t say I was a fan of his in the last 15 years of his life, but Thriller was the first record album I ever bought, and I have a hard time imagining my childhood without his music somewhere in the background. It was interesting, and a little strange that we kept passing the billboards posted around Amman announcing his comeback tour. I wanted to get a photo, but the crazy traffic of Amman wouldn’t allow it. Still, this also gave me the perspective of how the world saw the “King of Pop.” The remainder of the world focused almost entirely on his music, dance, and videos, and really didn’t care about his personal life. In addition, his influence in other parts of the world is still just as large as back in the 1980’s in the US.

 

I keep wondering if I should quit traveling in order to prevent these crazy world events from occurring, as if my being abroad has somehow caused the stars to align in such a fashion to actually cause these events.  I know that is preposterous, but we manage to make our brains think that somehow we could cause events like this, or that maybe if we wear a certain jersey and keep our rituals, our favorite team will beat their rival.  I know these events are independent of my travels, but I can’t help but wonder what will happen next when I do travel.  Still, while I am abroad, I get to find new perspectives, and hopefully a renewed appreciation for the events themselves, along with how varying people see the events. Perspective is everything.