April 1, 2004

Feeling the Blues About Missing Crew

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As another glorious baseball season begins, albeit in Japan and with “RICOH” advertisements plastered on the Yankee and Devil Ray batting helmets (insert your own “Osaka Fish and Energy Concern” joke here), my mind should be racing with anticipation: The joy of watching my re-armed Red Sox battle New York well into October (say “Chowdah!”). The ridiculous fantasy baseball-induced thrill of trying to decide between starting Tim Worrell to win the “Holds” category over Matt Morris, who might help win “Innings” (fantasy baseball is wonderful. I love having to ask questions like, “Does anybody know how Aubrey Huff did today?”). The pleasure of watching balls get lost in Johnny Damon’s spectacular mullet (I wish I had been the one who coined his nickname, the greatest in all of sports – “Unfrozen Caveman Centerfielder”). There are so many storylines and hopes springing eternal, one would think that I’d be ecstatically writing a Yankee-bashing baseball preview column. But, I’m not. Pedro? Bonds? Jeter? No. The only names I can think about right now are Wally Pipp and Chip Beck.

Wally Pipp is the greatest trivia answer in the history of major league baseball. The epitaph to this Yankee first-basemen’s career is very simple: On June 2, 1925, he woke up with a headache and asked to sit out that day’s ballgame. A young rookie named Lou Gehrig took Pipp’s spot on the lineup card and, for 2,130 straight games, never gave it back. It’s stories like Pipp’s that make athletes play through all manner of injuries and illnesses, not wanting to open the door to their place on the depth chart to anyone, even to a young rookie. When I staggered into Gannett on Tuesday morning, I did so with an ailment slightly more serious than Pipp’s infamous headache. A few chest x-rays and medical history questions later (So Per, do you have asthma? No, Doc. Do you have exercise-induced asthma? No. Does anyone in your family have asthma? No. Ok. Here, I’m prescribing you an asthma inhaler. Use it every four hours and read about asthma in this booklet, “One Minute Asthma – What You Need To Know.” Oh, great. Thanks). Dr. Wentzel diagnosed me as having “for lack of a better term, bronchitis.” This guaranteed me several things. Besides pumping my body full of Prednisone, Albuterol and Zithromax, I would feel like hammered shit for the next week. More importantly, I’d miss several crew practices and probably Saturday’s race.

Our coach has juggled the lineups around to account for my absence, handing the role of Lou Gehrig to a young varsity rookie named Greg. As I sit here in my mucus and medicine-induced haze, I’m constantly tormented by visions of my boat rowing without me, skipping effortlessly across the water like a smooth flat pebble, Greg roaring happily in his newfound success. The nightmares appear like newspaper headlines:

“Cornell Wins Eastern Sprints! Superstar Greg Leads Crew to IRA Victory, Makes U.S. Olympic Team and Marries Cameron Diaz! Former Oarsman Per Ostman Becomes Addicted to Painkillers! Details inside.” There are few fates worse than being relegated to the sidelines. An athlete is used to having control of his situation, being able to score another goal when behind or race faster to catch up. When that self-determination is taken away, it is no less than crushing. You work so hard; you log thousands of hours training; you sacrifice your blood, sweat and soul on that altar. All of this, only to have your body betray you.

A good friend of mine on the crew suffered a disc injury in 2002 and was forced to miss an entire year of rowing. Every time we took to the water, the pain of having to sit and watch us was etched across his face so brilliantly that a blind man could have seen it. I am only missing a week, and it is tearing me apart. It is the fear that you are unneeded, that something you love is better off without you. It would make it easier to sit out, I suppose, if I was any good at rowing right now. I’m not. My stroke mysteriously left me one day in the middle of last year’s season, and it shut off all the lights on its way out. It’s not really anything I can explain, nor blame on anyone but me. Once, I had a reasonably efficient stroke that allowed me to transfer my tremendous strength directly into boat speed. That year, my boat won two silver medals. Now, while I might be the fastest starboard rower on the ergometer, I’m nearly the slowest on the water. Medals? I’m just trying not to sink the boat. I feel like Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects: “And like that, ‘poof!’ he was gone.” As Wally Pipp, I can’t go to practice and start to rebuild my stroke. I can’t regain my old speed, earn a spot in the first varsity boat, and I can’t help us win two gold medals. As Wally Pipp, I can only sit on my couch and wonder if I’m also Chip Beck.

Just like I’ve lost my stroke, Chip Beck lost his swing. A professional golfer, Beck wasn’t exactly Tiger before Tiger was Tiger, but he was at least a Mickelson. In 1988, Beck won the Vardon Trophy for having the lowest scoring average on the PGA Tour. He won four tournaments in the space of four years, a monstrous accomplishment at the time. His contemporaries on tour loved his youthful enthusiasm and positive attitude. These traits, when combined with his exceptional skill, earned him spots on three Ryder Cup teams. After miraculously shooting only the second score of 59 ever recorded in the third round of the 1991 Las Vegas Invitational, Beck’s future seemed limitless and filled with major championship trophies. But after the U.S. victory in the 1993 Ryder Cup, something happened. He had suffered no injuries, no terrible personal tragedies — nothing was different for Beck except that he could not play golf. His game, his swing had left him. Chip Beck had been poised to ride his skill and success to fame and fortune, but instead he dropped off the face of the earth.

Neil Young taught us that, “It’s better to burn out than fade away,” but I wonder if Chip Beck or Wally Pipp would agree. I wonder if I do. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go take my asthma medication.

Per Ostman is a Sun Senior Writer. The Wrong Advices will appear every other Thursday this semester. Per can be contacted at pmo5@cornell.edu.

Archived article by Per Ostman