August 29, 2007

Amidst Summer of Discontent, Rizzuto Rises as Hero

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After a summer in which professional athletics were plagued by a never-ending stream of scandals and hyped successes, the following question could easily sound like irrelevant trivia. But any true sports fan should not be allowed to overlook this event no matter how much it was buried in the media overload, so I’m going to ask this trivia question anyway: does anyone remember what event marked Monday, Aug. 13?
Let’s review some of the highs and lows in sports from the summer. Aug. 13 was about a month after “Hell-week,” the period from July 18-25 when Michael Vick was indicted, the Tim Donaghy betting on basketball story broke and Tour de France leader Michael Rasmussen was kicked out of the race under suspicion of substance abuse.
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With those ESPN headliners ruled out, Barry Bonds might come to mind. America seems to have been passively obsessed with the issue for months (like a car wreck that you just can’t stop looking at). Home runs 755 and 756, however, came on Aug. 4 and 7, respectively.
Baseball’s summer of statistical achievements in baseball also included two of the only untainted stories of the summer. Iconic pitcher Tom Glavine got his 300th win on Aug. 5, a day after A-Rod became the youngest player to reach 500 home runs. These record-breakers, especially Glavine’s, might have qualified as uplifting if so many sports fans weren’t already jaded and unexcitable.
And then, near the end of the most depressing summer in my sports memory, something in a completely different league occurred. It was probably more terrible than any other sports story of the summer but also more inspirational.
Phil Rizzuto passed away in his sleep on Aug. 13th — three days before the 51st anniversary of his last game with the Yankees. Death is never a happy news item, but this was actual history in the making. The Scooter’s life represents the tradition of Major League Baseball in America.
As the shortstop of the Yankees from 1941-56, five-time All-Star Rizzuto claimed seven World Series titles and the AL MVP award in 1950. With a .968 career fielding percentage and legendary bunting ability, he was the prototypical Yankee shortstop until Derek Jeter challenged his reign. He was a leader on a team that, no matter what Yankee-haters say, dominated American baseball consciousness then and now.
He was even more famous and loved — especially in New York — as a broadcaster for the Yankees from 1957-96. My parents grew up in New York State in the 70s, one in a small town upstate and one in Queens and Long Island, and both remember the Scooter distinctly. His sense of humor was hard to ignore as he announced birthdays and anniversaries as often as he followed the game. He was the announcer for New York, but he was also a regular guy.
“I never thought I deserved to be in the Hall of Fame,” Rizzuto said. “The Hall of Fame is for the big guys, pitchers with 100 mph fastballs and hitters who sock homers and drive in a lot of runs. That’s the way it always has been and the way it should be.”
You may say that it’s a waste of time to dwell on the life of a deceased athlete once the appropriate obituaries and highlight reels have been posted. Busy, stressed-out citizens of the 21st century only have time for games, scores, standings and the newest sports gossip.
Case in point: Monday’s headline story on numerous news websites was Michael Vick’s apology “from the heart.” Like I care how sad the multi-million dollar NFL quarterback is feeling. He has psychologists, agents and family members (including an equally, if not more, reckless brother) to take care of the shambles that is his private life. What a huckleberry!
It is a fact that the public attention span is generally shorter than a two-year-old’s, or a 15-year-old boy’s or Lindsay Lohan’s at an A.A. meeting … take your pick. And that attention is often focused on funny side stories (see Pacman Jones). Athletes who have left a legacy, however, should be remembered and talked about as much as current competitors.
Consider, for example, Rizzuto’s quiet, almost lifelong charitable support of St. Joseph’s School for the Blind in Jersey City. For those of you who haven’t heard the story, the Scooter pledged a great deal of money and time to the school after meeting one of its young students, Ed Lucas. Lucas became blind at the age of 12 when a line drive hit him between the eyes.
Rizzuto probably understood a little better than most the feeling of inadequacy. Listed at 5-6 the shortstop was often belittled and underestimated by skeptical managers, and more muscular teammates and opponents.
Brooklyn-born and bred Rizzuto originally tried out for Casey Stengel’s Dodgers. Stengel told the undersized teenager to go get a shoe-shine box. The insult was not forgotten by the Scooter when Stengel became the manager of the Yankees in 1949. Rizzuto had become one of the stars of Major League Baseball despite Stengel’s opinion.
Maybe that’s why people loved the Scooter. Who doesn’t love an underdog? Who doesn’t love an athlete with enough talent and heart to exceed expectations?
Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams in his best role besides Star Wars, yes I’m a geek) described a man of similar character in the movie Brian’s Song by saying “he has the heart of a giant.”
I’m not trying to be a Pollyanna here. I know that it’s necessary to talk about the failures as well as the role models, and I know that the sports world doesn’t stop turning when one 89-year-old Hall-of-Famer who fought in World War II bites the dust. But I also know that some lives deserve a little extra respect.
This will hopefully be the first and last time I will actively push my own agenda on the readers of this column. As Billy Dee said about Brian Piccolo, I would say about my own hero, “I love Phil Rizzuto, and I’d like all of you to love him too.”