Wednesday, August 24, 2011

This sports fan is in a funk

The past two days have not been good to this sports fan -- two of the titans of sports, because they qualify as people I admired when I was a kid, have been in the news for all the wrong reasons.

On Tuesday, legendary University of Tennessee women's basketball coach Pat Summitt announced she has early-onset dementia. Considering that at least one of my aunts suffers from dementia, I can tell you that I feel terrible for Coach Summitt, her family and her players.

I don't know how the disease will affect her over the next few years, but I do know that Coach Summitt will fight it like a tiger. This New York Times story captures the essence of who she is, and will continue to be.
Summitt overcame athletic inequality with a stoicism and determination that came from growing up on a farm in Tennessee, chopping tobacco and baling hay as part of her sunup to sundown chores while her father admonished, “Cows don’t take a day off.” Basketball games were played at night in a hayloft with her three older brothers.
“They would just run over me,” Summitt said in a 2008 interview. “But that was O.K.”
She would not be run over for long. At 22, Summitt became head coach at Tennessee, barely older than her players. Thirty-seven seasons later, she has won eight national titles and more games (1,071) than any major-college basketball coach, man or woman, while avoiding scandal and graduating the vast majority of her players.
“In modern history, there are two figures that belong on the Mount Rushmore of women’s sports — Billie Jean King and Pat Summitt,” said Mary Jo Kane, a sports sociologist at the University of Minnesota. “No one else is close to third.”
I have always admired Coach Summitt. I don't know her, and I never had the chance to interview her when I was in the sports broadcasting world. But from my outside looking in position, she did things the way they should be done. She won. She played by the rules. Her players succeeded inside and outside the classroom. She was, in other words, a model of how college coaches should behave.

I wish her the best. 

Late tonight (U.S. EDT), I learned that former Major League pitcher Mike Flanagan was found dead. Though the police are early in the investigation, there already are reports that Mr. Flanagan took his own life. His most successful years as a pitcher came when I was a kid; and he was one of those few pitchers I could watch every day.

I dreamed of being a pitcher as a kid, and Flanagan was certainly someone worth studying. He was not tall. He wouldn't blow 100 mph fastballs past hitters. But he won. And he played in the era before baseball was tarnished by the temptation and ultimate disgrace that was the steroid era. From my perspective, he was someone I wanted to be.

Moreover, he played most of his career for what at the time was one of the most respected teams in Major League Baseball -- the Baltimore Orioles.

The Baltimore Sun examines what Mr. Flanagan meant to the team and to the city.
Flanagan, who was in his second year as a color analyst for the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network, spent more than 30 years with the Orioles as a player, coach, front office executive and broadcaster.
Selected by the Orioles in the seventh round of the 1973 amateur draft, Flanagan went on to pitch 18 major league seasons, including parts of 15 with the Orioles. He was a key member of the 1983 world champions, going 12-4 with a 3.30 ERA in the regular season and winning Game 3 of the American League Championship Series against the Chicago White Sox.
The left-hander won 141 games in his Orioles career, including an American League-leading 23 in 1979, when the Orioles lost the World Series to the Pittsburgh Pirates in seven games.
Flanagan won the American League Cy Young Award that year as the league's top pitcher and finished sixth in Most Valuable Player voting.
College and professional sports often attract attention for what the coaches, players, managers and others do wrong. Ms. Summitt and Mr. Flanagan offered reassurance that the news wasn't always bad and that good people could make their mark.

I know I'm not alone in thinking that if there were some way to erase the reports over the past two days about Ms. Summitt and Mr. Flanagan that humanity would be better. Instead, they serve as important reminders that some athletic heroes do live up to that admiration.

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