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A birthday triggers memories of titanic sports figures



 

 

As you get older, as least for this re­porter, the excitement or anticipation of having a birthday is greatly muted. In so many ways, it becomes just like any other day, a mere blip on the calendar, a 24-hour period that certainly doesn’t resonate as it used to, at least not like when you were a kid, teen or even into your twenties.

Now, I don’t mean to convey that my birthdays are empty or meaningless. I always hear from cherished family members and treasured friends and their kind consideration is always greatly ap­preciated. And yeah, I still score some nice gifts and make it a point to try to do something fun on that particular day. But as far as getting the juices to flow, my birthdays have lost a lot of their steam and luster.

But the one thing that anniversaries of your birth get you to do is to reflect, remember and ponder about what has gone on before. They act as a sort of portal to the past and make you inclined to reliving memories, be they good, bad or indifferent.

So, with your kind indulgence, please permit me to travel back in time and re­visit some anecdotes and experiences that I hope you’ll find revealing and in­teresting.

However, before I embark down that road, I wish to share a close call expe­rience that could have dramatically al­tered the birthday that I celebrated this past Sunday.

The day before, after having spent three hours on the tennis court, I rushed home to shower and get cleaned up so that I could meet a buddy of mine for lunch. Exiting from the back door of the mobile, I stepped onto the landing and then descended the three steps onto a pathway that leads directly to the drive­way. Fortunately, I hadn’t taken more than a step-and-a-half, when suddenly I heard sounds that put anyone who lives in Escondido or Valley Center on high alert. The rattle was unmistakable, the hiss every bit as disconcerting. In­stantaneously, I jerked my head up and what was staring back at me, from a disturbingly cozy distance of about six feet, was an upright diamondback of significant size. “Whoa,” I blurted out and then proceeded to employ a swift backpedal that would have made Mu­hammad Ali proud. Safely back on the landing, I took a moment to collect my­self, although I wasn’t as unnerved as I thought I might be. Suddenly, the snake and I were engaged in a stare down of epic proportions and what his eyes were saying spoke volumes. “Get and stay back, Jack,” was the message being transmitted.

Since I’ve been up in VC, I’ve had about five close encounters with rat­tlers and even felt compelled enough to take a couple of them out. What to do in this situation? I analyzed my options before deciding to toss his way a couple of broomstick handles that happened to be nearby. That did the trick as the snake struck once, rattled another warn­ing and then eventually moved off. Cri­sis averted. Earlier, the thought crossed my mind to figure out a way to effec­tively dispose of him but I resisted that impulse because in truth, I was kind of in his debt. After all, he had given me a critical heads-up with his distinct warn­ing, without which I’d have been hospi­talized and pumped full of anti-venom, if not worse. When given a moment, I even found levity in the near miss catas­trophe. What a headline it would have made: Rattler gives local sportswriter a birthday present to remember.

Speaking of Ali, it is always reason for sadness when a man who meant so much to so many people meets his end. Though I admired his athleticism and skill in the ring and was, at times, en­tertained by his clever wit, the pride of Louisville never really resonated with me. Ali’s bravado and braggadocio just didn’t mesh with my Midwestern sensi­bilities. And I particularly resented the way the “Louisville Lip” would mock and denigrate other black fighters, call­ing them gorillas or dismissing them with the ultimate insult by referring to them as “Uncle Toms.”

His treatment of Joe Frazier was par­ticularly loathsome, especially in light of the fact that “Smokin’ ” Joe came to his defense during some of Ali’s most trying moments and according to re­ports I’ve read, even provided Ali with monetary support. Ali repaid him with taunts, derision and scorn. It was ex­quisite payback and sweet justice when in the most important fight of either of their careers, Frazier pierced the myth of Ali’s invincibility when he dropped his ungrateful rival with a honey of a left hook and earned a unanimous 15-round decision in a mega-fight for the ages.

Ali, in his prime, was a beautiful com­bination of fluidity, grace and showman­ship but those that claim that he was the greatest of all-time are misguided. He suffered inexcusable losses, was handed a couple of dubious decisions and un­fortunately, he stayed way too long at the fair. At his peak and zenith, Ali was just about as good as it got but when taken in totality, his record just doesn’t validate any kind of best-ever claim. As his career wound down, Ali had clearly lost his edge and wasn’t even a shell of himself, a once great boxer sadly hang­ing on and tarnishing his reputation. Compared to what someone like Sugar Ray Robinson did in the ring from a standpoint of longevity, production and the number of elite opponents fought, Ali, in my opinion, doesn’t come close to measuring up to that standard.

I saw Ali one time in the flesh. He was preparing for his fight against local San Diego favorite Ken Norton, who would go on to later rearrange Ali’s jaw and spring one of the biggest upsets in the annals of boxing.

Ali was conducting his training and workouts at the Town and Country Ho­tel located in the Hotel Circle area. Fast with his fists and quicker with his mouth, Ali enthralled most of the patrons with an entertaining blend of pugilistic art­istry and stand-up comedy. He waded through his sparring partners with ri­diculous ease but on one occasion, just to lighten things up, he pretended to be rocked by a punch thrown by some ob­scure Caucasian guy. It was hilarious, with Muhammad going jelly-legged and staggering around, all the while verbal­ly worrying about the hit his reputation would take for having been clocked by someone Ali jokingly referred to as the next “Great White Hope.” No question, it was an uproarious scene that had on­lookers convulsing with laughter.

My opinion of Ali is quite different than that of a many in this country, who revere, idolize and love him. It is one that is far afield from those fans and admirers who perceive him as a totally laudable figure. I don’t minimize the impact that he had on the multitudes, nor do I belittle people for holding to such a positive viewpoint of him. To them he was an inspiration and I cer­tainly respect their right to believe so. But as with everything else in life, it’s all in eye of the beholder. It’s just that my reality concerning Ali skews to­wards a less favorable interpretation and would be considered by most to be an outlier perspective.

While Ali’s influence over boxing was undeniable, his impact on his sport was no greater than the one Gordie Howe exerted over the game of hockey. Even to this day, plenty of puck fans consider Howe to be the greatest ever, with apologies to Bobby Orr and Wayne Gretzky, both of whom have always been deferential to Howe’s preeminence and among his biggest admirers.

Howe, who passed away seven days after Ali, was not only a supremely skilled goal scorer and all-around play­er but he was one rugged customer. You checked and rumbled with Howe at your own peril. Gordie was not only esteemed and respected, he was feared. And the man was an athletic marvel, playing with distinction into his early fifties.

I had the good fortune to meet Howe on one occasion. At the time, I was liv­ing in a condominium complex in the Point Loma area of San Diego. To my way of thinking, one of the coolest fea­tures of the complex was that it had a sizable and nicely manicured putting green near the main entrance.

One summer afternoon, I happened to be walking home when I spied two fig­ures hunched over, striking some putts. I recognized one right off, it was Max McNab, a family friend but also the general manager and coach of the be­loved San Diego Gulls. It was the classy McNab who was greatly responsible for transforming the Gulls into a happening franchise that the city embraced with an intense passion. Initially, I didn’t recog­nize his companion. Mr. McNab, seeing me pass by, rose up and beckoned me over. He greeted me warmly as he al­ways did and then provided an introduc­tion that I will always remember. “Jim, please say hi to Gordie Howe.”

As a bit of background, McNab and Howe had been teammates on the 1950 Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings and had remained friends throughout the years.

Though I was still building on my hockey knowledge at the time, no one had to tell me about Howe. He was like Mantle and baseball, Palmer and golf and Russell and basketball, in other words, the “Man.”

I’ll never forget getting a load of his long neck and those signature sloped shoulders that just reeked of power. I tried to envision what it must have been like to have that sturdy physique ride you into the boards. I could almost feel the crunch. His greeting was sincere and gentlemanly, the handshake firm and forceful. He was kind enough to spend a few minutes engaging me in conver­sation, the focus of which was always on something else, never himself. You don’t interact with true legends every day and the meaning and significance of that encounter wasn’t lost on me. When I eventually took my leave, with the two them getting back to their put­ting, I gazed down at the hand that had shaken the hand. It somehow seemed to have taken on a greater stature and, in my mind, would never be the same. It had touched greatness.

Ali and Howe were huge, larger than life. And so was Joe DiMaggio. Though there may have been a select few con­sidered to be better ballplayers, when it came to national impact and impor­tance, “Joltin’ Joe” took a back seat to no one.

DiMaggio was a silky smooth cen­terfielder but his real claim to fame was what he could do with the stick, turning it into something Herculean. His stroke was pure and explosive and his 56- game hitting streak is one of the most unassailable records in all of sports. Joe was also the consummate winner, the undeniable ringleader of multiple New York Yankee championships. In his hey­day, DiMaggio loomed larger than the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. Despite his quiet demeanor and reserved ways, no one owned the “Big Apple” like Joe did.

Fast-forward a number of years. I happened to be visiting my folks, who lived in the Marina area of San Fran­cisco, not far from the iconic Golden Gate Bridge. After an early dinner, my dad and I decided to mosey on up to the nearby Presidio Golf Course and get in some holes.

After arriving at the course, we quick­ly retrieved our clubs from the trunk and started hiking up a modest hill that led to the 10th tee. As we trudged forward, a silver-haired, neatly dressed man began crossing the road approximately twenty yards in front of us. But even from a dis­tance, there was no mistaking the man’s identity: there was the athletic gait, the sharp nose, the manly good looks. I’d seen his face on coffee commercials, in countless photos and on reams of clas­sic baseball film, which had highlighted so many of his dramatic exploits. It was clearly DiMaggio, only in real time.

“Oh hey, there’s Joe,” my dad casu­ally said to me. “Want to meet him?”

“Are you kidding? Sure, of course,” I marveled.

My dad had become acquainted with the “Yankee Clipper” in a most usual way. One day when Pops was headed towards the pro shop at Presidio, which at that time was a military course, he noticed someone bent over in his car, obviously in some sort of distress. Ever the Good Samaritan, Dad went over to see if could lend some sort of assistance. Imagine his amazed reac­tion when he soon discovered that it was DiMaggio who was slumped over. Clearly in pain because of a back that had seized up on him, DiMaggio quickly asked my father if he could as­sist him inside the clubhouse so that someone could take a look at him. Anxious to help, Dad did as requested and as DiMaggio leaned on him for support, the two of them painstakingly made their way towards the clubhouse door. Once inside, they were able to find a place where DiMaggio could lie down and shortly thereafter someone came over to attend to him. Once he was convinced that DiMaggio was in good hands, Dad departed but not be­fore Joe made it a point to express his gratitude and to thank him for getting involved and coming to the rescue.

A few weeks later, a now healthy DiMaggio spotted my dad at the course, came over and asked Pops if he might like to play a round with him some­time in the near future. Gee, I wonder what he said to that? Not surprisingly, Dad jumped at the chance. It proved to be an unforgettable experience, mainly because Dad was to spend a few un­interrupted hours pacing a picturesque golf course in the company of a true one-of-a-kind. DiMaggio, inherently introverted and somewhat circum­spect, wasn’t inclined to go heavy on the idle chit-chat. Though he was polite, thoughtful and gracious, the conversation between the two of them was held to a minimum. But that was fine with Dad, who knew that DiMag­gio was hardly the verbose type. There was a comfort level established be­tween them that made words rather un­necessary. DiMaggio, a solid striker of the ball in Dad’s opinion, was focused on his game and that’s where his con­centration was directed.

DiMaggio was a brisk walker and a rapid player. Things moved when Joe had a club in his hand and Dad was comfortable with the rhythm of play that DiMaggio initiated. But in what seemed like a flash, Dad’s time on the links with DiMaggio was over and it was time to wrap up his interlude with a legend. And so with a sincere hand­shake and an earnest thank you, DiMag­gio bid Pops goodbye. My dad was to later tell me that on his drive home that day, he kept asking himself, “Did I re­ally just play golf with Joe DiMaggio? Nah, couldn’t have been real. I must have imagined it.”

So here I was, heart pounding, eyes wide open and about to meet a histori­cal giant.

“Joe, oh Joe,” my father cried out. “Got a minute?”

DiMaggio immediately stopped and peered down the hill. Dad gestured with a wave and Joe did the same. Within moments we were standing right next to him. I almost felt as if I was in the presence of a deity. “Joe, I just wanted to introduce my son to you, Jim Jr.,” Dad said. DiMaggio revealed a slight smile before extending his hand. “ Glad to meet you, young man,” Joe offered. “Wow, same, ah, same here Mr. DiMag­gio,” was my eloquent reply, the words barely tumbling out of my mouth. I was incapable of saying much more because I was all but tongue-tied.

DiMaggio asked how many holes we hoped to get in and then inquired about my skill level. “You a good player?” he wondered. “I play to about a 14-handi­cap,” I managed to force out, amazed that I could even say the much.

“Well, nice to have met you,” DiMag­gio indicated. “ Good luck and you two try to hit ‘em straight.”

And with that, he pivoted smoothly and in rather regal fashion, headed off. I stood there for a moment and watched as this magnificent mythic figure come to life slowly began to disappear into the distance. Knowing that only mo­ments before I had been in his company simply blew me away because as far as celebrities were concerned, DiMaggio went beyond the A-list.

A bit later, as my dad and I were stroll­ing down a fairway, I kept pestering him with questions. “Hey Dad, did I really get to meet Joe DiMaggio? I mean did it really happen? It just seems like such a far-fetched dream. ”

He couldn’t help but chuckle, having experienced similar doubts about his own interaction with the Yankee im­mortal. “Don’t ask me Jim,” he laughed, “I’m still not totally sure I ever played with the guy. I guess in a way, it will always feel more like a fantasy than the real thing because they just don’t come any bigger than Joe. ”

A birthday was the catalyst that trig­gered vivid remembrances of a trio of sporting greats. I’m more than fortunate to have such lasting memories of those incomparable men.


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