Friday, July 10, 2009
From Buckner to Bernard to Pags
Were sports better in the '80s? Of course they were. The decade gave us the Miracle on Ice; the Stanford band; Hail Flutie and Bill Buckner; the "Super Bowl Shuffle" and the Fridge; Carl Lewis, Eric Heiden and Katarina Witt; Jordan, Bird and Magic; Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson; Joe Montana and John Elway; Kirk Gibson's home run and Roy Hobbs' home run; the Bash Brothers and Rickey Henderson; Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens; Zola Budd and Mary Decker; Mike Tyson; N.C. State over Houston; Nicklaus at the Masters; Greg Lemond; "Bull Durham," "Field of Dreams" and "Hoosiers;" the rise of ESPN; lights at Wrigley Field; and far more that I'm forgetting right now (sheesh, how could I not mention the Ken Griffey Jr. rookie card?).
Plus I was in my 20s, which is probably the most important part of the equation.
Sports are never so important as when you're in college and in the years just beyond. Everything is still fresh and totally awesome, plus you aren't distracted by spouses, kids, family and careers. You're on your own for the first time and able to watch the games no matter how late they end, or no matter how badly the dishes need washing. You can watch eight consecutive college basketball games because you don't have to mow the lawn or clean the gutters or change the storm windows. The only thing that might stop you from watching the games is if you need to get to the multiplex for the latest blockbuster.
Sports receive your almost total devotion during this time (the exception being the hours spent trying to meet and date the latest object of your affection), so they take on both an importance and obsession that they never will again.
That's why I can remember almost nothing from my five years of college classes but almost everything from the 1981 USC-Washington game at Husky Stadium, when I was absolutely certain there was no place I would rather be, no other people I would rather be with, no moment that would ever feel so good. Just as when the ball rolled between Buckner's legs and I walked home with my tears mixing with the rain, I knew no other loss would ever make me feel so bad. And most importantly, when I saw my byline in the paper for the first time, I knew that no other profession would ever make me feel so fulfilled.
The '80s were the best decade of sports, without a doubt. Of course, fans who came of age before the '80s or after will contend that their decades were better. And the amazing thing is they will also be right.
I was in college in 1986, and it was the year I'd been waiting for my whole life: the year the Mets went back to the World Series. But I was dating a girl who didn't like sports (a mistake, obviously, but that's another story). So while I was watching Game 6 unfold in the living room, she was off doing homework in the kitchen.
When the Red Sox scored two runs in the top of the 10th, I called her in. "Gretch, c'mere," I said. "It's the moment you've been waiting for -- the baseball season's about to end."
"What do you mean end?" she said, walking in.
"Well, the Mets are losing by two runs and have only three outs left to play," I said, as Wally Backman flied out. "And now it's only two outs."
At this point she began parroting everything I'd ever told her about baseball. "But Paul, the game can go on forever," she said in an annoyingly mocking tone. "Like you always say, that's why baseball is a superior game, because there's no clock, and the game can't end until the players make it end, so all the Mets have to do is get a bunch of hits in a row and
"All right," I snapped, as Keith Hernandez flied out. "Enough."
A few minutes and several batters later, Mookie Wilson hit a slow ground ball that trickled through Bill Buckner's legs, I began jumping up and down and screaming, and my girlfriend had this stunned look on her face.
"My god," she said, "I never believed any of that crap was actually true."
Bernard King. He was my '80s. Loved Larry and Magic, Julius, Nique and Isiah, but King was extra. He was who the world didn't pay attention to, didn't love him like it loved the others. BK moved me the most. Regardless of how everyone else felt.
The middle-/welter-/featherweight division. That was my '80s. Loved Mike Tyson, but boxing for me was not an event; it was a craft. A science. They called it the golden age, but it was more like platinum. Hearns, Hagler, Sugar Ray, Duran, Alexis Arguello, Iran Barkley, John Mugabi, Howard Davis Jr., Aaron Pryor, Julio Cesar Chavez. It seemed like every week there was a classic battle. So while everyone was fiendin' for Tyson, I was on the other guys.
Jerry Rice. He was my '80s. But this was the early years, before the 49ers. See, I went to a small black school down in Louisiana. Rice was down the road at Mississippi Valley State. We began to hear stories. Soon "World" (Rice's nickname at the time) became my world. While the rest of the world was sweating Herschel Walker and Dan Marino, I was fascinated elsewhere.
There were others: Ozzie Smith, John McEnroe, Mars Blackmon, Len Bias, Dave Stewart, DePaul and Georgetown basketball, Ben Johnson. The '80s taught me two things: I'm a sucker for the ones everyone loves to hate and I'm a sucker for anyone with greatness that is existing under the radar. Which is still a problem I have to this day.
The '80s are, for me, a badge of honor.
I was born in 1978. The Yankees won the World Series that year, but I was four months old, so I have no recollection of it. Nor can I recall the Yankees making the World Series in 1981.
What I do remember is my father filling my head with stories from his youth in the 1950s and early '60s, when the Yankees won the World Series practically every year. And I remember wondering why I was so unlucky.
You see, the Yankees were basically an afterthought during my childhood. Overshadowed by the Mets. Missing the playoffs year after year after year. Many times not even in the pennant race.
Instead of Alex Rodriguez manning the hot corner, I had Mike Pagliarulo (not a bad player, but still). Instead of having Derek Jeter in the shortstop hole, I was stuck with Alvaro Espinoza and Wayne Tolleson. And yet I watched the games night after night with my dad, looking forward to, if nothing else, four or five Don Mattingly at-bats and maybe a couple of "Holy cows!" from The Scooter in the broadcast booth.
Of course, things changed. Since 1995, I've been spoiled rotten. But no one can call me a front-runner. No one can tell me I'm not a true Yankees fan.
I was born in 1980. By 1985 I was doing hard time in kindergarten, eventually wrapping up life at Highland Elementary in '89. For me, the '80s were all about lunch-pail loot and playground peripherals. Toys were the priority back then, with Pound Puppies, Teddy Ruxpin and My Buddy making a strong impact on my formative years before I graduated to the company of Popples (pop, pop, pop!), My Little Ponies and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In the early '80s, my whip was a shiny white Rainbow Brite Big Wheel. I eventually blew the tranny (too many skid stops in the driveway) and bought a neighbor's used Huffy. I souped that up with fluorescent Spokey Dokes for flashy trips down the street to play with my best pal, Brian Kelly. He drove a (pow, pow) PowerWheel and he was the He-Man to my She-Ra (princess of power and twin sister of He-Man), although I preferred to live my life as Jem, and Brian -- my obedient little hologram -- was OK with that.
After our daily Mega Sour Warhead-eating showdowns on bus rides home, Dunk-a-roos were our after-school snack of choice; they fared well in pockets as we built stuff in the backyard like MacGyver. When it got too dark we were lured in by freeze-pop-wielding moms with scissors to snip the tops off and a rec room alive with the cool glow of the Lite-Brite.
We'd wind down with ColecoVision -- did you know you could go backwards at the start of the level in "Pitfall!"?? -- until we got cramped up from orange-button-on-black-joystick domination and/or tired of using the weird keypad controllers as "car phones."
By the late '80s I wanted nothing to do with anything not named Joey McIntyre. Actually, now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure I wanted to be Joey McIntyre, which would explain my steadfast dedication to mastering a spot-on rendition of "Please Don't Go Girl."
I don't have a ton of sports memories from the '80s. I was a little kid then. A little kid whose family only had three TV channels. My sports memories consist of playing football in the front yard with my dad and my brother. Baseball and Wiffle ball in the front yard. Basketball on our gravel driveway. Hockey on the pond down the road that froze in the winter. Or firsts. Going to my first baseball game. I remember parts of Super Bowls -- 49ers over Bengals; Doug Williams. I also remember having to go to bed at kickoff of "Monday Night Football." I remember bits of Lakers-Celtics. I think I remember some of the Cardinals-Royals World Series, but nothing about Don Denkinger. That's how it is when you're a little kid: Everything is pure. And then -- I think it was 1989 -- my Little League all-star team cheated in a bunch of tournaments by using two kids from another league. I think it prepared me well for what was to come.