September 8, 2005

Just as I did four years ago, following 9/11, I’m going to change the
tune of this column for a week. With all the devastation that has
happened down south, it seems pretty insensitive to call anything
related to sports a "Catastrophe."

So here’s a look at three players who make it fun to be a
baseball fan on a daily basis, as well as some other random thoughts on
the world of sports ?

Dontrelle Willis’ 20th win

So many people passed him over in fantasy this year (including
me), following his 10-11 record and 4.02 ERA in 2004. Guys like Zack
Greinke and Eric Milton were actually getting picked before the 2003
National League Rookie of the Year this past March at just about every
draft I attended. Everyone just assumed that Willis was going to be the
pitcher he was in 2004, not 2003.

Instead, the big lefty has gotten even with all of his fantasy
doubters this year, winning his 20th game on Wednesday night to go
along with his super 2.52 ERA. He is one of the most affable players in
all of baseball, and at the young age of 23, it looks like he’ll be one
of the sport’s biggest stars for years to come.

David Ortiz hits another game-winning HR

I never thought I’d say this about a Red Sox player, but I
really like Big Papi. Even though I was raised to never root for any
player in a Boston uniform, how can I not respect a guy as clutch as
Ortiz?

On Tuesday night, he hit his sixth career walk-off home run in Fenway
Park, giving the Red Sox a huge win over the Angels. After the game,
John Henry and Larry Lucchino presented him with a large plaque that
said: "The Greatest Clutch Hitter in the History of the Boston Red Sox,
David Ortiz, #34."

Pretty amazing for a guy who hasn’t even been on the team for
three full seasons, but more than deserved considering what he’s done
over that span.

Roger Clemens continues his season-long hot streak

Just like with Willis, many fantasy owners shied away from the Rocket
this spring. At 42 (on Opening Day), people assumed he had to break
down at some point this season. That almost happened after a strained
hamstring forced him from his most recent start, but he appears to be
OK and is slated to take the hill on Friday.

For those who passed on Clemens and instead wound up with Carl Pavano or Oliver Perez, here’s what you’ve missed out on so far:

? A 1.57 ERA after 28 starts
?  Five earned runs in 87 road innings (a 0.52 ERA)
?  An ERA of less than 2.00 in each month of the season
?  124 hits allowed in 189.1 IP
?  Only 8 HR allowed all season
?  Amazing consistency (he’s allowed two or less runs in 25 of 28 starts)

The future first-ballot Hall of Famer is having one of the
greatest seasons in the history of the game, putting up Sandy
Koufax-esque numbers in an era that favors hitters. Hopefully the fact
that he only has 11 wins to date (since the Astros refuse to score runs
for him) won’t stop him from winning an unprecedented eighth Cy Young
Award.

Andre Agassi-James Blake quarterfinal match

One of the best tennis matches ever, right behind the Borg-McEnroe 1980
Wimbledon, the Connors-Krickstein 1991 US Open and the time Pete
Sampras was puking all over the court.

Agassi looked done after dropping the first two sets, 6-3, 6-3,
but somehow rallied to force a fifth set. After being broken, Agassi
was able to break back, and eventually the fifth set went to a
tiebreaker. Blake took a 3-0 lead, but Agassi battled from behind again
to go up, 6-5, before Blake saved match point with one of his many
fearsome forehands. At 6-6, the two traded blows for what seemed like
minutes, until Agassi finally hit a winner past Blake to go up, 7-6,
before prevailing on the next point.

The fans in attendance were going ballistic. People were
jumping out if their chairs and hugging one another — at 1:15 in the
morning — at a tennis match. I was so fired up, I couldn’t get to
sleep for over an hour after it was all over. The only downside was
that most of America was probably asleep and missed the ending of what
is sure to be the year’s best match.

And that’s the beauty of sports, any sport — it’s authentic,
true and unscripted (except for wrestling, of course). In my mind,
nothing can compare to the excitement of real, live drama where the
impossible all of a sudden becomes possible.

Since I’m still so pumped over last night’s amazing match, here’s a
quick list (for no reason at all, except for the fact that I like
making random sports lists) of what I consider to be the most
improbable sports moments and events that I have ever watched live —
whether in person or on TV:

USA-USSR Hockey, 1980 Olympics
Since I was five when this
happened, all I really remember is my dad jumping up and putting his
fist through my grandfather’s overhead lamp. It’s unlikely any sporting
event will ever mean as much to a whole nation as this one did 25 years
ago.

Bjorn Borg-John McEnroe, 1980 Wimbledon finals
The match that
got me and many others hooked on tennis. Five sets, 18-16 tiebreaker in
the fourth, amazing volleys and tons of emotion. Probably the first
time in my life I was ever glued to a television set for an entire
event.

NC State over Houston, 1983 NCAA Finals
For months after the Wolfpack pulled off one of college basketball’s
all-time upsets, I would set my stopwatch to about five seconds, stand
10 feet away from my plastic Nerf hoop and throw myself alley-oops
while trying to dunk before the beeper on my watch went off. These are
the types of things you do when you’re an only child that only cares
about sports.

Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary vs Miami, Nov. 23, 1984
I know I
watched the game, though I actually have no memory of it. Still, no
play, outside of maybe Kirk Gibson’s home run in Game 1 of the 1988
World Series, gives me greater chills than this one. While Brent
Musberger’s call of the play is superb, in order to get the full chill
effect, you need to watch it with Boston College’s radio guys dubbed
in. Nothing is better than raw announcer emotion, which is extremely
rare in today’s age of pre-rehearsed broadcasting (I’ll discuss this
more in an upcoming column).

Mets-Red Sox, 1986 World Series, Game 6
I was sitting down
the first-base line at Shea when Mookie Wilson’s weak grounder rolled
through Bill Buckner’s legs, staring at the ball and wondering why
Buckner wasn’t chasing after it. I didn’t realize that Ray Knight was
already around third base and that the game was over. Probably the only
time in my life I ever rooted for the Red Sox, so at the moment it
happened, I was pretty miserable. Yet, rewatching the moment produces
guaranteed goosebumps every time, despite remembering how nauseating it
was to listen to all my bandwagon-jumping friends brag about the Mets
for months after that series.

Kirk Gibson’s HR, 1988 World Series
If I were ranking this
list in order, Gibson’s no-legged home run might take the top spot.
After seeing it 1,487 times in my life now, I still get overpowering
chills every time the ball flies over Jose Canseco’s head and into the
right-field stands.

Buster Douglas knocks out Mike Tyson, 1990
Vince Coleman had
a better chance of leading the Majors in home runs in 1990 than Douglas
did of knocking out Tyson that night in Tokyo. I’m still convinced I
imagined the whole thing.

Jimmy Connors-Aaron Krickstein, 1991 US Open, Fourth round
I
watched the 39-year-old Connors win this epic five-set, four-hour,
41-minute match on a five-inch, black and white portable TV in the
parking lot prior to the Giants-49ers Monday night opener. The match
was so unbelievable that by the time we got to our seats for kickoff,
the rematch of the heart-pounding 1990 NFC Championship Game seemed
rather boring.

Christian Laettner’s shot, 1992 NCAA Elite Eight
The only
time I ever had a chance to win an NCAA bracket pool ended when
Laettner sunk the Wildcats at the buzzer. Like with the Mets, a true
sign of a great moment is when the team you were rooting for loses, yet
you get major chills every time you watch the highlights years later.

Aaron Boone’s HR, 2003 ALCS, Game 7
Growing up, my biggest dream was to be at a game where a Yankee homered
to win the pennant or World Series. Since I was two when Chris
Chambliss did it against KC in ’76, I missed out on what I thought
would be my only opportunity. Not only did Boone homer in the 11th
inning of Game 7, but it came against the Red Sox. I proclaimed after
the game that if the Yankees never won another playoff series for the
rest of my life, I’d be content. That claim was quickly wiped out after
last year’s ALCS loss, something I’ve yet to recover from.

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