2012-05-23 / Sports

40 years of highs (and some lows)

Bob Watkins
Sports in Kentucky

Celebrate moments from answering the bell 6,724 times

“Life isn’t a matter of milestones, but of moments,” Kennedy family matriarch Rose Kennedy said once.

Left to us to decide which is which? I suggest milestones are for quiet reflection, with moments being replay-worthy now-and-then.

This week, a bit of self-indulgence in moments — 40 years’ worth. You may turn the page now, or not.

Reflections on my 40 years in writing were prompted by Frank DeFord’s just arrived autobiography Over Time, My Life as a Sportswriter and an e-mail from a fine Catholic fellow, Mike Giorgio, who urged me to put aside modesty awhile and celebrate a little.

Forty years ago this month, I penned my first newspaper column. Don’t remember the subject, but I think it was late Major League Baseball great Roberto Clemente.

To run the numbers, permit me a baseball tabulation: Cal Ripken Jr. played 2,632nd consecutive games; Ted Williams had 2,654 hits including a home run in his last at bat, and Roberto Clemente had 3,000 hits before his untimely demise in a plane crash. An aggregate total of Ripken, Clemente and “Teddy Ballgame” numbers is roughly the times I’ve met a deadline since 1972 – in the neighborhood of 6,724, and I have been paid to do so.

What a joy. For good health to answer every bell, thank you, God!

Even a summarized list of the highs and lows of four decades of covering sports would require too much of your time. But we can have a bit of fun with it. Here goes:

• On one visit to Wrigley Field, a travel companion and native of Sonora, Ky., at the time attempted to introduce a surprised Chicago mail carrier walking his beat to a mail carrier in our party from Upton, Ky., with these words: “Hey,” he said, “Since you carry the mail, maybe you two know each other?”

• In 1999, a lifelong friend and I drove to Boston for baseball’s All-Star game at Fenway Park. My pal got to witness his idol Ted Williams do something the Splendid Splinter had refused to do at any time in his 19-year career in Beantown — tip his hat to fans. It was a moment.

• Cooperstown, New York. A visit to Baseball’s Hall of Fame is spiritual. Among the highlights are baseball card displays. Some were so precious and pricey I had to leave before I became nauseous remembering the contents of my long-disappeared card collection.

• Through the years I have also been privileged to visit Bear Bryant’s temple in Tuscaloosa, where he upbraided me for asking a question.

• I had the chance to examine up close Steve Spurrier’s Heisman Trophy on display in Gainesville, Fla.

• I got to shoot hoops at the Basketball Hall of Fame at Springfi eld, Mass., and write about Kentucky Derby winners seated next to the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs.

• Interviews? Forgive the name drops, but some of the best involved Adolph Rupp and his nemesis from Marquette, Al Mc- Guire. Others include former UK basketball star Pat Riley and UofL’s current coach, Rick Pitino, football star and Kentucky native Shaun Alexander, and Hall of Famer Pee- Wee Reese of Louisville.

• I have encountered large personalities along the way: Platolike John Wooden and wise John Oldham, reticent “King” Kelly Coleman, effusive Bobo Davenport, witty Cal Luther, and man of many colors, Bob Knight.

Alongside Wooden, Rupp, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski and Boston Celtics leader Red Auerbach, few have meant more to basketball than Hall of Famer Knight.

• My list of most pleasant fellows encountered along the way includes baseball greats Willie Stargell and Henry Aaron, Olympic swimmer Mary T. Meagher, UK and NBA basketball star Frank Ramsey and legendary announcer and Harlan County native Cawood Ledford.

• Baseball’s best? I consider former Brooklyn Dodger Jackie Robinson baseball’s best for the still-reverberating impact he made when breaking the color barrier. But Ted Williams’ proclivity to make hitting a baseball a science — his work of art (.344 lifetime average) — left “The Kid” near the throne he wanted most to occupy — be the best there ever was.

• The best in football? There was Joe Namath’s glitz and Joe Montana’s glam, but down to his black shoes, Johnny Unitas was the NFL’s Everyman.

• The best of basketball? Larry Bird was “The Package.” Give the man four teammates, one basketball and, well, you know.

• Tennis? Chris Evert alone at the top. But, Charles Robert “Chuck” McKinley rose to his right-place-at-right-time place – Wimbledon singles champion in 1963.

• Golf? Kenny Perry has pocketed more than $30 million in career earnings. Never mind The Masters.

• Best from any sport? Roberto Clemente. The Great One, Pittsburgh Pirates voice Bob Prince called Clemente, was all that on field and off. Prime quality that made Clemente and Bird a cut above? Imagination.

• Best writers I’ve read along the way? In their era, Ring Lardner and Red Smith were clearly ahead of their contemporaries in elegance and in eloquence to make sports less about games and more about people.

Today’s best include Rick Reilly, Thomas Boswell and Frank Deford.

• Best chewing out? At postgame once, Kentucky football Jerry Claiborne issued a good, tough tongue-lashing.

• Most embarrassing moment in my career? Too many to list, but one time a fellow, having come to a restaurant after church, stood in a lunch line, leaned and whispered into my ear: “Best thing ‘The Cats Pause’ ever did was get rid of your column.”

Forty years. Thank you.

And so it goes.

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