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The above phrase comes from the epilogue to Warren Corbett’s absorbing and fluently written new biography of baseball man Paul Richards, THE WIZARD OF WAXAHACHIE (Southern Methodist University Press). It refers to the essence of sports, the ongoing never-ending struggle to find out who is best.
Corbett’s book ends with a lovely quote from Richards about baseball: “It starts over every spring, with you or without you.”

Sounds a lot like Rogers Hornsby’s memorable explanation of his off-season activities: “I stare out the window and wait for spring.” Might come with the Texas air because like Hornsby Richards was a native of the Lone Star state but unlike perhaps the greatest right-handed hitter of all time Richards was no Hall of Famer. Just a journeyman catcher who caught some of Carl Hubbell’s record-breaking shutout inning streak in the 1930s and had a big influence on the emergence of another Hall of Fame southpaw Hal Newhouser in the 1940s.

Richards lives on in the annals of baseball history primarily for his knowledge of pitching. He was instrumental in the development of the modern Baltimore Orioles from 1954 to 1960, the year their heralded Baby Birds pitching staff made a run at the pennant. He could be prickly and tight-fisted – Corbett’s portrait is sympathetic but not uncritical – yet he was an insightful and memorable man. I have never forgotten his brief description of the primitive conditions of spring training in the early years:
“Way back in the way back,” he told me in his Texas drawl, “we didn’t even have baseball fields. We had rockpiles.”

More recommended holiday reading: Joe Posnanski’s THE MIRACLE (HarperCollins) about the Big Red Machine of 1975. The amazingly prolific Posnanski, a Cincinnati native now writing for Sports Illustrated, delivers memorable portraits of Sparky Anderson, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan and the two warring centers of the ballclub, Johnny Bench and Pete Rose. In one of the writer’s stimulating ideas he suggest that Rose was the toast of Cincinnati and Bench the idol of the entertainment as well as sporting world – a frequent guest on the Bob Hope TV show – and both wanted to claim the other’s territory. Posnanski explains that Rose’s passion for the game inspired his book that he says is not a brief for Rose’s membership in Hall of Fame or reinstatement in good standing. Just to honor the sparkplug on a truly great mini-dynasty that rose to the top in post-Watergate post-Vietnam America. Posnanski provides stimulating tidbits about what was going on politically and socially in that period.

**** 2009 was a year of my attending College Hall of Fame functions. I went to the National College Baseball Hall of Fame ceremonies in Lubbock, Texas in July (representing the family of inductee Branch Rickey) and on Tuesday Dec 8
I was among the throng at the National College Football Foundation Hall of Fame dinner at New York’s legendary Waldorf-Astoria hotel. Tim Tebow, the Florida quarterback who had just completed his senior regular season in a loss to Alabama, received an award as the player of the year. He is a very self-assured young man but he does IMO carry his Christianity too much on his sleeve. Colt McCoy, the Texas quarterback who will lead the Longhorns into the national championship game on January 7 against Alabama, was happily more secular in his remarks as the representative of the sixteen scholarship winners in this year’s class of Football Foundation honorees, all of whom were team captains. This event is about “faith, family and friends,” McCoy said without getting specific about his particular religion. As a spiritual but not observant Jew I appreciated that welcome moment of tolerance.

Archie Manning showed a lot of poise and wry humor in introducing the older inductees into the College Football Hall of Fame. When Billy Payne, the former versatile star at the University of Georgia who went on to direct the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, was seen beaming at a film clip of his intercepting Manning in a game against Mississippi, Manning said that he was intercepted 16 times that year and Payne’s return was only one yard.

To my pleasant surprise, Nike’s Phil Knight was eloquent in accepting his lifetime achievement award. “I need heroes to inspire and to ground me,” he declared in memory of his co-award winner the late Bill Bowerman, the legendary University of Oregon track coach whose feet and those of his athletes were instrumental in the development of Nike’s shoes.

I part company with Knight though concerning his subsequent comments in defense of just about everything Tiger Woods has done. I will not horn in with my two cents on the Pitchman Turned Satyr except to quote Oscar Wilde:
“Every saint has a past; every sinner has a future.”
Hope that will come true for Tiger and even most important for all of us who wish for a brighter, healthier and more truly sporting life in the years ahead.

More thoughts before the end of 2009 on off-season baseball moves and what to look for as the greatest phrase in the English language comes to fruition in barely two months:
“The pitchers and catchers are reporting to spring training.”
In the meantime enjoy the festive season without becoming too crazed and hectic. Remember that Christmas was supposed to celebrate, “A child is born,” not “Hurry up, come and get it!” Ciao for now!

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