Nearly 350 years ago Isaac Newton watched an apple fall to earth,
giving birth (in a manner of speaking) to gravity, without which
Nellie Fox might still be camping beneath an infield fly at the
old Comiskey Park, punching his glove, staring at the Chicago sky
and waiting to catch a baseball popped up in 1951.
"If I have seen further," wrote Newton, "it is by standing on the
shoulders of Giants." He was acknowledging a debt not to
ex-Giants infielder Manny Trillo but to other geniuses in his
field, as Fox did when he said, "What is the top requirement for
a second baseman? A fine shortstop. I am fortunate in having the
greatest shortstop in baseball, Luis Aparicio."
All of which is to say that sports, like most worthwhile human
endeavors, teach us to appreciate--to Apariciate--our fellow man,
which is a good thing, for people are connected in ways you might
Sports also teach forgiveness. Twenty years ago Rickey Henderson
buried the hatchet with Yankees nemesis Lou Piniella by saying,
"Let's let bye-byes be bye-byes." But sports give everyone a shot
at salvation. "The best thing about baseball," Trillo once said,
"is that you can do something about yesterday tomorrow."
And while that is a hopeful thought for all of us resolving to
reinvent ourselves in the New Year, it's not quite the best thing
about baseball. The best thing about baseball is--and forever
will be--ballpark food. "A hot dog at the ballpark," Humphrey
Bogart said, "is better than a steak at the Ritz."
Still, as we gorge ourselves this holiday season, sports urge us
to have a modesty of wants. In an age when athletes often call to
mind Minnie the Moocher--who dreamed, in Cab Calloway's
cautionary tale, of a "home built of gold and steel, a diamond
car with platinum wheels"--we'd do well to remember the spartan
wish list of Henderson, who once said in a contract negotiation,
"All I'm asking for is what I want."
In life, as in sports, there are any number of ways to get what
you want. Conrad Hilton became as rich as the monocled man in
Monopoly by starting--as in Monopoly--with a single hotel.
"Successful people," he said, "keep moving. They make mistakes
but don't quit." Failure, in other words, is an option, and
always should be. "Anytime you try to win everything," said Larry
Csonka, who won everything with the undefeated '72 Miami
Dolphins, "you must be willing to lose everything."
When hard work fails, try shortcuts. Just before he retired this
year, Georgia State basketball coach Lefty Driesell lamented that
one of his players, ineligible with a 1.86 grade point average,
was only .04 of a point shy of the required 1.90. Wailed the
Lefthander, "Can't we round it off?"
Sometimes we can. True, junior Shawn Andrews, the All-America
offensive tackle for Arkansas, is academically ineligible to play
in the Independence Bowl on New Year's Eve. But as a result he
has withdrawn from school and is preparing to enter the NFL
draft, where the Razorback will be enormously enriched by a set
of football skills that scouts are calling sui--or is it
And who can blame him? In the end sports are whatever you want
them to be. They're at once meaningless and meaningful. Like
Little Richard singing "A wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom,"
sports say nothing and everything, are nonsense and Americana.
They ought not to be taken too seriously. Years ago Raiders
quarterback Ken Stabler told the Modesto Bee that he had, the
night before a start in New York, sat in a bar until 8 a.m., then
cabbed directly to the stadium. There, Jets quarterback (and
fellow Alabama alum) Richard Todd, running into Stabler before
kickoff, said in surprise, "You smell of whiskey."
"I should," said the Snake. "I've been out drinking all night."
Some people are scandalized by such behavior. Others feel, as
Bogart said, "The whole world is about three drinks behind." In
this week of holidays and holiday parties, when Three Wise Men
can mean the Magi or the cocktail (a mix of Johnnie, Jack and
Jim), it is possible to embrace the philosophies of Jesus ("Do
unto others") and Jimmy Buffett, who sang, "Ho ho ho and a bottle
of rum/Santa's run off to the Caribbean/A week in the tropics and
he'll be all right/Sportin' a tan as he rides out of sight."
History, after all, is an endless elephant caravan, connecting
disparate people across time and cultures in ways that never
cease to surprise. And so we'd like to wish Happy Holidays--and
Happy Birthday--to Isaac Newton, Nellie Fox, Manny Trillo, Rickey
Henderson, Humphrey Bogart, Cab Calloway, Conrad Hilton, Larry
Csonka, Lefty Driesell, Shawn Andrews, Ken Stabler, Jesus and
Jimmy Buffett, all of whom were born on Christmas Day.
If that sounds like a kicker from The Twilight Zone, all the
better because Rod Serling was born on Christmas Day too.
So was Robert Ripley, believe it or not.
B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER
Christmas can connect disparate people across time and cultures
in ways you might never imagine.