The SPORTS PHILOSOPHER: Wrapping Up The Week That Was … by Brad Eastland

November 7, 2010
Share this story:

      Last week was one of those glorious, eerily kaleidoscopic, utterly magical weeks in Sports that comes along every so often, which is to say not too often, but just often enough to make you think.   And remember.

      Let’s start with the San Francisco Giants, as much to put them to bed for 2010 as anything else.   I know some of you must be weary of me writing about them by now.   I understand.   They’re my favorite team, not yours.   And I myself do need to enact some sort of closure with the Giants, and my lifelong emotional quest to get them a World Series championship.

The great Zenyatta falls a foot shy of Blame in the Breeders Cup Classic, to the shock and horror of millions…

The great Zenyatta falls a foot shy of Blame in the Breeders Cup Classic, to the shock and horror of millions…



      So briefly, then, here goes:

      What I want you to focus on regarding the Giants (for purposes of today’s lesson) is not Cody Ross’ folk-hero coronation, not Bruce Bochy’s frighteningly huge head, not Aubrey Huff’s laying down the 1st sacrifice bunt of his career with the season on the line, not Tim Lincecum proving he has nastier stuff than either Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, not their heartwarming collection of cast-offs and misfits and unwanted bearded rejects and not even the happy fact that they just won their 1st-ever World Series since moving to San Francisco 52 agonizing years ago.   Nope.   What I want to talk about is one man’s story of resurrection and redemption.

      Edgar Renteria.

      The Giants’ shortstop is 35 years old.   Not old for me, and probably not old for you, but in baseball 35 is old, especially if you’ve had the endless string of injuries Edgar has had.   On the one hand it doesn’t seem so long ago that the 22-year-old Edgar Renteria was winning the 1997 World Series for Florida with a line single up the middle off of Cleveland’s Charles Nagy, in the 11th inning of Game Seven.   But 13 years is an ice age in Sports, and after bouncing around from team to team and getting worse and worse in St. Louis, Boston, Atlanta, and Detroit, and then playing in only 70 or so injury-riddled games with the Giants this year, he is suddenly healthy, and suddenly, apparently, still as good as he ever was.   He fielded his position brilliantly in the World Series, hit over .400, and slammed a team-leading two home runs in the five games (after managing only three home runs during the entire regular season), including the epic series-clincher in Game Five off of Lee.   What a career comeback it was….

      America is a nation of comebacks.   You know who Edgar Renteria’s comeback reminds me of???

      Jerry Brown.

      Jerry Brown!   He’s back!   He’s weird, he’s rested, he’s back!!!

      You’ll pardon me if I take a break for a few seconds to let my laughter subside a bit.   This is the guy who was once so wacky they used to call him “Governor Moonbeam”.   This is the guy who used to waffle back and forth so amusingly on the issues that we used to call him “The Windshield Wiper”.   Remember?

      But who cares!   I say congratulations, Governor Again Brown.   And not congratulations because we’re both die-hard Democrats (I’m not), or because I voted for him (none of your damn business), but because Jerry virtually proves that old cliché about the resilience of the American spirit.   Since he left office in 1983 he has: gone to Japan to study Buddhism, hopped a plane to India to hang out with Mother Teresa, got elected mayor of Oakland, ran for President three times, and finally got married.   A pretty good life.   But his political stock and clout had lately slipped to near the bottom.   Yet now, in 2010, he is suddenly “Governor Again”, twice as old as he was in 1974 when at age 36 he became the youngest governor in California history.   Conversely, at 72-years-young, he is now the oldest governor in California history.

      Where else but America can a guy do something like become both the youngest and the oldest governor in the same state’s history?   Where else but California???

      What’s more, since his first two terms as governor were before California passed a law in 1990 limiting future governors to two terms, Jerry has a chance to become a 4-term governor in a state that only allows two terms.   Try to wrap your mind around that one.

      When Brown was in his 30s he was a fairly good-looking guy, handsome and dashing, California’s most eligible bachelor for sure.   And of course he once dated Linda Ronstadt.   But during the intervening three decades his looks have changed dramatically.   Over the years he has somehow managed to morph into a bizarre combination of a bald eagle, a shell-less turtle, a lizard, the Wizard of Oz, and Yoda.   Not so much bad looking as weird looking.

      But he’s still here.   And now he’s your governor.   Edgar Renteria is still here.   And he’s the reigning World Series MVP for the 2010 champions of the baseball world, the San Francisco Giants.   I’ll never get tired of saying that.   Has the world gone crazy? 

     I know that America is a nation of comebacks and 2nd chances.   But the sagas of Jerry and Edgar are still a lot for the human brain to digest.

      Speaking of digestion, how did the news the other day of Randy Moss’ firing taste while going down your throat?

      To me it tasted as sweet as milk washing down molasses cookies.  

      Moss is the greatest deep-downfield receiver in NFL history.   He is also the laziest, the loafing-est, most sullen, pouty, disrespectful foul-mouthed chronic malcontent in NFL history.   One can only dream about how great he could have been if he had a good and winning attitude, understood what the word “team” meant, treated the game with respect, and actually tried hard and ran hard on every play.

      America is a nation of malcontents.   You know what Randy Moss’ spoiled brat, disrespectful attitude reminds me of???

      Every parent who has ever tried to explain to their kids that their actions reflect directly on their parents.

      My son Rob is a great kid.   Truly.   He doesn’t need too much discipline, he’s respectful and polite, treats his elders with appropriate deference, ‘not a mean or rude bone in his body.   But like all kids he’s always asking “why?”   Why this Dad, why that Dad, why do you want me to do this, Dad, why can’t I do that, Dad, why why why blah blah blah.   Nine times out of ten I take the time and energy to explain things to him.  

      But once in awhile, if I’m tired or lazy or just overwhelmed, I tell him, “Because everything you say or do reflects on me.   And how I raised you.   And he knows I mean it.   Which usually quiets him.

      I don’t know a thing about Randy Moss’ parents or what his childhood was like.   But when I see Moss subject us all to the endless rants and raves and denunciations of his teammates, his coaches, and the fans, along with the profane tirades, the fake mooning of the opposing team after touchdowns, the way he often gives up when his team is losing, and the listless, loafing, lazy, astonishingly disrespectful way he runs about 50% of his routes downfield, that’s the first thing I think of….what are his parents thinking right now, about how this man-child of theirs comports himself?   Assuming they are good people, I feel genuinely sorry for them.

      I think Minnesota Vikings head man Brad Childress is a lousy coach, and he was criminally stupid to trade a 3rd-round draft pick to New England for Moss.   But I applaud him here and now for cutting him.   Good for you, Brad.   You are an inspiration to parents of unruly, disrespectful children everywhere.   (Now please, please go and coach your usual lousy game against my Bears next Sunday, okay?)

      And finally, the great Zenyatta ran in the Breeders Cup Classic last Saturday.   It was the final race of her brilliant, 20-race career.

      Zenyatta went into the race a perfect 19-for19.   Her furious late rallies and grim determination had made her the darling of horse racing fans across America.   And you may recall that she won last year’s Breeders Cup Classic.   The ‘Classic’ is the richest race in America (worth over $5 million), a mile-and-a-quarter test vs. a field annually chocked full of “Grade One” champions.   Male champions.

      Zenyatta is a mare.   A big, strong, strapping specimen of a mare, but a mare nonetheless.   Mares don’t usually beat colts.   They don’t usually even try.   So to win the Classic in ‘09 was incredible.   One of the greatest races I ever saw a female racehorse produce.

      But the idea of her winning the Classic twice was beyond incredible.   Beyond greatness.   Beyond the accepted scope and earthly limits of Legend itself.   So therein lay the question: Could she do it?

      She could have.

      But she didn’t.

      In one of the most incredible spectacles ever witnessed at Churchill Downs or any other American racetrack, Zenyatta dropped a staggering 22 lengths behind in the early going and then rallied like a runaway freight train down the stretch….only to lose for the first time in her life.   By ten inches.

      It was heartbreaking.   I watched the race at an off-track betting parlor adjacent to the Pomona Fairgrounds, and I saw grown men curse and spit and openly swear at a god that could allow such a thing to happen.   Personally, I felt violated.   I told the people I was with that I felt like I had just been ganged-raped by Arab terrorists.   Like her losing was the racing gods’ way of tendering a personal affront directly at me.   Y’see, just like the rest of America, I had been seduced by her too.  

      Jockey Mike Smith tried to take the blame.   He was lying.   He’s a classy guy.   But the Zenyatta camp has always trumpeted the message that this is a horse that runs her own race, settles into her own stride, doesn’t go any faster early than she wants to go early in a race because she knows what to do.   And they’re right.   That’s what she always does.   That’s why she’s always so far back early.   But this time she simply dropped too far back, on her own, and she was simply too slow settling into her stride.   Smith realized this and he did move her closer entering the backstretch, he pushed her far earlier than he normally would have, once he was sure she was into her rhythm.   But on this day she was a prisoner of her own lack of versatility, and had already mortgaged too much time and distance.   If only by ten inches.   Plus she wasn’t used to dirt being kicked in her face, having run almost exclusively on rubber and plastic, “synthetic” tracks.   Would she have gotten there if she hadn’t been hit in the face by dirt clods?   Probably.   Smith himself went through six pairs of goggles trying to peer through the thick sheets of dirt and dust being kicked back at them.   Poor confused Zenyatta had no goggles.

      Perhaps the blame should fall on Blame.   That’s the name of the horse who won the Classic, by the way.   Blame.   And thus we now have another one-word slang phrase to integrate into our pop culture.   Ninety years ago the great Man o’ War lost but one race, to a seemingly overmatched colt named—you won’t believe this—“Upset”.   And so, from then on, we sports fans and sports writers employ the term “upset” to describe the defeat of any great and powerful athlete or team by an inferior foe.   That was quite an “upset”, we wax lyrically.   And now we have a word for when one competitor breaks our collective heart by defeating a seemingly more noble and deserving champion.   Blame….

      Leading up to this race a lot of people (and even many sports writers, who should know better) were opining that if she were to win this year’s Classic maybe Zenyatta might then be considered the greatest horse of all time.   Which of course is nonsense.   Zenyatta is terrific all right, but she wouldn’t be any trouble to Secretariat, or Seattle Slew, or Cigar or Dr. Fager or Affirmed or Spectacular Bid, just to name a half dozen recent and truly all-time-great American horses.   I’m not sure she is even the greatest female horse I have ever seen; her lack of early speed limits her in any serious discussion of the truly best of the best.   When you drop that far back, you’re swimming upstream right from the start; like a batter stepping into the box with two strikes already against him.   I can think of at least a couple of old-time fillies right off the bat that would give her more than she wanted in a match race.

      But none of that is the point.

      Zenyatta is great.   She is no less great because she charts many lengths behind the greatest male champions of all time, or because she lost on Saturday, or because the Sports Philosopher can come up with a few female horses in history who she would have had a very hard time running down from so far behind.

      You know what Zenyatta’s greatness reminds me of?

      Zenyatta’s greatness reminds me of any great athlete who does things in a way no one else had ever done them, not quite that way, before.   Like the way you felt when you first saw Sandy Koufax throw a ball, or Jerry Rice catch one, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar lob in sky hook after sky hook, a shot so pure and efficient and unstoppable that you’d think that every NBA center would integrate it into his game but nobody else ever did because nobody else ever could.   That’s Zenyatta.   She commits racing suicide every time she runs, by falling way behind early, so drastically, comically far behind, putting herself at the mercy of the early pace, of racing luck, of traffic trouble, every racing expert knows that such confirmed, one-run, always-come-from-behind-ers are rarely consistent winners.   Because they give up so much control of a race by running it the same stubbornly inefficient, trouble-prone way.

      Yet Zenyatta fires every time.   Even in defeat.   She closes (or should I say closed) like a runaway freight train every….single….time.   She seduced this whole country, not so much because she was undefeated till last week, but because she fell back in the pack every time, put herself at a disadvantage every time, and still gave her very best every single time and always got the job done.   Even in defeat she had grown men yelling like mad for her to get there, men like me, cynical middle-aged men awed by her relentless, powerful stride which she brought to work with her every time out.   You think so many cynical grown men my age and older would have cheered so hard for her if she unleashed that stretch kick of hers, say, only half the time?   No way.

      That would be like cheering for, oh, I don’t know….let’s say for a football player who had great talent but only gave his best effort approximately half the time.  

      You know.

      Like Randy Moss.

meet….The Sports Philosopher!image002

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, undiscovered fictioneer, and lover of true greatness in all its forms—in no particular order.   Brad’s other recent columns for LaVerneOnline can be found in Sports under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.    Brad has also written 4 novels and over 20 short-stories.    Samples of his best fiction work can be discovered by clicking the fascinating links below:







Leave a Reply