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March 13, 2010

It’s getting hard to find athletes kids can admire


Somewhere in America as you read this, there’s a kid trying to hit a rubber ball with a broomstick and pretending to be someone else.

At least I hope the kid is doing that instead of playing a video game.

With the tremulous voice of an imaginary sportscaster providing descriptive commentary in the background, the youngster becomes one with a hero. Every swing results in a World Series-clinching home run in the bottom of the ninth in Game 7.

It has always been that way, of course.

Before I pretended I was Duke Snider of the Dodgers, and my best friend did the same with Mickey Mantle of the Yankees, a different generation of boys and girls envisioned they were Babe Ruth or Babe Didrikson Zaharias.

How many young basketball players _ all alone and dribbling a ball in front of a hoop in their driveway _ had thoughts like these:

“There he is, fans, Michael Jordan (or Larry Bird or Magic Johnson) ... only seconds on the clock, down by one point. He drives to his right, makes an impossible move to his left ... three ... two ... one ... he shoots!

“HE SCORES! Michael Jordan has done it again. The crowd is going wild!”

Of course, if the kid’s shot didn’t go through the driveway hoop, he had the pretend announcer say, “Wait! There was a foul on the play. Michael Jordan still has a chance to win the game. There he is at the line, cool as a cucumber ...”

When I was pretending to be Duke Snider, I had never heard of author F. Scott Fitzgerald, who said: “Show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” It was probably just as well.

Lately it hasn’t been terribly easy for kids to have heroes, to want to fantasize about being someone else.

Some recent examples from the headlines:

The New York Jets of the National Football League traded for a cornerback named Antonio Cromartie. Mr. Cromartie is in the last year of a five-year, $12 million contract, but he reportedly still needed a half-million- dollar advance on his contract from his new team.

That’s because the gentleman _ only 25 years old _ has fathered seven children by six women in five states, and what the young women apparently lacked in knowledge of birth control, they make up for in knowing all about paternity suits, of which there have been at least five.

I don’t think too many kids would like to be Antonio Cromartie, who has also had brushes with the law and has often been disciplined by his coaches. Neither, probably, would they want to emulate quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, despite his having led the Pittsburgh Steelers to two Super Bowl championships.

For the second time, Roethlisberger last week was accused of sexually assaulting a woman, this one a 20-year-old college student.

Maybe he’s innocent, as he claims, and maybe he’s not. What’s not in dispute is that the 28-yearold is a chowderhead.

Drinking in a bar with college girls 30 miles away from one of his residences isn’t terribly bright. Neither was refusing to wear a helmet while driving his motorcycle, a policy that almost got him killed in a nasty accident in 2006.

Nah, if you’re a kid, you don’t want to be Ben Roethlisberger, even if you could spell his last name.

Marion Jones’ name is much easier to spell, and for several years, she could run faster than any other woman on the planet. It wouldn’t be far fetched to think that a lot of girls running around a track during gym class might think that it must be great to be the multimillionaire track star. That, of course, was before Marion Jones was sentenced to six months in prison for lying to investigators about using performance-enhancing drugs and being part of a check-fraud scam.

Stripped of the five medals she won on steroids at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and reportedly broke, on Wednesday, Jones, now 34 and the mother of three, signed a $35,000 rookie contract play basketball for the publicity-starved WNBA Tulsa Shock.

Unfortunately, there are many more examples of athletes whose actions make them unworthy of a child’s adulation. To name just a few: Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Alan Iverson and Kobe Bryant.

My favorite number has always been 4. I’d ask for it on every Little League or recreation league team I ever played on. That’s because the subject of so many of my childhood “I’m Duke Snider” moments wore No. 4 when he played for the Dodgers.

Then, in 1995, Duke Snider pleaded guilty to federal tax fraud charges stemming from failing to report income from sports card shows and memorabilia sales.

I didn’t want to be Duke Snider anymore.

Still, I want to believe that there are many more good people _ Derek Jeter, Alonzo Mourning and Warrick Dunn spring to mind _ who play sports than there are nogoodniks. I want to believe that there are still athletic heroes more known for feats of glory than feet of clay.

I want to believe, but it’s far more important that somewhere in America as you read this, a kid swinging a broomstick at a rubber ball believes it, too.

SAM POLLAK is the editor of The Daily Star. He can be reached at spollak@thedailystar.com or at (607) 432-1000, ext. 208.