Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Cult of Personality?

Daytona ­ I was scared this past week.
I’m not usually somebody who’s afraid but I had plenty of fear last week when I heard two words: Geoffrey Bodine. Covering Speedweeks at Daytona I spent time with Geoffrey Bodine on both Tuesday and Thursday. He was gracious with his time, thoughtful with his answers and friendly not only to me, but also to everybody who walked by. Signing autographs, Bodine had a quick smile along with a studied countenance when dealing with the public. I saw Bodine after the Twin 125 race on Thursday. He knew his new team didn’t have enough car to get into the race on Sunday. Yet, he stood with his crew and his car during the post-race inspection giving encouragement, suggestions and answering questions from the media as a past champion of the Daytona 500.

On Friday when I heard of the crash at the track during the truck race I asked, “who’s involved.” That’s when I heard the words that scared me: “Geoffrey Bodine.” Now why should I have that feeling of fear in my stomach just because a guy I interviewed a couple of times last week was in a wreck doing what he’s paid to do? I don’t know the answer, but I was afraid. Afraid something terrible had happened to a driver I was secretly rooting for to do well, if only because of his panache in the garage area. I’ve talked with Geoffrey Bodine plenty of times during my 22 years of covering NASCAR. I know he wasn’t a NASCAR insider, and I also know he doesn’t know me from Adam. I also know I took another step in my education about the passion fans have for NASCAR.

A few years ago I was covering an autograph appearance by Harry Gant at a local mall. Neil Bonnett had been killed that day at Daytona and we were doing a follow-up story. The line was long to get Gant’s autograph, and a woman in line asked me what I was doing there. “I’m here to ask Harry about Neil Bonnett.” I replied. “Why, what’s going on with Neil?” she asked. Realizing she didn’t know, I whispered to her, “Neil was killed today in a wreck in Daytona.” With that, the woman trembled, fell to her knees and began sobbing uncontrollably. Her husband helped her off to the side and consoled her, and I apologized profusely to anyone who would listen. Perhaps Bonnett was a relative or a close friend. “It’s not your fault,” the husband calmly told me. “Neil’s been her favorite driver since he started,” he explained. That incident was another part of my continuing education.

Why is it fans of NASCAR become so attached to the drivers? Because they’re what fans identify with. Everybody at a race has an allegiance to Ford, Chevy or Pontiac. And they support the sponsors above their competitors. But it’s the drivers that make the sport. If Cal Ripken was traded, I’d be interested in seeing what he did on his new team, but I’d still be an Orioles fan. It’s not that way in NASCAR. When a driver changes cars (teams) he takes his fans with him. Nobody’s a fan of a car! Fans like a driver’s styles, his personality, his way of handling the car on the track. And they dislike other drivers with the same passion. Dale Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon polarize NASCAR fans more than any other drivers. “Anybody but Earnhardt,” and “Anybody but Gordon” are familiar rallying cries at tracks.

It’s the driver that counts. His name is emblazoned on hats and t-shirts, across the back windows of pick-up trucks and the windshield of cars. Fans dress like, talk like, and walk like their favorite driver. You don’t think Earnhardt drives a black car by accident do you? It’s a signal to his fans. We’re the intimidators, fear us! Jeff Gordon calls his team the Rainbow Warriors and the fans follow suit.

I don’t buy the non-fan theory about people only going to races to see the wrecks. Good driving, solid work in the garage and strategy on the track all make the competition exciting. Wrecks are spectacular, and even more so when followed by the words “how did he survive that!” Nobody sits and waits for a wreck, but they also don’t want to see a parade around the track either. Action is what made the sport and that’s what will keep its popularity growing. I’m glad Geoffrey Bodine wasn’t seriously hurt.
I won’t be afraid.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

When Tiger is on, most players are in the Woods

Good for Tiger
Good for Phil
.. and good for the game of golf.

Tiger Woods’ streak of winning consecutive golf tournaments is over. (Did you notice it went from winning 2 in a row, according to Tiger, to 6 in a row when the media decided that last year’s 4 straight also counted?) The streak brought a lot of attention to golf that it might not have gotten otherwise, and it brought to light how good players can be when they have their “A” game. Not just Tiger, but any of the top players in the world. Tiger is at a different level. No question about his ability, and he’s the best player in the world. But you can’t discount the talent, determination and ability of about 15 or so of the other top names in the game. Count David Duval, Davis Love, Fred Couples, Jose-Maria Olazabal, Ernie Els and even still Greg Norman plus a handful of other players in that top group.

For most players, a week where they have their “A” game going, means getting into contention, and maybe winning. For this group, it means dominating the competition, no matter who else is in the field, Tiger included. Look at Duval’s win at the Mercedes last year or Olazabal’s win at the World Series of Golf or Norman’s performance during his victory at the Players Championship. When these guys get going, nobody comes close. Tiger is at the top of the top, and has showed an ability to be in contention whenever he just makes the cut (which is why all tournaments should adopt the US open rule of all players within 10 shots of the lead make the cut after 36 holes). He’s great. The best of the best, but not enough credit is being given to the other top players out there.

In the final round of the Buick at San Diego, Woods admitted he wasn’t playing well, but still remained in contention. Why? He has a complete game. Dominating length. Solid short game, and confident putting.

“It’s disappointing the fact that I didn’t win,” Tiger said afterwards, ”but the positive thing is, you saw how poorly I played, to not hit the ball as good as I would like and not putt well the first couple of days, just to hang in there, chip and putt and just grind away at it and give myself a chance–I’m very proud of myself for that.”

When one part of his game deserts him, the others can pick up the slack. Not many other players can recover the way Tiger did yesterday, but the handful of top players can, and have done it. With Woods and Phil Mickelson tied after 13 holes, it was Woods who uncharacteristically made mistakes down the stretch while Mickelson hit the shot of the tournament, a 9 iron from 116 yards to 3 feet to set up a go-ahead birdie.

“Competing against the best player in the world and coming out on top means a lot to me,” Mickelson said. “The two things that I’m going to get from today are, one, the confidence that I can play against the best and I can win and, two, the next time I get a six- or seven-shot lead, I need to get tougher and try to make it eight, nine or 10.”

Woods is making other players better. Tougher competitors, stronger athletes. Duval’s off-season regimen was designed not to make him thinner, but to make him feel more athletic. He wants to have that churning in his stomach, the wobbly legs and the slight shake in his hands and know it’s from the pressure of competition, not from the fact that he’s out of gas. Rocco Mediate’s commitment to fitness is to allow him to compete against the likes of Tiger. Norman was the first player to emphasize physical fitness on the tour. Steve Elkington, Nick Price and others followed. Woods has sharpened the focus on the game, on what it takes to be truly great these days in the realm of big money, high-stakes, and global-spotlight professional sports. He’s the first, but he’s certainly not the last. Tiger is the beginning of a whole generation of good athletes who will choose golf or some other non-traditional national sport. Given a different upbringing, don’t you think Woods could be playing wide receiver in the NFL, or centerfield for some Major League Baseball team, or even one of the top mid-fielders on the US national Soccer team? He’s an athlete who chose golf, not a golfer who all of the sudden decided to be an athlete. Golf’s prize money has something to do with that. If it still was an afterthought in the sporting public’s mind with $20,000 purses, Woods might have been calling signals in this year’s Super Bowl. But the amount of money in the game is allowing top athletes to choose it as their sport. What Tiger’s doing now might seem unusual, but in 20 years’ we’ll see him as the vanguard of things to come.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A Real Fantasy

Orlando: — My arm hurts. My back aches. My shoulder is killing me. And I feel great.

Atlanta Braves fantasy camp last weekend in Orlando was just that, a fantasy, and a good one at that. With my friends Lex and Terry, Dream Weeks coordinator Norm Amster invited us to the Braves camp at the Disney Wide World of Sports complex.

Check in Wednesday night, a skill session and assessment on Thursday morning, a game in the afternoon, doubleheaders on Friday and Saturday, and a chance to play in the big stadium, home of the Braves in spring training on Sunday.

It’s a fantasy.

Get up every morning, go to the ballpark, sit at your locker, dress like a major leaguer, and go play baseball.


That’s it, nothing more but taking ground balls, working on your stance in the tunnels, in front of the mirror, playing catch and thinking, what if.

Our team was managed by former major leaguer Darrell Evans, who has a very pragmatic approach to hitting. See the ball, hit the ball. Use your top hand. Don’t over think it. Drive the ball at the guys who don’t field very well. Not up the middle where all the good fielders are, but around the corners on the infield and the outfield as well.

About half of our team had never played baseball before! Honest. And they played like it. But not one disparaging word was said about it. Plenty of effort, lots of hustle, and more fun than most anybody on the team has had in 20, (OK 30) years. The camp is about guys who used to play, and are looking for a chance to immerse themselves in it once again.

It’s also about 82 year-old Joe Phillips who was attending his first camp just to “see what was going on.”

It’s about Patty Canakaris, who played a little softball in her youth, but never had played baseball before. On the last day, in her last at bat, she singled down the right field line. The ball was promptly retrieved, and Patty has it as a life-long souvenir.

It’s about Joe Medlin and his brother, inseparable for the 5 days, playing on the same team, eating lunch together, and acting like brothers.

It’s about Bobby Conner, who said while he was playing he felt young again, but immediately after, just felt old.

Fantasy camps have been around since the early 80’s, starting with the Dodgers, and have spread through out the majors to nearly every team. Why is it baseball as a sport is able to pull this off? Nobody is flocking to football, basketball or hockey camps. They have their die-hards, but nothing like baseball. It gets in your blood and won’t go away.

Most guys played some kind of baseball when they were young. It’s a game that normal-sized people can play. And everybody has a memory, maybe just one of something they did on the field that made them a baseball player. Most are at camp trying to recapture that.

The smell of the leather, the feel of the grass, the sound of the wooden crack of the bat. Even when your arm hurts. And your back aches, and your shoulder is killing you.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The “Much Better Than Average But Not The Best Ever” Bowl

Atlanta: In our instant gratification society, we’re caught up in the science of the new. If it’s new, it must be better. Wrong. Enough already about Super bowl XXXIV being the best ever. Compelling, exciting, going down to the last play? No question.

Best ever?
Not close.

How can a game that had 2 missed field goals, a botched snap, a blocked field goal and a team in the red zone 5 straight times and come out without a touchdown be considered the best ever?

The final 18 minutes or so were very exciting. The Titans showed just how they like to play football. Physical, tough, grind it out, last man-standing football.
Not pretty, but effective.
They have heart.
The Ram’s have talent, heart, imagination
and a fun story.

But none of that makes it the best Super Bowl ever.

What about Super Bowl III, or even the “Blunder Bowl” Super Bowl V? Namath’s win over the Colts has its place in history, and Jim O’Brien’s kick to win the world championship for Baltimore had an exciting ending. Neither of those is new, so I guess they don’t qualify.

How about the Steelers/Cowboys 35-31 game where Jackie Smith dropped the winning pass in the end zone? Scott Norwood’s missed kick apparently doesn’t qualify because it was a miss. Try telling that to Giants fans.

Two years ago, John Elway’s first win was hailed as the best Super Bowl ever. Solid play from both the Broncos and Packers, two star quarterbacks performing on the big stage, a big offensive play to take the lead and a big defensive play to preserve it. That still qualifies as a candidate as the best Super Bowl ever.

If you want to include just NFL championship games, the ‘58 game between the Giants and Colts virtually has no peer. John Unitas marching the team down field for the tying score in regulation. Then doing the same in overtime.

Don’t be romanced by the last play, game ending on the one-yard line argument. That’s just where the Rams expected the game to end. That’s the play they gave Steve McNair and the Titans. It was up to Mike Jones and the safety to make the tackle, and Jones was up to the task. It was nice to see players making a play to decide a game instead of some player’s mistake putting one team over the top.

This game had too many mistakes, to many missed executions to be called the best ever. Very exciting, very compelling, but too many observers are caught up in the ‘if it’s happening now, it must be better’ syndrome.

Fun game to watch, a better-than-expected game than most predicted, but save the words ‘great’ and ‘best’ for the ones that deserve it.