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Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

20 Years

You might have seen on Channel 4 this week that I’m celebrating my 20th year at WJXT. It also marks the 20th year Tom Wills, Deborah Gianoulis, George Winterling and I have been the anchors at Channel 4, the longest running four person anchor team in television history.

There are many people to thank starting with my family for the sacrifices they’ve made, the management at the station and Post-Newsweek for creating an environment where we can flourish, and Tom, Deborah, and George for their professionalism and friendship over the years.

They’ve been running a couple of highlight clips of my career over the past 20 years on the air, and when I see them, there’s no wonder I think I have the best job in the world. Covering all kinds of fantastic competitions, from the Super Bowl to the World Series, The Masters and seemingly every other major sporting event in America, what’s not to like?

There have been exciting times, like when the city was awarded the Jaguars and the Super Bowl, the national championship seasons of the Gators and Seminoles, the great basketball runs by both schools and many others. And there have been difficult times as well, bringing news about sports figures who have lost their way, or tragically, lost their lives either in or outside of competition.

I’ve learned a lot from the people I’ve reported on and there is a common thread that runs through all of the successful people I’ve covered. They all have a desire to find out just how good they can be. They’re never really satisfied with their final effort, figuring out just how much better they could have been by tweaking this and refining that. They don’t compete against some rules in a book or against the other team, but rather against a standard of excellence they knows exists. They know what’s good and what’s not, and they don’t need somebody to tell them when they haven’t performed at their best.

And they’re passionate.

Passionate about what they do, about life, and about their own achievements. When you’re around people like that all the time, it inspires you. I know it inspires me every day to perform a little bit better, to try a little harder, to not come up with an excuse for why not, but rather to figure out a way to make things happen.

I’ve been honored to have breakfast with Muhammad Ali, lunch with Richard Petty, beers with Arnold Palmer and spend time with a whole myriad of other famous stars in and out of the sports world. I even had a chance to sing with Huey Lewis once at a post-concert party!

What has always impressed me isn’t their money, or fame, but when they’re nice. Without being schmaltzy, it’s true. And with most of the really successful, that’s the case. They’re talent is usually only outweighed by their kindness and understanding.

Outside of sports, easily the most exciting and interesting things I’ve done at Channel 4 are the stories on fighter pilots and other Navy aviators. To have the chance to fly with the Blue Angels, then go through enough training to be “back seat” rated in the FA-18, getting a trap and a launch off an aircraft carrier are things I can never match. Being a Navy town, Jacksonville has given me a chance to get to know the pilots, the surface warriors at Mayport and the submariners at King’s Bay. Any time I think I’m working hard, I only have to remember the things they’re asked to do, and it makes my job look like a snap. Commander Pat Rainey asking me to be the keynote speaker at his change of command ceremony remains one of the highlights of the last 20 years.

Most importantly, thanks to all of you. Doing this job in a vacuum would be no fun. Getting to share your joys and disappointments is a rare privilege, and I’m glad you’ve let me along for the ride.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

World Sport

I’ve been in London and Paris for the past week with my family, going through the regular tourist routine, seeing the sights. I spent every frequent flyer mile I’ve ever earned and if you have children, you know, as they get older the vacations better get exciting or they won’t want to go.

Anyway, the last time I was in Europe, I was surprised how little sports in the United States gets any play in the media. It’s still the same. The CNN Worldsport report is the best link to the sports world,and the occasionally available copy of USA Today or the International Herald Tribune (which devotes about a page and a half to sports) can keep you mildly updated about what’s going on at home.

If you think they’re wild about soccer in the rest of the world, you’re wrong. They’re absolutely bonkers about it. That’s what every newspaper (nine in London alone) trumpets in the headlines, that’s what every sportscast on television, regardless of the language, leads with.

A match between Bahrain and Bosnia? No problem, it’s the lead story, in Paris nonetheless. I like soccer; I like the rhythm of the game, and can see how they call it “The Beautiful Game”. But a steady diet of soccer is like rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner: eventually you’d like something else.

They do cover Formula One racing, cricket,(really) some tennis and golf, and even Cal Ripken’s retirement announcement got some play. But morning, noon and night, “football” is the “sport du jour”

The Europeans have an odd mix of thought regarding sports and sports celebrities. The tabloid papers will print anything and go to any extreme to get a suggestive picture, or some kind of dirt involving the sports stars. This seems to have numbed the sporting public into a “so what?” attitude. They’ll peruse the sports pages (usually beginning from the back page of the paper), chuckle at the foibles and move on.

There’s also a style of writing that has an assumption that you as the reader already know what’s going on and how it happened. You can’t find a recap of just about any game; they just jump into analysis, most screaming at the top of their lungs.

One of the problems is knowing what’s the truth and what people are making up. They’re not beyond that, so if you can’t cull out the truth, you’re behind the times.

I like to travel, to see how we fit in with the rest of the world, but give me some football.
Or baseball.
Or bass fishing.
Or something.
Soccer can wait.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Dad

My Dad throws like a catcher. Kind of a short stroke, not much follow through. I have been on the receiving end of his throws many times. Mostly baseballs, but footballs too, the occasional Frisbee or nerf ball, all thrown with that short stroke.

I’m lucky to have been on the receiving end of those throws.

After school and my paper route, I’d while away the time in the front yard, playing curb ball, throwing at the six short bushy pines that guarded the front of the house (Raymond Berry and Jimmy Orr were the two on the ends, John Mackey in the middle, Lenny Moore stood right next to the stairs, and other unidentifiable Colts filled out the rest).

Like a million other young boys, I was waiting for my Dad to come home from work. He’d drive up; the catcher’s mitt would already be laid out near where his car door would open.

I’d fire my best fastball and hear the occasional, “you’ve got to back up, you’re hurting my hand!” Which, of course, would make me throw all that much harder.

My Dad, in IBM issue white shirt and tie, dark pants and wingtips, caught my first curveball, saw my first failed attempt at a knuckler, and laughed at my imitations of Jim Palmer, Luis Tiant and Juan Marachal.

“Let me go see what you’re mother’s doing,” usually signaled the end of our session, but never before an encouraging “I think you’re going to win the Heisman,” or “you’ll take over when Brooks retires” was mentioned as he bounced up the front steps.

The youngest son of immigrant parents, my father and his brother were the only siblings born in the United States. My Grandfather stowed away numerous times on ships out of Greece before finding a suitable place to bring his family. Known as “Gleeka” (The Sweet One), he finally settled on Baltimore leaving behind a hard life in the Greek islands. By trade, he was a housepainter, a steeplejack, but actually, he spent his time making wine from wildflowers, growing figs and grapes in the small backyard of his row house in downtown Baltimore, playing double pinochle at the coffee house, and watching over the neighborhood, making sure other Greek immigrants had a place to stay and enough to eat while they got on their feet.

My father learned a lot of lessons from his dad early on. They didn’t speak English in the house, and everybody in the neighborhood was Greek. “Two eggs and a bacon,” was the extent of my grandfather’s English, although he never had any trouble communicating. When my father came home from school with a vocabulary test in the first grade, he had no idea what the words meant. “What should I do?” my grade school Dad asked. Rather than march to the school and demand he be taught in Greek or some other silly solution, my Grandfather (Popou in Greek) logically responded, “Learn English fast.” Understanding the power of an education, my father kept his nose to the grindstone (mostly) eventually graduating from Johns Hopkins using the GI bill.

I saw some of these things as a kid, but most I know from stories my Dad has told me. He’s the best storyteller I know. With a bent toward hyperbole, he takes poetic license, as all good storytellers do, but never deviates from the truth. Many times I’ve heard stories about my grandfather fighting the Turks and the Nazi’s. About the first time he met my mother (on an ice skating rink) and about the day I was born.

No matter how many times he tells me that one, it’s always with the same emotion, the same passion. How he and another guy were in the waiting room (long before they allowed husbands in delivery) and decided when their kids were born to go across the street to the “House of Welsh” to have a drink. But when the doctor called the other man to the corner of the room to say his son had died at birth, those plans faded away. And how he decided to name me after himself, (my mother’s idea) and not after his father (his dad’s idea.) And how it was one of the four best days of his life (I have two sisters and a brother.) I never really understood that story until I had children of my own, and now the passion and emotion he tells it with makes complete sense to me.

My father has never been rich, yet he says he’s the wealthiest man in the world. “I have four great children who have never given me a day’s trouble,” is his answer when asked how successful he’s been.

I had a friend who once said to me “you Greeks have the weirdest combination of machismo and sensitivity in the whole world.” That about describes my Dad perfectly. He’s ready to fight if necessary, but is much more interested in compromise. I’ve seen my Dad cry, but not often, and I’ve seen him pretty angry, but not often.

I’m lucky to have witnessed so much of this with my father. Some of my friends never knew their Dads; other’s lost them when they were young. I’ve had a relationship with my Dad as a kid, and as an adult. His business advice has been sage, his personal words wise. Like most men of his generation, he doesn’t like the modern-day ball player, and doesn’t see much on television that appeals to him, except on The History Channel. I told him the best invention ever for him was the remote. “Now if I don’t like it,” he beams, “I just change it.”

“As I got older, somehow my father got smarter,” my Dad used to tell me through a laugh.

You know what Dad?

I think you’re a genius.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Owners Profits

It must be the biggest secret since we cracked the Nazi code in WWII. NFL owners and administrators were aghast when their profit and loss statements were made public, a product of Al Davis’ suit against the league. “We’re not making that kind of money,” they collectively screamed from offices mostly paid for by the cities they’re in and the fans who support them. “It’s a complicated accounting process,” they yelled.

Of course it is.

When you have money being thrown at you from so many different directions, you need a fleet of full-time accountants to keep track of it. From club seats to concession, parking, sky suites and television money, not to speak of the average ticket going above $50 dollars, the accounting takes a while.

Actually, there’s nothing the matter with making money. The NFL is not a charitable endeavor. The owners didn’t get involved as owners to lose money, and they shouldn’t. They should make money. They’re taking the risk, they’re running the operation, they’re coming up with the short and long range plans, so making money is part of the equation.

When the Jaguars were just a twinkle in Wayne Weaver’s eye, he knew they wouldn’t turn an actual profit until eight years of operation. Certainly they started in debt, as any $140 million outlay will do to most people, but they’ve been recouping the initial cost at a breakneck pace and will move into the black.

The difference between owners who have a profit and owners who are losing money could be creative accounting, or it could be good business acumen vs. bad. In most cases it’s a better stadium deal, more club seats and more sky boxes. The way the NFL counts their money, the club seats and sky boxes only count for the owner who operates in that stadium. They don’t count in the overall picture. The more club seats and sky suites, the more money directly to the bottom line. The better the stadium deal, the better opportunity to make money.

Paying players less money is not part of the deal. A little know byproduct of the salary cap is the salary floor. The percentage of revenue that’s allocated to the players has a maximum, this year totaling just under $64 million. The owners have to pay a minimum to their 53 players on the roster, about 3 percentage points less than the maximum. This keeps some rogue owner from stripping his team to the bare bones and hoarding the money. It’s supposed to keep some parity in the league and keep it competitive.

The television money guarantees that every team can make money. Before even one seat is sold, one beer poured, one T-shirt sold or one car parked, each team gets over $70 million from the television contract. Take the players salaries out of that and factor in an operating cost, and you can see where the league is set up to make money. Sweetheart stadium deals, higher concession prices and lucrative parking contracts will have an effect on every owners bottom line.

The fans are willing to pay for a quality product, if they believe the owner is trying to win. In fact, in it’s current cycle, the NFL almost ensures that if a team is just slightly better than .500, they look competitive. Doubling the cost of a sky suite in 5 years puts a burden on corporations, but they can make a decision on their client entertainment budget and their tax write off status. The owners are pushing the envelope with the everyday fan though.

As the seat prices go up, and the concession prices squeeze their last disposable dollar, fans will only ask; How much is enough?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Mom

Stories about how Moms have influenced careers, made great athletes what they are, and pushed through adversity are plentiful. That’s the story about my Mom too. We didn’t grow up poor, but we weren’t close to rich either. (I never heard any discussions about money when I was a kid, but I did think liver was steak until I was 18.)

My Mother is the toughest, kindest person I know, all at the same time. The oldest of four children, her Father died when she was 17. The charge of helping out with her sister and brothers fell to her. She’s raised four children, prodded and cajoled and put all of us through college, saved three people from drowning once at a North Carolina beach while on vacation, stayed married to my Father for 49 years, and beat cancer. All while working with Special Ed kids, helping out charities and being the best cook on earth.

Pretty good huh?

Of course, she’s my Mom, so I think she’s perfect. Well, most of the time I think she’s perfect.

Who else in your life knows most of your secrets, even if you haven’t told them? Who else lets you make mistakes hoping you’ll learn from them, and praying you won’t get hurt while it happens? Who else made things easy for you, and you didn’t even know it. You just thought you were brilliant.

And your Mom let you feel that way. Because she’s your Mom.

My Mom has the most famous Mom-isms of all time. Ones you’ve heard. “We’re not air conditioning the entire neighborhood,” she’s said to me a million times as she closed the door behind me.

“Go outside and play. Don’t come back ’till it’s dark,” I heard daily after I finished my paper route.

“No bouncing the ball in the house. Do it in the basement if you can’t go outside,” was a regular staple during basketball season.

My favorite of all time though is, “when you have children of your own, I hope they jump on your couch, a lot.” I usually heard that one while practicing some trampoline routine in the living room.

Most of the Mom-isms came from the kitchen while I was somewhere else in the house. How did she know what I was doing? Eyes in the back of her head? Probably. (although when I was nine I looked and didn’t find any.)

My Mom, like a lot of moms, spent a good part of her time finding my various uniforms and driving me around. Some sports practice, a band practice, a speech competition, and even my first date to the Jr. High dance.

“Buckle up,” was a common refrain well before seat belts were even part of our collective consciousness.

When I was in High School, my Mom never discouraged me from anything I wanted to do. In college, she told me to finish. When I did she said “eventually you’ll end this Bohemian lifestyle (I was a bartender) and get on with your life.” (Bohemian? Who uses Bohemian in a sentence not including the words “Queen” or “Rhapsody?”)

I drove a school bus for a while at my Mom’s suggestion while trying to get into broadcasting. “Stay active, something good will happen,” was her sage advice, “and don’t mope, count your blessings!”

I’ve looked to her for inspiration during my career, drawing it from some of our most general conversations. “You’re most creative when nothing’s going on,” she told me one night when I had no idea what I’d put in the 11 o’clock news.

She’s kept me close to my faith, reminding me it’s a foundation for life. She’s kept an oral history of our family going, explaining who my Aunt Annie Brannan was and what kind of job my Uncle Will had (he was a carnival barker. Really).

I tell groups I speak to that all of the good things about me, I got from my Mom, the rest I acquired myself. That usually gets a laugh, but I know it’s the truth.

I’ve always thought my mother has beauty that rivals anybody. Not just anybody’s mom, but anybody.

I’ve never had any problem telling my Mom I love her. It’s always been easy. But on this Mother’s Day I wanted to say something I haven’t said enough.

Thanks

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Fight Game!

Boxing has always been considered shady. Promoters are depicted in the movies wearing heavy pinstriped suits, black shirts, white ties and fedoras. The reason they’re portrayed that way, is because it’s not that far from the truth.

Boxing is shady. Even at the highest levels there’s infighting, back-biting, double-dealing and outright theft.

I can remember Muhammad Ali telling me he was really hoping his next fight would actually happen. I looked at him like he was crazy! He said, “No, really, I hope it does.” And this was a fight scheduled against Leon Spinks! A heavyweight title fight! Not some run of the mill fight, a chance for Ali to regain the title. Big money, big publicity, and Ali is actually worried about the fight happening. “Too many cooks in the kitchen,” the soon-to-be-champ-again said.

There is a lot of money at stake in a heavyweight championship bout, and everybody wants a piece of it. There are a lot of hangers-on. An “entourage” is how a fighter’s camp is described. Some have legitimate jobs, others are looking for the bucks that might spill over the top. That’s why when a fighter ascends to the Heavyweight Championship, he’s judged on how he handles it while he’s there, not necessarily how he got there.

There’s much more to being the Heavyweight Champ than just being the toughest guy in the ring. It is a moniker that denotes greatness. Social status, political influence. A model of athletic ability, toughness, and guile. At least that what you hope the Heavyweight Champ carries with him.

This is the division of the greats: John L. Sullivan, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Jack Dempsey, Ali, Larry Holmes and yes, Mike Tyson. It is also the division of one-fight wonders like Primo Carnera, Pinklon Thomas, Buster Douglas. Michael Moorer.

I’m always curious how a guy will react when he wins the championship. The greats act like it is a pre-ordained mission in life. They’re supposed to be the Heavyweight Champion of the World. Others, like Moorer, have no idea how to act. When Moorer won the title, he grabbed the three belts in the next day press conference, stood up and shouted “now I’m the @#%&*’ing man!” (He subsequently was smacked down by a gracious George Forman)

Louis fought just about everybody, spawning the “Bum of the Month” name for his opponents. Marciano is the only champ to retire undefeated. Ali showed how a black man in American could be a force for social change. Holmes (the Holmes who was the legitimate champ, not the current blockhead who keeps fighting for some unknown reason) showed how to grind away to keep the title. Tyson brought true fear and violence to the ring and early on had a reverence for the game itself and its history.

I was trying to fit Lennox Lewis into a category but couldn’t come up with one. A natural heavyweight, Lewis is a big man, 6’5″ and fighting most effectively at 235 lbs. He has a cautionary manner in the ring and a big right hand. Both make him dangerous. He’s smart and his British accent puts a touch of style on his personality. Thoughtful and genuinely pleasant, Lewis was the perfect heavyweight champ. That’s what’s so disappointing about his recent fifth round knockout loss to Hasim Rahman. It’s not that he got beat, but rather how casually he too the role as Heavyweight Champion of the World!

I guess beating Evander Holyfield, David Tua, Michael Grant and others with ease makes you feel invincible. Showing up a mere 12 days before the fight in South Africa, Lewis showed a disrespect for the sport itself and now must pay a big price. The loss probably cost him $100 million, but perhaps as, or more importantly, history will no longer judge Lewis on his reign as Heavyweight Champ, but rather he’ll be defined by the two knockout losses he’s suffered. (Oliver McCall KO’d Lewis in the second round in 1994)

How could he do that?

How could he throw away his place in history with such utter disregard? Believe it or not the fighter in the last 20 years who had the best chance to really fulfill the role of Heavyweight Champ is Tyson. Training with Cus D’Mato and Jimmy Jacobs, Tyson constantly reviewed tapes of old championship fights and eventually amassed the largest library of fight films in the world. He respected the game and it’s history. He learned from the mistakes of the past. Then he fell off the edge of the world, into an abyss of the dark side of the game.

I saw Rahman on late night television the other night and he seemed like a good guy. Not the presence you want in the Heavyweight Champ, but perhaps we can’t have that anymore. His only sin is he’s not Ali, or Marciano or Louis.

Too bad.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Guatemala Fantasy

I grew up a city kid. Concrete sidewalks, asphalt streets, a few ball fields around, but mostly houses, apartments, cars and buses. We did have a big field next to the house where they eventually built apartments. I made a lot of mischief there, all kid stuff.

There was a stream running through my neighborhood. Or maybe you’d call it a brook, or a trickle, because that’s what it did. Tadpoles were the staple of the trickle.

I never saw a fish.

Some kids grow up with a cane pole and a cork in their hands. My hands were full of baseball bats, my afternoon newspaper route and Nancy Alvarez’s phone number (who lived five houses away and occupied my mind until I was 13).

My parents grew up city kids as well. My dad took me fishing a couple of times. We lived in Florida for a year and went to the Indian River. Once on vacation at my Aunt Linda’s in Houston, my Uncle Tony took us on a charter boat in the Gulf. (Actually my Uncle Tony went to the second deck of the boat, climbed under a bench and fell asleep while the deck was pitching three feet. Something about his Greek heritage.) We caught a bunch of fish off the oil rigs, I remember.

Fishing was not part of my life. I’ve tried to make up for that over the years. I love to bass fish, flounder fish, fish in the intracoastal. fish off –shore, it’s all appealing to me. Occasionally I’ll take what sounds like an exotic trip, just to fish. Sometimes out of state, sometimes, out of the country. Which brings me to the last five days in Guatemala.

My long time friend Denny, who is the best fisherman I know, invited me on this trip last fall. It certainly sounded exotic, and a little scary.

Guatemala?

Yes, Guatemala, where perhaps the best big game fishing in the world is now located. A two hour flight from Miami to Guatemala City and an hour and half van ride to the Pacific Coast put us at the Fins ‘n Feathers fishing lodge. If you’re wondering what Guatemala is like, my friend Chester said as we turned down another dirt road in the dark, “if I hadn’t been here before, this is when I’d start to get scared.”

Armed guards opening the gates gave me a perplexing feeling: I think I’m glad they’re here, but why? Inside those gates was a self-contained oasis of fishing nirvana.

Two bedroom cottages (with great AC) surrounding a common open air eating area, bar, swimming pool, and recreation area, all 50 feet from the boats moored in the marina. Up at six, on the water by seven, and heading out into the Pacific looking for sailfish and marlin.

Last year on this trip, Denny and three friends set the world record for catch and release of sailfish , capturing 76 in one day! I know guys who have fished their whole lives and haven’t seen 76 sailfish.

There were sixteen guys on this trip, all friends of Denny’s, so the compatibility factor was high. Even guys you didn’t know, you figured if they were friends of Denny’s they knew the drill. (no jerks allowed) My roommate Rick and I laughed so hard so many times about things we didn’t know we had in common I can’t even begin to count them.

Drawing for teams, with a small wager involved each day made it a little more sporting, but just being there was a hoot. I probably ate too much, drank too much and was too loud more than once, which means I was probably enjoying myself.

Between the four boats and the sixteen “anglers” (using the term loosely) we brought in about 90 sailfish and untold numbers of Dorado (dolphin). The Dorado is one of the most beautiful fish in the ocean. Brilliant gold, blue and green, fast and aggressive, a Dorado flashing underwater, the sun glinting off its sides brings a gasp of “wow” from most fishermen. The sails were all released, no worse for wear, and a few of the Dorado ended up as lunch or dinner or snacks, or all three.

I kept saying in my mind, “what am I doing in Guatemala?” I found the answer when I hooked a 100+ lb. sailfish Monday morning. Straining to hold onto the rod, feeling the power on the other end and seeing the line out 50 yards or more with a fish dancing on the water isn’t something a city kid dreams about.

But he will now.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Anti-Fan

Everything about sports has evolved into something bigger in the past 20 years. Bigger games, bigger coverage, even the players are bigger. There’s also bigger hatred among fans. Part of that is because the stakes are higher. More money, more glory, more hype. It’s no longer sufficient to win. Fans, taking their cue from players, want their opponent to lose, and lose big. The “thrill of victory” is only a real thrill now when augmented by some trash-talking, debasing of the other team.

Part of that comes from street culture infusing itself into the mainstream. T-Shirts that spout egomaniacal saying abound. “Second is the first loser” is the rallying cry for all who see an event as only about me, me and me.

The barbs that fly during the course of competition were usually left on the field. They were part of the competition itself, not based in reality, but rather part of the ”fantasy world” athletes can create in their mind to help perform at a high level. Some need it, some don’t. The ones who need it have taken it off the field, and made it a part of the pre- and post-game ritual. Its not enough to score a touchdown, I now need some kind of signature “dance” so I’ll get more time on Sportscenter.

The media has brought it to the public, making it an acceptable part of sports and sports coverage. Fans have picked up on this, trash-talking their rivals, even when they’re not your opponents. Many fans now take as much pleasure in seeing their rivals lose as they do in their own team winning.

That makes no sense.

Who cares what your rival is doing? Why are you paying attention to them anyway, unless they have something you don’t?

Why is “you lose” more important than “I win?”

I never considered my opponents during a competition. They were just an obstacle to be vanquished, somebody in the way of victory. Who cares what they thought before or afterwards? The feeling of victory was enough. If we didn’t win, we walked away with the resolved to play better next time. But it’s not enough just to win anymore. You have to beat on your opponent. Humiliate them.

How quaint you might be thinking. Sam wants us to go back to that “old college try.” Shake hands, get ‘em next time.

I understand team loyalty. Living and dying with every play, every pitch, every missed shot. People who revel in somebody else’s misery don’t belong in sports.

Politics might be a better place for them.

In sports, it’s about winning. Not losing.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

John Steadman: Gentle man, Writer

It was pretty heady stuff being a sports fan in Baltimore in the late ’50’s through the ‘60’s and early 70’s. The arrival of major league franchises in football, baseball and basketball gave a port town built on immigration and industry a new identity. The Orioles, Colts and Bullets were part of the fabric of daily life.

Teams’ association with their cities was very tight. No one thought of the owners as anybody but great guys in town, part of the community, all pulling in the same direction. Television wasn’t much of a factoring sports coverage, still blossoming itself with three channels and no remote. The newspaper was a sports fan’s lifeblood. The game summaries, the standings, the agate type statistics all brought far away contests to life. The sports columnist explained it all, knew your heroes first hand, hung out with them, ate with them, drank with them, shared their pain and their triumphs and let you know how it felt to be there.

John Steadman was the Baltimore sportswriter in those times. Actually John Steadman was the Baltimore sports writer for all times. Steadman died in Baltimore on January 1st after a long battle with a rare form of cancer. He was 73.

I bring this up now because he was in my thoughts most of the day during the championship games between New York and Minnesota and Baltimore and Oakland. How fitting, I thought, if it’s another New York/Baltimore Super Bowl. John Steadman would have liked that. He wrote the history of the Colts/Giants championship game in ’58. “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” it’s called.

He never missed a game where a professional football team from Baltimore was playing. Never. Really. Since the Colts became the Colts in the ‘50’s, Steadman saw every football game the Colts, and now the Ravens ever played. In person, home and away. He never kept a running tally, never referred to it as “The Streak” or anything like that (719 in a row by the way). Exhibition, regular season, post-season, championship games, Super Bowls, John Steadman was there.

Growing up in a working class neighborhood in Baltimore, John Steadman’s brother, Thom, lived three houses away from us. That made us some kind of celebrities. I mean, his brother lived around the corner, and that meant John Steadman had to visit sometime, right? His nephew was a boyhood playmate of mine. I might see him, right? All of this fuss over a sportswriter you ask?

Being a sportswriter then meant something very different than it does now. A local sportswriter was just that, somebody who was local. They grew up in your town. They went to high school somewhere down the street. They had the same frame of reference as you. You’d see them in church, or at the store. They were part of your town, understanding the ups and downs. Not just a disembodied voice, but rather, somebody real.

There were two papers in Baltimore when I was growing up. The Sun, where my Uncle Angelo worked as a graphic artist, and the News-American, where John Steadman was the columnist. The News-American more closely reflected our lifestyle, but we took the Sun, probably out of deference to my Uncle. In fact, I even had a Sunpapers route. Delivering the paper from my bike in the afternoons and from the back of the family station wagon on Sunday mornings.

But I read John Steadman.

Somehow.

I was too young then, didn’t really know anything about anything, except I wanted to be either John Unitas or Brooks Robinson, but I knew, somehow about John Steadman, Baltimore’s conscience. Somebody who didn’t just write about the game, but rather about the people who played them and what they meant to us.

In journalism, there are a lot of hard-bitten people, cynical by nature, caustic and sometimes just generally mean spirited. Steadman was the exact opposite. Gracious, unfailingly polite and well dressed, call him a throwback if you will, Steadman had a passion for people. And that’s what separated his writing from all the others. Not his analysis of the x’s and o’s. Not his questioning of a manager’s pitching move, but rather his insight on why. He favored the underdog and was willing to take an unpopular stand.

I saw John Steadman a lot when covering events around the country. At our first meeting, I introduced myself, said I was from Baltimore and enjoyed his work. From then on, John Steadman called me by name and always introduced me as “a Baltimore boy” to whomever he was with. When Jacksonville was awarded an NFL franchise, Steadman gave me some insight about how Baltimoreans were taking it. “not very well,” according to a man who knew. I once saw him present long-time Baltimore sportscaster Vince Bagli to the authorities at Augusta National, saying Vince needed a credential. Nobody does that! Steadman did, it was the fair thing to do, according to the fairest writer in the land.

One of the things about my job that I never considered when I got into this business is the relationship with other journalists. Writers and broadcasters, veterans and rookies, all bringing a different perspective to the table. I also never considered the chance I might have to sit, side-by-side with legends, like John Steadman and talk with them, watch them work and learn something. And I never considered the chance I’d have to tell them publicly what a profound impact they had on my career, and in turn my life.

I had that chance last year at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee meeting. All I said was “it’s rare you have a chance to tell somebody, publicly, what they’ve done for you and they don’t even know it. I’m what I am today because of John Steadman. I grew up in Baltimore, reading John Steadman, and that’s one of the reasons I chose this profession. You made it seem fun, and important at the same time. So, thanks John.”

And I sat down.

Crying.

Steadman was very sick at the time, but was excited about a new chance at treatment he was getting in the coming weeks. Excited and somewhat embarrassed because he was getting a chance to see some world famous doctor only because of his “celebrity.” Which he thought was silly. When the meeting ended, one-by-one, the selectors made their way to Steadman’s side of the room to shake hands, knowing it would probably, for many of them, be the last time. John knew it too. But he never wavered, listened intently as if it was the most important thing ever said to him. I shook his hand and tried to speak, but all I could get out was “I meant it.” He leaned over, nodded and smiled and patted me on the back.

So, thanks John.

To read more about John Steadman’s career in journalism go to www.baltimoresun.com/archive/ and type in “Steadman” in the search box. Tributes to Steadman and some of his writing can be found there.

Here is the info you need to make donations to
The John F. Steadman Scholarship scholarship fund:

Checks made payable to:
The Trustees of the Baltimore City College Scholarship Funds, Inc.

Forward to:
The John F. Steadman Scholarship
The Trustees of the Baltimore City College Scholarship Funds, Inc.
C/O William Dunbar, President of the Trustees
801 Quincy Road
Towson, MD 21286

Note on your check that the contribution is intended for “The John F. Steadman Scholarship.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Resolutions

I hope you’ve already made some meaningfull resolutions for 2001. Be a better parent, do more for charity, get your priorities straight, stuff like that. I read the other day that most people who accomplish goals over a defined period of time have their goals written down and in a consipicuous place where they can be remined of them daily. That’s a good idea. You don’t have to write down the usual, lose weight, keep my desk cleaner, stop snoring, etc.

Sportswise, I’d like to see just a couple of things in the coming year.

I wish people going to games would resolve to enjoy themselves a little more, don’t be so miserable if things don’t go your way, and stop the foul language in public. Screaming “You suck, because you suck” doesn’t make you cool or more attractive to the women in attendance. It just makes you look stupid. I really like it when people get into the game, but come with some ammunition, not just some profanity laced tirade aimed at nobody inparticular just because you had a bad day at work.

Go to the games to see what’s going to happen. Enjoy everything about being there. The atmosphere, your friends and family in attendance, the competition on the field. It’s a little disheartening to see people miserable at games where they paid over $100 to be there (beer included).

I also hope that people start to treat the self-serving displays on the field by many athletes with the disdain they deserve. The next time somebody dances around like a primitive for making a routine play, people should laugh. Literally. Just laugh out loud at the idiotic “me, me, me” mentality displayed. If we start laughing at these guys, maybe they’ll get the message.

Have a Happy New Year!

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Locker Room Interviews

Sometimes I leave a locker room pretty happy with what was said about the team or the upcoming opponent. Sometimes the comments are so cliché ridden it’s amusing. That’s why some athletes are known as media “go-to guys” and others aren’t seen or quoted in the media so often. Just like in any group of people, some are smarter than others, some speak more eloquently than others, some welcome the spotlight, while others shun it.

You can always tell when a team has been “coached” by the staff on what to say to the media. Anytime you ask four or five players a similar question and they come up with the same phrase like, “they’ll try to control the line of scrimmage” you know the coaching staff has used that phrase over and over in their meetings. Some coaches put a muzzle on their players. Jim Fassel of the Giants hasn’t let his team speak in anything but generalities since the middle of November.

Some players close themselves out from the media completely. I’ve always thought that was irresponsible. Aaron Beasley decided early in his career he didn’t like being criticized in print. He stopped talking to the media for a while, but since has relented and is a very good and thoughtful interview.

Part of being a professional athlete is dealing with the public, including the media. If you think a writer has been unfair, close him out. Steve Spurrier did that with Larry Guest of the Orlando Sentinel for years. And he was probably right. Guest wrote what Spurrier thought were unfair and untrue things about the program, so he stopped answering his questions, just ignoring him like he was invisible. One time he even said, “you know I don’t answer your questions,” looked up and said, “anybody else?” I don’t have a problem with that. If you ask a fair and honest question, you usually get the same kind of answer.

Usually.

Some players and coaches don’t mind lying to the media and others are using it for their own personal gain. Some even turn it into a game. John Jurkovic used to “hold court” near his locker, spewing all kinds of sayings and platitudes, turning the interview into a show. That’s okay. John was friendly and honest and was thinking ahead a little bit to a possible career after football.

Some players have an interview schedule. Did you know Mark Brunell only talks to the media on Wednesday? Clyde Simmons had the same rule. That’s fine too. Everybody knows what the rule is and abides by it. Whatever reasons the player has for it don’t have to be justified by anybody. You’re talking Wednesday? Good, I’ll be there.

Jimmy Smith admitted he ran from the media after the AFC Championship game last year. He was gone by the time the locker room was open. “I just couldn’t face it,” said the Pro Bowl wide receiver. He wasn’t alone. The post-game locker room was nearly empty by the time it was opened to the media. I think that’s fairly lame. Reporters who cover the team regularly know the players as people too and are generally wise about how to ask a question after a loss. The national media is a little more savage, but a cold look in the eye to an unknown reporter after a stupid question usually sets the ground rules.

When Kevin Carter was at Florida, he was a great “go to guy” in the Gator locker room. (the Gators locker room is now closed and they bring the players out to be interviewed. I also think this is lame. There’s no uniqueness to sticking a microphone in front of a guy’s face as part of a mob scene) Auburn beat Florida in Gainesville, and I approached Carter in the post-game locker room for a comment. He kept his back to me and mumbled into his locker, “I’m not talkin’.” “What,” I exclaimed. “I’m not talkin’,” he repeated. “Oh, I guess you only talk when you win,” I snidely replied. (remember, this was during my young and stupid phase) Carter turned and stared a hole through me, but I didn’t budge. Actually I thought he might hit me. He relented and answered a couple of questions. I went about the rest of the locker room, gathering information, and eventually, alone, made my way back to Carter’s locker. I told him how much I appreciated his talking with us, and how as he moved on to a professional career, he didn’t want to get a reputation as a guy who only talked when things were good. Nobody respects that. He nodded a couple of times, and I left. Maybe it sunk in, maybe not.

My Hall of Fame of interviewees is probably just like anybody else’s. Joe Namath, Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Richard Petty and Arnold Palmer. All knew the media had a job to do, some were more entertaining than others, but all understood how to portray or promote themselves through the media. Jordan was the greatest post-game locker room interview ever. You had to wait until he was dressed (impeccably) then he would answer any and all questions without exception. When the questions stopped, he would ask, “everybody got what they need?” look around the room, then slip out the back door. Namath was always honest, Petty and Palmer patient and polite without fail.

Gary Player adopted the habit of knowing a reporter’s name, and using it during the interview. That usually makes for good press.

The day of the outburst, the bulletin board material is probably gone with a few exceptions. Coaches warn players about the “evils” of the media. Players see their comments on the cable highlight shows. With the exception of Andre Rison, nobody’s been really outrageous in the Jaguars locker room.

No Richard Todd stuffing a reporter in a locker.

No Ryan Leaf having a temper tantrum.

Tom Coughlin has yelled at me a couple of times, outside of the press conference. He didn’t like a couple of my questions.

That’s okay. He’s doing his job.

I’m doing mine.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Thanksgiving

Boy, to I have a lot to be thankful for.

A wife who has tolerated me for more than 20 years, three beautiful children who are wonderful people, parents whose counsel I still seek, friends I can count on, and a career that is more fulfilling each day.

Thanksgiving is usually a work day for me. It’s a preview Thursday for a big college football game, something’s going on with the NFL, it’s part of the television rating period and it just seemed natural to be “on the air” that day.

Today I’m at home for the first time in 23 years. I’ll watch some football, have some friends over, eat a traditional meal, and spend time with my family. And there will be a little part of me wondering what’s going on at work. And I’m thankful for that.

Thankful that after 23 years of sports reporting I am still glad to go to work everyday. Glad that I am inspired by the very act of doing my job. Everyday, no matter whether I’m anchoring the sportscast, hosting a show, or reporting from the field, I report on people who are striving to be the best they can be. They’re measuring themselves against a standard of excellence that they know is out there, but can’t quantify. Kids, college players, professional athletes, Olympians, all have a common thread. They’re putting themselves on the line, testing themselves, and it inspires me to do the same. Stretch my capabilities, look for a way to be better in every situation.

Sometimes Thanksgiving is just another day for sports fans to sit in front of the TV and watch football. It is the perfect situation for that, but we should also reflect on the things that we are thankful for, even in a superficial way. The competition we watch. The school and teams we root for, even the opponents. Would it really be any fun for Florida or Florida State fans if one team was horrible, always?

There are a lot of things wrong with the sports world, but there are a lot of things right about it, and I’m thankful for that. The good work Leon Searcy does over the holidays for the community, the hospital visits Mark Brunell makes, the quiet encouragement Steve Spurrier and Bobby Bowden give to those who need it. I know a lot of bad guys in sports, but I know an awful lot of good ones too.

They’ve made me a better person.

They should make you better too.

Boy, do I have a lot to be thankful for.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Wanted: Blonde Bombshell

I get to spend a lot of time on the sidelines at football games. High School, College and NFL games have their own special appeal. The NFL now limits the number of people on the field, keeping most reporters off the sidelines. They don’t like the clutter. They want a clean look. College sidelines are usually buzzing. Lots of action, lots of passion. Many of the people charged with the duty of covering the game and reporting on it have an allegiance to one school or another. Sidelines in High School always have people who have a vested interest in the outcome. Lots of yelling, not a lot of reporters.

When you stand on the sidelines, the view of the field is magnificent, yet very different. You hear the hitting, you can see pain and exhaustion. The perspective is unique. Bringing that perspective to the television audience isn’t new. In fact, when I was at the University of Maryland, ABC Sports interviewed a bunch of perspective sideline reporters, all college aged, trying to use a college reporter to talk about college students. I was excited about the interview, thought it went well, but Roone Arledge picked Jim Lampley, then a student at Stanford, and a Don somebody who went on to a local television career in Philadelphia. Neither of those guys could get a job with the network these days as a sideline reporter though.

On any given Saturday, Sunday or Monday, the sidelines are littered with sweaty guys doing different odd jobs, security guards, poorly dressed reporters, the chain-gang in ill-fitting uniforms, photographers with all kinds of equipment hanging around their necks or perched on their shoulders, and some fabulous babe carrying a microphone.

During the Florida-Georgia game, I spent the first quarter in the press box, until I went to get some water and at least fifteen guys stopped me to ask, “have you seen Jill Arrington.” So I went to the sidelines to see first-hand what the commotion was about. It didn’t take long to spot the person who didn’t seem to fit among the regular throng. Arrington is a sideline reporter for CBS who doesn’t look like anybody else on the sidelines. Tall, with long blonde hair, well dressed in very tight clothes, Arrington is part of a new breed of television sideline reporter that the networks seem to think is necessary these days. The broadcast team is made up of a serious play-by-play man, some former player, and a striking female reporter on the sidelines.

Arrington, Bonnie Bernstein, Melissa Stark, Pam Oliver and Jillian Barberie are all part of network broadcast teams. Are they good reporters? Who knows? Most guys haven’t heard a thing they’ve said and women are commenting on their hair and their clothes. Is this fair? All could be fantastic journalists, but will never get the chance to show it based on the cosmetic aspect of the television industry. Nobody’s yelling “Quiet, I want to hear what Melissa is saying,” during Monday Night Football. “Great turtleneck,” is what’s being shouted in the local sports bars. Lesley Visser is pretty well connected throughout the NFL, but her choice of headwear was what garnered most of the attention during her reports on MNF.

A couple of years ago, Bonnie Bernstein sent me a tape, looking for a job as our weekend sports anchor. She was working in Reno, Nevada at the time and her tape stood out among the other applicants. Not because she was a woman, but because she was a very good reporter. I’ve worked probably two dozen games where Melissa Stark was the sideline reporter, first for ESPN and now for ABC Sports. She worked pretty hard during her ESPN games and is doing the same on MNF. You’d be hard pressed to see any of that now with the role the networks are asking them to play. They don’t seem to be complaining, so I’m wondering what is the point here.

Are these women gladly posing on the sidelines, knowingly acting as a distraction? Are the viewers getting any information? Is there anything the matter with any of this? Have the sideline reporters slipped into the category of cheerleader eye candy?

Actually, this could be much ado about nothing. The women on the sidelines are the next generation of pioneers, and will have to endure the catcalls and doubting that comes with blazing any trail. Network executives should be careful about how they formulate their hiring practices. The viewing public’s trust is at stake. If they lose that, they’ll never get it back.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Super Selection

Putting themselves into play as a potential Super bowl site, North Florida and the city of Jacksonville were complete unknowns. In the early 80’s then-Mayor Jake Godbold courted the NFL, even hosting a “Colts Fever” rally at the old Gator Bowl in 1979. Fifty-thousand people showed up for a hot dog and a Coke to see Colts owner Robert Irsay fly onto the floor of the Gator Bowl to wave and say “I might .”

Unknown to most people was the conversation between Godbold and Irsay as they exited the World War II construction era stadium. “If I come here, you’ll have to tear this thing down,” said steel expert Irsay. Godbold was a little taken aback. After all, the stadium was Jacksonville’s primary resource in their effort to lure a team. Irsay did move, to Indianapolis, and Jacksonville did build a new stadium, for an expansion team instead of a relocation.

After an inferior Cincinnati Bengals team beat San Diego in the AFC Championship game at home in sub-zero weather, there was a movement a foot in the NFL to play the championship games at neutral sites. Although the idea never flew, Jacksonville was asked several times to make a preliminary Super Bowl bid, actually angling as a potential championship game site.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Hugh Culverhouse was a huge proponent of Jacksonville. I ran into him at the Tampa airport one night and he engaged me in a conversation about the city’s potential. We talked for a half hour about what could be done based on the political and social landscape surrounding the city at the time. Culverhouse liked Jacksonville, had lived in North Florida, and was the city’s biggest ally. (Even though when awarded an NFL franchise, he put it in Tampa.)

Godbold was a visionary as the mayor, and fulfilled the requirement of also holding the unofficial office of “best friend of the city.” He was encumbered by a lack of resources, and a lack of full support of some movers and shakers in Jacksonville who wanted to remain a sleepy South Georgia stop-over. Jacksonville had barely over 200-thousand residents when Godbold began his NFL quest. His dalliance with the USFL was a year late because he heeded the warning of a local columnist to stay away from the rogue league for fear it would anger the imperial NFL.

To my surprise, Mayor Godbold pulled me into the NFL owners’ meeting room when Jacksonville was asked to make their Super Bowl bid presentation. (Obviously before they had rules about this stuff) Jake was persuasive, and the presentation was slick. The normal questions about hotel rooms were raised, and Culverhouse slowly stood and gave a testimonial about Godbold’s commitment, Jacksonville’s potential and how the city could be always counted on to be a ‘friend” to the league. It was pretty heady stuff, but nothing got done.

Actually the Michael Jackson tour deal did get done at those meetings. I was walking down the hall of the hotel in Washington, D.C. with Jake when we ran into Billy Sullivan, the owner of the New England Patriots. “How about holding a Jackson’s concert in Jacksonville,” Sullivan asked, half joking. Godbold asked me what I knew about Michael Jackson, then the hottest performer on the planet and he said, “wait right here.” Twenty-five minutes later, Godbold emerged from a room with Sullivan and whispered to me, “the deal’s done, we’re getting the Jackson’s at the Gator Bowl for three shows. Do you think that’s good?” I laughed out loud, told the Mayor he was a genius and immediately called the newsroom.

Larry Jaffe was the point man for Godbold and the city of Jacksonville in its bid to get in front of the NFL. Jaffe was at a preliminary meeting with league officials in San Francisco when he and his associates came up with the idea of cruise ships on the river to supplement the hotel rooms. During a meeting with Pete Roselle’s top assistant Don Weiss, and the Special projects coordinator, Jim Steeg, whose job it is to run the Super Bowl, Jaffe laid out his plan and received the appropriately polite response. As Weiss and Steeg got up to leave, Jaffe blurted out, “has anybody told you about the cruise ships?” Simultaneously, Weiss and Steeg sat back down and asked “what cruise ships?” Jaffe explained the idea to augment the city with hotel rooms provided by cruise ships, and the idea was born. It wasn’t universally accepted, and in fact it was ridiculed at the time both within and outside the NFL. The success of cruise ships as “floating hosts’ at the Barcelona and Sydney Olympics made them a viable option for Jacksonville’s Super Bowl bid. The city was making inroads, but neither a team nor the Super Bowl seemed on the horizon.

Still, some city leaders persevered.

Godbold called me during the inaugural USFL season to ask, “Did we miss something here?” “Yes,” I replied, “but you can fix it.”

Six weeks later, my phone rang again, it was the Mayor saying he had somebody he wanted me to talk with.
“Hi Sam, this is Fred Bullard,” said the voice on the other end.
“Mr. Bullard, are you going to try and put a USFL team here?” I asked.
“Not try,” he replied, “it’s going to happen.”
“Don’t jerk us around,” I snapped into the phone. (I’m pretty embarrassed by this now but I was young and stupid at the time. I’m just not young anymore)
“We’ve been jerked around enough, don’t lead us down some path that comes up empty because we’re really not going to like it.”
“Don’t worry,” Bullard allowed.
“Do you have this kind of money Mr. Bullard?” I demanded.
“It’s going to take something like $13 million to get this thing done” (Perhaps I should have had my head examined immediately afterwards)
“I think we can handle it,” was the coolly confident response.

Jacksonville had just gone through a protracted flirtation with John Mecom, the owner of the New Orleans Saints. Moving the Saints to Jacksonville was all but a done deal, but Mecom wanted out from under some of his losing buildings and other properties in Louisiana. In one meeting, a local businessman threw his checkbook on the table and said, “I’ll write a check for $50 million right now for the team, you can keep the rest.” Mecom was looking for about $75 million for the whole deal. He mulled it over and eventually rejected the partial sell off, selling the team to car dealer Tom Benson.

So Bullard brought an expansion USFL team to town, climbing on the roof of some television satellite production facility in Denver with me and Larry Csonka, his General Manager, to make the formal announcement. The USFL Bulls were snake bit on the field, but fans showed up, and the NFL noticed. From that wasteland that had the PGA TOUR headquarters and little else, an identity was emerging. Passionate about sports when the product was legitimate and willing to go the extra mile to get things done.

Getting an NFL franchise turned out to be a compilation of a lot of things, not the least of those the involvement of Wayne Weaver. Mayor Ed Austin and some of the heavyweights in town tried to kill the deal off, but it seemed to have a life of it’s own. The dream, the idea of moving to the top rung among cities wouldn’t go away. Even at the last minute, the NFL owners asked Weaver if he wouldn’t really rather be an owner in St. Louis. He declined, citing the contract and committment he made to Jacksonville. His popularity among the owners was the deciding factor to bring a team to Jacksonville.

Now, the NFL will bring it’s biggest showcase to town. All from the seeds of one man and one dream. Jake Godbold always believed, and wanted people to feel better about themselves and the place they lived. He knew about the quality of life and couldn’t figure out why people were so down on his town.

It’s a long way from the “City that stinks” to “Super Bowl XXXIX.”

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Birth Right

Growing up as a kid in Baltimore, I was a fan of the Orioles and the Colts, just like everybody else. Exactly when football came up on my radar screen I can’t pinpoint. I can vaguely remember a newspaper headline lamenting the Colts’ NFL Championship Game loss to the Cleveland Browns 27-0 (1963) and I sat on the porch and sulked when Joe Namath’s Jets beat the Colts in Super Bowl III as an 18-point underdog. I became a huge Namath fan after that, and even wore white shoes in my high school football days (way before it was considered OK).

Baseball is a different story though. I remember the day the Orioles traded Milt Pappas for Frank Robinson and I can trace my fan allegiance to the Orioles to one event: The’66 World Series. Baltimore sweeps the Dodgers in 4 straight to win their first world championship

It’s part of a working class town’s birth right to have a close tie to their sports teams. That’s true in Baltimore, there’s an added bonus;

You get to hate the Yankees.

It’s part of the deal. Nobody is an Oriole and a Yankee fan. You can like the Pirates, or the Phillies, even some of those teams out west, but not the Yankees. Paul Blair went to play for the Yankees and was immediately disowned. Don Larsen finished his career with Baltimore, but he was always that guy from the Yankees who threw the perfect game in the World Series.

There’s nothing similar about Baltimore and New York except both are port cities with immigrant neighborhoods. For the longest time, there was nothing similar about the Orioles and the Yankees either. In Baltimore there was “the Oriole way.” How you played baseball the right way. In New York, they were always trying to make some deal to get the top players away from inferior clubs.

If you followed the O’s, you hated the Yankees and that was that. (You also got to make fun of the Red Sox and laugh at the Senators but that’s a different story)

Hating the Yankees was a daily summer pastime. I’ll be the pitcher and you be Mickey Mantle and I’ll strike you out in the bottom of the ninth! You be Whitey Ford and I’ll hit a three run homer off you to win the game! Every day in the street in front of my house from March ‘till October, the Yankees were defeated by some dramatic feat. Even in curb ball (a Baltimore city game) the hated Yankees went down to defeat as the sun was setting and my mother called me for dinner.

Apparently Yankee hating isn’t limited to kids from Baltimore. It’s somewhat of a national obsession and represents all that is good, and sometimes bad about being a fan.

What is it about the Yankees that is so “hateable” anyway? They’re good, if fact they’re arguably the best pro sports franchise of the 20th century. I’m not jealous of them. If they win, they win. I don’t check their scores, unless they’re playing the Orioles.

I suppose when you’re on top, you’re an easy target and they have had their share of characters over the years, starting with Babe Ruth (who’s from Baltimore by the way). Ruth is the only larger than life figure in baseball history, and he was a Yankee! Traded from the Red Sox, Ruth built the stadium and started the Yankees on the most successful championship run in sports history.

People hated the Yankees in the 20’s and 30’s because they always won. They came up with the best players, sometimes coerced from smaller city teams for big money. The 40’s were dominated by the war, and in the 50’s the Yankees went back to dominating baseball. Between Ruth, Gerhig, DiMaggio and Mantle, the Yankees had four of the best players ever!

Maybe it’s their fans that people dislike. When things are good, they’re out in force. When things are bad, they’re in hiding, or explaining how they used to win, bringing up some old box score and acting like it’s only a matter of time before they ascend to the throne again. Yankee fans are passionate, that’s for sure. Nobody is a casual Yankee fan.

George Steinbrenner is easy to dislike from afar. He seems to act like a jerk more often than not, but the few times I’ve talked with him, he’s been as charming as anyone I’ve ever met. And he wants to win!

It is harder to dislike the Yankees with Joe Torre as their manager. Who wouldn’t want Joe Torre as their manager? He’s smart, honest, a real baseball guy and isn’t a glory hound.

How can you dislike Derek Jeter? Or Bernie Williams? They’re two of the best players in the game today, and they happen to be Yankees.

I admit, the Yankees are great. Maybe the greatest sports franchise ever.

I have a lot of respect for them.

But somewhere in my heart I hate them.

I must.

It’s a rule.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Competition vs. Promotion

I’m a little worried about the direction some of the players are taking in sports. Obviously, it’s a competitive business, and most are willing do anything, and others just about anything to gain a competitive edge. But there’s always been a certain understanding that everybody else is out there trying to do the same thing.

Keyshawn Johnson’s comments all week about the Jets and Wayne Chrebet were ludicrous, and perhaps were masking some fear Johnson has of being overshadowed by his former team. He’s outrageous, and off the field, entertaining, but his act is tired. Terrell Owens’ display in the middle of Texas Stadium was way out of line. At least out of line from what has been always the acceptable norm. Maybe this is what the XFL is going to be. An over the top, outrageous, no holds barred kind of spectacle.

In other words, pro wrestling.

There is certainly a spot for pro wrestling. I like it, it is very entertaining and I think the people in the ring are fantastic athletes. The outcome being predetermined has no effect on my enjoyment and the soap opera aspect of it lets me drop in an out in different weeks without missing a beat.

I’m trying not to use the word “respect” here, but that’s what players in all of professional sports talk about. Getting it, giving it, using it as motivation and talking about it at contract time. The only time pro wrestlers talk about respect is when they’re making fun of it.

Calling the other guy out for not having enough. Do they really care about it? Of course not. It’s part of the act, and part of that act is to make fun of things that happen in the real world. Do they really have it for one another? Certainly. Without it, somebody would get seriously hurt every time they stepped into the ring. The problem is, pro football players are trying to do more and more to call attention to themselves. They want to be on the national cable highlight shows. It leads to more money, on the field and in endorsement money. If the players in the NFL start to lose respect for each other as competitors and for the game as a team competition, the who sport is in big trouble. Fans are beginning to reject the game already because the players are so detached from the everyday fan. If the players continue to create their own culture that’s apart from what made the game attractive in the first place, the games’ popularity will dwindle, and quickly.

It’s like in the movie “Any Given Sunday.” The players jump about during the game, scream things at each other, throw each other on the ground and talk about respect. The new quarterback isn’t interested in anything but being a star, and drawing the focus on himself. In the end it all works out, even the owner says she learned something from her coach, and the coach says he learned something from that braggart of a quarterback. That’s all a fantasy, or at least the real parts are from some of the worst teams you’ve ever seen.

Fans are sick of the me, me, me attitude of players. There’s nothing wrong with exhorting your team, or stirring the pot a little leading up to a competition but once the game starts, people want to see skil and desire, not how much you can run your mouth.

At the Olympics, many American athletes are taking the “in your face” way of competing to the arena. That might seem normal to us, as immune as we’ve become to rude behavior, but to the rest of the world it’s a shock. Gary Hall’s “we’ll smash them like guitars” comment only fired up the Australians, who strummed placidly from the gold medal stand. Australians seem to be content with the competition and showing themselves off to the world. American athletes have been trained in the “win at any cost” way of competing. There is no second place, as the t-shirt says, it’s only the first loser. Would we have thought that if Lance Armstrong hadn’t won the Tour de France? What if he had finished second? Would he have been a loser? Hardly.

In this era of instant gratification and information, the competition in everyday life is a natural progression. Let’s step back and look into the past. Were all the runners up losers? Did they not fulfull their goal of competing as best they could? The goal is always to win, but there is no shame in the competition itself. Separating the ideal of amatuer sport and the compeition it provides from the professional games is dangerous. If it’s ONLY about the money, is it worth it?

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Best Time of Year

Baltimore –
Let’s see, the NFL is in full swing, college football has had their share of dramatic games, Tiger Woods is the lead story every time he tees it up, the baseball races are close, hockey camps are opening, basketball coaches are making news, the US Open showed the future of tennis and, oh yeah, the Olympics start this week. Do you think there’s enough going on?

This might be my favorite time of the year. Some people don’t like the overlap but I think it’s great. In baseball clubhouses all over the country, the TV sets on Sunday are tuned to football. One of the first questions asked after things calm down in a winning NFL locker room is “Did Tiger win today?”

Sports are everywhere. Popping out of the sports section onto the front page. Moving into the news block of the evening news, and not just during the crime report. There are more cable sports stations, more sports talk radio stations. I’m sure some sociologist would say it’s got something to do with the “baby boomers” growing up. Or having grandchildren. Or slowing down. Or sitting in their recliners.

Whatever the reason, people are interested. They’re tracking the ups and downs of teams and players, the victories and their accomplishments. Some are living vicariously, others are being inspired to go do something themselves. Tiger Woods has brought new players to golf, but you don’t think he’s made every weekend hacker try to be a better player?

Computers are buzzing with fantasy football picks and trash talk. People are lamenting the failures of the home team, and cheering their successes. The information age has brought all kinds of information about sports right to everybody’s doorstep.

Where does corporate America go to find motivational speakers for their meetings? The sports world. What metaphors do political candidates use constantly? Ones from sports. It’s becoming the universal communications tool. A way to impart a moral and raise morale. For all of the things pointed out constantly that are wrong with sports, the competition factor is what makes the world go ‘round.

Could there be civility breaking out in sports? Woods takes his hat off at the end of a round to shake hands with a competitor. Bobby Bowden and George O’Leary spend a minute after a hard fought game in the middle of the field talking about the competition like old friends. Pete Sampras says Marat Safin can be the greatest player in the world after running the former champion off the court in straight sets. I’m not saying that overnight things are now wonderful. And Pollyanna hasn’t moved in next door. But it seems some of the players are beginning to understand the tolerance level of the fans and the corporations who pay the bills.

People don’t want to see temper tantrums. They don’t want to see felonious acts committed on the field and washed away as competition. They want to see effort. They want to see Todd Martin laying it all out in a five-set match at the US Open. They want to see Tiger try that 6-iron out of the fairway bunker over water going for the win. That’s what people want, and for the first time in a while, they’re getting a healthy dose of it.

But then again, the NBA hasn’t started yet.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Playoff$ Payoff

My friend Terry hates college football.
Makes fun of it.
Laughs when I try to talk about it.
Somehow works the word “BORING” loudly into the
conversation anytime the topic comes up.

Terry is from California, so maybe that explains part of his disdain for the college game. There’s no passion for college football in California. Sure, they’ll follow USC or UCLA when times are good, but nobody’s painting their face blue and gold or getting buried in a casket adorned with a Trojan helmet.

Terry’s pretty logical though, and can see the fallacy in “voting” for a winner. “Voting? Don’t they play the game on a field?” He’s right about that. There’s no logical reason to “vote” for a national champion in Division I college football. They play it off in every other sport and in every other football division. But in the biggest money maker and the one with the most exposure, the champion is left to some sportscasters and sportswriters who are well versed in one team and clueless about most others and coaches who have their Sports Information Directors vote so they don’t have to worry about it. Or worse, vote prospective opponents higher than they deserve so their own team can look better by beating a higher ranked team. The logical thing is to play it off. But logic plays just about no part in college football.

It’s about passion, blind loyalty, and money.

Sweating in the late summer, and pouring your guts out every Saturday should be rewarded with more than a vote. It’s a silly way to determine anything outside of an election and who gets kicked out of the fraternity house.

Believe it or not, there’s a faction in the NCAA that holds onto the vote because of its ambiguity. It sparks conversation they say, keeps the interest high. That’s baloney, self-serving and unfair to just about everybody. Try and tell Alabama fans how the vote will help them now that they’ve dropped from third to thirteenth in the poll after one week. The Tide followed the wishes of their fans and stopped scheduling Whatsamatta U for the first two games, and decided to go home and home with some recognizable opponents. The problem is, recognizable usually means potentially good, and that can hang an early loss on your record. Not good in these days of soft out of conference schedules and undefeated teams meeting in the so-called national championship game at the end of the year.

If you’re ranked out of the top seven at the beginning of the year, it’s virtually impossible to win the national championship. Too many teams in front of you, not playing each other, and all capable of running the table.

Why is there a poll before the season starts anyway? Did somebody go around and scout the teams to determine who had the best returning squad? Of course not. Everybody was sitting around, listening to everybody else, voting for their favorite coach, color or Heisman winner from 30 years ago. Nebraska yelled long and loud about being the best team at the end of last year. Loud and long enough to last until this summer when the “experts” voted the ‘Huskers #1. Why? Did Florida State look undeserving in their media guide? Did Bobby Bowden not smile right at the right reporter in order to get his vote?

The whole idea of “pre-season” polls is ridiculous. Votes are made based on ignorance and deceit, leaving traditionally powerful programs near the top no matter how good they are and a team without a ‘name’ no chance of playing for it all. Who decided Penn State was a good team, good enough to be ranked in the top 10 when the season started? Losses to Southern Cal and Toledo knocked the Nittany Lions out of the poll in the first two weeks.

Is Alabama’s willingness to travel cross-country for their first game and lose to somebody who’s potentially good worthy of a ten spot drop in the poll? Did the Crimson Tide leave some players on the West Coast? Did Keith Jackson not say “Whoa, Nellie” enough times?

Florida and Georgia put up lackluster performances at home against overmatched opponents, yet moved up in the voting, because there was a slot open in front of them. If nothing else, somebody ought to put a moratorium on pre-season polls. Start ’em on October 1st after everybody has played a few games.

One of two things has to happen before the voting goes away. The “old boy” network that makes up the conference commissioners and the bowl game directors has to get out of the game. They’re pulling the purse strings, deciding what conferences get the most money and keeping the bowls in the picture without including them in a playoff. Not all bowl directors are a part of it, but enough are happy with the status quo and the money they direct to keep the gravy train going. Either that, or the big schools, about thirty-five of them, have to break away and form a “super conference.” A group of teams willing to play each other all year long, and play it off in the end. That’ll bring enough money to the table to start turning heads and stop breaking hearts.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Impact

I was having a conversation last night with my long time friend Andy. Andy used to work in Jacksonville 17 years ago and has traveled around since then. He’s one of my friends who I can go several months or even years without talking to, and pick up a conversation as if we spoke yesterday. He’s from New York, so not a lot turns his head. He’d come back with his family for a vacation and we were talking about how Jacksonville has changed since he left. He was overwhelmed. I mean could barely believe it. When he left, the town was just cresting past 200,00 residents. Now that number stands over 1 million. Two things have changed the landscape of North Florida: the Mayo Clinic and the NFL’s Jaguars.

It is pretty easy to document the Mayo Clinic’s influence. Prestigious diagnostic clinic picks Jacksonville for its first satellite. Patients are referred to this clinic and they and their families spend some time in North Florida, hopefully getting good news. Some of the nation’s top physicians are recruited to the Mayo Clinic and settle in the Jacksonville area.

The Jaguars influence is a little harder to define. It’s a mindset about Jacksonville that didn’t exist before. People from around the country know a little more about the city on the northern end of Florida, if not exactly how to get there.

Many have a general impression that NFL players are just thugs, living in a city during the season, taking advantage of the cushion local law enforcement might provide, raking down millions and moving on. The owner isn’t really local, he’s gotten a sweet deal from the city and is pulling down cash. That is the stereotype, and in some cases, even here, well deserved.

But I was standing on the practice field today and came across so many positive influences the team has provided they were hard to ignore.

Mark Brunell’s father, Dave, was at practice as he is occasionally. He moved to Jacksonville after it was apparent Mark had a long term future here. He’s a teacher and a coach. He’s influenced hundreds of local students already, including my own children. His local impact isn’t easy to define.

Aaron Beasley’s mother was watching practice from outside the fence this afternoon. She was a teenage mother to Aaron, and now has twin’s 3-years old. One has Down’s syndrome, and she had her in her arms today. Aaron’s mother lives in Jacksonville now, and Aaron is going to begin charity work, raising awareness and money regarding Down’s syndrome. Can you define his local impact?

Joel Smengee has been with the Jaguars from the beginning. He has a foundation that helps kids with facial disfigurement. His parents have moved here. His in-law’s now live in Jacksonville. Smengee and a couple of his teammates have started a business here, outside of football. His local impact could be immeasurable.

Ben Coleman was a Jaguar until this year, but his footprint has stayed behind, even though he’s playing in San Diego. I ran into Ben at a restaurant right before training camp started. He had 10 people at his table, and it was his treat. His ice cream shops provide not only a family atmosphere, but a place for young teens to congregate and stay out of trouble. Ben spent a lot of time here talking about “Family First” and a father’s responsibility. You don’t think that’s impact?

Jeff Lageman retired after the 1998 season. He still lives here, and plans on staying. In fact, his house on the St. Johns River was a fish camp in the early 1900’s so he says it has “good karma.” Lageman has an economics degree from Virginia, so he’s not locked into his celebrity here. But he’s stayed. He’s the Chairman of the local Channel 4 broadcast of the Children’s Miracle Network. I’ve seen him extend kindness to kids they’ll remember for life. His dedication to handicapped children is amazing to watch. Jeff’s having an impact.

Don Davey retired from the Jaguars two years ago. His knee wouldn’t let him play. Davey was a four time academic All-American at Wisconsin. He majored in Mechanical Engineering. I think he actually has more than one degree. I took him to Stanton Prep one afternoon to talk to the straight A students about continuing their work and Don told a story about how he wasn’t worthy to really talk to these students because he got one B in college. One. And he remembered everything about it, and how he disputed it with the professor. Don stayed in Jacksonville working in an engineering firm and doing charity work. He’s had an impact on me.

Kevin Hardy runs a local golf tournament with his name on it, with the money going to charity. But Hardy also just set his cousin up in a shoe store on the Southside. Members of his family have moved to Jacksonville to work in the store, filling what they think is a void in the local merchant population. They hope to have an impact.

I could go on about the golf tournaments hosted by Brunell and Tony Boselli. The Helping Hands foundation set up by Keenan McCardell. Keenan and Jimmy Smith’s summer football camp for kids. Jimmy’s appearances for a variety of charities. The speeches given by Carnell Lake about family responsibility or the enormous sums of money Tom Coughlin has raised in his charitable efforts, especially at his golf tournament benefiting the Jay Fund.

I’m sure I missed some, but I just thought you should know.

Some of these guys, they’re having an impact.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Part of The Game

There’s a big difference between being hurt and being injured. Hurt players deal with the pain, injured players go to the sidelines. The hurt factor in professional sports is 100%. Every player in every sport gets hurt. Some play through it, some don’t. Injured players don’t have any choice. The team doctors and the coaches take them out of the game.

Playing hurt varies from sport to sport, and even from position to position. Track athletes need a perfect set of circumstances to compete. Baseball pitchers are notorious for pulling themselves out after the slightest twinge. Jim Palmer, half-jokingly, once complained to Earl Weaver that the pressure on his brow from the bill of his cap was the worst part about being out there. Sandy Koufax and John Smoltz are the notable exceptions. Linebackers, offensive and defensive linemen play through all sorts of maladies. It’s almost a badge of courage to perform at something less than your best.

“I don’t understand injuries, I really don’t,” Tom Coughlin, Head Coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars said after Pro Bowl offensive lineman Leon Searcy was injured in practice.

“I understand they’re part of the game, but they don’t make any sense. There’s no rhyme or reason to them. They just happen.”

Coughlin’s right, they don’t make any sense. There’s not a chart that says X player will be OK if he performs this many sprints and takes this many reps in practice. They just happen, as if deemed by the gods.

Ever notice how players deal with another player’s injury during a game? If it’s serious they call for the training staff, walk around and survey the situation, get into a prayer circle and then go about their business. Because they have to. “That could be me,” is a thought that runs through a players mind, but they quickly dismiss the thought and move on. That guy’s gone, where’s his backup. Players don’t dwell on who’s not in the game; they concentrate on who is in the game. Mentally, injuries affect fans much more than they do players and coaches. Teams don’t sit around dealing with “what if?”

It is how players, coaches and teams react to injuries that set some apart from others. The St. Louis Rams lost their starting quarterback, Trent Green, to a knee injury in an exhibition game last year. One play and their big money, free agent quarterback acquisition was down for the season. Outsiders dismissed the Rams’ chances to compete inside their own division let alone throughout the league. Even the Rams’ players didn’t know where this team was going.

Luckily, Kurt Warner didn’t bat an eyelash. Warner came from nowhere, or worse from the Arena League to lead the team to a Super Bowl victory. And he was the MVP of the league and the game to boot. Without an injury to a starter, Warner never gets a chance.

Does that make any sense?

It does if you think there are guys out there with the talent to play at the highest levels but never get the chance. A bad relationship with a coach, a high draft pick in front of you, a bad play at the wrong time, or an injury that keeps your talent hidden, off display.

Coaches strut around saying they know where all the players are, they’ve scouted everybody, they’ve left no stone unturned. But the fact is, they don’t know where all the players are. They can’t possibly. There’s no measuring stick for desire, no way any coach can know how a player will perform under the most difficult of circumstances. So some player with a not so great 40 time, or the wrong height or weight for a certain position never gets the chance.

Warner basically walked in off the street and asked, “Can I play?” The Rams found out that he had the stuff, the magic to play at the highest level. How many other guys are out there stocking grocery shelves that could be playing professional sports? Many coaches would look down their noses and say, “none.” I contend there are a lot more than you would imagine.

Being close to a professional sports team teaches you that it’s not just the star players or even the starters who determine the team’s fate. It’s the entire roster, top to bottom. When one player goes down with an injury, another has to “step up” as the players like to say. Warner “stepped up” or rather “leapt up” at his chance to play.

The Miami Dolphins team of 1972 went undefeated by using their entire roster. The most glaring example was at quarterback where Earl Morrall “stepped up” when Bob Griese was injured. It was nothing new for Morrall; he did the same for the Colts whenever John Unitas couldn’t play.

The amount of money in the game available to players sometimes makes it difficult to see the difference between hurt and injured. A guaranteed contract also blurs the line. Those whose paycheck depends on their ability to play want to stay in the lineup for fear they’ll never return. Just ask Wally Pipp.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Plenty of Options

Apathy is the problem. Not overzealous fans, not an overdose winning at all cost, just apathy. People really don’t care. Too many other options, too many things on television, too many things competing for our attention. Ray Lewis weasels his way out of a murder charge by lying enough to the police and prosecution to have his charge reduced to a misdemeanor, pleads guilty, testifies for the prosecution and walks out of the courtroom.

There’s no public outcry, no protests, no calling for Lewis’ suspension. Just silence. Well, not even silence, instead the clicking of the remote and the sound of sneakers on the hardwood at the NBA Finals or ice shavings on the rink at the Stanley Cup. We’ve turned to something else. Put Lewis out of our minds and moved on. He’s a lowlife? No problem, just move onto the next game. He’ll disappear in time. And he’s just like the rest of those players anyway, isn’t he?

John Rocker’s an idiot. We all know that, yet there is a public fascination with his self-destruction. What moronic thing will he say next? Will he snap and hit somebody? It’s not that we’re indignant about what he said and think he should be punished. We’re apathetic. Let’s see where and how far he’ll fall into the abyss, laugh, and move on.

And that’s the problem. By accepting these guys back as athletes (which we do every time we buy a ticket) who bask in our adulation, we’re not necessarily giving our approval, but rather saying it doesn’t matter. We don’t care. Our lives are compartmentalized. We can separate the heroes from the thugs, even when they’re the same guy. Ray Lewis in an orange jump suit and in shackles looks like anybody in court. Somehow, when he dons that #56, we’ll think it’s a different guy, and that’s ridiculous.

Sociologists have been saying for years actions like Lewis’ and Rocker’s were on the horizon. We’re asking professional football players to have a violent personality on the field, but be child a care worker off it. We want the closer for our baseball team to be bulldog tough with a ferocious look on the mound, but to be self-effacing after the game.

Our expectations are unrealistic, brought on by a clash of generations and cultures. We want some sort of 1950’s “Father Knows Best” character to emerge off the field with an eye-bulging Arnold Schwarzenegger demeanor on it. To think professional athletes play for the love of the game or for the pursuit of excellence is shortsighted. The number of sportsmen in the game is small. The athletes are entertainers, performers who command large compensation for their services.

Perhaps we’re at a crossroads looking for a solution to the current ills of professional sport. Fans have to decide what is important: winning or the competition itself. I saw the movie Gladiator the other night and got a pretty creepy feeling seeing the ‘performers’ take center stage at the coliseum in Rome. Forty-thousand ‘fans’ cheering for which side? Actually neither, just the killing itself. Is that what we’re reverting to? Just observers, wholly immersed in the action while it’s going on, and apathetic afterward. We are seeing a general detachment between fans and athletes. If that chasm grows larger, the place sports has in society will disappear. And we all will have lost.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Go To A Game!

Isn’t it funny how sports fans can conjure up images in their minds of just about everything they’ve ever seen? From the mob scene at the plate after Bobby Thompson’s home run, to Joe Montana’s arms thrust into the air after the game winning TD pass against Cincinnati, to Michael Jordan’s final shot against Utah, it’s easy. Think of it, and it is there. For me the images in my mind gathered from television have a definite blur compared to the ones I’ve experienced in person. I can visualize all of the great shots and home runs and plays I’ve seen on television, but I can more clearly recall all of those great experiences I’ve witnessed in a much different way. The television confines the experience. It’s visual, and that’s it. Despite many people watching sporting events in bars or with friends, the majority of watching is done alone, in two dimensions. To be there in person is something very different.

All sports fans have certain mental snapshots in their collective memory. Bill Buckner letting the ball go between his legs in the ’86 series for example. Just say it, and everybody who follows sports can picture it. Say, “The Masters” to somebody, and they have images of Tiger Woods upper cutting on the eighteenth green, or Jacks Nicklaus following his putt on 17 on his way to a 6th green jacket. When somebody says “The Masters” to me, two experiences come to mind. I’ve always loved to stand behind the 11th tee during a practice round and watch for about an hour. Television could never portray the silence on the tee. The long chute between tee and fairway, lined by experienced trees always in play. The isolation and the intimacy on the tee are different from every other spot on the golf course. The smell of spring air, the players reaching into the coolers on the tee for a drink, the whispered conversation between caddies, the glances to the top of the pines, checking the wind. For years I also made it a point to stand behind Fred Couples on the 18th tee during his round at least twice during the tournament. Before length was de rigueur on tour, Couples was long. “Boom Boom” was his nickname. Three-wood is usually the club of choice for professionals at 18, but to stand there a couple days in a row and watch Freddie pull out the driver (wooden at the time) and hear the ripple go through the crowd was always fun. I can feel the wind on my left cheek, and easily watch the grass Couples just threw into the air go to the side of the tee. I can hear him murmur “I’m going to aim it at the right corner of the bunker and cut it up the fairway.” And I can remember the explosion of the swing, the crash against the ball, and the polite applause, punctured by the occasional “Go Freddie,” rich with colors, smells and ambient sounds. There’s nothing like being at a game. Any kind of game. From Little League to the Super Bowl, the soccer field on a Saturday afternoon to the state Final Four volleyball championships. It fills your senses. The more you learn, the more you know, and the more you know, the more you learn. Sitting at Camden Yards, my friend’s wife complained about how she was a bit bored with the game. My head was swimming at the time thinking about how the people in the game fit everything in, in between pitches. The sign from the bench. The catcher’s signals. The count on the batter. The fielder’s positioning, the silent instructions from the shortstop to the other infielders. The strategy of the next pitch. Put somebody on base, and things get even more involved. What do you think about when somebody says “baseball?” Mark McGwire hitting a home run? Pedro Martinez striking somebody out? For me it’s the expanse of the outfield at any major league park. The sound of a fastball sizziling toward the plate. Every ground ball looking routine.

Watching a football game on television can be frustrating. If you have a passing interest, no big deal. Check on the score, see what the stars are doing, give it passive attention. If you really want to know what is happening, you have to be there. Are they setting up the cornerback? Who’s dominating the line of scrimmage? Is the wind actually a factor? None of that can be seen on the iso of the quarterback, center, two guards and running backs.

There’s no way we can all attend the games we want to. Our memories will always be of certain television images. But that’s what binds us together as fans. We’ve all seen Joe Namath running of the field at the Orange Bowl with his finger in the air after Super Bowl III. We all can talk about it, based on what we all saw on television. The same images, seen by everybody. More and more games are tailoring their contests for television, and that’s fine. But there’s nothing like being at a game. Any game. Go see a game.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

The Golden Age

Maybe it’s over. Or maybe it’s just starting. Either way, you can feel the shift in sports. One age is ending and perhaps it will be considered a golden age of sport.

The retirements of Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Dan Marino, John Elway in the last two years mark a clear end to a dominant time in sports. A time dominated by players possessed with talent, and incredible will. An argument can be made that Jordan, Gretzky, Marino and Elway are the best of all time in their sports.

Looking back over the history of professional sports, there is an ebb and flow of interest, but a continuous growth of leagues, money and exposure.

Baseball has fought players’ strikes and scandal throughout its history, yet has survived intact. The game is so intertwined with the American story, President Roosevelt advised Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, the Commissioner of the game, to continue playing through World War II despite most of the players being called off to duty. Despite setbacks, the game has grown. Even the Black Sox scandal and cancellation of the 1994 World Series couldn’t keep the game from plowing forward. As baseball fans followed the game from radio, to television, to cable and to satellite, more information flowed into homes about the players’ on, and off-field exploits. The game has always had a collection of “eccentrics” but never were they all exposed at the same time. There was some mystery to it.

Overall, the quality of baseball has gotten better. Weight training, fitness, off-season workouts, coaching have elevated the talent to levels never reached before. They’ve all gotten better. Pitchers, hitters, fielders alike. But the game lacks a national promotional vehicle. Only Ken Griffey, Jr. is a recognized ‘national’ star, doing commercials and promoting the game. Fans are a bit disconnected because they’re better informed. They know the lack of revenue sharing has upset the balance of competition.

Basketball flourished when the focus of the game was on the stars. Wilt, and Russell, then Dr. J, followed by Magic, Bird and Michael all continued to push the game deeper into the minds of sports fans. The game still has stars, but all seem hollow imitations of something more real. Despite David Stern’s assurance that the game is better than ever, the game is in real trouble. Television ratings are off by a half, not because Michael retired, but because people are fed up with the macho, chest-thumping.

Football’s unprecedented growth in the last 30-years is directly in line with its ties to television. Yet the exposure of the game has reached a saturation point, and the league knows it. When players are oblivious of their role in society as a whole, it’s the league’s responsibility to make that part of the package. The NFL is taking steps to enlighten players about their part in the future of the game.

I think we’ll see a split soon. A serious chasm between what we now call the hard-core and the casual fan. More casual fans will be put off by the games, the players and the message both send. Those same games, players and messages will be the thing the hard-care fan is attracted to. Hard-core fans are looking for production and championships. Casual fans are looking for heroes, and most think they won’t find them in the sports pages anymore.

With the retirement of the aforementioned stars, there’s a new generation of athletes taking over the limelight. All born in the late 70’s and early ’80’s, all products of the information age. No mythology left about any of them. Sports mercenaries by trade, not in a negative sense, but by training. That’s all they’ve ever seen, all they’ve ever known. Big money and stardom has been at their fingertips their whole lives. It’s all there, right on television, 24 hours a day. Cable TV and satellite broadcasts enable a viewer in Portland to be an Oriole fan and a fan in Baltimore to follow the TrailBlazers.

It will work it self out. Why? Because the leagues have survived by fixing things to appeal to the fans. Despite their statements to the contrary, every league subtly adjusts their product to stay alive. Some will need more than a tweaking, but they’re not going away.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

A Little Tired of Rocking The Boat

Florida – You’ve heard the sayings, spring is a time for rebirth, a time when all baseball teams seem to have a shot, and they’re all in contention. So why are we still talking about John Rocker? His comments, suspension, and subsequent return to the Braves has blotted out all of the good things this time of the year baseball is supposed to bring us. Enough already. I’m now convinced Rocker is getting almost exactly what he wanted. A rep, a larger than life image. His comments to Sports Illustrated were part of this great “persona” John Rocker was trying to expand. The next step past Al Hrobosky, the Mad Hungarian. Crazy, over the edge, dangerous. Boy, are we all scared now. What we know now is Rocker is disconnected with the real world. The fantasy life professional sports can force on any athlete without the brain power to understand it is not the real world has overtaken Rocker’s sensibilities. There is now way anybody with his background actually believes the things he said.

John Rocker’s right to say anything is protected by the First Amendment. No question about that. Our right to ignore him and think he is an idiot is also clear. Baseball’s right to fine and suspend him has nothing to do with the First Amendment. Baseball is not a government agency. It’s a private entity, with rules and by-laws. The same as if a movie star made the same comments. They have that right, but the studio also has the right to not put them in another picture. Imagine your local anchorman saying those things. He has that right, but would be doing it on the street corner and not on the evening news. John Rocker’s right to say those things has been protected, and the fans right to express their thoughts about him is also protected. Rocker might need protection, and a set of ear plugs this season. Thirty-eight saves and a ninety-eight mph fastball, left-handed,aren’tt going to get him out of this personal bases-loaded situation.

The bigger question is: Who cares? Are we so dependent on what famous people say and do to fulfill our own lives that guys like John Rocker can actually have an effect on us? That’s where we’ve gone astray. The more talent you display on a field of play, the more your opinions count. If Kelly Lightenberg were the Braves closer last year, we would have never heard of John Rocker. PGA Tour star David Duval laughs each time he’s asked a question not relating to golf. When he’s ranked #1 in the world, David says his opinion counts. As soon as he’s #2, the questions stop. Are you really going to vote for somebody because an athlete says to? Wear their shoes, sport their clothes, model your game on the field or court after somebody who has had tremendous success, but run the rest of your life yourself.

Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

Who Wants to Suspend a Millionaire?

Jacksonville – Grab a lifeline. Call a friend.
Go for 50-50, then give us your final answer: Who wants to suspend a millionaire? Maybe Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig and NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman have seen the popular TV show and answered the question with a firm, I do. Both men were faced with decisions last week that will define their games in the minds of fans, and both seemed up to the challenge.

Darryl Strawberry is an addict. How else could he continually throw his life away with no regard for anyone else, let alone himself? Cocaine is an insidious drug whose lure never abates. Still, because he has never had to pay a serious enough price, hasn’t experienced enough pain, Strawberry goes back on his word, his promises and risks everything again, because he’s gotten away with it before. He’s always found a technicality, an easy way back into the game of baseball because of its silly acceptance of a player’s disregard for the law. Hopefully Selig’s ruling will end Strawberry’s career. At 38 years old, Strawberry is the most celebrated career .259 hitter ever. As the NL rookie of the year in 1983, his potential seemed limitless but his inability to discipline himself away from the things that made him feel good and toward the things that made him be good. It bothers us as fans to see a player who has all the skills, throw it away on selfishness. He gets to play baseball and does this! Perhaps we’ve felt sorry for Strawberry in the past, and even pitied him, but now he deserves neither. Banishment from baseball is fitting. Let’s hope it’s Bud Selig’s final answer.

Gary Bettman’s move on Marty McSorley was also right, but for different reasons. Fighting, and violence for that matter, is part of professional hockey. Right or wrong (a whole different argument) they are a current part of the game. To have any understanding of this, you must see a game in person, and up close. It’s amazing there’s not an all out brawl every time the players skate down the ice.

Checking in the corners, grabbing, clutching, pushing each other to the ice are all things that happen on each sequence, with the understanding that they’re just “part of the game.” A fight occurs when somebody steps over that line and feels like they have to defend themselves. “Sticks down, gloves off, play,” is how part of the game has been described.

Sticks down!

Two men going at it with their fists are tolerated. Hockey even treats that situation with a bit of honor. But use a weapon, and there’s no honor in thuggery. McSorley says he snapped, and immediately apologized, saying he disgraced himself, his team and the game itself.

He’s right.

As a lifelong “enforcer” McSorley has made his living beating on people, protecting his teammates (including Wayne Gretzky) throughout his career. This time though, his actions were a disgrace and this penalty might end his career after 17 years. In fact, if he applies for reinstatement, the league is set to suspend him for nearly 20 more games next year. If there’s one thing that “old timers” regret about the change in the game over the last 30 years, it’s the lack of self-defense. Guys used to take care of themselves, now there’s somebody on the bench sent in to clean up for them.

A stick check to Paul Karia’s face, ending his season in 1998, and a vicious back check on Mike Modano are two examples of going over the line in hockey. The suspensions handed out were not nearly severe enough. The statement made by Bettman in the McSorley case is not a 50-50 proposition. It’s a lifeline for the sport.