So Cliff Lee is back with the Phillies for less money than he could have gotten elsewhere. Let's celebrate for him and for the team. But let's restrain the mounting adulation for his decision to pass up the most lucrative offer.
This story has been just one more reminder that the sports world is the wrong place to look for role models - positive or negative. Lee gave up enough money to last the average person 75 lifetimes and "settled" for enough to last 60 lifetimes. Factor in the greater likelihood of his winning the World Series with the Phils rather than the Rangers or Yankees, and it becomes an easier decision.
As silly as the paeans to Lee were the attacks on the Eagles after they signed Michael Vick, the convicted dogfighting entrepreneur and now quarterback extraordinaire. Vick committed the crime, did the time, and was merely looking to use his skills to make a living. Big deal. Personally, I don't care if the guy working on my car is on probation from Graterford, as long as he seals the gaskets on the oil pan.
Why do we look for heroes in the sports world anyway? Professional athletes have skills almost none of us possess, make enough money to buy anything short of a congressman, are fawned over ceaselessly by fans, and never have to carry their own luggage. So let's follow the advice of former 76ers great Charles "I'm Not a Role Model" Barkley and try the real world instead.
Yes, I do admire Joe Paterno's concern for the academic performance of his players at Penn State, and his recognition that almost all of their football careers must end in Happy Valley. But would he change places with the teacher giving all but her soul at a tough neighborhood school? Would we expect him to?
Yes, everyone could admire the courage of Curt Schilling, blood seeping through burst stitches and soaking his white socks as he gutted it out in the 2004 postseason (even if it wasn't for the Phils). But was his pitching feat more arduous than that of a woman who works two jobs despite painful arthritis?
Yes, our hearts go out to Eagles coach Andy Reid, a man struggling to do his best for his troubled sons. But what about the thousands of impoverished fathers unable to provide anything like the opportunities that Reid can afford to give his boys?
And as for the villainy department, we shouldn't expect Tiger Woods to be a model of marital fidelity just because he can play golf better than anyone else in the galaxy. Nor should we have expected the many members of baseball's steroid club to resist injecting themselves with illegal substances so they could make more money. After all, the Wall Street barons who nearly brought the country to its knees are drawing huge bonuses at what amounts to taxpayer expense, and Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire didn't have MBAs to fall back on.
When I was growing up in New York City, I was a certified, or perhaps certifiable, sports nut. I memorized batting averages in pathetic detail, hung out at Yankee Stadium and the Polo Grounds, and sometimes mooched an uncle's season tickets to Giants football games. I even got thrown out of Madison Square Garden for joyfully heaving an empty ice cream container onto the ice when the Rangers tied the Toronto Maple Leafs in the last six seconds of the third period.
But the closest I ever came to a real hero wasn't Joe DiMaggio or Willie Mays. It was my eighth-grade teacher George Gordon, who regaled us with weekly lectures criticizing the methods of one of the era's great demagogues, the red-baiting Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin. It was a much gutsier thing to do than it seems now, and I regret not thanking Mr. Gordon when I could have. If there's an afterlife, he'll be one of my first stops after I check in with my parents.
And now let me cede the floor to one of the more articulate philosophers the sports world has seen in recent years, former Phils slugger John Kruk. During spring training one year, the story goes, an elderly woman spotted Kruk smoking and went on the attack. "An athlete should set an example," she said, or something like that.
"I ain't an athlete, lady," Kruk replied. "I'm a ballplayer."