Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Hard Hits: Sports and Life

Sometimes, as sports junkies, we can get carried away following our favorite teams and players during seasons. This really isn't surprising as many of us live and die with them. Sports are a way for us to get away from everyday life issues.

There are instances when things aren't so rosy in our lives which create stress. By cheering for our teams, it can take some of that added pressure off and enjoy some of the best athletes at their peak.

While it's great to attend a sport live and cheer like crazy when your team wins and feel like you're part of it, there's also a part that wishes you were out there. I believe every one of us are ultracompetitive and want to be out there competing. At one point in our lives, we did.

I ran cross country track in high school and played baseball, basketball and tennis when I was younger. There was no better feeling than completing a big race and making that time to help my teammates finish in the top four schools out on Staten Island in what was considered the biggest race. I can still recall how excited I was after one race which propelled me to Varsity for a trip to Brown University. Without a doubt, one of my best moments. Of course, it would be followed up by one of my worst at Brown when I had a rough race. Not breaking in some new shoes before I ran was a big mistake. It happens to the best of us sometimes. I was a starry-eyed 15-year-old kid who didn't know any better. Of course when I reflect back on that day now, I see someone who gave it his best but was overcome by the moment.

At this point, you're probably wondering why I'm writing this. To make a point. That as great as sports are, we all have to take care of ourselves. Some of us might not be in the shape we once were. And if that's true, you have to stay on your toes. Just ask the now gone far too early 45-year-old former Twin Kirby Puckett, who passed away from a severe stroke this past Monday.

Puckett was one of those athletes who I had a ton of respect for. Outside of being a diehard Yankee fan whose favorite ballplayer was Don Mattingly, Puckett was one of my favorite players to watch. I enjoyed how much energy the undersized (5-foot-8) centerfielder put into each game with Minnesota. He played like his life depended upon it. And the enthusiasm he brought to the field everyday was a pleasure to watch. You could tell that this was a guy who knew he was playing a kid's game and had that wide eyed grin of satisfaction to go along with it.

All Puckett did was prove the critics wrong in going on to a Hall of Fame 12-year career in which he was a 10-time All Star and led the Twins to two World Series championships. I will never forget that dramatic walkoff home run in Game Six of the '91 World Series against the Braves which extended it to an equally as riveting Game Seven in which Jack Morris tossed a 10 inning 1-0 shutout to give the Twins their second title in five years.

Unfortunately, Puckett's career was cut short by glaucoma after the 1995 season, retiring at just 35. Though he only amassed 207 lifetime homers and one batting title, the 2,304 career hits, .318 lifetime batting average and six Gold Gloves plus the flair he played with allowed him to be elected into Cooperstown on the first ballot in 2001. For all the naysayers who say he doesn't belong, how many more 200 hit seasons would he have had if he wasn't forced out early? He definitely would've been a lock for 3,000. When you combine the two World Series, that's plenty in my book.

It's very sad that Puckett became the second youngest Hall of Famer to die. Only Lou Gehrig passed away sooner at only 37. The real tragedy in Kirby's death is that it could've been prevented. After retirement, Puckett didn't take care of himself and put on too much weight. Before he suffered the stroke Sunday which proved fatal, many of his friends and former teammates were concerned that something like this could happen.

If only he had stayed in better shape, maybe he'd still be alive. This is a former standout athlete we're talking about, which is the haunting reality. It can happen to anyone. That's why I get out for walks in the park as much as possible. Aside from the fact that I enjoy taking in all the outdoor elements, the exercise is worth it. It keeps me feeling good, which is all it takes.

What must be realized is that the older you get, the harder it is to keep in shape. That is unless you're active. The harsh reality is that we're all racing against the clock, which is why exercise is so important. I believe we all want to live long and prosperous lives. In order to make it that far, you have to stay ahead of the curve.

That's why continuing to take part in sports activities could pay off in the end. We only have one life to live. Never forget it!

Hitting Back:

-If you take out Kirby Puckett's two championships, his numbers look eerily similar to Don Mattingly. Plus Mattingly won an MVP and more Gold Gloves. They didn't call him Donnie Baseball for nothing.

-Now that the Knicks have won back-to-back games for the first time in two months, has Isiah Thomas earned himself a contract extension yet?

-They sure are packing them in for these preliminary World Baseball Classic games. If I didn't know any better, I would've thought I was watching a '91 Yankees game at The Stadium featuring Mel Hall, Matt Nokes and Scott Sanderson.

-Do you think the Yankees are going to get the message that Ron Villone and Mike Myers aren't solving their lefty problems out of the bullpen? At least they still got 40-year-old Al Leiter. What? Jesse Orosco wasn't available?!?!?!?!?!

-When does Pedro's toe become a new book title?

-So two San Francisco Chronicle reporters who broke the BALCO story 15 months ago now want you to buy their new book "Game of Shadows" detailing Barry Bonds' use of performance-enhancing drugs. One question. Aren't these the same reporters who looked the other way when Bonds was setting all sorts of records? Anything for the mighty buck.

-It's nice to see tennis finally get it right and make instant replay challenges available to players at future ATP and WTA events. There have been far too many crucial calls missed during matches, which is why you know John McEnroe is smiling. Still, I'm going to miss those classic player-chair umpire confrontations.

-It's exciting to see a local school such as Iona back in The Big Dance. Wouldn't it be great if they put a scare into some higher seed in the first round next week?

-I can't figure out if it's good or bad that all these NHL games are being decided by shootouts. But it's definitely better than watching teams sit back and play the dreaded trap. I thought the new NHL rules eliminated that?

-Can anyone remember the last time the NBA was relevant? Win valuable prizes!

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