Rivera, Seau Showcase Fragility of Talent
When Derek Jeter arrived in the major leagues in 1995, the soon-to-be superstar displayed an innate modesty and reverence for the sport. That season Jeter had the good fortune of playing alongside pinstriped legend Don Mattingly. Jeter has often mentioned the simple lessons he learned from Mattingly about how to treat the game with respect and dignity and to always treat the fans with gratitude.
The other former Yankee the future Hall of Fame shortstop often cites as a role model is Dave Winfield, whom Jeter idolized as a child for his extraordinary athleticism and community involvement. There exists a clear line from childhood worship to mimicking the accomplishments of a hero to becoming the teammate of that hero and then, completing the cycle, fulfilling the role of role model. It is a unique aspect of baseball that, because of the relative longevity of careers, it allows a seamless and organic passing of the torch. There's a constant multigenerational overlap in baseball absent in other sports.
This sense of continuity helps keep the sport alive. Baseball is neither the most exciting game ever invented nor the most impressive test of athletic talent. No, baseball serves the common good by reflecting just how dull - and occasionally interesting - life can be.
So when Mariano Rivera went down with a season-ending injury last week in Kansas City, it served as a stark reminder of the fragility of talent, of the need to recognize and appreciate greatness because it can all vanish in a second.
Rivera's almost comical injury circumstance - writhing in pain from just shagging flies - also stands in stark relief to the true recent tragedy in the sports world, the suicide of Junior Seau. That illustrated the sharp differences between the sports.
When George Carlin hosted the first episode of "Saturday Night Live" in 1975, he delivered his famous baseball-vs.-football routine, brilliantly exposing the beauties and flaws of each game. While decidedly satirical, it was nonetheless an accurate portrayal of how each sport is portrayed. Nothing has really changed in 40 years. Baseball is safe, and footfall is not. And the arrogantly machismo attitude among many proponents of football hasn't diminished.
Consider the thoughtful words of former NFL Most Valuable Player Kurt Warner. In an interview after Seau's death, Warner said: "I worry about the long-term effects. ... I worry about what can happen after football, as we've seen with a number of guys. I worry about what could happen at a younger age. ... With the way things are going right now and the way guys are getting bigger and stronger and faster, I would encourage my kids to probably stay away from it."
But Warner's stance was immediately criticized by, among others, Amani Toomer, a teammate of Warner's with the Giants in 2004.
"I think Kurt Warner needs to keep his opinions to himself when it comes to this," Toomer said. "Everything that he's gotten in his life has come from playing football. He works at the NFL Network right now. For him to try and trash the game, it seems to me that it's just a little disingenuous."
Said commentator Merril Hoge: "I think it's irresponsible and unacceptable" to suggest football is dangerous for children. "He has thrown the game that has been so good to him under the bus. He sounds extremely uneducated."
Such irrational and defensive comments from those within the sport is troubling. And not solely because they are plainly wrong. Football is dangerous, and, like boxing, the aftereffects of so much abuse are bound to cause life-threatening symptoms. Less threatening is that football careers are so short, just 3 1/2 years on average, and the sport lacks the connective tissue with the nation that exists in baseball. Hence, one player's triumphs or sadnesses are more profoundly apparent in football than in baseball.
For Hoge, Toomer and anyone else to discredit Warner for daring to speak honestly about the dangers of the sport is a version of the code of silence used by cops. Why wouldn't former players want to openly discuss the possible real-life consequence that await those who follow in their footsteps? It's a pathetic reaction.
Will Seau's death have any effect on football? Likely not. It's a brutal game. The margins of respectability are indeed small. One can hope that Commissioner Roger Goodell's harsh stance on Sean Payton and the Saints regarding the bounty scandal indicates that greater changes are coming.
Mariano Rivera may never pitch again. But he'll likely live a long and healthy life. And there will never be lingering questions of whether baseball was a positive or negative influence in his life. The same can't be said of Junior Seau.