Some sports idols are worthy of adulation

CODA

GREG BEAN

My friends would agree that I’m not what you’d call a sports nut, but I’ve become a serious fan of certain sports figures over the years, anyway. Some of my idol worship has clearly been misplaced.

I idolized Mickey Mantle while listening to Yankees games late at night on my crystal radio with the covers pulled over my head so my parents wouldn’t know I was still awake, for example. All I knew out in flyover country was that he was a great baseball player, and didn’t find out he was such a sorry excuse for a human being until years later. That was something of a blessing, because I don’t know if I could have handled it then.

I’ve had other idols over the years, and too many of them, like Mantle, have done me wrong.

For example, in the mid-’80s, Roger Clemens was my guy. I lived in Boston the year he was burning up the majors for the Red Sox and helping them to gain a World Series berth. But nothing I’d read about The Rocket prepared me to see how awesome he was as a pitcher in person.

I scored tickets to three games where he started as pitcher that year, and it was easy to see why batters were afraid of him. Maybe it’s just that Fenway Park is so small and intimate by big league standards, but Clemens was a giant in the game. He’s huge physically, for one thing, so big it looked like he could almost reach from the mound to home plate. And when he scorched another 90 mph fastball through the strike zone, it happened so fast most batters never saw it coming. They knew that ball could actually kill them if he missed the plate by an inch, and while he’d threatened to do just that, he never followed through. Still, the possibility was more than enough to intimidate most. That year, he became the first pitcher to strike out 20 batters in a nine-inning game against the Mariners. Believe it or not, I saw that game at Fenway.

Again, while the sportswriters at the newspaper I edited at the time had suspicions about his abilities, it wasn’t until years later that we discovered he’d likely been cheating with performance-enhancing steroids the whole time. When he showed up in court recently, there was a shadow of his old swagger, but he looked grim, and angry and unrepentant. He was more Klingon than Clemens — although that comparison probably does a disservice to Klingons.

So I’m officially done idolizing overpaid prima donnas — too much disappointment. Now, I’ll stick to real sportsmen and women who play for love of the game — like East Brunswick’s Heather O’Reilly.

I’ve never met O’Reilly, but our papers covered her for years, from the time she played in rec leagues, so I’ve read a bazillion stories about her early career. She graduated from East Brunswick High School the same year as my youngest son, and I had the opportunity to watch her play on a few memorable occasions, and saw her score a couple of the 143 goals she racked up in her high school career. And I’ve watched her in one amazing performance after another as she worked her way through the premier leagues.

I saw few of her games in the professional leagues, but I made it a point to watch her once she made it to the U.S. National Team in 2002 and onto the U.S. Women’s National Team roster for the Summer Olympics in 2004, where she scored a gamewinning goal against Germany. That goal sent the team to the finals, where they won the gold medal. I’ve watched the tape of her crucial score against

Korea in the FIFA women’s cup in 2007

time and again, and it never fails to inspire.

While the media has spent most of its time mooning over striker Abby Wambach, there are five New Jersey natives on the 2011 team roster, including captain Christie Rampone of Point Pleasant, Carli Lloyd of Delran, Tobin Heath of Basking Ridge, Jillian Loyden of Vineland, and Heather O’Reilly of my home community, East Brunswick.

That fact says more about New Jersey soccer than anything I could dream up, but as I said, only one of those women is from East Brunswick, and only one of them, Heather O’Reilly, scored the goal that put the U.S. in the lead against powerhouse Colombia just minutes into the game. That shot was described by many soccer writers as perhaps not the fanciest they’d ever seen, but one of the best, and it laid the foundation for the team’s eventual 3-0 win. If you missed it in live coverage, or in after-reports, you can find it easily online, and I suggest you do.

I’m proud of you, Heather — and I’m sure I speak for everyone in your hometown and home state. You’re a sports idol we can believe in.

  

Almost lost in the news last week was the fact that GQ magazine had released its list of the worst dressed cities in America, and Asbury Park was rated No. 33. Asbury, the magazine said, is a city where “the effect is of a city being That Guy at the Concert Wearing the T-Shirt of the Band Playing.” Rated No. 19 was the entire Jersey Shore.

The news coverage of the rating featured several Asbury Park residents who disagreed, all wearing band T-shirts and ratty baseball caps. We couldn’t see their bottom halves, but I imagine they were also wearing droopy cargo shorts that exposed about 6 inches of their underwear.

One of my sons lives in Asbury, and so far, I’ve resisted the urge to offer him congratulations on being such a trend-setting fashionista. I guess I’m doing that now. About those pants, buddy …

Gregory Bean is the former executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.