Staff Picks: The Athlete Who Ruined My Childhood
Welcome to “Staff Picks,” a segment where we bring you the most impactful plays, memorable characters, or surreal TV and radio moments from our collective sports-clogged consciousness. In this week’s tear-soaked edition, we look at those athletes who scarred us emotionally as children.
Dan Fogarty: Seven-year-old me already disliked Reggie Miller in the spring of 1995.
During Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals the previous year, he had scored 25 points in the 4th quarter against my Knicks. He had also gotten into a much-publicized confrontation with Spike Lee during that game, and although I had no idea who Spike Lee was, I distinctly remember seeing this photo on the back page of the New York Post the next day. Seven-year-old me was not familiar with Do The Right Thing, but seven-year-old me did know when someone was calling out my basketball team, and, by extension, my hometown. This strange-looking man had to be stopped.
The following year, when the Knicks and Pacers met in the first round of the playoffs, my dislike of Reggie Miller would morph into full-fledged hate. For three reasons.
One, John Starks was my favorite Knick. He was undersized, shot a lot of threes, and was extremely streaky (these are three very likable attributes to a seven-year-old). Reggie Miller abused John Starks during that 1995 playoff series, both on the court, and in his head. Just look at this clip from Dan Klores' spectacular documentary on Miller and the Knicks: Reggie Miller embarrassed my favorite player. Crushing.
Two, he was the catalyst of the most depressing sequence of events I have ever seen happen during a sporting event. In Game 1 of that '95 series, with the Pacers down by six with 18.7 seconds left, Miller hit a three, stole an inbounds pass, hit another three, watched a usually sure-handed John Starks miss two free throws with his trademark sneer, then casually hit two free throws to win the game. That adds up to eight points in 8.9 seconds. Which leads me to...
Reason three of why I hated Reggie Miller: he was a tremendous source of anxiety for little me. After that eight point sequence, I was convinced he could do anything. So any time he touched the ball in the 4th quarter of any playoff series against the Knicks (which was a lot), my heart rate went up. He was a boogeyman in a Pacers jersey.
Dave Levy: I wasn't alive for Bucky Dent and I was too young to really remember the heartbreak of '86, but as an impressionable Red Sox fan, the enemy wasn't just one person, it was an entire evil empire. Since I'm picking just one athlete who ruined my childhood, though, I can't pick an entire dynasty. So I figured I could pick one of the players who, to me, represents that era: Chuck Knoblauch.
There are more iconic Yankees from that period (Jeter, the turncoat Clemens, Tino, even Torre), but here's the thing about Knoblauch: he fits the party line of what made the '98, '99 and '00 Yankees. He was a career .290 guy, already with a ring, a good glove and an ability to get the hit that mattered.
Maybe it was because of the obvious flaw that for some reason disappeared against the Red Sox (i.e., that whole throwing to first problem), but it always felt like he was involved in every one of those big plays. I'll never forget his phantom tag in the '99 ALCS- which honestly is the closest he ever came to putting a dagger into my own team. It isn't one moment that causes this sentiment. He just represents what New Englanders are trained to hate when it comes to the generations of angst.
The only people who obsess over these Yankee role players are Yankee fans and bitter New Englanders, and it's amazing how much of a force that was on us. Pre-04 Red Sox fans all came to the pain of the Yankee dynasty one way or another. And back in the "you spend too much" and "woe is us" era, it tended to be those role players. No matter who those guys were (fill in "Paul O'Neill" or "Scott Brosius" if you'd like, by the way, for this rant) my childhood was gone when I learned about those big meanies from New York - like Chuck Knoblauch - who never would let us win.
Timothy Burke: John Elway is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He is the only quarterback to rush for a touchdown in four different Super Bowls, and the oldest to score a Super Bowl TD. He was the recordholder for victories with 148 at the time of his retirement. He is the Broncos' all-time leader in Pro Bowl appearances with nine.
He is also a big fat jerk who made a little boy cry.
Twice the big fat jerk broke the spirit of a rambunctious tot barely old enough to tell the difference between one team with orange and the other. The first time was the worst, and how he did it, how far they went in such a short time, they gave it a name but my dad gave it that name long before Sports Illustrated did. Because he knew it was important and he said it was important as I soaked the tweed fabric of the sofa bed in his basement.
Then he did it again but people don't talk about him as much as they talk about Earnest Byner and capitalizing articles but it wasn't really his fault, Webster Slaughter and his stupid hair and stupid mustache that Dad said made him look like Lionel Ritchie, it was really his fault, but more than that it was John Elway's fault for throwing that touchdown pass to Sammy Winder that gave them the leads in the first place, the lead the Browns would have taken back if not for fumbles or Webster Slaughter blocks his man and the tweed is wet and stretchy and the rusty springs of the ancient sofa bed poke through and scratch my nose, and there's still a scar, a tiny scar, covered by my glasses now but I can still find it, and John Elway gave me that scar, that big fat jerk.
He hurt a little kid.
Ben Axelrod: The 1997 Cleveland Indians were my first "favorite team." Even to this day, I could still recite their starting lineup, and if pressed, I could probably come up with the entire 40-man roster. I remember the big things -- like Sandy Alomar Jr. hitting the game-winning home run in the All-Star game (which was held in Cleveland, nonetheless), and the little things -- like how Tony Fernandez platooned second base with a player named Bip Roberts. Loved ya, Bip.
But what stood out more than anything that year was The Tribe's postseason run. Rookie pitcher Jaret Wright looked like the second coming of Roger Clemens, the Indians beat the Yankees in the ALDS, and Fernandez's home run against the Orioles in the ALCS helped send them to their second World Series in three years.
My dad and I attended Game 3 of that series. I remember Game 7 the most though, because I was sitting in my living room with my entire family, and we were hoping to see the first Cleveland sports championship in any of our lifetimes. The Indians took a 2-0 lead in the third inning. We thought something big was about to happen.
Unfortunately, Jose Mesa couldn't hold on to that lead, and the game went to extras. After an Edgar Renteria RBI single floated over Charles Nagy's glove, we realized that something big had happened. We were just on the wrong side of it.
Edgar Renteria introduced me to the heartbreak that is Cleveland sports dedication in the same way that The Drive and The Fumble did for my dad. Last summer, The Decision began that long, sad tradition for my younger brother. But life goes on.
I think one day we'll celebrate a Cleveland sports title. But had it not been for Edgar Renteria, it could have happened a lot sooner.
Alexandra Kuczynski-Brown: In 2004, the championship-deprived city of Philadelphia turned to an unlikely savior. Of the four-legged variety, as it were.
Smarty Jones was a blue-collar horse owned by blue-collar owners in what has traditionally been regarded as a blue blood industry. He had a near-death experience as a two-year old and made his racing debut at Philadelphia Park. Naturally, we fell in love with him.
Undefeated in six starts going into the Kentucky Derby, Smarty cruised to victory at Churchill Downs before making a mockery of the Preakness Field by 11 1/2 lengths. In between, he graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. We loved him even more.
In the weeks preceding the Belmont Stakes, everyone thought him capable of becoming only the 12th horse in history to win the Triple Crown, and the first since Affirmed in 1978. And capable he most certainly was. Entering the homestretch, Smarty had a four-length lead over the rest of the field. But just as Philadelphia could feel the Curse of Billy Penn being lifted from our collective shoulders, there he was: Birdstone, the 36-1 longshot, making a move on the outside.
With Birdstone gradually closing the gap and Tom Durkin screaming about how “It’s been 26 years!” I, along with the rest of my compatriots, was wondering the same thing: could Smarty hold off Birdstone’s late charge just long enough to restore a little bit of Philly sports credibility? The answer was no. With one furlong to go, Birdstone took the lead and beat Smarty Jones to the wire by only 3/4 of a length.
I had never hated anyone as much as I hated that dark bay Thoroughbred, and I even grew up a horse lover. I don’t even remember if I cried afterwards, I may very well have been so angry I was beyond tears. Since I got into horse racing, I have watched three other horses capture the first two legs of the Triple Crown only to come up short in the Belmont. None of them stung as badly as this.
Glenn Davis: Does "19 years old and a college sophomore" count as "childhood"? Good. Rutgers, my alma mater, was a historically bad football team during the late 1990s and early 2000s, but when I enrolled in 2005, the program's fortunes finally, definitively changed for the better - a huge stroke of luck on my part, since my early college years didn't have a whole lot else going for them.
The best team Rutgers had during my time there (and best, period, going back to at least 1976) was the 2006 team, which among many other highlights, provided the greatest sporting event I've personally witnessed, and with one game left to go in the regular season, had a shot to win the Big East and go to a BCS bowl for the first time ever.
The bad news: that game was against (and at) West Virginia. Rutgers hadn't beaten them since 1994. The good news: West Virginia was without its best player, quarterback Pat White, one of the truly great college players. In his place: unproven Jarrett Brown. The game was a back-and-forth affair: Rutgers took a 10-3 lead, then WVU scored 17 unanswered, then Rutgers countered with 13 of their own for a 23-20 lead in the fourth quarter. Long story short: it went to triple overtime, and ended with Rutgers' guys looking like this (i.e. a 41-39 loss).
Brown's numbers for the game weren't even overwhelming: he finished 14-29 passing for 244 yards with a touchdown and an interception, and ran 17 times for 73 net yards (including a 40-yard touchdown). That's pretty good, though, and for a backup playing against what was a great defense (Rutgers only let up 186 points in 13 games that year), it was very good. And most importantly, it was good enough to win, and rob Rutgers football of its finest moment. Three years later, Brown would say he couldn't imagine the idea that he was a villain to Rutgers fans. I wouldn't say villain. I would only say this: hours after that 2006 game was over, a friend with whom I watched the game estimated he was about two percent recovered from the pain of the loss. Almost five years later, I'm not sure of my own recovery percentage - just that it's somewhere south of 100.
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