Tuesday, May 19, 2009
Boxing Lessons From Nana
When I was in the fourth and fifth grades, my parents regularly went out on Friday nights, leaving my grandmother with the job of keeping an eye on my sister and me. I don’t remember what my sister did on those nights, but I remember quite vividly what my grandmother and I did. We were glued to our twenty-one inch Zenith, watching The Gillette Friday Night Fights.
The fights, as Nana referred to all boxing matches, were a visit into a very different world. We watched as some guys took awfully bad beatings, which didn’t seem to bother my grandmother, who grew up in a much rougher environment than her suburban grandkid. We watched Carmen Basilio win, while covered in his own blood. “Don’t worry,” she told me. “He’s a bleeder. He’s not really hurt.”
At that age, all of the fights, including the bad ones, were interesting. All of them had lessons to be learned. Lesson #1: You sometimes get beaten up while you’re trying to win, or maybe trying, with everything you’ve got, not to lose.
Not all fights were clean, crisp exchanges of jabs, crosses, and uppercuts. Some featured round after round of one fighter draped around the other like in a scene from They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Lesson #2: Fighting while exhausted comes with being a pro.
One of those Friday nights held special significance for all of us at school who hung around with Anthony Vasquez. When Anthony first told us that the up and coming fighter, Joe DeNucci, who was about to fight the tough ring veteran, Ralph “Tiger” Jones, was his cousin, we naturally thought he was making it up.
Then, one day, our teachers ushered us all into the school auditorium, where, sitting up on the stage was – Holy Cow! – Joe DeNucci, and running up onto the stage to introduce him was – Double Holy Cow! – Anthony Vasquez. Did that shut us all up? Yes. That shut us up good.
I don’t remember a word of what Joe said to us that day, but, I remember that, thanks to my grandmother, The Friday Night Fights had introduced me to my first real gladiators, and that day in the auditorium at Bowen School, brought to us by Anthony Vasquez, put one of those gladiators very up close and personal. In my memory, he had a small band-aid above one of his eyes. That mental snapshot is still with me.
Soon after that big day, Joe lost his fight with Tiger Jones. “The kid just needs a little more seasoning,” said my dad, reassuringly, and added: “The kid put up a pretty good fight.” It didn’t matter so much that he lost. He fought bravely. But he must have learned that he would never get the best of a Tiger Jones, so he went on to carve out a future in Massachusetts state politics. When he’s on television, I always see the fighter, not the state auditor.
Years ago, I started hearing and reading alarming stories about parents and teachers who used their influence to have scorekeeping removed from their kids’ baseball games. Apparently, losing contributes to a loss of self-esteem. So your team hits lots of home runs, while the other team hits nothing but air, and both teams get to go home and celebrate. Call me crazy, but I think a kid should be armed with more than self-esteem when it comes to dealing with the real world.
The desire to win is in our bones. Winning is how we measure ourselves against our rivals, and it is the way we are judged by our spectators. Once upon a time, an early caveman was the first to club a rival caveman over the head in order to be in the perfect position to club to death a four legged dinner prize. (I guess that would have been a double win.) And, a Stone Age grandmother just might have been on hand, to enjoy the contest.
The great Lombardi, famously uttered: “Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.” Trying to take that sentence literally always gives me a headache, but we know what the great coach was saying.
You’ve heard the overused line about ties: A tie is “like kissing your sister.” We demand clear winners and losers, especially when we invest our time and passion, and scream ourselves hoarse.
Seldom have I ever rooted for a draw. The first Ali-Frazier fight was one of those times. I loved Ali – most of us college, white, liberal, Nixon-hating fight fans did – but I also admired like hell Frazier’s toughness. They both deserved to win. Only one of them could. It was Frazier’s leaping left hook, which perfectly exploited a weakness in Ali’s otherwise perfect defense.
Find your opponent’s biggest weakness, exploit it, and victory shall be yours – usually. You know that from playing tennis with your work buddy. You may pretend that it doesn’t matter that much to you when you find his or her weakness and exploit it, but then, of course, you’re lying.
Ali and Frazier were each other’s nemesis. Each had the other figured out, so much so that they nearly killed each other in their final contest – that famous Thrilla in Manila, which should have ended in a draw. The only clear winner was us. In your whole life, you don’t see many contests like that one. Without each other, their claims to greatness would always have been in dispute. It took one to validate the other.
Most of us are not win-at-all-cost people. We want contests to be fair. Of course, fairness doesn’t always happen. Refs make lousy calls that take wins away from the deserving. But that’s part of life. The human element can change the outcome – like when players cheat.
Drugs are also part of life. No question about it, the era of performance enhancement drugs has badly tarnished some of our sacred sports – especially baseball. The records we grew up with, as kids, are the measurements we still hold dear. McGwire’s amazing record has been rendered meaningless, and has only served to shine the light more brightly on Roger Maris. Bonds could have gone on to hit 2,000 big ones, and it wouldn’t have mattered. We care about our winners so much that we demand purity in their performance.
Then there’s Manny.
Manny Ramirez plays baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He used to play for the Boston Red Sox. I was at the Fenway opener, his first season. First time at bat, first pitch, a blast out of the park. Oh man, we were going to love him. And we did, for a while. What was he really like? He was described by one of his teammates as a “big teddy bear.”
What’s not to love about a big teddy bear who hits the ball out of the park when the game is on the line? Well, as we got to know him, we found that Manny didn’t always try very hard. Didn’t run out his slow grounders. Didn’t attack the ball in the field. Took time off with phony injuries, when the team really needed him. Finally, we were happy to say goodbye to the childish athlete with the bloated paycheck.
Still, there was something nice about a guy that didn’t do what too many superstars got caught doing – the drug thing. Alex Rodriguez – no surprise – A-Rod’s a jerk. Roger Clemens – too old to still be throwing that kind of heat – well, the Rocket’s also a jerk. But Manny, in spite of his faults, did it naturally. We had to respect that. Until now.
He got caught with one of those bad prescriptions, and he’s out for 50 games. That little weakness of not caring if he let his team down a little bit here and a little bit there becomes a possible season killer for the Dodgers. The other day, at the command of the owner, he apologized to his team.
Now he needs to apologize to the kids who are wearing his jersey. Kids who have a whole memory full of stats and measurements that they might as well throw away.
Kids who are keeping score.