I have never had many feelings about
4. A.J. Pierzynski.
A.J.P. is like the baseball version of
But this gets to the point: There are those players -- the bulk of players -- who don't get booed or cheered. They are just there, in the middle, the other people in the crime lineup. Look at those A.J.P. comps. Terry Kennedy was a good player -- a four-time All-Star -- but when you search "Terry Kennedy" on Google, you get a full page of links to:
1. Someone's MySpace page. 2. A Wikipedia entry on Terry Kennedy the skateboarder. 3. Some YouTubes of Terry Kennedy the skateboarder. 4. More links about Terry Kennedy the skateboarder. 5. "Terry Kennedy's web page," which links some 19th century books on tunneling in New York. 6. A collection of suggested Terry Kennedy searches, the first one being "terry kennedy in jail."*
When you finally get to Terry Kennedy the baseball player's Wikipedia page, you are informed that he was "known for not wearing batting gloves." Really? That's it? A man dedicates his life to the game, becomes a college baseball star, gets drafted with the sixth overall pick, makes his way through the minors, gets traded, makes the All-Star team his first full year, is the main catcher for two World Series teams ... and people will come up to him and say: "Hey, aren't you the guy who didn't wear batting gloves?" That's what it's all about?*
But that's the plight of most athletes. I always like the introductions at the All-Star Game -- not to hear the players who get the loudest cheers or the wildest boos but to catch those who get neither, the players the fans give that most tepid cheer that really says, "I have potentially heard of you."
Now, I am not speaking for anyone else, but Roddick was in this netherworld for me the last few years. I was, of course, plenty aware of him, knew all about his monster serve and knew that he was with
Point is, though, that while I was fully aware of him, I never had any feelings about him -- positive or negative. He might be a nice guy or not. He might be a talented player who did not live up to his ability, or a limited player with a big serve who maximized his game -- I never really knew and didn't especially care to guess. I did not root for him or against him when he played. He was just a guy to me. I don't mean that to sound harsh -- think of the (at least) 80 people on the PGA Tour who you don't care one bit about.* That's about how I felt about Roddick. He's interesting and charismatic, but you can't make yourself care about an athlete any more than you can make yourself love
All of that changed on Sunday, though. Funny thing, Sunday morning -- for the first time in more than five years -- I went out and played tennis with friends. That sparked quite a few emotions (one of those being an emotion called "back pain" -- it still hurts, tennis at 42 is not like tennis at 36).
I used to be a moderately good tennis player, had a big and inconsistent serve, pretty good hands, and I could hit a variety of shots (though keeping them in was a whole other story). I was -- and I realize now that I'm getting into preposterously boring self-scouting on my tennis ... but this does fit in somewhere -- one of those players who looked really good in practice. People would watch me warm up -- or they would be on the other side of the warm-up -- and at that moment they thought I was REALLY good. But I wasn't REALLY good. I was a good wall player -- I could hit against a wall really well. I was a good machine player -- I could hit with authority against a tennis machine. I was a good warm-up player because I could always hit one or two good shots that looked completely out of place. But I was not so good in games because opponents had this nasty habit of not hitting the ball waist high at the proper speed.*
In any case, I was absolutely awful starting out on Sunday. But slowly, very slowly, I started to get a little bit of my game back. It felt good, a bit like I was a kid again hitting balls against the brick wall outside the Harris Teeter shopping center in Charlotte. Of course, I wasn't hitting the ball as hard or as accurately or as consistently or, you know, over the net much of the time. But just playing tennis again brought back those memories when I believed, really believed, that I was going to be the next
By the time I got home Sunday afternoon, I already knew that
No, the connection came from something else. I think it came from a theme that I find constantly and endlessly fascinating. That is: The theme of ordinary people reaching for their moment. Most of my favorite books, favorite sports moments, favorite movies (and many of the movies that I found myself loving despite myself), revolve around that theme. I unabashedly love the flawed movie
One of my favorite sporting events ever is
Andy Roddick is not George Bailey. He's not ordinary. He's the No. 6 tennis player in the world. He's a multi-multi-millionaire tennis player married to a swimsuit model. He hops around the world and hosts
But here's the thing: He wanted to win Wimbledon. I mean, yes, of course he wanted to Wimbledon, but you could see from the first point on that he WANTED to win Wimbledon, that it was hugely important to him, that it was everything to him. You could surmise from his look and intensity that this was, in fact, what he had been dreaming about since he was a little boy. This was his moment, and few really thought he could win. As soon as the match began -- Roddick facing off against maybe the greatest tennis player ever on his favorite surface -- I felt like it was Roddick staring into the mirror and asking himself that same question that I think most people ask themselves at some point in their lives: "Am I good enough?"
And he was good. He was very, very good. Federer is a beautiful tennis player who hits so many brilliant and impossible-to-reproduce shots that the opponent, at some point, goes, "Oh, geez, what's the point?" I think this is why
And I think Roddick psyched himself up to not let Federer's splendor blind him on this day. He won the first set by breaking Federer (in rather stunning fashion) and he had Federer on the ropes in the second set. It was, in fact, a shot late in the second set that brought me entirely over to Roddick's side. He was serving at set point, and he charged the net, and Federer was out of position and hit a high shot to Roddick's backhand. It was not an easy volley, certainly not for anyone less than world class. But it was a volley that Roddick could have put away. It was a volley, I imagine, Roddick will see in his mind again.
He missed that volley, of course, Federer won the second and third sets, Roddick showed guts and won the fourth, and then it came down to that massive fifth set with neither player able to break the other's serve. It wasn't especially glamorous tennis -- not like last year's match between Federer and Nadal -- but it was ultra-compelling not (as I expected) because of Federer's chase for his 15th Grand Slam but because of Roddick's desperate chase to beat Federer on Centre Court and be the best in the world on this day.
And the chase became more and more desperate as the games went along. Even though I knew all the while that Roddick would lose at the end, I kept hurting with him, especially in the final games when it was clear that while he might hold off Federer (and he did hold serve TEN STRAIGHT TIMES with the match on the line), he would never actually beat this beast. Federer's last few games were ace after ace after ace; he was in complete control. At some point, the realization had to hit Roddick (like it hit everyone who was watching) that he was only postponing the inevitable. He was not going to win Wimbledon.
That point was the 30th game of the final set. Federer did not hit a single great shot in that game. He simply put the ball in play. And Roddick, who had been so great for so long, made errors and lost the match.
When it ended, Roddick looked like a broken man. And I could feel that pain with him -- couldn't we all? He was damned good. He was probably better than he had ever been in his life. And he wasn't quite good enough. Isn't that the saddest thing about sports? Isn't that the feeling that we all have at that point when we realize that we won't play big league ball, we won't be an NFL starting quarterback, we won't be on the 18th green putting to win the Masters? I remember playing someone on a high school tennis court, losing convincingly and then doing the math: If I wasn't good enough to beat this guy (and I wasn't good enough), and he wasn't even the best player on the team (not even the second best) and our team wasn't that good just in our community (our team wasn't good at all) and Charlotte, N.C., wasn't exactly a tennis mecca and some of the best tennis players nationally weren't even PLAYING high school tennis, they were already out on junior tours or even professionals ... well, wow, I wasn't good enough.
Roddick stared out at the court, and he seemed to be on that aqueduct between crying and bravado, and then he said a few words -- congratulated Federer, thanked the fans, all that. Then Federer, trying to be a gentleman like always, tried to compare Roddick's feelings of loss to his own one year earlier when he had lost to Nadal. Roddick was not having any of it: "Yeah," he said, "but you had already won five times." Federer smiled and repeated the line without a terrible amount of sympathy. There was no way Federer could understand.
But I felt like I did understand. I really like Andy Roddick now. On Sunday at Wimbledon, he offered that rare fan feeling: He made me feel like we had been through something together. Roddick is still 26, and he still has that serve, and he will probably win a lot more money and big championships -- he still might win Wimbledon someday. Then again, he might not. I thought of this conversation I had with a coach once. I asked him if he believed there were lessons to be learned in losing.
"Yeah," he said. "Get better."
And I wish I would asked him then if there were lessons to be learned if you couldn't get better, if you had been your very best and that still was not good enough. I suspect his answer would have been simple: "Yeah," he would have said. "Get used to it. Because that's life."