The writer wishes to dedicate this story to Danny (the Bag) Norman, winner of the first 127 one-on-one basketball games played with the writer on the playgrounds of Fort Lauderdale. The writer was taller, younger and quicker than the Bag, who was a good shooter, though not good enough to explain 127-0. The end finally came on Jan. 25,1976, at Croissant Park, when the writer sank a 20-footer to win 15-13. He and the Bag stood there a while as the sun set, and then laughed together until dark. They never played again.
Muhammad Ali had Joe Frazier. Frazier had George Foreman. Foreman had Ali.
Nebraska has Oklahoma. Oklahoma has Miami. Miami has the three R's.
Ted Williams supposedly had Marv Rotblatt.
March 28, 1988
Almost everyone has a nemesis, someone or something that's tough to beat. Alydar had Affirmed. Pete Rozelle has Al Davis. Steve Sax has the routine throw to first. Arthur Ashe had Rod Laver. The Los Angeles Lakers had the Boston Celtics. Now the Celtics have the Lakers. The American League has the National League.
Before we get rolling here, there will be a short lecture on Greek mythology. Nemesis was the goddess of retribution. She was the avenger of pride, the punisher of passion, the equalizer of fortune and misfortune. She was, in short, one tough cookie. Nemesis was sometimes depicted as carrying the wheel of fortune in a chariot drawn by griffins. (Archie had pro football, Alfredo is 1 for 21 off John Henry Johnson, and Merv had Mike Douglas—Merv also made a bundle from Wheel Of Fortune.)
According to legend, Zeus pursued Nemesis. She tried to avoid him by changing into a goose, but Zeus became a swan and caught her. Their child was Helen of Troy, she of "the face that launched a thousand ships."
Even to this day Nemesis takes many forms, including that of a Goose: Rickey Henderson struck out eight of the nine times he faced Rich Gossage in the American League, and when they met again in the 1984 All-Star Game, the Goose fanned him one more time. For the Boston Red Sox, Nemesis is the seventh game of the World Series (1946, '67, '75, '86). For the Moorpark (Calif.) High football team, she is Carpinteria High, winner of 47 straight games between the two schools dating back to 1934. For Bjorn Borg she was the U.S. Open, and for Ivan Lendl she is Wimbledon. She is Saratoga, known as "the graveyard of favorites," for the way she treated Man o' War and Secretariat.
For Mario Andretti, she is the Indianapolis 500. She is cocaine, and she is alcohol. She was heavyweight champ Rocky Marciano fighting Archie Moore in this passage from a chapter entitled "Ahab and Nemesis" from A.J. Liebling's The Sweet Science: "After the bell rang for the end of the [fourth] round, the champion hit him a right for good measure—he usually manages to have something on the way all the time—and then pulled back to disclaim any uncouth intention. Moore, no man to be conned, hit him a corker of a punch in return, when he wasn't expecting it. It was a gesture of moral reprobation and also a punch that would give any normal man something to think about between rounds. It was a good thing Moore couldn't see Marciano's face as he came back to his corner, though, because the champion was laughing."
Nemesis even has her own nemesis: spelling. Many people think it's "nemisis." Here in the office we have a computer service called NEXIS, which has access to stories that run on the major wire services and in newspapers. Just for the hell of it, we asked NEXIS for all the stories in which the word "nemisis" appeared in the last few years. NEXIS found 77, ranging from opera reviews to dispatches on world events to reports on the trial over rights to Mr. Bill, whose "nemisis," you may recall, was Sluggo.
The best examples of "nemesistic" relationships have some unexplained element to them; they appear as messages from the gods. The Pittsburgh Penguins are 0-37-3 since 1974 against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Spectrum, but that's no big deal, because the Flyers have always had a better team. On the other hand, try to explain why Larry Jaster, a journeyman pitcher who won 11 games in 1966 for the St. Louis Cardinals, threw five shutouts that year, all against the pennant-winning Los Angeles Dodgers.
FUN FACTS ABOUT NEMESIS
1. Penn State is the football nemesis of Maryland. The last time the Terrapins beat the Nittany Lions was in 1961, when Dick Shiner was the Terp quarterback and his favorite receiver was Gary Collins. Penn State's last four victories have been by a total of 10 points.
2. The New York Rangers haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1940.
3. Beau Jack, the great lightweight champion, fought Ike Williams four times, but the best Jack could do was one draw. Now almost 67, Jack has told friends that if he ever gets to heaven, he wants to schedule a rematch with Williams—who is not there yet, either.
4. Pete Rose went 2 for 21 against Bob Owchinko from 1977 to '84.
The baseball diamond is a particularly good stomping ground for Nemesis. She can show up in the person of Ned Yost, a .212 career hitter who batted .833 (10 for 12 with two home runs) off 277-game winner Tommy John before retiring after the 1985 season. Willie McCovey owned Don Drysdale, but that's not as remarkable as Tom Hutton hitting .700 against Tom Seaver. Sandy Koufax was bedeviled by the likes of Gene Oliver, Jim King and even Bob Uecker. "I hit Sandy pretty good," says Uecker. "Got one of my 14 homers off him. Thank the Lord, I didn't destroy the boy's confidence."
Gordy Coleman, the Cincinnati Reds' lefthand-hitting first baseman from 1960 to '67, had his way with lefthander Warren Spahn. "One year," says Coleman, "I went something like 14 for 16 off him. He would get so frustrated that he would consult with his infielders on how to pitch me. One day, I think I was 4 for 4, I was walking down the runway when this big arm came around me. It was Spahn. 'Don't you realize I'm the world's greatest lefthander?' he said to me. Later he sent over a bat inscribed, 'To My Hero.' "
The bigger they are, the harder they fall, and even the biggest of them all had his nemesis.
THE GOOD DOCTOR
Babe Ruth was coming off his 59-homer season in 1921 when he faced a skinny 21-year-old lefthander with the St. Louis Browns named Hubert (Shucks) Pruett for the first time. "Hub wasn't very fast," said his Browns roommate, Frank Ellerbe, to baseball historian John Holway. "But he had the best lefthanded screwball I ever saw." Pitching in relief in May 1922, Pruett struck Ruth out and then walked him. A month later, again in relief, he fanned Ruth. Two days after that, as the starting pitcher, Pruett struck Ruth out three times and walked him once. "Babe would run up on him out of the box," said Ellerbe, "then Hub would throw that fastball in on him."
In July, Pruett again embarrassed Ruth. He got the Babe to tap feebly back to the box his first time up, and then struck him out on his next two at bats. By the sixth inning Pruett's arm was bothering him, and he loaded the bases for Ruth. Pruett asked catcher Hank Severeid to come out to the mound and suggested the Browns bring in a new pitcher, but Severeid urged him to stay in to face the Babe. Pruett did and struck Ruth out.
Pruett was still nursing the sore arm in August, but when Ruth came up late in a game with the bases loaded, Pruett was rushed in from the bullpen—and whiffed him again. In September, with the Browns and Yankees fighting for the pennant, Pruett got another start against the Bambino. He walked him in the first and then—to the delight of the crowd in St. Louis—struck him out in the third. In the fifth, Ruth finally connected for a home run. Ruth had another hit off Pruett in the game, but the rookie won nevertheless.
The spell began to fade in '23. Pruett struck Ruth out three of the first five times they faced each other, but he also gave up another home run. Still, the first 21 times they met, Ruth fanned 13 times. Although the two never spoke on the field, the Bambino would wink at Pruett as they passed each other. Pruett hung on another five seasons in the majors, largely on the strength of his mastery of Ruth.
With his earnings from baseball, Pruett put himself through medical school. Twenty-five years after their first confrontation, Dr. Pruett saw Ruth, who was near death. "I want to thank you for putting me through med school," he told the Babe. "If it wasn't for you, no one would ever have heard of me." Ruth smiled and said, "If I helped you get through medical school, I'm glad of it."
FIVE MORE FACTS
1. There was once a thoroughbred named Nemesis, but the filly never lived up to her name. As a 3-year-old in 1952, Nemesis raced five times, and the best she could do was one second-place finish for $500.
2. Though there has never been a notable human athlete named Nemesis, the Minnesota Twins did have a little lefthander named Eddie Bane (7-13, 1973-76).
3. When Bear Bryant was coaching Kentucky, he was 0-5-2 against Bob Neyland's Tennessee Vols, even though the Wildcats were favored in three of the games. At Alabama, Bryant's nemesis was Notre Dame, against which he was 0-4. And two of the defeats—in the '73 Sugar Bowl and the '75 Orange Bowl—were heart-stoppers.
4. In the last 15 years the Kentucky basketball team has won 10 SEC titles, but over that span the Wildcats are 2-14 against Tennessee in Knoxville.
5. Bob Feller had two no-hitters broken up in late innings by Bobby Doerr of the Red Sox.
Lady Nemesis hangs out a lot in the Boston area. Beantown's teams and athletes have more than a nodding acquaintance with her, both as friend and foe. The Red Sox, of course, are an ongoing Greek tragedy. For years the Celtics were the b‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√ë¢te noire of the Lakers. In 1962 Frank Selvy missed an easy shot against Boston that would have given the Lakers the NBA championship. In '69 Don Nelson beat the Lakers in the playoffs with a shot that bounced straight into the air off the rim and back through the net. Los Angeles didn't break the spell until last season, thanks in large part to Larry Bird's personal nemesis, Michael Cooper.
The New England Patriots were so locked in a funk in the early 1980s that they hired a team psychiatrist, Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr. Among other things, the team was on an 18-game losing streak to the Miami Dolphins in the Orange Bowl. Dr. Nicholi did such a good job that after one victory in 1985 the Patriots awarded him a game ball. They became the first team to win three playoff games on the road, including the '85 AFC championship game in the Orange Bowl. And even though the Chicago Bears handed the Pats their helmets in the Super Bowl two weeks later, New England at least had gotten a few nemeses out of the way.
Says Dr. Nicholi, "Whenever something—like losing in the Orange Bowl—happens repeatedly, there is usually some reason other than the difference in talent. There's probably a psychological barrier. Perhaps the greatest psychological barrier in all of sports, the greatest nemesis as you might call it, was the four-minute mile. There was a kind of taboo on the other side, a terrible consequence. Some people even thought runners would die on the other side of four minutes. One of the reasons Roger Bannister was able to break it was his willingness to do just that, die.
"While the Patriots' psychological barrier was not that dramatic or clear-cut, there were some unconscious fears at work that led to self-defeating behavior. What I tried to do was get them, like Bannister, to visualize victory."
Now the Patriots, who beat the Dolphins in Miami in both 1986 and '87, have become a nemesis for Dolphin quarterback Dan Marino. Against the rest of the league, Marino has a career rating of 98, a completion percentage of 61.7%, an average of 8.01 yards per pass, 153 touchdowns and 64 interceptions. Against the Patriots, he has a rating of 66.8, a 53.1% completion percentage, an average of 6.21 yards per catch, 15 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. "I'd say it's a combination of things," says the Patriots' defensive backfield coach, Jimmy Carr. "Our offense does a great job of keeping their offense off the field, and we've got some pretty good matchups on defense. If Marino were tipping off his plays, I wouldn't tell you."
Says Marino, "I guess you could say the Patriots are my nemesis. I can't really explain it. except to say they've got some pretty good players on defense. These things go in cycles, though, and I'm sure I'll get them eventually."
The Boston Bruins are both nemesis and nemesisee. They get the short end of the stick against the Montreal Canadiens, having lost to them in the playoffs 18 times, without winning, since 1946. But Boston has dominated Wayne Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers at Boston Garden. The Bruins are 10-2-1 at home against the Stanley Cup champions since 1979.
THE FRIENDLY GHOST
The reason the Bruins dominate the Oilers is an unimposing center named Steve Kasper. The 5'8", 170-pound Kasper doesn't score much, and he will probably never play in the NHL All-Star Game. But he hustles all the time, and when Boston plays Edmonton, he draws Gretzky. He picks him up in the neutral zone and shadows and pesters him. Since Kasper started hounding Gretzky eight years ago. the Great One's line has never scored more than two goals in a game against the Bruins. "Steve plays me hard, and he plays me fair," says Gretzky. "He shuts me down, and he deserves credit."
Kasper grew up outside Montreal, and he idolized the Canadiens' fine defensive forward Bob Gainey. In junior hockey he prepared for his future career by shadowing future Chicago Black-hawks star Denis Savard. The Bruins called Kasper up in 1980, and his first game was against the Oilers. Gerry Cheevers, who was the Boston coach at the time, told him, "Steve, you're going to check Gretzky tonight. See what you can do." Recalls Kasper, "I shut him down pretty good, and we won, so I've had him ever since."
Kasper is almost embarrassed at how well he holds Gretzky in check. He has never spoken to Gretzky, but if he did, he would tell him how much he admires him. "Although we play the Oilers only three times a year," says Kasper, "I see him on cable all the time. He's incredible, frightening. Most guys go 45 seconds and want off the ice. He does three-minute shifts. I'm not sure why I do so well against him. I am in total awe."
1. In 1983 Richard Muller, a University of California physicist, and two associates formulated the theory that a companion star to the sun passes through the comet-filled Oort cloud every 26 million to 30 million years, sending a shower of comets toward Earth. That would explain the extinction of the dinosaurs. Not to worry. The star, which Muller named Nemesis, is not due to pass through the Oort cloud for another 15 million years or so.
2. Walter Hagen won two U.S. Opens and four British Opens, but he never won those tournaments when Bobby Jones was entered. Jones, on the other hand, won four U.S. Opens and three British Opens with Hagen in the field.
3. Rich Brooks has been involved in 20 Oregon-Oregon State football games as an Oregon State player and assistant coach and as head coach at Oregon. His record is 18-0-2.
4. Renaldo Nehemiah defeated Greg Foster in 28 of 34 110-meter hurdles races from 1978 to '82.
Attention, class. According to A Guide to the Gods, by Richard Carlyon. "When the Persians invaded Greece, they brought with them a block of fine marble from which they intended to carve a victory monument. They met the Greeks at Marathon, and were badly beaten. The Greeks captured the block of marble and from it carved a statue of Nemesis. It was an elegant comment on the character of the goddess, as well as a wise gesture of propitiation."
Marathons are forbidding enough. But to Norwegian distance runner In-grid Kristiansen, Nemesis probably looks a lot like Joan Benoit Samuelson, Kristiansen's friend and archrival. The two have raced against each other in three marathons, and Samuelson has won all three, including the 1984 Olympic marathon, though Kristiansen holds the women's world best time of 2:21:06. To get over her mental block before a race with Samuelson, Kristiansen plays a fanciful taped broadcast of a marathon in which she wins.
Foster had Nehemiah, high jumper John Thomas had the Soviet Union's Valeri Brumel, Sebastian Coe had the 800 meters, and Fernando Mamede of Portugal has himself. Mamede, the world-record holder in the 10,000 meters, panics in big races. Before the '83 World Championships in Helsinki, Mamede, eyes glazed with fear, asked the eventual winner, Alberto Cova of Italy, "What are we doing here?" He finished 14th. Halfway through the Olympic 10,000 meters in Los Angeles, Mamede peeled off from the pack and disappeared into a Coliseum tunnel. Angry Portuguese fans subsequently burned his sporting goods store in Lisbon.
Even Jesse Owens had a nemesis. His, though, came up with a pulled hamstring before the '36 Olympics.
WHAT MIGHT HAVE BEEN
Owens was expected to win the 100 meters and the long jump at the 1935 AAU championships in Lincoln, Neb. A few weeks earlier he had electrified the sports world by breaking or equaling four world records at the Big Ten Championships. But Eulace Peacock, a tall, muscular runner from Temple whose specialty was the pentathlon (then the 100-meter dash, discus, javelin, long jump and 1,500-meter run), was entered in the same events as Owens. In the 100 meters Peacock ran down both Owens and '32 Olympic silver medalist Ralph Metcalfe to win in a wind-aided world-record time of 10.2 seconds. A few hours later, during the long jump competition, Owens retired to the locker room with a jump he was certain would be good enough to win, but Peacock uncorked a personal best of 26'3". Owens tried again but couldn't top it.
"I didn't think I could put both victories together," says Peacock, 73, now living in Yonkers, N.Y. "But that was it." Peacock and Owens had five head-to-head sprint competitions that season, and Peacock won three of them. In one other race, the two finished in a virtual tie. "We were so close, the track officials were in a quandary trying to decide what to do," says Peacock. "A friend of mine was in the huddle of officials, and they said, 'We have a problem.' The problem was that they had already put Jesse's name on the trophy. So he won."
Late that summer Peacock pulled his right hamstring running in Milan. He never gave it a chance to heal properly and popped it at the '36 Penn Relays and again at the Olympic trials. Owens, of course, went on to win four gold medals in Berlin.
When Peacock came back in 1937, he again dominated the 100 meters, long jump and pentathlon. But Owens had retired in 1936, and the two never met on the track again. They remained close friends, though, so close that they went into business together as partners in the Owens-Peacock Products Corp., a meat supply company in Great Neck, N.Y.
STILL MORE FACTS
1. While pitching for the Providence Grays, Old Hoss Radbourn beat the Cleveland Spiders 16 times in 1884. He pitched 678.2 innings that year, winning 60 games.
2. Calvin Coolidge Julius Caesar Tuskahoma (Buster) McLish of the Reds was 0-7 against the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1960. That's one loss for each of his names.
3. From 1960 to '74 Arthur Ashe lost 18 straight matches to Rod Laver.
4. Air Force is 0-12 against Notre Dame football teams not coached by Gerry Faust. The Falcons were 4-1 against Faust.
5. The last Miss Marple mystery written by Agatha Christie was entitled Nemesis. Miss Marple takes a bus tour to play the part of Nemesis to an undiscovered murderer.
In the course of researching this story, we came across several bogus nemeses. For instance, you didn't really believe that Rotblatt, who won four games in three undistinguished seasons for the Chicago White Sox ('48, '50 and '51), was Ted Williams's nemesis, did you? Well, we did, because the source was baseball historian Holway. But then we asked Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau to look up some old box scores. Rotblatt faced the Red Sox six times, and in one of those games Williams didn't play. Aha! They were holding the Splinter out of the lineup out of respect for Rotblatt. No, actually, that was the first game Rotblatt pitched against Boston, and besides, Williams had missed the previous 15 games. What the box scores show is that Williams treated Rotblatt no differently than he did any other pitcher, and Rotblatt treated Williams no differently than he did any other hitter.
On July 23, 1948, Williams hit a bases-loaded double off Rotblatt. On June 3, 1951, Rotblatt pitched three innings against the Bosox and held Williams hitless twice. On June 22 of that year Rotblatt retired Williams once. On June 24, Williams hit a run-scoring single off Rotblatt. On July 12, Rotblatt held Williams hitless once. So Williams was 2 for 6 with 3 RBIs off Rotblatt, which hardly qualifies Marv for the Nemesis Hall of Fame. Who knows how the story got started? According to Holway, it started with Rotblatt.
Two mediocre pitchers, Al Sima of the Washington Senators and Willard Nixon of the Red Sox, enjoyed reputations as Yankee-killers. Well, they were and they weren't. In his first two years with the Senators, 1950 and '51, Sima was 3-4 against the Yankees, which doesn't seem the stuff of legends. But this happened during the Damn Yankees period of the American League, when the hapless Senators and indomitable Yankees inspired a novel and a Broadway musical. As for Nixon, he finished his career with a 12-12 record against New York, but in '54 and '55 he went 8-3 against the Yanks.
But even statistics can be deceiving.
SORRY, WRONG NUMBER
Steve Foley played 11 years with the Denver Broncos as a cornerback and free safety before retiring after the 1986 season. He finished with 44 career interceptions, nearly a third of which (13) victimized San Diego Chargers quarterback Dan Fouts. So Foley likes to think of himself as something of a nemesis for Fouts. "I always looked forward to playing against him because he put the ball up so much," says Foley. "When you play guys twice a year, you start to get a feel for what they want to do and when they might do it." Foley also attributes some of his success to the fact that Fouts often tipped off the play he was going to run by the way he set his feet. Further, says Foley, Fouts had a tendency to fake a pass to one side and then throw back to the other.
You're not much of a nemesis, though, if your opponent doesn't notice. In a recent phone interview Fouts was asked if Foley was something of a nemesis for him. "Steve was a good player, but I never felt he was a nemesis or anything," said Fouts. "Heck, I throw a lot of interceptions, and in our scheme of things, the opponent's free safety is bound to get a lot of them. Nope, to tell you the truth, one of the reasons he may have gotten those interceptions is that I wanted to keep the ball away from their cornerback, Louis Wright. He was the guy I was on the lookout for."
ANOTHER BUNCH OF FACTS
1. Dag Hammarskj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√áld, the great Swedish diplomat, once said, "We carry our nemesis within us. Yesterday's self-admiration is the legitimate father of today's feeling of guilt."
2. Tom Harmon scored 33 touchdowns in three seasons for Michigan, but none was against Minnesota. In addition, in the 1940 showdown game with the Gophers, he missed a PAT that allowed Minnesota to win the game 7-6 and, in turn, the national championship.
3. Sam Snead still hasn't won the U.S. Open.
4. In 1905 Long Tom Hughes of the Senators shut out Cleveland five times yet had an 11-20 record in all his other games.
It's too late to ask Long Tom the secret of his success against the Indians. At the other end of the time frame, some nemesistic relationships are too current to ask the victorious parties to reveal the essence of their mastery. Allow for the proper amount of time to elapse, however, and certain secrets will no doubt be revealed.
THE PAUSE THAT REFRESHES
Tennis fans have often wondered how Jack Kramer, who was past his prime at the time, could so thoroughly dominate Pancho Gonzales, who was at the start of his. On their 1949-50 pro tour, Kramer won 97 of the 123 matches he played with Gonzales. "You have to remember," says Kramer, "that Pancho was still very young. He had a helluva serve, and he was very quick, but he didn't have much of a defensive game. He also hadn't learned to pace himself. And there was the Coca-Cola."
"At the breaks, Pancho liked to drink an ice-cold Coke. I noticed that he got a little sluggish after the break. Myself, I drank warm tea. So I always made sure there was a nice, cold Coke there for Pancho. He didn't discover the truth until we were playing a tournament in Aruba one time, and the ball boy came up to me with a cold soft drink. 'You have to be stupid to drink that stuff,' I told the kid. Pancho overheard me and looked at me like he wanted to kill me."
Kramer still feels a little bad about beating the young Gonzales so thoroughly. "I nearly broke his spirit," he says. "But he learned a lot from the experience. He came off the floor and became a truly great player. I was his nemesis, but in a way, I was also his guardian angel. If I hadn't taught him those lessons when he was young, he would not have played the great tennis he did into his 40's."
THE FINAL FOUR
1. William Shakespeare was one of the first English writers to use the word nemesis. It appears in Henry VI, Part I: "Is Talbot slain...Your kingdom's terror and black Nemesis?"
2. The UCLA basketball team beat Cal in 52 consecutive games from 1961 through '85.
3. Andrew Toney of the Philadelphia 76ers is known as the Boston Strangler for the job he does on the Celtics.
4. Don Sutton, who has 321 career victories, started his Dodger career 0-13 against the Cubs.
One current struggle bears watching. It began in 1983, when Jim Gott, then pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays, faced second baseman Tim Teufel, who had just been called up to the Minnesota Twins. Teufel hit his first major league homer off Gott. Later in the same game he singled off Gott. In German, Gott is God and Teufel is Devil.
Theologians should not lose heart, though. In an exhibition game the next spring, Gott hit Teufel with a pitch. They didn't face each other again until last summer, when Teufel, playing for the Mets, grounded out twice against Gott, who was pitching for the Pirates. So far, the Devil is 2 for 4 against God.
Says Gott, "You know, as a Mormon, I feel a tremendous amount of pressure facing Teufel. Just kidding. Actually, Tim and I kid each other a lot about it. His name may mean the Devil, but he seems like a great guy."
Says Teufel, "I don't know about Gott being God, but he does have a great fastball. To tell you the truth, though, my nemesis is Steve Carlton. Struck me out four times in one game at the end of his career. My god, what was he like in his prime?"
Carlton was pretty good, but Rafael Landestoy, a .237 career hitter, beat him like a drum.