Our Town: A famous athlete, a girl in distress and a punchline

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As a child I’ve always liked storytellers. I was a quiet and well-mannered child who listened with rapt attention to the tales my father weaved about his many adventures with celebrity athletes.

One of my favorites was the story of a round of golf he played with Eddie Arcaro who was the best and most well-known jockey of the day. On this particular Sunday morning my dad was playing a round with Arcaro at Hempstead Golf and Country Club which is a private golf course adjacent to Hempstead Lake State Park.

They were on the 7th hole and as they walked down the fairway Arcaro could see through the fence there was a young lady who was having trouble mounting her horse which had apparently just thrown her.

Trying to be a Good Samaritan, Arcaro walked over to the fence and asked “Hey darling, do you need any help?” to which the girl looked at him and retorted “Get lost squirt, what the hell do you know about horses anyway?”
Good story. It has all the ingredients. It contains a famous athlete, a girl in distress and a great punchline.
Well once again the days of storytelling are upon us. We all need a moment of levity and escape given the unremitting horror which is currently upon us.

As luck would have it I was playing golf with two friends this weekend and one had invited his son to join us. The son was the prototypical son of a well to do and successful father. He was tall, handsome, athletic, well-groomed, well-educated and well-mannered.

As we played that day I realized that he most likely was as lucky as I was growing up and had traveled around the world and met a number of famous people through his father’s contacts.

On the 16th hole as we strolled down the fairway together I asked him who was the most famous person he had met.
He thought for a moment and said “Maybe the most famous person I met was Derek Jeter when I was about 12 years old.

A friend of mine had invited me to some big occasion at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan with all the Yankees in attendance so I got to meet Jeter, Mariano Riviera and Yogi Berra. It was fun.”
But I wanted him to embellish upon this childhood memory. After all, Derek Jeter carried the torch of the Yankee’s legacy starting with Babe Ruth who handed it to Joe DiMaggio who gave it to Mickey Mantle who had no one to give it to until Derek Jeter bent down and picked it up in 1995. Don Mattingly was not quite on this level and Reggie Jackson and Alex Rodrigues seem tainted.

But Jeter was a true mythic figure on a par with Ruth, DiMaggio and Mantle and the fact that my friend’s son had actually met him makes it necessary for this young man to make a story out of this event.
So I asked him to tell me more about Jeter and he said “He was way bigger than I expected. He must have been 6’ 3” with great big shoulders, short hair and a nice smile.”
That seemed to satisfy me more.

I had met a number of ballplayers in my time and they all are way bigger than one expects. Years ago I met Hall of Fame pitcher John Smoltz of the Atlanta Braves. On TV he looked skinny and slight but in person, he too was 6’3,” had huge hands, big shoulders and towered over me when we met.

The time I met the NFL running back Emmitt Smith at an Ann Liguori party I came away with the distinct impression that this guy couldn’t be knocked over by a Mack truck.
Did you catch a look at this weekend’s “The Match” starring Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in another charity golf match with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.

Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods are big guys. Tiger is 6’1” and Phil is 6’3” but when they stood next to Tom Brady they both looked like little munchkins.
Good stories need to have a surprise to it or have some wit or contain some wisdom or some pathos. Gay Talese’s story “Frank Sinatra has a cold” is widely considered to be the best celebrity story ever written with his “The silent season of the hero” about Joe DiMaggio also a masterpiece.

Both elaborate on the loneliness and sadness of the fame.
However the only way to dig deep enough for pathos is to do what Talese would do which was to hang with these guys and their compadres for a month or so. But who has the time or the access to do that?
The best we can do if we are lucky enough to meet a superstar is to take away a memorable first impression.

When you meet star athletes you always wind up saying to yourself wow these guys are not like you or me. They are really big, really tall, really well-dressed, always have really good teeth and make powerful eye contact.
Over a lifetime we all get to meet a few of these superstars. We are forgotten by them but they are never forgotten by us.

I hope that when our heroes retire they fare better than Sinatra and DiMaggio who seemed to have embraced loneliness and depression.

Let us hope that when our current heroes retire they live in joy and contentment knowing that they gave the world all of its magic and its wonder. That goes for Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Tom Brady and all the rest.

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