My All-Time Favorites
A recent pilgrimage to watch one of my favorite basketball players perform set me to thinking about who I would put in my pantheon of all-time personal favorites – those athletes I followed most closely and who I cared about the most.
I have no intention on ranking them or making this a Top Ten list. But putting them in semi-chronological order might make the most sense, though. So here goes.
My first sports idol was Steve Bilko, a barrel-chested beer-bellied first baseman for the LA Angels of the old Pacific Coast League. He broke into the big leagues as a 20 year old with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1949, but his career stalled after 1954 when pitchers realized he was a sucker for a curve ball. He played for the Angels from 1955-57, during my nascent time as a baseball fan. He hit 37, 55, and 56 homes those three years, and he was like Babe Ruth to me. In fact, during his last two years with the Angels, the team had him bat leadoff the last few weeks of the season in an attempt to get him more at-bats that might result in more homers. My dad came home from a game and I asked him how ‘Big Steve’ had done. He told me Big Steve had been thrown out of the game. I ran to my room in tears, crying unconsolably, until dad came in and explained that ‘being thrown out of the game’ wasn’t permanent expulsion from the sport, just the baseball equivalent of a sassy seven-year-old talking back to his mother and being sent to his room.
When the Dodgers moved west from Brooklyn in 1958, the Angels went packing. While it would have been natural to single out Koufax or Drysdale from those early teams, the player I admired most was Junior Gilliam. He was a jack-of-all-trades infielder who could play in the outfield if needed. A switch-hitter, he batted behind Maury Wills during the early-to-mid 60’s, when a Wills walk and stolen base, followed by a Gilliam bunt and a Tommy Davis base hit or sacrifice fly defined a ‘Dodger rally’, and often gave the pitching-heavy team the only run they would need. Every spring there would be reports from training camp that a new phenom was on his way to take the place of Junior Gilliam, but come April it was Gilliam who made the starting lineup. Manager Walter Alston once said that ‘Junior Gilliam never made a mental mistake on the ballfield’. My kind of player.
By the time I was in sixth or seventh grade, I would frequently ride my bike down to the local junior college and watch the basketball team practice. Flamboyant coach Claude Rutherford was known for riding around town in his sporty Mercedes convertible, his pompadour hair in perfect place, with his enormous Great Dane riding shotgun. Somehow he recruited a high school player from the inner-city of Los Angeles to come to play for nearly all-white Fullerton JC. Walt Simon was the best basketball player I had laid eyes on, in person, up to that point. Walt was a silky-smooth 6-3 guard who could drive acrobatically, as well as drain a quick jumper from anywhere on the court. One Friday night Coach Jerry Tarkanian brought his defending state champs from Riverside CC, featuring Larry Bunce, the first 7-footer any of us had ever seen, and a 25 year old ex-Marine named Fred ‘Lucky’ Smith, to play in Fullerton. But they were no match that night for Walt Simon and the Hornets, and the memory of being in a packed and rocking gym, with emotions soaring with every twist and turn, rooting as our David upset Goliath, sparked a lifelong love for the magic that can happen indoors on a chilly winter evening. Walt Simon’s college career was cut short by an illness, but his son Miles did his dad proud when Miles’ 1997 Arizona Wildcats won the National Championship.
I got to grow up watching UCLA’s devastating reign under Coach John Wooden. Through many championship teams and many great players, my favorite during that time was Marques Johnson. His first two seasons at UCLA were Coach Wooden’s last, so he had a hand in the 1975 championship. Yet after Wooden retired, Marques seemed to best embody Coach Wooden’s famous advice to ‘be quick but don’t hurry’, especially after grabbing an offensive rebound.
For those who only know him now as a TV announcer, Marques could flat-out jump out of the gym, and he would be on his way back up to shoot after grabbing a missed shot while everybody else seemed to still be coming down. By the time he was a senior, he was the country’s best player, able to knock down the outside shot as easily as he could blow past a defender. Man, he was beautiful to watch play.
As I’ve gotten older, the favorites have been fewer and farther between.
After moving north to Seattle in 1979, I became a Mariners fan. In 1984 I had a brief, one season infatuation with lefty Mark Langston. He burst upon the scene as a rookie in 1984, going 17-10 for a dismal team, while leading the league in strikeouts. I missed just one of his home starts that season. His mound artistry was the first good reason to go indoors to the dreary Kingdome (other than the basic fact that there was baseball to watch) since I came to town, and it would be another five years before another Junior – Griffey – changed the town forever. I say my infatuation with Langston was brief…..when he started the 1995 playoff game for the Angels against the M’s, that 1984 season and all its brilliance were a distant memory to me. When Luis Sojo snaked that grounder down the right field line with the bases loaded, and ‘everybody scored’, the play ended with Langston plopped on the ground in front of home plate, frustrated to the point of taking the butt end of Sojo’s broken bat and stabbing it into the ground. I didn’t feel a single pang of regret at the time. Like I say, it was a one-season fling with him, long over and forgotten eleven years later.
Over the last twenty years, I have renewed my affection for high school sports, and the final additions to my list come from the prep ranks.
Grady Small played football and baseball for the local high school a few years back. Simply put, he was pound-for-pound, the best HS football player I’ve ever seen. All of 5-9 and maybe 175 pounds, he would carry the ball 30 or more times in some games, catch passes, be the lead blocker at fullback, as well as handle the long-snapping duties on kicking plays. He played linebacker on defense, and when he hit you, you stayed hit. But best of all, he was smart. Smart counts for a lot in my book. Nobody got more out of what he had than did Grady ‘Huge’.
Talking about smarts……over the last dozen years I have become enamored with girls HS basketball. What the girls may lack in size and strength compared to their male counterparts, their game more than makes up for in finesse, teamwork, determination and smarts. And no one player has better exemplified these qualities than Jocelyn Riordan. Playing for the local high school team, she was clearly just the third best player in the league behind two faster players (who went on to play Division 1 ball). Still, she was the best to wear the home team’s colors during all my time of watching. Now she proudly plays for the Division-3 University of Puget Sound Loggers and enjoys being a Student, first – and an Athlete, second. She has always seemed to see the game in slow motion, like a chess master always staying a couple moves ahead of the opposition. On the aforementioned pilgrimage to watch her play, her two biggest fans (other than her parents) were rewarded with not only seeing her score a career-high 32 points (the quietest 32-point game I’ve ever seen), but they also saw her notch her 1,000th point in her career, in this just still her junior year. True, she will never cash a paycheck from playing the sport she loves and excels at, and she understands that. But sports has given her a vehicle to test herself beyond the classroom, and it’s sure to help make her, and all the girls who play sports (unlike the girls I grew up with who were deprived of the chance to do so) better people now, and certainly better moms when their turns arrive to do their most important life’s work.
To this point, my list is probably more ‘Who’s-He/She?’ than a Who’s-Who. And I would venture to guess that not a single one of my favorites is going to appear on your list.
Except for this last one.
Whoever your own kid is, haven’t you derived more pleasure from watching him or her play than all the others combined? Whether your kid was an All-Star, an All-Stater, or just the first in line for the snacks after the game, has there ever been a player whose every move you tracked as closely, whose successes could make your heart soar, and whose failures could make it ache, as much as your kid?
There’s no question about it.