BACK WHEN I was a senior in high school and not much of a student, I won a scholarship and was summoned to a place I had never been before -- the college adviser's office. The adviser looked me up and down, said something about never heaving heard of me, and then instead of congratulating me she said she was going to see if some mistake had been made. Nowadays, this could be called doing a Ruiz.
The Ruiz to whom I refer is, or course, the by-now notorious Rosie Ruiz, the Now-you-see her, now-you-don't fleeting winner of the Boston Marathon. In her case, the outcome was different than mine. I did win my scholarship and she did not win the marathon but the important thing is that we were both suspected for the same reason: no one had heard of us.
There is a lesson to be learned from the Ruiz affair and it is not the rather basic one that there is more to winning a race than merely crossing the finish line first. The other lesson is that the romantic age of sports is over and us Walter Mittys with out fantasies of hitting one out of the park, or winning a marathon or making that 100-yard run to the goal, are woefully out of date.
The really telling evidence against Ruiz was not that she could not be found on the video tapes of the race or that two Harvard students had seen her dash onto the course about a mile from the finish line. This was not it at all. What doomed her was the blunt fact that she was unknown, the she alone believed that someone could come out of nowhere and win something like the Boston Maration. Everyone else knew better. She had to be a fraud.
They had her. They knew something we did not know. They knew it could not be done -- an unknown could not win. They knew there is no such thing as the gifted amatuer, the kid who sees the marathon take off as he is watering the lawn drops the hose, and runs like the devil to win the thing. That is for the movies -- a myth. In real life, they asked Ruiz what her pulse rate is when the word came back that it was 76, they had her cold. It was as if she said she only had one leg.
It's funny, but in other fields the myth lingers. In politics, for instance, the concept of the gifted amateur -- the dark horse -- is still alive. Jimmy Carter became president on the basis of being an avowed amateur and Ronald Reagan got to be governor of California the same way.
In business, companies are always taking a chance on someone with almost no track record and there is some sort of American myth about some guy looking someone over -- just like his looks -- and promoting him on the spot. This is the basis, really, for the tryouts at training camps, but the truth of the matter is that in sports, of all places, the belief in spontaneity, the lucky break, the dark horse, is all but gone.
Goodbye to any dreams of winning a maration. Goodbye to any notion of stepping up to the plate plate and hitting one out of the park. So long to dreams of cocking your arm and tossing the old pigskin 100 yards or so -- goodbye to all dreams that anyone at anytime could do the sports equivalent of stopping the show.
We have known this for sometime about football. In football, the computers have taken over and they are used to draft and keep track of football players. This is not all that different from the way Frank Perdue looks after his chickens and if you think for any minute that you can make up for, say, your lack of size, with guts and motivation and maybe even luck, forget it. The computer is not programmed for dreams.
Now, though, it has happened in running which is the most democratic of sports. To run, you don't have to be an athlete. You don't have to be tall and muscular. All you needed was legs, two of them, and you could entertain the dream of just stepping off with the crowd, feeling this was your day, feeling springy, in step and full of pep, and running 26.2 miles it takes to win a marathon. On a good day, you could do it.
But you can't. That's what the crowd at the Ruiz press conferences were saying. It cannot happen. You cannot win. In order to be number one, you had to have been number two or three someplace -- that in sports, of all places, there is no such things as a dark horse. Maybe in politics or maybe when it comes to winning scholarships, but not in the one endeavor which used to celebrate the myth of the "natural." In deciding against Rosie Ruiz, the sponsors of the marathon took away more than just her title. Hey took away our innocense.