His right name was Frank X. Farrell, and I guess the X stood for "Excuse me." Because he never pulled a play, good or bad, on or off the field, without apologizin' for it . . .
Just for going to bed, Ring Lardner's "Alibi Ike" had to summon an excuse. "I ain't sleepy," he'd say, "but I got some gravel in my shoes and it's killin' my feet."
Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona might have thought of something like that instead of blaming West Germany's World Cup victory on the Roman Mafia. In sports or in life, believability isn't as important as originality. The charm of the alibi, be it false or true, determines its worth.
For instance, there's a rookie outfielder in Toronto named Glenallen Hill who deserves to go directly to Baseball's Hall of Fame. He appeared at the ballpark a few days ago balanced on crutches and broken out in a raspberry festival of carpet burns. His explanation was spine-tingling and wonderful.
It seems, during a sleepwalking episode, Hill tumbled downstairs and bounced across the living room rug in a frantic escape from imaginary spiders. Although the disabled list mentions no other arachnophobia casualties, does anyone doubt him?
The Orioles used to employ a strongman reliever, Gene Brabender from Black Earth, Wis., famed for his ability to bend tarpaulin spikes in his fists. After blowing a charter flight, Brabender caught up to the team the next day with a more than plausible excuse. Forgetting he had been on the road and not at home, he had got up on the right side of the bed instead of the left and knocked himself unconscious walking into a bathroom that wasn't there. No fine was levied.
Jose Cardenal of the Cubs begged a day off once because a cricket outside his hotel window ruined his sleep. The ex-Giant and Padre Chris Brown missed several games in the minor leagues after he slept on his eye. If brought up before the fact, any number of worrisome maladies may explain any number of subsequent mishaps.
From his short, happy life as the Baltimore manager, Joe Altobelli cherishes the time Jim Palmer reported that the small red line his baseball cap always left on his forehead was taking longer and longer to go away. It is not for nothing that Palmer is due shortly in Cooperstown.
Calvin Murphy, an uncomplaining little basketball player of precisely 5 feet 9 inches, never wished to be taller. "I just wish I had better dogs," he would say, meaning feet. They required him to wear eight pairs of socks under his sneakers. On a night in the NBA when Murphy missed a free throw -- something he did about once a month -- he was encountered afterward in the locker room sitting teary-eyed amid a pile of discarded laundry. "In my haste before the game," he said dejectedly, "I put nine socks on one foot and seven on the other. No wonder I missed that foul shot. I was totally out of alignment."
The smallest details make the alibi. When Martina Navratilova was upset by Pam Shriver at the 1982 U.S. Open, she did not just say she was sick. She said the cat made her sick. In fact, it wasn't her cat.
She had gone to visit her literary friend, Rita Mae Brown. "Rita Mae had put out some snacks, bowls of peanuts and whatever, and every so often one of the cats would tiptoe through the cashews." In another account, she had "Rita Mae's cats doing pirouettes in the mixed nuts." Consequently, nobody in tennis recalls who won the Open that year. But everyone remembers the word "toxoplasmosis."
According to trainer Bud Delp, Spectacular Bid dropped the Belmont Stakes and Triple Crown by stepping on a safety pin just before the race (talk about the proverbial needle in a haystack). Pitcher Billy Loes lost a grounder in the sun. Hockey goalie Billy Smith suffered from a recurring illness that had to do with being around ice.
Needing a civilized exit against Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran unimaginatively elected indigestion (steak and tomato juice), letting down his entire sport. Boxers usually have backup alibis in training, ready to go on at a moment's notice.
"I only took the Baer fight," lamented Two-Ton Tony Galento, "because my manager, Joe Jacobs, said he knew a last-minute way I could get out of it and then they'd have to give me a Louis fight to get their money back. Only, Jacobs died, and Baer murdered me. And that was only because I was so upset because my brother thought I gave him some counterfeit tickets. Do you think I'd give my own brother the counterfeit tickets? Also, he hit me with a beer bottle."
Joe Jacobs was the fellow who thought of the phrase, "I should have stood in bed."
After the Army football team took a 55-0 licking from Michigan, Cadets Coach Earl "Red" Blaik tried to tell the writers that he had changed centers and the snap cadences were slightly off. Stanley Woodward of the New York Herald Tribune thought this was a little like "blaming the Johnstown flood on a leaky toilet in Altoona."
At least he left the Mafia out of it.