The standard practice before hanging a new calendar on the wall is to look back on events that transpired during the year. In sports, the most significant accomplishment of 2002 might be that of Lance Armstrong winning a fourth straight Tour de France. Locally, Maryland's NCAA basketball championship springs to mind as the year's delight.
But particular achievements in 2002 strike me as much less remarkable than the collection of memories produced by the departure of so many sports icons. Each one's passing set us to reflection.
Taken collectively in a calendar year, the number almost defies belief. I went to a funeral for one of the greats, at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore. Johnny Unitas died on 9/11.
Earlier in the summer, it had been Ted Williams's turn. We saw that coming, but what we didn't see coming was what happened next. A man of dramatic finishes, who risked his .400 batting average by playing on the last day of the 1941 season and went on to collect six hits in eight times at bat to reach .406, and who homered in the last turn at bat of his career, has been bizarrely frozen by his offspring. For now, maybe the best we can do is paraphrase John Updike -- gods don't have funerals.
Sam Snead died in May. He won more golf tournaments than anybody. But he was better known for the purity of his swing. And he had a swagger.
Williams was tempestuous. Unitas was unemotional.
Unitas wore hightops, Snead a straw hat.
Bespeaking the innocence of the times, they all had nicknames: Johnny U., Teddy Ballgame, Slammin' Sammy.
They were America of the middle of the last century.
Unitas shoveled coal as a boy in Pittsburgh to earn nickels.
Snead grew up in a place known for breeding coal miners, not golfers; Gene Sarazen, who put the Masters on the map, took one look at him and said: "I've just watched a kid who doesn't know anything about playing golf, and I don't want to be around when he learns how."
Williams was ambition personified: "All I want out of life is that, when I walk down the street, folks will say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.' "
They seemed bigger than life, and Williams was as big as anyone. He flew fighter planes, and brought one of them in on fire. Asked one time whom he admired, he said John Wayne. And was told: "You're John Wayne."
Typical of the times, the likes of Unitas and Williams and Snead overcame some kind of odds. America has always preferred its sports heroes crossing some hurdle. Scrawny, unpromising in every way, Unitas almost didn't get a chance to play in college and later with the pros. Williams kept being called to war, so no one could say how many home runs he would have hit or how high his lifetime average would have been had not World War II and then Korea taken prime seasons. Snead always had Hogan in his way.
Unitas showed everybody that the game of pro football was made for TV. Roone Arledge, who died three weeks ago, moved the game to prime time. Arledge was an innovator who presented games to us in ways we had never imagined, now ways we wouldn't want to do without. Arledge wore a suit, not a uniform, but it's impossible to understate his effect on the games we watch.
Thoroughbred racing may not be held in the esteem it once was, as one of the four principal sports with baseball, football and boxing. But we still know the name Seattle Slew.
Slew was not Seabiscuit, but to a degree exceeded his promise. A slew is a swamp, and his right foreleg curved outward. He did not look like a future Triple Crown winner. A minor injury delayed his debut. His trainer worried that he was too lightly raced before his first major stakes test. He hit the gate with his face as the bell rang for the 1977 Kentucky Derby. But he came from behind to win, and won the Triple, and won 14 of 17 races in all. He sired 102 stakes winners, A.P. Indy among them, and one of his daughters produced Cigar.
Slew died in his stall in Kentucky on May 7, the 25th anniversary of his Derby victory.
These were maybe the most famous five to leave us this year, but the number and the credentials of so many others was what made the year so staggering. Collectively, it was an awesome group.
Byron "Whizzer" White and Kyle Rote, Hoyt Wilhelm (of the fluttering knuckleball) and '46 World Series dash-for-home hero Enos Slaughter (they went into the Hall of Fame together), Dave McNally, "Bullet" Bob Hayes, Dick "Night Train" Lane and Frankie Albert (the left-handed quarterback known for mastering the art of faking), and the "voices" -- Chick Hearn and Jack Buck and Ned Martin. Others: Darryl Kyle and Darrell Porter, Carl "Bobo" Olson, Ed Runge, Paul Runyan, Al Smith (Remember the photograph of the cup of beer pouring into his face from the stands as he watches the home run?), Fred Taylor (who coached Lucas, Havlicek and, yes, Knight), Willie Thrower (aptly named, the NFL's first black quarterback), Mike Webster, Jay Berwanger, Buck Baker, Joe Black (who warmed up a few feet in front of me at Ebbets Field), Frank Crosetti, Willie Davenport, Dan Devine. . . .
And there are others.
We go on, but we take the memory of them with us.