Monday, July 30, 2007

Three-Time Super Bowl Champion Coach Bill Walsh Dies of Leukemia

Bill Walsh lost his long battle with leukemia at the age of 75. The 1993 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee won three Super Bowls in the 1980s as the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers and when he retired after his final championship in 1988 he handed over a team to George Seifert that went 14-2 in 1989 and won another Super Bowl. Walsh also won three bowl games in five years at Stanford, capturing the Sun Bowl (1977) and the Bluebonnet Bowl (1978) before getting the 49ers job in 1979 and then making a triumphant return to Stanford in 1992, leading the team to a 10-3 record that included a win in the Blockbuster Bowl.

Walsh's cerebral, almost professorial air belied his grit and inner toughness. In his younger days he was a boxer and one of the things that he always stressed to his teams was "beating the opponent to the punch." This is how he explained that concept in Building a Champion, the 1990 book that he co-wrote with The San Francisco Chronicle's Glenn Dickey:

We also developed a team-wide mentality that emphasized moving more quickly than our opponents, whether it was the first step a center would take in blocking a nose guard or a receiver exploding off the line and getting an advantage on the defensive back. That quickness became the 49er trademark.

We continually talked about "beating the opposition to the punch." I used the parallel of the champion boxer who's beating the challenger to the punch by a split-second in the early rounds. Though the bout appears to be very close, the challenger is taking more punishment, and the bout is eventually stopped.

Beyond his superb record and the bowl victories at the collegiate and professional levels, Walsh is best known for three things: the development of the West Coast Offense, scripting plays and the impressive coaching tree that sprouted in his wake.

Walsh would be the first to admit that he did not simply invent the West Coast Offense on his own; in Building a Champion, Walsh wrote, "Football is continually evolving. Creative innovations are being implemented but, just as importantly, we continue to find ourselves reaching back into history...My offense, too, owes much to the past." He specifically cited Clark Shaughnessy (who utilized the man in motion), Davey Nelson (who developed the Winged-T) and Sid Gillman (who "brought refinement to the game," according to Walsh) as influences on the development of the West Coast Offense. The Cleveland Browns' Otto Graham employed a version of sprint right option, better known to most football fans for its most famous result--"The Catch" in the 1981 NFC Championship Game--as a championship quarterback in the 1940s and 1950s; the basic idea is to have a mobile quarterback roll out, with multiple pass options, plus an option to run if the defense drops too many people into coverage. Lefty Steve Young later ran the exact same play with the 49ers, but to the left side of the field instead of the right.

The genius behind Walsh's West Coast Offense are the refinements that he added to his predecessors' ideas and the masterful way that he continually adapted the system to best utilize the strengths of his players and to best attack the way that defenses tried to adjust to what he was doing. The short passing game that is a hallmark of his system was once derided as "nickel and dime" but it has influenced the thinking of virtually every offensive coach (and thus virtually every defensive coach) in the game.

Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of Walsh's genius is the concept of scripting plays. The uninitiated assume that Walsh drew up 15 or 20 plays before a game and then ran them no matter what. Of course, that would be foolish, because you have no way of knowing before the game what field position and down/distance situations you will face on your first few possessions. What Walsh did was design several plays for each of the most likely scenarios that his team would face. Then, when it was second and two or third and six, he chose a play from his list that was appropriate for the situation at hand. After he had gone through most or all of his scripted plays in a given game, he looked at how the opposing team had defended them and used that as a guide to know which plays to use again. Also, some plays were used early on to set up the opponent for certain tactics later in the contest. In Building a Champion, Walsh explained that he developed the idea for scripting plays while he worked under Paul Brown as a Cincinnati Bengals assistant coach. The Bengals had experimented with this idea on a limited basis but a 1975 playoff loss to the Oakland Raiders convinced Walsh that a more comprehensive approach was needed. Walsh described how he made some play calling errors in the heat of the moment because he did not have a "ready list" on hand. "Without everything on our play sheet that I needed, it became too chaotic to make the best calls. The pressure was incredible." He vowed to never again come up short strategically in such a situation, noting, "The whole thought behind scripting was that we could make our decisions much more thoroughly and with more definition on Thursday or Friday than during a game, when all the tension, stress and emotion can make it extremely difficult to think clearly. The elements seriously affect a coach's ability to concentrate; severe wind, cold, or heat can damage it. Try going outside when it's five degrees and reach an objective decision that calls for problem-solving."

Walsh's coaching tree testifies to his enduring impact on the sport and to how effectively he taught his concepts not just to his players but also to his assistant coaches, several of whom have gone on to great success as head coaches, including Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Jim Fassel and Sam Wyche, each of whom led teams to the Super Bowl. Super Bowl coaches Brian Billick, Jon Gruden and Mike Shanahan also are part of the Bill Walsh coaching tree.

Walsh coached some outstanding defensive teams but he will forever be remembered for his ability to identify and develop great quarterbacks, including Pro Bowlers Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jeff Garcia. Walsh drafted Montana in 1979 and made him the centerpiece of his first championship team in San Francisco. Many people probably don't know or have forgotten how terrible the 49ers were when Walsh took over in 1979. They went 2-14 in 1978 and matched that record in Walsh's first season. A 6-10 mark followed in 1980 before the 49ers put everything together to go 13-3 and win a Super Bowl in 1981. Montana's development into a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback played a big part in the rise of the 49ers. One of the most fascinating chapters in Building a Champion is titled "The Care and Feeding of Quarterbacks," which contains Walsh's description of how a young quarterback should be mentored. Too many coaches rush young quarterbacks on to the field before they are ready, which forces those players to endure a physical (and mental) pounding that may permanently damage their chances to have long term success. Walsh brought Montana along patiently and only put him on the field in situations where Montana could be successful. Journeyman Steve DeBerg was the starter for most of Montana's first two seasons. During practice, Walsh and the coaching staff started Montana off with a small number of plays that they knew that he could execute well and when they put him into games they ran just those plays, building up not only Montana's self-confidence but also the confidence that his teammates had in him. It is easy to forget that prior to coming to San Francisco, Steve Young was a somewhat erratic quarterback for a bad Tampa Bay team--but Walsh realized that Young would be the perfect successor to Montana. As Young said today on ESPN, Walsh saw something in him before even he saw it in himself. Neither Montana nor Young fit the stereotypical mold of a 6-4, 225 pound NFL quarterback and that is also true of Jeff Garcia. Long before anyone else, Walsh recognized that Garcia could become a very good NFL quarterback and when the 49ers finally heeded Walsh's advice and signed Garcia he became a three-time Pro Bowler who set a team record in 2000 by throwing for 4278 yards.

Prior to the NFL instituting the Rooney Rule regarding hiring black head coaches, Walsh developed his own internship program to mentor young black coaches. That project expanded into a full fledged minority coaching program that was eventually taken over by the NFL itself and is now in its 20th year. Marvin Lewis and Tyrone Willingham are two of the many coaches who received opportunities as a result of this program.

After he retired from coaching, Walsh dispensed his insights about football as a TV commentator and author. Here is a quote from an interesting piece titled "Coaches Should Show Results in Year Three" that he wrote for the October 5, 1998 Sporting News : "I am often asked how long it should take to turn an NFL franchise around. My short answer is: three years. Not every team will win the Super Bowl in its third season under a new coach (as we did in San Francisco in 1981) but it is reasonable to expect at least some signs of improvement by that time...There are reasons why some teams are able to remain competitive year after year while others never seem to get over the hump...My point is that it takes a concerted commitment from ownership, the front office, the coaching staff and the players for a team to succeed. It's the old 'a-chain-is-only-as-strong-as-its-weakest-link-theory' theory. If one of the four areas is weak, it's extremely difficult to overcome that flaw." By Walsh's standard, the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions and many other NFL teams have been failing miserably--and inexcusably--for quite some time.

Perhaps Dick Vermeil, a Super Bowl-winning coach himself, best sums up Walsh's impact: "There are many, many fine, fine coaches but I really think that Bill Walsh was the one that had as much to do with the game we play today, by many teams, as anyone."

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Brady Quinn Has an Inflated Sense of His Value

Most sports fans have heard of the "hometown discount," when a player eschews the chance to make more money by signing with another team because he wants to stay with his hometown team. Brady Quinn apparently is looking for the never before seen "hometown price increase." Despite repeatedly saying that he was thrilled to be drafted by the Cleveland Browns, Quinn and his agent Tom Condon are doing everything they can to prevent Quinn from playing for the Browns any time soon.

Although some draft experts projected Quinn to be a top five pick, he plummeted through the first round like a man falling out of an airplane without a parachute. If the Browns had not traded with Dallas to acquire the 22nd overall selection to pick Quinn who knows how far he might have dropped. Suffice it to say that the marketplace spoke loudly and clearly that Quinn is most assuredly not considered to be a top-five (top-10 or top-15) player, at least not right now. The Browns did Quinn a favor, although their motives are of course hardly exclusively altruistic; the Browns must expect that he can be molded into a quality starter at some point. Cleveland has also done a pretty good job--at least on paper--of revamping the offensive line, providing more protection for whoever will be taking the snaps this season.

Meanwhile, Condon and Quinn reject the idea that Quinn should sign a contract in line with his draft position; they want Quinn to receive special dispensation--that is to say, a lot more compensation--because some people once thought of Quinn as a top-five pick. Guess what guys? Reality check is on line one and would like to speak with you. "Hello? Brady Quinn was taken with the 22nd pick--and no team in its right mind is going to pay top-five money to the 22nd pick." Apparently, Condon wants his client to either get a contract that escalates greatly in the final years, when Quinn will supposedly be the starter, or else he wants the Browns to sign Quinn for four years instead of five, enabling Quinn to test the free agent market when his stock, in theory, would be rising.

Here's a novel thought for Quinn: sign the normal contract that goes along with being the 22nd pick, get in training camp now so you can start the process of becoming an NFL quarterback and go about proving wrong everyone who doubts you. That worked pretty well in the NBA for second round pick Gilbert Arenas. If you can really play, then you will make an impact and the money will come, not only in the second contract, but also in the form of endorsements. Face it, if Brady Quinn is truly a top-five talent, then he should be able to take the Browns to the playoffs in the next two or three years and if he does that then he will own Cleveland, like Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar did before him. Cleveland is a football town and anyone who plays a key role in the Browns' success will become a local folk hero.

The alternative scenarios for Quinn are not good. The Browns are unlikely to set a precedent by paying him significantly more than his draft position warrants, so he will either sit out, fall behind and then come to camp no richer than he would have been otherwise or both sides could play hardball, with Quinn sitting out the whole season. That sounds crazy--and would hardly be in the best interests of either side--but Patrick McManamon, the Browns' beat writer for the Akron Beacon-Journal, writes that this is a distinct possibility. If that does happen, the Browns would lose his rights and Quinn would be eligible for the 2008 draft--but before things go too far down that road, Cleveland could try to trade him and recoup the first round pick that the Browns gave up to get him. Maybe Condon and Quinn think that they can wear the Browns down until Quinn gets what he wants but it seems more likely that all Quinn is doing now is sabotaging his own career before it even begins.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Chemist Who Created THG Spills Beans to HBO's Bob Costas

In case you still believe that steroids and other performance enhancing drugs don't help players hit home runs, check out what Patrick Arnold--the chemist who created androstenedione and tetrahydragestinone (THG)--said to HBO's Bob Costas about this subject: "THG is probably one of the most potent steroids, milligram per milligram, that's ever been made." Arnold added that it increases bat speed and even helps a player's ability to focus, concluding, "The best way I could put it is it puts you in the zone. And athletes know what that means. I liken it to an animal that's hunting. Like a lion or something. The way a lion can stand there still and just zone in on the kill." Arnold supplied his state of the art--and quite illegal--drugs to Victor Conte of BALCO fame, who then provided them to many athletes. Arnold told Costas, "All I ever heard was Victor telling me how great Barry's doing. You know how...Barry's on the program and his reaction time's better than ever. And how he feels great." During Bonds' home run tear in 2001, Bonds declared, "I can't tell you why. Call God. Ask him." Arnold told Costas, "I don't think it was a miracle from God. I think there's a reason for it."

Barry Bonds is a remarkable athlete--but he is a cheater. He has cheated the game, he has cheated the fans, he has cheated many of the people he passed on the home run list and he is about to cheat Hank Aaron of a hard-earned record, perhaps the most prestigious mark in all of sports. During Wednesday's ESPN "Town Hall meeting" about Barry Bonds, Buster Olney, who is a Hall of Fame voter, said that he voted for Mark McGwire and plans to vote for Barry Bonds, also. Olney's reasoning is that he cannot prove who took steroids and who didn't, so he will simply base his decision strictly on statistics and just ignore the entire issue of performance enhancing drugs. That is just a weak cop-out. Olney and the other voters are supposed to use their judgment to determine who is worthy of being inducted in the Hall of Fame; this is not a court of law, with rules of evidence and a presumption of innocence. I don't know if the court system will ever catch up with Bonds regarding his illegal drug use--didn't the feds ultimately nail mobster Al Capone on tax evasion because they could not make the more serious charges stick? Nevertheless, you have to be in serious denial to not realize that Bonds intentionally took performance enhancing substances that transformed his physique and his statistics. Rafael Palmeiro tested positive for steroids and never offered a satisfactory explanation for it. Mark McGwire admitted to taking androstenedione and the fact that he would not answer the most simple questions on Capitol Hill does not make him a criminal but certainly makes him a "suspect" as a Hall of Fame candidate. I would not vote for any of those guys.

People get things twisted when they start bringing up "innocent until proven guilty." Folks, that applies to criminal law. I'm not saying that Bonds or McGwire should go to jail (I'm not sure how Palmeiro skates, since he tested positive, but that's a story for another day); I am saying that Hall of Fame voters should use their judgment to protect the integrity of the Hall of Fame. Some people argue that, unlike McGwire, Bonds was a clear cut Hall of Famer even before the steroids era. The problem with this reasoning is that prior greatness does not give one immunity from wrongful actions. If someone has a clean criminal record for the first 35 years of his life and then kills someone he cannot plead innocent on the basis of his clean record; Bonds had a clean career that was tracking toward the Hall of Fame and he chose to sully it. Bonds used to be one of my favorite players and he still is amazing to watch, but he is amazing in the same way that the old East German swimmers were or the pumped up Olympic sprinters or the riders in the Tour de Fake--I mean Tour de France.

Bud Selig has presided over so many catastrophes that it defies comprehension why baseball is still so popular. On his watch the World Series was canceled, an All-Star Game ended in a tie--which led to the equally absurd decision to base home field advantage in the World Series on the outcome of an exhibition game--and, worst of all, baseball's crown jewel, its pride and joy, the record book, has been trashed like the barbarians sacking Rome. Baseball's never been the same to me since the 1994 World Series was canceled; if the sport's premier event meant so little to its participants then why should I care about it? This steroids mess is even worse, though. The canceled World Series is one stain on one page of the history books, a sad footnote--but steroids are a massive blot on an entire era.

I don't know how baseball can ever truly fix this mess, but a good start would be for the Hall of Fame voters to not induct this era's most tainted players and instead go back and recognize guys like Andre Dawson, Dale Murphy and Jim Rice, each of whom put up Hall of Fame worthy numbers without resorting to cheating. Their inductions are long overdue and I'd rather have them come to Cooperstown and talk about their careers than hear Bonds talk about how God helped him to become the all-time home run king.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Commissioners on the Hot Seat

For the first time in a long time--maybe ever--it is better to be the commissioner of the NHL than the commissioner of the NFL, NBA or MLB. As the saying goes, no news is good news; since there is rarely news about the NHL, Gary Bettman wins in a landslide this week over Roger Goodell, David Stern and Bud Selig, who each are presiding over leagues that are experiencing various forms of turmoil.

Selig has finally come to the realization that he needs to be in attendance when Barry Bonds ties and then breaks Hank Aaron's career home run record. No word yet if Selig will clap, sit stone-faced, shrug his shoulders like he did during the infamous All-Star Game tie or perhaps hold up a pro-Aaron/anti Bonds sign. While the NBA and NFL are dealing with crises of an acute and immediate nature, MLB has a chronic, lingering problem: the cloud of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs is rapidly turning the sport's most cherished records into something that is more fictional than Grimm's Fairy Tales. Selig has no solution for this but, fortunately for him, baseball is so deeply ingrained into American society that people will keep coming to the ball parks anyway. Since Selig is incapable of cleaning up the mess that he has presided over, the best that he can do is hope that Congress, the grand jury in the Barry Bonds case or someone else emerges and does his dirty work for him.

Stern, who has deftly guided the NBA from an era when the Finals were shown on tape delay to a period of tremendous prosperity, now faces his most daunting challenge yet, one that will likely define his career--for better or worse--more than any of his numerous achievements. The announcement that referee Tim Donaghy is suspected of betting on games that he officiated, with the implication that he may have fixed those games in some fashion, has rocked the NBA to its core. The extent of Donaghy's criminal activities has yet to be fully explained by the FBI, nor do we know for sure that Donaghy acted alone, although that is the message that Stern delivered at his Tuesday press conference, with the proviso that he can only say what he knows now and that this is subject to change pending the completion of the FBI's investigation. Stern suddenly has a very long "to-do list," yet the scope of what he actually can do has clearly been limited by the FBI, at least in the immediate future. Stern certainly would like to know exactly what Donaghy did and how he did it so that the NBA can move quickly to make sure that this never happens again and, just as importantly, so that the league can confidently tell its fans that games are "decided on their merits," as Stern puts it. Yet his hands have been tied so firmly that he could not even fire Donaghy for fear of impeding the FBI's investigation. According to Stern, the whole matter has been kept under wraps to such an extent at the NBA offices that they have not yet had a chance to fully review Donaghy's conduct during the games that he officiated the past two seasons.

Stern's Tuesday press conference was painful to watch at times. Though he stood alone on stage, you could almost see and feel the presence of the FBI monitoring his every word. Stern said that he welcomes the opportunity to have the FBI thoroughly "vet"--as he described it--the NBA's officials and tried to paint a positive picture that after the "vetting" is over that we will see that all is well save for one rogue. He repeatedly praised the work of the FBI and its handling of the Donaghy case. He has discovered, as Selig did during Congress' hearings about steroids in baseball, that the federal government is one entity that does not consider a commissioner of a professional sport to be a particularly powerful individual. At least Stern has the good sense to publicly cooperate with the government and thus avoid the fiasco that happened when congressmen were dressing down Selig and union chief Donald Fehr as star players Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro and Sammy Sosa disgraced themselves in various ways on Capitol Hill. You can bet, no pun intended, that Stern cannot wait until the FBI is done and he can fully reassert control over the league. If I had anything to do with the oversight of the league's officials and/or the conducting of background checks for league employees during the past two seasons, I would not feel very secure about my future job status once Stern is able to go on the warpath.

Goodell is dealing with a much more narrowly focused problem than either Selig or Stern, who both are faced with issues that affect their entire sport. Michael Vick's alleged involvement with a dogfighting operation is heinous but no other players have been implicated and Vick's actions do not directly relate to the integrity of the game itself. Goodell has ensured that Vick will not attend the Atlanta Falcons' training camp, pending an NFL investigation into this matter. Regardless of the outcome of Vick's court case, ESPN's Chris Mortensen points out that there are more than enough verifiable facts to warrant Vick's suspension for conduct detrimental to the league: Vick owns the house where the illegal activities allegedly took place and nearly 20 dead dogs were found on the property. Goodell earlier informed Vick that he would indeed be held responsible by the NFL for any improper actions that take place on property that he owns--whether or not Vick knew about said actions--so it is only a matter of time until Goodell officially suspends Vick. So far, Goodell has handled this case about as well as possible, avoiding the appearance of rushing to judgment while at the same time laying the groundwork to suspend Vick, just as he suspended Chris Henry, Adam "Pacman" Jones and Terry "Tank" Johnson for their various forms of misconduct. As I wrote after Vick was indicted, Vick's legal right to due process in no way means that he has a "right" to play in the NFL; to the contrary, the league--like any other employer in this country--has every right to suspend or fire Vick in response to the negative attention that he has brought upon his employer.

This is obviously a stressful time for all three commissioners but it is also an opportunity for each one to display leadership and to take decisive actions that will ultimately strengthen their leagues.

Monday, July 23, 2007

The Difference Between Winners and Champions

All pro athletes are winners. They are better at what they do best than 99% of people are at doing anything and they've been winning games or matches for most of their lives. Only a select few athletes are champions, though. They are the ones who make you watch, who are compelling figures to even casual fans--guys like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.

I'm not a "golf guy." I can't tell you which club a guy just used or which one he should have used instead but I understand the difference between winners and champions. Or, to put it a different way, the difference between Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia, who just bungled away a chance to win the British Open.

Like I said, I am not going to tell you the technical details of why Garcia didn't win. I am going to go deeper and broader than that, because I know Tiger Woods. Not personally; in fact, I've never met him. But I know him. To be specific, I know his kind and I don't mean that in the way that certain people might have said those words when Woods first showed up in his lily-white (and I don't mean the golf balls) sport. Woods used to have a commercial in which various people said, "I am Tiger Woods." He could have had a commercial in which he said, "I am Michael Jordan." Or, "I am Garry Kasparov." Or, "I am Roger Federer." Those guys are all the same person, on the inside.

Yeah, I put a chess player in the mix, a guy who held the world champion title for two decades. Laugh if you must, but all of those champions have the same thing on the inside. It is a powerful mixture of intense concentration and focus on the task at hand, a fierce--and to the average person unnatural and almost incomprehensible--will to win and an equally fierce--and perhaps even more incomprehensible to the average person--hatred of losing. John McEnroe alluded to this after this year's Wimbledon tournament when he spoke to Jimmy Roberts about his famous 1980 finals match with Bjorn Borg. When McEnroe won the classic fourth set tiebreaker he thought that he had broken Borg's spirit. Young McEnroe, not yet a champion, figured that Borg had already won four Wimbledon titles, so after losing such a disheartening tiebreaker Borg might figure that it's just not his year. Instead, Borg dug deep within and played an almost flawless fifth set to win his record fifth straight Wimbledon crown. Even more than great champions love winning they hate losing, so they fight and scrap and claw. As Walter Payton put it, "Never die easy." There is a great line in a Prince song and--knowing Prince--he's probably referring to something else but it can be applied in this context: "I'll die but I won't go away." The great athlete knows that he is not immortal; he can be wounded, he can bleed, he is vulnerable but he won't go away, his spirit will not be bowed: if you want to beat him, you basically have to kill him (in a competitive sense).

Champions project a message to their opponents that induces fear and resignation. Opponents of former world chess champion Bobby Fischer used to call it "Fischer Fear." They used to say that they could feel his manic energy, his fierce will to win, across the chessboard. Michael Jordan's opponents used to feel a similar thing, as did Kasparov's and as do Woods' and Federer's. I believe that it was once said of Jack Nicklaus, another champion, "He knows that he's better than you, you know that he's better than you and he knows that you know that he's better than you." That is as good a way as any to sum it up. I've seen world class chess players in action and even played against a few and in the course of covering the NBA I've had an up close view of some of the greatest players of all-time and spoken to more than a few of them. They all have an edge, a presence, that distinguishes them even from the other great players, guys who are also marvelously gifted.

Let's get back to Garcia and Woods. Woods struggled with his game and was not a factor in this year's British Open. The funny thing is that even in a bad tournament he still tied for 12th. He had won the previous two British Opens and had tied for second in his last two major championships after winning the two major championships prior to that. Basically, Woods is almost always in contention in major championships and if his game is anywhere close to being right he has a great chance to win. I hear golf analysts make much of the fact that on the one hand Woods rarely gives up a lead on Sunday but on the other hand he has never come from behind on Sunday to win a major. I think that the former is much more significant than the latter. When Woods has his "A" game, as he would put it, he wins, point blank--he gets a lead, he keeps it and they put his name on the trophy. When he has his "B" or "C" game, he still may be in contention just because he is so good but someone else who is having the tournament of his life may end up winning.

Garcia had a three stroke lead coming into Sunday and a six stroke lead over Padraig Harrington, who eventually defeated Garcia in a playoff. Garcia had his "A" game for much of the tournament but he did not win. That never happens to Woods. If Woods is playing his "A" game then, like Nicklaus, he knows that he is better than everyone else, everyone else knows it and he knows that everyone else knows it. When Jordan's Chicago Bulls reached the point that they were the NBA's best team, they always won the title. Since Federer hit his stride a few years ago he has put together an amazing run of Grand Slam wins. Fischer once won 20 straight games against world class grandmasters without conceding a draw. I'm not sure how to translate that into terms that a conventional sports fan might understand but it would be something like the Miami Dolphins' 17-0 season--if the Dolphins had played a schedule stocked only with the Steelers, Raiders, Cowboys and other elite teams of the era.

It's not for me to say whether or not Garcia "choked" but it is obvious that the difference between he and Woods consists of more than just their ability levels. Champions dominate, champions break their opponents' wills and champions almost always find a way to win on the occasions when they have their "A" game. They are human beings, so they cannot have their "A" game every single time out, particularly in a game like golf--but they have their "A" game often and they win when they do. Champions may die but they won't go away. Garcia went away on Sunday and that is what makes him different from Tiger Woods.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Bonds Bashes Two Homers, Stands on the Precipice of History

Despite the hopeful wailings of various writers and fans, Barry Bonds broke out of his recent slump by hitting two home runs on Thursday at Wrigley Field in San Francisco's 9-8 loss to the Cubs. He is now just two homers away from tying Hank Aaron on the career home run list--and guess where the Giants are heading to next? Milwaukee, home of Commissioner Bud Selig. Of course, while Bonds is chasing history, Selig is on the case--like Inspector Clouseau. Will Selig be at the games? Will he "boycott" Bonds in deference to Aaron, Selig's friend? Will Major League Baseball perform some kind of ceremony to honor Bonds when he ties and then breaks the record? Who knows? Selig doesn't, that's for sure. At this rate, Selig's long awaited statement about what his exact plans are for the final leg of the home run chase should come out a week or two after it's all over.

I said it before and I'll say it again: Selig is just as responsible for this three ring steroids circus as Bonds, Jason Giambi, Jose Canseco or anybody else, so Selig should be sitting front and center when Bonds makes history. Some people, like ESPN's Mike Wilbon, are speculating that the Giants will sit Bonds out so that he can break the record in San Francisco but I agree with a different Wilbon assertion: Bonds thrives on chaos. Therefore, I think that Bonds, regardless of what he may say, would like nothing better than to tie and then break the record in Milwaukee, figuratively telling the Commissioner--whether he attends or not--exactly where he can stick the baseball, the Mitchell probe and everything else.

Bonds is truly a remarkable athlete. He had been in an 0-21 slump before he launched homer number one in the second inning. That shot left the ballpark and landed on Sheffield Avenue, the first time that has happened this season. Bonds finished with six RBI, the seventh time in his career that he has had at least six RBI and his first such performance since September 22, 2006. Two more home runs will not only tie Bonds with Aaron but also enable him to tie Carlton Fisk's record for most home runs hit by a player after the age of 40 (72).

I liked Barry Bonds a lot as a player before his head, body and home run totals exploded. He was flat out robbed of the 1991 NL MVP when sporswriters, put off by his churlishness, selected Terry Pendleton--and this was when Bonds was a fleet-footed, lean player, not the behemoth that he is now. Anyone who wondered how tough it is to hit home runs in San Francisco found out during this year's Home Run Derby; I think that ESPN's Kenny Mayne is still sitting in his little boat in McCovey Cove waiting for baseballs to leave the park.

That said, there is a mountain of evidence that Bonds is a cheater. All you have to do is read Game of Shadows--or even just this excerpt. Bonds' former trainer, Greg Anderson, is languishing in jail because he refuses to testify to a grand jury that is investigating Bonds' alleged perjury regarding Bonds' alleged usage of illegal performance enhancing drugs. We've been through all of this before with the Pete Rose case two decades ago. Rose denied and denied and denied that he ever bet on baseball and many of us wanted to believe him, in spite of mounds of evidence to the contrary. Then, many years later, Rose wrote a book and admitted the truth. Some day, long after he has broken Aaron's record and retired from baseball, Bonds will likely do the same thing. He'll admit that he juiced up and his excuse will be that everyone else was doing it, that he couldn't stand seeing lesser players passing him up. Don't buy it--the book or the excuse.

If I feel so strongly about Bonds then why do I say that Selig should attend these games? I feel just as strongly about Selig. He is the weak-willed enabler who allowed all of this to happen on his watch; the baseball record book has been hopelessly muddled--not just the home run totals, but everything (the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about is how many pitchers were/are on some kind of juice). There is no way to ever put the record book back together but this is just one more bullet on Selig's resume, which includes a season in which the World Series was canceled and the infamous All-Star Game tie. Since Selig did nothing to stop the juicers from ransacking the records he should not be allowed to hide from the consequences; fifty years from now, he deserves to have his face appear right to Bonds' bloated head in the pictures that are taken after the record breaking home run clears the fences.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Indictment of Michael Vick

Michael Vick has been indicted by a federal grand jury on multiple felony charges related to a dogfighting operation that he allegedly ran at a property that he purchased in Surry County, Virginia.'s Lester Munson explains exactly how much trouble Vick is in--the bottom line is that if this case goes to trial then the proceedings will be held at the so-called "rocket docket," the federal courthouse in Richmond, Virginia that is notorious for how quickly it handles cases, and if Vick is convicted he faces the very real possibility of serving time in jail, perhaps as much as six years.

New NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has initiated a strong player conduct policy that has already led to the suspensions of Adam "Pacman" Jones, Chris Henry and Terry "Tank" Johnson, none of whom are under federal indictment as Vick is. It appears that the indictment alone will not lead to Vick being suspended by the NFL because Vick is not considered a "repeat offender" in the eyes of the league, whereas Jones, Henry and Johnson all had multiple, shall we say, "interactions" with police/legal authorities. Frankly, that is a thin reed for Goodell to stand on and it may fall apart beneath his feet. What if a player's first offense is to be indicted for murder? Would that player not be suspended because he is not a "repeat offender"? The issue is not just how many incidents a player has but the nature and seriousness of those incidents--and multiple federal felony charges constitute a pretty serious "first offense."

If Goodell suspends Vick now then he will be accused of violating Vick's right to due process but that is not really true. Vick is entitled to a fair trial in which he mounts a legal defense to these charges but he has no "right" to play in the NFL; that is a privilege and if the league feels that he has brought shame on its operation then the NFL certainly has the right to punish him for that transgression. People are suspended and fired every day for much less than being indicted on felony charges. Is there any job in this country other than professional athlete in which a person can be indicted by a federal grand jury without it having some ramification regarding his employment?

Goodell and his NFL legal advisers need to handle the Vick situation like every other employer in this country would handle a similar matter; they need to determine if, in their estimation, Vick has truly committed some wrongdoing or not. While the NFL cannot decide if Vick has broken the law the league can certainly ascertain if his actions are appropriate for one of their employees. If it is clear that Vick has acted in a manner that is inappropriate or unbecoming of an NFL employee, then he should be punished just like Jones, Henry and Johnson were; after all, the legal system had not run its course in every situation involving those players prior to Goodell taking action. If the NFL has good reason to believe that Vick is completely innocent, then it should help him mount a legal defense. The NFL cannot go halfway toward addressing player conduct issues and then stop in the middle of the road because Vick is a more prominent player than Jones, Henry and Johnson. Frankly, even if Vick knew nothing about what was going on at the Surry County property he should still be punished in some fashion by the NFL because he certainly should have known what was happening.

The Vick matter is much bigger and more serious than the celebrated cases in Eagle, Colorado involving Kobe Bryant and in Durham, North Carolina with members of the Duke lacrosse team; the latter two situations involved overzealous local police/prosecutors, a rush to judgment despite flimsy or no evidence and the eventual exoneration of Bryant and the Duke lacrosse players. Vick has been the subject of an extensive, methodical federal investigation, it is not disputed that he owns the property in question and there appears to be significant physical evidence that illegal activities transpired there. ESPN's Tom Jackson says that Goodell may have to suspend 20 players over a period of time before the message sinks in that he is serious about changing the conduct of the league's employees (owners and executives are also subject to disciplinary action). Unless Goodell wants to stake his reputation, the NFL's reputation and the fate of his personal conduct policy on the belief that Vick is innocent, he should at the very least fine Vick for conduct detrimental to the league--and then donate the money to an animal shelter. What Vick and his associates are accused of being involved with is deplorable and the NFL should want to strongly condemn this conduct and disassociate itself from it as quickly as possible.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Anticipation and Memory

In passing from the past to the future, we pass from memory and reflection to observation and current practice and thence to anticipation and prediction--Lewis Mumford

Why do we watch sports? We watch sports because they consist of unscripted drama. Prior to a sporting event, we anticipate seeing something wonderful, something that has never been seen before and may never be seen again; we hope that the event will create a memory that lasts a lifetime. When I think of all the games, matches, series and competitions that I have watched, attended or covered, I remember most vividly both that feeling of anticipation--what might happen?--and then that feeling of finality--history has been made. Why do we watch sports? Here are a just few reasons that I have watched over the years, a partial list of one person's memories anticipated and delivered:

*Reggie Jackson blasting three World Series home runs on three swings off of three different pitchers.

*Seeing Walter Payton play in person at the first NFL game I ever attended, a 27-3 Cincinnati preseason win over Chicago on August 19, 1978.

*Lynn Swann's ballet dancer-like moves in the Super Bowl, particularly Super Bowl XIII; he had seven catches for 124 yards as Pittsburgh beat Dallas 35-31 in the first Super Bowl that I remember watching. I hated--and still hate--the Steelers, but Swann was an amazing, aptly named athlete.

*Brian Sipe and the Kardiac Kids providing great thrills--and then devastating disappointment.

*Alcoa's Fantastic Finishes; this clip contains a finish that I found to be less than fantastic, though, as the Steelers bamboozled my beloved Browns. As I recall, this game was blacked out since I lived in Bengals country, so I first heard this finish on the radio before later seeing it replayed about a million times on TV. The Alcoa Fantastic Finishes ads always aired around the two minute warning of NFL games and showcased some of the most amazing endings to NFL games; these commercials were not only exciting but they provided a great history lesson to young fans just learning about the sport.

*Bjorn Borg winning both Wimbledon and the French Open for three straight years (1978-80) en route to capturing 11 Grand Slams by the age of 25.

*Julius Erving's reverse layup against the Lakers in the 1980 Finals.

*Erving and Andrew Toney leading the 76ers to a game seven win over the Boston Celtics in the 1982 Eastern Conference Finals.

*Erving putting the coup de grace on the 76ers' glorious 1983 NBA Championship run by scoring seven points in the last two minutes of the decisive Game Four, closing the books on "We Owe You One."

*Michael Jordan scoring a playoff-record 63 points as his Chicago Bulls lost 135-131 in double overtime to the eventual champion Boston Celtics.

*Bernie Kosar throwing for a playoff-record 489 yards as the Browns beat the Jets 23-20 in a double overtime thriller. Alas, "The Drive" prevented the Browns from making their first ever Super Bowl appearance.

*Erving's "Farewell Tour."

*Bo Jackson showing in his all too brief career that he "knew" how to make breathtaking plays on both the football field and the baseball diamond. His Monday Night Football showdown versus Brian Bosworth and his 1989 All-Star game home run were "must see TV" for any late-80s sports fan. I couldn't wait to watch either game and on both occasions Jackson lived up to the hype. Even his mistakes were exciting. Remember when he used to snap his bat in two over his knee after striking out?

*Michael versus Magic in the 1991 NBA Finals.

*Scottie Pippen's all-purpose excellence lifting the 1994 Chicago Bulls to within one horrible Hue Hollins call of the Eastern Conference Finals.

*Michael Jordan's implacable will driving the Chicago Bulls to a 72-10 record in 1996. Perhaps no team has ever treated even "meaningless" games with such fiery determination--and the Bulls followed that up by going 69-13 in 1997!

*Shaq and Kobe break through to the Finals for the first time, beating Portland in game seven of the 2000 Western Conference Finals.

*New England upsetting St. Louis in the Super Bowl as Bill Belichick devises yet another tremendous game plan.

*NBA All-Star Weekend 2005 in Denver; after a lifetime of watching it on TV, I covered NBA All-Star Weekend in person and had the opportunity to not only interview some of the game's biggest current stars but also to interact with many of my childhood favorites, including the incomparable Julius Erving, who I met for the first time.

*Observing in person the way that LeBron James infused his Cleveland Cavaliers' teammates with the confidence to extend their 2006 playoff series with Detroit to seven games, a prelude to...

*The Cleveland Cavaliers' marvelous run to the 2007 NBA Finals; I covered Games Three and Four in Cleveland, the first NBA Finals games that I saw in person.

*The Cleveland Browns winning the Super Bowl--this is purely in the anticipation realm at this point but, hey, a guy can dream, can't he?

Monday, July 9, 2007

Federer's Fifth Wimbledon Final is One for the Ages

It is most fitting that Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe attended Roger Federer's 7-6 (7), 4-6, 7-6 (3), 2-6, 6-2 win over Rafael Nadal in the Wimbledon final. The victory enabled Federer to match Borg's modern record of five straight Wimbledon championships. Borg, always a gentleman during his competitive years, showed typical class, congratulating Federer and not expressing any anger or disappointment about Federer joining him in the record books. Ironically, in 2001 Borg called Federer to thank him for beating Pete Sampras at Wimbledon, preserving Borg's record by preventing Sampras from claiming a fifth straight title. Clearly, the record is very important to Borg but he is gracious enough not to say or do anything to take away from Federer's moment in the sun.

After the match, NBC's Jimmy Roberts interviewed Borg and McEnroe, who faced each other in the Wimbledon finals in 1980 and 1981. The 1980 match will be forever remembered for the epic 18-16 fourth set tiebreaker, won by McEnroe. McEnroe told Roberts that at the time he thought that he had broken Borg's spirit but Borg responded by taking the fifth set to claim his fifth Wimbledon championship. McEnroe said that this painful loss showed him how the great champions can go to another level and paved the way for McEnroe's win over Borg the following year. Both Borg and McEnroe said that people still come up to them and talk about the 1980 match. McEnroe joked that he tells people he won the famous tiebreaker but neglects to mention who won the match. He sees a lot of parallels between Nadal's loss to Federer this year and the 1980 match and believes that Nadal earned a lot of respect from fans and fellow players by how he battled against Federer. McEnroe believes that his 1980 loss against Borg became a victory of sorts for him because of the match's place in history and because of how it helped his development as a player. He added that Borg was the fittest player on tour and that Borg's relentless energy disheartened his opponents.

Borg had only been back to Wimbledon once since his 1981 match with McEnroe. He told Roberts that Wimbledon is the most special tournament because of all of the traditions associated with it and because it is the oldest Grand Slam. Borg said that his great memories of playing there will last forever and that nothing can take them away. Those memories include a junior Wimbledon title in 1972, reaching the quarterfinals in 1973 the first time that he played in the main draw and of course the five straight championships. Borg posted a 51-4 match record in his nine Wimbledon appearances.

Before Federer took the court for the match with Nadal, Borg expressed his admiration for the Swiss star: "He's an artist on this surface. He can stay back. He can come in. No weaknesses. I believe if he continues the way he's doing and stays away from injuries and has the motivation, he'll be the greatest player ever to play the game." Of course, lack of motivation played a role in the premature end to Borg's career; he retired at about the same age that Federer is now, the holder of 11 Grand Slam titles (Federer's current total), the reigning French Open champion (four times in a row and six titles overall) and a finalist in his last Wimbledon and U.S. Open appearances. It does not appear that Federer will be leaving tennis any time soon, so the only foreseeable roadblocks in his future are injuries and Nadal's continued development. Nadal actually holds an 8-5 head to head advantage over Federer and completely dominates him on clay, including wins in the past two French Open finals; Nadal missed some golden opportunities to break Federer's serve in the fifth set on Sunday, so in 2008 he may very well reprise the 1981 McEnroe-Borg match and force Federer to settle for sharing the record book with Borg. Don't forget that Borg seemed invincible in 1980 after he overcame the loss of the fourth set tiebreaker to again win Wimbledon but he never won the event again and only captured one more Grand Slam title. Will the younger Nadal eclipse Federer on grass next year and become the sport's undisputed number one player or will Federer continue to hold him off as he marches toward Sampras' record of 14 Grand Slam titles? I think that Nadal is closer to beating Federer on grass than Federer is to beating Nadal on clay and that 2008 could very well be Nadal's opportunity to match another Borg feat: winning the French Open and Wimbledon in the same year.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Steroids Can't Help You Hit a Baseball--and Other Nonsense

Some of the things that have been said about steroid usage are really asinine. Here are some myths followed by rebuttals:

1) Taking steroids won't make you stronger; only hard work in the weight room does that.

Duh! Steroids and other performance enhancers enable athletes to work out longer and more intensely without getting fatigued and compound the effects of their lifting regimens. An athlete who is not on steroids cannot work out as long or as effectively as one who is; that is why they are called "performance enhancers," not "miracle grow."

2) Steroids don't improve the hand/eye coordination that it takes to hit major league pitching.

No one is suggesting that non-athletic people have taken steroids and become record-breaking baseball players. What has clearly happened in the past decade or so is that a number of people who already possessed the natural hand/eye coordination necessary to hit major league pitching have dramatically increased their ability to hit baseballs out of the ball park. Yes, Barry Bonds could always hit, as could Ken Caminiti, Jose Canseco, Jason Giambi, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and the rest--but they all enjoyed suspicious power surges right around the same general time. Why do I lump those guys in with Barry "Balco" Bonds? Canseco, Caminiti and Giambi eventually admitted to using steroids, Palmeiro failed a blood test (after defiantly wagging his finger at members of Congress and talking about how clean he is), McGwire disgraced himself in front of Congress (why show up if you have no intention of saying anything meaningful?) and when Sosa appeared before Congress he claimed to not speak English well, which is just as bad as McGwire choosing to not speak at all. Yes, Bonds and Sosa are playing well this year but there is no reliable test for human growth hormone (and who knows what else), so forgive me if I am a bit skeptical of what we're seeing, based on baseball's track record. The drug users and their lab coat wearing accomplices always seem to be one step ahead of the drug testers--but maybe the tide will turn soon in that regard; the house of cards seems to finally be crashing in on cycling a decade late, not that anyone in America will notice or care unless someone turns up a smoking gun (or syringe) regarding Lance Armstrong. Armstrong is a marvelous athlete and an inspiring cancer survivor but it is becoming increasingly hard to believe that the one guy who dominated the Tour de France year after year was the only clean athlete in perhaps the dirtiest sport in the world. I've derived a lot of enjoyment from watching Bonds play baseball and watching (or at least seeing highlights of) Armstrong storm past his rivals but at this point you have to be blind, deaf and dumb to not have strong suspicions about how clean either of them were at the height of their powers.

3) Steroids were not against baseball's rules in the 1990s.

The possession and use of steroids without a prescription is against the law. Anyone--from a high school athlete to a baseball MVP--who uses steroids for other than prescribed medical purposes is breaking the law.

4) Steroids should not be illegal or against the rules; everyone should have access to them and then no one would have a competitive advantage.

Steroids, human growth hormone and other substances that are being used as performance enhancers were not designed for that purpose nor are they safe or healthy when used in that manner; they were developed to help people recover more quickly from injuries or to make up for hormonal deficits caused by disease or other reasons. Long term usage of these substances causes numerous serious side effects; therefore, using these drugs is not in the best interest of the athletes and it is especially not in the best interest of all the youngsters who idolize famous athletes and are inclined to imitate everything that they do.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Taking Stock of Barry Bonds

Thanks to a late surge in fan balloting, Barry Bonds will be one of the National League's starting outfielders in the July 10 All-Star Game, becoming the oldest starter in MLB All-Star history. Many pundits are upset about this, either because they believe that other NL outfielders have put up better numbers than Bonds has or because they believe that Bonds should be ostracized for his alleged use of performance enhancing drugs. The first argument does not carry much weight; in any year and in any sports league it is always possible to speak of certain players being "snubbed" in All-Star voting but Bonds is hardly going to this year's game as a charity case: he leads the National League in walks and on base percentage--and by a wide margin in both categories--ranks second in slugging percentage, is tied for eighth in home runs and is batting over .300. Bonds leads the major leagues in OPS (on base average+slugging percentage), which baseball statheads consider to be a highly important measure of a hitter's overall effectiveness; he also tops the major leagues in intentional walks, a strong indication that he is still the most feared hitter in all of baseball. You may think that Barry Bonds is the devil but you have to give him his due: he is about to turn 43 years old and is still an amazing hitter. Another thing to consider is that this year's All-Star Game is being held in San Francisco, where Bonds has played for 15 seasons. This may be the last year of his career, so even if he were just a marginal All-Star candidate there is certainly justification for letting him have an All-Star curtain call at his home park. Any other player with Bonds' 2007 numbers and rich history in San Francisco would be a lock to make the All-Star team.

What about the second argument, that Bonds does not deserve to be an All-Star because of his alleged steroids use? After all, leaked grand jury testimony indicates that Bonds used steroids (he supposedly claimed that he did so unknowingly) and he may yet face perjury charges for previously testifying otherwise under oath. There is not yet a smoking gun (Bonds has never failed a drug test) but I believe that he did knowingly take steroids and/or other performance enhancing drugs, that this drug use played a role in his increased power production--and that he should nevertheless be a 2007 All-Star. The reason why is simple: Major League Baseball--and Commissioner Bud Selig in particular--deserve for this to happen, with all of the awkwardness that comes with it. I don't know what Selig knew or when he knew it regarding steroid usage in his sport but he should have known early on and done a lot more than he did to nip it in the bud (no pun intended). Instead, Selig did the old "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" routine as players' heads, bodies and home run totals exploded to cartoonish proportions.

Selig is like the "good" Captain Kirk from the Star Trek episode "The Enemy Within"; for those of you who aren't "Trekkers," in that episode a transporter malfunction splits Captain Kirk into two Kirks, one who is "good" and one who is "evil." What we find out is that the "good" Kirk lacks the backbone to make tough command decisions: he sees all sides of every issue and does not want to risk offending or harming anyone. Meanwhile, "bad" Kirk runs around the ship drinking, chasing women and basically just doing whatever he wants, unfettered by any conscience whatsoever. The message is that a great leader must not only be kind and compassionate but also strong-willed and decisive; Kirk needed his "good" and "bad" sides in order to command the ship effectively. There is no doubt that Commissioner Selig loves baseball and wants to do what is best for the game--but the defining image of his reign will always be the infamous 2002 All-Star Game, which ended in a tie when both teams ran out of pitchers and Selig literally threw his hands in the air as if to say, "What am I supposed to do?" You think NBA Commissioner David Stern might have come up with something better and more decisive than that? You can bet your life on it.

Selig's handling of the "steroids era" has been no different: throwing his hands in the air (or burying his head in the sand, if you prefer that analogy) and doing nothing. Now his worst nightmare (short of another labor stoppage) is coming to life: virtually everyone believes that Barry Bonds has cheated and Bonds is about to break perhaps the most hallowed record in all of sports, the career home run record that has been held for three decades by Hank Aaron, a man of exemplary character and dignity--a man who also happens to be Selig's friend. When "recreational" drug use (mainly cocaine) tarnished the image of the NBA in the 1980s, Stern spearheaded a policy that provided help for players who voluntarily turned themselves in while dealing out lifetime bans to repeat offenders who could not get their acts together. He also enacted rules that have curbed fighting and basically ended bench clearing brawls and he has not hesitated to enforce these rules even when they affected the league's top players; star centers Patrick Ewing and Amare Stoudemire had to sit out playoff games a decade apart for leaving the bench area during an altercation. Maybe you like those rules and maybe you don't but Stern lays down the law and enforces it without regard to a player's status. He would not have sat idly by if players were using illegal substances to transform their bodies and rewrite the NBA's record book.

Commissioner Selig should have a front row seat when Bonds plays in next week's All-Star Game--and once Bonds gets closer to Aaron's all-time home run mark he should drop whatever he is doing, hop on a plane and follow Bonds around the country until Bonds breaks the record. After all, in many ways, Selig is as responsible for this travesty as Bonds is.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Bjorn Borg--The Sandy Koufax of Tennis

Roger Federer may tie Bjorn Borg's modern record by winning a fifth straight Wimbledon singles title and he may also eventually break Pete Sampras' career record of 14 Grand Slam singles titles--but is Federer really a greater all-around player than Borg, who could be called the Sandy Koufax of tennis? Koufax put together a marvelous six season run (1961-66) as a Los Angeles Dodgers' pitcher before arthritis cut short his 12 year career when he was just 30 years old; he is the youngest player ever inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Borg's career ended at an even younger age (26) than Koufax' did and he enjoyed a similarly meteoric rise to the top of his sport. Borg is most remembered for the concentrated greatness that he displayed from 1978-80, when he won the French Open and Wimbledon each year, reached the U.S. Open Finals twice, captured 29 singles titles and earned three Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Player of the Year Awards (he also won that honor in 1977).

Well before Borg's unexpected retirement (he played his last Grand Slam in 1981 but did not officially announce his retirement until 1983), many observers felt that he had already proven himself to be the greatest player of all-time. In a September 17, 2003 Tennis Week article, Raymond Lee evaluated the statistics of all players whose careers took place entirely in the Open Era (1968-present). Borg proved to be the runaway winner in Lee's analysis, placing first in seven of the 10 categories considered, including career won-loss percentage (.855), best five year won-loss percentage (.916), career percentage of tournaments won (.483--a staggering number; Jimmy Connors ranked second at .312), percentage of tournaments won during best five year period (.655), percentage of career Grand Slams won (.407--another staggering number; Sampras ranked second at .269), Grand Slams won in best five year period (eight, tied with Sampras) and percentage of Grand Slams won during best five year period (.571). Federer's career was just kicking into high gear when that article was written, so it remains to be seen if he can match Borg's numbers. Federer broke the Borg/Sampras mark by winning 10 Grand Slams in a five year period (2003-07--and he may add this year's Wimbledon and U.S. Open to that list) but Borg retains an edge in most of the categories that are based on percentages, so Federer will have to play even better than he has (and then retire young before he begins to decline) in order to beat Borg in those departments.

Borg's dominance can really be seen in his Grand Slam record. He won at least one Grand Slam title for eight straight years (1974-81), a mark later matched by Sampras. Borg's Grand Slam winning percentage of .898 is the best of the Open Era (Federer's stood at .850 entering this year's Wimbledon). A record five of his Grand Slam titles came in five set matches, showing his mental and physical toughness (Borg's overall record in five set matches, 24-4, is by far the best in the Open Era). Three times he won a Grand Slam singles title without losing a single set (1976 Wimbledon, 1978 and 1980 French Open); only three other players have accomplished this in the Open Era, none of them more than once.

Borg's Grand Slam totals would undoubtedly be even more impressive but for the fact that he only played in the Australian Open once, losing in the third round in 1974, his second season as a pro. In 2001, Borg explained in a interview why he made a habit of not playing in the Australian Open: "When I boycotted the Australian, I was trying to make a statement. I had made my mind up. My point was that a player requires some time to himself, he can't keep rushing from one court to another all the time without a break. They all heard me say that, but no one did anything about it. So I did it myself, I skipped the Australian and gave myself the time I needed. That was the only way that I could think of to do it. I have always played my tennis and lived my life on my own terms. I have no regrets."

He really made his mark at the French Open and Wimbledon, going a combined 100-6 in his matches in those two events. Borg won a record six French Open titles, including a record four straight (1978-81); he retired with a 28 match winning streak at Roland Garros. Borg won his first French Open at age 17 in 1974 and for eight years he held the record as the youngest man to win a Grand Slam singles title. He won Wimbledon for the first time in 1976, the youngest winner in the Open era there until Boris Becker's 1985 triumph. Borg won a record 41 straight matches at Wimbledon, a streak that extended from his first title in 1976 to his loss to John McEnroe in the 1981 Finals.

The only blemish, such that it is, on Borg's Grand Slam resume is that he never won the U.S. Open. Still, he reached the Finals four times in nine tries, losing twice each to Connors and McEnroe, his two main rivals. Borg finished his career with a 15-8 overall record versus Connors and a 7-7 overall record versus McEnroe.

Borg did not lose a match to a younger player until 1977, when he had already been a professional for several years. During his career he set numerous records for being the youngest player to achieve various accomplishments; in addition to being the youngest ever (at the time) to win the French Open and Wimbledon titles, Borg was the youngest player to win a Davis Cup match (1972 at age 15), the youngest Italian Open winner (1974, age 17; this record has since been broken) and the youngest player to win 11 Grand Slam titles (1981 at age 25; Sampras was nearly 27 when he won his 11th, Roy Emerson was 30 and Rod Laver was 31).

Borg has graciously said that he would be happy to see Federer equal or even break his modern record of five straight Wimbledon titles. Federer certainly seems to have a great chance to do that--but can he truly be considered the best all-around player ever without winning at least once on the French Open clay? While Federer is making a run at Borg's Wimbledon mark, Rafael Nadal is likewise challenging some of Borg's French Open standards--but no one before or since Borg has remotely approached winning six French Opens and five Wimbledons, including three straight years of taking both titles. That kind of multi-surface dominance is not likely to be seen again any time soon.