April 19, 2007

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LONGSHOTS: Lessons to be learned from Robinson, Monarchs and I-Man
by Dave Long

There are many types of pressure in sports. Thereís the kind where the game is on the line and you need a big play to send everyone home happy. Then thereís the kind where you need to do well just to keep your job. Thereís handling failure with grace after giving it away and everyone is on your case or when the entire world is watching (or so it seems) and success has far bigger ramifications than just your personal benefit. And there is pressure that has nothing to do with sports beyond a personís bringing all kinds of it down on themselves for saying something about a topic that is simply related to sports.

Long ago Sox centerfielder Reggie Smith correctly said before the 1977 World Series that pressure is losing your job with four mouths to feed. Still, how you handle pressure at the moment of truth has a way of defining you. Folks love Tom Brady because he comes through when it counts and for his humility when he does. For Calvin Schiraldi itís another story. So, in a way, handling pressure is the essence of sports, at least at the high levels.

All of those sports pressures are in the news this week and offer lessons to be learned. The Manchester Monarchs, for instance, begin their quest this week to advance past the first round of the playoffs after failing to do so in all five years of their existence. That happens in the same week baseball celebrates the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking its color barrier ó where he endured unspeakable invectives from racists to show black America what was possible. And then there was the national firestorm surrounding the idiotic comments of Don Imus that got him fired.

In the case of the I-Man, itís not a sports story, but it dominated Sports Center because it involved the womenís basketball team at Rutgers. It was a textbook display of what not to do when you do something idiotic, let alone after stepping over a line that just must not be crossed. He handled it like Bobby Knight would in telling everyone to take a flying leap and then couldnít recover as pressure mounted after he came to his senses and apologized. By then Pandoraís Box was wide open and the story mushroomed into one involving race, prejudice, free speech, hip-hop and everyone but Barack Obama and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir had weighed in before it was 24 hours old. It also showed Al Sharpton has the clout to make a company like CBS quake in its boots ó which was stunning in itself.

The only thing not mentioned was the most important thing to be learned by the women from Rutgers. Itís an oldie, but a goody. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me. That doesnít mean I-Man shouldnít have gotten whacked and it certainly wonít get Sharpton the publicity he craves. But this probably wonít be the last time the offended parties face something like this and the best way to deal with it comes from inner strength, which doesnít allow ANYONE to make you a victim with mere words, no matter what they are.

Inner strength was on display as Robinson faced the pressure of integrating baseball 60 years ago this week with everyone watching. Brooklyn GM Branch Rickey knew how important that was too. Itís why he picked Jackie, who he believed had the strength not to fight back at the bigotry he was sure to face. Itís what let him stay silent amid the taunts as he brilliantly became the Rookie of the Year in 1947 and then MVP two years later despite the immense pressure. And it helped millions who faced discrimination denying them jobs, admission to restaurants and access to whites-only restrooms believe it all could change. And it makes the uproar over offensive words that somehow Chris Rock is allowed to say in this country and an aging Caucasian isnít seem so small by comparison.

Thereís a lesson for the Monarchs in Robinsonís Dodgers as well. Despite being a terrific team, Brooklyn faced growing pressure from being a team that couldnít get it done when it counted most. They faced the Yankees in the 1947, í49, í52 and í53 World Series and lost every time. They also lost the pennant to Philly on the last day in 1950 and blew a 13-game lead with six weeks to go in 1951, which ended with Bobby Thompsonís shot heard round the world. Not until Johnny Podres beat the Yanks 2-0 in game seven of the series in 1955, nine years into his career, did Robinson finally get over the hump.

In getting knocked out of the playoffs in round one five years in a row, getting over the hump is what the Monarchs need to do. Jeff Eisenberg told me a while back, players donít think about a negative streak, especially when many havenít been part of it. I respectively disagree with El Presidente. Theyíll hear about it from knuckleheads like me, because despite a fabulous regular season, itís the story of every playoff until they finally advance. And fans will let them know about it too if things start badly. Thatíll add to the pressure, especially when the playoffs are the time to get noticed by the people who sign the really big checks in L.A.

The good news is they ainít the first team needing to get over the hump. L.A. lost to the Celtics in eight straight NBA finals before beating them in 1985. The Pistons lost three times to Bird and company before finally beating them and owned the Bulls until Michael finally slayed that dragon in 1991. And Iím sure thereís a post-Andy Bathgate hockey analogy here, but I canít think of one. Although, Iíll bet it involves Montreal, Boston and too many men on the ice if there is one.

The trials that come under such pressure teach mental toughness. Along with good goaltending, thatís whatís needed most to win in the playoffs. Itís what Ron Hextall said he wanted in his new team upon taking over last summer. In rolling up an impressive 110 points theyíve had a great regular season, but weíve seen that before. So with the playoffs at hand, itís time to see if come this time next year theyíll still be looking to get over the hump or become the kind of team that sees pressure as an ally that makes those who embrace it so much better.

Dave Long is host of Home Team Saturday with Dave Long and Company, 10 a.m. to noon each Saturday morning on WGAM (1250 AM in Manchester and 900 AM in Nashua).


4/12/2007 A few questions for the sports gods

4/5/2007 Stanton his case on a variety of current topics
3/29/2007 Sox spring back into action on Monday
3/22/2007 A guide for having fun on NCAA hockey weekend
3/15/2007 The madness of March kicks off on Thursday
3/8/2007 Jumping through hoops after an odd season
3/1/2007 A trip to the mail bag for Hippo Sports
2/22/2007 Six degrees of Muhammed Ali
2/15/2007 Monarchs rule as streak reaches 12
2/8/2007 Talking a good game ahead on all-sports WGAM
2/1/2007 Manning the Super Bowl watch more difficult in '07
1/25/2007 Winning and what else matters in college coaching
1/18/2007 ESPN polls are fanning the flames of national lunacy
1/11/2007 Patriots marching to MIami promised land
1/4/2007 Predictions for 2007
12/28/2006 REcognizing the best on the national front
12/21/2006 Present under the tree for all
12/14/2006 Mailbag open for busines at a time filled with questions
12/07/2006 Lions and Gators and Bears, oh my
11/30/2006 Does Fenway frankness roll to the negative side?
11/23/2006 Turkeys and thanks as the big day arrives
11/16/2006 Green-around-the-gills Celts looking to earn some respect
11/9/2006 Blame game reaches new local low
11/2/2006 A week of highs and lows in sport
10/26/2006 Curses! The U is foiled again
10/19/2006 Time for a trip to the sports mailbag
10/12/2006 U turns Granite Stare around on football
10/05/2006 James' gang riding into town to face the Celtics
09/28/2006 Words to describe a lost Red Sox season
09/21/2006 Football Friday can't stack up to Saturday
09/14/2006 A lesson to be learned in remembering a somber day
09/07/2006 Usual pat choice to win AFC East questioned
08/31/2006 Whining won't yank AL East away from NY
08/24/2006 Spring forward or fall behind for Sox
08/17/2006 Trash talking abounds in the Empire over Sox and Pats
08/10/2006 Monarchs call press conference to crown new leader
08/03/2006 Deadly Fenway duo leave mark on history
07/27/2006 Word of the wise gets lost in sports translation
07/20/2006 Looking beyond the Big Three
07/13/2006 Cream rises to the top of baseball talk at the Dot
07/06/2006 Greetings and salutations toThe Nation at mid-year
06/29/2006 Being dealt is a consequence of the trade
06/22/2006 A year later, Boudreau's cup runneth over
06/15/2006 See dogs and cats battle for a different fan experience
06/08/2006 Not Bad Anymore league makes a comeback
06/01/2006 Luck goes Sox way with Lowell in Massachusetts
05/25/2006 Pitching in to help the Sox trade a few places
05/18/2006 Going to school by cutting Red Sox payroll
05/11/2006 Columnist blows his mind; here are the results
05/04/2006 Yanks stormed Manchester 37 years ago this week
04/27/2006 Regular crowd nowhere to be found come playoff time
04/20/2006 Questions and answers from the mailbag
04/13/2006 Local sports teams spring into action
04/06/2006 Predictable Red Sox season lies ahead
03/30/2006 Analyzing this and that as Pats roster shrinks
03/23/2006 A week of following the bouncing balls
03/16/2006 The beginning of four days of basketball bliss
03/09/2006 Many miss the central point of the story
03/02/2006 Better late than never to jump through local hoops
02/23/2006 Celtic green means raw, not envy as it once did
02/16/2003 An issue that is all black and white
02/09/2006 Nomar curses from the UL's Sullivan
02/02/2006 Super memories from 40 years of watching the big game
01/26/2006 A certain uniformity to the inquiries in the mailbag
01/19/2006 Sudden end to Pats' season leave just one thing to do
01/12/2006 Pats on the back for the football team
01/05/2006 Predictions for Manchester Sports 2031
A lesson for Leo the Lip and nice guys everywhere

Chop House opening is Berra of good news
Event-filled weekend missed en route to evil empire
Heroís death lays to rest misuse of the word
Saint Theo ascends to new heights in The Nation
Santa sack filled to the brim with sports
Patriots march through injuries toward threepeat
Sports talk should be on the air
Stars shine brightest when winning is in the mix
The†Demonization of Johnny Damon
Thirty-seven topics and so little space
Too many holes in Sox for repeat
Trip to the injured list makes it a long weekend for local scribe
Turkeys and giving thanks take center stage this week
Yanked from the edge of your seat