The Cohen Chronicles: More Than Just a Game
It wasn’t supposed to end like this.
The ageless Mariano Rivera, crumpled in a heap in the Kauffman Stadium outfield after tearing his ACL while shagging fly balls in batting practice. The great Pat Summitt, who won the most games of any coach in NCAA basketball history, steps away from the game she loves after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. Two of the greatest ever at their respective positions potentially forced into premature retirement by circumstances entirely beyond their control in a 15-day span.
Some may dismiss these happenings with the age-old adage “It’s just a game,” but the effects of these two consummate professionals go far beyond their mere effects on the game.
Let me say this first: it is far from set in stone that Rivera will not return to pitch in 2013. He has vowed that he will return next season, but at age 42, will he be able to successfully rehab and return to his devastating form? Watching Rivera work his magic may be tantamount to turning back the clock to Rollie Fingers, the man who defined the modern closer role, but Father Time is not known for his paternal love.
Rivera was supposed to go out with one last clinic in ninth-inning domination, against another trio of batters helpless against the cut fastball they know is coming. And yet, in a bit of cruel irony, the very same activity Rivera credits for his longevity may well have recorded the 27th out of his illustrious career.
I’m an unabashed Yankee-hater. I’ve made that clear in this space countless times over the past three years. But any true baseball fan is both awed by the dominance of Rivera and respectful of the professionalism with which he has gone about his business since the first Clinton administration.
And Rivera isn’t even the most momentous loss of the spring. If Rivera is to the sports world what Jay-Z is to hip-hop music, a timeless professional widely acknowledged as one of the greatest of all time, Pat Summitt is sports’ Run-DMC, one of the most influential figures in its history.
Summitt, who announced in August 2011 that she had been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, officially stepped down on April 18 and assumed the role of Head Coach Emeritus. After 38 years, eight titles, 1,098 victories, and seven Coach of the Year honors, it all came to a halt. No individual played a greater role in the ascension of women’s college basketball than Summitt, who began working as a graduate assistant at Tennessee before women’s basketball was even an NCAA-sanctioned sport. To see her career ended at age 59, two wins shy of 1100, by a debilitating brain disease, is a tragedy that Shakespeare would never have been able to compose in his darkest moments.
Again, everyone reading this probably knows I’m a UConn fan, and it’s no big secret that Summitt and UConn head coach Geno Auriemma don’t have the greatest relationship (Witness Summitt’s cancellation of the UConn-Tennessee series in 2007 after she accused UConn of violations in the recruitment of superstar Maya Moore). But would college basketball fans have had any reason to be incensed at the end of this series if Summitt had never picked up a whistle and clipboard in Knoxville in 1974? In the absence of Summitt’s unceasing devotion to growing the game, would the Tennessee women’s basketball head coach have been named Connecticut “Enemy of the State” in a 2005 Sports Illustrated poll? The answer, on both counts, is a resounding “no.”
Whether the rivalry meetings came in the regular season or postseason, whether the Lady Vols cut down the nets in April or failed to advance past the first weekend, there were undoubtedly many more chapters to be written in a storybook career. And though she will remain involved with the Tennessee program, the absence of Pat Summitt from the bench will be felt in 2012-13, 2013-14, and beyond.
Two Hall of Fame careers: One coming to a screeching halt thanks to the disease that claimed Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston, the other potentially meeting the same fate after trying to escape the fourth dimension. Yes, baseball and basketball are just games. But the collective impacts of these two individuals were so much more.