Insights: Sports

As the number of injured professional athletes rises, compensation is finally catching up

I have a dirty little professional secret: in more than a couple of decades of sportswriting, I have habitually performed mental body English against the Yankees and Notre Dame and the old Boston Celtics.

"Please, Lord," I have whispered in press galleries around the world, "anybody else but these guys" -- obviously to little avail, as long as they could play.

However, for some reason surely not to my credit, I seem to have absolutely no problem with the whippy athlete in the cranberry-colored shirt winning golf championship after championship.

I accept Tiger Woods as unparalleled sporting greatness, and feel comfortable living in his world.

And it's not just me. Among the general populace, there seems to be hardly a smidgen of resentment for the way Tiger racked up the Masters in April, thereby holding all four major championships at the same time.

Fans even seem willing to ignore the tradition of golf, and grant him the Grand Slam.

That's a bit much for me. One of these years Tiger may even win the real Grand Slam -- four in one calendar year, accomplished only once -- and more power to him when he does.

Vox populi wants to give it all to Tiger, right here, right now. As the disc jockey said, "Don't they know? You can't stop rock 'n roll."

I do not need to tell you it is not always that way. More often than not, athletes trying to break records run into a retro brand of sentimentality.

Old crocks grumble that the old players were better, and besides, times were harder, and equipment was shoddier, and the money today corrupts everything, so bah-humbug on Iverson (Jeter, Manning, Hingis, Jagr, Zidane, etc., etc.).

You don't even have to follow golf to marvel at Woods. I acknowledge golf as a sport demanding skill and stamina, but I don't have the time or money to commit to what could obviously become an obsession. And I say Tiger Woods is a tremendous athlete.

People were not that kind to Henry Aaron, an absolutely superb ballplayer who approached Babe Ruth's record for home runs only to discover sacks of hate mail piling up in his locker. Aaron's big sin, back in 1974, was being African-American, but he was also guilty of challenging the great Bambino. To this day, I bet more baseball fans could recite Ruth's career total (714) than Aaron's (755). That's just the way it is.

Aaron is not alone. Pete Sampras felt a huge segment of tennis fans tugging on his backswing when he broke Roy Emerson's record of 12 Grand Slam titles last year at Wimbledon.

Maybe it was the way Pete trudged around with his shoulders hunched and his eyes averted and his mouth hanging open, almost sheepish in appearance, but the general public harbored enough ambiguity about him to set up a support group for Good Old Emmo, who was not even in the top three Aussies of his era.

Somehow, Woods is different. He's not even that warm or accessible, but rather a motivated and remote one-man multinational corporation. He has done nothing major to tick off the public, which has the good sense to appreciate his domination.

I have to admit it wasn't that way for me back in 1998, when I had absolutely no problem rooting for Roger Maris and Babe Ruth to hang in there.

It was nothing personal. Mark McGwire is a trifle testy, but he carried himself well under intense pressure. I was essentially numb to the fact that McGwire was bulked up with androstenedione, a chemical deemed illegal by most sports except Major League Baseball. If he grows two heads by the time he is 50, that is his business. Sammy Sosa was a prince, but it would not have bothered me in the slightest if he and McGwire had gone 0-for-September.

The reason was that, as a young reporter, I had covered Roger Maris during the 1961 season. Maris was a really good player -- an instinctive athlete with a great arm, deceptive speed on the bases, and the perfect stroke for Yankee Stadium, and for most of that season he showed a twitchy gallows humor about most baseball fans rooting for Mickey Mantle as well as the Babe.

Knowing all that, Maris went out on the last Sunday of the
season and stroked one more home run, his 61st. He beat the mob. Thirty-seven years later, I had no problem rooting for him as McGwire swatted 70 homers and Sosa hit 66. And good for them.

Race was not an issue between McGwire, who is white, and Sosa, a Dominican of color, and race is virtually a nonissue for Woods, who has a Thai mother and an African-American father.

Michael Jordan was responsible for transcending race. He got to endorse major brands, won six championships, talked trash, swaggered, and backed it up. In a team sport, Jordan was blessed with worthy opponents, who beat him sometimes, but it is hardly Tiger Woods's fault that he has no Bird, no Magic.

Tiger's only opponent is the course. He is in a world of his own even though the Masters was merely his sixth major, compared with
the 18 won by Jack Nicklaus. One-third there, people said.

With his four straight majors in a demanding age, Tiger seems at the pinnacle with Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting steak, Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game and 50 points-per-game average for an entire season, Byron Nelson's victories in 11 straight golf tournaments, Edwin Moses's 122 consecutive victories in the 400-meter hurdles and Johnny Unitas's 47-game touchdown passing streak.

Tiger is already up there with Mark Spitz's seven swimming gold medals and seven Olympic records at the 1972 Summer Games, Eric Heiden's five Olympic speedskating gold medals in 1980, Bob Beamon's long jump of 29 feet 2 1/2 inches in Mexico City, in 1968, which lasted 23 years but seems permanent, eternal, because it was accomplished in the rarefied air of the Olympics.

Fans are generally classicists about records. Martina Navratilova won six straight Grand Slam championships in a string that straddled 1983 and '84, but never captured all four titles in one calendar year. Her tennis federation handed over the $1 million bonus it had put aside for a true Grand Slam, but very quickly the public said, "No way, gotta do it in one calendar year."

Maybe Martina was a bit too smart and outspoken for everybody at the time. Four years later, in 1988, Steffi Graf won all four major championships in one year plus the Olympic gold medal in Seoul -- a Golden Grand Slam, it was dubbed -- yet the chorus grumbled, "She is no Martina." That's the way it works.

Contemporary athletes usually are held in suspicion because of modern luxuries. The baseball is juiced and so are the players. (McGwire has chemists while Babe Ruth trained on vats of beer.) Tennis players use graphite racquets that are Uzis next to Rod Laver's wooden pea-shooter.

Tiger's clubs and golf balls are the equivalent of a spaceship compared with the Lindbergh-age equipment that Bobby Jones used back in his true Grand Slam back in 1930, but nobody seems to hold that against Tiger.

There is some other factor going. The crowd likes pizzazz. It loves a certain invincibility. But very few athletes go beyond numbers into the realm of supernatural heat or cool. Jim Brown. Sandy Koufax. Muhammad Ali.

Ultimately, there are two athletes with whom I can compare Tiger Woods.

One is Wayne Gretzky, who holds 61 separate hockey records, not one of which I could specify.

What endures is the image of this willowy artiste flitting through the scrum, flicking the puck between the stolid legs of defenders, tossing a pass to himself off the cushy strings of the net, snaking his way around to the other side, and poking a goal so subversive that the goal judge had to blink three times before pushing the button for the red light.

A few people grumped that Gretzky was not an all-purpose grappler and defender as well as scorer -- like Gordie Howe, specifically. Gretzky just smiled and paid homage to the heroes of the past, the way Tiger Woods does.

Then there is the four-legged athlete named Secretariat. In 1973, the big red brute won the Kentucky Derby and then the Preakness, and in the Belmont, the third leg of the Triple Crown, he thundered around the mile and a half like a god alone in his own universe.

Thirty-one lengths. As long as thoroughbred racing exists, that number will blow the mind.

Tiger Woods combines the best of Gretzky and Secretariat. There is a serenity to him, a blend of willpower and technique.

He has broken the chain of loyalties. When Ben Hogan came along, he was challenging Bobby Jones. When Arnold Palmer came along, he was challenging Hogan. When Nicklaus came along, he was seen as some hulking golden whippersnapper challenging the avuncular Palmer.

Now along comes Eldrick Woods. Since he was a little boy, we have been hearing about him. This is one of those extremely rare times when all the hype comes true.

He exists in his own vacuum. There is no point dusting off any nostalgia. Tug on Tiger's backswing? Don't bother.


George Vecsey is a sports columnist for The New York Times.