Rafael Nadal as a role model for young athletes

I’ve just come back from visiting my mother a 90 year old tennis fanantic.  I picked up last week’s New York Times Magazine and there, on the cover, is Rafael Nadal, the curremt number one in men’s tennis and as well as the current heartthrob for women.  I look at Nadal and Federer as Borg and McEnroe:  Borg was the pin-up but they could both play tennis.

What really stood out for me in the Times article by Cynthia Gorney is the discussion of Rafael Nadal’s character. Like many professional tennis players,  he has little formal education but he is educated in ways that are perhaps more important.

He signs the balls and the bare arms and the T-shirts. He rumples small boys’ hair. He waits while people press up alongside him to pose for snapshots. The Nadal personality stories that circulate among tournament fans are all variations on a single theme: the young man is educado, as they say in Spanish, not so much educated in the formal sense (Nadal left conventional schooling after he turned pro at 15), but courteous, respectful, raised by a family with its priorities in order. Nadal may have the on-court demeanor of a hit man, as far as the party across the net is concerned, but you will never see this champion hurl his racket during a match.

Nadal is coached by his uncle, Toni Nadal,  and still lives in Majorca in a small town surrounded by relatives.

“It’s about respect,” Toni told me. “It’s really easy for these guys to start thinking the world revolves around them. I never could have tolerated it if Rafael had become a good player and a bad example of a human being. I was at a symposium recently and a trainer said to me, ‘Look, if you ask a young player’s father which he’d rather get at the end of this process — a courteous person or the French Open champion — you know what that father is going to say.’ And I said: ‘No, that’s all wrong. Because if that player is brought up courteous, brought up as a respectful person, he’s got a better chance to reach the championship of the French Open — because it’s going to be easier for him to accomplish the hard work.’ ”

This is what is missing in someone like Kobe Bryant  who appears to think that live evolves around him.  It is not missing – although I think it came close to be missing – in Paul Pierce.  People talk about the current Red Sox team and call people like Jason Bay, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Dustin Pedroia boring, but they appear to have the sense of self that is missing in so many “stars”. 

Rafael Nadal spent three year ranked second in the world with only Roger Federer ahead of him. 

Nadal was a phenomenal No. 2. His No. 2-ness was heroic and inspirational, and he was known to mention it quite cheerfully in press conferences: “I’m not the best, but I am a very good No. 2 in the world.”

The world needs more of this kind of attitude from both the talented kids – and from their parents.

The Current State of Baseball and Illegal Drugs

It is no secret to people who know me or anyone who follows this blog and has read my occasional baseball posts but I love baseball.  I follow certain basketball teams but I really don’t watch unless one of them is playing.  Baseball on the other hand, particularly live baseball is a love.  If it is live, I can watch any two teams at any level play.  I think I like the game so much because it one one of the things that my grandfather who spoke little English and I could watch in common.

This spring training 2009, what is the state of baseball.  Well, I think that the use of steroids is down.  George Vescey writes in the New York Times in his column titled “The Incredible Shrinking Baseball Player.”

Baseball clubhouses seem to be getting bigger this spring, with more room to move around. Or maybe the players are becoming smaller.

Out of the roughly 1,000 major leaguers in spring training camps, a couple of dozen appear to have lost significant weight in the off-season, all in the name of health and agility.

Some of them did it by eating grilled fish. Others played active video games with their children. Some went on diet programs or took up yoga. Others cut back on alcohol. Whatever they did, clubhouse attendants are coming up with smaller uniforms all over Florida and Arizona.

Whether or not it is because they are no longer using steroids or because, like many of us non ballplayers, they are discovering a healthier lifestyle, Vescey can’t say.  But he has his suspicions.

“You have to be a little skeptical, given the context of watching bodies change,” Dr. Gary Wadler, an internist and member of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said Thursday. “The explanation then was that they were eating more and working out more. Now if you hear players say, ‘We changed our ways,’ all you can do is be suspicious.”

But the weight loss can be good.

The model for clean living and technique over brute size is Derek Jeter of the Yankees, whose physique and hitting style have never fluctuated since he came up in 1995. Jeter seemed to be quietly seething last week when having to discuss revelations of steroid use by Alex Rodriguez. Not all of us did it, Jeter veritably hissed. That is an important fact to remember as players assert their inner athlete.

Baseball players did not necessarily need all the bulk they were sporting in the last generation, said Dr. Michael Joyner, deputy director and vice dean for research at the Mayo Clinic, an expert in exercise physiology.

“I think it’s better to say people were going in the easier direction,” Dr. Joyner said, referring to past weight gain. “Athletes are supercompetitive. Many of them are almost sociopaths in almost a friendly way,” he added, saying that players would compete in anything, including body mass.

Dr. Joyner recalled the power of a small hitter like Jim Wynn and a slender pitcher like Ron Guidry, of the 1960s and 1970s. He also praised the immortal lefty Sandy Koufax and the four-time Olympic discus champion, Al Oerter, who combined athletic ability and technique.

Still, thin just may be in. This minitrend has been labeled the Pedroia Effect by Greg Lalas, retired soccer player and writer for Goal.com. He was referring to the 5-foot-9-inch, 180-pound second baseman with the Red Sox who hit .326 with 17 home runs last year and was named most valuable player in his league.

I knew I’d get a reference to a member of the Red Sox in there someplace.

But the big story, at least in my mind, is the tie between the Barry Bonds trial for perjury and the tactics of the Bush Justice Department.  Who knew that all those questionable tactics would come home to roost in the trial of a baseball player for using steroids?

David Zirin writing in The Nation and also appearing of the Rachel Maddow show makes this connection.  His story “The US v. Barry Bonds” begins

This is a story about garbage. There’s the actual garbage overzealous federal investigators examined in their efforts to prosecute a surly sports celebrity. There’s the shredding of the Bill of Rights, crudely ignored by the government in the name of obsession and ambition. Finally, there’s the thorough trashing of people’s reputations, not to mention the game of baseball. Welcome to The US v. Barry Bonds; please disregard the stench.

The embodiment of this obsession was IRS agent Jeff Novitzky. He broke open the BALCO case after spending a great deal of time, to the adulation of the press, literally sifting through garbage and sewage.

Novitzky was given the green light by President Bush and Ashcroft to go for the jugular. In 2004, accompanied by eleven agents, he marched into Comprehensive Drug Testing, the nation’s largest sports-drug testing company. Armed with a warrant to see the confidential drug tests of ten baseball players, he walked out with 4,000 supposedly sealed medical files, including every baseball player in the major leagues. As Jon Pessah wrote in ESPN magazine, “Three federal judges reviewed the raid. One asked, incredulously, if the Fourth Amendment had been repealed. Another, Susan Illston, who has presided over the BALCO trials, called Novitzky’s actions a ‘callous disregard’ for constitutional rights. All three instructed him to return the records. Instead, Novitzky kept the evidence….”

It was a frightening abuse of power, all aimed at imprisoning a prominent African-American athlete. Yet despite the landfills of trash, the government’s case always rested on a flimsy premise. Bonds’s contention under oath was that anything illegal he may have ingested was without prior knowledge. The only person who could contradict Bonds was his trainer and longtime friend Greg Anderson. The government pressed Anderson to give testimony. He refused, citing a promise made by the feds that he wouldn’t have to testify after pleading guilty to steroid distribution and money laundering in 2005. The feds stuck him in jail for thirteen months to soften him up, but he didn’t crack.

We all knew that the Bush Justice Department was completely ignoring the Constitution to keep us safe from terroists, but to convict baseball players who used steroids?  I guess it could be a threat to the American pasttime.

It’s way past time to say enough is enough.

Whether or not you are a Barry Bonds fan, or consider him to be just a step above a seal-clubbing, pitbull-fighting bank executive, every person of good conscience should be aghast at the way the Justice Department has gone about its business. Barry Bonds, Greg Anderson and maybe thousands of others have had their rights trampled on, all for the glory of a perjury case that looks to be going absolutely nowhere. Attorney General Eric Holder and President Obama have strongly indicated that the government is getting out of the steroid monitoring business. That is welcome, but after so many years, so many tax dollars and so many reputations destroyed, it all feels positively Pyrrhic.

You can also watch Dave on the Rachel Maddow Show.

I’m sure that there will be another drug.  And I sure that ball players get through the long season and the travel using the occasional upper, but for now at least healthy living seems to be a trend.

The Real Value of Dustin Pedroia

I hope that the contract extension that was negotiated between the Boston Red Sox and Dustin Pedroia is a sign of good things to come.  We need to end the craziness of the huge smounts of money being paid to sports stars.  I’m not saying that $7 Million a year is chicken feed, but Dustin signed for less than he could have gotten so he can have contract security (through 2015) and stay in a place he loves.  And Boston is happy to have you, Dustin.

Tony Mazzarotti wrote in the Boston Globe the other day

Clearly, Dustin Pedroia could have held out for more. Maybe he should have. But in an age when professional athletes are criticized for making decisions based solely on money, we cannot possibly pass judgment on a deal that seems, in a word, reasonable.

He goes on to quote Pedroia

“I understand all that stuff,” Pedroia said when asked about giving up some of his long-term leverage. “I knew if I had gone year to year I would have made more money. I understand that without a doubt. But I’m in a place where they me treat me and my family unbelievable. I’m happy with this.

“I want to be here. I want to play for the Red Sox,” Pedroia added. “I don’t want to play for anybody else. It seemed right to do something.”

Now if the Sox can only find a catcher.