- The Washington Times - Friday, March 28, 2003

With the baseball season looming, for better or for worse, we'll have another set of larger than life jocks to cheer or jeer, as the mood strikes. Swing that bat, Barry! Hum that pea, Randy! Date every actress in Hollywood and New York, Derek!
It's worth remembering, though, that we shouldn't fall victim to the fallacy that superstars also are super people, because too often they aren't. The latest case is Kirby Puckett. Then there's always Pete Rose, aka Old Unfaithful among the duplicity set.
This is not to say that athletes are any worse than the rest of us when it comes to foibles. In fact, they're just like the rest of us some good stuff, some bad stuff and a lot of stuff in between.
It's called being human.
In the last four decades, you can't find ballplayers more cherished by the multitudes than Rose and Puckett. Both hustled nonstop on the field (and apparently off the field, too, but that's another story). Both said the right things to the media. Both were downright cute Pete because he was so single-minded about the game and so simple-minded otherwise and Kirby because he was chubby, bald and a terrific hitter.
They seemed to symbolize everything good about baseball, at least as many of us used to visualize it in the days when the top players made $100,000 a year rather than $10million.
Now let's flash forward through 30 or 40 summers and winters of our discontent with rounders.
Pete Rose, chronic gambler and convicted tax evader, turns down an invitation to sit in the owner's box on Opening Day at Cincinnati's new ballpark because, it is speculated, he wants to do nothing that might jeopardize his chances of being reinstated by pseudo commissioner Bud Selig. Charlie Hustler obviously felt that doing so would be too risky a bet.
Kirby Puckett, the lovable Teddy bear whose playing days were ended abruptly by glaucoma in 1996, probably wouldn't be able to attend the Twins' opener if he wanted to; he is on trial in Minnesota on charges of sexual assault by a woman who claims he fondled her and attempted to drag her into a men's room.
This is the latest negative note in a careening post-career life that has seen him gain a great deal of weight and lose a great deal of luster in the eyes of those who idolized him. Kirby, it is said, cheated on his wife so often that she left him. Not only that, it is said, he cheated just as much on his longtime mistress.
Last week Sports Illustrated ran a story titled "The Secret Life of Kirby Puckett," accompanied by cover photos of the young, adorable Kirby and the gloomy, flat-out fat current version. As with Rose, we feel perhaps unwarranted sympathy for him because with his downfall, many of our illusions also crashed.
There is ample precedent. There have been suggestions and/or evidence in subsequent years that Babe Ruth was a constant womanizer, Lou Gehrig a surly loner, Joe DiMaggio a self-centered prig, Mickey Mantle a galloping alcoholic.
Do trusting fans acknowledge that these pinstriped immortals had entire bodies of clay? In most cases, of course not. Why, just look at those monuments and memorials beyond the outfield walls at Yankee Stadium …
And consider the greatest example of all that our heroes can let us down. Once he sprinted through airports and leaped through air into rental cars; later he led a squadron of police cars along a Los Angeles freeway in his white Bronco; still later he tried on a glove while a nation watched, agog. The O.J. Simpson trial divided America in a way that recalled the bad, old days when Jim Crow strode the land.
I prefer to remember O.J. with a football under his arm, shaking off tacklers like small children on behalf of Southern Cal or the Buffalo Bills in other words, at his best rather than at his worst or most dubious.
I feel the same about Pete Rose, Kirby Puckett and all the icons to come. If their athletic skills warrant our admiration, so be it. We don't need to elevate them as human beings, too, because surely they are less perfect somewhere else.
Writer Frank Deford put it well at the end of his SI piece on Puckett: "How much, it seems, we need to lionize boys and men who play games so much better than we do."
Often we forget that our sports heroes are doing just that playing games and when real life intrudes, many of them hide their heads in the sand of a fantasy world. But that doesn't mean we have to join them.

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