- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2006

Getting involved in a hunting accident — as either the shooter or the shootee — is never a great career move, as our vice president is discovering. It probably cost Greg LeMond, what, two Tour de France titles?

In 1986, you may recall, LeMond stunned the cycling world by becoming the first American to win the Tour. And the following spring, he stunned the cycling world again by getting riddled with shotgun pellets, 60 of them, while trying to sneak up on a turkey in California. (His brother-in-law didn’t see him hiding behind a bush.) Cost LeMond two years of his competitive life — after nearly costing him his life, period.

Miraculously, he came back to win the Tour again in ‘89 and ‘90, but who knows what he might have accomplished if he hadn’t been pedaling around with a bunch of birdshot in him. Lance Armstrong might still be chasing him.

Hardly a week goes by that there isn’t a gun episode in sports — a gun in a glove compartment, a gun in a gym bag, a gun being brandished by an athlete or one of his boyz. We’ve had our fair share of hunting escapades, too; and like LeMond’s, they don’t usually turn out well.

Bob Knight’s image, for instance, was hardly enhanced when he mistakenly blasted a friend with a 20-gauge shotgun while grouse hunting in Wisconsin in 1999. And the situation only got worse when (a) it came out that Knight didn’t have a license, and (b) the friend sued, claiming the coach tried to pressure him into lying about the incident to head off possible legal problems.

Eleven months later, the General was court-martialed by Indiana University president Myles Brand, told to pack up his basketballs and go home. I’m not suggesting any cause and effect here, because a lot of things went into that decision. I’m just saying that stuff seems to happen when sports figures get caught up in these Unfortunate Events.

Another example: Ken Caminiti. Eight days after Knight shot the wrong grouse, the Astros’ third baseman fell out of a deer blind during a hunting trip in Texas, fracturing his lower back in three places. At the time, it was viewed as merely a bad break. Caminiti, after all, was just three years removed from an MVP award and was still putting up good numbers. But if we knew then what we know now, knew about his admitted steroid use and substance abuse, we might well have asked: What was he smoking/swigging/snorting?

Indeed, it’s hard not to look at Caminiti’s tumble from that tree as the beginning of his descent into oblivion. He played only two more seasons, bouncing from Houston to Texas to Atlanta, and his output tailed off markedly at the end. Five years from the date of his hunting mishap — almost to the day — he died of a drug overdose.

Not that all these stories have unhappy endings. Ever see the Jimmy Stewart movie, “The Stratton Story” — about the White Sox pitcher in the ‘30s who accidentally shot himself while hunting rabbits, had to have his right leg amputated and then returned to star in the minors? Every bit of it’s true — except, of course, for the part about Monty Stratton being married to June Allyson.

Then there’s Clyde Sukeforth. He was a catcher with the Reds about a decade earlier. Batted .354 one year as a part-timer. Anyway, Sukeforth went hunting in Ohio after the ‘31 season and wound up with some birdshot in his right eye. Needless to say, he was never the same hitter after that, though he managed to hang on for three more seasons.

The last team he played for, the Brooklyn Dodgers, gave him a scouting job. One day in 1945, Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey sent him to Chicago to check out a prospect in a Negro League game, a kid named Jackie Robinson.

“The more we talked the better I liked him,” Sukeforth told Donald Honig in “Baseball When the Grass Was Real.” “He was tough, he was intelligent and he was proud.”

Sukeforth took Robinson back to Brooklyn, where he got to witness one of sports history’s great moments: the first meeting between “The Mahatma” — Rickey — and the man who would break baseball’s color line and change the game forever.

“When [Rickey] met somebody he was interested in, he studied them in the most profound way,” Sukeforth says in the book. “He just stared and stared. And that’s what he did with Robinson — stared at him as if he were trying to get inside the man. And Jack stared right back at him. Oh, they were a pair, those two! I tell you, the air in that office was electric.”

Robinson signed with the Dodgers and … you know the rest. He became a fabulous ballplayer, a Hall of Famer, a legend. But then, Rickey had a feeling he would be. So did Sukeforth. It couldn’t have been plainer. You could see it even if you only had one good eye.

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