Monday, July 18, 2011

Drama Queens' show closes

With all the emotion, excitement and attention the U.S. women's soccer team stirred up last Sunday with its improbable victory over Brazil in the World Cup, it didn't seem possible that could be topped. But we should have known better. That was, after all, only the quarterfinals.

The Americans ousted France in the semifinal on Wednesday (in regulation, yawn), setting the stage for what appeared to be their coronation this past Sunday, against a Japanese team they had never lost to in 25 games, and had beaten twice already this year. Certainly, Wheaties boxes and appearances on David Letterman and The View were already in the works for Hope, Abby, Alex, Megan and rest of these ladies our country was suddenly on a first-name basis with.

I have to admit I fell under the spell, too. As I sat in a packed Manhattan sports bar (and I had to wait for a seat, by the way) watching the second half before my shift at the New York Post Sunday, I was conjuring back-page headlines for the victory that seemed assured when Alex Morgan scored the game's first goal in the 69th minute.

"American Splendor," "American Beauty" and "U.S. Yea!" were the three that immediately came to mind. Even after the Japanese scored to send the game into extra time, it seemed destiny would have its say, and so it was when Abby Wambach's header gave the U.S. the lead with only 16 minutes to kill.

But as we found out, destiny all depends on your perspective, and which side of the Pacific Ocean you live on. Turns out the Japanese trumped the U.S. on this one; with every victory throughout the tournament, the overachieving Nadeshiko were healing hearts and minds in their tsunami- and earthquake-ravaged homeland.

After each win, they would raise a banner that read, "To our friends around the world -- thank you for your support." In return, their coach, Norio Sasaki, said, "We wanted to use this opportunity to thank the people back home for the support that has been given."

Even U.S. goalkeeper and erstwhile media darling in waiting Hope Solo was driven to say, "I truly believe that something bigger was pulling for that team. And as much as I've always wanted this, if there's a team I could give it to, it'd be Japan."

It can be argued instead of the Japanese taking it, the Americans gave it away. The U.S. took 27 shots to Japan's 14, and hit two goalposts and one crossbar in regulation before the final dagger: the Americans missed their first three penalty kicks (kudos to Japanese goalkeeper Ayumi Kaihori for her kick save against Shannon Boxx), which gave Solo no chance to win it for them.

So perhaps fate did have a hand -- or foot -- in what happened here. I'm reminded of the words of the late John Bauer, a legendary high school football coach I used to cover in Randolph, N.J. It was a rarity when his team lost, but whenever it did, the first thing he'd say, nodding to the opposition, was, "They've got to eat, too."

And how about this: I wonder if anyone standing in the war-torn ruins of bombed-out Frankfurt in 1945 could have even fathomed that one day nearly 70 years later, an international sporting event would be played between the United States and Japan ... there, on German soil? Probably not.

Which might be fate's greatest act of all.

Monday, July 11, 2011

An instant classic, in every way

Every so often, we are treated to a sports event that transcends its usual sphere of influence, bursting outside the lines to take on a greater meaning. In the span of 24 hours this weekend, we were fortunate enough to see two of them.

The first came Saturday, when Derek Jeter recorded his 3,000th hit with, of all things, a home run at Yankee Stadium. And just when we thought The Captain was hoarding all the drama to himself, along came Sunday, with the U.S. women's soccer team's last-gasp comeback and eventual victory over Brazil on penalty kicks in a World Cup quarterfinal game.

We're not going to go down the potholed road of, "maybe THIS will put soccer on the map in the United States," or fly a Title IX flag -- or Brandi Chastain's sports bra -- from the mountaintop and proclaim yet another short-lived victory for women's sports. This isn't about any of that.

What this is about is a celebration of why we love sports, and for those of us lucky enough to do it for a living, it means that much more. Fact is, you didn't have to be a soccer fan -- hell, you didn't even have to be a sports fan at all -- to appreciate the careening emotions, tension and twists and turns, all packed into one game. It absolutely had everything.

This wasn't just about sports. This was about life. There was fleeting success, stolen away and replaced with failure. There was adversity, there was determination, there was redemption, there was an unexpected plot twist, a climax and a denouement. You couldn't have gotten Martin Scorsese or Ron Howard to write a better script.

This game so intrigued me, had I witnessed it in person, it would probably have overtaken some stiff competition to become the best live sporting event I've ever seen. My top two on that list are the Robin Ventura "grand-slam-single" game between the Mets and the Braves in Game 5 of the 1999 NLCS at Shea Stadium, and Michael Jordan's 55-point game against the Knicks in his first game back at Madison Square Garden in 1995 following his brief retirement.

Even if Hope Solo, Abby Wambach and the rest of the U.S. team don't win another game in this tournament -- or their lives, even -- what they accomplished on Sunday secured them a place on the short list of instant sports classics of our time. This is one that will last a lifetime -- an achievement that will never be taken away from them, will never be forgotten.

"It's like a storybook," Wambach said.

Except it really happened.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Derek Jeter from a Mets fan's view

By now, you've probably read all the accolades, all the praise and all the celebration that came pouring down yesterday, not only from the highest seats at Yankee Stadium but from all corners of the sports world after Derek Jeter became the 28th player in big-league history to enter the 3,000-hit club.

You know he became the first Yankee to make the list, the first to do it as a full-time shortstop, only the second to do it with a home run and the fifth-fastest to reach the coveted milestone. That his historic hit was part of a 5-for-5 day that, by the way, included the winning hit that lifted the Yankees to victory over the division-rival Rays, was a sidebar on this day.

Always a model of class and playing the game "the right way," Jeter is one of those rare people who "you never hear anything bad about." (You can discount the hissy fit from the Yankees before the season, when negotiating Jeter's contract extension; that was just negotiation posturing).

Even from this corner, from someone who's a Mets fan, I've always marveled at his consistency and professionalism, perhaps never as much as Saturday.

There have been many Subway Series games watched from my desk at the New York Post, and for the contingent of us who are Queens-leaning, it always seemed whenever the Mets needed a crucial out to escape a jam, more often than not, No. 2 would be walking to the plate.

"Not THIS guy again," one of us would exclaim. And more often than not, it seemed, Jeter would come through. So it was only mildly surprising, when reading down the list of Jeter's 3,000 hits by Stadium, 49 of them came with the Mets as the home team -- 44 at Shea Stadium, and five at Citi Field -- places where Jeter only played three games a season.

In fact, before Jeter's recent visit to the disabled list, it had been a foregone conclusion to many of us that Jeter's 3,000th hit would come at Citi Field. How could it not?

It's in my DNA not to love the Yankees. Granted, not with the vitriol of Red Sox Nation, and there have been a few pinstripes who I've ardently rooted against. Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez are two that come quickly to mind. But when watching Jeter, there comes the perspective that you know you're watching one of the greatest and classiest players to put on a uniform, and especially as time goes on, you relish and appreciate every play, every act, every second. I've had similar feelings watching Lawrence Taylor and Brett Favre; Jeter, of course, comes without the off-field baggage Taylor and Favre lug around.

And when you're witnessing such a dramatic moment that tames the hearts and minds of the most cynical among us, then that's saying something.

Jeter can do it perhaps better than anyone else. And did it again Saturday.