Category Archives: Baseball

Why the San Francisco Giants are a different kind of team for the ages

I was always jealous of fans who got to enjoy a universally-acclaimed great team. Why couldn’t I have got to experience what it felt like to follow the 1986 Boston Celtics, 1978 Portland Trailblazers or the 1970 New York Knicks, squads whose unselfish team-play became the high watermark in the NBA?

Or a football team like Barcelona who annually impose their beautiful style on opponents as they pass, pass, pass their way to domestic and European titles?

The World Series triumph of the San Francisco Giants has changed all this for me. I can’t pretend I’ve been a fan long enough to enjoy Bruce Bochy’s men bringing an end to 56 years of torturous hurt. I don’t have the privilege of being from the Bay Area and rejoicing in the story of my local team winning it all.

Hell, I live more than 5,000 miles away from The City. But, as I outlined a week or so back, the Giants are a team that even someone halfway across the world can (and, in my case, did) fall in love with. They are a team worth taking an 11-hour flight to see in the flesh (at least) once a season.

Even people who were closest to this Giants team will acknowledge they won’t be remembered for being as dominant as the teams mentioned above. They didn’t have the best hitters. People said they didn’t have the best pitchers (until results proved otherwise). They epitomized team play and selflessness in a different way. They humanised it.
This team triumphed not because of a huge payroll or MVP-calibre players.

They triumphed through qualities that are much less tangible: clutch performances under pressure; defensive work-rate; the ability to park individual egos, work together and enjoy each other’s successes.

No wonder Giants fans responded the way they did. This was a team that made you want to take a day off work and travel south to take over an opposition ball park. And this fervent support just served to invigorate the players that much more.

So many sporting triumphs end up getting credited to one or two players. Rarely is a championship attributed to the hard work of the entire roster. In this Giants season, every player had a chance to be a hero and most of them grabbed the opportunity with both hands.

Edgar Renteria’s hitting and the shutdown pitching of Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum and bearded phenom Brian Wilson seem the standout performances right now. But wind things back a week or two and you’d be citing Juan Uribe’s clutch hits, Cody Ross’ emergence as a play-off clean-up slugger, Javier Lopez’s almost unfair dominance over the vaunted Philadelphia offence.

That’s not even counting Madison Bumgarner’s victorious eight inning effort in game four of the World Series. Or Jonathan Sanchez’s pitching (and hitting) against San Diego that got the Giants to the playoffs in the first place.

This team will be remembered for its collective strength and unselfishness. Aubrey Huff laying down the first ever sacrifice bunt of his long Major League career might jump out here. Or Pablo Sandoval, despite losing his starting spot, staying ready to produce a meaningful pinch hit late in a game.

I’d prefer to highlight how Barry Zito handled the embarrassment of being kicked off the post season roster only to attend every single game, in uniform, ready to offer advice and assistance to the team’s young pitching guns.

In an age where egotistical athletes, egged on by their agents, often make team chemistry seem like an unattainable fantasy, Zito – however hurt he must have felt inside – was a class act. More than anyone, he deserved the cheers he received from the orange multitudes at yesterday’s victory parade.

That’s why, as an Englishman who watched or listened to about 90% of this season’s games (as I’ve done for the last three years) and saw four of them live (much to my wife’s ongoing chagrin), I can say I’ve never enjoyed supporting a team as much as this. Regardless of the geography, you can’t call me a bandwagon jumper.

This team made me want to live and die with them so many times this year. It’s just that I was usually empathizing with them between 3am and 6am.

The national media can call the 2010 Giants castoffs or misfits. Some Bay Area fans may be offended at this description. I don’t think it matters. And here’s why.

Behind the rally thongs, facial fuzz and references to Prop 19 lays the collective heart of champion. I know this because I watched Buster Posey get interviewed during the procession to Civic Center Plaza.

The interviewer tried to tell him not to expect this sort of thing to happen every year. Buster’s reply? “Why not?”.

And he’s right. The Giants have young pitching talent, heart and time on their side. This World Series triumph shouldn’t be viewed as the end of a title drought, rather the birth of something truly special and (whisper it) the start of a potential a baseball dynasty.


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How I fell in love with the San Francisco Giants

Just because I live 5,371 miles away (thanks Google) from AT&T Park, don’t label me a bandwagon San Francisco Giants fan.

I know what writing this column looks like – professing love for a team that’s just reached the World Series is more than enough to set the ‘bandwagon fan’ siren squealing.

But you’ll just have to trust me on this one.

I wanted to write this column 18 months ago after taking in my first Giants game and falling hook, line and sinker for the charms of AT&T Park.

I should have written this column six months back when, thanks to a certain volcanic ash cloud, I ended up spending most of April in San Francisco and went to see four more Giants games.

I expected to write this column at the end of the regular season when I was certain the Giants’ 2010 run would end.

Two playoff series later, the team is still alive and kicking. It’s 11 hours since Brian Wilson struck out Ryan Howard and sent every Giants fan into celebratory orbit.

So I’m writing this column now. And if you think that makes me a bandwagon fan, I guess I’ll just have to live with it.

How it started

I’m an NBA guy at heart but I’ve flirted with baseball (and British TV’s paltry coverage of it) for 10 years or so. But two (inevitably east coast) games a week wasn’t enough to pique my interest fully. It also made it impossible to uncover a team whose character, players and style were right for me.

I had to go and see a live game. And when I eventually did so, everything changed.

In England, we don’t really have anything quite like a ball park. I guess a cricket ground would be closest. Like a ball park, they have individual characteristics and quirks.

But they don’t really lend themselves to the atmospheric, intimate cauldron of tension and, yes, torture that a stadium like AT&T Park provides.

So, yes, I fell in love with the ball park before I fell in love with the team.

From the plaques hailing the greatness of former players outside the park, the SRO arches in triples alley and the Ks that line the wall in right field to the vibe provided by the creatures in the bleachers and the huge scoreboard, glove and Coke bottle that loom above them, everything about the park felt right.

That’s why, when I went to my first Giants game in April 2009 and saw Tim Lincecum receive his first Cy Young award, Randy Johnson concede a home run to a pitcher (Yovani Gallardo) for the first time in his stellar career and an offensively-challenged Giants team fall limply to the Milwaukee Brewers, I knew I’d be coming back.

Consumating the affair

It took 12 months before I made good on that promise. In between my first and second game, I embraced baseball through MLB audio pass, ESPN’s Baseball Today podcast, some excellent SF Giants blogs (Bay Area Sports Guy, Golden Gate Giants) and the highs and lows of fans like @northbanknorman (an Englishman in SF) and @thedodgerhater on Twitter.

Second time around, I felt more like a proper fan. Again I saw Lincecum get a Cy Young as the Giants (with Todd Wellemeyer on the mound) fell to the Atlanta Braves.

Then, stranded in The City for an extra 14 days, I watched Lincecum easily beat Pittsburgh, work hard to overcome St Louis and have his hard work undone in an extra innings loss in an afternoon game against Philadelphia.

A team full of fight

The starting line-up in the early season didn’t bear much resemblance to the one that has served the Giants so well in the post-season. Mark DeRosa, Aaron Rowand and Bengie Molina occupied the spots now held by Cody Ross, Andres Torres and the awesome soon-to-be Rookie of the Year Buster Posey.

But what was apparent was that this Giants team was no stranger to doing things the hard way. Run support would always be an issue. Relief innings and saves would often mutate into full-on white knuckle rides. This team would have to fight for everything – and fight they would.

I had found a team with the attitude and style that the teams I follow in other sports possess.

In the English Premier League, West Ham United have always done things the hard way. Ditto for the England cricket team. And the less said about my New York Knicks the better (they always struggle, I keep my fingers crossed they’ll eventually work out how to fight).

When you get a fighting team whose sum is so much greater than its parts, it’s not a hardship to get up at 3am to listen or watch home games.

Watching players that have come through a club’s youth set-up/farm system enables you to enjoy their success that little bit more.

Watching veteran players like Aubrey Huff enjoying their first post-season successes and knowing they know how important that success is to the people that pay to come and watch (and live and die with this team on a daily basis) is the antithesis to the attitude that pervades the hubris of Premier League football in England.

Battle-hardened by one-run games and boasting impressive starting and relief pitching (once Barry Zito was left off the post-season roster), I always felt the Giants would be formidable playoff opponents for any National League team.

Someone always steps up

That said, I didn’t expect them to beat the Phillies, a team with greater strength in depth, bigger bats and loads more playoff experience.

The key to the Giants’ victory was that they didn’t just have to rely on their superstar players for game-changing performances.

Yes, superstars like Lincecum. Posey and Wilson performed. But they weren’t the only ones. The criminally underrated Matt Cain outpitched Cole Hamels in game three. Cody Ross guaranteed himself a 2011 payday with repeated clutch hitting. When challenged to get on base, Torres and Freddy Sanchez raised their games in the last two games of the series.

The list goes on. Reliever Javier Lopez scared the living daylights out of the Philly hitters. Pablo Sandoval and Juan Uribe, who have both struggled in the playoffs, provided vital hits at crucial times.

The point is this: whenever a performance was needed, a Giant was able to step up and, the ultimate measure of a great team, it really didn’t matter who it was.

The bullpen effort in game six was perhaps the best example. With Jonathan Sanchez struggling, the combination of the oft-maligned Jeremy Affeldt, Madison Bumgarner, Lopez, Lincecum and Wilson combined for seven scoreless innings that ultimately clinched the series.

World Series

How much do I love this team? I spent two hours today trying to find a last-minute flight to San Francisco in time for the opening games of the World Series.

Although I’ve reluctantly had to accept that I can’t afford to do something this impulsive, I am gutted that I won’t be making the trip.

I was certain that, in the likely event I couldn’t get a scalped ticket for a game, sitting in a pub with other fans close to the ball park was something I had to do.

As ludicrous as this sounds, travelling 5,000 miles to a city where I know nobody seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

As it stands, I’ll be watching the World Series unfold from London. I won’t be crossing my fingers for a Giants win.

When a team meets every challenge in its way despite being repeatedly told its players are cast-offs, rejects and freaks unable to hang with opponents with bigger reputations, luck doesn’t come into it.

The 2010 Giants are a team of destiny. Write them off at your peril.


Filed under Baseball, giants, mlb, san francisco giants, sf giants, world series

The most dubious distinctions and unwanted records in sport

The New Jersey Nets have lost their first 16 games of the NBA season and, with one road game left on a devilish West Coast swing, look like a mortal lock to match the 0 and 17 landmark of early season futility set in 1988/89 by the Miami Heat and equalled by the ever-hapless Los Angeles Clippers ten years later.

The Nets are not poorly coached and the roster has clearly not quit on Lawrence Frank. However, injuries to guards Devin Harris and Courtney Lee and overall “talent issues” have sent them spiralling on a losing skid that may well see them surpass the unwanted record. Simply put, the likes of starters Trenton Hassell and Josh Boone don’t have the quality required to come out on top, however infrequently, against their opponents. Things have got so bad that they recently lost at home to the arguably-more-hapless New York Knicks.

The Nets’ descent into potentially precedent-setting ignominy is just one of many of sport’s dubious distinctions. From the NFL and MLB to the English Premier League, Formula 1 and boxing, the owners of such unwanted records become part of the folklore of their respective sports and, in the case of some, almost a comical euphemism for continued miserable failure and bad luck. Read on as the Sports Bloke examines 10 of the most dubious distinctions in sport.

Major League Baseball
Although there’s never a shortage of struggling MLB teams, none can match the horrific record of the Pittsburgh Pirates. On September 7 2009, the Pirates lost to the Chicago Cubs. It was their 82nd game of the season and condemned them to a 17th successive sub-500 season. No team in MLB history (or any American sports franchise) has ever matched Pittsburgh’s losing streak.

There isn’t a single NBA diehard who doubts that the Los Angeles Clippers are jinxed. Take this season for example. Armed with the No 1 pick, they made the correct selection in Blake Griffin only for their new signing to blow his knee out on a dunk in a pre-season game. At the time of writing, Griffin has yet to play for the Clippers. Although the Nets may surpass the Clippers 0 and 17 mark for consecutive early season losses, the franchise holds so many unwanted records that it has become a by-word for futility. To save time and space, I’ll only cite two. The Clippers are the oldest NBA team never to appear in the NBA finals. They are one of three teams (Memphis and Charlotte are the others) to have never won a Conference Championship or Division Title in their history.

Far away from the bright lights of Madison Square Garden and Caesers Palace, British boxer Peter Buckley carved out his own particular niche in boxing. He lost more fights than any other boxer in history. The Birmingham welterweight lost 256 of this 300 professional bouts, making a living as a durable punching bag for up-and-coming fighters including Prince Naseem Hamed, Duke McKenzie, Scott Harrison and Kell Brook. At one point, he lost 88 consecutive fights. Regardless of their record, anyone prepared to make a living as a boxer deserves respect. It was fitting, if a little unexpected, that Buckley won his 300th and final fight when he scored a four round points victory over Matin Muhammad in his hometown in October 2008.

Former England captain Mike Atherton always struck a lonely figure, an obdurate leader hamstrung by the ineptitude of national selectors and surrounded by mediocre teammates unable to stand up to superior Australian, Pakistani and Indian teams. Although Atherton led his country with stoicism and made big scores against most countries, he was regularly tormented by metronomic Aussie opening bowler Glenn McGrath. Over the years, Atherton was dismissed 19 times by McGrath in test matches, a record for any bowler against one batsman.

You have to feel sympathy with fans of perennial League Two strugglers Rochdale. The Greater Manchester club were relegated to the lowest tier of the Football League in 1974 and have remained there ever since. At the time of writing, Spotland’s finest have spent 35 years in the basement of English football, longer than any other English club.

The NFL prides itself on the “Any Given Sunday” principle that preaches league-wide parity and the fact that any outcome is possible in any game. Sadly, the Detroit Lions spent the entire 2008 season disproving this theory. With inferior offence, defence and special teams, the hapless Lions conspired to lose all 16 of their regular season games. Their futility surpassed that of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who, in 1976, went 0 and 14 in their first season in the league.

FA Cup
The historical showpiece of the English football season has provided a seemingly endless stream of memorable moments over the last 120 years. Until 1985, no player had suffered the shame of being sent off in an FA Cup final. Manchester United defender etched his name into FA Cup history when he scythed down Everton’s Peter Reid in the 1985 final and was deservedly dismissed from the field. Down to 10 men, the Reds forced extra time and secured victory when Norman Whiteside curled a delicate left footed shot past Neville Seville and inside the far post to score the only goal of the game.

Formula 1
It might be a little bit harsh to label a driver who only appeared in three Grands Prix as the worst racer Formula 1 has ever seen but Jean-Denis Deletraz’s efforts were so poor that he is definitely in the conversation. For example, in his debut race, the 1994 Australian Grand Prix, the Swiss driver qualified 25th out of 26 cars and was lapped by leader Michael Schumacher after 10 laps. Deletraz did manage to find some speed at one stage. Unfortunately, this burst of pace came in the pit lane and he was penalised as a consequence. When his gear box finally failed after 57 laps, he had been lapped 10 times and was approximately 13 minutes behind the race leader.

The Philadelphia Phillies may have contested the last two World Series but they also hold one of the most unwanted records in American sport. Although they’ve never been lovable losers and cursed by bad luck, no team has ever lost quite like the Phillies. A lot of this is down to the fact that they’ve existed since 1883. In July 2007, the Phillies were routed 10-2 by the St Louis Cardinals. It was a landmark defeat that condemned them to becoming the first American sports team to lose 10,000 games.

English Premier League
In July 2007, a poll in The Times newspaper labelled Southampton’s one-game wonder Ali Dia as the worst footballer ever to play in the Premier League. Saints manager Graeme Souness had been led to belive Dia was the cousin of World Footballer of the Year George Weah. He was also told the player had played for Paris St Germain and won 12 international caps for Senegal. None of this was true. When Dia replaced Saints legend Matt le Tissier in a 1996 game against Leeds United, everyone realised the awful truth. His performance, described by Le Tissier as “embarrassing to watch”, was mercifully cut short after 52 minutes when Souness cottoned on to the fact he had been duped about Dia’s credentials.


Filed under Baseball, Basketball, boxing, Cricket, dubious distinctions, Football, nba, NFL, Sport, unwanted records

Brett Favre and the most infamous traitors in sport

NFL legend Brett Favre was subjected to a cathedral of catcalls and jeers when he took the field for the Minnesota Vikings against the Green Bay Packers, the team with whom he made his name. The fans at Lambeau Field had waited two years and two aborted retirements to vent their frustrations over the way Favre seemingly extricated himself from Green Bay after the 2007 season.

Favre was Green Bay’s favourite son. He bought the city a Super Bowl triumph in 1996, broke numerous NFL records as a Packer and provided more dramatic finishes and comebacks than any other NFL player. But when he retired in tears in 2007 only to unretire within weeks to play for the New York Jets, some of that goodwill was extinguished. Yesterday we found out just how much. While there were pockets of appreciation for Favre when he took the field, they were drowned out by swathes of booing each time he was involved in the action.

Always one for a flair for the dramatic, Favre got the last laugh, throwing for 244 yards and four touchdowns as the Vikings triumphed 38-26 over his former team. In honour of Favre’s return to Green Bay, the Sports Bloke takes a look at more sporting stars who turned their backs on their teams and examines what happened when they returned to their former homes.

Paul Ince
Say what you like about fans of Premier League football club West Ham United, but don’t deny they have any competition when it comes to holding grudges. Self-styled ‘Guv’nor’ Paul Ince was a product of the club’s youth academy and an England star in the making. In 1988, he decided he wanted to play for a bigger club. Rather than go the traditional route of lodging a transfer request, Ince instead chose to pose for the newspapers in a Man U shirt long before the deal had been finalised. Having forced West Ham’s hand, Ince got his big money move to Old Trafford. He probably didn’t anticipate the two decades of dogs abuse, incessant booing and Judas chants he faced whenever he played against West Ham for Manchester United, Liverpool and Wolves.
Hammers fans didn’t even let it go after Ince retired as a player. He received his now-traditional welcome as manager of Blackburn Rovers when he bought his team to Upton Park in 2008. Before this game, Ince commented that he felt, 20 years after his minor indiscretion, that the abuse was almost good-natured now. Sorry Paul, you’re wrong. You’re still hated at West Ham and here’s a measure of how much. When I was last betrayed by a good friend, I changed his name in my mobile to Ince. And it stayed that way for two years until things got sorted out.

Kevin Pietersen
Some players are reviled for turning against their clubs, cricketer Kevin Pietersen was accused of turning against his own country. Frustrated by the lack of international opportunities available to him in his native South Africa, KP moved to Nottinghamshire to play county cricket. Once he qualified to represent England, it seemed fitting his first major one day series came in his homeland. Every time Pietersen walked out to bat in the series, he received a barrage of boos, jeers and catcalls by sell out crowds of up to 50,000 angry South African fans. It was his reaction to the abuse marked him out as a special player. The caludron of hate didn’t make him quake, it merely strengthened his resolve. Pietersen reeled off scores of 108 in Bloemfontein (where the crowd turned their backs to him when he returned to the pavilion), 75 in Cape Town, 100 of 69 balls in East London and 116 at Centurion.

Sol Campbell
Sol Campbell was so revered by Tottenham Hotpsur fans that it’s probably fair to say that, faced with staying with the under-achieving North London side or moving to a more successful team playing Champions League football when his contract expired, there wouldn’t have been too many complaints if he’d chosen to leave. After all, he’d given Spurs over a decade of loyal service. He could have gone to Italy or Spain and Tottenham fans would have wished him well. They might have grumbled a bit if he’d signed with Manchester United or Liverpool. The only move that would provoke anger would be if he signed with London rivals Arsenal. But that wasn’t an issue because Sol had already said there was no way he could ever play for the Gunners given his long history with Spurs.
And then he signed for Arsenal. The reaction to Campbell when he returned to White Hart Lane as an Arsenal player was bitter and abusive. It continued whenever he went back, culminating in fan arrests over a chant directed at the England star which contained the delightful rhyming of the phrase ‘swinging from a tree’ with the insult ‘Judas C*** with HIV’. Campbell is a lying traitor to Spurs fans, but that chant is all kinds of wrong.

Roger Clemens
In 2001, Bill Simmons wrote an ESPN column explaining why, in the eyes of Boston Red Sox fans, pitcher Roger Clemens was the antichrist. After 12 seasons in Boston, Clemens slapped Red Sox in the face by moving to Toronto for money and then holding a press conference in which he failed to make a single reference to his former club. The slap in the face became a full boot to the nether-regions when he forced Toronto to trade him to New York in 1999 to play for Boston’s hated rivals the Yankees. And don’t forget, when the 2000 MLB All-Star game was played at Fenway Park, Clemens again ignored the obvious chance to pay tribute to his former fans, choosing to wear a Yankee cap instead of a Red Sox one. And so, Clemens was given the bird by Boston fans every time he stepped foot in Fenway over the next eight years. Post-retirement steroid and adultery accusations ensured they got the last laugh.
Simmons sums up the feelings to Clemens by saying “No athlete ever let me down quite like Roger Clemens did. Fortunately, we can take solace at the potential sight of Clemens standing on the field at New Fenway, maybe 40 years from now, being introduced on Old Timer’s Day 2041 … and getting showered with boos from Red Sox fans. “I can’t believe they still haven’t let this go,” he’ll mumble to himself, a thin smile spread across his face, oblivious to the bitter end, still waiting for the fans to come around. Not a chance.”

Elton Brand
It remains to be seen what kind of reaction NBA star Elton Brand will get when he eventually returns to Los Angeles to play against his former team the Clippers. It’s probably a good bet he’ll get booed out of the building. Here’s why. Brand was instrumental in convincing Baron Davis, then starring for the running and gunning Golden State Warriors, to move to LA. As soon as Davis inked his new contract, Brand announced he was off to Philadelphia to play for the 76ers after his negotiations with the Clippers broke down for vague, unspecified reasons, leaving Baron without help on one of the NBA’s most cursed and under-achieveing rosters.
Is there karma at work on this one? Maybe? After a rickety start with Philly, Brand went down injured and disappeared for the season. The 76ers played better without him. The Clippers recorded just 19 wins but won the draft lottery and picked up college phenom Blake Griffin. Of course, it being the Clippers, Griffin was injured in pre-season and is currently on the DL for the next 20 games.

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Karpov vs Kasparov and the greatest sporting rivalries

Twenty-five years ago, rival chess grandmasters Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov squared off in Moscow for the world title. It turned into a titanic five-month struggle. For many observers, Karpov represented Soviet order while the Azerbaijan-born Kasparov was cast as a rebellious anti-establishment figure. After 48 games, the champion Karpov led 5-3 when the match was terminated with no clear winner. One year later Kasparov would take Karpov’s title and successfully defend it in 1986.
So why would the Sports Bloke bring this up now? Glad you asked. A quarter of a century on from a clash whose significance went way beyond individual competition, Karpov and Kasparov have reunited, like a rock band looking to revive past glories, for a 12-game duel in Valencia, Spain.
I was nine years old when Karpov and Kasparov first played in 1984. Thanks to my uncle, I liked to play a bit of chess. I can remember reports about the world title match and thinking it strange that this funny little sport could make global news headlines. I didn’t understand it at the time but it seemed there was more than just sporting reputations and a trophy on the line. Karpov and Kasparov’s rivalry had transcended sport and entered, to some degree, mainstream consciousness.
The political significance of Kasparov and Karpov’s clash catapulted it into the pantheon of sporting rivalries but not all such duels become memorable because of politics. Sometimes, as with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, individual animosity can be enough. In Britain, perceptions of social class can make an intense rivalry all the more fierce as middle distance runners Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett can attest.
Though it is possibly the unlikeliest sporting duel to capture the mainstream’s imagination, Karpov vs Kasparov doesn’t make my list of the greatest individual (no teams) sporting rivalries of all time. Here, in Miss World-style reverse order, are my top five.
5. Borg vs McEnroe
The spectacular but short-lived duel between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe illuminated world sport for three years. The players could not be more different. Borg: the phlegmatic, ice-cool baseliner. McEnroe: the volatile, brash server and volleyer. Borg and McEnroe’s rivalry was defined by their fourth set tie break in the 1980 Wimbledon final. McEnroe won it 18-16 but lost the match in the final set. A year later, Mac ended Borg’s streak of five successive Wimbledon titles, a pivotal victory which led to Borg’s premature retirement a few months later. Borg’s exit robbed the sporting world of a definitive conclusion to the duel while McEnroe later admitted he struggled to motivate himself to play his best tennis without the opportunity to test himself against his great foe.
4. Leonard vs Duran
Although they fought for the third and final time in 1989, the rivalry between Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran burned brightest for the six months in 1980 that spanned their first two fights. In their initial bout, dubbed “The Brawl in Montreal”, Leonard, bristling at his opponent’s pre-fight taunts, abandoned his slick boxing style to stand toe-to-toe with Panamanian known as “Hands of Stone”. His decision backfired as Duran edged a hard-fought victory on points. The inevitable re-match, which took place in the New Orleans Superdome, produced one of the oddest endings in boxing history. Leonard returned to his natural style and toyed with Duran, showboating to the crowd and doing all he could to humiliate him. During the eight round, Duran turned his back on Leonard, uttered the now-infamous words “no mas” and quit. Leonard was WBC Welterweight champion once again.
3. Coe vs Ovett
Like many great rivalries, the mutual antipathy between Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett spurred both athletes to a string of record-breaking and medal-winning performances. The contrast between the pair was stark. Ovett, the rebellious, cocky man of the people who blew kisses to the crowd before he crossed the finish line. Coe, the diminutive, privileged University graduate who would go on to be a Conservative MP and peer. What the two athletes shared was an unquenchable hunger to be the best. Fellow athletes would stand in awe watching their training regimes.
Their duel at the 1980 Moscow Olympics gripped a global audience. Coe, favourite for the 800 metres, was beaten in his preferred event by a surging Ovett. Written off by critics, Coe then bounced back to win the 1,500 metres, ending Ovett’s 45-race winning streak over that distance. Four years later in Los Angeles, Coe defied the critics again by becoming the first man to successfully defend an Olympic 1,500 metre title.
2. Bird vs Magic
An individual duel that revitalised a team sport. The basketball careers of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were inexorably linked from the time the pair met in the 1979 NCAA tournament final. Magic’s Michigan Spartans downed Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores to become college basketball’s national championship. Five years later, Bird’s Boston Celtics met Magic’s Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA finals and this time the whole world was watching. Their rivalry was irresistible. Bird was all blue-collar hustle and clutch shooting, the epitome of a dogged Boston team. Magic, with his speed, vision and exuberance, was the very essence of Showtime Lakers basketball. As individuals, they couldn’t have been more different. Magic was gregarious and his million dollar smile charmed reporters while Bird’s homespun shyness with the media gave him an air of mystery or, depending on your perspective, truculence. After being blown out in two of the opening games of the series, the Celtics rallied and finally prevailed 4-3. The pair would meet again in the 1985 and 1987 finals with Magic’s Lakers winning both series.
Like many sporting rivalries, Magic and Bird gained respect for each other’s skills in the heat of battle. Unlike many duels, they also became firm friends, bonded by an appreciation of how basketball should be played. When Larry Legend retired from basketball in 1993, Magic travelled to Boston to host his friend’s jersey retirement ceremony.
1. Ali vs Frazier
The seeds of the unbridled animosity between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali were sown in the late 1960s during Ali’s exile from boxing for refusing to be drafted into the United States Army. Smokin’ Joe was world heavyweight champion while Ali was struggling to make ends meet. Frazier helped Ali financially and showed genuine concern over the former champion’s plight. Everything changed when Ali was re-instating as a fighter. Knowing his biggest payday would be a title showdown with Frazier, Ali began his usual routine of ridiculing his target. He dubbed Frazier “the gorilla” and accused him of “working for the enemy”, meaning the white establishment. By the time of the fight, your choice of victor said as much about where you stood socially, racially and politically. Frazier won the “fight of the century” on a points decision. He gained an even greater measure of revenge by felling Ali with his trademark left hook.
The rivalry would burn for four more years. Ali scored a points win over Frazier in a world title eliminator to earn a shot at George Foreman. After winning the title back at 32, Ali defended it against Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila”. The fight was so intense that Ali later described it as “like being in the waiting room for death”. At the end of the 14th round, Ali was ready to quit on his stool when Frazier’s cornermen threw in the towel. Thomas Hauser memorably described the Ali Frazier trilogy as “the world championship of each other”, with both men so stubbornly refusing to lose to the other that they were willing to die.


Filed under Athletics, Baseball, boxing, Chess, Rivalry, Tennis

The greatest cheats in sport

Whether you regard Formula 1 as a thrilling sporting spectacle or a high octane circus dedicating to advertising, glamour and money, it’s hard to deny the Flavio Briatore/Nelson Piquet Jr scandal is one of the most unscrupulous acts of cheating any sport has ever seen.

Briatore quit as principal of Renault F1 after the team released a statement that they would not dispute lurid allegations made by Piquet Jr that he had been ordered to crash his car on purpose at the Singapore Grand Prix, a scheme designed to help his team-mate Fernando Alonso win the race.

The audacity of Briatore’s plan and the almost casual way in which he put his driver in danger heaps disgrace on a sport riddled with controversy and allegations of corruption, more than enough to earn a place in the pantheon of outrageous acts of cheating. Here’s a countdown of 10 of the most scandalous acts of sporting chicanery.

10 – The Spanish Paralympics Basketball Team
At the 2000 Paralympics, Spain’s basketball team were ordered to hand back their gold medals after numerous members of the squad were found to have no disability. The Spanish Paralympic Committee confirmed it had ordered the medals to be returned after an inquiry found 10 of the 12 members of the team suffered no mental handicap.

9 – Rosie Ruiz
Sometimes the simplest methods of cheating can be the most effective. Rosie Ruiz’s nefarious efforts in the 1980 Boston Marathon earned her lifetime infamy. Ruiz won the race in a then-record time of 2:31:56, but it was later revealed she had simply registered for the race, jumped out of the crowd close to the finish and ran to the line to claim victory. A number of anti-cheating techniques, including video surveillance and time-monitoring chips worn by athletes, were introduced in the wake of Ruiz’s confession.

8 – Tonya Harding
It’s no easy task to make figure skating interesting to a global audience but Tonya Harding’s plot to nobble her rival Nancy Kerrigan before the 1994 Winter Olympics did just that. Harding conspired with her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly to injure Kerrigan’s knee and remove her from Olympic contention. Harding’s dastardly scheme was revealed before the Olympics and the US team attempted to bar her from the competition. She threatened legal action and was allowed to participate. Some justice was done as Kerrigan recovered from her injuries to claim a silver medal while Harding slumped to and eighth place finish.

7 – Roberto Rojas
Chilean goalie Roberto Rojas was banned from football for life and his country was kicked out of the 1990 World Cup after he tried to get a qualifier against Brazil abandoned because Chile were losing in a game they needed to win. When a firework was thrown into his penalty box he crashed to the ground, took a razor blade from his glove and slashed his head. Television evidence showed the firework landed nowhere near him and, after appeal, his ban was reduced to two years.

6 – 1919 Chicago White Sox
Modern day baseball is no stranger to accusations of cheating. However, America’s pasttime has been blighted by allegations of corruption throughout its history. One of the most infamous episodes came in 1919 when eight Chicago White Sox players conspired to throw the World Series after allegedly being bribed by gamblers. The players involved were later acquitted of criminal charges after evidence was mysteriously lost prior to the start of their trial but were banned from baseball for life.

5 – Michael Schumacher
He may have won seven Formula 1 titles but Michael Schumacher’s legacy is more heavily influenced by the methods he chose to employ when faced with championship defeat. In 1994, Schumacher derailed Damon Hill’s title hopes by driving into his rival and forcing him to retire in the season’s final race. The dastardly German tried the same trick with Jacques Villeneuve three years later but only succeeded in crippling his own car. Justice was done when Villeneuve won the championship.

4 – Ben Johnson
Athletics has been riddled with so many drug scandals in recent years that world records and medal-winning performances are now viewed with some degree of scepticism. Twenty-one years ago, when Ben Johnson was stripped of his Olympic gold medal for taking anabolic steroids, it was one of the most shocking events in sporting history. Rather than looking at Johnson as a walking cautionary tale, many sprinters followed his example and cheated their way to victory. Most were caught out by ever-improving doping tests.

3 – Boris Onischenko
Attempting to cheat in an Olympic sport is bad enough but perverting the outcome in an ancient sport rooted in chivalry is even worse. Soviet modern pentathlete Boris Onischenko left the 1976 Montreal Olympics in disgrace when it was discovered he had equipped his sword with a button that allowed him to trigger Fencing’s electronic scoring system at will. Onischenko’s technical chicanery was eventually uncovered by Britain’s Jim Fox who reported his doubts over the Soviet’s string of victories. Onischenko’s weapon was replaced, and he was eventually disqualified.

2 – Hansie Cronje
South African captain Hansie Cronje sent shockwaves through cricket when he admitted to repeatedly attempting to fix the outcome of matches at the behest of Indian bookmakers. He was exposed as a liar and a hypocrite when it was revealed he was willing to fix matches for a bribe as small as a leather jacket. That he only asked black teammates to help him carry out his plans made it even worse. A tearful confession proved Cronje was nothing more than a petty, greedy corrupt individual hiding behind a veneer of fake Christian beliefs.

1 – Panama Lewis
Shame on you if you thought I’d have Diego Maradona at number one! El Diego gets a pass from this list as he cheated in the heat of the moment. All footballers cheat at every opportunity and Maradona was no different. It was the fault of the referee and his linesmen for not spotting the ‘Hand of God’ at World Cup 1986.
The Sports Bloke cites boxing trainer Panama Lewis as the worst cheat in the history of sport. Lewis earned lifelong infamy in 1983 when his fighter Lewis Resto faced Billy Collins Jr. Lewis removed most of the padding from Resto’s boxing gloves and soaked the tape that went on his fighter’s hands in plaster of Paris. Unsurprisingly, Resto delivered a brutal ten-round beating to Collins who left the ring with blurred vision and severely damaged face. Collins slumped into depression after the fight and lost his life nine months later in a car crash that many believe to be suicide. Lewis spent a year in prison for fixing the fight and was banned from boxing for life.


Filed under Baseball, Cricket, Football