Thursday, May 20, 2010

Another Day, Another Miserable Heartbreak For One Sports Fan

Sports fans love lists. "Greatest Catches," "Best Superbowls," "Worst Draft Picks." And we love hyperbole (see above examples). And I am no exception. So it is not without self-awareness that write that I was thinking earlier about writing about the 5 or 10 worst days in my life as a sports fan.

Certainly one would be August 11, 2005. I assume Carlos Beltran and Mike Cameron would rank this one #1 on their lists. That was the day I was in the right-centerfield bleachers at Petco Park, about as close as anyone else on the planet when those two men blindly dove face-first into one another, ending their seasons and the Mets' hopes for the next five years (and counting...).

The list was a little too depressing to really put into order, so I gave up trying (Shawn Livingston's knee, Danny Manning's knee, Ron Harper's knee, Kenny Rogers' ball four to Andruw Jones, Beltran's strike-out looking against the Cardinals, when I realized Tiki Barber is an asshole, when Edgardo Alfonzo put on someone else's uniform, when Floyd Landis got stripped of the Tour de France, etc.).

Today would have made the list. It might have been #1. But I'll come back to that.

Quite a day Lance Armstrong had today. Not only did he have to worry about literally saving his face because he was involved in a nasty crash in the Tour of California and had to take a bunch of stitches in his elbow and more just below his left eye, but he is also trying to figuratively save face as well, as former teammate Floyd Landis threw Armstrong under the bus as an alleged cheater.

To be honest, I can't imagine Armstrong is all that perturbed about the allegations. He's heard it before. In fact, I would venture that no human being has taken more blood tests in any 10 year period than Lance Armstrong has in the last 10 years. So many people are so sure he's a cheater because his near-miraculous comeback from testicular, lung, and brain cancer to such unimaginable highs has been so...well...miraculous. But despite all the doubts thrown in his face, and all the needles stuck into his veins, he's never failed a single test. Not one. So Lance, please don't make a fool of me for believing in you.

I ran cross country in college and during my freshman year I had to have a surgery that I wasn't really expected to recover fully from. I'd be able to walk and run and exercise and have a normal life, but I wasn't really supposed to be able to compete at that same DI level again. No one ever had, but then not many people had ever had that surgery yet either, so "Why not?" I thought. Of course I never became a NCAA Champion, or a conference champion. I never won another race or ever placed first on my own team. But I ran again, and I was faster than I had been before, and I can tell you without any hyperbole whatsoever that I would not have been able to if Lance Armstrong had not risen from the grave and been winning Tour de France after Tour de France at the same time.

So maybe one day the story will finally break that Armstrong has been cheating us all along. And if so, I don't know what I would think. I couldn’t forgive him for cheating, but I couldn't exactly forget that he had inspired me so deeply either. But I pray that that story never breaks and that until the day after I die all there ever were were allegations and negative tests, because I am just about out of heroes. Especially today.

After Armstrong won his seventh straight Tour and retired, most Americans let professional cycling drift back into anonymity. I think I was lucky that I had found so much love for the sport, not just the man who had carried it on his back through terrain as tricky and tumultuous as anything the Alps ever threw at him. I knew in 2006 that the sport was still in good hands and that there were lots of guys to root for. More importantly, there were lots of Americans to root for. Levi Leipheimer and George Hincapie were (and are) true greats, but that year Floyd Landis was truly spectacular at the Tour de France.

Imagine all those French people who were so incensed that an American had hijacked their race and their sport for most of a decade had to see him retire only to have a parade of new Americans come in ready to take over the family business. And then Landis went out and turned in what I have, on many occasions, called the greatest athletic performance I have ever seen in stage 17 and went on to win it all. Another year, another American. Of course soon after, it was revealed that he had failed a doping test and Landis was stripped of the title. He fought the result for years, took it to the highest authority in the world and lost, and through it all, I steadfastly supported his claims of innocence.

On April 1, 2008, I wrote on this blog, "Floyd Landis finished his appeal to the arbitration court of sports and their decision is expected in June. From what I know of his case, I don't think he did it."

On June 27, 2008, after the test results were upheld, I wrote, "I am a big fan of cycling, and I watched every second of that Tour, and I have read every word of the case against him and the case for him (yes, even the famed slide show presentation). That guy is innocent. I don't care what the test showed on the day he pulled off the greatest turnaround in sports history. The test the day before showed nothing. The test the day after showed nothing, and what Landis is alleged to have done would still show up long after the initial day he allegedly did it. It also would have had no physiological benefit had he done it the morning of a race (it is a long term technique that had not long term presence in his body according to multiple tests)."

On September 10, 2008, I wrote again, "I still feel that Landis was innocent of the charges levied against him...".

So what happened on May 20, 2010 that makes this all relevant again? Why is today such a bad day for me as a sports fan? Because today was that day that after four years of vociferous denials, Landis came clean and revealed that he had been cheating for basically his entire career.

I guess it's easy to be cynical and just assume that they're all cheating. Baseball players, football players, cyclists, name it. It's easy to look at Albert Pujols' seemingly sincere declaration that we can all rely on him to be the clean superstar to lead all of us, a weary mass of doubtful devotees and former fans, back to the glory days of squeaky clean stars and believable box scores. But the more we learn, the less we feel we can believe it, and the more we see that it wasn't all so clean back then anyway; we just didn't have reporters willing to blow the whistle.

Athletes cheat. It's old news; I know. I shouldn't be surprised about Landis; I know. I am the last one to the party; I know. Everyone assumes our heroes are cheats and it's gotten to the point where they don't even bother to pretend to be disgusted when they first find out anymore. Sports fans are jaded. "A-Rod, seemingly the last great, clean baseball star admitted to cheating and lying about it over and over? Hmm. Well, he's my fantasy third baseman and I'm hurting for RBI's this week, so what did he do today?" Reporters are all on the hunt for the next scandal to bring down a star, but fans are just kinda used to it and don't bat an eye.

And as a sometimes-professional sports writer over the past few years, I have tried really hard to not become jaded myself. That's one thing I hate about working in have to look for angles and stories, you can't just watch the games and enjoy. I was working the day the Mitchell Report was released and I wrote the story up for CBS and created a slideshow of all the big names and local stars named. That was another of the worst days of my sports-fan-life, and there weren't even really any big surprises in it for me. But just that cold realization that THAT many people had been cheating and that it was probably just the tip of the ice berg…that stung me.

We have all seen seen some of our greatest champions (love 'em or hate 'em) toppled and defamed. Some lesser stars but truly beloved figures as well. Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Marion Jones, Andre Agassi, Ivan Basso, Ato Boldon, Ken Caminiti, Tyler Hamilton, Paul LoDuca, Erik Zabel, Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Jan Ullrich, Dennis Mitchell, Tim Montgomery, Alexander Vinokourov, Julius Peppers, Andy Pettitte, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz.

I think what has helped me to keep from becoming completely jaded to all of this was that I hadn't had "my guy" get nailed. It's always been guys I hated (Bonds, Clemens) or just people who were big names, maybe even on my teams, but not my favorites (LoDuca, Vinokourov).

Maybe that's why when I read that SI article, I bought every word Pujols said. Sure athletes cheated, but no one I ever really loved so it never hit too close to home. But today one of "my guys" went down. Big time. And now I'm finally at that place where most fans seem to have been for years now. I don't know where I go from here because one of the ones I truly, truly believed was lying actually all along. Floyd Landis' admission of using performance enhancing drugs changed the way I look at things, and in my mind, added a lot of weight to what Pujols was already carrying.

Even today, Landis still insists that that fateful test back in 2006 was indeed a false-positive (ironically perhaps the only false-positive in a career of false-negatives). He says he did not use that doping method at that time and that the results from that week are not consistent with the results you would expect from someone using that doping method. Maybe that's true. And maybe I can still believe in that utterly spectacular day in Morzine in the Alps. But why should I? Not that he has any idea who I am or that what I have to say matters, but he doesn't deserve my belief in him.

How can we trust him when he says what he did or didn't do? For years, he's lied to protect his his career, so why wouldn't he be lying to protect the single greatest day of it? How can we trust his allegations against Armstrong, Leipheimer, Hincapie, Dave Zabriskie, Johan Brunyeel and the rest of the U.S. Postal/Discovery/Astana/Radio Shack family? Are these the words of a man finally coming clean or the words of a man trying to tear down his former teammates who had turned their backs on him in his failed comeback because he was a cheater?

All I know is that I lost, once and for all, one of my greatest heroes today. And I was one of the last people who still believed in him. And that's sad. He lied all that time and he made me a liar. And that's infuriating.

I can't imagine I could ever get to the point where I would actually, finally, give up on sports. My love affair runs far too deep. But I hate the idea that I am a revelation or two away from having to give on sportsmen. So Albert Pujols and Lance Armstrong, the clock is ticking. I figure I have about a half-a-century left to keep what may be the illusion that it is possible to be great and be clean. If you two are making me a liar too, just make sure they wait till I'm gone to publish the story.

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