The Facebook challenge

Somewhere between the divisive political discourse and the cute kitten pictures, the selfies (shorthand for self-absorption, not self-portrait, it says here) and the ads that target you just because you glanced for one millisecond at a breezy new summer shirt, Facebook has its moments of fun.

Facebook has its challenges — in more ways than one. The fun one here in The Covid Era has been to post photos of your favorite athletes.

(Every time I think of Facebook as an instrument of Satan, I’m reminded of how cool it has been to reconnect with so many; in the case of this challenge, it came from the cute former neighbor who back in the day had a long-distance boyfriend, prompting me to relentlessly and unsuccessfully attempt to woo her with Stephen Stills’ “Love The One You’re With.”

Tough challenge for a guy who has been to a ballpark or two in his day. Naturally, I had to asterisk-it-all-up. My favorites, you’ve probably never heard of most of them. They’ve somehow avoided the cover of Sports Illustrated, or any attention much beyond the area codes in which I’ve typed over the last 40 some-odd years. So I opted for the famous favorites. Rather than posting one picture a day — hey, some of us do still work for a living — I did a nifty collage. So, here’s the top 10, in no particular order.

Brooks Robinson: The Orioles 3B was my childhood hero. Even now I can pick up Rawlings Brooks Robinson glove I bought for $16 back in the late 1960s. A true blessing of my career, I got to meet him and spend a day with him. The great line from somebody when Reggie Jackson’s ego threatened to devour Gotham: “They name candy bars after Reggie Jackson in New York. People name their children after Brooks Robinson in Baltimore.”

Hank Aaron: I was there for No. 715, the homer that broke Babe Ruth’s record, and also for 736 — a blast off Rawly Eastwick that was his last homer in the National League. And heaven knows how many others I saw. My best Aaron memory though? Standing in foul ground at Engel Stadium, interviewing Aaron before a Southern League All-Star Game — then looking over his shoulder and watching my grandfather in the grandstand proudly watching me interview Aaron.

Muhammad Ali: What can you say? The most charismatic, compelling athlete of my lifetime for his skills in the ring and his importance outside the ring. A flawed hero, no doubt, but nonetheless heroic.

Chris Evert: OK, so I had a crush on her. Who didn’t? So elegant, even now. So, yeah, maybe the crush continues. She proved to women athletes that strength and femininity weren’t mutually exclusive.

Magic Johnson: Joy and talent on the court, courage through a public crisis — and played for the Lakers back when I could still root for them.

Dale Earnhardt: It’s 2 a.m. and side-by-side stalls at the Waldorf-Astoria. I’d been invited to his championship celebration after the NASCAR banquet. “Great party, champ,” I said. Pretty sure the response was something like, “Yeah, no @$%#.” Great party that ended too soon, on a dark day in Daytona in 2001. The morning after his death, I returned to the speedway. Somebody hung an American Kennel Club certificate on the fence, right outside where Dale was killed. “Master Earnhardt of Daytona” was the dog’s name. It was a black Rotweiller. Of course.

Greg Maddux: An artist at work. And masterpieces painted quickly and hypnotically.

Herschel Walker: Best college football player of my lifetime. Period. I got to cover three or four games his freshman season, including the day he out-Heisman’d the eventual Heisman winner, George Rodgers.

Arnold Palmer: Figure I needed a golfer, and he’s the one who brought a sense of reverence to me. We played together one day. Oh, OK, he happened to be on the course at Bay Hill when I was there, and our carts passed near the turn. So I’m counting it.

Bart Starr: “Run it and let’s get the hell out of here.” That’s what Vince Lombardi told Starr before the historic Ice Bowl touchdown — and what Starr told me decades later when I sat in his office and he recanted the story.

I left his office thinking that a 12-year-old kid who watched that touchdown and got to grow up and hear one of his childhood heroes re-tell the story has had a pretty blessed life.

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