Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Best I Ever Saw

Recently, a friend of mine told me that I think too much. Think too much?!? Moi? Okay, perhaps I might, but is that such a bad thing? I guess it depends on what you’re thinking about. Admittedly, a lot of the stuff bouncing around in my oversized noggin is mostly useless sports trivia. I am constantly mulling over all-time lists and trying to recall the jersey numbers of players from the ‘60s and ‘70s.

My propensity for sports minutia was evidenced a couple weeks ago in a facebook “conversation” with 540 ESPN radio personality Bill Johnson. I asked him who was the best player of each of the four major sports that he saw play in person.

He came up with an interesting list: Baseball - Bo Jackson (Royals), Football - Barry Sanders, Basketball - Moses Malone, and Hockey - Chris Chelios at age 47 with the Chicago Wolves.

Here were my selections:

Like Bill, my hockey choice deserves an asterisk. In 1978, I saw NHL Hall of Famer Bobby Orr play, but it was in a charity softball game at historic Finney’s West. The fundraiser pitted a team from St. Catherine Hospital against the Chicago Blackhawks. Admittedly, I was a bit star-struck sitting within spitting distance of one of the greatest hockey players ever.

A couple of things about that game will be forever etched in my mind. One was that Orr’s wife was very pretty, but not Hollywood starlet gorgeous. She could have been the “good-looking girl” in any Kenosha bar. What would have set her apart is the diamond wedding ring she was wearing. It could have choked a horse. A large horse.

The other thing was the condition of Orr’s knees. Both were covered with a web of thick, ugly scars. Only 30 years old, the hockey icon had already undergone over a dozen knee surgeries. As bad as his knees looked, they must have felt even worse. When he batted, a young boy would run the bases for the hobbled superstar. Looking back, it was kind of sad.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was the greatest basketball player I ever saw in person. In ninth grade, I was a statistician for Lance Junior High’s basketball team. At the end of the season, the team was rewarded with a trip up to Milwaukee for a Bucks game. On February 20, 1972 I sat in the nosebleed seats watching Abdul-Jabbar’s Bucks take on the Chicago Bulls.

Abdul-Jabbar did not disappoint me and the other 10,745 fans in the Milwaukee Arena. The 7’2” center poured in a game-high 44 points as the Bucks knocked off Norm Van Lier, Jerry Sloan and
the other thugs from Chi-town, 103-100.

The only blemish on that special Sunday afternoon occurred on the bus ride home to Kenosha. Jim Lehman, one of the players from our team, borrowed the souvenir program that I had purchased at the game. As we got off the bus in Lance’s parking lot he returned it me – folded in half with a big crease right down the middle. Already anal-retentive, I was less than pleased with the condition of my program.

Friday, April 11, 1975 was a day of firsts. It was the first time I ever skipped a day of school. It was opening day for the Milwaukee Brewers and it was the first Brewer game that I ever attended in person. To make the game even more memorable was that it was also the return to Milwaukee for home-run king Hank Aaron and his first as a Brewer.

While most of my schoolmates were in class back in Kenosha, I was freezing my considerable rump off in the upper grandstand of venerable Milwaukee County Stadium. But it was well worth it as I watched the Brew Crew dispose of the Cleveland Indians, 6-2. Not only did I witness Aaron’s first game in the AL, but also his first hit and first RBI as well.

Also notable on that chilly day was that it was Frank Robinson’s second game as Cleveland’s player-manager. Three days earlier he had become Major League Baseball’s first black manager in a game where his Indians team defeated the New York Yankees.

Not a bad day of firsts that began with me skipping school. Oh, I forgot to mention one other first. On the way to the game we stopped at Marc’s Big Boy for breakfast. Afterwards, we picked up some beer at Town ‘n’ Country for the trip up I-94. April 11, 1975 was the first day I ever drank a 12-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon before 11:00 AM.

The best football player I ever saw is a tie. Deadlocked for that honor are Joe Montana and Brett Favre. When the “experts” discuss the greatest quarterbacks of all time, Montana and Favre are always in the discussion. I was fortunate to have been in attendance when both of these high-profile NFL stars had historic games.

On Sunday, December 6, 1987 I was seated one row from the top of legendary Lambeau Field with Will Meurer, Chuckie Haubrich and Jeff Schantek. On that day, Montana led San Francisco to a 23-12 victory over the Packers. In the game, Montana passed for 308 yards and two touchdowns, while rushing for 33 yards and another touchdown on the ground. 

All that wasn’t even what made the Hall of Famer’s performance noteworthy.

Montana had completed his final five passes the week before against the Cleveland Browns. On this extraordinary day, he would connect on his first 17 passes against Green Bay, setting a then NFL record of 22 consecutive completions. Although the Pack lost the game, I had witnessed history.
Another historic performance that I was privileged to experience took place on September 20, 1992. Again it was in Lambeau Field. That day, Brett Favre, a kid from Kiln, Mississippi, became a hero in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In the years to follow, he would go on to become the face of the NFL, being named NFL MVP three times in the process. 

What I witnessed that day with Vern and Janet Fisher, my brother Mike and Reenie Orth was the start of a storybook career.

It was a warm autumn day and the Packers were playing the Cincinnati Bengals. The home team fell behind early and to make matters worse, quarterback Don Majkowski was knocked out of the game in the first quarter. Down 17 to 3, the sellout crowd grew restless, sensing impending doom.

Enter number four. It wasn't pretty; he fumbled four times and was sacked five times. Favre did, however, manage to throw for two fourth-quarter touchdowns. The second, a 35-yarder to Kitrick Taylor with 13 seconds left, ended a 92-yard, 54-second drive that Favre engineered with no timeouts remaining. The legend was born and the victory was instrumental in helping the Packers build a streak of winning seasons.

Bobby Orr, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Hank Aaron, Joe Montana and Brett Favre. Four Hall of Famers and a future Hall of Famer. Not bad. And I saw each of them play in person. They were the best I ever saw.

Until the next time…from the booth.

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