The Super Bowl has been lost, baseball has yet to begin. The basketball and hockey professionals are passing the time until June, when their championships will be decided. lt has snowed three Mondays in a row. It must be February, the time of year when a lot of sports fans turn their attention to another favorite pastime -- talking about sports.
Forget the dropped passes and ground balls that rolled through an infielder's legs; this is the time of year I like to remember the good stuff, the memorable stuff, the stuff that makes someone a sports fan in the first place.
I found myself wandering into such a conversation the other day. What was the best single athletic feat ever? The greatest athletic accomplishment? Too arbitrary and prone to record-book chasing, I decided. For my February reminiscence, I'm going with the moments in sports that left an indelible mark on me -- the tImes when I experienced something in person or on TV and went, "Wow!," if just to myself.
The hope here is that you readers will share your own special moments in sports so that we can have an old-fashioned Hot Stove League discussion. Mantle-Mays-Snider? Montana-Unitas-Brady? The "Immaculate Reception?" Willis Reed's entrance? What special moments in sports are still with you?
I'm starting my list of most memorable moments with an effort I have often called the best single performance by any athlete -- Secretariat's 31-length victory in the Belmont Stakes in 1973. In winning the Triple Crown and dominating the best of the rest of the three-year-olds, he set a world record time for the 1 1/2 miles distance -- 2 minutes 24 seconds. Check it out on YouTube.
Also in the category of "can you believe it?" was a more recent display of excellence in the moment -- Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit on July 9, 2011. With all the baseball world waiting for the hit that would guarantee the Yankee captain a plaque in Cooperstown, Jeter just wanted it to not be an infield grounder that he beat out. No worry. He laced a home run into the left field seats at Yankee Stadium, trotted around the bases with a big smile on his face and proceeded to go five-for-five, including hitting the game-winning single in the eighth inning. Then there were the dives and the flips, the final hit, etc. A memorable career in toto.
Willie Mays, another New Yorker of earlier vintage, was also a player who rose to the moment. I have plenty of special memories of WIllie, including a day at the Polo Grounds in the 1950s when the Giants' centerfielder hit three triples in a double-header (they used to play them for the price of one game). I can't find anything on Google to confirm this, but that's how I remember it and I'm sticking to my memory.
Since this is just my personal recounting of memorable sports moments, I have never seen anyone better than Mickey Mantle at dragging a bunt past the pitcher and getting to first base before the second baseman got to the ball.
When it comes to pure excellence, for me the performance by 14-year-old Nadia Comaneci at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal is in a class of its own. The tiny Romanian gymnast scored the first perfect 10 for a gymnastic event at the Montreal Olympics and added four more perfect scores that year while winning three gold medals and dazzling the world TV audience. Since the scoreboard makers didn't think a 10 was possible, they only allowed for a 9.9. Four years later, there were updated scoreboards in Moscow.
The fastest I ever ran was in 1956, sprinting home six blocks from Bayonne High School, where we had been listening to the game on transistor radios, to see the final outs of the Yankees' Don Larsen's perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series. On our black and white TV. It's the highest Yogi ever leapt, too, I think.
In 1981, the Times Herald-Record newspaper sponsored the first Orange Classic, a 10K race around the City of Middletown. It invited local hero Frank Shorter, 1972 Olympic gold medal winner and 1976 silver medal winner, and his chief rival, Bill Rodgers, Boston and New York CIty marathon champion, to headline the event. They did not fail to deliver. The two turned the corner on the final stretch of the race well ahead of the field, running neck and neck for more than a quarter mile as the crowd cheered. Shorter edged Rodgers out at the end. It was as perfect a finish as the crowd could hope for and, no, I've never thought Rodgers held back because it was Shorter's hometown. A truly classic moment.
The Miracle on Ice. I admit it. I was swept up with the rest of the crowd chanting "USA! USA!" when a team of American college all-stars defeated a team of Russian professionals, 3-2, in ice hockey at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. WInning the gold medal that year was almost an after-thought for the American team following that emotional upset. An unforgettable moment.
Finally, a purely personal moment that came far from any athletic venue. In 1973, while covering a sports-related conference in Binghamton, N.Y., I shook hands with Jackie Robinson and told him what a pleasure it was to meet him. It was more than that. It was memorable.