Dateline: The dining room table
For those of you too young to know this, for those of you too old to remember this, a reminder, the true job of a sports columnist, or any columnist for that matter, is to have an opinion.
It is also is in their bailiwick, job description, to sometimes step back as an observer and, you know, observe and then based on years of observing what is in front of them, write stuff about it from their memory, from their knowledge, from their heart.
And so that is what this way comes for you with this column, a column based on three decades of covering professional sports, knowing something about the games that are played and the people who watch.
I scribbled this column out while sitting in my home office and watching 700 so miles away, a close friend of mine, Brandon Palaniuk, win his fifth blue trophy, and some of this is about that, some of it isn’t, all of it is about us, you, and this entity called the Bassmaster Elite Series.
Here we go (look away if you are afraid).
Comes the mantle
Here’s the short version: We’ve arrived.
Let me explain.
In the beginning of every professional sport there comes the pioneers, those who invent the game and those willing to step onto the field and take a chance playing the game.
I think in baseball you could honestly say that Babe Ruth would be one of those who in the infancy of a game played in large stadiums before large crowds, that The Babe elevated the game in which he played, and to some degree still does.
Before Babe Ruth it was a hardcore group who went to the games, but once the Babe took to the field this is what a sports reporter wrote back then, almost 100 years ago:
“This new fan didn’t know where first base was, but he had heard of Babe Ruth and wanted to see him hit a home run. When the Babe hit one, the fan went back the next day and knew not only where first base was, but second base as well.”
There were many greats who played back in Ruth’s day but when the Yankees acquired him he put fannies in the seats, attendance more than doubled from 619,000 in 1919 to 1.3 million in 1920.
And then, like all of us, in time his bat slowed, his legs slowed and his waist grew, in 1935 after 22 seasons The Babe, retired.
I want to bring you back now to June 18, 1956 and the writing of Sports Columnist Robert Creamer. In his column he talks about a special landmark in the old New York Yankee stadium.
Here’s Mr. Creamer: “For no one had ever hit a fair ball over the majestic height of the gray-green façade that looms above the three tiers of grandstand seats in this, the greatest of ball parks.”
Welcome to the age of literature in sports writing.
More Mr. Creamer: “Indeed, in the 33 years since the Stadium was opened not one of the great company of home run hitters who have batted there — the list includes Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Jimmy Foxx, Hank Greenberg and about everyone else you can think of — had even come close to hitting a fair ball over the giant-sized filigree hanging from the lip of the stands which in both right and left field hook far into fair territory toward the bleachers.”
And then, one day a young man from 1,311 miles away from home plate in Yankee Stadium, Spavinaw, Okla., stepped into the batters box.
His name … Mickey Mantle.
Mr. Creamer: “The ball struck high on the façade, barely a foot or two below the edge of the roof. Ever since, as people come into the stadium and find their seats, almost invariably their eyes wander to The Spot. Arms point and people stare in admiration. Then they turn to the field and seek out Mantle.”
This is how Mr. Creamer ended his telling of the story: “Whether Mickey himself will ever know a similar moment depends as much on his ability to emulate Ruth's poise and presence and competitive spark as it does on his bat, but his broad, broad back seems ready to receive the mantle of the Babe.”
Mr. Creamer’s story is called, “The Mantle Of The Babe” which Sports Illustrated on its 60th anniversary picked as one of the 60 best stories they ever published.
And it is the exact story I thought of as I sat at home and watched Brandon Palaniuk raise his fifth Elite Trophy.
Has the mantle of this game been passed?
I think so.
Let me explain
Of course those that have come before this moment have done amazing things:
KVD has won five times that many trophies.
Denny Brauer was a 17-time winner.
And probably others I don’t know about have won more than five times on this circuit.
But they are gone, I miss them, but they are gone. Have left our game as did Ruth when he retired.
There is though someone with us still who in my mind, transcends the game … and who deserves a special shout out right here before we go on … and that’s my friend, and one of the truly greats to ever step on any field of play … Rick Clunn. Sixteen tournament wins … wins in every decade since the 1970s including one last year. He's at 463 tourneys overall (and counting) including four Bassmaster Classic wins.
He is to me, simply, Mr. Bass, as to me Gordie Howe is, simply, Mr. Hockey.
Gordie played 1,767 games, 30 NHL seasons, six WHL seasons, held every record until there came another young gun, Wayne Gretzky … and there too, the mantle was passed.
Except for Rick crossing the stage now only two of our guys have five tournament wins: Hall of Fame angler Jay Yelas … and now Brandon.
Steve Kennedy has three wins, as does Mark Menendez.
Jay won five in 218 events, an average of one win every 43 gigs.
Brandon won five in 112 events … an average of one trophy per 22 events.
I think that the moment that Brandon lifted his fifth piece of iron the mantle was passed from the old guard who got us here, to the new guys who will take us to what awaits.
To me the “Keeper” win told me things are going to be okay, to me, if this is my last time around the lakes, in my heart I now know, this sport you love, this sport I now love...
… we goin’ be fine.
To steal from Mr. Creamer, the broad backs of those who now cross our stage seem ready to receive the mantle of those who came before them.
And that my friends is how the games we love play out.
Joe Montana retires in 1995 with three Super Bowl MVP titles, the same year a young man is born in Tyler, Texas … his name Patrick Mahomes, QB, and current Super Bowl MVP.
There comes a mantle for all of us …
… a time when we make the handoff to whomever it is who will be the “next one.”
And that is, to me, the intrinsic beauty of the gig I cover.
There comes in life special moments when you not so much as feel it as to just flat out know it … and that came to me this past Sunday watching the final of the Santee Cooper shindig.
I had said all along that we would be fine, that movement and change happens all the time in professional sports, but deep down, way deep in the place where that tiny voice inside you lives … I wondered, was it hope I based it on, or experience.
This Sunday, I no longer wondered.
A young man early on in his career raised the iron for the fifth time and at the same time raised my confidence in all this stuff.
He may never raise it again, or he may do so dozens of more times, if not Brandon, maybe one of the other young guns, or my buddies, Steve or Mark.
But on this Championship Sunday, make no doubt the mantle was passed.
Passed not only for us.
But for you as well.
We have young strong backs more than talented enough to carry on the gift of those who came before them.
Thanks for the mantle, they’ll take it from here.
“Yesterday’s home runs don’t win today’s games.”
— Babe Ruth