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Wanted: Role models for young athletes

James Ball

Until the past baseball season, I felt for anyone under 14; there seemed to be a real shortage of heroes, a.k.a. adult role models.

Used to be, we looked to our leaders for inspiration and guidance. Today, we’ve got a president with the moral conviction of Joey Buttafuocco hopped up on sodium pentathol, so that’s not a viable choice.

We also looked to the guys on the big screen. In my day, it was Burt Reynolds, Tom Selleck and Don Johnson. Sure, they weren’t the most modest of guys and sometimes they treated women like a baby treats a diaper, but the characters they played had a defined moral code by which they lived. There was a conscience.

Today, look at the male role model presented by the media: weak, emasculated and sort of pretty. Brad Pitt’s got better cheekbones than Bette Davis could have ever hoped for.

They just don’t build on-screen tough guys kids want to emulate like they used to.

So where do we turn? Athletics? Not likely, if you’ve been paying attention over the past decade.

Between Daryl Strawberry, Dennis Rodman and Deion Sanders (is it something about the letter “D?”) professional athletics makes a Colombian drug cartel look like a convention of retired insurance salesmen.

But this past baseball season has brought us a little something different: a couple of guys to look up to.

As the chase for Maris’ elusive 61 was boiled down to two men, St. Louis’ Mark McGwire and Chicago’s Sammy Sosa, it became apparent that American sports fans were in for a real treat.

Now I know every sports columnist in the country has sung the praises of these guys ad nauseum; none, perhaps, better than the eloquent and impeccably-kempt Bob Costas.

And I know that, at times, the mutual admiration between these two got a little sacharrine for all of us, but I think it’s rare when two competitors exemplify class and sportsmanship both on and off the field.

As they were pulling for each other to hit the next home run, you could feel the bar of achievement being raised for future players of the games.

You have to think about all the 9-year-old Little League players sitting there at home actually feeling proud about a public figure.

They’re not cheering for the president. Kids haven’t done that since Jack Kennedy at the Democratic Convention in 1960.

They’re hopefully not emulating what they’re seeing on TV, so what’s left?

McGwire exemplifies a man who is not from any particular time or place. He is tough, fiercely competitive and still sensitive enough to give opposing players a hug as he rounds the bases. And they hug him back, because he’s such an equitable sort of guy. If someone else deserves the credit, they get it and he stands back, which, of course, only serves to raise his esteem even more in the eyes of the public.

He’s a little shy about his accomplishments, which is why he comes off as stand-offish in the media, but he doesn’t seem to care about glory as much as he does about winning baseball games.

Too bad the Cards aren’t a better ball club. McGwire in the Series is about as good as it gets.

He’s a single father who lets his son share the spotlight, much to the jealousy of fifth-graders across the country.

Sosa is a story of the American dream. He comes from a poor, third-world nation to make it big in America and, when he does, he doesn’t forget to be proud of where he came from and the people who helped shape him as a person.

I hope the Little Leaguers out there aren’t so hard-bitten and cynical from their experiences with previous sports figures as to not allow a little room in themselves to feel proud.

It’s a heck of a thing to have a favorite team or favorite player who you know is one of the good guys. It’s particularly sweet when they accomplish great things.

And that’s what McGwire has done. Not in hitting 70 amazing home runs in a season, not even in getting us to watch baseball beyond August for the first time in this generation, but in restoring a little piece of the damaged American pride.

There’s still a lot of work to be done.

James Ball is the Sierra Sun sports editor.

Sierra Sun E-mail: sun@tahoe.com

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