MOMENTS, MEMORIES AND MADNESS with Steve Cameron: Athletes and coaches who have made my job a whole lot more enjoyable
First of all, Happy Mother’s Day to all you wonderful moms — without whom none us would have been born, or likely brushed our teeth often enough as kids.
Have an awesome day, every one of you, even in this goofy pandemic world!
About a million years ago, baseball had its “Dead Ball Era.”
Well, now we’ve graduated to something else…
The “Dead Sports Era.”
ESPN’s web of networks has tried the fill the void for us with all sorts of features, gimmicks and lists.
They’ve ranked uniforms, college basketball hires and, fairly predictably, every single one of the greatest moments — not just in a given sport or decade, but for every TEAM in those sports and/or decades.
I’m not going to bother with uniforms, except to say that if a team has more than three basic outfits (not counting a camo thing for the Fourth of July), it’s just too many.
Eventually, you see Oregon running around like very athletic bananas.
Maybe Phil Knight has too much time on hands.
You can tell I’m a traditionalist — no fan at all of the Yankees, Dodgers or St. Louis Cardinals, but concede that I admire their clean, stylish threads.
I’d just as soon not see any of them in a World Series, but that’s an issue for another day.
WHAT I’M going to do, here in the “Too Many Lists Era,” is feed you a couple more lists.
At least they will involve me personally, if that’s any consolation.
Every sports journalist has favorite athletes and coaches/managers he or she loves to interview.
Or even as a temporary companion to shoot the breeze in an airport, at the batting cage or on a golf driving range.
Since I’ve been doing this gig quite a while, there are plenty of players and coaches I’ve enjoyed, and some I most certainly did not.
That would be you, Bobby Knight.
But you’re not alone.
Some of the athletes and coaches/managers who have made my lists would likewise be scribbled down by almost any sports journalist of the past few decades.
Some, though, probably belong to me for more unique or personal reasons — including real, lasting friendship.
Sadly, some on my lists have passed away, but that doesn’t detract from the respect I had for these people or how much I enjoyed getting to know and cover them.
Are we ready to rock and roll?
(Kansas City Royals, New York Yankees)
I got to know Sweet Lou very early in his career, when he was AL Rookie of the Year with Kansas City and then beyond.
We became almost immediate friends, which isn’t always a good idea — unless you’re sure a player won’t suddenly change moods if you have to write or say (radio) something unkind.
But Louie would always front up.
He once badly misplayed a fly ball that cost KC a game, and I wrote that a Little Leaguer could have come closer to making a play.
I was just getting to know Lou then, and was just a wee bit nervous when walking in the clubhouse the next day.
Instead of complaining — and LOTS of athletes would have — Louie unleashed that cackling laugh that Seattle fans surely know so well, and said: “A Little Leaguer? My little boy (who was about 4 years old) could have made it look routine.”
One more Piniella story…
The Royals flew to Boston for a rare three-game series that would bring them straight back to Kansas City after the last day game with the Red Sox.
En route to Boston, my ears began to hurt and by the time we landed, I was in serious pain.
Eventually, I wound up seeing the Sox team physician, who said the problem would clear up — but no flying for at least a couple of weeks.
I arranged to take a train from Boston back home, and mentioned that to Lou when I interviewed him after the third game.
“A train?” he said. “You’ll be in the middle of the country with no one you know. Have you got enough money if something happens?”
I told him I had a credit card, that I’d be fine, blah, blah.
But Lou was genuinely worried.
“Here, take this,” he said, handing me a $100 bill. “Just in case. If you don’t need it, give it back to when you see me back home.”
So, I took the train, missed one home game, didn’t need Lou’s cash and approached him after the next game.
This was just 2 1/2 days after he gave me the money.
“Here you go,” I said, holding out his $100 bill. “I really appreciate the thought.”
Louie looked straight at me, puzzled.
“What’s that for?” he asked. “Did we have an old golf bet?”
He wasn’t joking, either.
He’d forgotten loaning me the money.
TOM JACKSON (Denver Broncos, broadcaster)
Every day I’ve known TJ, he’s been the exact same funny but honest guy you see on TV.
And just like Lou Piniella, he was an enthusiastic winner with great quotes waiting — but always ready to absorb the heat on behalf of teammates when everything went south.
I wish all athletes were clones of Tom Jackson, but of course, then our media jobs would be too easy.
I’ve got some hilarious TJ stories to tell you on future Sundays.
STEVE YOUNG (BYU, 49ers, broadcaster)
This was a tough little list to put together, believe me (George Brett has been a close friend for four decades), but there’s no way to ignore Steve Young.
Hall of Fame QB, intelligent, articulate and still tremendously funny on command, I always thought Steve would be the guy you’d want your daughter to marry (Mormon or not).
He’s just so NICE — and yet he was, and is, competitive like crazy.
What a lot of people didn’t guess about the guy Joe Montana treated so poorly (while Steve was all class when the two were together), was that he had a fantastic sense of humor — which he could direct at others, at himself, or at the world in general.
A gem of a person.
George Brett, Bill Walton, Paul Splittorff, John Mayberry, Hal McRae, Moe Drabowsky, Ryan Woolridge, Lonnie Kruger, Dan Issel, David Thompson, Salvador Perez, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Len Dawson, Jack Rudnay, Ed Podolak, Henry Marshall, Edison Bahe, Reyneldi Becenti, Brett Favre, Frank Winters, Ray Nitschke, Bart Starr, Tiny Archibald, Russell Wilson, Jan Stenerud, Lynn Dickey, Steve Kerr, Charles Barkley, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jordy Nelson, Lynn Swann, Don Meredith, the 1994 San Jose Sharks (plus Charles Schulz), and many, many members of the Cal Bears’ Rose Bowl teams of the late 1940s (with great thanks).
There is no chronological order to this list, and various sports pop up in different places. I just tried to pick athletes who had some impact on me personally, and thus the list is in no particular order. I wrote them down as they came to mind.
The Sharks 1994 team (along with Peanuts creator Charles Schulz) and the Cal teams of the late 1940s each helped me write books that put food on the table. Both groups also were wonderful — and amazingly cooperative through the process.
O.J. Simpson, whom I had considered a friend, was left off the list for obvious reasons. To quote Bob Costas: “How could we be so wrong about someone we thought we knew?”
LaVELL EDWARDS (BYU)
One day when I was sports editor/columnist in Provo, I needed to talk to the coach and called the BYU football office.
LaVell answered the phone himself, and we carried on from there.
Now this wasn’t a cell phone or a private line, it was just the football office — but LaVell had appointed himself secretary for the day.
Or maybe the season.
What other Hall of Fame coach does THAT?
LaVell was older and crustier than his onetime quarterback Steve Young, but in demeanor, kindness and sense of humor they could have been father and son.
This isn’t a statement I make lightly: It was actually an honor to cover LaVell Edwards and interact with him on what was sometimes a daily basis.
The man made my life better.
And maybe me, too.
Just about the only thing LaVell would never joke about was the fact that BYU’s football stadium was named for him while he was still coaching. He was embarrassed by it and begged the school to wait until he retired.
You don’t hear sports people — let alone pretty competitive coaches — referred to with the term “beloved” very often, but his fans, his players, his colleagues, his rival coaches, just about everyone would tell you that “beloved” fit LaVell (even though he would have hated to hear you say it).
And yet the man was no pushover.
BYU went 257-101-3 during LaVell’s 29 years in charge, with just one losing record (5-6 in just his second season), 20 conference titles and a national championship in 1984.
How could he have been so successful and such a great all-around person at the same time?
If you ever wanted a role model in sports (or life), you could have done a lot worse than LaVell Edwards.
WHITEY HERZOG (Kansas City Royals, St. Louis Cardinals)
“The White Rat” wasn’t exactly cut from the same cloth as LaVell Edwards, but he was sharp, funny, knowledgeable until your head hurt — and surprisingly loyal in the cutthroat world of baseball managers.
Whitey and I got to be friends — he appreciated the media and often said he LEARNED things from us — while he managed the Royals.
During that time and long afterwards, I mined the man’s baseball wisdom (and came away educated every time).
We also became “road trip pals” and had a boatload of laughs along the way.
For what it’s worth, Whitey is mentioned here ahead of an earlier Royals manager (and Hall of Fame pitcher), Bob Lemon.
That’s simply because my relationship with Lem — he was almost a surrogate father to me after my dad died — is SO personal that it belongs in another category completely.
DON CHERRY (Colorado Rockies NHL hockey, broadcaster)
Yes, the Colorado hockey team (Part I) was called the Rockies until the franchise moved to New Jersey — and Denver got major league baseball.
I won’t even bother to argue the point that Cherry has always been xenophobic, opinionated, rude and, as a coach, downright cruel to players he didn’t like (Europeans, for instance).
Cherry is on this list solely because he was the most quotable “man in charge” I’ve ever encountered in any sport.
Trekking around the NHL with Don Cherry was an adventure, believe me.
This character did everything but write your stories for you.
You just had to be sure that once you got home, you didn’t believe about half of the nonsense he’d slung out into the universe.
Sparky Anderson, Bill Walsh, Hank Stram, Mark Few, Lou Henson, Jimmy Collins, Dick Nagy, Harold Merritt, Lou Piniella, Joe Morrison, Joe Lee Dunn, Steve Cleveland, Matt Levine, John Mackovic, Paul Wiggin, Pat Hill, Jack Hartman, Lon Kruger, Larry Brown, Donnie Walsh, Lute Olson, Steve Kerr, Ellis Dahl, Ken Bueltel, Kevin Constantine, John Schuerholz, Mike Holmgren, Ron Wolf, Hayden Fry, Bill Snyder, Barry Switzer, Norm Chow.
These coaches, managers and executives range from high school to the highest levels of sport. They are not in any chronological order, or included for just one set of reasons. Basically, they were people who had a major impact on me, my work or my life away from sports.
The list also does not include broadcasters, many of whom have taught me so much — or contributed to a hell of a lot of fun.
Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs each Sunday.
Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball, once per month during the offseason.